“Hostel 2” (R)

Last year, in my review of the original movie “Hostel,” I asked the burning question; How were young women lured to these death chambers? Like moths to a light bulb, it’s easy to lure young men anywhere with the promise of sex – but women? I then added, “Perhaps we’ll have to wait for ‘Hostel 2’ to find out.”

Sure enough, “Hostel 2” shows us how young American women are lured to Slovakia - land of the death factory. And it’s actually a better film than the first installment.

Poor Slovakia. This “Hostel” movie franchise can’t be good for their tourism efforts.

The inner workings of the sick, torture/murder operation are explained in more detail this time around. We see how the passport photos of the unfortunate souls are scanned and mass e-mailed to people on the club’s list. Rich folks around the world who have a fetish to torture and kill get to choose their victims by seeing these photos and descriptions. Each e-mail recipient then bids, eBay style, for their chance to partake in the gruesome act.

Two girls (played by Bijou Phillips and Laura German) are the sexy, young, care-free Americans on a trip to Europe. They are soon lured to Slovakia by a hot model (played by Vera Jordanova. Vera Jordanova was Born in Helsinki, Finland and was perfectly cast for this role). The girls never see it coming until each becomes a victim. Having traveled extensively around the world myself, I found this particular storyline of entrapment entirely plausible and slick, with no way for the girls to have defended against it.  

Actor Roger Bart stars as one of the killers who flies into town to slaughter one of the young American captive girls. Unfortunately, Bart plays the same wimpy “George the Druggist lusting for Bre” style character from his “Desperate Housewives” stint. His obvious lack of acting range bothered me personally, and his scenes were the weakest of this otherwise well acted film.

Make no mistake, the shocking scenes of torture and death are not something you have likely seen before. It’s not easy to watch, but not quite as graphically sick (in my opinion) as the first film. No eyes were poked out here, if that’s an indication for you. But both films (and all Eli Roth (director) films in general) are certainly demented in their delivery.

As with the first film, a bit of justice is doled out in the end to give the audience a sense of hope in this otherwise twisted part of the world. For horror fans, this will be a great rental.

- Wait For DVD



“Once” (R)

In this day and age where movie studios only release musicals from Pixar - animations with Phil Collins performing the vocals - it’s refreshing to again see a true life musical (with humans instead of animals, no less). But instead of a “Sound of Music” story with songs stuck in here and there, this film follows a few days in the lives of a man and a woman, who just happen to be musicians – both on screen and in real life.

This limited release U.K. film stars Glen Hansard (from Ireland) and Markéta Irglová (from the Czech Republic). These are real people who really did work together as musicians in real life. It makes for magic on screen to see them interact. Glen plays the role of a struggling artist working the streets of Dublin by singing songs and strumming his guitar for cash. (He’s no Sting, but he can sing and write fairly catchy tunes). He’s also a vacuum cleaner repairman by day.

Just so happens, Markéta needs her vacuum fixed, so they hook up accidentally for that reason alone. But soon Glen finds out Markéta can both play piano and sing great harmonies. The musicians in the theater will be entranced by the chemistry of this first musical encounter. Having real musicians playing the part of the actors is genius. The director lets the scene go real-time and it’s a magical moment. Shame the director couldn’t afford a tripod for this independent film, but I digress.

Before you can say “Irish potatoes” he gets the idea that they should go into a recording studio and record a demo together. Every musician in the world thinks this way. Regardless of the cost or outcome, it’s a milestone as big as getting one’s drivers license.

This story embraces the fact that one does not have to actually become a superstar to glean wonderful memories of milestones and achievements that most ordinary souls can only dream about. Musicians, painters, dancers will all “get it” when watching this film. Others who miss the point will still find the love story alone to be enough to carry the movie.

The R Rating is due to the salty language sprinkled throughout the film.

- Wait For DVD


28 Weeks

“28 Weeks Later” (R)

This is the worst example yet of everyday normal people showing their sudden ability to run endlessly like Forrest Gump. What’s worse, not once do any of these folks stop for food or water! They are in such terrific shape they only need the air that they breath as they run, run, run for their lives.

This movie takes place 28 weeks after the first installment (“28 days later”) where a green zone of sorts is set up outside London by the American military. Those English folks that were lucky enough to be out of town when their families and countrymen were wiped out by a virus that turned everyone into flesh eating zombies, can now happily return home again! The flights full of folks stream back to the UK and each person is screened medically before reentry. Movie viewers that have a keen interest in science and nature will guess what’s ahead when they see the young boy with two different colored eyes enter the story. This was the only impressive nugget of the screenplay.

Everyone is warned NOT to leave the green zone. The rest of the country is still a hot zone filled with the dead and possible latent infection. But those crazy kids, don’t ya know. They can breech any heavily guarded area of barbed wire and electronic surveillance as if the Keystone Cops were in charge. With an infectious disease, far worse than any wimpy Ebola virus, wiping out all of England, one would find it hard to believe that a simple pair of kids could breech the containment area, putting the lives of the entire world in danger.

But that’s hardly the problem here. It’s the running. The constant running for their lives. I can just hear the actors during filming . . .

Actor A, “Man, I tell you I ran all day today. I haven’t read my lines for tomorrow’s shoot yet, but I’m hoping for something different.”

Actor B, “Don’t bother. I read it and tomorrow we run through tunnels and in and out of various buildings. We even run from the American military. We run from everything that moves.”

Actor C, “I have eight lines of intense dialog tomorrow.”

Actors A & B, “Really?”

Actor A, “Then what happens?”

Actor C, “I see zombies coming and I run as fast as I can. I run for the entire day . . . nonstop . . . every scene. My legs are killing me.”

Actor A, “Will we ever stop running? Maybe we’ll die and can stop running.”

Actor B, “Nope. The dead zombies run too. Everybody runs. And the movie people have the rights to ‘28 Months Later’ and the final chapter, ‘28 Years Later.’ A lot more running to do.”

The other offending item that brings this movie to its knees is the frenzied, violent shaky-cam that occurs whenever zombies are onscreen. It’s so bad you can’t really tell what's going on when the zombies attack, as if the director forgot to tell the zombies not to attack the cameraman.

One more ridiculous item in my “only in the movies” rant; When a group is walking in pitch blackness through a tunnel of obstacles (like corpses) the person with the night vision equipment should ALWAYS walk ahead of the group, with the others clinging to the back of their shirt - not BEHIND the entire group, yelling at their blind partners to, “Move right! Sally, STOP! Now move left two steps! Jacob, grab the wall. Now move, no, Sally, WAIT!” It was at this moment I realized the smartest people in this movie were the rotting zombies.

- Wait for HBO release



“Spider-Man 3” (PG-13)

A totally forgettable five-hour film in the series. At least it seemed like five hours. With a story thinner than a saltine cracker, Raimi (Sam Raimi directed this dud) throws expensive special effects at us, in mind numbing, fast pace close ups that fail to show us any scale. But mostly, Raimi gives us long boring scenes of poor actors (yes Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, the jig is up) plodding though a “woe is us” melodrama.

Everyone knows the easiest emotion to draw out of an audience is sadness. If you’re around someone who is crying, or you’ve seen a competent actor crying on screen, it makes you want to cry. Here, actors are crying deeply a lot, and yet no such emotion takes hold of any audience member. Why?

1) Bad story. No one really cares. Get on with the action, Spidey.

2) Poor acting all the way around.

I’ve said it before, but Kirsten Dunst should have never made it past the first reading of Spider-Man 1, yet here they give her two whole songs to sing on stage. Now we know she can’t sing either. No one thinks so. Not even people in the story! Yet she sings two full songs. What’s going on here?

Best agent in Hollywood is my guess. Even with her vampire fangs jutting out to full strike mode, she’s still working in Hollywood. Dunst has been in 41 movies. How many can you name? Pathetic. In music they call that a one-hit wonder.

Just when you think only Dunst will show us what a no-talent she is, wait until you get a load of Toby when he gets his “black goo from space” jive going. What an embarrassment, but at least this isn’t the part of the movie where you’ll want to catch up on your sleep.

The Sandman villain comes out of a nighttime covert test site accident at an apparently low security but double secret facility where anyone can (and they do) enter freely by simply climbing a fence. Even after he becomes a sandy shape shifter, the special effects don’t outshine the molten man of Terminator II, and that was 1991! This body building actor of sand isn’t better at acting than Schwarzenegger – and that’s not a compliment.

Then there’s the old nemesis, the Green Goblin’s son, zipping around on his flying disc of death like a skateboarder from hell. You’ve seen that before when his dad did it. Here it is again! Whoopee!

The only element that could have been great, but wasn’t, was that black goo from space that comes down like a meteorite, crawls around like a cross between a spider and a creeping vine, and paints itself onto whatever it wants like a $200 Maaco special. And after the black substance from space covers people, they become very angry folks – even angrier than the people who buy a $200 Maaco paint job.

With all the hype, it will be difficult to stay away from this awful film, but hopefully you can.

- Wait for HBO release



“Disturbia” (PG-13)

Run, don’t walk to the nearest theater to see “Disturbia,” the latest thriller starring a bunch of newcomers and David Morse as the bad guy neighbor.

This movie strikes the voyeuristic side of all of us. Oh, sure, there have been more than a few of these types of movies, but this film, directed by D.J. Caruso (“Taking Lives”) will more than hold its own against the rest. Call it a modern update on the genre.

Here a young man under house arrest has a lot of time on his hands, so he ends up neighbor watching to pass the time. When a sexy young girl moves in next door, things immediately get better for him.

Until another neighbor comes into focus.

The movie starts out with a bang and never lets up. This is definitely a theater movie. I thoroughly enjoyed sitting in a theater full of screaming folks when watching “The Descent,” but that was nothing compared to the audience reaction from this top-notch thriller.

- See it on "The Big Screen" (In a sold out theater)



“Grindhouse” (R)

Grindhouse takes us back to the days when the theaters (drive-ins mostly in my suburban neck of the woods) would show double or triple features of relatively badly directed, and even worse acted, films. We’re talking the ‘60s and ‘70s here, folks. “B” movies, as they were called, were ok with us. Especially when you were male, young, and looking for lots of action sequences and T&A. Since the VCR wasn’t yet available, T&A shots were found on the silver screen.

The 3 hr. 20 min. “Grindhouse” has surprise cameos and a big star in Kurt Russell, but he’s in the dud of this double feature. But Kurt’s not the problem. More on that in a minute.

After a few fake trailers for upcoming films, director Robert Rodriguez (“Sin City” “Desperado” “From Dusk Till Dawn”) starts this double feature off with “Planet Terror.” A military gas is released causing all exposed people to become flesh eating zombies. Sounds like a retread of too many other films, but Rodriguez hits his stride here and shows everyone he’s the real deal.

With his mix of exotic women, funny zingers, over the top special effects and damaged film stock, you can almost smell the dusty gravel under your tires while sitting in the 1973 drive-in theater of your past. Fighting zombies never felt this fun.

The audience loves it.

Next there is a fake intermission with fake coming attractions for fake movies that won’t be made. Here’s your cue to get up and leave. Take my word for it (you’ll thank me later). You didn’t pay double the movie price, and you’ve already seen a full length movie, so you're even. Save yourself the (wasted) time.

Quentin Tarantino wrote and directed the second movie of this double feature, “Death Proof.” There was a lot of dialogue in “Pulp Fiction.” But that film was amusing because the actors delivering the lines were polished professionals and they were able to keep the intended audience interested.

Here, the utterly unknown actresses are not so finely polished, and the dialogue goes on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on . . .

Tarantino has proved himself to be quite a wordsmith. We all get it. Here he exposes his War and Peace agenda and we just want no part of it. By the time he gets to the car chases, we’re already “Bored of Death Proof.”

The two car chase scenes (separated at length by talking and chatting, talking and chatting, talking and chatting, talking and chatting) are amazing, loud, crazy and intense. But the pain you’ll endure listening to these foul-mouthed gals babble and banter endlessly will make you want to . . . press the Fast Forward button.

And that, my friends, is exactly what you should do.

This is not 1973. So go ahead and see the first half of “Grindhouse,” in all its glory on the big screen. Then leave at the fake intermission and rent the movie a few months from now to enjoy the action sequences where Kurt Russell is driving “the car.”

- See it on "The Big Screen" (At least the first half)



“The Lookout” (R)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Chris Pratt, a star high school hockey player who suffers brain damage during a nighttime car accident. Because of his disability he’s relegated to life as a janitor at the local bank in rural Kansas. Before we know it, he’s involved in the bank heist of that very same bank.

Other than the fact that Kansas seems an odd place for a high school hockey player story (our family lived in Kansas for six years and never once heard mention of the sport until we moved to Massachusetts) the story is both well conceived and well acted.

The opening of the movie shows Chris taking his pretty high school sweetheart and another couple on a midnight drive in his Mustang convertible. He turns off the headlights to give them the best view as they speed through the magical swarming fireflies. Impressive as it is, the passengers soon want Chris to turn the headlights back on. Though the Midwest empty highways are straight as arrows for what seems endless stretches of miles, they fear he’ll veer off the road.

Chris waits too long to turn the lights on and the inevitable life changing crash (for all of them) happens.

Chris goes into a coma – then wakes up – with brain damage.

We see the life that Chris leads, along with his blind roommate, played by Jeff Daniels. Both get by as well as can be with their limitations. But because of his affiliation with the bank, Chris falls prey to the lure of sex, villains and a bank heist. The sexual bait is played by Isla Fisher (the kooky, rich, redhead chick in “The Wedding Crashers”). She certainly shows her acting range in this non-comedy.   

The movie is tense, the characters complicated, and the whole thing believable. For folks that consider themselves “people watchers,” this film is right up their alley.

“The Lookout” would hardly be touted as a blockbuster “Big Screen” movie, but you won’t be disappointed if you go. At the very least it will make a great weekend rental.

- Wait For DVD



“300” (R)

We’ve all heard of Spartans, warriors that were exposed to extremes to withstand vicious cold and searing heat, and trained to defeat any enemy - even if greatly outnumbered. Amazing that only now a movie would take on the depiction of such warriors with full CG support.

“300” is a movie for people that enjoy big expensive scenes of battle where the good guys are clearly defined and the bad guys exposed as such. The blood, although comic book in its stop motion images, does spill freely, along with arms, legs and heads being severed. War is never pretty. But this is not a “Saving Private Ryan” sort of filmmaking. It’s more computer game action than watching real lives taken by the hundreds.

The use of slow motion and stop action actually enhances the battle scenes. You are able to see each Spartan in his engagement with his opponent.

Although there are no super stars of any significance here, the acting and storyline is top notch. Gerard Butler as the Spartan King Leonidas, delivers great lines that Schwarzenegger would envy. It’s not believable for a moment that 300 men could fight non-stop, like a bunch of Toyota assembly robots, against thousands of enemy soldiers, without rest. But is sure makes for a great action movie.

- See it on "The Big Screen"



“The Host” (R)

This 2006 Korean monster movie was released as “Gwoemul” in the Asian market. The 2007 release gets English subtitles, but “The Host” has too much Korean, over the top, flavor to the humor that few Americans will enjoy.

The monster CG is very well done, and parts of the film are certainly scary enough to seal the deal. But the slower parts between the scenes of horror fall flat like a poorly executed "Saturday Night Live" skit.

Particularly disappointing is the lead character, a whining lazy lump, who manages to get most of his family killed, one by one, with his inability to do anything correctly. What is this, Korean Gilligan’s Island? It’s painful to watch and difficult to care about such a loser for two full hours.

Then there is the fact that although the man-eating monster is seen countless times at the same bridge, only the locals attempt to fight it there. The Korean military or police force is nowhere to be seen, except when a police unit walks along the riverside to arrest people who are attempting to kill the monster. Is the Korean military too busy fighting Godzilla and Mothra on the other side of the Korean Peninsula?

Then there’s the usual Asian ending. After seeing countless Asian films, I must admit, although Hollywood makes a lot of terrible movies, Hollywood's golden rule of how a film must end is the best formula for the best overall movie-going experience.

9 out of 10 critics loved this movie. Insanity! There are lots of reasons this movie is not playing at the major theater chains. Although this film will be a huge DVD rental hit, I’d either fast forward through the lame bits, or wait for it to hit the pay channels.

- Wait for HBO release


“Zodiac” (R)

There are just enough scenes like the one above to keep moviegoers in their seats. This is less a thriller and more a 2 hour and 40 minute docudrama crime investigation. Those that know the ending (this is based on the true story of the Zodiac killer investigation) will likely be ready for the credits after two hours. I’ll stop there.

The realistic murders are brutal and reveal that the killer, although intelligent like a typical serial killer, was a rather inept killing machine, leaving far too many people alive to talk about their attacker. Speaking of talking, there is a lot of dialogue in this film, so if you see it in a theater full of annoying folks that like to talk to the screen or among themselves, you’ll miss important movie dialogue.

Based on the length and necessary dialog offered, I’d recommend seeing this one at home.

- Wait For DVD


“The Astronaut Farmer” (PG)

Billy Bob Thornton is one of those actors (like Tom Hanks) that people can watch (for hours!) while these actors do ordinary things. “Sling Blade” is a good example and “The Astronaut Farmer” is another.

It also helps that Thornton is surrounded by an excellent cast including Virginia Madsen, and two sweet little girls, playing the wife and two care-free daughters of a man who plans to launch himself into space in a homemade rocket built in the barn in their backyard. Downright kooky.

Although Thornton spends 100% of his time obsessing with this pending launch, his family is perfectly well adjusted, as if their father is a shoe salesman or something. It’s also great to see Bruce Dern working again, playing the grandfather of the children.

Whether you’ll enjoy this film or not totally depends on your ability to leave your skepticism at the theater door. Few people would believe for a second that even an engineer could build a real rocket, by himself, capable of taking a human into space, given that most countries can’t do it. But that’s not the point of the movie. Get over it quickly. The driving force of this film is:

  A) Is this guy really loony, as most people in the town believe?

  B) Can this rocket really lift off at all? Would he perish if it did?

  C) Will the U.S. Government do everything in its power to thwart the launch of such a vehicle?

  D) Will everyone always try their best to laugh and otherwise mock and destroy anyone who has the urge to dream or try something new?

Of the above items, “C” is the most pressing issue, and the moral of the story is “D”.

This is a family movie, but I’ll warn you that just prior to the last act, it’s a bit slow moving. Kids and some adults may get antsy.    

There is another big time actor making a small appearance as well, but I won’t ruin the surprise. This is a movie that should be seen in a theater full of people.

- See it on "The Big Screen"


Pan's Lab

"Pan’s Labyrinth" (R)

Though listed as a horror/thriller film, I’d drop the horror part so as not to mislead the audience. But it is for adults.

This English subtitled, Spanish language movie is a strange one to be sure. There are two stories going on in parallel. One has the adults playing a cat and mouse, Nazis against the rebel resistance hiding in the woods, and another follows a young girl crossing the line between earth and an underworld land of fairies and monsters.

Yeah, odd. But it’ll keep you intrigued for a full two hours.

It's well acted and the effects are top notch, however there is no reason to rush out to the theaters to see this odd foreign film. It will make a terrific rental.

- Wait For DVD



"Apocalypto" (R)

Like him or not, Mel Gibson knows how to direct epic films. For those that may have forgotten, he directed both “Braveheart” and “The Passion of the Christ.” His latest film “Apocalypto” is every bit as engrossing as the his previous films, even at its 2 hour 30 min. running time.

There are virtually no known actors in this film, instead he used an entirely local Brazilian cast. Every one of them can act as well as any Hollywood star, showing just how important good casting really is.

The movie opens with a hunting scene showing us a primitive tribe in the era of the Aztecs (just prior to the arrival of the Europeans on ships). The tribe is a tight knit society with a good sense of both humor and harmony. During the hunt they cross paths with another tribe in the jungle.

Unlike other reviewers, I won’t reveal anything more about this meeting of tribes as it would spoil the tense moment that both groups experience. What I will tell you is that there is a distant civilization that is very much ahead of their time. They have built huge stone temples and quite a large city, but they have recently been served a bout of both disease and famine, the likes of which they have never seen. Surely, their god is angry with them.

To appease this misfortune they believe they need to capture and sacrifice large numbers of people to the gods to end this streak of bad luck. We’ve all heard about these past offerings, occurring at some tall stone temple, but to see this happening in person is something else indeed. The whole plan is harsh, starting with the attack of the neighboring villages, including murder and rape, before burning the villages to the ground, and ending with the sight and sound of bloody, freshly lopped-off heads bouncing like basket balls down the stone steps of the temple to the frenzied crowds below.

Oh, and we all remember the stories of hearts, cut out and shown to the victims just before they die. That’s here too, all in the name of sacrifice.

But this isn’t the strength of the story – anyone can make a gruesome, cutthroat story of the days before civility took hold in most of the world. But here, Gibson captures, perfectly, all sides of the drama:

We feel the dread felt by the victims as they are marched away from their villages.

We witness the fear, shock and dread felt by all the children that are left behind as their parents are marched away. Heartbreaking. Awful.

We sense the feeling of superiority by the aggressors.

And perhaps most interesting, we observe the Super Bowl mob feel of the well orchestrated sacrificial rites as the city anticipates a great outcome from their offerings of these captured souls to their god. I can only image the time and effort it took to create and film these scenes.  

A lot of comparisons to past wars (religion?) or armies (Japanese?) or situations (Viet Nam?) could be made with this story, but whether you try to make the connection to real life or not will not lessen the entertainment factor as this tale unfolds.

There is yet another disturbing scene of a young girl who bears the open sores of the scourge. As the captured villagers are marched by her, the aggressors keep the infectious little girl away from everyone (mostly themselves) by literally poking her away with a stick whenever she tries to approach. Eerily, she suddenly speaks warnings of a dim future to the aggressors as they pass. Dark scene all the way around – good film making.

There will always be good VS. evil in our world, and it would seem that only an outside party can distinguish which side is which. But one thing this film drives home loudly is the thought that evil may rule the day today, but good may well take hold a day later. Then evil may well show up three days later in a different form. The pendulum continually swings.     

So how exactly did the Aztecs rise to such a height only to suddenly disappear without a trace? Whether this offers a hint or not, Gibson has certainly constructed one hell of a gory roller coaster ride for anyone willing to buy a ticket.

{In Yucatec with large, readable English subtitles}

- See it on "The Big Screen" (If 2.5 hours long works for you.)


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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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