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D. B. Bates

Matt Wedge

Mark Dujsik

Andrew Good

Kyle Kogan

Josh Medcalf

Hanna Soltys

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In Theatres

Hall Pass

(2011)

by Matt Wedge

That setup supplies a wealth of opportunities for the film to explore any number of possibilities that could be both very funny and insightful. Are Rick and Fred so driven by their hormones that they would cheat on their wives, even if it’s not technically cheating? Are Maggie and Grace unhappier in their marriages than they realized? Do they want their husbands to have affairs so they would have an excuse to end their marriages? Could having this valve to blow off steam actually improve their marriages? These are all interesting questions, rife with potential for conflict. Unfortunately, the Farrelly’s blow their intriguing setup on an assorted bag of their greatest hits (not one, but two feces jokes, an embarrassing masturbation scene, multiple men obsessed with a beautiful blonde, and grown men acting like twelve-year-old morons).

Unknown

(2011)

by Matt Wedge

Sometimes I feel as though we don’t appreciate Liam Neeson enough. Moving easily between leading-man roles and character work, he’s able to chew the scenery when a script calls for it and just as easily dial his performance down to a subtle level approaching minimalism. Ever since his breakthrough turn in Darkman, it seems that every time I look up at the screen, there’s Neeson, doing good work in films that often aren’t worthy of his talents. Such is the case with Unknown, an otherwise soggy conspiracy thriller that Neeson practically horsewhips into watchability.

I Am Number Four

(2011)

by Matt Wedge

Needless to say, this is a ton of plot to shove into a movie that runs less than two hours. I would take the film to task for not cutting some of the more extraneous plot details, but director D.J. Caruso has his hands tied by the fact that the film is supposed to be the first in a series. When taking that into account, it’s actually surprising how well I Am Number Four turned out. This could have been a dispiriting failure along the lines of The Vampire’s Assistant — a film that felt like one long first act setting up all the fun for films down the road. But Caruso is able to make John just an interesting enough protagonist and capitalize on a great performance by Olyphant, that I was willing to sit through the explanations and plot setups until the overblown, but rousing third act finally rewarded my patience.

Vanishing on 7th Street

(2011)

by D. B. Bates

Vanishing on 7th Street has so much going for it, I vacillate between feeling bad that I can’t quite recommend it and feeling enraged that it’s not as good as it should be. For most of its runtime, it’s a film of great style, great performances, and thoughtful explorations of well-worn character types. It punctuates intense dialogue scenes with thrilling moments of action and horror. It has one of the best opening sequences I’ve ever seen (even if it borrows a bit from the first Left Behind book — though, thankfully, it doesn’t slide into hokey fundamentalist propaganda). It’s the type of movie I’d enthusiastically recommend if not for two things: its shadow people, and its ending.

The Eagle

(2011)

by Matt Wedge

In a better movie, the prickly relationship between Marcus and Esca would have been the focus of the story. The ever-present threat of betrayal by Esca and the shaky moral ground on which Marcus stands would have given the material the potential for great drama. Unfortunately, the movie that director Kevin Macdonald and screenwriter Jeremy Brock give us is more concerned with battle scenes (bloodless to insure a PG-13 rating) and clichéd ideas of honor above all else. Never mind the bodies that pile up as Marcus wages his war for the honor of a man long dead.

Gnomeo & Juliet

(2011)

by Mark Dujsik

It’s not really Romeo and Juliet when the characters can come back to life with a lot of time and a little glue, and by the tone, this loosely adapted version starring lawn ornaments really, really understands that basic fact. If only Gnomeo & Juliet were as imaginative in poking the ribs of its central storyline as it is about developing the silly cuteness of its background characters, the movie might have been on to something.

Just Go with It

(2011)

by Mark Dujsik

There’s a difference between a movie that features dumb characters and a dumb movie, and you can see that distinction firsthand in Just Go With It, which begins the former and, about halfway through, becomes the latter. Both halves are maddening in different ways: the first in how unlikely and illogical character decisions are, and the second in how monotonous the lack of jokes and predictable romantic comedy formula are.

The Illusionist [L'illusionniste]

(2010)

by Matt Wedge

The Illusionist is the type of movie that sneaks up on you. I spent most of my time watching the film in a sort of pleasant trance. I marveled at the beautiful, hand-drawn animation. I smiled and chuckled quietly at a running gag about the titular character and his surly rabbit that hates being stuffed into a hat. I drank in the attention to character design that made it possible to tell the story with incredibly sparse dialogue. And then the film hammered me with such a bittersweet — and ultimately sad — third act that I was stunned when I realized how emotionally invested I had become in the slight story and eccentric characters.

Sanctum

(2011)

by Matt Wedge

I’m all for trying to create three dimensional characters, but once the survival aspect of the story began, it was time for Grierson to abandon the clunky attempts at building conflicts between the characters. Quite frankly, I learned more about Frank, Carl, and Josh by watching their physical abilities under stressful situations than I did through any of the leaden dialogue.

The Rite

(2011)

by Matt Wedge

If you’ve ever wondered just how I determine what star rating to give to a movie, I don’t really have an answer. I wish I could say I had a scientific system that allows me to judge a film on a sliding scale, beginning at four stars and deducting from that point for every egregious sin committed by the filmmaker. Unfortunately, that would never work. There are too many intangibles at play when dealing with films. I hate to sound like the Supreme Court talking about what constitutes pornography, but I know a two star movie when I see one, and The Rite is the epitome of a two star movie.

Columns

Cannon Corner

Murphy's Law

(1986)

by D. B. Bates

Bronson plays Jack Murphy, an alcoholic robbery-homicide detective whose wife has just left him. In a bizarre twist, Jan (Angel Tompkins) has left Murphy in order to live out her dream of stripping (she calls it “dancing”). Murphy has a habit of sitting in the back of her club, getting hammered, taunting Jan, and then following her back to her apartment to peep while she makes love with other men. Seriously.

Movie Defender

Death to Smoochy

(2002)

by Matt Wedge

This is a hell of a lot of plot for a first act and that’s without even getting into the Irish Mafia outfit that takes a special interest in Sheldon’s continued success and well-being. Admittedly, the film teeters on the edge of a cliff, ready to fall into the abyss of satirical overkill before something unexpected happens: Sheldon grows from a one-note hippie joke into a character worth rooting for. In the midst of the aggressive cynicism and heavy-handed satirical jokes, Sheldon becomes a likable, somewhat too earnest protagonist whose quest to improve the world goes from being mocked to encouraged, a surprising turn for a movie directed by the ever-subversive Danny DeVito.

Cannon Corner

The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley

(1986)

by D. B. Bates

The film’s writer, executive producer, and longtime champion, A. Martin Zweiback, took me up on that. As you may have seen, he sent me a videotape of the “writer’s cut,” which filled me simultaneously with fear and hope. Hope, because I believed a good film could come from the botched version I saw; fear, because, based on what I had seen, I didn’t know what could be done with the existing footage to substantially improve it.

To my great pleasure, The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley — Zweiback’s cut — is, indeed, the great film I wished Grace Quigley could have been.

Movie Defender

Broken Lizard's Club Dread

(2004)

by Matt Wedge

The result was a film that was funny without going for the obvious jokes that the Scary Movie franchise had already poached numerous times over. But critics bashed its straight-faced approach to comedy and audiences stayed away in droves, turned off by bad word-of-mouth that the film was just as much a horror film as it was a comedy.

Cannon Corner

Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects

(1989)

by D. B. Bates

Some might laugh at the depiction of Japanese culture here, but it’s no less silly or over-the-top than the portrayal of American culture. The movie works for two main reasons. First, as is often the case with Bronson’s late-period work, Nebenzal and director J. Lee Thompson create a crazy world that’s consistent within its own set of strange rules. In my review of Death Wish 2, I described it as “a paranoid fever dream where all the fears of the elderly have come true.” That about sums it up.

Sequelitis

WarGames: The Dead Code

(2008)

by D. B. Bates

From that point, it’s pretty much a dumbed-down remake of the first film. Director Stuart Gillard tosses in numerous references to the original film (including the presence of WOPR, who must “fight” RIPLEY at a certain point) that come across more like cheap nostalgia than worthwhile homage. Maybe that’s because it literally steals the best moments of the first film, unabashedly and without commentary.

Bargain Bin

Edison Force [a.k.a. Edison]

(2006)

by D. B. Bates

As a critic, watching Edison Force is the equivalent to having an out-of-body experience. The critic in me hovers at a distance, knowing I shouldn’t recommend a film with such a silly plot and such over-the-top violence. By most reasonable metrics, it’s a bad film: characters crippled by clichés, a story that simultaneously indicts fascist police states and fetishizes the violence such states breed, a pat (yet exceptionally violent) conclusion, and Kevin Spacey in a laughable hairpiece. Something about it just works, though, so even as the critic part of me rolled its eyes, the rest of me sat on the edge of my seat, hoping everything would work out for the characters. This despite the fact that I knew where the plot was headed after the second scene, and I knew the film wouldn’t have the balls to go for a tragic ending.

The Academy of the Overrated

Mystic River

(2003)

by Matt Wedge

That’s why I was so shocked when I first saw Mystic River. It struck me as a stunning misfire from a usually reliable director with a good cast overacting like they were in a high school production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Even worse, Eastwood showcased bizarre flourishes and an over-the-top score, which he helped compose, that only further pushed the film into overbearing territory.

Cannon Corner

Kickboxer

(1989)

by D. B. Bates

And then there’s Kickboxer, a film that defies Van Damme’s budding persona and pretty much everything anyone thought they knew about action heroes. It’s not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, but it proved two things that made me respect Van Damme more than I ever thought I would: He takes risks, and he’s a better actor than his often confused franglais lets on. As Kurt Sloane, he allows himself to start the film as a petrified coward who slowly transforms into a master martial artist. He exhibits a much wider emotional rainbow than Bloodsport and Cyborg suggested he could, up to and including an incredibly silly dance sequence in which his goofy grin and disco splits win him the hearts of local women.

Cannon Corner

10 to Midnight

(1983)

by Matt Wedge

Obviously, I have an affection for Cannon films. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t bother taking part in this column. But their attempts to cash in on popular genres and knockoffs of bigger budgeted fare led to far more misses than hits. You can understand why I expected a film that plugged Charles Bronson into a Dirty Harry-esque scenario would be nothing more than Paul Kersey from the Death Wish films with a badge. But 10 to Midnight defies expectations, delivering a solid procedural with surprising twists and grounded, believable characters.

The Illusionist / The Eagle / Vanishing on 7th Street
Matt and D.B. talk about the animated film The Illusionist, the Roman epic The Eagle, and the horror-thriller Vanishing on 7th Street.

Top 10 Runners Up
Matt and D.B. discuss a handful of honorable mentions that didn't quite make their top 10 lists.

Oscar Season
In this special episode, Matt and D.B. yammer at length about this year's Oscar contenders--what was nominated, what shouldn't have been nominated, and what the Academy unjustly ignored.

On Cable

Executive Decision

(1996)

by Kyle Kogan

Specifics don’t matter because the surprises and suspense are what make the film so enthralling. Sure, you can see the end coming from a mile away and there is nothing here that you haven’t seen before, but it’s handled with such deft care that it left me breathless. I knew the good guys were going to win in the end, but I nonetheless couldn’t wait to see it happen.

High Plains Drifter

(1973)

by Josh Medcalf

This is an early example of the “Weird West” subgenre, a fusing of the Western with, in this case, the occult or supernatural. Eastwood plays the Stranger, a rugged gunfighter appearing out of the haze of the desert and stumbling into the town of Lago, where he may or may not have unfinished business — left over from another lifetime. If that premise doesn’t do it for you, I don’t know what will.

The War of the Roses

(1989)

by D. B. Bates

The second hour of the film wouldn’t work at all without those reaction shots — moments that show us both Oliver and Barbara are still recognizably human. Their faces express the guilt and embarrassment anyone would feel with those early, accidental dust-ups. Once things have escalated, they vacillate between genuine anger at one another and the sort of wondering look of a person questioning whether or not he or she has gone too far.

Freaked

(1993)

by Josh Medcalf

When you reflect back on what you’ve seen, it’s like stringing together the random, bizarre segments of a half-remembered dream from the night before. Nothing makes sense; what seemed to work in dreamland is now utterly absurd in hindsight.

Powder

(1995)

by Matt Wedge

Let’s just get this out of the way, right up front: Powder is a mess of a film. But it wouldn’t be such a mess if there weren’t some interesting ideas and promising plot developments buried beneath a ton of pretentious metaphysical conceits and obvious manipulations on the part of writer/director Victor Salva.

Regarding Henry

(1991)

by Mark Dujsik

Regarding Henry’s sincerity is at once the movie’s crutch and its downfall. It is the story of a man of loose moral sensibilities who awakens to the recognition of treating his fellow human beings with decency, and all that has to happen to him to come to this realization is that he’s shot in the head.

Harry and Tonto

(1974)

by Kyle Kogan

Not for one moment did I feel I was watching a film, but rather a manifestation of a real man’s memoir onto celluloid. It’s a rare treat that I get to witness such a fun, tender, and rapturous film.

Flirting with Disaster

(1996)

by Mark Dujsik

David O. Russell’s Flirting with Disaster finds the farcical in the emotionally fragile events surrounding a man’s search for his biological parents. At a crossroads in his life — new son (for whom he can’t decide upon a name), a fading sex life with his wife, and the culmination of a lifelong identity crisis arising from his adoption as a baby — Mel Coplin (Ben Stiller) or his need to feel a part of something he’s felt he has been missing is never the butt of any of the film’s jokes.

Funny Farm

(1988)

by Matt Wedge

Funny Farm boasts a surprisingly impressive pedigree for a light Chevy Chase comedy. It was directed by George Roy Hill, a man who delivered two certifiable masterpieces in The Sting and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid among other very good films (Slap Shot, Slaughterhouse-Five). It boasts a screenplay by Jeffrey Boam, ace screenwriter of such films as The Dead Zone, Innerspace, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Lethal Weapon 2. With this collection of unusually talented people behind the scenes, it’s not terribly surprising that the film turned out as well as it did. That praise isn’t to confuse it as a great film, but it’s an enjoyable comedy with a few big laughs.

Navy SEALS

(1990)

by Josh Medcalf

The premise is simple. We see both “sides” of the lives of the men on a rough-and-tumble Navy SEALs team: one side when they’re on mission, the other when they’re off, with a few highlighted dramatic subplots interspersed between. The various attempts at endearing us to the characters are painfully obvious, first-date awkward. It really is Top Gun all over again, without the planes, and with Charlie Sheen standing in for Tom Cruise.