Starring Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, and Chiwetel Ejiofor
Directed by Philip Noyce (Clear and Present Danger)
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action
Appropriate for ages 13+

    Angelina Jolie is just your average CIA officer working overtime when a Russian defector explains to her and her superiors that she is really a spy that has lain dormant for years waiting to be awoken to perform a dastardly duty.  In this case it is to kill the Russian President at the U.S. Vice President’s state funeral.  Feeling trapped, she somehow uses skills they didn’t know she had to elude capture and proves that she really is a Russian spy, but her motives are not clear to anyone.

    There is no doubt that Jolie is a very capable action hero and this girl power spy thriller is a good vehicle for her.  But it also smells like a studio trying to remake Jason Bourne into a female-driven franchise.  While I like the filming style a heck of a lot more with Noyce than I liked Bourne’s Greengrass, the story isn’t nearly as believable.  With Bourne, it’s easy to understand that he has the skills he has, but with Salt, it appears she has the same kind of training, yet her skills ended when she was dropped off at the adoption agency as a child.  I’m sure she could have had natural athletic ability, but to do the kinds of things she does here she would have had to have had very recent vigorous combat training.  I don’t think her CIA job, as demanding as it was, would have counted.  It’s too much of a stretch to think otherwise.  So while she totally kicks butt, her butt-kicking is far-fetched. 

    As for the story itself, just like in Knight and Day, you know that things can’t be as bad as they appear half-way through the film.  After all, no studio would green light a film with this kind of budget where the audience would have to root for the villain as she destroys the U.S.  So to say it’s predictable is an understatement, but then again, there are many surprises that I did enjoy.  And these surprises worked so well because of great acting by a good supporting cast led by Schreiber and Ejiofor.  These two are able to make the story flaws seem almost unnoticeable. 

    Overall, Salt is an exciting thriller and Jolie is very good in it.  And while the writers should have come up with a better back story to convince the audience that she was capable of performing like an olympian and fighting like MacGyver, it still makes for a pretty decent piece of action adventure.  B-

New on DVD

New on DVD

Clash of the Titans
Rated PG-13 for fantasy action violence, some frightening images and brief sensuality
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Sam Worthington stars in this remake of the original 1981 cult classic done-up with big special effects and less cheese.  While the filmmakers were considering throwing in gods from several ancient religions (bad idea), they stuck with the story of Perseus, the half-human son of Zeus, who goes on a journey to figure out a way to stop the kraken from destroying the capital city.  Here, Perseus ultimately wishes to seek revenge against Hades for killing his father.  While the special effects are fairly decent (and they look much better now that the ridiculous 3D has been taken out), the film still has no sense of adventure.  It’s just one action scene after another with no soul.  Without the adventure and fun, it lacks entertainment value and a film like this needs entertainment value.  It was a good idea to dust this one off and bring it back, but the absence of imagination shown by these filmmakers proves that they shouldn’t have been the ones that were allowed to do it.  Maybe 30 years from now, someone will get it right.  C-

Repo Men
Rated R for strong bloody violence, grisly images, language and some sexuality/nudity
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Jude Law and Forest Whitaker star in this futuristic thriller about a pair of friends that work as repo men for an artificial organs company.  Whenever folks get too far behind on their bills – they come in and take back their hearts, livers, spines, or whatever else the person might have implanted within them.  When Jude Law’s character has an on-the-job mishap, he is put into a coma and wakes up with an artificial heart that he can’t and doesn’t even want to pay for.  So he must decide to go on the run, or fight back against the company that put it in him in the first place.  While the concept of this film was recently seen in Repo: The Genetic Opera (interesting slasher musical if you ever feel like a fun rental), this film explores a different side of the business and for the first hour I actually thought it was going to be a pretty good film.  And it’s not like they didn’t have a clear roadmap of where to go – the formula is easy and it would have worked in this case.  But no, instead they went in this trippy, strange, sexual direction and even brought in a fight scene that looked like it belonged in a blooper reel.  The movie didn’t start off as a comedy, but after the half-way point, it sure enough became one, much to its detriment.  C-

Not Rated but contains strong sexual content, nudity, violence, and language
Available on DVD
Italian with English Subtitles

According to the events of this film, fascist dictator Benito Mussolini led a double life in his early years by marrying a woman and then covering that marriage up while living his public life.  While at one time he was madly in love with his first wife, Ida Dalser (brilliantly played here by Giovanna Mezzogiorno) he soon refused to admit their relationship or that she gave birth to his first-born son.  Hell-bent on forcing him to make public their relationship and accept his son, she works her way into an insane asylum in this gut-wrenching historical drama.  While I’m not an expert on Mussolini and not sure how much of the story is accurate, since I’ve never actually seen a movie about the dictator, I found the film to be completely engrossing and spellbinding.  Using actual footage of the mature Mussolini throughout the film, there is a sense of eerie foreshadowing that exists throughout.  No matter what happens, you know it has to end badly for all parties involved.  But story aside, the film is gorgeously filmed, terrifically acted, and marvelously directed.  My only gripes are the strange transitions which I’m sure were meant to be artistic but I felt merely served as distractions.  Due to the graphic nature of the movie, this probably isn’t the film to rent for your teenager studying WWII, but if you are looking for a heavy, adult-oriented historical drama, it’s hard to find better.  A-

The Art of the Steal
Not Rated
Available on DVD

I love art and I love art museums, and I’ve been to some of the finest in the world, but I won’t pretend to be an expert on the subject.  There is just something about a beautiful painting that speaks to you and when you find one, you just want to stop and stare and get lost in it.  This documentary explores one of the greatest art exhibits that most people don’t even know exists.  The Albert C. Barnes Foundation holds some of the finest Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse, Van Gogh and other masters that he never wanted the world at large to get a look at.  It wasn’t completely private, but private enough.  Located just outside Philadelphia, Barnes collected his pieces and then put into his will that when he died they were not to be loaned out, put on tour, or seen by great numbers of people.  He wanted students to have viewing privileges, but never intended for you and I to.  After his death, the foundation saw things differently and eventually politicians and other people of power in Philadelphia convinced a judge to move the entire exhibit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  This prompted the makers of this film to call it the largest theft of art since the Nazis in WWII.  So unbiased filmmaking this ain’t.  They have a message to convey and frankly they sound like a bunch of elitist art snobs.  They do not make a strong case against and while the methods of moving the art might have been a bit shady, I for one can’t wait to see these fantastic pieces when the Barnes exhibit opens in 2012.  One of the subjects being interviewed made a statement that they overheard someone walk out of the exhibit while it was on tour saying “I’ve seen too many naked fat women for one day,” like that represented all of the museum-going public without art degrees.  That sums up the attitude of the film, but I’m still glad I saw it, because had I not I would have never known what to look forward to in Philly in just a couple of years time.  B

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon
Rated PG-13 for martial arts violence and some sexuality
Available on Blu-ray
Chinese with English subtitles (English dub also available)

Available for the first time on blu-ray is Ang Lee’s masterpiece about forbidden love, betrayal and redemption set in 19th-century China.  While the flying put some folks off,  the fact that it made $128 million at the box office and took home several Oscars proves that most Americans really got into the fantasy.  This transfer is stunning with a color palette captured for the screen by Oscar-winning cinematographer Peter Pau who provides a brand-new commentary for the disc.  The disc also contains all of the old special features from the DVD such as the making-of and a commentary by Ang Lee.  A



Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Ken Watanabe, and Marion Cotillard
Directed by Christopher Nolan (Dark Knight)
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action throughout
Appropriate for ages 15+

    Leonardo DiCaprio is Cobb, a techno-pirate who leads a team of thieves whose job it is to steal ideas from people’s heads.  When a job goes horribly wrong for him, the target hires him to plant an idea, called an inception, in a futuristic game of corporate espionage.  In order to make this work, the team must go dream inside a dream inside a dream, making it an extremely dangerous task to undertake.  To make matters worse, Cobb’s past has the ability to destroy the mission like a dream immune system. 

    If there’s one thing this film has going for it is certainly novelty.  It’s original in every sense of the word.  Then again, Nolan excels at that which is one of the reasons he has such a rabid fan base.  That being said, it’s so original it’s confusing – in a good way.  And I’m not saying I left the theater confused.  He wouldn’t allow that.  Instead, he had to throw in so much exposition to keep this from happening that it got in the film’s way.  This is a film that should take two or three viewings to fully comprehend, rather than walking away happy in one.  That would have been okay with his fans as well too since they would have felt that much more intelligent once they got it.  His film Memento, which I still consider to be his best, was like that.  But instead there was just too much unnecessary rambling and even an extra character that could have been avoided, in order to keep the audience feeling comfortably smart.

    So is this film the brilliant masterpiece that all of the fan boys are proclaiming?  Not really.  It’s good, but in my opinion it’s not even the best in the ground-breaking special effects sci-fi dream genre (I might have just made that genre up, but there are a few films that meet the requirements).  I had much more fun watching The Matrix (not the sequels) or Total Recall and think that the stories in these films are just as complex yet more rewarding than Inception.  I realize that neither of those films can boast this amazing cast.  It’s hard to compare Arnold and Keanu to Leonardo in the acting arena.  But for some reason those films were simply more entertaining.  And maybe that’s the key word: entertaining.  I didn’t have that much fun watching this film.  I definitely have admiration for it, but take my breath away it did not.  I didn’t really like the characters that much and while I was cheering for Leo to succeed, I was still not certain that what I was seeing was real or if it really mattered.  The movie was clever as all get out, and intellectually stimulating, but aside from a moment at the end, it failed to capture my heart.  Maybe that is something that happens the second time you see it.  B+

New on DVD

New on DVD

The Losers
Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action and violence, a scene of sensuality and language
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

What I originally thought was an A-Team copycat, I soon found out to be a film based on a popular graphic novel (that was probably an A-Team copycat).  In the film, an elite group of soldiers are mistakenly left alive by the very funny super-villain played by Jason Patric and now they are upset and after revenge.  While the script suffers from a budget not able to support a big action film, the cast is a pretty solid one with Jeffrey Dean Morgan (The Watchmen), Zoe Saldana (Avatar), and Chris Evans (Fantastic Four).  The movie offers nothing in the way of originality, but there is tons of action to be found although I found myself not really caring about any of the characters by the end.  it might be a mediocre flick, but it fits in well into our mediocre movie year we are having.  C

Cop Out
Rated R for pervasive language including sexual references, violence and brief sexuality
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan are a team of fumbling cops in this film directed by Kevin Smith that can’t decide if it wants to be a parody or a cop comedy.  There’s no doubt you will laugh a lot as Morgan is hilarious and Willis plays a great straight man to his clueless partner.  And Seann William Scott steals every scene he is in as a thief that they apprehend and befriend.  But the tone of the film never takes a clear direction and it almost feels like Smith wanted to give the movie an indie vibe, and in the process made it come off as unprofessional.  One thing I did like about the Blu-ray was the creativity of the special features including “Maximum Comedy Mode” which makes the film immensely more enjoyable.  Smith is such a likable fellow and this special feature is almost like watching the movie with him and letting him laugh about it and make fun of it with you.  I’ve always said that Warner Brothers releases the best Blu-rays and even their bad and mediocre films are elevated by their special features.  C+

Mary and Max
Not Rated
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

I’m a little behind on this one as it was released last month, but as it is a little indie that almost escaped me, I thought it might have escaped most of you, and I just had to do everything I could to prevent that.  This stop-motion clayography film follows a little Australian child named Mary who finds an older Autistic pen pal in New York named Max.  Both are lonely and in need of a friend, and over a span of many years, the two develop a beautiful friendship of the most bizarre kind.  While certainly not for kids, the film is a wonderfully creative movie with an absolutely unforgettable storyline that many adults will be enthralled with.  It might be a bit sad for some, but the tears didn’t take away from the enjoyment at all.  Voiced by Toni Colette, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Eric Bana, as well as many other gifted actors, this film is a showcase for talent in every aspect.  A  

The Girl Who Played with Fire

The Girl Who Played with Fire

Starring Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist
Directed by Daniel Alfredson
Rated R for brutal violence including a rape, some strong sexual content, nudity and language
Appropriate for ages 17+
Swedish with English Subtitles

    Shortly after the events of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, computer hacker Lisbeth (Rapace) and journalist Mikael (Nyqvist) investigate a sex-trafficking ring when Lisbeth becomes the suspect of three murders, forcing her to go on the run until she can clear her name.  As she gets closer to the case, she discovers the case is more closely related to her than she could have ever thought possible.

    While the first film (or book for that matter) in the series was a great way to set up this trilogy, the two different story lines weren’t as beautifully intertwined as is the case with this story.  In fact, what appears to be two different story lines become one in a way that only a truly gifted writer can craft.  To say this film is engrossing is a massive understatement.  While over two hours in length, the pacing is remarkable and the storytelling so intense that time flies.  This film is far more exciting than any of the big-dollar action films that have come out this summer so far and my nails were all the worse because of it.  The fact that it is intelligent too makes it that much more thrilling. 

    Rapace turns in another amazing performance in the titular role which will make it that much harder for an American actress to fill her stilettos when David Fincher recreates the Hollywood version of the trilogy.  Nyqvist takes a backseat in this one in a very understated performance where he is very much the supporting character rather than the strong male lead.

    Just like the first film, which you may recall was originally translated “Men Who Hate Women” by the Author Stieg Larsson before wisely renaming, this film also deals with the theme of brutality towards women, with the heroine being a strong, courageous, smart female lead.  While the first film was upsetting in its sexual violence, this one is shocking in its frank sexuality.  It’s not that you haven’t seen a movie like this before, but perhaps you haven’t outside of flipping through the channels on Cinemax.  This is what most surprises me about how popular the novels have become worldwide.  I can understand Harry Potter and possibly even Twilight given its audience, but the worldwide phenomenon that these books have become, especially considering their subject matter, is very peculiar.  I guess adults need their own hero also, even if she is quite a bit flawed.  A

New on DVD

New on DVD

Rated R for some strong sexuality, drug use and language
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Ben Stiller stars in this film written and directed by Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) about a single, forty-something man who prides himself on the fact that he does nothing.  When he housesits for his brother over an extended period of time, he falls for and emotionally abuses his brother’s personal assistant (Greta Gerwig), who very knowingly allows him to use her in her own sense of experimentation.  It’s a comedy in the sense that it has some extremely awkward moments that make you so uncomfortable that you can’t help but laugh.  But just like his other films, this discomfort only serves as a stop sign for most viewers.  Ben Stiller might have a draw in zany pics, but in films like these, where he actually shows off his acting chops, his core audience won’t follow along.  If they do – they might not like what they see.  This is more of a film for those folks who like Baumbach, and if you don’t know if you are one of them, you’ll find out rather quickly once you stick the disc in.  B

The Greatest
Rated R for language, some sexual content and drug use
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Carey Mulligan is the only one of a pair of teenagers to survive a car crash that leaves the son of Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon taken too early.  Pregnant after their first night together, Mulligan turns to the boy’s parents to help her, but due to their grief they don’t know how to accept the only part of their son that is still alive.  What could have been a super-manipulative mess, only turns into a slightly manipulative one.  The problem with films about loss of life like this is that they are just too uncomfortable to watch.  Needless to say, the acting is great, which is probably why the film doesn’t feel as fake as you would think it would.  Then again, you have to be wanting a good cry to watch a movie like this and there’s hardly ever a time where I want to sit and stew in my own tears.  So while it’s a good film, I just can’t see it flying off the shelves.  B+

Our Family Wedding
Rated PG-13 for some sexual content and brief strong language
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

This twist on the multicultural wedding movie pairs the black family with the Latino family as a young couple in love have to introduce their parents, and most notably their fathers: Forest Whitaker and Carlos Mencia.  Of course they don’t get along at first and then the formula is followed down to the closing credits.  It’s one cliche after another and the jokes are as lame as can be.  I’m glad Forest Whitaker is getting work, but he has been cursed since he won his Oscar in 2006 for The Last King Scotland.  He should have enough money now that he’s taken all of these horrible jobs that he can finally accept some great roles again.  D

White Collar: The Complete First Season
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

On this hit USA show, Mat Bomer is a con man that escapes from a maximum security prison only to be caught again and brought in as a consultant for the White Collar Crimes Division of the FBI.  Other than the bad (and I mean horrible) acting by Tiffani Thiessen, this is one extremely watchable show that is about as entertaining as, well, all of the other shows on USA.  Fast paced, well written, and just plain fun, the series makes for a good summer excursion.  A-

The Last Airbender

The Last Airbender

Starring Noah Ringer, Dev Patel, and Nicola Peltz
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Rated PG for fantasy action violence
Appropriate for all ages

    In a world where there are four nations on Earth: Fire, Water, Air, and Earth, and each have parties that can bend the elements and use them to fight with, one individual alive has the ability to bend all four: The Avatar.  When the Avatar is discovered by the evil Fire kingdom, they attempt to kidnap him to use him for their sinister plans.  But when dissension in the ranks and a young Water kingdom girl get in the way of this happening, an immense battle occurs between the Water and Fire kingdoms.

    This is a review where I have to keep myself from becoming too mean – but it is hard.  So is there anything good about the film?  Sure.  The effects are decent enough and I actually like the lore of the film.  The mythology works for me and I would have liked to have seen a decent representation of the original material. 

    But it appears Shyamalan is incapable of delivering that simple feat.  He has such a huge ego and a destructively heavy hand that his will should be considered the fifth element – able to destroy any enjoyment from movies.  He gets almost all of the blame – because it is almost entirely his film.  His script is absolutely embarrassing and would have failed any of the most basic college screenwriting courses.  He already had great source material, but chose to make the dialogue mundane and ridiculously uncreative.  The story plods along like he knows he has shots to get to and he doesn’t know how to get there – so he has them say something.  Anything.  And the actors chosen to deliver the lines are great martial artists, but can’t act worth spit, so combined with poor directing provide a very miserable viewing experience.

    And the great shots he supposedly has to get to aren’t so great.  The battle sequences are far from exciting.  In fact they are almost comical.  For example, during the big one at the end, the Water kingdom is in prep to fight.  The soldiers are all standing guard with weapons in hand in the streets.  As fire rains down on them in the front lines, women are just lazily carrying baskets around.  It’s incredibly silly.  What would women with dainty baskets be doing in an epic battle?  Feeding the soldiers berries? 

    Then there is the horrific 3D transfer.  Just like Clash of the Titans, the studio decided to steal as much money from their audience as possible by doing a last-minute conversion to 3D that looks like garbage.  The ending battle sequence is so dark that you can hardly see it and the whole thing turns out to be a giant waste of extra money. 

    The idea behind The Last Airbender is unique and imaginative but when given to a filmmaker like Shyamalan, the creativity seems to be stripped out and replaced with a genericized fantasy that neither excites nor entertains.  My review of The Happening came with a plea to Hollywood to not give this man any more money to make movies.  I am now begging.  Hollywood: until he can prove to be a good steward of our hard-earned movie dollars, please stop funding this man’s mediocre-at-best talent.  D

New on DVD

New on DVD

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Rated R for disturbing violent content including rape, grisly images, sexual material, nudity and language
Available on DVD and Blu-ray
Swedish with English subtitles

Now the biggest literary sensation since Harry Potter (sorry – can’t give any respect to Twilight), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Millennium Trilogy has been at the top of the New York Times best seller charts for months and is one of the most adult-read books in ages.  While there will soon be an American version with big stars and directed by David Fincher, it will be hard to beat this Swedish import starring Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist in the leading roles.  Originally titled Men Who Hate Women, the story revolves two tales of brutality towards women, one involving the heroine, Lisbeth Salander (Rapace), and one involving a missing woman whose loving uncle is convinced was murdered.  When Lisbeth goes against her code of going it solo, she teams with a reporter (Nyqvist) to uncover the secrets thought buried by this missing woman’s family.  It’s a terrific mystery, although the violence, and particularly the theme of sexual violence, is difficult to watch.  That being said, it is one of the best nail-biters so far this year.  Having already seen the sequel (review coming next week), I can assure you that this trilogy is worth seeing before it is remade by Hollywood.  A

Jason and the Argonauts
Rated G
Available on Blu-ray Disc

Very few folks in the movie business are actually known past the actors, directors, and maybe the composers, but in the world of special effects Ray Harryhausen is a legend, and Jason and the Argonauts, the mythological tale of the quest for the golden fleece, is one of his unique effects masterpieces.  In 1963, Harryhausen was the first to ever use stop motion animation for anything other than monsters, although there are a few of those in there also.  Sure your kids will make fun of it, but the influence of a film such as this was far reaching.  Proof of that is a special commentary on the disc by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson who practically gushes over the film while watching it.  The film also contains a commentary by Harryhausen himself with all sorts of interesting facts such as the legendary skeleton scene at the end almost took them from a G-rating to an X-rating due to what was allowed in films at the time.  B+

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightening Thief
Rated PG for action violence and peril, some scary images and suggestive material, and mild language
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Completely unlike Jason and the Argonauts, Percy uses the latest in special effects to tell the story of a young demi-god in Manhattan that discovers who he is and also that he has a mission to recover a stolen lightening bolt before Zeus gets really mad and does a lot of nasty things.  The special effects are good enough here, but the film is much longer than it should be   at two hours, and with mediocre acting and directing, it just gets old quick.  It feels like Hollywood is desperate to fill the hole that is going to be left when Harry Potter goes away, but if they want it to be Percy (bad name by the way) they need a better cast and scribe.  C

A Single Man
Rated R for some disturbing images and nudity/sexual content
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Colin Firth turns in a great performance in this stylish piece written and directed by famed clothing designer Tom Ford about a college professor in the early 60’s whose partner’s (played by Matthew Goode) death sends him into a deep depression that he cannot shake.  It’s a very challenging film, and definitely not one for all audiences, but viewing the movie as a work of art, rather than entertainment, will help in its appreciation.  The commentary by Ford will help tremendously with that.  B-

Predator: Ultimate Hunter Edition
Rated R
Available on Blu-ray

Just in time for its new film Predators, Twentieth Century Fox is releasing the original Schwarzenegger classic on Blu-ray with tons of special features including a look at the new film and a new making of featurette.  So if you already own it on Blu-ray is it worth buying?  Probably not, although if you can get a good  enough price on it, there is a $10 movie reward that you can use to buy tickets to the new Predator movie.  In that case – it might be worth the purchase.  B+