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Movie: Honeymoon (2014)
Rating: **1/2 out of *****
Notes: As ambiguously creepy as a holiday out of a Lovecraft novel, a honeymooning couple at an unpopulated and gothic lake retreat find themselves increasingly suspicious of each other's behavior. Tinged with the classic pod people concept, the thrill tends to be one-note, as the concern is both lopsided and the only real threat implied other than a laughably unscary headlight moving around in the dark. It gets off several red herring moments, but all the ick and progression really only happens in the last 20 minutes, at which point it goes full David Cronenberg ala "eXistenz", albeit with absolutely no explanation or resolution - just "and then bad things happened," roll credits. Not much else going on here, thus clocking in at under 90 minutes. If general-purpose, Arkham-esque tales are your thing, this is a good example, tho not the most satisfactory one.

Movie: The Two Faces Of January (2014)
Rating: ***1/2 out of *****
Notes: Set in what appears to be the 60s, a tour guide/con man in Athens becomes entangled with a couple on the lam from a financial debacle in New York. Viggo Mortenson, Kirsten Dunst, and Oscar Isaac star in a subdued, slow-burner full of period character. Mortenson in particular conveys a delicious paranoid intensity in the complicated father-figure/romantic rival situation. There's no action scenes to speak of, focusing mainly on the convoluted path to flee the country and the smoldering internal conflict between the trio, allowing for some well-written character development and evolution, but not much in the way of excitement. A light, well-acted drama/thriller if you want a dose of Isaac pre-"Star Wars", and to enjoy Mortenson's acting on par with Ford or Clooney.

Movie: Bad Turn Worse (2013)
Rating: *** out of *****
Notes: Three teens in a small, midwestern town, about to split up post-graduation, become trapped by a local thug when one of their number commits a theft and another takes credit for it. Crime stories used to be focused on urban gangsters, but lately there's been a shift to small stories in the American heartland that almost resemble gothic horror in that the minimal local rescue options are limited to small numbers of corrupt, incompetent, or otherwise helpless authorities. The acting of the kids is not particularly outstanding and this would be a run-of-the-mill example of the genre, but it gets an extra half-star for the over-the-top performance of Mark Pellegrino as the antagonist whose evil, comic-booky bad guy schtick chews scenery with abandon. His nastiness far outranks the kids he's up against, which serves to heighten the tension, although it's too bad the resolution isn't worth the character. Might be worth checking out just for Pellegrino's part.

Next: The Maze Runner 1 & 2, Kids For Cash, Patema Inverted
Movie: Phoenix (2014)
Rating: *1/2 out of *****
Notes: A woman rescued from a concentration camp shortly after WW2 has reconstructive surgery that leaves her features altered. She searches for her husband who does not recognize her and he turns out to be a different person than she remembers. This is an extremely passive film that consists mainly of the main character walking around, stunned. However, the events she experiences are relatively mundane, albeit unethical. Perhaps it's supposed to be shocking, but the conflict as presented is relatively mild and far beneath any level to explain her reaction to it. Other events of significance occur with no explanation or consequence, and the climax lacks any sort of gravitas moments before the credits roll. The viewer is abandoned in the middle of a revelatory scene that has no punch whatsoever, without resolution. Slow and only vaguely interesting, there's very little substance to fill the 90 minutes.

Movie: Turbo Kid (2015)
Rating: ***1/2 out of *****
Notes: A big mishmash of genres, "Turbo Kid" combines 80's parody, Mad Max, kid-friendly adventure, and gorefest into one heaping pile of cornball. A dystopian Earth where transportation is entirely by BMX bike, a kid thrives alone in the wasteland until he meets a drifter and an overzealous girl. What follows is a rather spot-on satire of late 70s/early 80s sci-fi, including good ol' standby Michael Ironside as the bad guy, looking only a little worse for the wear. It tries to be an homage more often than comedy, so it's more silly than laugh-out-loud, but it also tries to be a gross-out just as much. It looks innocent enough, but the over-the-top ick could rival some Living Dead films with its frequency. The contrasting cheerfulness added by the female lead makes for a complicated tone, and the cheesy acting chops are perfectly nostalgic. If you want a bad movie night, this is a great opportunity for something both bad and new - and not that bad!

Movie: Love Is Strange (2014)
Rating: *1/2 out of *****
Notes: Have you ever wanted to see John Lithgow and Alfred Molina smooching? Then have I got the movie for you! Two recently-married gay men in New York City find themselves temporarily separated and homeless after the breadwinner is fired from his church job, and they both search for new digs. Except there's not much searching or agonizing or emotional drama going on at all. Merely two mildly depressed people doing...stuff. Getting together when they can for outings to dinner or the opera. Being an annoyance to their crash pad hosts. Interacting with people. Mundane things that have no bearing on the plot. And it just goes on like this for the entire film. When the somewhat expected occurs at the end, it's completely skipped over as if the film is afraid to wet its feet with some real drama, and then it just kills time with 5-10 minutes of kids biking in the sun for no reason. Perhaps this is supposed to be a light, social drama, but there's not enough there to comprise a movie. It it weren't Lithgow and Molina, I can't imagine there'd be anything notable left to watch.

Next: Honeymoon, The Two Faces of January, Bad Turn Worse
Movie: Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes (2014)
Rating: ****1/2 out of *****
Notes: Having never been interested, much less a fan, of the early Apes films, it's a significant difference to be truly impressed with the recent new breed. While I wouldn't claim to be a fan, the storytelling and technological wizardry at play is truly superlative. In this followup to "Rise of...", humanity has mostly been wiped out by a primate virus, but the struggling remnants of civilization re-encounter the rapidly evolving ape society living in the woods, with explosive results. The mo-cap animation of the apes is phenomenal - I can't say it enough. It's nearly impossible to distinguish the CG characters from actors in completely convincing prosthetic costumes, and the screen is filled with them. Except to an expert eye, the visual fiction is wholly believable. The story to match is operatic and Shakespearean in scope, with powerful performances primarily from the ape actors led by Andy Serkis, giving one of the best performances of his career. The inherent gravitas dealt by the tone of the piece lends a molasses like slowness to some scenes that can get overdone - great but ponderous cinema at times - and some scenes and concepts, while well done, are familiar. It's still a meaty story that's equally a showcase piece as it is entertainment.

Movie: Dinosaur 13 (2014)
Rating: ** out of *****
Notes: Billed as the story of the Black Hills Institute's fight against the US Government after their discovery of the most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil in 1990, hidden amongst the suffering retold are nuggets of honesty that put a sour spin on the govt-vs-the little guy tale. True, the paleontologists ran into poor luck by dealing with a greedy rancher willing to screw them, a journalist whose eagerness to spill a story poisoned their case, and by winding up on the bad side of an unethical judge. But offhand comments reveal that the victims actually did things they weren't supposed to do, were found guilty of doing so in court, and were punished - albeit harshly - for those crimes. The documentary exhibits its bias by tilting mainly to the bemoaning and emotional torment of the scientists whose careless work put them in that position. It seems to be more a tale of a sketchy, rural fossil-hunting outfit that got caught and made lots of noise leveraging the local communities in their favor. The complaint at the end that the fossil should've been homed in difficult-to-reach South Dakota instead of a more easily-accessible big-city museum is particularly a call from the heart instead of the head. Political theater that unsuccessfully tries to convince by appealing to emotion instead of pragmatism.

Movie: The Guest (2014)
Rating: *** out of *****
Notes: From Adam Wingard, the director of "You're Next", comes a nearly satirical light horror/thriller in the vein of cheap 80s tinglers. When a soldier visits the family of a deceased vet, it's unclear whether his intentions are benevolent or otherwise. Dan Stevens, as the lead, does a slick job as the character of questionable means, playing along with the tongue-in-cheek directing that includes ham-handed easter eggs, jokey cinematography and sets, and a retro synthy score. The story takes place around Halloween, so Wingard wastes absolutely no opportunity to load up to the gills on theming, and nearly every shot features a pumpkin or other spooky scenery in the background, implying supernatural involvement and culminating in a "Scream"-like high school finale. Clearly filmed on the cheap with minimal FX, its fuel is almost entirely ambiguity and red herrings - is he an axe murderer? A vampire? Dead? A bait-and-switch hero? The script clearly eats this stuff up and just gets more cheesy by the end. We spent far more time laughing than being anxious. I normally don't like bad movies, but this is a winking type of "bad" I could get used to.

Next: Love Is Strange, Honeymoon, The Maze Runner/Scorch Trials
Movie: Two Step (2014)
Rating: **1/2 out of *****
Notes: A basic southern crime noir, "Two Step" first follows an untethered young man who, home from college and staying with his grandmother, loses her to illness leaving him the sole resident and owner of his lower-middle class family's fortune and legacy. The second half of the film details the actions of the con man who chooses to prey on the dead grandmother. Alternatingly solemnly hopeful and cruelly gritty, the story is extremely straightforward, taking on scenes quite matter-of-factly in a typical conservative manner. No one takes any significant heroic actions until the last minute of the film which is executed as if it were just another humdrum scene. Rather the intent seems to be to express what happens when you mix lost and drifting with grim downward spiral and to watch what precipitates. Unadorned and rather generic.

Movie: Pride (2014)
Rating: ***** out of *****
Notes: Based loosely on the 1984 support of gay and lesbian organizations to striking miners despite a homophobic environment in Britain, the film describes a small collective of misfit activists who undiscriminatingly persist in raising and delivering donations to a very conservative and rural-minded group that eyes them with the opposite lens. The very general gist is the usual crowd-pleasing formula and history has already revealed the outcome, but the various individuals portrayed are widely disparate in their characters, they act with such peppy optimism, the the coming-around of the townsfolk is so laughably endearing that it's nearly impossible to find anything to dislike. It has all the appropriate moments to cheer and giggle as the little old lady relatives of the mineworkers become the most involved and get the most out of the education. The accents can be pretty thick and we needed subtitles to catch all the slang and inflections, but otherwise - except for a few swears and a sex toy or two used for comic relief - it's nearly family-friendly. Add to that the worthwhile social boon as its consequence, and this becomes a wonderfully enjoyable celebration of embracing across divides.

Movie: The One I Love (2014)
Rating: **** out of *****
Notes: Described to sound like a boring indie relationship drama in its ad copy, it very quickly takes a turn into the Twilight Zone in such a way that prevents me from revealing any further details lest there be spoilers. Ethan and Sophie's marriage is on the outs, and their therapist (Ted Danson, whose real life home makes the setting for the film) sends them to a retreat from which all previous couples have emerged happy and healed. A simple and classic mechanism gets twisted, leaving out just enough information to be alluringly mysterious. Creative use of basic and common FX techniques lend to a seamless composition of normalcy and allow for the film to look as inexpensive as its budget actually is, yet come across as more deeply complex and unnatural. As is typical for Duplass brothers productions, almost all the dialogue is improvised and it frequently shows, lacking the smoothness of a production as the characters sometimes struggle to get out the less-than-impactful things they have to say. This is the only real blemish on an otherwise darkly funny and intriguing story.

Next: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Dinosaur 13, The Guest
Movie: The Skeleton Twins (2014)
Rating: *** out of *****
Notes: Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, and Luke Wilson star in an indie dramedy to take a break from their otherwise comedic careers. Milo and Maggie are twin estranged siblings who come together after hitting emotional bottoms and help each other resolve life issues. It's frontloaded with a bit of excess mumblecore and improv which is typical of low-impact stories. In fact, it's mainly the characters muddling around trying to find themselves, and the resolution is more of an achievement of stabilization. AS such, it's not a particularly exciting film, but Wiig and Hader have enough chemistry and charisma, and the film allows just enough of their more well-known personalities to slip through to make it likable. The humor is soft and scattered about sparsely to ensure it doesn't devolve into wackiness and the gravitas is maintained. A decent enough slice of troubled life and bonding family relations.

Movie: Into The Storm (2014)
Rating: *** out of *****
Notes: "Into The Storm" is a movie geared to sell special effects. Plot is entirely secondary, clearly evident by how awful the excessively improvised script and characters are. Within ten minutes, I was all ready to see each and every one of them perish in the weather disaster we know is coming. The story is simply that a random series of tornadoes hits a town. There's the principal dad and his two self-absorbed sons, a bickering stormchasing team full of redshirts, and a pair of rednecks so clearly and accurately based on YouTube misanthropes. Surprisingly, plot is almost completely abandoned for carnage by the halfway mark, leaving little more than an excellent disaster film full of the next generation of weather-related CG. It has no more basis in scientific fact than "Twister" did, and the characters are twice as dumb, but the destruction is top-shelf and quite thrilling, despite at least a quarter of the film portrayed in a sad imitation of found-footage. Definitely worth it for the mayhem if you can cringe through the rest.

Movie: The Attorney (2013)
Rating: **** out of *****
Notes: Based on the life of human rights lawyer-turned-president of South Korea, Roh Moo-Hyun, it dramatizes a spontaneous, trailblazing lawyer's rise from small-time real estate to frontline activist against government oppression in the guise of communist crackdowns. The main character is very strong-willed and confident, with very little emotional downtime or wallowing in overdramatic filler, thus making it engaging from scene to scene. The first half of the film is entirely set-up, establishing his family and career, followed in the second half by powerful courtroom drama, the likes of which I haven't previously seen outside of American films. This latter portion is very tight and engrossing, featuring all the elements that make a solid theatrical judicial proceeding. It does not go bloodless, as there are some vicious scenes of beatings dealt by the oppressive government lackeys. Overlong by about 30 minutes, it's still a standout Korean feature that's a welcome change from all the gangster and martial arts themes getting all the attention lately.

Next: Two Step, Pride, The One I Love

Top (And Bottom) Ten Films Of 2015

Another year, a bunch more movies. Here's a summary of what I considered to be the best (and worst) films I had the privilege (and misfortune) of seeing in 2015.

Best Of 2015

10. Movie: The Peanuts Movie (2015)
Rating: ****1/2 out of *****
Notes: An excellent contemporization and a finely-tuned nostalgia machine for all ages.

9. Movie: Big Bad Wolves (2013)
Rating: ****1/2 out of *****
Notes: Darkly comic and pitch-perfect, will make you squirm and laugh right up to the big twist ending.

8. Movie: Nebraska (2013)
Rating: ****1/2 out of *****
Notes: Surprisingly enjoyable and charming small-town story with more humor than expected.

7. Movie: Eva (2011)
Rating: ****1/2 out of *****
Notes: Forget "Ex Machina," this was the better recent AI-related suspense drama.

6. Movie: The Martian (2015)
Rating: ****1/2 out of *****
Notes: Crowd-pleasing and hit the sweet spot. Very difficult for anyone to not enjoy this feel-good space survival story.

5. Movie: The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Rating: ****1/2 out of *****
Notes: Wes Anderson at his quirky best. Fast-paced, comic, and choreographed like an orchestral piece.

4. Movie: Snowpiercer (2013)
Rating: ****1/2 out of *****
Notes: It's like Jean Pierre Jeunet, Paul Verhoeven, and Chan wook-Park had a baby. A rare visionary treat.

3. Movie: I Am Divine (2013)
Rating: ****1/2 out of *****
Notes: One of the most enjoyable bio-docs you'll ever see about one of the most outrageous characters ever to grace the screen.

2. Movie: Edge Of Tomorrow (2014)
Rating: ****1/2 out of *****
Notes: Best hard sci-fi film in years. Hilarious, action-packed, and ingenious. So much more than "Groundhog Day".

1. Movie: Mr. Nobody (2009)
Rating: ***** out of *****
Notes: Epic and thoughtful masterpiece of alternating sci-fi and drama that unbelievably went under the radar.


Worst Of 2015

10. Movie: It Follows (2014)
Rating: *1/2 out of *****
Notes: An interesting premise until you realize there's only half a movie.

9. Movie: Man from Reno (2014)
Rating: *1/2 out of *****
Notes: A far too boring and obfuscated puzzle for almost any viewer.

8. Movie: A Touch Of Sin (2013)
Rating: *1/2 out of *****
Notes: And then, nothing happened. There's arthouse and then there's this.

7. Movie: Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
Rating: *1/2 out of *****
Notes: The least interesting vampires you'll ever meet.

6. Movie: Bad Milo! (2013)
Rating: *1/2 out of *****
Notes: A Chucky-like hemorrhoid that comes out at night and kills people. It's exactly as bad as it sounds.

5. Movie: Witching & Bitching (2013)
Rating: *1/2 out of *****
Notes: Excessive dialogue and truly atrocious CG ruin what little promise this Spanish horror/comedy had.

4. Movie: Stranger By The Lake (2013)
Rating: *1/2 out of *****
Notes: Long, awkward silences and tepid conversations interrupted by gay porn.

3. Movie: Kink (2013)
Rating: *1/2 out of *****
Notes: BDSM doc that tries to put the fetish in a good light, but only succeeds in making it look even worse. Little more than behind-the-scenes porno.

2. Movie: A Most Wanted Man (2014)
Rating: * out of *****
Notes: Hoffman's last role is his least interesting, and the film's ending says, "You wasted your time."

1. Movie: The Rover (2014)
Rating: * out of *****
Notes: 90 minutes of dull, meaningless, sociopathic violence to set up a stupid punchline that wasn't worth waiting for.
Movie: Frank (2014)
Rating: *** out of *****
Notes: A little indie dramedy with a bunch of big name stars, including Domnhall Gleeson, Michael Fassbender, and Maggie Gyllenhaal. A struggling musician stumbles upon and into an experimental band led by Frank, who wears a giant, cartoonish head 24/7, and they spend a reclusive year producing their first album. All the band members are significantly eccentric, leading to scattered eccentric and charming offbeat comedy. But there is a dark undertone that becomes abundantly clear at the film's climax, and the answers under Frank's oversized head are anti-climactic. The only one who really gets their acting chops on is Gyllenhaal, whose moody and dangerous maybe-girlfriend of Frank's is edgy, bitter, and unpredictable. The music that underpins the film is...not accessible, consisting of screeching and atonality that's funny when used for laughs, but bleary when played straight. Fun for its quirk, but the truth behind Frank may disappoint.

Movie: Ragnarok (2013)
Rating: *** out of *****
Notes: Norway catches up to Hollywood of the 00's, creating a generic, all-ages creature feature that feels terribly familiar. An archaeologist takes his kids into remote Russia to explore a newfound viking historical site, but a mythical entity lurks amidst the bones and relics. The CG is excellent, right up there with today's best, but it's used comically sparingly, very obviously presenting threats offscreen at every opportunity. The body count is low and it all occurs out of the picture, similar to Jurassic Park which the film also seems to borrow sound FX from. The concept is the same as almost all recent wilderness gothic horrors, with scenes having the same general setup, kids in peril, etc. Tho the setting does allow for a few new ways of presenting the same thing to keep it fresh enough. It also does a good job of generating suspense with lots of creeping around in the dark or waiting for the thing to inevitably pounce. The ending is so clearly kid-friendly that it's a bit of a letdown, but it would serve just right for a kid's first real monster movie.

Movie: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)
Rating: ** out of *****
Notes: In this latest remake/reboot/whatever of the TMNT concept, the apple falls very far away from the tree, this being the least recognizable of all the incarnations. In this entry, the turtles are super-strong, bulletproof, 7-foot cousins to Gollum, appearing far more ogre than reptile, and really living up to the "mutant" term. Forget the radioactive glop that spawned them - instead they were April O'Neil's childhood pets and victims of Shredder's corporate animal testing. Speaking of Shredder, his costume is where Michael Bay's really shines, looking like a samurai Transformer with swiss army knives on his hands - seriously, he has five different swords on each hand. The CG is phenomenal and the mo-cap really shines, especially in Splinter whose movements are very close to lifelike. Too bad the character design goes off the reservation - the turtles are deep in the ugly uncanny valley, while Splinter's unappealing facial hair and dead black eyes tread too close to realism to be comfortable. The action scenes are all Bay: frenetic, impossible, unrealistic, and barely comprehensible. Dialogue is laughable and the gritty, lifelike photorealism is conflated with infantile wackiness, failing to marry cartoony antics and lines with Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight aesthetics. It's a total circus to watch and there's an occasional chuckle, but it stumbles badly with an awful script, ugly characters, and Bay at the helm.

Next: The Skeleton Twins, Into The Storm, The Attorney
Movie: Star Wars Ep. VII - The Force Awakens
Rating: **** out of *****
Notes: It's not perfect in every way, but it's very good. After contemplation, it's only natural to conclude that it's simply not possible to revive the same old glory because the original actors are almost 40 years older and we aren't accustomed to their replacements. Harrison Ford in particular, while giving it a good college try, is barely able to field the ol' role. As such, "The Force Awakens" is a really excellent piece of Star Wars fan-fiction.
Of the two heroes, Daisy Ridley (Rey) is the more classically styled and respectable while John Boyega's (Finn) attempts to replicate Han Solo's occasional comic relief stylings have him coming off more Tracy Morgan than Ford. Adam Driver (Kylo Ren) comes off as an unmenacing, petulant, delinquent reprobate - a vast and unlikable chasm away from the confident and accomplished threat that Vader posed. The Empire, now referred to as the First Order, seems to have back-burnered their more interesting new characters in trying to revive source material, and the character-oriented talent gap stands in inexplicable contrast to the organization's demonstrable power.
Much of this is overwhelmed by where the excellent choices made by director J. J. Abrams have revived the look and feel with marvelous precision. The industrial/mechanical design of the transportation, the old school buttons/knobs/blinky-lights technology, the familiar architecture, the memorable ships - these all construct a whole that truly takes place in the same universe as the originals instead of a remake/reimagining/reboot (see Ep. 1-3). Add to this the frequent use of real locations, miniatures, and brilliant live-action creature FX which again recall the immersive reality of the classics. The primary CG characters tend to be jarringly different and, while well-executed, neither mesh well with the actors or the effects. Humor is well-balanced throughout and a welcome preservation, serving to fluff up what would otherwise be a dry, straightforward affair, even though the tone is a tad more wacky than remembered. Action sequences, while sticking to the familiar basics, are nevertheless out of this world. There are valid points being made in mainstream reviews about the heavy-handed plot parallels to Episode IV, tho.
Where is this new trilogy taking us next? Will Kylo Ren evolve (read: grow up) into a more formidable opponent? Did they really make Rey's origins that obvious? Can the First Order come up with any new offensive ideas or battlestation designs? What are they going to do with that intriguing silver stormtrooper boss? Will we get as much Chewbacca in the next one as we did in this one? Can BB-8 be any more like Wall-E? Is Supreme Leader Snoke really just going to be Gollum? Can new director Rian Johnson retain the magic Disney fairy dust in episode VIII that made episode VII so successful? That I'm jonesing to find out about the mysteries that have yet to unfold strongly implies that, in adhering to the source material, the force is strong with these filmmakers.

Movie: Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead (2014)
Rating: ***1/2 out of ****
Notes: Like "Army of Darkness" was to "Evil Dead 2", the second entry in this gory winter pairing swaps horror/comedy for comedy/horror. Picking up exactly where the original's final jump-scare ended, the sole survivor of the nazi zombie attack on a group of winter cabin vacationers continues to fight off their relentless attack. Having recovered their lost treasure, their historical-based true purpose comes to light, and only our badly-injured hero and a cadre of nerdy zombie hunters from America can stop them. The scares are almost entirely gone, replaced by gore-based laughs, the early ones of which are most hysterical. If you couldn't manage the ick from the first film, the standard fare continues to apply here, although most is oddly just intestine-based, a tool they reuse with frequency. The latter two-thirds of the movie occur in broad daylight, which kills whatever scare possibly remains as everything deteriorates into a mock civil war reenactment. More generally appealing, but also striving a bit too hard to capture the "Shaun Of The Dead" vibe, this is a lesser, but still enjoyable sequel for those who like funny with their offensive, preposterous splatter.

Movie: Kink (2013)
Rating: *1/2 out of *****
Notes: A "documentary" on BDSM which comes across as anything but. Told via scenes from the production offices of pornographic website kink.com, it consists of behind-the-scenes footage of raw, uncensored BDSM cinema in the making, interspersed with amateurish interviews with executives, directors, and stars that unconvincingly try to elevate their craft out of questionability. If anything, the movie opened my eyes to the more broad interpretation of BDSM that the Internet has helped promulgate, now including simulated torture, gang bangs, and rape. The interviewees attempts to excuse the distribution of these scenes by saying that they make them for the people who want to see them but not enact them, casually overlooking the fact that their audience inevitably includes people who do want to enact them without simulation. This produces troubling moral problems and introduces some very fine lines that are never examined, but clearly crossed. The content includes so many clearly-depicted sex acts such that the film could be mistaken for a bonus extra on a porn video. Some of the employees come across as one pink slip away from turning serial killer, only inhibited by the steady paycheck and structured work environment. The actors themselves do a poor job of reframing their actions as anything other than exploitation. Disturbingly outside the bounds of standard definition, and the public distribution of which is potentially dangerous to the public at large.

Next: Frank, Ragnarok, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)
Movie: 22 Jump Street (2014)
Rating: ** out of *****
Notes: In this sequel to the parody film version of the hit 80s TV series, our two undercover cops go to college and investigate the same thing, and the same stuff happens. And it's actually a running gag in the movie that this is exactly what occurs. It's almost existentially meta, with a high rate of self-aware jokes cranked out at a steady clip. Whereas this franchise was originally targeted at teens and young adults, this followup seems to have aimed a tad low and hit tweens or even younger. The first big joke of the film revolves around Dora The Explorer, so that pretty much sets the tone for the rest. The lowest common denominator humor still elicits some chuckles from one's inner neanderthal, but the script is so juvenile that it borders on "Scary Movie" sequel territory, or even "Dumb & Dumber". Only worthwhile if you're feeling especially brainless some evening.

Movie: Infernal Affairs (2002)
Rating: ***1/2 out of *****
Notes: Inspiration for the Academy Award-winning film, "The Departed," this 2002 Hong Kong crime noir observes two Triad gang members who are sent undercover to train as policemen. One becomes a high-ranking officer while the other is sent undercover back against the Triad under the pretense of being drummed out of the corps. This would be complicated enough to follow if it wasn't for the fact that this is all frantically exposited in the first five minutes. With a weird credits montage reminiscent of an Indiana Jones movie, and a peppy musical score that doesn't quite match the tenor of the film, it's nonetheless a very tight and well-choreographed story, where the viewer is pressed to follow the machinations of bad guys who might be pretending to be good guys who might be pretending to be bad guys, both unknowingly pitted against each other. It doesn't involve a lot of filler or downtime, and it keeps you busy trying to figure out which side anyone is on. The film inspired two well-reviewed sequels that dwell a lot on prequel content. Dated cinematographically, but nevertheless a challenging Asian crime drama.

Movie: The Congress (2013)
Rating: ** out of *****
Notes: Robin Wright stars as herself, an actress aging out of her career and given one last role: to be scanned in by the studio to create a virtual actress, receive a lump payment, and never to act again. This setup takes half the movie and, while very slowly paced, has the makings of a tolerable, low-key sci-fi tale. Instead, 20 years pass and she arrives to attend a "congress" of elite on the cusp of introducing a drug to the public that will allow them to experience celebrities as never before. However, this is inexplicably conveyed in animated form - a cross between Yellow Submarine and Ub Iwerks - devolving into surrealist incoherency. As this is a matter of perception, the audio to this zany imagery is still our main characters talking as if none of the cartoon insanity was occurring at all, which makes the visuals just so much obfuscating noise. Only in the last ten minutes does the story coalesce again into a comprehensible, but gloomy coherency. It's odd that such a strange, vibrantly visualized film can be so dull, but the plodding story just can't keep up with itself. Of value solely for it's oddness if you can keep from drifting off.

Next: Star Wars - The Force Awakens, Frank, Dead Snow 2
Movie: The Hunger Games - Mockingjay Part 2 (2015)
Rating: **1/2 out of *****
Notes: Now that the shock of killing children on film has long since been wrung out of the filmmakers' systems and the public has accepted it as mainstream, the story really doesn't have anywhere to go except to a predictable, ho-hum conclusion. Katniss and her crew go after Snow, Katniss does a heroic thing, and there's a bittersweet ending where nobody escapes without a price because you don't just let something that grim get away happy - no no no, everyone must suffer. Sadly, this also applies to the audience who has to squint at the dim cinematography, wait out interstitial filler of characters bemoaning their fates, and try to be excited about contrived, spontaneous, and non-sequitur action sequences that, while frenetic, seem like magical traps set by wizards rather than technological obstacles. Bleak, entirely devoid of humor, and just going through the motions, we only get token glimpses of Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, and even precious little of Donald Sutherland, all who gave the early films that sprig of peppy cultural satire. It's a workmanlike conclusion that's only worth seeing as a rental for a sense of closure.

Movie: X-Men - Days Of Future Past (2014)
Rating: **** out of *****
Notes: The X-Men films have never clicked with me due to it being a mega-ensemble franchise, featuring far too many characters to spend enough time focusing on to become invested in. "Days Of Future Past" shines above the rest because it focuses in on Wolverine, leaving nearly everyone else in supporting roles. While a somewhat confusing start for the uninitiated, Wolverine time-travels from a dystopian future to the 1970s with the goal of securing the help of Professor X's and Magneto's younger selves to stop an act by Mystique that sets off the disastrous timeline. It includes both old favorites (Jennifer Lawrence) and new additions (Evan Peters as Quicksilver). The latter get to have some fun, as the film includes some really creative and humorous scenes with the speedster. It's also chok-a-block full of actual story - the lack of ladies/kids in peril or romantic distractions allows for a focus on the plot, with minimal filler. The action scenes range from the personal fisticuffs to the all-out superhero battles, though the latter tend to be utilized as general purpose timing mechanisms featuring bit characters. Probably the best entry in the X-Men film franchise, assisted in large part by being based (not entirely accurately) on one of the comic's most popular tales.

Movie: Sin City - A Dame To Kill For (2014)
Rating: ** out of *****
Notes: For some reason, the recipe doesn't work on the second cooking. Rodriguez's take on Frank Miller's other Sin City stories feels more rushed, disjointed, and ultimately less important. The look and feel is still there, although feeling more forced - sticking stylish abandon where it's not always necessary, and spending violence not constructively, but like a gambler with overflowing pockets. Several stories intertwine and apparently take place in different timelines, but this is seriously unclear. A young poker player undertakes a pointless gamble, Dwight from the first film (now played by Josh Brolin) pursues the titular dame, Bruce Willis stands around and does nothing as a ghost, and Marv metes out mayhem and meanders through each storyline to one degree or another. The various characters we loved from the first film just do "stuff", and the new players just waste their lives. The droning narrative and tunnel-vision editing don't give a clue that the viewer is actually watching the climax, and the credits appear abruptly after a scene exactly like most that came before it. It's interesting to watch the unique cinematography applied to new material, but it feels like a compilation of bonus extras rather than a larger story.

Next: 22 Jump Street, Chef, Infernal Affairs