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Rick's Flicks Picks on AWN

Blogs JOHN CARTER (2012) (***)

SUPERMAN, LORD OF THE RINGS, STAR TREK, STAR WARS, AVATAR and dozens of other sci-fi and fantasy tales owe their origins to Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom series. This new film is based on Burroughs' A PRINCESS OF MARS, a classic of pulp fiction. Now Andrew Stanton, who won Oscars for FINDING NEMO and WALL*E, has brought the world to the screen.

John Carter (Taylor Kitsch, WOLVERINE) is your Han Solo-esque reluctant hero type. A Civil War vet who refuses to get pulled back into a cause (Indian Wars) because he is only seeking gold. But fate has other plans and like Frodo, he gets thrust into a world he couldn't imagine when he gets teleported to Mars. In a reverse of Superman's tale, he, the Earthling, travels to another planet and gains superpowers because of the alien world's environment. Like the worlds of STAR TREK and STAR WARS, various alien races are warring and the good guys must stop the superior weaponry of the villains. Like in AVATAR, Carter is a human who establishes himself as a leader in an alien culture. In this world of Mars, aka Barsoom, the giant, four-armed alien race is led by Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe, SPIDER-MAN).

Blogs Blu-ray: THE GUARD (2011)

By Rick DeMott | Wednesday, January 11, 2012 at 10:48pm

This dark comedy isn't the prettiest looking release, but Sony does bring it to Blu-ray in a quality MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfer. Dimensionality is the biggest issue with the image often looking soft. This then lowers the depth of field. Colors are natural and balanced well. When more vibrant colors pop up in the palette they do indeed pop. Blacks might not be inky throughout, but they aren't too murky. Digital issues aren't problematic, but crush is its biggest issue. Of course night scenes in low lighting suffer the worst. Some noise and banding occur but nothing too awful. Most of the issues with the picture quality presumably stem back to the source, which was a low-budget indie shot on Super 35. The worst thing you could say about the image would be that it is inconsistent. Some darker scenes can be murky and feature pixelization, but daylight scenes can be crisp and deep.

Blogs Blu-ray: HIGHER GROUND (2011)

Sony has brought this digitally shot indie to a MPEG-4 AVC 1080p Blu-ray is a nicely natural way. Shot on a RED Camera, the drama doesn't look overtly clean, but carries a toned down look that brings a film quality while keeping the clarity of digital cinematography. Some of the brighter daylight scenes have that high-def 3-D quality to them. The color palette is full of earthy tones in the costumes and settings. The balance of the "hippie" vibe between the brighter elements is handled well creating a warm and inviting feeling throughout. Blacks are inky throughout too. Digital anomalies are pretty non-existent, except for a few fleeting banding moments.

While this is a quieter film sonically, the DTS-HD MA 5.1 lossless soundtrack is still well done. The dialogue is clean. The balance between the sound elements – dialogue, music and sound effects – is handled well. The score and the ambient music are perfectly rendered. This is where the LFE track comes in nicely. A bus crash also gets the bass booming too. The ambience across the sound field is subtle, but effective. Directionality is pretty much not present, but not missed either.

Blogs Blu-ray: THE GUARD (2011)

This dark comedy isn't the prettiest looking release, but Sony does bring it to Blu-ray in a quality MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfer. Dimensionality is the biggest issue with the image often looking soft. This then lowers the depth of field. Colors are natural and balanced well. When more vibrant colors pop up in the palette they do indeed pop. Blacks might not be inky throughout, but they aren't too murky. Digital issues aren't problematic, but crush is its biggest issue. Of course night scenes in low lighting suffer the worst. Some noise and banding occur but nothing too awful. Most of the issues with the picture quality presumably stem back to the source, which was a low-budget indie shot on Super 35. The worst thing you could say about the image would be that it is inconsistent. Some darker scenes can be murky and feature pixelization, but daylight scenes can be crisp and deep.

Blogs Rick's Top 25 Films of 2011 (As It Stands on January 1, 2012)

In 2011, Malick planted a tree and Michael Fassbender showed no shame. The help made many disagree while two artists showed us the fragility of fame. Three descendants came together in paradise while a driver drove for a price. Siblings discovered the secrets of their mother while Billy Bean was our baseball brother. London teens saved the world and two young lovers gave it a whirl.

Last year I said 2010 was not a great year for films having only awarded 13 four star reviews. In 2011, I awarded 12, so you can judge accordingly. However, there were a lot of really good 3 ½ star films that I wanted to weave into the top 25, but couldn't make it work. Many of the honorable mentioned films are just as worthy to be on the list. Like always here is a list of the films I wish I could have seen but missed.

Blogs THE GUARD (2011) (***1/2)

It was a surprise when Brendan Gleeson was announced as a Golden Globe nominee for his role as a corrupt, drug using, foul mouthed cop. Once you've seen it you'll know why. He owns the role. The best statement said about his character is he's either really stupid or really smart.

Gleeson plays Gerry Boyle, a north Ireland police officer who is investigating a recent murder when FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle, HOTEL RWANDA) comes to town on a mission to stop an international drug ring. When Everett shows the local officers pictures of the suspects, Boyle wonders to the African-American agent how they could be drug dealers when their white. Everyone knows all drug dealers are black or Mexican. Boyle's defense for his racism is that he is Irish and it is part of his culture.

Blogs HIGHER GROUND (2011) (***1/2)

Every time I see a film this good about faith I always say there should be more films about faith. I'm not talking about preachy, simplistically moralistic religious tracts, but tales about a person's walk through life and faith with warts and all. Vera Farmiga, who most people will know from UP IN THE AIR, is a smart actress and has made a smart directing debut in adapting Carolyn S. Briggs' memoir for the screen. This is a film about how a woman comes to faith and how she brings it through her life.

Farmiga stars as Corinne, a woman during the 1970s who struggles with her faith. As a child (McKenzie Turner), she didn't have much exposure to religion. The most she got was when her flashy mother Kathleen (Donna Murphy, TANGLED) dumped her in vacation Bible school and flirted with Pastor Bud (Bill Irwin, RACHEL GETTING MARRIED) when she came to pick her up. As a teen, Corinne (Taissa Farmiga, TV's AMERICAN HORROR STORY) is always writing, which draws the attention of wanna-be rocker Ethan (as teen Boyd Holbrook, TV's THE BIG C & as adult Joshua Leonard, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT). In fast secession, she is pregnant, married and a struggling mother. After a near tragedy, Corinne and Ethan join the "Jesus Freaks" in town and never turn back.

Blogs WARRIOR (2011) (***1/2)

By Rick DeMott | Wednesday, December 28, 2011 at 2:01pm

The central mixed martial arts event in this film is called Sparta and it is a fitting name to attach to such a Greek-like drama between fathers and sons and brother versus brother. As a sports drama, it skillfully weaves together both a separate comeback and underdog tale, with the tales colliding in the end. Combining melodrama and character complexity, this simple tale has the emotional power of a piledriver.

Tommy Conlon (Tom Hardy, INCEPTION) hasn't seen his father Paddy (Nick Nolte, AFFLICTION) since he and his mother ran away when he was a teen. Now a broken man, going by his mother's maiden name, Tommy wants something from his former alcoholic dad – train him to enter a winner take all MMA tournament. He doesn't want to reconnect with his father, only train. In a sick way, Tommy dangling a reconnection in front of his dad is no worse than if he dangled a bottle of whiskey.

Blogs MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (2011) (***1/2)

By Rick DeMott | Saturday, December 24, 2011 at 12:22am

Those critics that keep writing that this or that new film from Woody Allen has brought the famed director back to form is living in the past. Yes, during the late '90s and early 2000s, Allen was not making his best work, but it's been six years since MATCH POINT (his best since 1989's CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS) and in between that and now we got VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA. With this film, Allen has returned to his whimsical comedy work like THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO.

Gil (Owen Wilson, BOTTLE ROCKET) is a successful screenwriter, who works on hack material. He has always wanted to write a novel, but has never had the guts. On vacation in Paris, he finds inspiration to start. His fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams, THE NOTEBOOK) worries that he's throwing away his lucrative career on a gamble. This would also throw away their house in Malibu. Tired of hanging out with Inez's pseudo-intellectual friend Paul (Michael Sheen, FROST/NIXON) and his clueless wife Carol (Nina Arianda, WIN WIN), Gil takes late-night walks and gets teleported back to the 1920s.

Blogs WAR HORSE (2011) (***1/2)

Over the years Steven Spielberg has certainly adapted his style to fit the project. The black & white cinematography in SCHINDLER'S LIST added a grim solemnity. The desaturated colors and herky-jerky photography of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN only matched the gritty war sequences. In WAR HORSE, he tackles the first World War with a touch that matches the melodramatic nature of the source book and play. He channels the melodramas of the 1940s and 1950s like John Ford's HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, creating an almost surreal fable.

Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan, BRAVEHEART) is a war vet who drinks away his bad memories. He's a poor farmer who decides one day at auction to not let his rich, pompous landlord Lyons (David Thewlis, HARRY POTTER) to outbid him for a thoroughbred horse. When he brings it home to his wife Rose (Emily Watson, BREAKING THE WAVES), she gets that look that only long-suffering wives get in movies like this one. Their son Albert (Jeremy Irvine, TV's LIFE BITES) promises to train the horse. When the rent comes due and they are short, Albert, as hard headed as his father, sets out to turn a race horse into a plow steed.

Blogs WAR HORSE (2011) (***1/2)

Over the years Steven Spielberg has certainly adapted his style to fit the project. The black & white cinematography in SCHINDLER'S LIST added a grim solemnity. The desaturated colors and herky-jerky photography of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN only matched the gritty war sequences. In WAR HORSE, he tackles the first World War with a touch that matches the melodramatic nature of the source book and play. He channels the melodramas of the 1940s and 1950s like John Ford's HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, creating an almost surreal fable.

Blogs THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011) (***1/2)

By Rick DeMott | Thursday, December 22, 2011 at 10:22pm

Based on Stieg Larsson's international bestseller, this film makes this the second time this story has been brought to the screen. The original Swedish version is very fresh in my mind, having made my top 25 list last year, ranking fourth, just behind David Fincher's THE SOCIAL NETWORK. Now we have Fincher's version of the same tale in English.

Blogs THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011) (***1/2)

Based on Stieg Larsson's international bestseller, this film makes this the second time this story has been brought to the screen. The original Swedish version is very fresh in my mind, having made my top 25 list last year, ranking fourth, just behind David Fincher's THE SOCIAL NETWORK. Now we have Fincher's version of the same tale in English.

Still set in Sweden, Daniel Craig (CASINO ROYALE) plays journalist Mikael Blomkvist, who has just lost a libel suit after printing a damning report about a successful businessman. Turns out he was set up. Leaving his magazine in disgrace, Mikael takes a job offer from Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer, BEGINNERS), a retired businessman whose family operates one of the largest companies in the country. For decades, Henrik has been investigating the disappearance of his niece Harriet, who he raised like his own. The old man believes one of his family members murdered her.

Blogs THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN (2011) (***)

By Rick DeMott | Wednesday, December 21, 2011 at 11:58pm

Steven Spielberg has made a rousing globetrotting adventure that harkens back to his early INDIANA JONES films. Using performance capture, he brought to life Herge's world-renowned comic strip character in a strangely realistic and surreal way. The lightning paced action scenes will be well accepted from the videogamer set, while older audiences might want it to have slowed down a bit to let us meet these characters.

Blogs THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN (2011) (***)

By Rick DeMott | Wednesday, December 21, 2011 at 11:55pm

Steven Spielberg has made a rousing globetrotting adventure that harkens back to his early INDIANA JONES films. Using performance capture, he brought to life Herge's world-renowned comic strip character in a strangely realistic and surreal way. The lightning paced action scenes will be well accepted from the videogamer set, while older audiences might want it to have slowed down a bit to let us meet these characters.

The audience is thrown right into the action as Tintin (Jamie Bell, KING KONG) buys a model ship that turns out to be a hotly desired item. Along with his dedicated dog Snowy, Tintin tries to get to the bottom of why Sakharine (Daniel Craig, CASINO ROYALE) will go to great extremes to get Tintin's model and two identical ones. Along the way, Tintin teams up with the drunken Capt. Haddock (Andy Serkis, RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES), whose family is connected to the great mystery.

Blogs BEATS, RHYMES & LIFE: THE TRAVELS OF A TRIBE CALLED QUEST (2011) (***)

Actor Michael Rapaport directs an equal part historical and personal look at the influential rap group A Tribe Called Quest. Given backstage access to their 2008 reunion tour, he captures the volatile relationship between founding members, Kamaal Ibn John Fareed, aka Q-Tip, and Malik Taylor, aka Phife Dawg. The duo has been friends since they could remember and the film reveals the same petty grievances and jealousies that have taken down so many musical groups.

Along with De La Soul, they were instrumental in the Native Tongues Posse, which brought a soulful, culturally conscious style to rap. The group stood out among the gangster rappers of the '90s, dressed in Africa-inspired clothing. Q-Tip and Phife Dawg grew up in Queens in the hot bed of the rap explosion, wanting to become the next Run DMC. Once they met DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad and rapper Jarobi White, the Tribe was born. Part of what made them stick out was what they were sampling. It is said they were digging deeper into their parents' record collection and finding gems that others wouldn't even have thought of. This extended to jazz not just R&B.

Blogs SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS (2011) (***)

For a continuing franchise it's so often the quality of the villain that makes the series longevity. The hero never changes, or we think that is the case. It's a good villain that pushes the protagonist to the edge. This is the case with the introduction of Professor James Moriarty into Guy Ritchie's steam punk version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's great detective.

Blogs SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS (2011) (***)

For a continuing franchise it's so often the quality of the villain that makes the series longevity. The hero never changes, or we think that is the case. It's a good villain that pushes the protagonist to the edge. This is the case with the introduction of Professor James Moriarty into Guy Ritchie's steam punk version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's great detective.

Moriarty was only hinted at in the original, but here he is played with intelligent ruthlessness by Jared Harris (TV's MAD MEN). Holmes (Robert Downey Jr., IRON MAN) has linked the university professor to a series of bombings that have been attributed to an anarchist group. His longtime beau Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams, THE NOTEBOOK) is still working for the man who has no qualms murdering to meet his goals. But what are his goals? Holmes boldly confronts him, which makes the dastardly schemer attack Holmes where it matters.

Blogs CARNAGE (2011) (***)

By Rick DeMott | Thursday, December 15, 2011 at 11:46am

Roman Polanski adapts Yasmina Reza's dark comedy play for the screen. For better and worse, Polanski, who co-wrote the script with Reza, doesn't adapt the film very much. Outside of a dialogue free opening and closing in a park, the rest of this dialogue-heavy production takes place in one New York apartment. Primarily his top notched cast keeps the film from crumbling under its weaknesses.

Blogs CARNAGE (2011) (***)

By Rick DeMott | Thursday, December 15, 2011 at 11:22am

Roman Polanski adapts Yasmina Reza's dark comedy play for the screen. For better and worse, Polanski, who co-wrote the script with Reza, doesn't adapt the film very much. Outside of a dialogue free opening and closing in a park, the rest of this dialogue-heavy production takes place in one New York apartment. Primarily his top notched cast keeps the film from crumbling under its weaknesses.

Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS & John C. Reilly, CHICAGO) have invited Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet, THE READER & Christoph Waltz, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS) over to their home to discuss what to do about an altercation between their two sons. The Cowans' son hit the Longstreets' son in the face with a stick. As Penelope likes to point out, their son disfigured her son. As they discuss the course of action to take tensions start to bubble up and allegiances between the foursome will shift. Carnage ensues.

Blogs Blu-ray: RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011)

Those damn, dirty apes look quite amazing in this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 Blu-ray. This is certainly one of the best Blu-ray releases of the year. The picture quality is crystal clear adding great depth and detail. Weta's CG apes really stand out from fur to skin textures to their realistic looking eyes. The color palette is natural and clean with black levels inky throughout. There is a light film grain that runs through the picture, which does not increase during night scenes. Crush in those night scenes is also nonexistent. As for compression issues and other digital artifacts, they are completely absent.

Blogs Blu-ray: RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011)

Read my review of RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

Those damn, dirty apes look quite amazing in this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 Blu-ray. This is certainly one of the best Blu-ray releases of the year. The picture quality is crystal clear adding great depth and detail. Weta's CG apes really stand out from fur to skin textures to their realistic looking eyes. The color palette is natural and clean with black levels inky throughout. There is a light film grain that runs through the picture, which does not increase during night scenes. Crush in those night scenes is also nonexistent. As for compression issues and other digital artifacts, they are completely absent.

Blogs DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME (2011) (***1/2)

What I love about so many Chinese historical epics is how they blend history and myth. Now famed director Hark Tsui, who created the ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA series, brings the real life story of Chinese historical icons Detective Dee and Empress Wu to the screen in a big budget, vfx-driven spectacle that includes spontaneous human combustion, high flying kung fu and a talking deer.

Detective Dee (Andy Lau, HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS) was exiled after engaging in a revolt against regent Wu (Carina Lau, 2046), who he believed was murdering her way into becoming the first empress of China. On the eve of her coronation, a series of mysterious murders have occurred where people have been bursting into flames. Wu decides to bring back Dee in order to prove that she is not involved and partners him with her top officer Shangguan Jing'er (Bingbing Li, THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM).

Blogs DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME (2011) (***1/2)

What I love about so many Chinese historical epics is how they blend history and myth. Now famed director Hark Tsui, who created the ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA series, brings the real life story of Chinese historical icons Detective Dee and Empress Wu to the screen in a big budget, vfx-driven spectacle that includes spontaneous human combustion, high flying kung fu and a talking deer.

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