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Rick's Flicks Picks on AWN

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AFTER.LIFE (2010) (**)

This is a thriller that tries to keep us guessing. The central premise is whether the main character is alive or actually dead. The problem with this scenario is that the story can't hold it up for the length of the film. We feel like we're being jerked around in order to keep the secret going.

Anna Taylor (Christina Ricci, MERMAIDS) is this character in limbo. She's been suffering from depression, which makes her mood erratic. She gets in a fight with her boyfriend Paul Coleman (Justin Long, HE'S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU) where she speeds off in her car. Consumed with emotion, she gets in a car accident. When she wakes, she's on the table at a funeral parlor. The director Eliot Deacon (Liam Neeson, SCHINDLER'S LIST) tells her she is dead, but just doesn't know it yet.

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JOAN RIVERS: A PIECE OF WORK (2010) (***)

In a case of full disclosure, Joan Rivers makes my skin crawl. For me she represents everything that is awful and shallow about the entertainment business. In many ways, this documentary didn't change one bit of that opinion. But to its credit, it made me respect her more. And that's an accomplishment considering I had none for her before. That's because I only knew her for the parody her life has become.

Rivers was truly the first female stand-up comedian star. In the 1960s, she made a name for herself for women-themed humor that was cutting edge. She talked about things in public that many people didn't talk about in private. Johnny Carson took her under his wing and groomed her as his replacement on THE TONIGHT SHOW. But when she left the show for her own late-night talk program, Carson was furious that she was becoming his competition and virtual had her black balled. Once her show was cancelled, her career was devastated, which led to her husband Edgar Rosenberg (a producer on her show as well) to commit suicide. Can you blame the guy he was married to Joan Rivers?

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MORNING GLORY (2010) (***)

NOTTING HILL director Roger Michell's comedy is an often hilarious look at morning shows. It reminded me of BROADCAST NEWS, only frothier like its subject matter. At some point a character observes that since the beginning of TV there has been a battle between entertainment and the news and entertainment won a long time ago. Entertainment certainly wins here.

That character is Becky Fuller (Rachel McAdams, THE NOTEBOOK), a constantly working producer for a local New Jersey morning show, who dreams of producing TODAY someday. That's when she is laid off. She interviews with Jerry Barnes (Jeff Goldblum, THE FLY), an exec at IBS, whose morning show is the lowest rated on network television. He begrudgingly hires her because he's desperate. The kid can't make it worse, can she?

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I'M STILL HERE (2010) (**1/2)

The conceit of this Andy Kaufman-style faux documentary never fooled me for once. It didn't fool a lot of people; some of the doubters in the press are featured in the film. The premise has Joaquin Phoenix slipping into drugs and alcohol abuse while he quits acting to start a rap career. The idea never fooled me because of one major reason — director Casey Affleck. Affleck is Phoenix's brother-in-law and to think that his wife would be fine with him filming the downward spiral of her brother after her other brother died of a drug overdose seemed very unlikely.

So what are we left with, especially now that Phoenix and Affleck have come clean? Phoenix gives a remarkable performance as "Joaquin Phoenix," a pretentious hipster actor who wants greater control over his art so he's going to become a rapper. We watch as "Phoenix" parties hard and abuses his assistant. His erratic behavior extends to his interactions with his friends and those worried about his career. He arrives late for a big meeting with P Diddy, who seems upset that this actor just thinks he can walk into the music business and succeed.

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MONSTERS (2010) (***1/2)

Before seeing the film, I thought the title was weak. Now having seen it I think it's perfect. Those that have complained that this monster movie doesn't have enough monsters they're missing the point. Sci-fi has been used for decades to make social commentaries and this low budget flick has something to say.

A probe from Jupiter's moon Europa brings aliens to Earth. A section of Mexico right below the U.S. border has been ruled an infected zone where the aliens reside. Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy, IN SEARCH OF A MIDNIGHT KISS) is an American photojournalist working in Mexico. He is given the task of escorting Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able, UNEARTHED), the daughter of the head of the magazine, back to the U.S. When they miss the ferry, they are left with the option of being stranded in Mexico for months or pay thousands of dollars to be escorted illegally across the infected zone.

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BURIED (2010) (***1/2)

One actor. One coffin. Director Rodrigo Cortes (THE CONTESTANT) and writer Chris Sparling (upcoming FALLING SLOWLY) have created an amazingly tense thriller with these simple elements. The camera never leaves star Ryan Reynolds and we never see anyone other than him. It starts and ends in the coffin. There is no escape for the audience.

Reynolds plays Paul Conroy, a truck driver for a contractor in Iraq. His convoy was attacked and he was taken hostage. He awakes buried alive. His captors have supplied him with a cell phone. They call him and demand millions for his release. Conroy calls his wife, 911, the FBI, and his work. If you thought being put on hold was bad enough, try it when you're six feet under ground.

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THAT EVENING SUN (2010) (***1/2)

Hal Holbrook's career stretches back to the 1950s. Prior to his Oscar nomination for his touching performance in INTO THE WILD, he was an Emmy winner and a stage veteran. With that Oscar nod, he has become in more demand for movies and that is good for us all. He is the heart and soul of Scott Teems feature film debut, an adaptation of William Gay's I HATE TO SEE THAT EVENING SUN GO DOWN. Old curmudgeons are not new to film, but Holbrook puts us into one's shoes.

Abner Meecham (Holbrook) is an aging Tennessee farmer who has moved into a nursing home after an aliment. It's not for him so he just up and goes home. When he arrives at his house, he finds a family has moved in. Turns out his lawyer son Paul (Walton Goggins, THE BOURNE IDENTITY) has sold the farm out from under him. Making matters worse is that he's sold it to Lonzo Choat (Ray McKinnon, THE BLIND SIDE), a notorious ne'er do well from the town who Abner believes is trash. Choat lives there with his wife Ludie (Carrie Preston, TV's TRUE BLOOD) and teen daughter Pamela (Mia Wasikowska, THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT). Abner subsequently conducts a campaign of civil disobedience by moving into the slave quarters near the house.

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LEAVES OF GRASS (2010) (***1/2)

Most film fans will know Tim Blake Nelson as an actor, particularly from the Coen Brothers' O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?, THE GOOD GIRL or THE INCREDIBLE HULK. As a director he made the harrowing Holocaust film THE GREY ZONE and the teen rendition of OTHELLO, O. Now he combines the comedy of his acting roles to the smarts of his directing work. Few drug-themed comedies contain philosophical interludes about the nature of life and God and fewer yet are named after Walt Whitman poems. So you can expect something different going in.

Bill Kincaid (Edward Norton, THE INCREDIBLE HULK) is a philosophy professor at Brown, who lecturers his students on the nature of randomness in life. The problem is that he doesn't practice what he preaches. He has everything planned out. But plans never work out the way they were planned… as we know. While he's wrapped up in a sex scandal with a student, he is called back to his home in Oklahoma with the news that his twin brother Brady (also Norton) has died. Bill hasn't been home in years.

Comedy Blogs

MARS NEEDS MOMS (2011) (**1/2)

The real conflict in this film isn't between the humans and Martians, but between the cliché and the generally humorous and touching. Weak pop culture jokes are pitted against heartwarming scenes between mothers and sons. Action out of the action device handbook pulls down some good character development. It's a battle till the very end.

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MARS NEEDS MOMS (2011) (**1/2)

The real conflict in this film isn't between the humans and Martians, but between the cliché and the generally humorous and touching. Weak pop culture jokes are pitted against heartwarming scenes between mothers and sons. Action out of the action device handbook pulls down some good character development. It's a battle till the very end.

Our players are as follows. Milo (Seth Green, AUSTIN POWERS) is the broccoli-hating hero who wishes that his Mom (Joan Cusack, WORKING GIRL) wasn't his mom after she bars him from watching his favorite zombie movie on TV as punishment for feeding the cat the aforementioned vegetable. As a result, the Martian Supervisor (Mindy Sterling, AUSTIN POWERS) rules her a perfect candidate to use as a brain donor for their Nanny Bots, the robots that raise all Martian female babies. The male Martians are too touchy feely so they are thrown into the garbage.

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INSIDE JOB (2010) (****)

Charles Ferguson, a former senior fellow at The Brookings Institute, turned to documentary filmmaking with NO END IN SIGHT, one of the premiere films chronicling the terrible beginnings of the Iraq War. The same extensively researched and clearly executed approach he brought to that Oscar nominated film he brings to this Oscar winning film. Upon accepting his Oscar, he commented that it’s was wrong that no financial exec has gone to prison for the fraud that led to the economic meltdown and it’s hard to disagree with him after watching the film.

Ferguson begins with a prologue to the greater financial crisis by looking at Iceland. Since 2000, the nation’s government has deregulated, which has led to multinational corporations moving in for the country’s resources and the privatization of its three largest banks. It’s a microcosm of what extensive deregulation can do. Bank execs borrowed billions and started paying salaries and bonuses that mirrored Wall Street. Stock and house prices skyrocketed. But it was all built on a house of cards. In five years, the banks had borrowed 10 times Iceland’s economy. Meanwhile, rating agencies were rating Iceland AAA. When the banks went bust in 2008, unemployment tripled and many lost their savings.

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THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU (2011) (***1/2)

Fate or chance, which rules our lives? Is there a higher power that is guiding our path or is everything just a series of random choices that lead us through our lives. Is it a combination of the two? The big moments are charted out, while we have the illusion of free will in the smaller choices. Is there some cosmic force that would stop us if we wandered off the path? These are some of the questions presented in this romantic fantasy thriller.

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THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU (2011) (***1/2)

Fate or chance, which rules our lives? Is there a higher power that is guiding our path or is everything just a series of random choices that lead us through our lives. Is it a combination of the two? The big moments are charted out, while we have the illusion of free will in the smaller choices. Is there some cosmic force that would stop us if we wandered off the path? These are some of the questions presented in this romantic fantasy thriller.

David Norris (Matt Damon, GREEN ZONE) was the youngest man ever elected to the House of Representatives. He's a heavy favorite for the senate, but an immature prank tanks his campaign. In the hotel bathroom, working on his concession speech, he meets dancer Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt, THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA), who is hiding out from security because she crashed a wedding at the hotel. They have an instant connection. He gets her number. They share a passionate kiss. But the men in hats are going to intervene.

Comedy Blogs

RANGO (2011) (***)

I've been mulling over what to say about Gore Verbinski's first foray into feature animation. Like it's main character it has so many dual identities. Its photoreal animation is a truly original, while its script seems cobbled together from dozens of at right angle sources. The film has adult ideas that few American animated films ever have, but it seems lost at what audience it's really targeting. It's a Western. It's a comedy. It's an existential examination.

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RANGO (2011) (***)

I've been mulling over what to say about Gore Verbinski's first foray into feature animation. Like it's main character it has so many dual identities. Its photoreal animation is a truly original, while its script seems cobbled together from dozens of at right angle sources. The film has adult ideas that few American animated films ever have, but it seems lost at what audience it's really targeting. It's a Western. It's a comedy. It's an existential examination.

A chameleon with no name, who sounds like Johnny Depp doing Don Knotts, is trying to find his muse in a Beckett-esque performance for himself in his terrarium. Then he hits a bump along the road, literally. His tank is thrust out of the back of his owner's car along a desert highway. A squished mystic armadillo called Roadkill (Alfred Molina, SPIDER-MAN 2) tells him to go out into the desert and that everyone needs to cross the road at some point.

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Blu-ray: 127 HOURS (2010)

Simply gorgeous. The MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfer is flawless. Shot digitally on multiple platforms, the detail is remarkable, which is so compelling in the scenes where James Franco's Aron Ralston is trapped in the canyon. The lines on his face, stubble and fabrics of his hat and shirt are impeccably nuanced. The color palette is rich from the deep red of Ralston's blood or the reddish-orange rock walls or the turquoise skies of Utah. Contrast is spot on and the blacks are inky.

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Blu-ray: 127 HOURS (2010)

Read my review of 127 HOURS

Simply gorgeous. The MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfer is flawless. Shot digitally on multiple platforms, the detail is remarkable, which is so compelling in the scenes where James Franco's Aron Ralston is trapped in the canyon. The lines on his face, stubble and fabrics of his hat and shirt are impeccably nuanced. The color palette is rich from the deep red of Ralston's blood or the reddish-orange rock walls or the turquoise skies of Utah. Contrast is spot on and the blacks are inky.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track matches the quality of the picture. This is a film where the sound is nuanced, but it's handled extremely well. The rear speakers are used to create subtle atmosphere and wrap the viewer in the wonderful score and music. The LFE track rumbles when Ralston first crashes to the bottom of the canyon. The sound effects combined with the scoring are profoundly handled during the scene where Ralston cuts his arm off. Breaking bones and snapping nerves are what make the audience cringe more than the bloody visuals.

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Winners of the 5th Annual RFP Overlooked Awards

The purpose of this article each year to recognize some of the best films and performances that were missed at the big awards. This year's crop of films is an eclectic mix of indies, foreign language films and documentaries. Many of these film flew under the radar and truly deserve reaching a wider audience.

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Winner: CATFISH
Whether Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman's film isn't as non-fiction as some might like, is actually pointless to the final project. The story of the film follows photographer Nev Schulman as he develops an online relationship with Angelia Wesselman and her family. But things aren't as they seem. Whether the filmmakers knew what was up earlier than they let on is really pointless, because they saw a story and made it happen. The film on an emotional level deals with our online lives better than THE SOCIAL NETWORK. Social media has allowed us to be online stars in the comfort of our homes. Many times the anonymity allows us to be more like ourselves even when we're not being like ourselves at all. It's a remarkable and compelling film that says a lot about our modern cyber world.

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Blu-ray: BAMBI (1942)

One of Walt Disney’s masterpieces has arrived on Blu-ray in a gorgeous MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfer. The restoration has removed all damage that may have plagued the nearly 70 year old film. The picture literally looks like you are watching the planes moving past you in the multiplane camera. The various planes have never had such delineation in a home entertainment release. These restorations elicit a lot of debate on whether they look too good, because when the cels were filmed originally, the artists knew how they would look when put to film and compensated for that and made cheats knowing it. This particular presentation finds a nice balance between its film origins and high-def digital presentations of the source artwork. The only complaint I have is that black level seemed off at times. Otherwise, the picture is nearly flawless. The beautiful forest paintings pop with vibrant greens and browns. There isn’t a hint of any digital distortion or compression anywhere.

Blogs

Blu-ray: BAMBI (1942)

Read my review of BAMBI

One of Walt Disney’s masterpieces has arrived on Blu-ray in a gorgeous MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfer. The restoration has removed all damage that may have plagued the nearly 70 year old film. The picture literally looks like you are watching the planes moving past you in the multiplane camera. The various planes have never had such delineation in a home entertainment release. These restorations elicit a lot of debate on whether they look too good, because when the cels were filmed originally, the artists knew how they would look when put to film and compensated for that and made cheats knowing it. This particular presentation finds a nice balance between its film origins and high-def digital presentations of the source artwork. The only complaint I have is that black level seemed off at times. Otherwise, the picture is nearly flawless. The beautiful forest paintings pop with vibrant greens and browns. There isn’t a hint of any digital distortion or compression anywhere.

Blogs

Blu-ray: GET LOW (2010)

Read my review of GET LOW

Sony's MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfer of Aaron Schneider's folksy tale is about as good as it gets. The detail that is brought out in the picture, while retaining a film look is impressive. From the lines on faces to the depth of the woods everything pops in the crystal clear way that makes own sense depth in the frame. The range of color is captured naturally fitting the film's rustic tone. Blacks are inky and the few flashes of color really look brilliant.

The DTS-HD MA 5.1 lossless soundtrack is solid as well. The only real issue is sometimes the clarity of the dialogue is too quiet or bassy. But it was very fleeting. The balance between the music, sound effects and dialogue is nicely done. The film relies on its front speakers mainly, but outdoor scenes with the sounds of the woods and gunshots whizzing from front to back or left to right utilize the soundscape to create ambience.

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GET LOW (2010) (***)

Every neighborhood has their own hermitic legend. As a kid we had Pappy Kratzer. Kids told tales of him firing shotguns off to scare away anyone who got too close to his house. He'd sit on his porch and ridicule kids as they went by about how things were different in his day. But I never knew Mr. Kratzer. Not even his first name. I wish I would have. I'm sure he had a story to tell.

The same can be said of the protagonist in Aaron Schneider's nostalgic drama. Felix Bush (Robert Duvall, THE ROAD) sports a long straggly gray beard and tattered clothes. He lives in a small cabin in the woods, where kids dare each other to pass the sign warning people not to come onto his land. He rarely comes into town and when he does it becomes all the chatter. The rumors say he killed a man once.

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Blu-ray: KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (1952)

Read my review of KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL

This public domain title arrives in an AVC encoded 1080p edition from Film Chest. It was sourced from a good 35mm print. The restoration process has left the image clean of dirt and damage, while retaining a fairly consistent sharp picture. The black levels are like ink and contrast is balanced well.

The sound comes in Dolby 5.1 and 2.0 options. The non-lossless 5.1 track is not immersive, because the original sound design was in mono. The 2.0 soundtrack is much closer to the original. That said, the dialogue heavy film has all its elements balanced cleanly. The track source is pretty much free of pops or damage and the hiss is not overbearing. The only real noticeable problem would be the highs and lows don't have the perfect range.

Blogs

KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (1952) (***1/2)

Phil Karlson made B-movies from the 1940s through the 1970s. He's probably best known for the Elvis Presley flick KID GALAHAD and 1973's original WALKING TALL. His 1955 THE PHENIX CITY STORY was like many moralizing message movies of the era, but distinguished itself with its unflinching realistic violence. KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL, a wronged man tale, is credited as inspiring RESERVOIR DOGS.

Joe Rolfe (John Payne, MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET) was studying to be an engineer when a gambling debt got him a stint in the pen. Now he's driving a flower delivery truck to get his life on track. In a streak of bad luck, he gets set up as a patsy in a bank robbery. Without a job and 20 years hanging over his head, he sets out to locate the thieves and get his share anyway.

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Blu-ray: THE STRANGER (1946)

Read my review of THE STRANGER

Film Chest has taken this Orson Welles public domain title and brought it to Blu-ray from a 35mm print. The result is mixed, but not bad. The restoration of the image is well done, ridding the image from virtually all damage and decay. However, the process has left the picture soft or washed out at times. Bright sunny outdoor scenes suffer the most. The high contrast suits the shadowy scenes best. Black are as dark as Welles' Nazi-in-hiding character. Details in close-ups during these dark scenes actually show remarkable detail.

There are two soundtracks — Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0. The 5.1 track simply relegates Bronislaw Kaper's score to the back speakers. The 2.0 track represents the original sound design better anyway. Without access to source material, the print used is not the best one could hope for. Pops, cracks and synch issues plague the entire film. Additionally, the high and low range seems compressed.

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