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Rick's Flicks Picks on AWN

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I AM NUMBER FOUR (2011) (**)

So if you're one of nine superpowered aliens from a destroyed world hiding out on Earth when the creatures that wiped out your kind are in hot pursuit, what do you do? If you're John Smith in this film, you stop to develop a roll of film with your Earthling girlfriend. You really can't make this stuff up.

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I AM NUMBER FOUR (2011) (**)

So if you're one of nine superpowered aliens from a destroyed world hiding out on Earth when the creatures that wiped out your kind are in hot pursuit, what do you do? If you're John Smith in this film, you stop to develop a roll of film with your Earthling girlfriend. You really can't make this stuff up.

John Smith is played by the up-and-coming hunk Alex Pettyfer (BEASTLY). He is an alien hiding out on Earth with his guardian Henri (Timothy Olyphant, TV's JUSTIFIED), who poses as his father. The evil Mogadorians are hunting the nine superpowered aliens in numerical order. The numbering system is never explained. Number 3 has just been killed and John is Number 4.

After an exposure in their last home, John and Henri move to Paradise, Ohio, which John says should be renamed Ironic. I was surprised to learn that these characters know what irony is. Enrolling himself in high school, John quickly falls for the fledgling photographer Sarah (Dianna Agron, TV's GLEE). This angers her ex-boyfriend and school quarterback Mark (Jake Abel, THE LOVELY BONES). John also finds himself in between Mark and his whipping post Sam (Callan McAuliffe, FLIPPED), an outcast UFO buff.

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THE LEARNING TREE (1969) (****)

By Rick DeMott | Thursday, February 17, 2011 at 12:26pm

Selected for the National Film Registry in 1989, this drama marked the film time an American-American was hired to direct a major studio production. Renaissance man Gordon Parks helmed the film, based on his screenplay adapted from his novel. It's harder to think of another film under such a singular authorship. The result is a complex coming-of-age tale that defies expectations and resonates with emotional truth.

The story throws us into a tornado. Black teenager Newt Winger (Kyle Johnson, PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW) is lost in the storm. He ends up half delirious in a shack where the prostitute Big Mabel (Carol Lamond, BLACK GIRL) "pops his cherry." In talking with his friends about it later, he doesn't seem to have wanted anything to do with it. He's a sensitive young man who develops a crush on the new girl in town Arcella Jefferson (Mira Waters, THE GREATEST). His family works for the town judge Cavanaugh (Russell Thorson, HANG 'EM HIGH), whose progressive attitudes have rubbed off on his son Chauncey (Zooey Hall, I DISMEMBER MAMA)... somewhat. The young man likes ruffling feathers more than righting social wrongs.

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Blu-ray: UNSTOPPABLE (2010)

By Rick DeMott | Wednesday, February 16, 2011 at 4:34pm

This is one first rate Blu-ray. The MPEG-4 AVC 1080p picture captures Tony Scott's unique visual style wonderfully. The deeply saturated colors just pop. The red of the runaway train. The blue of the "good" locomotive. The yellow of Will's jacket. The inky blacks that dominated the highly contrasted image. Details are rich in closeups where pores stand out to wide shots where the fall foliage is defined even when the camera is racing by. Grain levels are not consistent, but I chalked that up to the varying cameras used. To find anything like aliasing or shaky edge definition, one has to be looking for it.

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Blu-ray: UNSTOPPABLE (2010)

By Rick DeMott | Wednesday, February 16, 2011 at 4:30pm

Read my review of UNSTOPPABLE

This is one first rate Blu-ray. The MPEG-4 AVC 1080p picture captures Tony Scott's unique visual style wonderfully. The deeply saturated colors just pop. The red of the runaway train. The blue of the "good" locomotive. The yellow of Will's jacket. The inky blacks that dominated the highly contrasted image. Details are rich in closeups where pores stand out to wide shots where the fall foliage is defined even when the camera is racing by. Grain levels are not consistent, but I chalked that up to the varying cameras used. To find anything like aliasing or shaky edge definition, one has to be looking for it.

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THE STRANGER (1946) (***1/2)

Following five years after his groundbreaking CITIZEN KANE, this thriller was Orson Welles only theatrical hit. He was inspired to make the film after seeing documentary footage of the liberation of the concentration camps. He believed reforms in post-War Germany were pointless, because the “putrefaction of the soul” that was Nazi ideology was just waiting to fuel another fire.

In the film, Welles plays Nazi-in-hiding Franz Kindler. The young architect of genocide has become a professor in America under the name of Prof. Charles Rankin. His cover is perfect; he’s about to marry Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young, THE BISHOP’S WIFE), the daughter of Judge Adam Longstreet (Philip Merivale, NOTHING BUT TROUBLE). But he’s about to fall into a trap set by Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson, DOUBLE INDEMNITY), an officer of the United Nations War Crimes Commission. He has let free Kindler’s confident Konrad Meinike (Konstantin Shayne, VERTIGO), who leads him right to Kindler.

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UNSTOPPABLE (2010) (***1/2)

The best compliment I can pay Tony Scott's film is that it's SPEED on a train. Once the runaway train starts rolling the suspense just keeps climbing to the very end. This is one of Scott's best films for its craftsmanship alone.

Trainer conductor Dewey (Ethan Suplee, MALLRATS) leaves his train thinking the breaks are on, but he was wrong. His expression as the train starts down the track without him tells it all. The nearly half mile long train is in full throttle racing away at over 70 miles per hour headed toward heavily populated areas. Its cargo is highly toxic.

Meanwhile, Frank (Denzel Washington, TRAINING DAY), a veteran engineer, is going about his day, breaking in a rookie conductor named Will (Chris Pine, STAR TREK). After a stop, Frank notices that Will miscounted the number of cars, so they're carrying extra weight. This becomes more than a minor goof when they discover they're on a head on collision course with the runaway.

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Blu-ray: THELMA & LOUISE (1991)

Read my review of THELMA & LOUISE

MGM's 20th anniversary release of THELMA & LOUISE is simply gorgeous looking. Part of what makes Ridley Scott's outlaw classic so good is the rustic painterly cinematography. The deep color palette is captured wonderfully. I so clearly remember watching the film back in the day on VHS and thinking, "this film is too dark and murky looking." Even compared to the DVD, the picture quality is a big step up. Now we get to see in our homes what the filmmakers intended. The picture is rich with texture, balance and detail, while retaining its film quality. I'm not a die-hard "film" purist, but if all films shot on film where like this one I'd say digital has a long way to go. When it comes to digital compression problems, you have to be looking for them.

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THELMA & LOUISE (1991) (****)

Twenty years after its release Ridley Scott's female crime tale has become a part of the pop culture. But upon its release some critics called it as morally bankrupt as Hollywood can get. The film was attacked for being too violent and man bashing. And yet the film emerged as a strong statement on female empowerment.

Thelma (Gina Davis, THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST) is an Arkansas housewife and her best friend Louise (Susan Sarandon, DEAD MAN WALKING) is a waitress. They have planned a weekend getaway to the mountains. Louise is trying to put some distance between her and her boyfriend Jimmy (Michael Madsen, KILL BILL) for a bit. Thelma doesn't even ask her husband Darryl (Christopher McDonald, QUIZ SHOW), because she knows the controlling jerk won't let her go anyway.

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LET ME IN (2010) (***1/2)

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, on which this film is based, is one of the best vampire films ever made. Rarely do English language remakes live up to the original. CLOVERFIELD director Matt Reeves doesn't match the 2008 Swedish original film, but pays it do respect. The film has been Americanized for better and for worse. That said, outside of doing a shot for shot redux in English, I don't see how it could have been done any better than this.

Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee, THE ROAD) is a tween who is bullied at school by Kenny (Dylan Minette, TV's SAVING GRACE). Owen fantasies about getting even, but doesn't have the courage to fight back. On the jungle gym at his apartment complex one night, he meets the new girl, Abby (Chloe Moretz, KICK-ASS), who tells him straight out that she cannot be his friend. Over time though, she opens up to him and takes a great liking to the strange girl who doesn't wear shoes in the snow.

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SANCTUM (2011) (**)

We are told right from the start that this is inspired by a true story. But we quickly discover that it's not inspired by true characters. It's not surprising that a survival film like this would be populated with stock characters, but there is nothing surprising about anything that happens with them. The filmmakers wanted to make an underwater cave story and that is the only part he gets right.

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SANCTUM (2011) (**)

We are told right from the start that this is inspired by a true story. But we quickly discover that it's not inspired by true characters. It's not surprising that a survival film like this would be populated with stock characters, but there is nothing surprising about anything that happens with them. The filmmakers wanted to make an underwater cave story and that is the only part he gets right.

Frank McGuire (Richard Roxburgh, MOULIN ROUGE!) is the best cave explorer in the world. He's a cold, no-nonsense taskmaster. His son Josh (Rhys Wakefield, TV's HOME AND AWAY) hates him for it and slacks off on his responsibilities at the latest expedition into a massive cave system that stretches miles into the Earth. The billionaire funder/adventurer Carl Hurley (Ioan Gruffudd, FANTASTIC FOUR) arrives to check out the latest discoveries. He has brought his new girlfriend Victoria (Alice Parkinson, X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE), who he met on a climb of Everest. While down in the cave, a freak storm hits and quickly begins to flood the caverns. The crew must follow the water down and hopefully discover its exit to the sea in order to survive.

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SOLITARY MAN (2010) (***1/2)

By Rick DeMott | Wednesday, February 2, 2011 at 11:23am

Michael Douglas has made a career of playing morally reprehensible men. In 2010, he played two. Here and in the WALL STREET sequel, he plays a powerful man who has fallen from great heights and is trying to claw his way back to the top. The main difference is that Ben Kalmen is no Gordon Gekko. Kalmen is his own worst enemy.

Kalmen owned one of the most successful car dealerships in the North East. In his ads, he billed himself as the honest dealer. Turns out he was a crook. Now clear of his legal problems, he is trying to rebuild his reputation. He's finding it impossible to gain another franchise license, because the car manufacturers don't want to be in business with someone who screwed them royally in public.

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Blu-ray: NEVER LET ME GO (2010)

Director Mark Romanek's haunting aesthetic and Adam Kimmel's gorgeous cinematography is masterfully brought to Blu-ray. The muted color palette is brought forth in a crisp image that finds a right balance between film grain and bold detail. The greens of the Hailsham Boarding School yard are deep, while keeping inline with natural look of the entire film. There is some noise in low-lit scenes, notably an early one where Carey Mulligan stands in an observation room at a hospital, but these moments are fleeting.

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RESTREPO (2010) (***1/2)

There have been many documentary films made about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. None of them put the viewer into the war from such a first-hand perspective as this one. American journalist Sebastian Junger and British photojournalist Tim Hetherington embedded themselves with the Second Platoon, B Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team for an entire 15-month deployment. They went on missions with the soldiers in the Korengal valley, which was called the deadliest place on Earth.

The film's title comes from PFC Juan S. Restrepo, a Colombian-born naturalized American soldier who was killed early in the deployment. One of the goals of the deployment was to build an advanced outpost, which the soldiers named OP Restrepo. For a year and a quarter, these soldiers are under fire on a daily basis. They're official mission is to clear the area of insurgents and build relationships with the locals. But it's clear that the individual soldiers have a different mission — do their job and get out alive.

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DOGTOOTH (2010) (***1/2)

This Oscar-nominated foreign language film from Greece is a tale of home schooling to the extreme. I felt like I was watching a Todd Solondz film crossed with Lars von Trier. I'm surprised that the Academy recognized something so odd and uncompromising. When it's all said and done, you know one thing for sure — you've never seen anything quite like it before.

With the existential touch, none of the central family is given names. A father (Christos Stergioglou, HARD GOODBYES: MY FATHER) and mother (Michele Valley, ALEXANDRIA) live in complete isolation from the outside world with their three grown children. The father leaves their house, which is cordoned off by a tall wall, in his car to go to work at his manufacturing business each day. He brings home a female security guard named Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou) to fulfill the sexual needs of his son (Hristos Passalis, BLACK FIELD). The systematic way they go about it is like he's doing a chore. I guess that's why he has the most stickers on his headboard, rewards from father for a job well done. The older sister (Aggeliki Papoulia, ALEXANDRIA) is the most rebellious of the three and is violently reprimanded for it. The younger sister (Mary Tsoni, EVIL) follows her older siblings lead and comes up with new games for passing the time, like putting their fingers under the hot tap and the last one to pull away wins.

Blogs

Blu-ray: NEVER LET ME GO (2010)

Read my review of NEVER LET ME GO.

Director Mark Romanek's haunting aesthetic and Adam Kimmel's gorgeous cinematography is masterfully brought to Blu-ray. The muted color palette is brought forth in a crisp image that finds a right balance between film grain and bold detail. The greens of the Hailsham Boarding School yard are deep, while keeping inline with natural look of the entire film. There is some noise in low-lit scenes, notably an early one where Carey Mulligan stands in an observation room at a hospital, but these moments are fleeting.

The 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is respectful for the quiet film. Good for a dialogue oriented production, the voices are clear throughout. Volume of the dialogue, music and sound effects is mixed well. The soundscape however relies on the front speaker predominantly.

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NOWHERE BOY (2010) (***1/2)

Director Sam Taylor-Wood isn’t afraid to tackle an iconic tale for her first feature film. Working from Matt Greenhalgh’s adaptation of Julia Baird’s memoir, the film tells the originals of The Beatles. For many fans it would sacrilegious to mess up this story. Taylor-Wood takes a classical straight-forward biopic approach, which benefits from a great cast, which includes a standout performance from KICK-ASS’ Aaron Johnson as John Lennon.

Baird was John’s sister, so the story is told from his point of view. As a young boy he went to live with his aunt and uncle. Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas, THE ENGLISH PATIENT) was the straight-upper-lipped task master, while his uncle George (David Threlfall, HOT FUZZ) was a jokester and a drinker. When his beloved uncle died, John was heartbroken and sought out his mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff, THE MAGDALENE SISTERS), who had remarried and had two daughters.

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Blu-ray: SECRETARIAT (2010)

Disney's transfer of their latest inspirational sports movie isn't an inspiration, but nowhere near a loser either. The 1080p Blu-ray has a running issue with softness and noise. In darker lit scenes, the picture ranges from muddy to fuzzy. These same scenes don't have the same lush color palette as the rest of the disc. But like its namesake, the disc excels where it needs to -- the race scenes are gorgeous. Details are crisp and the colors are luscious. Even the lower grade cameras used for the horse mounted shots look great.

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SECRETARIAT (2010) (***)

It's hard to not think of the Oscar-nominated SEABISCUIT when thinking about this film. The comparison doesn't help this film about the 1970s Triple Crown winner. It has less ambition than the film about the Depression era underdog. But it does fit nicely into the canon of Disney's inspirational sports films.

Blogs

Blu-ray: SECRETARIAT (2010)

Read my review of SECRETARIAT.

Disney's transfer of their latest inspirational sports movie isn't an inspiration, but nowhere near a loser either. The 1080p Blu-ray has a running issue with softness and noise. In darker lit scenes, the picture ranges from muddy to fuzzy. These same scenes don't have the same lush color palette as the rest of the disc. But like its namesake, the disc excels where it needs to -- the race scenes are gorgeous. Details are crisp and the colors are luscious. Even the lower grade cameras used for the horse mounted shots look great.

The disc really makes good its potential with its DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. The sounds of the horses racing washes over the soundscape and puts the viewer in the race. The LFE track is used so effectively in this instance to create a real sense of the power of these animals. Likewise, ambiance is nicely done in crowd scenes, putting us in the middle of the enthusiastic fans. Directionality is quite immersive. Voices and sound effects come from the speakers as if we are sitting in the camera's seat.

Blogs

SECRETARIAT (2010) (***)

It's hard to not think of the Oscar-nominated SEABISCUIT when thinking about this film. The comparison doesn't help this film about the 1970s Triple Crown winner. It has less ambition than the film about the Depression era underdog. But it does fit nicely into the canon of Disney's inspirational sports films.

Penny Chenery (Diane Lane, THE PERFECT STORM) was a housewife before inheriting the  horse farm of her father Chris (Scott Glenn, THE RIGHT STUFF). She was determined to honor her dad's legacy by racing their latest filly to the Triple Crown. Going against the wishes of her husband Jack Tweedy (Dylan Walsh, TV's NIP/TUCK) and brother Hollis (Dylan Baker, HAPPINESS), she risked everything on Secretariat, a horse that critics didn't think had the stamina to win the longer races.

Blogs

VENGEANCE (2010) (***1/2)

I'm new to the work of Johnnie To, the prolific Chinese action director, who made ELECTION, EXILED and RUNNING OUT OF TIME. This film played at Cannes when Quentin Tarantino was on the jury. He's of course a huge fan. It's a conventional thriller that does things in unconventional ways. We've seen lots of films where father goes out to avenge an attack on his daughter, but not like this one.

Johnny Hallyday, known as the French Elvis who starred as an aging hitman in Patrice Leconte's wonderful MAN ON A TRAIN, is Costello, the avenging father, who travels from France to China after his daughter Irene (Sylvie Testud, LA VIE EN ROSE) was mortally wounded and her husband and sons killed by gunmen that stormed their home. Serendipitously, he stumbles upon hired killers Kwai (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, INFERNAL AFFAIRS), Chu (Ka Tung Lam, ELECTION) and Fat Lok (Suet Lam, KUNG FU HUSTLE) and enlists them to hunt down those responsible. All signs point to crime boss George Fung (Simon Yam, IP MAN). Unfortunately, Fung is the trio of killers' sometime boss and Costello is losing his memory.

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Blu-ray: ANIMAL KINGDOM (2010)

Read my review of ANIMAL KINGDOM.

This Australian crime drama gets a wonderful true-to-the-source transfer to 1080p. The gritty 35mm look is presented with film grain in tact, but not so much that the image loses detail. The color palette is subdued, which is fitting for the dark underworld tale. The colors are natural, which helps sell the believability of the world. Blacks are especially given deep character on the screen. There were some fleeting moments of film scratches but that was all I saw.

The DTS-HD MA 5.1 lossless soundtrack is used as best as it can for the limited soundscape. The dialog heavy film features clear voices. For music and sound effects, the soundscape is weighted toward the front. The only stand out is the LFE track during some key violent moments where shotgun blast boom, making an impression on the viewer.

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