Rick's Flicks Picks on AWN

Blogs HAWAIIAN VACATION (2011) (***)

TOY STORY's story is not over. Pixar has decided to extend the franchise in a series of shorts, this one being the first. Woody and the gang are preparing for some R&R as their new owner Bonnie is headed off on a Hawaiian family vacation over the winter break. Stowed away in the little girl's backpack are Ken and Barbie, who are extremely disappointed when they discover they're at Bonnie's house and not a luau on the beach. So in order to rescue the couple's first vacation together, the rest of the toys team up to bring paradise to a preschooler's bedroom.

Blogs DIARY OF THE WIMPY KID: RODRICK RULES (2011) (***)

Jeff Kinney, the author of the books that make up these films, prides himself in making the books lesson free. That doesn’t work very well in feature films. At least not emotionally satisfying ones. The first film found a way to take Kinney’s comic vignettes and made a pretty compelling coming of age story that dealt with the pressures of going to middle school and being loyal to a friend. This film also finds a compelling premise to build its story around. The unique relationship of brothers.

Blogs Blu-ray: DIARY OF THE WIMPY KID: RODRICK RULES (2011)

This family comedy comes to Blu-ray in a MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfer. The true to source transfer retains the film grain, which does dampen some of the crispness and detail of the picture. The color is pretty natural and consistent throughout. Black levels are solid. I only noticed in one scene in Greg’s bedroom where the skin tones seems a tad too yellow. Digital anomalies like banding, aliasing or artifacting are not a problem.

Blogs GREEN LANTERN (2011) (***)

This is a movie for fans of Green Lantern… for better or worse. It's loaded with Green Lantern Corps mythos. It's loaded with the many characters of the world. To clarify I'm not the greatly Green Lantern fan, but my knowledge of the world has been informed by the DC Direct animated films GREEN LANTERN: FIRST FLIGHT and GREEN LANTERN: EMERALD KNIGHTS. In context, my suspension of disbelief seems to be higher than many who have been trashing the film, because I knew what to expect and knew how it could have gone far worse.

Blogs Blu-ray: AMERICAN: THE BILL HICKS STORY (2011)

For fans of the cult comic Bill Hicks, this disc is a goldmine. Presented in MPEG-4 AVC 1080i, this documentary looks as sharp as one could hope for. For its photo animated sequences, the filmmakers used vibrant colors and they pop in this Blu-ray. Black levels are mixed, but that is certainly due to the varying sources of the photos and video footage comes from. The few talking head interviews toward the end are crystal clear with skin tones perfect. I didn’t notice any digital anomalies at all.

Blogs SUPER 8 (2011) (***1/2)

J.J. Abrams sets out to make an ode to the 1970s-80s films of Stephen Spielberg. He does so without making overt references to the creator of E.T. and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, but captures the feel and style. With its young protagonists, patient pacing in developing its characters and the crafty camera work, the film is like discovering a missing Spielberg production that somehow got lost in 1984 and is now being released with "special edition" visual effects.

Blogs AMERICAN: THE BILL HICKS STORY (2011) (***1/2)

I became a fan of comedian Bill Hicks when I caught one of his old HBO specials on late at night. I wondered why I hadn’t heard of this angry hilarious and provocative performer before, so I went to the Internet and looked him up. Turns out he has a highly influential comedian of the early ‘90s who on the cusp of breaking into the big time in the U.S. died at the age of 32. Now British filmmakers Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas have brought his story to film in this innovative documentary that combines archive footage and animation to bring Hicks’ story to life.

Blogs GREEN LANTERN: EMERALD KNIGHTS (2011) (***)

Working as a companion to the live-action feature GREEN LANTERN, this animated anthology feature focuses its stories on the lesser known Green Lantern Corps members. One overarching tale links the five vignettes, which are origin stories of sorts for five characters. It’s like a primer for the Green Lantern world.

Blogs Blu-ray: GREEN LANTERN: EMERALD KNIGHTS (2011)

This 1080p/AVC-encoded disc is a handsome effort by Warner Premiere. One problem plagues the release though and that is color banding. Sadly the issue doesn’t just appear in backgrounds and lighting. Some can be seen on characters as well. But as is the case with these DC Direct titles, the colors are spectacularly vibrant. The balance is perfect and the blacks are inky. Outside of the banding, the Blu-ray doesn’t display any other digital anomalies.

Blogs X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (2011) (***1/2)

Class is the key word in the title of this film. The series is back in the same class as the first two. The inherent issue with bringing the X-Men to the screen is the amount of characters. This film simplifies what has been addressed in the previous films by putting Professor X and Magneto at the forefront.

Blogs KUNG FU PANDA 2 (2011) (***)

This follow-up does what all follow-ups should do and that is to extend the story instead of simply trying to replicate it. In the original, Po the Panda, the greatest kung fu fanboy of all time, was astonishingly chosen as the legendary dragon warrior, the hero destined to save kung fu. In this chapter, with him finding his kung fu groove, he must save kung fu from a new weapon and its wielder, a vindictive peacock determined to take over China. Po must find inner peace to overcome this awesome threat.

Blogs THE TREE OF LIFE (2011) (****)

Terrence Malick’s THE TREE OF LIFE filled me with joy. It’s an affirmation of life and a reminder that film is still an artform. When so many films today seem to be done by people who do not even understand the basics of the filmic language, here is a film that reminds us how elegant and transformative it can be when spoken so fluently. Malick communicates so much in a single image where some films would only dare to convey something so deep in their entirety. Malick isn’t shy to take on the big issues and here he takes on the biggest issue of all – life. And I’m talking about life on a cosmic level.

Blogs PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES (2011) (***)

Following the bloated first two sequels in the PIRATES franchise, the fourth installment puts the ship back on course. The story rightfully puts Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow at the helm. The story throws many of the unneeded characters overboard and adds the right new shipmates to the crew. Penelope Cruz is the first mate the series needed for sure.

Blogs Blu-ray: THE ILLUSIONIST (2010)

Sony isn't new to conjuring up magical transfers to Blu-ray and THE ILLUSIONIST is no exception. This 1080p presentation exquisitely captures Sylvain Chomet's moody animated ode to French comedian extraordinare Jacques Tati. The flawless visual dimension of this title gives the animation added depth and nuance. For instance, the fog and smoke effects come off natural, not smudges moving across the screen. The digital color palette, while muted, is crisp and clean. One can see the lines of the original hand-drawn artwork clearly. I found no digital anomalies at all in the release. It's pretty much perfect.

Blogs THOR (2011) (***)

Thor always seemed like he should be a DC comics character instead of a Marvel character. Now only the true geek might understand what I mean. DC characters, outside of Batman, were all all-powerful god-like heroes. Marvel’s characters were more human and thus flawed. With hammer in hand, Thor is virtually unstoppable. The battles of gods are less compelling than the struggles of humans. So I was delighted that Kenneth Branagh’s feature adaptation of the character brings humanity to both the drama of the gods and humans.

Blogs HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN (2011) (*1/2)

Jason Eisener won Robert Rodriguez’s SXSW Grindhouse trailer contest for his fake trailer HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN, which was featured in Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s GRINDHOUSE. Unlike that film and Rodriguez’s fake trailer turned feature film MACHETE, this film is simply an exploitation flick. The film has little purpose other than being violent and bloody.

Blogs WATER FOR ELEPHANTS (2011) (***1/2)

Director Francis Lawrence (I AM LEGEND) and writer Richard LaGravenese (THE FISHER KING) do a rare cinematic achievement when having a book as the source material — they make the story better. They made all the right choices in what to cut, keep and change. The changes make the film more dramatic, but not in a maudlin way. Everything that happens is more immediate. The Depression-era setting only reminds us of the melodramas of that age, which this film fits in with surprisingly well.

Blogs RIO (2011) (***)

The latest animated feature from Blue Sky Studios is like a Disney film circa OLIVER AND COMPANY. It's safe entertainment that skews for the younger crowd. And there isn't anything wrong with making a film for a specific audience. I certainly don't miss the crass pandering to the older viewers. It's replaced with the joy of love and song.

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

There are a bunch of movies that this thriller brings to mind. It's like THE PROFESSIONAL crossed with the BOURNE series and a touch of KICK-ASS. The first and last of those films because of the young female protagonist and the middle one for its reality grounded action. But then you get a dose of fairy tale woven in as well.

Blogs Blu-ray: BLACK SWAN (2010)

Fox's AVC-encoded transfer of Darren Aronofsky's dark ballet thriller is true to its source. Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique used a combination of 16mm film and digital cameras. For a relatively low-budget production, the smaller cameras were easier to move around and give the filmmakers a documentary feel. The 1080p Blu-ray is mixed bag of scenes with heavy grain and sharper digital imagery. So the noise to be found in the darker scenes, could be from the digital source. Despite these issues, the presentation provides nice detail in the brighter scenes. Note Nina's pink bedroom. That serves as a good transition into the transfers best quality. While the palette is mostly white, black and gray, those tones are represented in perfect contrast and inky black levels. As for any digital anomolies, I found none.

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.

Blogs 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.

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.

Blogs 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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