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Recent Reviews

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice : 2 (out of 10)

Summary: it's terrible. Don't see it.

It's almost hard to believe that Batman v Superman is so bad a movie as it turned out to be. Sure, the trailers were bad, the early reports were awful, and the reviews have been apocalyptic; but the cast was strong, the budget was more than adequate, and Zack Snyder has proven capable of at least basic mediocrity in the past. Unfortunately, Snyder managed to make his worst film yet.

The plot fits into three major stories: a Superman movie involving Lex Luthor and a personal crisis of faith based on how the world perceives him; a Batman origin movie asking how far he will go to protect his world when the rules change; and a superhero-vs-monster summer blockbuster tent-pole. None of these plots were unworkable, but none were given a chance to breathe; rather, these plots were tossed into a blender, parts scooped out more-or-less randomly, and placed into sequential order, plus or minus a few dream sequences. What comes out is tonally, thematically, and (oddly) visually inconsistent and jittery. It just plain doesn't fit together; the stories undermine each other, the protagonists never have a chance to do anything but react, and we're never given a chance to even think about what's going on.

The actors are mostly acceptable. Ben Affleck plays an okay Batman and a pretty-good Bruce Wayne; Henry Cavill is still a perfectly acceptable Superman; Gal Gadot is given little enough characterization to make her kick-ass moments, well, kick ass; Amy Adams may have had her character become a victim, but she at least tries to make something of her role; and Jesse Eisenberg, well, his Lex Luthor is a frigging embarrassment, but that's mostly the writing's fault, at least he tried. As for the secondary cast, well, they don't get enough screen time to be relevant, so it's best not to worry much about poor Laurence Fishburne or Holly Hunter.

The visuals were in large part based on The Dark Knight Returns, which is iconic for a reason; and much of the time they were at least workable, if not inspired. There was one Batman fight scene that reminded me of the Arkham Asylum series of video games, which was worth something; and the otherworldly movements of Superman were eerie and messianic in an impressive way. But the fight scenes were pretty much terrible, in the same way as in Man of Steel, where the only real way that we can keep track of who's winning a fight is with hit point bars.

Some good points: well, they showed the Captain America trailer before the movie, does that count? I liked Alfred. Oh, and LEGO Batman looks cool.

Some bad points:

  • The timeline didn't work, in a rather lazy fashion. We had things like there being time for a congressional hearing before Superman was able to return from an African nation, or weeks of Superman "lost in the wilderness" while nothing else happens at all. I don't like it when things go too fast and too slow.

  • The "Superman as Jesus vs Devil" thing was clearly the focus of a lot of discussion, but Snyder failed to actually come to any conclusions about it except that it made for the occasional interesting visual. Take a side, man!

  • There's a part in the movie where we watch Youtube videos introducing other DC Universe superheroes. They were vaguely interesting, but were handled terribly. I think that they would have made a good DVD special feature; instead, they were tossed into an already-too-long film, breaking what flow we had finally managed to put together.

Some more bad points: there was a lot of casual cruelty for a movie marketed at children. Snyder managed to make Batman into both a passive puppet and a cruel torturer and murderer. Holly Hunter made up the entirety of Congress. Neil Degrasse Tyson put his face in this movie on purpose. Nobody knows how to flee from an apocalypse. After spending the whole movie complaining about the property damage done to Metropolis in the first movie, we end up doing more property damage in this movie.

breathe

Snyder killed a major Superman character in the first 10 minutes of the movie just to show off how "gritty" he could be. Batman is a terrible detective. The Daily Planet gets its news from CNN. The government just gives Lex Luthor the body of General Zod from the first movie; and Kryptonian security is a joke. They didn't even bother to explain why Lex Luthor is insane.

breathe again

There were ~6 endings and ~3 beginnings. Too many dream sequences. Lex's plot was about 3x more complicated than necessary. That network tap. Why didn't Wonder Woman get to do more? And...

Okay, I should stop.

Rating: 2/10 (* 1/2 out of 4); I think I've managed to avoid seeing any worse superhero movies to date, and hopefully this will help remind me in the future.

Posted Wed 30 Mar 2016 10:05:37 PM CDT

Lucy: 3 out of 10

The trailer for Lucy that came out a few months ago was fun, at least the first time I saw it. The action looked sharp and stylish, the story seemed cheerfully bare-bones and perfunctory, and Luc Besson's direction and Scarlett Johansson's acting are generally joys to watch. The main downside was the focus on the "humans use only 10% of the human brain" myth, which grated like nails on a chalkboard; but I could still get behind it, if only that part was only being played up in the trailers.

Sadly, the trailer was not exaggerating. The movie really, truly commits to the 10% thing, and extrapolates it all the way up to transcendence and transubstantiation. And this plot contrivance undermines the story, with the story undermining the plot as well. All we're left with is some occasional nice action scenes and some good acting by Scarlet Johansson.

The general plot of the movie: Lucy (Johansson) is turned into an unwitting drug mule for an experimental drug. When the bag of drugs is broken while still inside of her, she gets super powers and starts to transcend. While mourning the loss of her humanity, she then tries to get more of the drug so that she can further transcend. Also, there are bad guys that are generally good at blowing things up that act as mere annoyances to Lucy. Lucy succeeds at transcending. Cue 2001 space baby.

To me, that sounds like a perfectly reasonable plot to an animated movie with about ten lines of subtitled dialogue. There's no real need to explain what's going on here, and any explanation will by necessity cut into the trippiness of the high concept by forcing us to answer questions that we shouldn't have needed to articulate in the first place.

Unfortunately, Besson wanted to focus on that explanation. As such, he cast Morgan Freeman as a professor that specializes in human brain studies (psychologist? Biologist? I don't think we were told), and Freeman proceeds to explain Besson's thesis in detail. Humanity only uses 10-15% of its brain; dolphins use 20%, and that's how they can do echo-location; if we used more than that, we would be able to control our own bodies, the bodies of others, matter, energy, etc, each associated with a specific 5% mark. This all gets tied into evolution and immortal cells and information transfer and other pseudo-science.

By casting Freeman, Besson was forced to use him. And so we end up with the major sub-plot of the film, which involves Lucy coming to Paris to see him for, err, some reason. This ties into a bunch of other silly premises involving the other drug mules, the remarkably-determined bad guys, and something involving Lucy's need for exactly four bags of the drug (no more, no less), coincidentally the number of bags already shown on screen!

This sub-plot serves to undermine the otherwise-straightforward story. Conversely, the story undermines the sub-plot, which probably could have worked out if it wasn't in the service of a trippy action movie.

How about the action? At least some of the individual scenes were pretty and well-directed in isolation, including Lucy's break-out from captivity, the car-chase scene, and the start of the Bad Guy's final assault; but only the first of those scenes really fit into the story, and only the last one fit into the plot. (The car chase scene could have been excised from the movie without effecting either one, but it was at least striking!). But most of the action was fairly forgettable, especially compared to the trippy scenes happening around the action.

All in all, this whole movie felt half-formed and unfocused. I wish that Besson had committed to one type of movie or another, so that we might have ended up with something more interesting than a stylized mess.

Rating: 3 (out of 10)

By the way:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ten_percent_of_brain_myth

Trailer Thoughts:

The next few months do not look good. The "highlight" trailer was for 50 Shades of Grey, which just looked terrible in all ways. Other listed movies included November Man, a spy thriller with a former James Bond protecting a former Bond Girl in a small black dress; Dracula Untold, a faux-deconstruction of the Dracula origin myth starring Bard the Bowman; The Judge, attempted Oscar-bait where Iron Man the Evil Defense Attorney must protect his estranged father (Robert Duval) from charges of vehicular murder; and No Good Deed, an Idris Elba home invasion movie that sets off my 'racist' alarm something fierce.

On the other hand, I do want to see Interstellar, because you probably can't go too wrong with Christopher Nolan doing sci-fi; the hated trailer-for-going-the-movies was for Guardians of the Galaxy, which looks like it's going to be lots of fun; and Kingsman: the Secret Service looks like it may understand the style-above-substance problem better than Lucy, at least. So the trailers weren't a complete loss (though I think it's safe to say that eight trailers is too many).

Posted Sun 27 Jul 2014 08:52:11 AM CDT

300: Rise of an Empire: 4 out of 10

This just isn't as compelling as the source material.

It is generally silly to dwell on a-historical depictions of history and historical characters in Hollywood films, especially one adapting an unreleased graphic novel. But 300: Rise of an Empire is a special case, dealing as it does with events and characters described by Herodotus, the Greek 'Father of History'. Where the original 300 took a single event from his Histories - the Battle of Thermopylae - and adapted it into a recognizable and broad-strokes-accurate story, this sequel chooses to adapt the Persian Wars as a whole. And just as in the original 300, there is a lot to admire when the "true" history of Herodotus shines through. Unfortunately, this sequel falls short both in accuracy and artistic value, usually at the expense of the narrative.

Let's start with the opening voice-over, where Lena Headey, as Queen Gorgo of the Spartans, prophesies that Athens will only be saved by wooden ships. This actually refers to a prophecy of the Oracle at Delphi, which foretold that Athens would be saved by its "wooden walls". The people of Athens originally interpreted this literally, and wanted to expand their walls to defend against the upcoming attack; but Themistocles, an Athenian politician and general, encouraged his people to interpret the prophecy as a metaphor for the Athenian fleet.

The movie's presentation of this prophecy may have the virtue of being short and sweet, but it kills the story-telling potential of introducing Themistocles - who turns out to be the protagonist of the story. We don't hear about his vision for the Athenian navy, or how he had convinced the Athenians to build their ships over the last decade. Instead, we are told that he was the Tortured Hero of Marathon ten years before, when he shot King Darius of Persia (note: this didn't happen). Rather than being shown a compelling and flawed Athenian historical figure, Themistocles is turned into a brooding and lifeless Action Hero fighting for democracy and justice.

Artemisia fares better than Themistocles, but only because her character was so ahistorical as to make the whole exercise of comparing to history worthless. The historical Artemisia was the Queen of Caria, a Greek colony that was under the control of the Persian empire. She was in fact a naval commander under Xerxes, notable because of her gender (women really didn't exist in these circles in the 5th century BC) and because she did stand out at the naval battle at Salamis. Conversely, Artemisia-the-movie-character (Eva Green) was quite effective in her role - colorful, bigger than life, and above all memorable - but she wasn't actually shown as particularly competent in her role as naval commander. Indeed, the only skills that she showed were a) cutting and stabbing anybody around her and b) hating Greeks (and, well, everybody else).

The battles themselves - well, at least most of the battles depicted actually did occur. The depiction of Greek naval warfare was fairly accurate: triremes would ram and sink each other, and if that failed the ships would simply be platforms for hand-to-hand combat. Some of the tactics in the battle of Artemeisium were even fairly accurate. But the battle of Salamis was shown as a typical Hollywood battle - the plucky good guys up against unstoppable odds, holding out bravely against the final onslaught, until unexpected reinforcements arrive to turn the battle in their favor. This is especially frustrating when the actual point of the battle was that strategic and tactical planning can turn the tide against superior numbers - the point, in fact, of the original 300!

And the Spartans - well, let's just say that their depiction in the original 300 was more complete than this.

For all of that, 300 2 (302?) still delivers on what was expected: stylized action and gore, excellent storyboards and well-done cinematography, a scenery-chewing actor (well, actress - Eva Green did by far the best job in this movie), and a strong dose of shallow jingoism. Within its own requirements, it's not a terrible movie. I'm just not sure that I can recommend seeing it.

Rating: 4 (out of 10)

A few other points:

  • There was a lot of flesh on display, as was probably the point of this exercise. The Athenians were fairly interchangeable as Big Buff Guys With Beards, and oh there sure were a lot of them! As for the female characters, only one that I can recall - Lena Headey - was not topless at some point during the movie. I'm not sure if this is all overall a plus or a minus, but it seems worthy of note.

  • What was the 'rising empire' in the title, anyway? Persia? They only showed it clashing. Athens? Historically that may be reasonable, but no focus was offered here. Greece as a whole? Maybe that's what they were aiming at, but, again, they missed.

  • I find it frustrating when movies claim to be adaptations of other media, and that other media doesn't even exist yet. I find it especially frustrating in this case, because I'd like to see this art! Frank Miller is an exceptional artist, even if his work has become especially crazy-in-a-bad-way over the last few years; and given that the true draw of this movie and the original 300 was the beauty of the comic book art used as story boards, it's a shame to not have that comic book art to which to compare.

Trailer Thoughts:

This movie definitely announced the beginning of the Summer Movie Season with its premiere trailers for Transformers 4 (5/10 - meh, I'll see the movie but the trailer wasn't great) and Godzilla (9/10 - now, that is a trailer). Interestingly, much of the focus was on horror movies - Oculus (6/10 - effective, but far from my style), Deliver Us From Evil (3/10 - drek, with an evil Angry Bird) - which seemed an odd choice for connecting to a standard action movie, but I guess that they don't have that many chances to advertise in front of R-rated movies nowadays.

The weirdest trailer was the red band trailer for Arnold Schwarzanegger's Sabotage, which focused on the joy of being a red-band trailer rather than being an actual preview for the movie. There were breasts, several exploding heads, and an absurd amount of cursing for a 90 second trailer, and there was no emphasis on story, characters, or plot. Meh. (4/10)

Finally, there was a trailer for X-Men: Days of Future Past. I don't think this trailer is standing up to repeat viewing that well, but I'm still excited to see the movie, so I guess it's working okay. (6/10)

Posted Sun 09 Mar 2014 09:45:55 AM CDT

Ender's Game: 5 out of 10

The commercials for Ender's Game did not impress me. The advertising campaign focused on two things: on the propaganda surrounding the Formic War, and the movie's final battle. This focus on space combat was visually impressive, but were almost besides the point of the source material; and given that there were plenty of visually impressive pieces of the source material that could have adequately represented the source material, my expectation was that the film makers had completely missed the point.

Luckily, the commercials for Ender's Game do not reflect the movie. In fact, the movie is a fairly faithful retelling of the book, and many of its faults lie in that accuracy.

Both the movie and the book focus on Ender Wiggin, a child expressly born and bred to be a child officer in fleet defending Earth. The story focuses on Ender fighting his way through the ranks of an orbital Battle School, the distrust of his peers, and the adult's attempts to control. This isn't necessarily heady or subtle stuff, but it turns out to be a bit too complex for a 90 minute movie. Most movies would address this problem by leaving out less-important parts of the story; Ender's Game addresses the problem by just giving most of these parts of the story short-shrift.

One simple example: a good portion of the book is spent focusing on Ender's older siblings Valentine and Peter. The movie has precisely one short scene with Peter. While this isn't necessarily a huge loss, this did take time that could have been better spent on establishing other characters.

Another, and more pressing, example: the most striking part of the book was the concept of the Battle Room - an open, zero-gravity arena in which the children battle in army formations to conquer their opponent's gate. The battles themselves have been fascinating to imagine and to mentally extend for decades, and the slogan "The Enemy's Gate Is Down" sticks with me to this day. And I was not disappointed when the movie introduced the Battle Room or showed us the first battle; but, sadly, the movie didn't give the Battle Room the time it deserved. Instead we only got three Battle Room battles, each inexpertly combining together several scenes from the book. I could have watched a whole movie of nothing but the Battle Room (Hunger Games 4, perhaps? Or how about a video game?), but instead we were merely tempted.

Thus disappointed, I spent much of the movie focusing on what the movie could have been if time had been available to really focus on the parts that needed focus. I eventually decided that an 8-to-10 part HBO-style mini-series could have done the movie justice; the book was just episodic enough to support the material with appropriate A-and-B plots, some of which would involve and justify both Peter and Valentine.

Still, there was much to praise. The child actors were really quite good, to the extent that I was willing to forgive that they were all ~4 years older than the original novel called for. (Well, except for Peter.) The diversity of the cast was striking. The special effects were effective. The thematic material was stronger than I expected, even if it was hurt by the necessary elisions. And the final space battle was impressive, to the extent that I was not upset that so much time had been spent on it. And the anti-war and anti-bullying messages still came through, though not with the same poignancy as the original book.

To summarize: Ender's Game is not a bad movie, but it is not as good as it could have been, or perhaps should have been.

Rating: 5 (out of 10)

Trailer thoughts:

Overall, the trailers were quite unfocused, seemingly indicating that the movie studios didn't quite know what to make of this movie. It was especially striking that there were no trailers for sci-fi movies.

  1. Vampire Academy: not only does the movie look terrible, but the trailer was inconsistent and useless. I know I'm not the target audience for these kinds of things, but still, this is an embarrassment. I'm sure it will make plenty of money. 2/10

  2. Mr Peabody & Sherman: I am also not the target audience of this kind of kid's movie, but this at least looked watchable. The trailer did a fair job of explaining the story (as such) and sampling the jokes, though not perhaps explaining why we need a full 75 minutes of this kind of nostalgia. I rather expect to like the Rocky & Bullwinkle short more. 4/10

  3. Anchorman 2: the trailer itself wasn't particularly well put together, sadly; it worked on the "string a bunch of jokes together" principle. Luckily, the jokes looked pretty good, especially the ones with Steve Carell. I'll probably see this. 6/10

  4. 47 Ronin: this movie would look a whole lot less embarrassing if Keanu Reeves was not involved. It's still visually impressive and does a good job of being a self-contained story; but I also come out of seeing this every time feeling like the trailer is actively trying to deceive me about its movie's contents. 4/10

  5. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: this trailer doesn't really have a lot of work to do; its target audience is going to see the movie regardless. As such, this just focuses on vignettes and visuals, rather than being a stand-alone work on its own (like, say the first trailer from the first Hobbit movie, with its focus on the Dwarven song). 6/10

  6. I, Frankenstein: the movie looks horrible and fun to watch, and there's a pretty good chance that the trailer is going to be more fun than the movie itself. Over-the-top gothic fantasy horror may well be a hoot; if I see this movie, it'll almost certainly be because of the implied craziness of trailers like this. 7/10

Posted Wed 06 Nov 2013 06:18:27 PM CST

Riddick: 6 out of 10

I barely remember Pitch Black or The Chronicles of Riddick, but those few remaining memories are fairly fond ones. Both movies were entertaining and better than expected, the first one in the sci-fi-horror genre and the second sci-fi-epic; and I heard fairly positive things about the video game Escape from Butcher Bay as well. But that said, I didn't have any particular intention to go see the new movie, Riddick, until well after the (mixed) reviews started coming in. And I'm happy I went, because this is a solid, medium-budget action-sci-fi movie.

The film generally has three parts. The first part shows the titular Riddick struggling to survive on a hostile planet upon which he has been left for dead; this is a mostly-silent affair, with regular threats and montages and the occasional cute puppy. This was the most "sci-fi" and "acting" part of the movie, and was rather understated and interesting. It could have gotten boring, but it didn't outstay its welcome.

The second part of the film brings down the rest of the cast, two crews of bounty hunters that have come to kill Riddick, but turn out to be stalked and taunted by Riddick instead. This is familiar ground for many an action movie, and it was fairly well implemented. The characters were distinct and (mostly) plausible, the dialogue was simple but generally amusing, and the knowledge that this was only part of the movie gave it an interesting focus, since we didn't have to see every character die.

The third part has everybody that's still alive struggling to survive as the planet's ecosystem turns on them - basically, Pitch Black again. This was perfectly serviceable sci-fi-horror, and I have fairly little to say about it. It fits in well with the other parts, and it again ends before we have the time to get bored with it. That's all I could hope for.

My biggest gripe had to do with how Katee Sackhoff (Starbuck) was handled. While it was refreshing to have a woman (lesbian!) sniper bad-ass in amongst the standard mercenary-bad-ass crews, the writers still used the excuse to treat her as a sexual object, and only occasionally to good effect. Sure, it was nice to see her turn the tables (read: punch) on those trying to harass her the first couple of times; but did we really have to see a rape attempt get so far?

(For that matter, did we really need to have the rape attempt at all? If the goal was to show us how despicable the attempted-rapist was, we had already had this shown to us earlier in the film, and we were shown this again just a few minutes later; did we really need a full three this-character-has-to-die crimes? Sheesh.

I'll admit, I was less bothered by Riddick himself treating her as a sexual object. Not only did the banter make some sense in context, but he didn't actually "turn her straight", even though that's what the banter was about, and I saw no particular impression that he wanted to. I'm chalking this up to the fact that Riddick is meant to be an ass, more Conan than John Carter of Mars. Anyway, digression over.)

In short, this was a perfectly solid sci-fi-horror movie. The plot was simple and nothing special, the special effects were perfectly adequate, the characters were fine, the connection to the franchise was virtually non-existent, and the aliens were striking enough. I'll probably see the next sequel if/when it ever comes.

Rating: 6 (out of 10)

Trailer thoughts: the trailers before the main movie clearly understood that this was a sci-fi action adventure, but were otherwise nothing horribly memorable. There were two stand-out trailers:

  1. Next year's Robocop remake. This was a stylish trailer, showing the new look and design while contrasting it directly with the original; and it had Samuel L Jackson talking, which is a plus. But it was also a "give us the whole plot" trailer. Still, it wasn't so bad as these things go, and it did the job of making me at least somewhat interested in a year's worth of marketing. 6/10 for the trailer.

  2. Gravity. I was decidedly unimpressed with the teaser trailer for this movie, but this was much better, even though this full-length trailer is essentially just a longer version of that teaser from the other character's POV (Sandra Bullock instead of George Clooney). I think that the difference was that they had a chance to acknowledge my concerns before: yes, of course they don't stand a chance. I now intend to see this movie. 7/10.

Posted Sun 08 Sep 2013 11:16:06 AM CDT