How to Podcast: “Battleship” vs “The Dictator”

I’m a regularly contributor on, joining in on a weekly movie review podcast. It’s a perfect way for me to keep my hand in it and I love talking with Picktainment’s top honcho, Phil Wallace, along with other movie aficionados. Here’s my conversation about the big, dumb fun action flick Battleship and The Dictator, Sacha Baron Cohen’s take on a scripted comedy; it doesn’t really work for me.

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How to Watch: “Dark Shadows”

Step 1: Watch too many plot plots. You know you’re in for some kind of visual treat when you see a Tim Burton/Johnny Depp collaboration, and Dark Shadows doesn’t disappoint. Yet, it is hindered by an abundance of storylines and a lack of cohesiveness.

Step 2: Listen to a Barnabas’ tale. Based on the TV series, which aired from 1966 to 1971, Dark Shadows follows the screwed-up lives of the Collins family. Once a thriving fishery empire in Collinsport, Maine, the family is now — in 1972 — nearly in ruin, put there by a rival company owned by the conniving witch Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green). You see, Angelique cursed the Collins family two centuries ago when her love for young heir Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) was rejected, turning Barnabas into a vampire, killing his fiancée and locking him in a coffin, seemingly forever. Not so. Barnabas is unexpectedly freed and returns to his ancestral home to restore his family to its previous glory. But a few things stand in his way: the customs of 1972, some members of his extended family and Angelique, of course.

Step 3: Meet the Collins family. There’s actually a lot more that goes on in Dark Shadows, which ultimately becomes its downfall. As uber-fans of the original TV series, its clear Depp and Burton did not want to leave anything out. In the series, a governess named Victoria Winters comes to the Collins’ mansion and is soon drawn into the family’s dysfunctional behavior. In the film, Victoria (Bella Heathcote) is the reincarnation of Barnabas’ former one true love, so naturally the vampire is smitten once again. There’s also matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer), teenage rebel Carolyn (Chloe Grace Mertz), family psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) and others.

Step 4: Watch Depp do it… again. Most of the performances are spot-on, especially Depp, who once again wears a wacky wig and sells the hell out of the thing. The actor is extremely charismatic as Barnabas and delivers all the best lines, particularly when he is being the fish out of water. If anyone else played the part, Dark Shadows would have truly sucked. Get it? Like a vampire? I digress. Heathcote has those giant, soulful eyes Burton loves in his young ingénues, while the stunning Pfeiffer portrays the stiff Elizabeth with an innate coolness. Bonham Carter plays Dr. Hoffman as a lush desperate to stay young, and Mertz is great as the petulant teen. Only Green, best known as James Bond’s love in Casino Royale, comes off too much as Angelique, lacking in any real chemistry with Depp’s Barnabas.

Step 5: Cut it. The gothic setting also fits right into Burton’s sensibilities, and the director paints another wonderfully weird and otherworldly milieu, with rocky coastlines, overcast skies and overgrown vegetation. The Collins’ home is the best part, full of cobwebby nooks and crannies, giant misplaced wooden statues, secret passageways and the like. If you are a fan of Burton’s films, you should feel right at home. No, the real fault lies in the script, which may have read well on paper – and pleased its rabid Dark Shadow followers — but it seriously needed major cuts in the editing room. As a Depp/Burton collaboration, it ranks kind of low.

How to Podcast: All Hail “The Avengers”

Us Picktainment podcasters talk about how we marveled over The Avengers.

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How to Watch: “Bernie”

Step 1: Gain a perspective. Director Richard Linklater paints a wonderfully vivid depiction of what happens when good is pushed just a little too hard by evil.

Step 2: Live in Texas. Set in a small town in the Lone Star State, the film is based on a true story and told to the audience by the townsfolk who witnessed the events. They describe the relationship that springs up between Bernie (Jack Black), the town’s assistant funeral director who is adored by all, and Margery (Shirley MacLaine), a cantankerous widow pretty much despised by all. Bernie sees Margery as a challenge and begins to visit her regularly after her husband dies, showing her a kindness she’s never had.

Step 3: Remember all you need is friends. The two become good friends, and are soon traveling the world on Margery’s dime. Mean old Margery, however, sees Bernie as a companion she can manipulate and demand attention from, knowing he’d never buck her so long as she was fitting the bill. But even a man as nice and goodhearted as Bernie has a breaking point – and Margery finally crosses that line one last time. Oh, what happened next was rich!

Step 4: Realize Jack Black CAN act. His turn as the kindhearted mortician in Bernie could be his best performance since School of Rock, which, coincidentally, was also helmed by Linklater. Hmmm. It would seem the two bring out the best in each other, and in Bernie’s case, both Linklater and Black show a nuanced skill never seen before in their work. Black infuses the character with some of his usual patter, including belting out gospel songs (that you probably won’t find on his next Tenacious D album), but the comedic actor also stretches himself, never playing Bernie over the top. It is an impressive effort from the guy who hasn’t had much luck in films the past few years (Gulliver’s Travels?) – if you don’t count voicing an overweight panda with mad Kung Fu skills.

Step 5: Find out that the townspeople sell it. MacLaine is wonderful, too, a part she surely can do in her sleep. Difficult women come easy to her, for some reason. I just wish we could have seen more of her in Bernie before her ultimate demise. Matthew McConaughey, a good old Texas boy himself, plays no-nonsense DA Danny Buck Davidson who ignores the pleas from the townsfolk that Bernie is innocent of murdering Margery and brings the man to justice. And the best part of the dark comedy IS the townspeople telling the story. They are a combination of real denizens from the town and actors, but you really can’t tell the difference. In fact, one of the town gossips in the film is McConaughey’s mom (now try and figure out which one she is).

Step 6: Dysfunction is good. Linklater is the final piece in this delightfully dysfunctional puzzle. Also hailing from the Lone Star state, the Dazed and Confused director puts you right there in Carthage, Texas. There isn’t one moment in which you are taken out of the milieu and placed on a Hollywood set; Bernie feels authentic. The talented Linklater allows these characters to be drawn out, Texas-style, as we continually grow more and more fascinated by the turn of events. You’ll definitely root for Bernie, just like all those people who loved him — and the movie. It’s truly a gem.

How to Podcast: A Reunion with the “American Pie” Gang

I talked with the Picktainment fellows about the fourth installment in the American Pie series. Even though I was never an avid fan, I felt a sort of comfort and familiarity revisiting the Pie characters 10 years later.

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How to Podcast: “Mirror Mirror” and “Wrath of Titans”

I have lukewarm feelings about Mirror Mirror (Julia Roberts tries too hard) and was disappointed with Wrath of the Titans (tried to be just like the first one).

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How to Podcast: Let the “Hunger Games” Begin

It was loads of fun participating in the conversation with bonafide Hunger Games experts co-hosts Adam Spunberg and Savanna New about this excellent adaptation. Let’s just say, I’m now a big fan.

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How to Podcast: LOL with “21 Jump Street”

Not only is Channing Tatum unbelievably hot but he is also freakin’ hilarious in  21 Jump Street — or so that’s what I told the Picktainment folk.

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How to Podcast: Slammin’ “John Carter”

I joined the Picktainment conversation about how John Carter ambitiously missed the mark.

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How to Watch: “The Lorax”

Step 1: Don’t cut down any trees or The Lorax is going to have to come down and kick your ass! Or maybe I should say butt, since this is a family movie.

Step 2: Keep it simple. Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax is really a simple message about industrialism and the environment, all tied up in a colorful Dr. Seuss bow. The story centers on 12-year-old Ted (Zac Efron), who lives in a town called Thneedville where there are no trees and people have to buy fresh air in giant containers (from the town’s short greedy millionaire). It’s a happy place, full of plastic things, but all Ted cares about is winning the heart of his next-door-neighbor Audrey (Taylor Swift) – and when he finds out she wants a real Truffula Tree, he decides he’s going to get her one.

Step 3: Get a Truffula Tree. But where does one acquire such a thing? Ted’s Grammy (Betty White) tells him he has to go outside the confines of the town and find the Once-ler (Ed Helms) and he’ll show Ted how to get a tree. Once outside in the grim, polluted wasteland, Ted does indeed find this mysterious character, who tells Ted he was the one responsible for the lack of foliage. The Once-ler then launches into his tale of ambition and greed at the expense of the environment – and how an odd creature named The Lorax (Danny DeVito) tried to stop him. Now, The Once-ler is just waiting for the right person to help him redeem himself.

Step 4: Say it right. The vocal talent fit their characters succinctly, with no one actor outshining the rest. Helms perfects the optimistic doofus role once again, while DeVito plays the acerbic, grumpy yet ultimately wise The Lorax with aplomb. Efron has the right mix of innocence and determination as Ted; Swift doesn’t have to say too much – and of course, White has some of the better lines. What in the world did we do before Betty White resurfaced as the funniest 90-year-old woman on the planet?

Step 5: Long live Dr. Seuss! Although the 1971 The Lorax wasn’t one of the Dr. Seuss books I grew up with, they are all still very familiar in look, feel and content. This film pays homage to that – and in CGI 3D, no less. It’s bright, colorful, strange and wondrous, and any small child should be thrilled to be immersed in the surroundings. My only complaint about The Lorax would be as an adult. I’ve gotten used to animated films appealing to an older audience with clever pop culture references and hilarious, over-the-heads-of-the-small-ones-sitting-next-to-you dialogue. Not a whole lot of that in The Lorax, but that’s OK. There’s still that great message about going green, which, in my opinion, never grow