Category Archives: Reviews

How to Watch: “2012”

2012-2Step 1: Throw in bits and pieces from all other disaster movies, up the global destruction ante, turn on the waterworks (literally and figuratively) and you’ve got 2012.

Step 2: Revel in the preposterous-ness of the plot. I’ve never had a problem suspending my disbelief when it comes to a disaster movie. I mean, I even clenched my teeth when they had to outrun freezing ice in Day After Tomorrow, for chrissakes. So, in that regard, 2012 is yet another popcorn-fueled implausible thrill ride. There’s some mumbo jumbo science reason on why the earth falls apart Dec. 21, 2012 – something about solar flares, the earth’s core heating up like a microwave and the earth’s crust displacing itself – and then there’s the mythical hoopla that the Mayans predicted this would happen (which I have to admit does scare me a little). In any event, a disaster movie has to have its main characters you hope make it through the mayhem. This time it’s Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), a struggling novelist; his ex-wife Kate (Amanda Peet); their two kids; a geologist (Chiwetel Ejiofor); the U.S president (Danny Glover); his art historian daughter (Thandie Newton) and more. Sadly, not all of them make it, but the ones who do, well, think of Noah’s Ark in terms of their survival. If they could just cut out the sappy, I’ve-always-loved-you, Dad moments, it would have worked just fine.

Step 3: Revel in the disastrous-ness. Seriously, with 2012, master disaster filmmaker Roland Emmerich has paid homage to almost every calamitous film ever made — from The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake, Airport, Deep Impact, to Emmerich’s previous global warming disaster flick Day After Tomorrow. Of course, the destruction level in 2012 is turned up to, like, 11 – and dammit, if L.A. doesn’t once again get pummeled. It must just be fun to destroy the place where movies are made, especially by Emmerich, who has had it blown up by aliens, ripped apart by tornadoes and now, of course, split it into pieces by The Big One, with those pieces then falling into the ocean (you’ve all seen the posters, so you know). Washington D.C. gets it again, too, as well as Las Vegas, Rio de Janeiro, Honolulu, Yellowstone National Park, the Vatican and the Himalayas. New York is spared this time, at least onscreen.

2012_movie_still_john_cusackStep 4: Wonder why John Cusack would revel in any of it. It’s not that he’s copping out or anything by starring in 2012. On the contrary, he’s one of the few characters who doesn’t kneel knee-deep in the schmaltz and rarely elicits an eye roll. Same goes for Woody Harrelson, as a pickle-lovin’ pirate radio host, who has been preaching the government conspiracy to cover up this impending calamity. But knowing how Cusack picks thought-provoking films for the most part, a disaster flick seems like an odd choice – unless he read something more in the script than what ended up onscreen. Frankly, his participation was one of the things that intrigued me about 2012 – that and the mass destruction, of course. Maybe Cusack has a thing for disaster films, too, and if that’s so, I tip my hat to you, sir.

Level of difficulty in watching 2012: Pretty seat-grabbingly easy. Plot, schmlot, if the end of the world happens like this, let’s hope Roland Emmerich can film it.

How to Watch: “The Men Who Stare at Goats”

clooney-staring-at-goatsStep 1: Take a wonderfully farcical premise based on fact and turn it into a mostly entertaining, sometimes sluggish film about Men playing preposterous war games – with their minds.

Step 2: Stare at a goat really hard to see if you can make it fall down dead. That’s just one of things Lyn Cassady (George Clooney) was trained to do when he joined the New Earth Army back in the day, a top-secret, experimental military unit in which soldiers became “Warrior Monks” and were taught to use psychic powers for warfare. But since the dismantling of the unit, the soldiers have scattered to the winds, including the New Earth Army’s founder Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) and of course, Cassady. That is, until a reporter named Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), looking for a big story, meets Cassady in the Middle East and finds out about this unique military operation. He then accompanies Cassady on a mind-boggling new mission to search for the missing Django.  As wacky as it all sounds, it’s the real truth behind it that is hard to believe.

Step 3: If you can’t bring the goat down yourself, get George Clooney do it. The guy has been on an amazing roll lately. He voices the wily Mr. Fox in the upcoming stop-motion animated Fantastic Mr. Fox, stars in the Oscar baiter Up in the Air – and has a crazy old time in The Men Who Stare at men-who-stare-at-goats-spGoats, teaming up with his old friend and producing partner Grant Heslov, who makes this his directorial debut. It just seems like the actor is having the time of his life as Cassady, like when he makes clouds disperse, or when he does indeed stare at a goat. Bridges is also in fine form as the former war hero who goes all New Age-y and decides to apply some of his feel-good ideologies to military training, while Kevin Spacey plays Larry Hooper, the antithesis to Bridges’ Django, a trained Warrior Monk who takes his skills and uses them for more nefarious purposes. Only McGregor falters a bit, stuck playing the reactor, but he does have some hilarious moments with Clooney.

Step 4: Remember that the goat thing is actually true. Yep, Goats is inspired by  journalist Jon Ronso’s bestselling book about a real, U.S. government-funded military operation – the First Earth Battalion – which developed methods of combat by only using the mind. Stranger things have happened in the name of progress, I suppose, but what a great premise for a movie. Problem is, while being hysterical through the first half, Goats loses its ironic edge towards the end, dragging it down a bit. One wonders what the Coen brothers, Clooney’s other best friends, would have done with it.

Level of difficulty in watching The Men Who Stare at Goats: Relatively easy. The title is just awesome enough; I’m seriously thinking about visiting a petting zoo soon …

How to Watch: “A Christmas Carol”

a_christmas_carol_jim_carrey_scrooge_first_lookStep 1: Hold onto your mug of warm apple cider. This newest, action-packed version of A Christmas Carol could get a little bumpy.

Step 2: Imagine Ebenezer Scrooge as a reluctant action hero. Charles Dickens might be turning over in his grave, but director Robert Zemeckis sure thinks old Scrooge (Jim Carrey) can take a licking and keep on ticking. The classic story remains the same, with the miserly man being taught a lesson or two from the pesky Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come. But in this high-tech, RealD 3D adaptation, his adventures turn into a thrill ride. In all the many action sequences, Scrooge gets bounced around like a rag doll; I mean, that old coot is TOUGH. Of course, all of this should appeal to the young video-gaming age, who, I guess, needs this kind of stimulation to make it through what they might otherwise think is another boring old story. But with the very young, they might get scared out of their little wits by some of the scary images being thrown at them in incredibly crisp 3D.

Step 3: Hire Jim Carrey to play the original Grinch. Really, who else could play Scrooge, as well as the three Ghosts, in an animated, motion-captured performance? He is definitely the right choice, with a face he can turn into any kind of caricature that he wants. But with everyone else, I have the same problem with the technology I’ve had since The Polar Express. The other humans – such as Gary Oldman as Bob Cratchit or Colin Firth as Scrooge’s nephew Fred – just look weird and unreal. Like talking mannequins or something. It throws me off, takes me out of the emotions of the story.

Step 4: Tell a tale told (too?) many times before. Even with all its machinations and amazing visuals, ultimately, it’s still Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which has been done and done. The defense for this is that it’s for a new generation of kids who might not know the timeless Christmas story. My question is, do they really care? They might, but if not, at least with this Christmas Carol, there is some exciting action.

Level of difficulty in watching A Christmas Carol: Pretty easy. If you’re under 5, it might be rough, but for everyone else, it’s an enjoyable Christmas-y adrenaline rush.

How to Watch: “This Is It”

[Note to TheMovieKit readers: I am pleased to introduce to you my guest reviewer, Tommy Owen, a radio show producer, DJ and aspiring screenwriter, who has been a Michael Jackson fan since, well, he was born. Since I’m only a casual Michael Jackson fan, I thought his take on This Is It would be more fun to read. Enjoy!]

This Is ItI love Michael Jackson.  I have the records, CDs, books, magazines, the Thriller jacket, the glove, the doll, the glittery socks, and my prized ticket stub from a 1972 Jackson Five concert at the Greensboro Coliseum (given to me by a friend).  The week I was born, “ABC” was number one on the charts, which I’m convinced started my love for MJ.  I say all this to let you know that there is no way I would ever give Michael Jackson’s This Is It no less than the glowing review it deserves.  So I settled into my seat at the Arclight Cinerama Dome in Hollywood to get one last glimpse of my favorite music artist of all time.

STEP 1:  This is for the fans
I’ve been waiting for years to see Michael Jackson back on the big screen.  Sure, I’ve seen The Wiz and his cameo in Men In Black, but I’ve never seen a 20-foot tall Michael Jackson moon walking across the silver screen.  There was once talk of a concert film shot by the guys from NFL Films making its way to theaters, but it never came to be.  It’s a shame it took the death of Michael Jackson to finally see Michael doing his stuff on celluloid.  Right out of the gate, a written message tugs at your heartstrings to let you know This Is It is for the FANS.

STEP 2:  You’ve got to feel for the tour performers and what would have been
After the penned open, the movie starts with Michael’s dancers.  You can hear the excitement in their voices and see tears welling up as those closest to Michael in his final days describe what it’s like to work with their hero.  You can feel the love they have for him.  I imagine it’s the same type of reaction I’d have.  The closest I ever got to Michael was meeting his sister Janet when she visited Rick Dees in the Morning, the morning radio show I produced.  I thought one day I’d get to maybe, just maybe, meet Michael or at least see him in concert.  I always told people if I did go to one of his concerts, I’d be like one of those teenage girls from Beatles and Elvis videos that pass out and get carried off on a stretcher.  Luckily, I made it through This Is It without losing consciousness.

My heart does go out to Michael’s dancers, band and all the behind-the-scenes folks that worked with MJ on what was to be the most amazing concert experience the world would have ever seen.  No disrespect to U2’s 360 tour and the claw, but Michael’s past concerts were event spectacles.  It’s hard to expect that at age 50, MJ could deliver a live show that would even come close to his younger self, but the show that never was at the O2 in London would have hands down been the greatest concert experience of all time.

STEP 3:  Yes, Michael Jackson was ready to reclaim his throne
There has been much speculation as to whether MJ was in the physical shape to pull off 50 demanding concerts.  The King of Pop’s singing, and especially his dancing, was still as sharp as ever.  There are times during rehearsal when Michael holds back, conserving his energy, but Michael at half speed is better than most at a full-out sprint.  When Michael lets it loose, he lets it LOOSE, breaking it down with moves sharper than guys half his age (watch the “drill cadence” circle after “Jam.”)  When Michael’s alone on the stage, his dancers become his audience, cheering him on as they bask in a master class of dance.  Partner Michael’s performance with some pretty amazing synchronized film clips (check out the “Smooth Criminal” section with Rita Hayworth and Humphrey Bogart and the newly filmed “Thriller” clips), aerial dancers, sizzling “fire chase” pyrotechnics, and you have what would have been the greatest show on Earth.

michael-jackson-concert-2STEP 4:  The “Thriller” segment is worth the price of admission alone
My favorite song of all time is “Billie Jean,” but my favorite piece in This Is It is “Thriller.”  New film of dancing zombies was shot for an intended 3D presentation to accompany MJ’s live performance, and it would’ve made original “Thriller” director John Landis proud.  At the outset, there’s a tip of the fedora to Disney’s Haunted Mansion. The new arrangement is particularly inventive, using the first verse of Vincent Price’s “Darkness falls across the land…” rap starting, rather than ending the song, as the camera sweeps into a musky graveyard.   [A small SPOILER alert: Further in MJ’s “Thriller” performance, listen for Vincent Price’s “lost” rap verse.  Vincent Price originally recorded three rap verses, but only two verses were used.  Audiophiles can find the Price/Jackson recording session as a bonus track on the “Thriller” Special Edition CD or on Thriller 25.]  Watching this new take on the most popular video of all time made me feel the way I felt when I first saw the “Thriller” video — goose bumps galore!  Plus, watch out for the black widow spider!

STEP 5:  Michael Jackson was a man on a mission
Michael said his main purpose of performing again was so that his kids could see him on stage.  He was intent on giving his fans something they had never seen before, and it would have been monumental.  If just one of these 50 concerts had happened, Michael would’ve revolutionized concerts like he did for music videos.  Michael has long been the standard, and he had upped the bar with This Is It.  Not only was Michael on a mission to return to the stage, but he was ready to use that platform to promote his message of love, change for the better (“Man in the Mirror”), and protecting the environment (“Earth Song”). When was the last time you saw a bulldozer on stage at a concert?

STEP 6:  This Is It is a peek behind the curtain
In 1993, Janet Jackson presented her brother Michael with a special Grammy Legend Award.  It was the first time in a long time that I had seen Michael let his guard down.  He was personable and funny, joking that he and Janet were indeed two different people.  Shortly after that, the allegations started flying and Michael retreated back into his shell.  This Is It offers a behind-the-scenes look at Michael like we as fans have never seen before.  It is truly a peek at the magic behind the curtain.

At that same Grammy Awards ceremony, Michael said, “It’s good to be thought of as a person and not as a personality.”  A prominent theme of Michael Jackson’s memorial service at the Staples Center was that Michael was a human being.  He was a man.  This Is It further paints Michael as a loving, caring, supremely talented human being.  At work, Michael is both forceful and tender, careful to preface any critiques with love.  For years, all we’ve ever seen are the highly polished performances.  Here we get to see Michael in all his rawness.  Even MJ makes mistakes during rehearsal singing a dropped verse saying, “That’s why we have rehearsal.”

But make no mistake, Michael Jackson is a perfectionist.  His most famous performance was of “Billie Jean” on the Motown 25 special.  Afterward, Michael was disappointed because when he spun around and lifted up onto his tip-toes in his signature move, he felt he didn’t stay up on his toes long enough.  That’s the kind of perfectionist MJ was.  To him, it was an imperfection; to me, that performance changed my life.

In This Is It, Michael Jackson always seems to know exactly what he wants as his crew tries to keep up with him.  “You’ve got to let it simmer!”  He directs his band, dancers, the lighting, special effects, everything.  His timing and instincts as an artist and showman are remarkable.  He’s in full control, backed by the incomparable Kenny Ortega, the choreographer/director/producer who has worked with Michael for years and is more recently known for the popular High School Musical movies.  Their relationship is special and it shows.

michael-jacksonSTEP 7:  You’ll laugh…You’ll cry
With Michael’s passing, this film is no doubt a bittersweet experience for Michael Jackson fans.  I knew going into this movie that I would at the very least tear up at some point.  I was just hoping it wouldn’t turn into uncontrollable sobbing.  I still can’t watch the end of Field of Dreams without the floodgates opening.  As I mentioned before, the written opening of This Is It is poignant, as are the words of Michael’s crew.  Your heart aches for them, and there are several moving moments throughout the movie, but it doesn’t take long for Michael to make you smile.  The first leg kick and body pop, and I was lost inside the magic of Michael Jackson all over again.  At one point, Michael himself smiles at the end of a set, completely satisfied and immersed in his love of performing.  (I did make it through without sobbing, but I’ll admit there was eye dabbing and a lot of tongue biting to stop the water works.)

STEP 8:  Stay until the end of the credits
The end of This Is It is exactly what I expected and I loved it.  Get those STEP 7 tissues ready.  I could hear sniffles throughout the theater, even from the 6’2 250 lb. guy sitting a couple seats down from me.  Also, I like to generally stay through the credits of movies anyway, but make sure you don’t leave if you want just one more glimpse of Michael.

STEP 9:  Thank Sony, Kenny Ortega and AEG for making This possible
To these three, and anyone who had a hand in the making of This Is It, thank you for making this film.  Thank goodness someone had the foresight to have cameras rolling during the preparation for Michael’s big comeback.  To be able to comb through hours and hours of footage and put together a film in such a short amount of time is nothing short of incredible.  (And make sure you see This Is It at a theater with top notch sound.  MJ’s music thumps!)

STEP 10:  Is this it?
Not by a long shot.  Any Elvis or Beatles fan will tell you that.  This Is It is just the tip of the MJ merchandising iceberg.  I’ll be surprised if Ortega and AEG don’t extend the two-week theatrical run.  Anyone who has bought the 2-CD This Is It set will find a promo ad for the DVD and Blu-Ray coming soon and loaded with extras.  Unfortunately, Sony says it won’t be released before Christmas thanks to theater owners, who complained that it’s too soon after the movie’s theatrical premiere.

As someone who has delved into Blu-ray, I would love to see a ton of Michael’s work released in Hi-Def.  There’s Dangerous: The Short Films, The HIStory DVDs, and who wouldn’t love to see Moonwalker, The Making of Thriller, and Captain EO released on Blu-ray?!!  For that matter, I’d love to see old Jackson Five performance footage, the Jacksons TV variety show and the Jackson Five cartoon on Blu-Ray.  One can only hope.

For now, MJ fans can keep themselves entertained for hours with a lot of these clips on You Tube.  My favorite is on the Dangerous: The Short Films DVD.  It’s a Pepsi commercial that never aired in the U.S. of Michael singing “I’ll Be There” with his younger J5 self.  It’s awesome, check it out!

I imagine Sony and AEG won’t have any problem making the $60 million they paid for This Is It.  I’ve already plucked down my cash for two tickets, and I’m already planning to moonwalk back to the box office to see it again.

–reviewed by Tommy Owen

How to Watch: “Cirque du Freak: A Vampire’s Assistant”

cirque_du_freak_vampiresassistant_johncreilly-500x332Step 1: Don’t expect Twilight madness. While Cirque du Freak: A Vampire’s Assistant might hold a certain charm for tween fans, it suffers from too much exposition and not enough freakishly cool vampire action.

Step 2: Try not to cram too much into one movie. Based on the novel series by Darren Shan, Vampire’s Assistant is actually the first three books in the saga. The story follows teenager Darren (Chris Massoglia) and his misadventures with a vampire named Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly), whom he meets at a back alley show called Cirque du Freak. Chris goes there with his best friend Steve (Josh Hutcherson) and is introduced to the show’s master of ceremonies, Mr. Tall (Ken Watanabe), as well as a cast of colorful freaks, including a snake boy (Patrick Fugit), a bearded lady (Salma Hayek) and others. Through certain circumstances, Chris ends up becoming a half-vampire and moving into the Cirque’s campgrounds where he learns that Crepsley and his gentler kind are in an age-old feud with the vampaneze, a more violent offshoot of the bloodsuckers who kill their humans instead of just sipping from them. Think Bill vs. Eric in True Blood. Problem is, Steve is also turned into a vampaneze, thus becoming Chris’ mortal enemy and breaking the tentative truce between the two vampire factions.

Step 3: Forget vampires, let your freak flag wave! It’s clear the main storyline follows the vamps (the title gives it away), with Reilly doing a nice job as the kindly – if somewhat weary – vampire, proving once again he doesn’t always have to play second fiddle to Will Ferrell. The two boys Massoglia and Hutcherson also do their best, especially Hutcherson, who moves on from his good guy roles in Journey to the Center of the Earth and Bridge to Terabithia, to play a troubled youth looking for a little payback. But it’s really the cast of freaks that are the best part of the cirque-du-freak-300x284movie. Fugit (Almost Famous) is hilarious as Evra, the Snake Boy who longs to be a musician; Watanabe’s Mr. Tall, who rules with a fair but iron fist; Hayek’s Madama Truska, who is in love with Crepsley; young Cirque costumer Rebecca, played by Jessica Carlson, who is the Monkey Girl for Chris, plus a lot of other fascinating characters. You just wish you could have found out more about this merry band of dysfunctional performers.

Step 4: Adapting is hard to do. Granted, writer/director Paul Weitz (About a Boy) and co-writer Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential) had their work cut out for them, taking three whole books and turning them into a cohesive two-hour movie. But they fall into that expository trap in which the characters have to stand around explaining everything rather than being able to develop. There is so much story they have to get in there – the kids’ stories, the feuding vampires, the freak show denizens, the megalomaniac mastermind Mr. Tiny who wants to take over the world (yeah, didn’t tell you about him before) – that the movie feels flat. At least Weitz, as director, aptly paints this universe, especially the Cirque camp, but I want to now read the books, just to see what I missed.

Level of difficulty in watching Cirque du Freak: A Vampire’s Assistant: Moderately easy. Since vamp movies are all the rage with tweens, this might have a chance – and if all goes well at the box office, sequels.

How to Scare Me: “Paranormal Activity”

paranormalactivityreview1-thumb-300x447-24799I had a feeling I’d add this to my list the minute I saw it, and yes, I saw it today. Whoa nelly, this is about the most frightening movie I’ve seen in a long time. I think Rolling Stones‘ Peter Travers says it best: “A potent frightfest that will fry your nerves and creep you out.” Yeah, he ain’t kidding. And thanks to an excellent viral marketing campaign to get it out there — plus the help of Steven Spielberg — looks like everyone is going to get a chance to see it. It sort of ranks up there with The Exorcist, is WAY better than The Blair Witch Project – and scares the living crap out of you by using little to no special effects.

How? By showing us a very real, normal couple (played by unknowns Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat) who happen to be tormented by some malevolent spirit, mostly in the middle of the night when they are sleeping. Katie believes she’s been haunted by this entity since she was a little girl, so the dubious Micah decides to set up a video camera in their bedroom to see if he can catch any weird “activity.” He gets a whole hell of lot more than he bargained for, that’s for damn sure. Check the trailer:

Again, I reiterate, Paranormal Activity doesn’t do anything more than mess with your psyche in the most basic way: set a single camera in a typical house and watch all the scary stuff – creaky stairs, dark shadows, loud bangs and eventually, contact – happen while the characters are ASLEEP. The one thing we have to do every night. In the dark. We have no choice … well, we have a choice, but what are you going to do? Be up all night with the TV blaring? The no-sleep thing eventually catches up to you. And remember that 3:00 am witching hour phenomenon I mentioned before, from The Exorcism of Emily Rose? Something about that time brings out those demons en masse, apparently. You know, I woke up the other night and smelled something burning. It wasn’t that strong, but that’s suppose to be a sign there are demons nearby. I stopped myself from looking at clock cause I didn’t want to freak myself out completely, but I’d put money down I knew what time it was.

NOW AFTER THIS, HOW THE HELL AM I GOING TO SLEEP? Thanks, writer/director Oren Peli for creating this fffed up horror movie. Thanks a lot (but secretly, well done).

How to Watch: “Couples Retreat”

couples_retreat01Step 1: Get a little help from your friends. Although it has its moments, Couples Retreat isn’t so much a movie but rather a giant excuse for some real-life BFFs to hang out in South Pacific.

Step 2: And why NOT hang out in Bora Bora? If you are going to contrive a plot in which four couples – all friends – go to a tropical-island resort which specializes in relaxation AND couple therapy, then you might as well make it one of the more beautiful places in the world. One of the couples – Cynthia (Kristen Bell) and Jason (Jason Bateman) – are there to legitimately work on their marriage, but the others (Vince Vaughn and Malin Akerman; Kristin Davis and Jon Favreau; and Faizon Love and Kali Hawk) don’t realize that participation in the resort’s therapy sessions is not optional. Everyone gets in on the fun, however.

Step 3: Love the one you’re with. Swingers pals Vaughn and Favreau, plus Couples Retreat director Peter Billingsley have been old friends from way back.  Maybe they haven’t had much of a chance to spend some quality time together, so they concocted Couples Retreat as a way to do that. “Hey, let’s go to Bora Bora, under the pretenses of making a silly movie about couples and therapy and whatever, and just hang out,” the guys might have said to each other. “We’ll invite Jason Bateman and Faizon Love, too, cause those dudes crack us up. And let’s get hotties Kristen Bell, couples-retreat.0.0.0x0.400x286Kristin Davis and Malin Akerman to play the wives. Sound good? Hell to the YES, that sounds good!” Vaughn and Favreau have a natural ease onscreen and definitely mesh well with the funny ensemble cast they collected (including hilarious cameos from favorite bit players John Michael Higgins, Ken Jeong and Jean Reno). It’s just a shame the script is so generic, and the movie drags.

Level of difficulty in watching Couples Retreat: Fairly easy. Pretty girls, a beautiful location and some funny bits between old friends can go a long way. Not ALL the way but close enough.

How to Watch: “Whip It”

whip-it-sceneStep 1: Whip It good! Come on, you know I had to say that at least once … OK, now we can move on.

Step 2: Choose wisely. Drew Barrymore finds the perfect project for her directorial debut, infusing the roller derby fun-fest with her spunk and joie de vivre.

Step 3: Slap on ‘dem skates. That’s exactly what 17-year-old Bliss (Ellen Page) does after she encounters some girls in the Austin, TX roller derby circuit and decides she is born to skate fast and throw elbows. Of course, it’s going to be tricky since her mom (Marcia Gay Harden) wants her to be a beauty pageant queen and wouldn’t approve of her new passion. So, Bliss decides to keep it a secret, at least for a little while, and soon she’s rolling with the Hurl Scouts, the worst team in the league with the most spirit and biggest hearts. With the help of her new friends, Bliss soon discovers a whole new, bolder side to herself – and a new name: Babe Ruthless – as she learns to let go and whip it. Whip It good! Alright, I’ll stop.

Step 3: Gather ye friends. Whip It‘s themes are nothing new – the coming of age, sports genre – but what makes this little gem stand above the rest is the cast chemistry. Page does a slightly geekier version of her Juno character, and she meshes well with the others, including Harden as the seemingly single-minded mother who turns out to have more layers than we think; Daniel Stern as ellen-page-whip-it-drew-barrymore-junojpg-71e20fb5789191f6_largethe understanding dad; Alia Shawkat as the snarky best friend; and of course, the rest of the Hurl Scouts: SNL funnylady Kristen Wiig as Maggie Mayhem, singer Eve as Rosa Sparks, stunt-woman-turned-actress Zoe Bell as Bloody Mary and Ms. Barrymore as Smashley Simpson (love the character names). There’s also Juliette Lewis as Iron Maven, Babe Ruthless’ nemesis. But of them all, though, I think I liked Andrew Wilson’s Hurl Scouts coach Razor the best. He’s so very determined to teach the Scouts the plays that win, it almost kills him – and me, with laughter, that is.

Step 4: Stick with what you know. It’s about time Barrymore directs something, since she’s been producing them for the past 15 years and acting in them for, well, forever. Even though Whip It is based on a novel of the same name by newcomer Shauna Cross (who also wrote the screenplay), this is something close to Barrymore’s heart; her spirit courses through it. And there are no first-time jitters in her execution. She has this down COLD, paying the most attention to the actors and their performances. Not to say Barrymore has found her niche and should stop acting, but certainly she has the chops to do it all.

Level of difficulty in watching Whip It: As easy as grabbing your roller derby teammate’s hand and having her whip you around the competition. Whip It good! Hee-hee.

How to Watch: “Zombieland”

539wStep 1: Laugh your ass off. As a cleverly executed horror comedy, Zombieland will keep you in stitches, even as the zombies are trying to rip you apart.

Step 2: Observe the carefully laid-out rules of escaping zombies, and you just might survive being a “Happy Meal.” Take Rule No. 2, for example, called the Double Tap: If you shoot a zombie and it falls down, make sure to immediately get another shot directly into its head. Thus effectively killing said zombie without any injury or risk of infection. Or Rule No. 24: Don’t be a hero. These rules have been created by neurotic college student Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), as a way to survive the last two months while the world population has been zombie-fied.  As he wades through the  post-apocalyptic landscape on his way home to Columbus, Ohio (no one gives their real names in this), he inadvertently joins forces with three other human survivors: Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a take-no-prisoners cowboy; Wichita (Emma Stone), a badass con artist who’s only looking out of herself and her younger sister, Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), a spitfire in her own right. To say these four have major trust issues is an understatement, but it’s something they are going to have to work on if they plan on living through the next 48 hours.

Step 3: Pick the choice humans to survive. Harrelson continues to select those offbeat roles that suit him best. His Tallahassee has adapted to the new environment well and has found his true niche in life: being an expert at killing zombies. He really gets some good ones in there. Eisenberg zombieland1(Adventureland) plays the same guy he’s been playing, which works fine here; he also has a penchant for movies whose titles end in “land.” Stone adds to her repertoire, having played the cool girl (Superbad), the geeky girl (House Bunny) and now the femme fatale, while Breslin displays some of her Little Miss Sunshine sensibilities once again.

Step 4: Also pick one of the best cameos in a long while. I’m not going to give away who it is because the moment must be experienced and treasured on your own (and DON’T look at the credits on, you’ll just spoil it).

Step 5: Think outside the box. Zombieland screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick sort of  mix together all kinds of genres – horror, post-apocalypse, road comedy, love story – but what makes it the most entertaining is first-time director Ruben Fleischer’s vision. From the opening slow-mo shots of pure gore-ific mayhem, as the zombies come to life, chase and eat people, while Columbus explains some of his hard and fast rules, you know Zombieland is going to be one heck of a unique, hilarious ride. This is definitely one to own on DVD, especially if there’s a ton of bonus features.

Level of difficulty in watching Zombieland: As easy as this rule: You gotta enjoy the little things. [Note: Stay through the end of the credits for an extra scene]

How to Watch: “Surrogates”

the-surrogatesStep 1: Throw away the Blackberry? Surrogates is yet another serviceable sci-fi whodunit about how our dependency on technology will be the ruin of us all.

Step 2: Fire up the “stim chair!” OK, OK, just kidding. Replacing ourselves with perfect robot surrogates so we don’t ever have to leave the house or have any kind of human interaction is bad; we get it. But in the not-so-distant future world of Surrogates, it’s all the rage. A scientist dude named Canter (James Cromwell) invented these robots that can be operated by brain waves and now, everyone is plugged into their very own stim chair while their surrogate is out living it up. The surrogates can take all the pain and injury, too, but nothing happens to the human host – until now.  Surrogate detectives Greer (Bruce Willis) and Peters (Radha Mitchell) stumble upon the murder of two other surrogates, whose humans are also killed at the same time by having their brains fried. In the process of the investigation, Greer’s surrogate is destroyed, so now human Greer has to venture out into the real world to solve the crime – and gain back a little of his humanity.

Step 3: Embrace your imperfections. All the surrogates in the film are in shape, air brushed and surrogatescoiffed most exquisitely, while the humans operating them are pale, blotchy, fat, dark circles under their eyes – except for Bruce Willis, of course. He, as the real Greer, is far more attractive than his blonde-headed surrogate. Maybe that’s just me – I like my Bruce bald and manly. He plays Greer as the action guy who is also in a mid-life crisis. You see, Greer and his wife, portrayed nicely by Rosamund Pike, have lost a child and escape the hurt by becoming addicted to their surrogates. But now Greer wants to reconnect with his wife and sees the harm in surrogacy.

Step 4: Don’t always paint by the numbers. Surrogates could have been a lot cooler if they delved more deeply into the surrogacy vs. humanity aspects and our basic need to reach out and touch someone, which is probably what the graphic novel, on which Surrogates is based, does. None of the characters are very well developed in the film. You’re not invested in whether the human race breaks out their isolation to grab a Coke and a smile. Director Jonathan Mostow (Terminator 3) instead turns it into another generic sci-fi crime thriller, a la Minority Report or I, Robot . It works OK, but you feel they forgot the point.

Level of difficulty in watching Surrogates: Moderately easy. Certainly nothing new and different, but it’s always good to see Bruce Willis kick some ass.