DVD Review: Chernobyl Diaries


'Chernobyl Diaries' Is Like the Real Chernobyl, in That There's Nothing There

The characters, thin and stock to begin with, keep finding ways to be disappointing. Over and over, they find themselves in situations where they know they should run and find help from outside of Pripyat, but they keep getting distracted from this life-saving mission to rescue friends that have gone missing, to scream and cry about friends they find worse for the wear, or to investigate strange and scary noises coming from somewhere in the distance. Repeatedly, they muster up heroic courage to go charging—unarmed and unprepared—after a strange sound or vision, only to run away again when they discover that, yes, something unsavory was the cause.

Sure, they’re under fire from multiple threats. Before they realize that Pripyat might not be entirely abandoned, they find themselves on guard against hungry wild animals (mostly ravenous dogs but once, hilariously, a wayward bear) and the contamination that still exists in pockets in the site. (The characters carry a Geiger counter to warn them against high levels of radiation.) However, these forces pop in and out of the story at will, and they’re never used to build a feeling of mounting suspense or dread.

By the time the real boogeymen of the movie are introduced, even the location has lost its luster. The characters are lured into underground tunnels, abandoned hallways, and darkened rooms—they really could be anywhere. This is one of the few horror movies where the atmosphere is spookier and more interesting during the daytime, before any of the haunts have come into play.

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TV Review: Elementary

'Elementary': Lucy Liu as Holmes' Sober Companion

...Moving the story to the States and changing Watson’s gender seem to be where the creativity ends for Elementary. Through the rest of the premiere, the show is intent on hitting all of the typical Sherlock Holmes beats. There’s a scene where he rattles off a list of personal details about someone he’s just met based on a few quick observations. There’s another where he leaves veteran police detectives flabbergasted by making headway in a case through a small detail they all overlooked. And there are many, many moments where Holmes acts rudely or inappropriately, ignoring social norms. These moments are necessary for Sherlock Holmes stories, but with each Holmes adaptation, they become a little less novel.

That lack of originality spills over into Elementary‘s visual style. Too often, it feels like it’s been run through the network TV cop-procedural grinder. The premiere’s New York City location, shaky-camera aesthetic, and easily digestible one-hour mystery made Holmes less a creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and more like any number of damaged investigators with superb mental powers, from The Mentalist‘s Patrick Jane to Unforgettable‘s Carrie Wells. (It doesn’t help that Aiden Quinn is cast as the show’s NYPD captain, recalling his earlier stint as Lieutenant Kevin Sweeney on another British import, Prime Suspect.)  At least Holmes spares us the seemingly unsolvable mystery from his own past that haunts him in the present, the only touchstone of these formulaic dramas that seems to be missing—so far.
But if Elementary is a standard detective procedural, it is at least well done. This is largely based on the strength of Miller, who brings a rejuvenating energy to a genre full of morose investigators. He has an easy rapport with Liu, even if it’s sometimes used in an antagonizing way. He may not be the best Sherlock out there, but he’s perfect proof of why people still feel the need to tell Sherlock Holmes stories 85 years after Arthur Conan Doyle.

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TV Review: Boardwalk Empire Season Three



Seven curse words, at least four racial slurs, and a raft of other insults, ranging from “short pants” and “midget” to “breadstick in a bowtie.” That’s how Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale) announces his arrival in Atlantic City, directing his invective at Nucky Thompson, (Steve Buscemi). It’s a feat of virtuosic vulgarity, coming after we’ve already seen him gratuitously murder a Good Samaritan for a perceived slight—and then steal the Samaritan’s dog—so we know he bites as hard as he barks. Okay, Boardwalk Empire, you have our attention.

The show needed Gyp Rosetti. At the end of the second season, it was in the strange position of winding down and hitting its stride simultaneously. It had spent the season beginning to reap the benefits of more than a year of narrative build-up, as we felt fully invested in a number of stories, stories that were quickly developing. Then, just when it could’ve coasted off its accumulated good will and anticipation,Boardwalk Empire raised the stakes instead.

Primarily, it killed off major characters, including Jimmy (Michael Pitt). Now we have to think about the show differently. None of our favorite characters has protected status due to their prominence or popularity, and anyone can go at any time if it serves the greater narrative. (Please, let Margaret Schroeder make it through the end unscathed!) These deaths served other, more plainly narrative purposes: they opened up a vacuum of villainy. Nucky had clawed his way to the top and now looked unopposed.

But if Boardwalk Empire preaches one thing, it’s this: just when you think you’ve solved one problem, there’s another waiting in the wings. Gyp Rosetti’s introduction suggests that he’ll be a scoundrel every bit as violent, wily, and ruthless as we’ve seen before in the series, if not more so. By the second episode of the new season, he delivers on that promise.


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TV Review: Go On

'Go On': Matthew Perry's Sarcastic Charm

Ryan joins a group for people “in transition.” While so many new sitcoms in the wake of Modern Family‘s success are offering different permutations of “the family,” this one sets up early to showcase people learning to cope without theirs. But this deviation from the current trend doesn’t mean that Go On is devoid of all sitcom tropes. Ryan is all too familiar in a couple of aspects. First, he’s a diehard sports fan who can’t talk about his “feelings.” As the typical alpha male, he cracks jokes about his own tragedy and denies that he needs to grieve: “If I go see a shrink,” he says, “My dad would roll around in his grave. At last I think he’s dead. We don’t talk about that kind of thing.” He’s also conventional in his need for help.  Like Will in Good Will Hunting and pretty much every reluctant-patient-in-therapy TV show or movie except One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ryan finds the group helpful.


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DVD Review: The Hunger Games

'The Hunger Games' Looks More Like the Past than the Future -- and Too Much Like the Present

"The book covers a lot of ground, from wealth inequality to the media’s desensitization to violence. It’s a good thing, then, that the adaptation landed in the hands of a director as confident as Gary Ross. He understands that the movie should stand for itself, as opposed to functioning as a staged reading of the novel.

The most important shift, and ultimately the most successful one, is the decision to liberate the movie from Katniss’s point of view. The movie is thankfully voiceover-free—which would’ve been a cheap, easy way to sneak in both Katniss’s reactions and Suzanne Collins’s words—and actors’ facial expressions are allowed to stand-in for pages of inner monologue. The universe of the movie unfolds without being over-explained. Ross trusts his actors’ performances to get across the information we need to know without necessarily saying it, and he trusts the audience to absorb all of the movie’s nuances without underlining every revelation and reaction."

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Film Review: Red Lights

Red Lights doesn't exactly work, but at least it fails in an interesting way.

'Red Lights': Paranormal Beliefs and Doubts

"This situation also indicates that the movie takes place in a heightened reality, if not a downright alternate one, where paranormal activities and parapsychology are of such importance that a university funds not one, but three faculty positions dedicated to researching the subject. In this world, cable news breathlessly reports on every step of a retired psychic’s comeback—which draws sellout crowds in seconds—and someone else’s doubts about him wind up on page one of the newspaper."

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DVD Review: Dark Tide

Dark Night, Dark Sea, Dark Wetsuits, 'Dark Tide'

The rest of Dark Tide picks up a year later, and clarity does not come with the passage of time. Mathieson, still saddled with guilt, has traded free-diving with sharks for a life as a safe-and-boring (and financially strapped) seal-watching tour guide. Her estranged husband and former documentarian Jeff (Olivier Martinez) returns with a proposition to make her some money and get her back in the water, taking a wealthy adrenaline junkie, Brady (Ralph Brown), and his son out to go swimming with sharks. Though Mathieson is angry with Jeff, haunted by Themba, opposed to shark tours, certain that the dive would be too dangerous for the inexperienced visitors, wary that mating season would make the sharks quick to bite, and hostile to the idea that she should give into the whims of a craven thrillseeker just for his money, she agrees to take him, anyway.

No, it doesn’t make sense. And it just gets murkier from there until the visuals of movie become as confused as the narrative, eventually devolving into an indistinguishable group of people in black wetsuits swimming on a black ocean against a black sky in a tumultuous rainstorm. Yes, that’s the climax of the movie—and it is near-impossible to follow.


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DVD Review: W.E.

There's a Lot of Moviemaking Going on in W.E.

"...The jumps in time are not the only trick in Madonna’s directorial grab-bag. There’s a lot of moviemaking going on in W./E.. Madonna cuts a lot. She incorporates both 16 mm and Super 8 film. She pulls in tight on her subjects, honing in on faces, eyes, feet, and knicknacks with a not-so-steady steadicam. As the emotions get more and more heightened in the movie, the close-ups get closer, and the images shakier.

On top of all of those flourishes, she pans the camera constantly (usually as music swells in the background). In the one behind-the-scenes look included on the Blu-Ray—the sole extra feature, which lacks even a commentary—Madonna explains that her background in dance influenced her camera swirls and swoops, as she is inspired by “movement”. The intention definitely comes across, as she circles the camera around her subjects until it becomes almost dizzying.

Yet while the shooting style of the movie is very fluid, the look of the film also comes across as extremely stiff. Sure, half of the appeal of the movie is seeing Arianne Phillips’ costumes, especially with respect to Simpson, known for being a fashion plate in her day. (Phillips was nominated for an Oscar for her efforts.) But both Simpson and Winthrop are styled to within an inch of their lives. You never see errant locks of hair; their outfits are perfect. The extra feature included in the Blu-Ray notes that each woman has 30 to 40 costume changes throughout the film.

Their living quarters are similarly impeccably art-directed, thereby giving off the impression that no one actually lives in them. Madonna can move the camera as much as she wants—in the end, it still comes across like she’s filming carefully assembled magazine photo shoots."

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New Show Review: Veep

'Veep' Finds Humor in Office Politics

"At an event in New York to promote the show, Louis-Dreyfus noted that most films and TV shows portray politics as noble, like The West Wing, or sinister, like Three Days of the Condor. With Veep, politics is drudgery. It’s bureaucracy and backstabbing in small, cramped spaces. They might as well be running a paper company."

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DVD Review: Footloose

Shakin' It in a Pair of Red Cowboy Boots: 'Footloose'

The world didn’t need a remake of Footloose, the 1984 movie where outsider-rebel Ren McCormack (Kevin Bacon) takes on a town-wide ban against public dancing.  Even remake director Craig Brewer thought so at first, revealing in his meaty solo commentary that his first reaction upon hearing the project was, “You can’t remake Footloose! It’s Footloose!”

But this Footloose remake is pretty well done, with clever nods to the original alongside subtle improvements. Brewer is a natural fit for the material, being a self-admitted Footloose fan, a teenager of the ‘80s, a music-lover, a connoisseur of the South, and a parent, and all of which he draws upon to make the movie smarter than it needs to be.

For fans of the original, the wit becomes first becomes apparent through its references. The VW bug Kevin Bacon’s Ren McCormak drives in the 1984 version turns up in Brewer’s film, only the new Ren (Kenny Wormald) receives the car as a broken-down beater he has to fix up—a literal remake. In another scene, Brewer replaces Bonnie Tyler’s thoroughly ‘80s-sounding “Holding Out for a Hero” with a twangy, countrified version by Ella Mae Bowen, which works better in context.

But the new Footloose, thankfully, isn’t just a faithful retelling of scenes and backward-looking nods. Brewer grounds the movie in a way that would make sense even if there were no 1984 original. It starts with the central conflict. The catalyst for the dancing ban—a tragic car accident that’s only hinted at in the original movie—is heavily emphasized in the opening scenes of the remake. It calls to mind other instances where personal freedoms are sacrificed in the name of public safety, which makes it feel more contemporary.


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