Monday, December 30, 2013

'American Hustle' sparkly bit of '70s fun - and a great film to boot

This review was originally posted at KPC Media Group's website. You can read the original review here. It was also published in KPC's three daily papers. Reprinted with permission.

Conventional wisdom says that a movie that features nothing but deplorable characters with very few redeeming qualities won't work.

But conventional wisdom flies out the window in the face of a crime film as delightful as "American Hustle." While it does indeed feature some pretty terrible people in the leading roles, everything is just so glittery, funny and so darn likeable that there isn't anything to do except love this film.

The movie, based loosely on the FBI's ABSCAM operation, follows con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his beautiful partner-in-crime, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). The pair is doing well for themselves, embezzling and selling fake art, until they're caught by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). DiMaso is looking to make a name for himself in the FBI, and in exchange for letting them avoid a long stint in jail, he has them help him take down Camden, New Jersey, mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), who is trying to raise money to open casinos in Atlantic City. Unfortunately, they almost immediately get in way over their heads, especially when Irving's nutty wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), gets involved.

The people in this movie are all pretty awful people, when you really think about their behavior. Irving and Sydney are conning people left and right, with Sydney especially adept at using her feminine wiles to play Irving and Richie against each other. Irving is, of course, a cheater and a terrible husband to Rosalyn, who is unstable and goofy, but also smart enough to be excessively manipulative. Richie is an incredibly angry, unstable person himself. The nicest person in the movie is Carmine Polito, the guy that our "heroes" are trying desperately to catch bribing government officials.

And yet, they're all so likeable and sympathetic in their own ways. Their motivations, while morally questionable at best, are also incredibly understandable. They are ambitious and desire to climb the ladder of life by any means necessary. Who hasn't had a moment of that ambition? They only really get into trouble when they try to climb too high, too quickly. And as they do get into trouble, it's a blast to watch - the situations are so ridiculous, and they just keep piling up and causing more and more crazy problems.

"American Hustle" is a dynamic, energetic movie that is absolutely irresistable. It's the same talent that was on display in director David O. Russell's Oscar-nominated "Silver Linings Playbook" last year. I didn't find "American Hustle" as cozy or as compelling as "Silver Linings," which is one of my favorite movies I've seen in years, but "Hustle" has the same snappy dialogue, quick editing and dark humor that makes a movie like this so fun to watch.

It helps that the lead actors are perfectly cast. I was thrilled to see such a high-caliber cast in a movie, and they didn't disappoint. There is sleaze all over the screen - Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper made my skin crawl at times, and Amy Adams can turn from icy to sexy on a dime and make it completely believable - but there also is charisma and chemistry everywhere. Especially delightful is Jennifer Lawrence in a rather small but completely memorable role as Rosalyn. She's deliciously daffy in the role, and the screen lights up even brighter every time she's on it. It just reiterates my opinion that Lawrence is one of the most talented people in Hollywood right now.

"American Hustle" is rounded out with the perfect tone of the costumes and sets. The movie has a wonderful sense of time and place, in the overblown, scuzzy late 70s. The outfits, the hair, the decor - it all just screams 1978. That's the cherry on top of this wild sundae. It's already a treat to watch because of the story and characters and acting, and then the movie is just that much better because it's also an eye-searing spectacle.

"American Hustle" is clearly gunning for an Oscar, and it definitely deserves the buzz its receiving. It's an energetic, entertaining, darkly funny, well-told story with an all-star cast that elevates the movie into the stratosphere. It's definitely not a feel-good movie, but it sure does feel good to watch it anyway.

Jenny's Take: See it tonight.
(Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence. Runs 138 minutes.)

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Review of "American Hustle" posted at KPC Media Group

It's getting Oscar buzz, and it's well-deserved. "American Hustle" is a sparkly, energetic delight. My review is online at KPC Media Group - you can read it by clicking here - or you can read it in the newspaper on Sunday. I'll post it here on Monday!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug' still bloated, but improves on predecessor

This review was originally written for KPC Media Group and was posted at KPC's website, as well as published in three daily newspapers. You can read the original review here.

As much as I'm enjoying three straight Decembers of new adventures in Middle Earth, thanks to "The Hobbit" trilogy, in this second installment, subtitled "The Desolation of Smaug," it's still clear to me that this trilogy is a case study in the "less is more" school of storytelling.

"The Desolation of Smaug" expands on the already-bloated story started in "An Unexpected Journey" last December. Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), a contigent of dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) march across the land of Middle Earth with the goal of reclaiming the dwarves' ancestral homeland, Erebor. 

Along the way, they battle giant spiders, orcs and wargs; get captured by the Elf King Thranduil (Lee Pace); sneak into the city of Laketown with the help of a mysterious man named Bard (Luke Evans); and, of course, face off against the dragon, Smaug (voice and motion-capture performance by Benedict Cumberbatch), who destroyed Erebor and took up residence there. They meet up with Thranduil's son, Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and the chief of the guards, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). Oh, and at one point, Gandalf runs off to have his own adventure fighting The Necromancer, who threatens to bring darkness across the land.

In short, there is a lot going on, and it contains a lot more material than J.R.R. Tolkein's slim, delightful novel "The Hobbit" has in it. There are fights and action sequences galore, and lots of new and interesting characters to see.

And yet, here's where the "less is more" idea comes in: The best part of the entire movie is almost straight from the book, and it only features two characters. Amid all the kerfluffle of elves and dwarves and humans and wizards and orcs, the most magical part of the entire nearly three-hour movie is when Bilbo walks in to Smaug's treasure room and faces off against the fearsome dragon. It's a nearly perfect scene, taut and exciting, and with Martin Freeman showing off exactly why he was the perfect choice to play Bilbo Baggins. It doesn't hurt that Smaug is wonderfully acted by Benedict Cumberbatch and beautifully animated. It doesn't take much to believe that it's really a dragon up on the screen, instead of a series of pixels.

It's especially interesting to me that almost the same thing can be said about the best scene in the first Hobbit movie, "An Unexpected Journey." That movie only truly shines in the scene between Bilbo and Gollum. "The Hobbit" doesn't really need all of the folderol that was added - all it really needs is Bilbo, his adventure and the growth that comes from his time with the dwarves.

That's not to say that "The Desolation of Smaug" wasn't a pretty great movie, because it was. While "An Unexpected Journey" got pretty far off the rails in parts, I felt like writers Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro regained the movie's narrative footing in a big way. There were still a few awkwardly huge pauses between characters' scenes - a big chunk of time passes between the times we see Legolas and Tauriel near the beginning of the movie and when they show up again near the end - but overall this was a better composed and more consistently entertaining movie. It does suffer a little bit from being in the middle of a trilogy, since it has a pretty abrupt beginning and an even more abrupt ending, but it really is a much cleaner, better movie than "An Unexpected Journey."

And, being a pretty big Tolkein fan, I can't help but love seeing so much more of Middle Earth. There are a lot of fun nods to Tolkein's writings scattered throughout the movie, and even though some of those asides are unnecessary and even distracting from a moviemaking perspective, I get a nerdy little smile on my face when I catch them.

It's not a perfect movie, and both the book and "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy are better, but I had a great time watching "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." For fans of fantasy, or just epic blockbusters in general, this latest foray into Middle Earth is a worthwhile trip.

Jenny's Take: See it before it leaves theaters.

(Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images. Runs 161 minutes.)

Friday, December 13, 2013

Review of "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" online at KPC Media Group

It's still totally overkill - there's NO WAY "The Hobbit" should be three movies - but "The Desolation of Smaug" is a huge improvement over "An Unexpected Journey."

My full review of the movie is online at KPC Media Group's website now. Read it by clicking here, or wait until Sunday to read it in print in one of KPC's daily newspapers. I'll post the full review on the blog on Monday.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Midweek Mancandy Rewind: Martin Freeman & Benedict Cumberbatch

This Midweek Mancandy post was originally posted on July 20, 2011, (you can see the original here) but with "The Hobbit: The Search for More Money The Desolation of Smaug" coming out this weekend and the new season of "Sherlock" premiering in the U.S. in just over a month, it seemed appropriate to trot out this old favorite, written shortly after the Pop Tarts discovered "Sherlock." 

And so, we give you ... Midweek Mancandy: Martin Freeman & Benedict Cumberbatch.

(Photo from Entertainment Weekly)

Monday, December 2, 2013

Review: 'Frozen' a warm, fun treat for both children and adults

This movie review was originally written for KPC Media Group and published online and in its daily newspapers. Read the original version here. Reprinted with permission.

Despite the huge amount of snow and ice in Disney's latest animated feature, "Frozen" is as warm and fun an animated musical as I've seen in several years. The movie hearkens back to the old Disney princess movies, which makes it feel extra cozy for fans, but it also has a modern edge, featuring princesses with a little more personality than the old damsels I grew up watching.

"Frozen" follows Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell), the princess of a small kingdom called Arendelle. On the coronation day of her sister, Elsa (Idina Menzel), Anna discovers why Elsa has been cold to her for years - Elsa is magical and can turn things to ice and snow, but she can't control her magic. When the people of Arendelle find out, however, they call Elsa a monster, and Elsa disappears into the mountains, leaving the kingdom in a deep freeze. Anna, however, wants to help her sister, and so she enlists the help of the burly Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and his reindeer, Sven.

It's a sweet, exciting story, but what really gives "Frozen" some bite are the characters - specifically Elsa and Anna. The sisters are distant and at odds for most of the movie, but it's clear throughout the entire film that they really love each other. It probably helped that I was sitting next to my own sister when I was watching the movie, but I was really touched by the depth of their bond and the way they watched out for each other.
It was also incredibly refreshing to see some royal women who could stand on their own two feet. Elsa is an incredibly strong, magical woman, and although she functions somewhat as the villain for a lot of the movie, she's a much more nuanced character than the old Disney villains. As much as I adore old-school bad girls like Maleficent from "Sleeping Beauty" or Ursula the Sea Witch from "The Little Mermaid," it's refreshing to see a powerful woman who isn't irredeemably corrupted by power. She's confused and terrified, and she does some bad things, but it isn't because of jealousy or because she's just plain old evil, like the villains of old.

Anna is also an interesting and strong character. Yes, she's silly sometimes, and, yes, she does need the help of Kristoff sometimes, but she's also brave, smart and cares deeply for her sister. There's even a some sly commentary on the Disney princess tendancy to fall in love immediately with a cute guy she barely knows. A friend of mine was just complaining about that tendency a few weeks ago, so I was pleased to note that it's not treated as the norm in this movie.

There are plenty of other characters to love, too. Kristoff is quirky and adorable, and his friendship with his goofy reindeer provides a lot of the comic relief in the movie. Also on the silly end of the spectrum is a snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad) who Elsa has brought to life. The posters and some of the commercials for "Frozen" made me nervous that Olaf would be too obnoxiously silly, but he actually hit the perfect balance between the wackiness that children will enjoy and being a real enough character so that he doesn't annoy the adults in the audience.

"Frozen" is also a very beautiful movie. The characters' designs are fairly reminiscent of those in "Tangled," but the scenery is stunning. Arendelle was clearly influenced by Scandinavian countries, specifically Norway, and the buildings are all decorated beautiful, colorful rosemaling designs. The warmth of those buildings stands in contrast to the stunning ice castle that Elsa creates for herself. The winter scenes are the most beautiful in the movie, and they're so realistic that I shivered several times while watching the movie. You can almost feel the icy cold coming off the screen.

"Frozen" is never going to be a timeless classic like "The Lion King" or "Beauty and the Beast," but it's solidly in the second tier of Disney movies - a little less stunning and a little more silly than the best the studio has to offer, but ultimately still a pretty darn great movie. "Frozen" is a warm little treat that children and adults alike will enjoy.

Jenny's Take: See it tonight.

(Rated PG for some action and mild rude humor. Runs 108 minutes.)

Friday, November 29, 2013

Review of "Frozen" posted at KPC Media Group website

Hope everyone had a super Thanksgiving and Black Friday! I have so far ... not only because I got to eat delicious food and bought a couple of great deals, but also because I got to see "Frozen." It's not a top tier Disney classic like "The Lion King," but it's a solidly entertaining second-tier Disney film which, let's face it, is way better than a lot of movies geared toward the kiddies. I really enjoyed it! Plus, it had some pretty decent female character who weren't completely stupid or evil! Success!!!!!

Anyway, read my entire review online RIGHT NOW at KPC Media Group's website by clicking here, or read it in Sunday's KPC Media Group newspapers. Monday, I'll post the whole thing on the blog!

Monday, November 25, 2013

'Dancing With the Stars' recap: Journey's End

It seems like "Dancing With the Stars" just started, but now, the D-List Dance Competition O' Glitter is almost over. 

But first, the couples have to perform three dances, including the fan-favorite freestyle dance!

Let's get down to it ... we have a lot of ground to cover and celebrities to watch dance!

Review: "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire"

This review was originally posted at KPC Media Group's website and published in their three daily newspapers. You can read the original review here. Reprinted with permission.

There's a glorious phenomenon in fiction, when suddenly the reader or viewer realizes how much more there is going on in the world that these fictional characters inhabit.

For me at least, that's the moment that a piece of fiction in any form starts to take hold of my emotions, and I start to inhabit that world alongside that fictional character.

And that's what "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" is all about. The franchise goes from the first movie, a tidy little story about a girl trying to survive a battle to the death in a dystopian future, to a sprawling tale of rebellion centering on that same girl, who discovers that she's still trying to survive a battle to the death - just against different opponents. It's an affecting tale, made especially emotional by a stunning performance by the young woman in the center of it all.

"Catching Fire" picks up where "The Hunger Games" left off - teenagers Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) have won the annual teenage death battle the Hunger Games by manipulating those in power with their mostly-for-the-cameras romance. Katniss thinks she'll be able to settle down and live a relatively normal life, but she soon discovers she can't.

Because Katniss and Peeta made the authoritarian Capitol and its ruthless leader, President Snow (Donald Sutherland), look weak during their games, the pair - especially the fiery Katniss - inadvertantly spurred the downtrodden citizens into revolt. To save those they love - including Katniss' mother (Paula Malcomson), sister Prim (Willow Shields) and friend/sometimes love interest Gale (Liam Hemsworth) - Katniss and Peeta must try to calm tempers in the districts during their victory tour. When that doesn't work, Snow and the new head of the Hunger Games, Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), devise a new way to scare the districts into submission - hold a Hunger Games featuring former champions, including, of course, Katniss and Peeta, as tributes.

The scope of the story is just much bigger in "Catching Fire" than it was in "The Hunger Games." We got a sense in the first movie that there was unrest in one of the districts, partially sparked by Katniss' actions in the games, but in "Catching Fire," the scope of the actions by Katniss and Peeta take on a new weight. The audience discovers along with Katniss just how important the events of the first movie are, and the first half of the movie is a dizzying buildup of tension as the weight of her actions - and the realization of the trajectory of the rest of her life - settles on her shoulders. Add to that a nice big dose of PTSD for Katniss from her participation in the Hunger Games, and you have a recipe for a pretty big, emotional story.

Katniss is a lead character who often internalizes her feelings, though, so it's important that the actress playing her can show the audience the depths of her pain, rage and despair. That's where Jennifer Lawrence comes in. She was very good in the first "Hunger Games" movie, but Lawrence is nothing short of brilliant in "Catching Fire." Without her, this movie would pack a lot less of a punch. With Lawrence taking center stage, though, "Catching Fire" is a tense, scary, emotional roller-coaster of a movie.

"Catching Fire" is also just a better made, more streamlined movie. As much as I like the work of Gary Ross, who directed "The Hunger Games," Francis Lawrence clearly has a better handle on the themes of the material. Ross' biggest flaw was the same problem that happens with so many other book-to-movie adaptations - the director wants to be too faithful to the books, to the detriment of the film. It's not that Lawrence wasn't faithful too, because he was - if memory serves, he took several scenes straight from the books - but he also made the story his own. He wasn't as constrained by the source material, and it improved the flow of the movie immensely from the first movie.

The only real flaw with "Catching Fire" is the fact that it ends on a cliffhanger that won't be resolved for another year. Even if you read the books like I have, it's fun, yet tough, to walk out of the theater with so much unresolved. Still, don't skip the movie just because of the ending - other than the big unknowns at the end, "Catching Fire" is a well-made, immensely entertaining, satsifying sequel that outshines its predecessor.

Jenny's Take: See it tonight.

(Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language. Runs 146 minutes.)

Friday, November 22, 2013

"The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" Review posted at KPC Media Group

It was the moment we'd all been waiting for ... the premiere of "Catching Fire," the sequel to "The Hunger Games." And it delivered!!!!!!!! And it was even better, because I went to a double feature of the first movie and the sequel! 

Read my full review of the movie over at KPC Media Group's website by clicking here, or pick up one of the KPC Media Group Sunday newspapers to read it in good old fashioned print. I'll post the full review here on Monday!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

TV Snap Judgment: Almost Human

This week, "Almost Human" premiered, and I must admit that I was incredibly pumped. I was waiting for what seemed like decades for this show. 

OK, yeah, it was only a couple of months, but "Almost Human" was one of the shows I was most looking forward to this TV season. And I'm happy to say, the show really lived up to my high expectations.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Dancing With the Stars Recap: This Is It! Well, Almost.

The craziness of "Dancing With the Stars" is almost over, and tonight the dancers were competing for a spot in the finals. And they had to do it in front of Maksim Chmerkovskiy as a guest judge! 

Tonight's trick was that they had to perform a different dance to a stripped-down version of the song they performed their first dance to. Interesting concept! Let's get right down to the dancing, though.

Movie Review: Balance of sap, silliness makes 'About Time' a sweet treat

This movie review was originally published on KPC Media Group's website and in the Sunday editions of its daily newspapers. Read the original review here. Reprinted on the Pop Tarts blog with permission.

Watching "About Time" is like watching a tricky balancing act.

It would be easy for it to tip over and fall into gag-worthy sticky-sweet sentimentality, but every time it sticks its toe into the pool of sap, it throws in a dash of spice and the movie is back on track. There was only one scene that really had me rolling my eyes in a way rarely seen outside of a Nicholas Sparks romance, and it was short-lived. Overall, "About Time" had just the right mix of gooshy goodness and quirky humor.

The movie follows Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) who, at the age of 21, is told by his father (Bill Nighy) that the men of his family can travel through time. They can't change history, in the sense that they couldn't go back and kill Hitler or anything, but they can travel within their own timelines and change their lives. His father used the time to get some extra reading done, but Tim decides to do what any gawky, nerdy-cute, single 21-year-old would do - he uses his power to get a girlfriend.

Enter Mary (Rachel McAdams), an adorable American girl Tim meets when he moves to London. After a series of fits and starts brought on by Tim's time-travel, the pair of them begin their ordinary lives together - made just a little more extraordinary by Tim's gift.

"About Time" works despite its relatively simple concept. Yes, time travel is not exactly "normal" in the real world, but since Tim is an ordinary man who can only travel back in his own history, there isn't really much he can do except improve or further screw up his life. There are no massive repercussions for the world when this man goes back in time. There is no "butterfly effect," where some small change causes big differences to other people. Everything that Tim changes effects Tim's little world - his parents, his girlfriend, his friends. The movie, therefore, becomes a celebration of the things in life that are beautiful but, in the great scheme of things, mundane - a chance meeting at a restaurant, a wedding, a walk on the beach.

"About Time" also features a pair of perfectly likeable but, ultimately, slightly dull characters. Tim and Mary are certainly cute and blandly charming, but they wouldn't be able to carry a movie without the help of the quirky, deliciously acted characters that surround them. Not only is Tim's father a delight as played by Bill Nighy, but his spacy sister Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson), earthy mother (Lindsay Duncan), dorky friend Rory (Joshua McGuire), crazy uncle (Richard Cordery) and perpetually discontented family friend and playwright Harry (Tom Hollander) all lend some personality to the film.

In the capable hands of chick-flick master Richard Curtis, everything works just as it should. "About Time," which Curtis wrote and directed, is reminscent of Curtis' other, similar works - the "Bridget Jones" movies, "Notting Hill" and "Four Weddings and a Funeral." While it doesn't quite live up to my favorite of Curtis' movies, "Love Actually," "About Time" has the same charm, humor and warmth that made his other works so famous and well-loved.

"About Time" takes a gauzy look at ordinary life, but does it in such a way that there's still a little sass and a touch of silly fun to temper the sap. It's one of those warm, fuzzy movies that, sometimes, is just what you need. It isn't an earth-shaking movie, and it doesn't have a terribly deep meaning, but it is a fun, sweet morsel of a movie.

Jenny's Take: See it before it leaves theaters.

(Rated R for language and some sexual content. Runs 123 minutes.)

Friday, November 15, 2013

Review of "About Time" posted at KPC Media Group's page

Looking for a sweet-yet-funny romantic comedy that doesn't make your teeth hurt from all the saccharine sappiness (most of the time, anyway)? Look no further than "About Time," which has enough quirk 'n' Britishness to keep it fun to watch.

My review of the movie is posted at KPC Media Group's website, and you can read it here. It will also appear in KPC's daily newspapers on Sunday, and I'll post it here on the blog on Monday!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

'Agents of SHIELD' - Keep The Faith!

I do not AT ALL envy the crew of "Agents of SHIELD."

The show had incredibly crazy, unrealistic expectations placed on it. Not only is it part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, one of the biggest phenomena currently making the pop culture rounds, but it also bears the name of Joss Whedon, the deserving king of a cult of slavishly devoted fans.

Between the awesomeness of the Marvel movies (especially last summer's "The Avengers") and the name of the man behind cult favorites "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and the short-lived "Firefly" attached to it, "Agents of SHIELD" premiered under a microscope, and it seems like every week there are more blog entries and articles about whether the show can make it, or if it's disappointing fans too much.

But don't fear, fellow nerds - keep the faith, and I think "Agents of SHIELD" will pay off for us.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A Rad Bromance: Pop Culture's Platonic Pairs

In general, I'm a pretty big fan of romance. I read romance novels, I get giggly over chick flicks and have several "ships" that make me feel all gooshy inside.

But sometimes, it's just nice when there are pairs who are completely platonic. Not every show has to have a romantic element, after all, and there is something very special about a close relationship that is different from a romantic relationship.

I'm loving the fact that there are several platonic "couples" on TV shows I'm watching right now, and despite the fact that there are shippers out there who want some of them to get together, I'm hoping that these pairs stay "just friends."

Monday, November 11, 2013

'Dancing With the Stars' Recap: Duos and Trios

There are only a couple more episodes of "Dancing With the Stars" which, let's face it, is kind of tragic. This has been a fun season with several very good dancers and several more that are just plain fun to watch. 

Tonight's gimmick was that, in addition to a normal partner dance, the couples also got to perform a trio dance with an additional pro/troupe dancer. Fun times! Shall we get down to the recapping?

Movie Review: New 'Thor' movie pure superhero fun

This review was originally posted on KPC Media Group's website and published in its daily newspapers. Read the original column here. Republished with permission.

As much as I appreciate deep, dark comic book-inspired films, like Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy, sometimes geeky girls just want to have fun.

Thank goodness, then, for movies like "Thor: The Dark World," which excellently blends a solid save-the-world story with a dash of humor, sprinkle of romance and a lot of pure entertainment value.

And, honestly, could a "Thor" movie work any other way? He's a Norse god who's really an alien who occasionally shows up on Earth to save humanity, and sometimes teams up with a group that includes a supergenius billionaire in a flying metal suit, a World War II supersoldier and a scientist who turns into a giant green monster when he gets angry.

It's actually quite a testiment to everyone involved that the movie works at all, and doesn't devolve into complete ridiculousness - although it does teeter on the edge of ridiculous more than once.

The movie follows astrophysicist Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) - Thor's love interest from the first "Thor" movie - who, when investigating some really weird scientific happenings, gets sucked into another world and infected with some very powerful energy. The energy is called the Aether, and it is being sought by the long-defeated dark elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston). Thor (Chris Hemsworth) brings Jane to his home of Asgard in hopes of curing her, but instead Malekith seeks Jane in order to extract the energy from her to destroy the universe.

It's a ridiculous mix of fantasy - Elves! Armor! Swords! - and sci-fi - Aliens! Spaceships! Physics! - that shouldn't work at all. And occasionally, it doesn't. There are a few too many scenes of battles between sword-wielding Asgardians and elves with sci-fi blasters jumping out of spaceships. The movie stretches out just a tad too long and gets a smidge tedious at points.
But just when I would start to think, "OK, this is just getting ridiculous," something delightful would happen, and I'd be sucked right back in. And more often than not, I wouldn't be sucked in by Thor and his quest, or his relationship with Jane, or the impending doom of Asgard and Earth at Malekith's hand, but with the other major character in the movie - Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who provides many of the laughs and most of the emotional core to the movie.
Loki, if you've kept up with the quickly growing Marvel Cinematic Universe, was the bad guy in "The Avengers," but for "Thor: The Dark World," he's back to being a complicated, tricky antihero. Without Loki, this movie would be just another sudsie hack-and-slash superhero movie, but with Loki - and Hiddleston's gleeful, nuanced performance, which is the best in the movie - this "Thor" outing is elevated. It's still not a particularly deep or artistic movie, but it has some depth.

Still, the movie's depth isn't too deep, and when things start to get too dour and serious, a good dash of humor is inserted to keep the audience smiling. Chris Hemsworth spends a good chunk of the movie playing the straight man to trickster Loki, but Hemsworth is a master at playing his ridiculous character with just enough of a wink to the audience to make Thor not only bearable, but fun. And, let's face it, without that undercurrent of knowing humor, Thor would be an unbearably boring, stupid and, probably, rather unlikeable character. The excellent chemistry between Hemsworth and Hiddleston brings it all together into an entertaining and intensely watchable package.

"Thor: The Dark World" is not even close to the best movie in the "Avengers" franchise. This is no "Iron Man," and it doesn't even touch "The Avengers," but it takes what worked in 2011's "Thor" and improves upon it. There are certainly some bumps along the way, but, wow, is it a fun ride nonetheless.

Jenny's Take: See it tonight.

(Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and some suggestive content. Runs 112 minutes.)

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Review of "Thor: The Dark World" posted at KPC Media Group

It's not the best Avengers-related movie, but it's a lot of fun! I really enjoyed seeing "Thor: The Dark World" yesterday, and not just because Chris Hemsworth is hot and Tom Hiddleston is villain-sexy! It was better than the first "Thor" movie, with a perfect mix of plot, romance and humor!

Read my review here or in KPC Media Group's newspapers on Sunday, and I'll post the full review here on Monday.

Monday, November 4, 2013

"Dancing With the Stars" recap: Sequins, Cher and a tango-dancing pimp

As if "Dancing With the Stars" needed more fabulous tackiness ... tonight, Cher was a guest-judge, as well as a performer. AND the stars danced to Cher songs! WHAT COULD BE BETTER THAN THAT?

Anyway, it was a night of glitter and craziness, which is every night for Cher.

Movie Review: 'Ender's Game' succeeds on several levels

This movie review was originally written for KPC Media Group's website and print newspapers. You can read the original review here. Reprinted with permission.

My mom always had a rule, which I still largely follow even as an adult: “You must read the book before you see the movie.”

It’s a good rule for kids, because it gets them to read - not that I needed any help on that front - but as an adult, it hasn’t always served me well.

Since the book is always better than the movie, a lot of times, reading the book before watching the movie leads to major disappointments.

I went into “Ender’s Game” prepared for the same. The book, written by Orson Scott Card and published in 1985, is a classic of military science fiction, and it’s a good read. It’s also a book, despite the fact that it takes place in the middle of a futuristic war in space, is structured mostly around the internal struggle of its main character, Ender Wiggin.

I liked reading the book, but I was incredibly skeptical that it could be made into a watchable, entertaining movie that still stayed true to the themes of the book.

It turns out “Ender’s Game” wasn’t as unfilmable as I thought it would be. In fact, it was quite the success, both as a standalone movie and as a book adaptation.

“Ender’s Game” follows Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a boy tapped by the International Military to train from a very young age to defeat a destructive race of aliens. Under the watchful eyes of Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and Major Anderson (Viola Davis), Ender quickly rises through the ranks at the isolated, outer-space military training school he attends. He is pushed to exhibit the fierceness of his violent brother, Peter (Jimmy Pinchak), and the empathy of his sister, Valentine (Abigail Breslin).

I was afraid that “Ender’s Game” was going to neuter the thought-provoking themes of the book, which takes a hard look at the morality of war, in favor of cool, wham-pow battle sequences. I was pleasantly surprised that the movie kept a lot of aspects of the book’s main themes. In fact, the movie was a little more subtle about asking the tough questions, as opposed to the hit-you-over-the-head nature of the book.
But, never fear, there are still some truly spectacular action sequences that are fun to watch and deserve a lot of praise. One of the centerpieces of the battle school is a zero-gravity globe where trainees float around among obstacles, shooting one another with guns that freeze their limbs. It’s fun to watch the kids floating around, and I was impressed with how seamless and real it seemed. Special effects have truly taken a step forward in the past few years, and it’s those leaps that allow good science fiction like “Ender’s Game” to be filmed. Even five years ago, it probably couldn’t have happened.

I was also pleased with how streamlined the plot of “Ender’s Game” was. One of the biggest problems with movie adaptations of books is that they suffer from bloat and pacing problems, because filmmakers try to stuff every scene from the book into the film. Screenwriter/director Gavin Hood is to be commended, then, because this is one of the slickest adaptations of a book I’ve seen on the big screen in years. Hood made the tough choices to take out several subplots - most notably, an interesting but ultimately marginal subplot about Ender’s siblings back on Earth. He also combined characters, changed relationships and condense time in order to make the story work as a movie. The movie clips along at a nice pace, without any of the awkward flow problems that are practically hallmarks of book adaptations. If I didn’t know it was a book adaptation, I doubt I would have been able to sense that “Ender’s Game” was adapted from another medium.

Despite all the expert writing, directing and adapting that happened to bring this movie together, though, “Ender’s Game” really hinges on its titular character. Ender is a complicated boy in a very difficult, strange situation, and casting the wrong kid in the role could have been a disaster. Thankfully, Asa Butterfield is a gem. He perfectly captures both Ender’s compassion and brutality, and is able to encapsulate those conflicting emotions and channel them into a raw, interesting performance.

“Ender’s Game” still isn’t a perfect film. The plot is deeply unsettling - it’s tough to watch preteens preparing to fight in a war - and I never feel like the story, either in the book or the movie, goes far enough to condemn some of the terrible things that happen in it. And even though the movie is a truly great adaptation of the book, it still doesn’t quite measure up to the source material. I was disappointed by the marginalization of a few characters, even though I understand why it happened, and as well-paced as it was, there were still some fairly important scenes that were hurried or glossed over.

Still, my only complaints are really little more than quibbles. “Ender’s Game” is an excellent piece of science fiction, and proof that, with a little work, you really can make a good book into a good movie.

Jenny’s Take: See it before it leaves theaters.

(Rated PG-13 for some violence, sci-fi action and thematic material. Runs 114 minutes.)

Friday, November 1, 2013

Movie Review of "Ender's Game" Posted at KPC Media Group

I was super skeptical of "Ender's Game" - how could that book possibly make a good movie? - but I was very pleasantly surprised! Read my review at KPC Media Group's website by clicking here. I'll post it on the Pop Tarts blog on Monday.

Also, sorry for the horrendous lack of posts this week. It's been a long week, and, frankly, I just hit a wall! (I don't know what Kel's excuse is, though!) As long as things go well, it'll be back to normal posting next week!

Monday, October 28, 2013

"Dancing With the Stars" recap: Drama, drama and more drama!

At this point in the "Dancing With the Stars" competition, things get dramatic, and that showed this week. Everybody's pre-dance package was full of controversy, injuries and, of course, tons of drama! That's what happens, I guess, when D-listers have been dancing for this many weeks in a row.

So let's not wait another minute! Onto the DRAMA:

Movie Review: 'The Counselor' should have worked but it really, really doesn't

This movie review originally appeared at KPC Media Group's website and in its daily newspapers. Read the original review here. Reprinted with permission.

On paper, "The Counselor" isn't just a good movie. It's a great one.

It was written by the legendary Cormac McCarthy. Directed by Ridley Scott. Starring Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz and Brad Pitt. How could it go wrong?

Oh, but it went wrong. Startlingly, disappointingly, upsettingly wrong.

The movie follows a lawyer addressed only as Counselor (Michael Fassbender), who enters the fraught and dangerous world of drug trafficking from Mexico and almost immediately screws everything up and endangers everybody around him, including the man who brought him in on the scheme, Reiner (Javier Bardem); Westray (Brad Pitt), the middleman; and his fiance, Laura (Penelope Cruz).

Even the plot sounds pretty good, right? I love the idea of telling the story of a man dealing with the terrifying repercussions of one very ill-advised decision made out of greed. That is a great idea for a movie!

Unfortunately, "The Counselor" never comes together. It's obvious where McCarthy and Scott were going with it, trying to make an artistic character drama examining the consequences of greed. But apparently they overthought their strategy, because instead they made a winding, piecemeal movie with a plot that often was incredibly vague. I fancy myself a pretty smart person who can follow a movie that doesn't spell out the entire plot and makes the audience think, but I was utterly lost at several points, and not in a fun way. After all, sometimes it's great to wait until the end of the movie for everything to click into place. But "The Counselor" just plodded along, showing seemingly unrelated scenes with characters from other scenes occasionally wandering in and out of them. "Inexplicable" is probably the best word to describe the whole bewildering experience.

"The Counselor" is a very talky movie, too, which is not inherently a terrible thing either. But the dialogue is often unnatural, and it didn't feel like that was an artistic decision. The characters also have a weird propensity to break into strange, stilted soliloquies. They were an attempt to insert a Very Important Lesson into the proceedings, I think, but they just came off as pompous and self-important. Even worse, they were dull and, often, not very well-acted. If even a great actor like Javier Bardem or Michael Fassbender can't make it work, you have a problem, and when Cameron Diaz, who isn't quite so talented as her costars, attempts one, it's just painful to watch.

Even the occasional ultra-violent beheading and awkwardly graphic sex scene can't spice up "The Counselor" too much. I wasn't offended by the scenes - in fact, the violent scenes especially were important to the story that I think they were trying to tell - but they just even more brought to the forefront what a mess the whole movie was. They could have been so effective if the audience cared about the characters or the plot made a lick of sense.

"The Counselor" is an exercise in wasted opportunity. There was so much talent involved both on camera and behind the camera, and there is such a wonderful, interesting plot in there somewhere, buried by self-important mumbo-jumbo and bad writing. Muy high expectations walking in made "The Counselor" just that much more of a major disappointment.

Jenny's Take: See it on TV during a bout of insomnia.

(Rated R for graphic violence, some grisly images, strong sexual content and language. Runs 117 minutes.)

Friday, October 25, 2013

Review of "The Counselor" on KPC Media Group's website

Ya know, I didn't think a movie that started out with Michael Fassbender and Penelope Cruz in bed together would be so darn boring and inexplicable - especially when it was written by Cormac McCarthy and directed by Ridley Scott! Alas, "The Counselor" is a stinker. Read my full review at KPC Media Group's website by clicking here.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Midweek Mancandy: Chris Evans

In honor of the new "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" poster (which you can see here) and upcoming teaser trailer (due online TOMORROW!), we just had to feature the superhero himself ... Chris Evans!

Let's make sure we have a view of his best side:

Oh ... sorry, you wanted to see his face?

Well, that ain't bad either.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

"Marvel's Agents of SHIELD" recap: "Girl in the Flower Dress"

After last week's great episode of "Marvel's Agents of SHIELD," which showed what the show could really be, I was looking forward to this week's episode more than I have since the pilot aired.

And, you know what? It didn't disappoint.

This week, we were introduced to a new baddie, an annoying boyfriend and several overarching plot elements. Oh, and the Bracelets of Shame, but I'll get to that later.

Five Reasons You Should Be Watching "Sleepy Hollow"

The first week of "Sleepy Hollow," Fox's new supernatural drama, I was a little skeptical. (You can read my somewhat lukewarm snap judgement here.)

But five episodes in, I've gotta say that the show has grown on me, and I'm downright hooked. 

If you've missed "Sleepy Hollow," never fear - the first five episodes will be aired on FX Saturday afternoon from 1-5 p.m.

Not convinced you should set your DVR? Here are five reasons you should:

Monday, October 21, 2013

'Dancing With the Stars' Week Six: Flailing D-Lister Crazy Dance Night O' Fun!

Whew! Competition is getting fierce on "Dancing With the Stars." Last week, a couple that received a 10 - from the very picky Len Goodman, no less - went home. We're not screwing around anymore. 

See? Not screwing around. No siree.

OK, that's not true. "Dancing With the Stars" is always a little screwy. But it's halfway through the competition, and in addition to the first round of regular old dances there is a second round of IMPROVISED DANCES. They called it the Switchup Challenge. Four couples have to dance on the floor at one time, and the music keeps changing. They have to keep time and interpret the music, but they don't have to actually dance a certain dance. They get tapped out, and the longer they stay in, the more points they get.

Alrighty ... it's time for DANCING!!!!!!!!!!!!

Movie Review: What's the point of remaking classic 'Carrie'?

This column was originally published in the KPC Media Group newspapers and online at Read the original column here. Republished on The Pop Tarts with permission. 

I understand the desire to remake horror movies. So often, the special effects in movies from decades ago fall flat, and for horror movies, bad special effects can be the kiss of death for modern audiences.

However, the really great horror movies of years past, like other classic films, hold up well, and 1976's "Carrie" is a great horror film. If you don't believe me, go back and watch it again. It really is one of the great ones.

I'm not saying that the new remake isn't good, too, because it is. In fact, if it were the first version of "Carrie" to hit theaters, it would probably feel like a pretty darn good movie, because it is. But because it's so faithful to both the original movie and the book, and it's solid and well-made with no huge changes, it feels like a case of "been-there, done-that."

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Movie Review of "Carrie" posted now at KPC Media Group

No Oscar-worthy movie here this week! I didn't hate "Carrie," but ... let's just say I didn't give it a glowing review, either.

Read my review on KPC Media Group's website by clicking here, and I'll post the full review on Monday!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Midweek Mancandy: Zac Efron

This morning, Internet-land woke up to some headlines about a red-band trailer featuring a certain former "High School Musical" star and his bare butt.

And while the movie, "That Awkward Moment," looks pretty terrible, there is a shot or two in the trailer that perfectly features just why our Midweek Mancandy for this week is ...

Zac Efron!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Recap: "Agents of SHIELD" - Eye Spy

About halfway through Tuesday night's episode of "Agents of SHIELD," I turned to my husband and said, "This is easily the best episode of this show so far."

"Eye Spy" represents the episode that really showed the true potential of this show, and I am more excited than I've been since the pilot.

"This is my excited face."

In "Eye Spy," Coulson and his crew faced off against a former SHIELD agent who disappeared after a supernatural-seeming diamond heist. It turned out there was more than meets the eye (HAR!) to her, and it was up to our team to trace the threat back to its source. 

And, fellow nerds? The episode worked, from beginning to end. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Dancing With the Stars Week 5: Celebrity Sob-Fest

It's another week of "Dancing With the Stars!" And this week is the week when we got to hear all of the celebrity sob stories, because everybody danced a dance relating to their most memorable year. There will be lots of sweet, sweet celebrity tears.

Sorry, that's my cynical side again. I have actually historically liked this week of dances, because it humanizes the celebrities and they tend to put a lot into these dances. I'm just sad that several of my favorites from this season are already gone, because I would have loved to have seen what they would have done.

Alas. Here are what the surviving D-listers did tonight:

Movie Review: Thrilling 'Captain Phillips' tells intimate, realistic tale

This column was originally published in the KPC Media Group newspapers and online at Read the original column here. Republished on The Pop Tarts with permission. 

By this time, it shouldn't be surprising when Tom Hanks gives a fantastic performance. He's won numerous awards for a variety of roles, and he is arguably one of the most recognizable actors working today.

And yet, in "Captain Phillips," Hanks managed to stun me again with a raw, intimate portrayal of the real-life ship's captain kidnapped by Somali pirates.

Hanks plays the titular Captain Richard Phillips, the captain of the American cargo ship Maersk Alabama. If you remember your recent history, you'll remember that the Maersk Alabama was hijacked by Somali pirates and Phillips was taken hostage on a lifeboat on its way back to Somalia. The movie follows Phillips through his terrifying ordeal.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Charlie Hunnam drops out of "50 Shades of Grey" - The Pop Tarts cast the movie!

The news Saturday was devastating, at least for anybody who was really jonesing to see Jax from "Sons of Anarchy" naked on the big screen.

Charlie Hunnam has dropped out of the "50 Shades of Grey" movie. But never fear ... The Pop Tarts have picked the Christian Grey they'd like to see!

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Netflix Review: Sons of Anarchy season 1

Over the summer, I (Kel) made the momentous decision to cancel cable and only have internet and Netflix. So while Jen has been busy watching all the new shows, I have been busy watching shows on Netflix in an effort to catch up on the tv that I never got around to watching when it aired/started.

The first show I decided to focus on in Sons of Anarchy. I chose SoA for three reasons: 1) since it started airing back in 2008, I've thought it looked like a good show; 2) I have had it recommended to me by a friends; 3) Have you seen Charlie Hunnam?

Friday, October 11, 2013

Movie Review of "Captain Phillips" posted at KPC Media Group

Another week, another Oscar-worthy movie. It's going to be quite a race this year! After last week's terrific "Gravity" (read my review here), I saw another tense, well-acted and thoroughly amazing movie this week: "Captain Phillips!" Read my review on KPC Media Group's website by clicking here, and I'll post the full review Monday morning!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

"Marvel Agents of SHIELD" Recap: "The Asset"

After a slightly underwhelming second episode of "Agents of SHIELD," Coulson & Friends were back in fine form for episode 3, "The Asset."

This episode was another "Problem of the Week" episode, as I assume most of them will be, but, like the first episode, there was an actual person involved along with a weird & wacky piece of technology. I think that is what is really going to work for this show - not just hunting down weapons and weird objects, but facing off against real people.

TV Snap Judgment: Super Fun Night

I really wanted to love "Super Fun Night," ABC's new sitcom created, written by and starring Rebel Wilson.

Ugh, but I really didn't love it. In fact, I kind of hated the whole experience of watching it.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Dancing With the Stars Week 4: The Prodigal Daughter Returns (As A Judge)

It seems like only a week ago we were saying goodbye to Bill Nye the Science Guy, but despite my deep disappointment that my favorite goofy-uncle contestant was gone too soon, I'm a professional and must soldier on in my recapping of The Glitteriest Show on Network Television. (There are much glitterier shows on basic cable, of course.) 

Tonight, Len Goodman was gone (probably off shaking a cane at whippersnappers on his lawn - if they told us why he was actually gone, I missed it, because I don't listen to all of the blather before the dancing) and in his place to judge was Julianne Hough, a former DWTS pro. 

At first I was a little upset by this (as upset as I get over "Dancing With the Stars," anyway), since Julianne's brother, Derek Hough, is a pro (paired with Amber Riley), and she and Derek lived and trained with another DWTS pro, Mark Ballas (who is paired with Christina Milian this season) when they were kids. Then I remembered that the scores mean jack crap on this show and figured it was probably OK that she was judging. Plus, as Kel pointed out, the world of ballroom dance is small and full of people who know each other and trained together. Also, it turned out that she was a pretty good judge, with lots of constructive criticism and no apparent favoritism except for Brant when he took his shirt off. Thumbs up, Julianne!

So, here's what happened:

Movie Review: Terrifying 'Gravity' a filmmaking triumph

This column was originally published in the KPC Media Group newspapers and online at Read the original column here. Republished on The Pop Tarts with permission. 

As much as I love science fiction, and as much as I support scientific exploration of the universe, the idea of outer space scares me. There's something incredibly unnerving about floating with very little between yourself and an airless void. One mistake can lead to instant death.

In "Gravity," that beautiful, oppresive expanse of space is the setting for a story that's as old as storytelling itself - one person's determination to overcome nearly unsurmountable odds to live just a little bit a longer.
"Gravity" tells the story of Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a specialist on a space mission. During a spacewalk with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), a disaster destroys their ship and forces them to try to find a way to stay alive and return to Earth.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Movie review of "Gravity" posted at KPC Media Group

This week I saw the tense, transformative and moving film "Gravity." It was the best movie I've seen so far this year - it's seriously incredible.

You can read my full review right now on KPC Media Group's website by clicking here. I'll post the full review on Monday!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Midweek Mancandy: George Clooney

Another Wednesday means it's time for a steaming plate of delicious, nutritious Mancandy! And today, we're featuring a super-sexy man who is in a film, opening Friday, that is getting some fantastic buzz.

Star of "Gravity" George Clooney!