Tag Archives: Reviews

Now Playing: Percy Jackson, Frozen and a pathetic excuse for Valentine’s Day

12 Feb

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Morning all. How’s it going? I just put up a review of the new Wolfman and have a few more treats coming up today, including a top ten, a Retro review and The Weekly Creepy. However, in an effort to give you a look see into a few more of the new films opening today, I’m putting up links to my work over at Atomic Popcorn where I take a look at Percy Jackson, Adam Green’s Frozen, and Valentine’s Day. I’ll  post a link and the trailers for each below, complete with the matching Cinematropolis rating.

Check them out! Continue reading

Bartleby’s Best Films of 2009

24 Jan

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Yes sir, I know I’m quite late with this, but this past month has been loaded down with surprises—both good and bad—that have drawn my attention away from the blog. Hopefully, this will be the last bit of procrastination the site sees for awhile. The plan is to get back into a daily posting framework, and if that’s successful, move to a legitimate website sometime in February. Until then, here’s my belated list of  2009’s best films.

I’ve heard many complain that this past year was a weak one cinematically speaking, and in a late scrabble to identify the potential ‘award winners’ for Oscar season many are coming up short with candidates. Well, bah! to that I say. Regarding the medium of film as a whole, I see 2009 as nothing less than a fantastic success.

Continue reading

Now Playing: Jackson Rattles ‘The Lovely Bones’

15 Jan

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The Lovely Bones (PG-13) 120 min. Directed by: Peter Jackson Written by: Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Stanley Tucci, Susan Sarandon Cinematography: Andrew Lesnie Original Score: Brian Eno

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Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones is a decidedly creepy and insubstantial adaptation of Alice Sebold’s best-selling novel. Recounting the after-life of young Susie Salmon, a 14-yr old Pennsylvania girl who is raped and murdered by a neighbor, Bones is being sold as a kind of bittersweet fantasy with an eye on family tragedy. Beautifully photographed, with a haunting wistful score by Brian Eno, Jackson and company bring all of their technical expertise to bear on the film and attend to its tricky narrative taboos with a  delicate hand. The acting is mostly very good, with the centerpiece being a thoughtful and sweet performance by Saoirse Ronan, who seems to have a bright cinematic future ahead of her. And yet, for all of this, The Lovely Bones falls flat on its face. Hard. Continue reading

Top 25 Animated Movies of the Decade: Part 2

10 Dec

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Ok, here we go. The top ten animated films of the last decade. There’s not much to say here that I didn’t mention in the first installment of this article. Honestly, this was such a great 10 years for animation in general, that even limiting the choices and ranking them has been a fool’s errand. But, I guess I’m that fool and the following represent what I think are the finest accomplishments of the form. Each and every one of these could be competing for number 1. Here goes… Continue reading

Bloglins #1: Pandorum, Baltimore Book Festival, Dollhouse 2.0, Weekend DVDs

25 Sep

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September 25th,2009–

Happy weekend everyone! Here we are on Friday night and consider me exhausted. I’ve got a Surrogates review to write and AMAD to cover before I hit the sack so I’ll keep this one short. One of the new features for Cinematropolis is Bloglins, a forum for mini-reader reviews and feedback related to current pop culture items. Below I’ve got four topics I want to hear more from you on. Just post or email me a 100 word or less review/comment/update on any of the below bits and I’ll publish them below with your name, website and any info you wish to be included. Enjoy! My email is  j_echo@hotmail.com. Continue reading

Movie Review: Mann Alive! ‘Public Enemies’ Is An Old-School Epic With New Tricks

29 Jun

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Public Enemies (2009) R. 140  min. Directed by: Michael Mann. Written by: Ronan Bennett, Michael Mann, & Ann Biderman. Starring: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Billy Crudup.Cinematography:Dante Spinotti. Original music by: Elliot Goldenthal.

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Now this is how you do summer movie escapism. One of our best and brightest movie stars paired with one of the most consistently interesting directors available in the larger than life story of  America’s canniest career criminal, John Dillinger. For all of those shaking under the tromping robotic boots of Bay’s blustering summer monstrosity, take heart, that other Mike has come to town and he’s brought Johnny Depp, Marion Cotillard and  Christian Bale along for a thrilling ride that recreates Depression era cop and robber games with all the precision of a master storyteller. Continue reading

Movie review: Raimi’s road to ‘Hell’ paved with good invention

30 May

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Drag Me To Hell (PG-13) 99 min. directed by: Sam Raimi. written by: Sam and Ivan Raimi. starring: Alison Lohman, Justin Long, David Paymer, Lorna Raver, Dileep Rao, Adriana Baraza. cinematography: Peter Deming. original music: Christopher Young.

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Wow, what a weekend for movies. This is one of the best lineups I’ve seen since sometime in summer of 99 when The Sixth Sense, Dick, Iron Giant, Mystery Men and The Thomas Crown Affair all released on the same friday. I was actually in the midst of writing up reviews this afternoon for two other films that debuted today (one a masterpiece and the other a solid entertainment) when my wife called me and inquired if I’d like to check out a movie around 4. We had two on the roster we wanted to see–Drag Me to Hell and Up! and she expressed interest in seeing the former first. Afterall, it’s almost a given that a new Pixar will be brilliant, but the idea of a new Sam Raimi horror comedy? Yea, if I haven’t said it before, let me say it now: my wife rocks!

As it turns out, there couldn’t be a better popcorn movie for a rainy  Friday evening than Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell. As a pure audience experience, I don’t think we will see its equal all summer long. Even our moderately attended late-afternoon showing yielded plenty of responsive yelps, guffaws and nervous giggles; Raimi hasn’t played an audience this well since Spiderman 2 and Drag Me To Hell is Sam’s best film since 1998’s A Simple Plan. Best of all, Raimi the mainstream filmmaker takes a back seat to the goop-meister Raimi responsible for the Evil Dead trilogy. He opens up his box of wacky tricks and unleashes a thrill-a-minute creep fest that isn’t afraid to go for the cheap scare or the cheap laugh while still maintaining a level of class that most current horror pictures don’t even get around to thinking about. When the old-style Universal logo came up on screen I knew we were in for something , ahem, ‘groovy’.

The movie has a pre-credits sequence that sets the stage for whats to come; a family in the 60’s bring their ailing son to Shaun San Dena, a fortune teller and seer who tries to help the boy. He stole a silver necklace from a gypsy caravan and for the past three days has been having violent hallucinations and mumbles something about a dark force ‘coming to get him’. San Dena tries to save the youngster but something supernatural bursts in on the attempt and ….well, you  should see it for yourself. Lets just say that at this point Raimi lets everyone know that while this might be rated PG-13  its anything but safe.

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Hell then launches into the main story, involving Allison Lohman’s Christine, a sweet and mild mannered loan officer who is vying with a new employee for an assistant manager position at the bank where she works. In an effort to turn the tables to her advantage, Christine makes a break from her usually tender disposition and spurns an elderly gypsy woman who begs not to be foreclosed on. The decision is left in Christine’s hands and she sends the gypsy, Mrs. Ganush, on her way after a humilating display where the old lady grovels at the young woman’s feet.

After a particularly vivid and rousing slap-stick(a stapler is used in a most inappropriate way) battle between Christine and the angry hag in a darkened parking lot, Mrs. Ganush manages to rip away one of the girl’s buttons and  issues a curse on it. The only word Lohman hears clearly is ‘Lamia’. She doesn’t know what it means but before very long the cozy and quiet little life she has been trying to maintain with her boyfriend Clay is falling apart. Something terrifying is hunting Christine and hideous visions flood her every waking thought; among them a goat-like creature who stamps its cloven feet outside of her door and the gypsy lady herself, vomiting pounds of beetles and worms onto the young woman while she sleeps. When she consults dime-store psychic Rham Jas, he senses an evil presence and warns her that she has been cursed by a gypsy demon called the Lamia, or ‘Black Goat’. She will hallucinate for 3 days and on the fourth the Lamia will come and literally drag her down to the pits of  hell, soul and all. 

 The plot is just a simple hook upon which Raimi hangs an irreverent and rambunctious series of gross-out gags, jump-scares and atmospheric sequences where characters try to solve problems and find themselves knee-deep in complete, supernatural chaos. Theres plenty of absurd special fx and interesting camera work (a fly lands directly on the lens at one point) but the film’s secret weapon is its breath-taking sound design. When the jump scares land I dare you not to nearly soil yourself. The sound becomes so antagonistic that it results in the first horror film where we desire to cover our ears in fear rather than our eyes.

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 Instead of giving the audience a concrete monster to fix upon, Raimi keeps switching from one halloween trick to the next; pieces of furniture attack, a handkerchief floats about and mutters as it does so, and there are some very sick-making but ingenious things done with flies. By the time one character regurgitates a whole cat, Drag Me To Hell has already deluged us in more fluids than should be allowable in one film. The regurgitation, especially, is quite frequent. In fact, vomit spews out of people here like pop references in a Tarantino film. Why puke? Because it’s less disturbing to the ratings board and it’s more inherently repulsive. Raimi loves to make our skin crawl, and make us laugh, and then , one scene later, take the whole enterprise seriously and wonder why we were laughing in the first place.

In Drag Me To Hell Sam unleashes seven different kinds of Stooge-like pain on Alison Lohman, who is one heck of a good sport. But in the end, it’s not the gross-out stuff that causes the 50’s horror-style dread but the underlying idea behind the entire movie; when the Lamia comes, its not Christine’s body that will pay the price but her spiritual essence. Fear not the one who can destroy the body, but the soul as well. So while he dishes out supernatural vengeance on Christine and her personal life, Raimi builds the unsettling idea of what such a drastic sentence might push a typically decent young woman to do. This girl doesn’t want eternal torment, and she doesn’t believe she deserves what is coming. In the end, afterall, it was the bank, not she, that had canceled on Mrs. Ganosh. Watching the ways in which Christine attempts to out-manuever the curse adds a layer of tragedy and dread to what , in all other ways,is a vintage horror comic come to life. And this is not a bad thing.

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When all else fails, Jas brings Christine to Shaun San Dena, older now and played by the wonderfully effective Adriana Barraza (Babel, Henry Poole is Here). San Dena is looking to atone for her failure of years past and her focus is two-fold: save Christine and destroy the Lamia for good. The seance that follows is the grand event of Drag Me To Hell, where every funhouse gimmick in the book gets trotted out. Raimi has said on the Evil Dead 2 commentary that there was originally a crazy seance planned for that movie but the budget didn’t allow it. 20 some years later not only has he made it, but it’s one of the best pieces of directing he’s ever done.

I  had alot of fun with Drag Me To Hell and with Sam’s never-ending visual imagination. So much of whats here looks like a patchwork quilt of Darkman, Evil Dead and Army of Darkness but theres also a feverish ingenuity to the way it’s put together. Even when I had a handle on where the script itself was going story-wise I was constantly blindsided by the elaborate goofiness on display; a pivotal and tension-filled seance scene is interrupted by a grotesque, gabby goat. And Raimi has something this time around he never had when making the original Evil Dead films; talented and nuanced actors. Not to slam Bruce Campbell as Ash in the Dead films but his performance was mostly physical comedy and impersonated machismo–it absolutely worked but thats not what this movie requires. It requires us to feel for and worry for Christine, while also seeing the not so honest and kind underneath that she hides from everyone else. We also have to believe she is a strong enough spirit to take the kinds of blows and psychological assault she comes under here, while remaining steadfast in her search for an end to the curse.

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 Lohman delivers this completely. She has always used her childlike features and youthful innocence to great effect, particularly in Matchstick Men where she ran an entire con based around the fact, but here she plays it up AND plays against it. It was fun to see Campbell get cluelessly thrashed in Army of Darkness but it’s something altogether different when baby-faced Lohman, covered in bile and formaldyhide, stands up and fights for her soul, even if it means fighting dirty and passing the buck to others. The actors around Christine could have been pulled from a black and white horror film and they capture the right tone for the piece.

Justin Long has the thankless role that used to belong to the likes of Kent Smith back in the 40s, the doubtful but supportive partner,, and he does a nice job of it. He stabilizes the movie and brings it back to a relative state of normalcy. This is mostly done so Raimi can just shatter it all over again, and he does that with the likes of Lorna Raver as the vengeful gypsy. There is nothing subtle about her performance and thats the beauty. Sometimes she is just a frail but nasty old woman and then other times shes putting in her dentures so she can bite Lohman. My personal favorite performance is Adriana Baraza’s turn as  San Dena, who is only in the film for the duration of the seance scene. Baraza has a folksy and sincere quality to her that was put to good use in films like Babel and Henry Poole is Here, where she took a typical latin stereotype and revealed to us the living breathing person underneath. In this movie she is all stereotype all the time, but she harnesses it and makes the best darn demon-fighting fortune teller you will ever see. That scene is the magnetic core of the movie and she is the emotional core of the scene.

I’ve always been a big fan of well-made horror films but I really detest what usually passes for the genre in today’s marketplace. Typically amoral and centered around pain and misery, the current crop withers in the face of Raimi’s jolly but straightforward tale of good and evil. Like the Spiderman films, there are choices we face and consequences for those choices. What I appreciate about Sam Raimi is that he doesn’t try to unhinge us as much as entertain us. He’s  like a demented carnival barker, running us through various traps and amusements and bringing us out on the other side, not permanently scarred or wishing we could un-see half of what we just witnessed, but entertained and energized  by the grand silliness up there on screen. And if theres a lingering bit of the creeps? All the better.

Bartleby Abroad: Ong Bak 2 raises the bar for martial arts action

23 May

 

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Let’s start simple. Ong Bak 2 kicks ALL kinds of butt. Crocodile, elephant, pirate, ninja, crow-sorcerer–if you are in Thailand and possess a posterior it probably has Tony Jaa’s footprint on it. This is one of the most kinetic, ambitious martial arts films I’ve ever seen. Jaa not only eclipses his previous efforts, but he proves himself to be a very gifted action director.

All of the bizarre stories involving Jaa hiding out in a cave and nearly going crazy cease to matter when basked in the energizing glow of Ong Bak 2’s lush, aggressive vision. I don’t hold any of it against Tony. I nearly lost my mind just watching the freakin’ thing; he’s excused if he lost his making it. By changing the time period, and ramping up the mythological aspects of his Thai setting and his mysterious hero, Jaa has done something unexpected: He’s made the greatest Conan movie we can probably ever expect to see on film.

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The first Ong Bak was a great audience movie; perfect for friendly gatherings, conventions, bar mitzvahs, you name it. The story wasn’t important. We watched as a new action hero was born and we reveled in every obstacle leapt over, every cranium busted by an elbow, and every flaming leg kick connecting with its target. There was, however, plenty of room to grow. The budgetary constraints were obvious. Replaying each action scene from different angles grew tiresome. Jaa was a silent, strong hero, but when he wasn’t in fight mode he had all his scenes stolen by his sidekick, Dirty Balls.

I like that first film a lot, but feel it functions better as a demo reel for what Jaa is capable of than as an actual movie. I’m a bigger fan of The Protector, which was sillier but had more heart. Jaa fighting for his elephant seemed awkward at first, but it gave the movie a center. The elephant added one more shade to Tony’s stoic ass-kicker, and we like our heroes to have layers, even thin ones. Now, there’s Ong Bak 2 which has as much connection to the original film as Protector had, but brings with it a greater technical prowess and a more layered story. 

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The most significant difference that separates Ong Bak 2 from its predecessors is the overall scale of the production. The film takes place in 15th century Thailand and all the money spent shows up on screen. This is one of the most sumptuous looking movies I’ve seen this year. There is a sense of perfectionism in each shot. Every temple, every town, and every river is captured in gorgeous golden-green hues. 

The battles are filmed in a way where we understand the geography and position of the fighters and the punches and kicks they are throwing. The action is breath-taking. Warriors on horseback  ride through fields of flying arrows, and Jaa’s character, Tieng is captured in his childhood by raiders who throw him into a crocodile pit where he must fight his way out to freedom. Both sequences utilize practical fx, and as a result the scenes are almost seamless. I’m not convinced they didn’t let a kid in Thailand wrestle a real crocodile.

 Early in the film, adult Tieng runs across the backs of an elephant herd, making his way to their leader. After sparring on the ground with this elephant, he swings himself up on it, swats it on the head, and forces it to its knees in submission. As Tieng stands there on the elephant, with his dark hair flowing in the wind, we see the rest of the herd bowing down before him. The entire thing has a certain comic-book majesty to it. 

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There is overall, less action in this film than the original Ong Bak. For a long time, Jaa is building this world and the back-story for Tieng. It’s a simple revenge tale, like the original Conan the Barbarian. Tieng’s parents are brutally murdered and he is rescued by pirates whose leader raises him as if he were his own son. When Tieng comes of age, he is placed through a series of trials where he must master different facets and styles of martial arts. The early action scenes display this training and allow Jaa to show us that his skills extend far beyond the world of muy-thai. The later passages follow him as he pursues revenge against the growing forces responsible for his parent’s death.

The tension mounts slowly, until we arrive at the film’s final half hour, which is an extraordinary piece of action filmmaking. There’s a new standard thrown down here. We don’t mind that we have seen maybe one knee to a forehead since the film’s opening. This time, Tony Jaa uses a SWORD. We aren’t talking, parry, parry, thrust. Imagine balletic, complex moves mixed with slashing, clanging metal weapons. I’ve never seen swordfights as exciting as these.  What this man can do with a blade is frightening and astonishing.

Jaa himself is also a trained khon mask dancer, so it isn’t surprising that he brings this into the film as a significant part of Tieng’s background. It’s the one thing that helps soften him. When he returns to find the girl he lost as a youth, he discovers her dancing for his enemy. He joins in too, wearing a mask to hide his identity, and the entire sequence slows down the film’s pace but builds the drama and tension. Then he releases this tension in a fury of kicks, knee-smashes, spear chucking, rope swinging, elephant gymnastics and blade throwing. The adrenaline cherry topping this action sundae is a fight scene atop an elephant with  Tieng battling  a dark shaman-like creature. It’s impressive and I’d wonder how they did it, if I weren’t too engrossed in the film to care.

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There is much I haven’t said about the movie, because primarily, it’s an experience. Ong Bak 2 is a full fledged adventure; its pacing is strong and  its hero possesses enough complexities to keep him central in our focus. As a purely visual experience it has no other live action equal so far this year.

So, what’s the catch? What’s the flaw? Well, it seems like it’s only half a movie. Ong Bak 2 just  ends after only a 111 minutes. Our hero is in a seriously dire straight and just like an old serial, we are told that’s it. More next time. We see him older and bearded, much like a certain Cimmerian, but what happens to him in in his current trial we never see.

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To give you an idea of what’s done in Ong Bak, imagine if Conan the Barbarian ended with Ahnuld finishing his speech to Crom, the warriors of Thulsa Doom bearing down on him, and then it went to black, the narrator stepped in, and asked you to send all your positive thoughts out to Conan, that he might be able to survive this trial. And then we see him there on the throne. No, really. That’s essentially what happens here. It’s kind of frustrating, but it isn’t crippling to the film. After all that has come before, how can it be?

 The ending reflects Buddhist philosophy better than most anything I’ve seen, and it’s a clever strategy for Jaa. Guys like Jackie Chan and Jet Li have made movies for years where the stories didn’t matter. They were just showcases. Jaa has made himself a serialized franchise here. He can tell a little bit of this epic story each time, build a character with some depth, and still keep it down to a brisk film that delivers the action fans want. The ending is a sticker at first, but when your singular complaint for a movie is that you want to see more of it, that’s not a terrible thing. Me, I’m ready for Ong Bak 3 right now.

Hey, who am I kidding. I’m ready for Ong Bak 2 again. Get lost Star Wars; Tony Jaa is the only Thai-fighter we need.

Gilliam’s Parnassus enchants at Cannes and the reviews are coming in!

22 May
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Christopher Plummer as the titular character in Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

 Terry Gilliam is one of the most unique directors working today. Alas, just because he has been working today, doesn’t mean there has been much fruit as of late. Mostly, it’s not his fault. The infamous The Man Who Killed Don Quixote with Jean Rochefort and Johnny Depp crumbled under events outside of his control. His follow-up film The Brothers Grimm was entertaining enough but it was hacked and hampered by the Weinstein Bros and his next venture, Tideland, felt like the artist in meltdown mode. He was cramming every irreverant idea he had into a thin little whisp of a movie and without any sort of constraints it exploded into delirious, over-cooked pieces.

Then, he began work on The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, an all-out folk fantasy with a great cast; Christopher Plummer, Heath Ledger, and Tom Waits. It sounded like the kind of great stuff that had made me fall in love with the man’s work originally. I still consider his trilogy of Time Bandits, Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen to be some of the finest examples of fantasy filmmaking ever concieved.

When Ledger died, it seemed like the curse of Gilliam had struck again. But, remarkably, Parnassus was raised from the ashes like a Pheonix when Depp, Law and Farrell came alongside Gilliam and allowed him to finish making the movie by playing different facets of Ledger’s character, and donating all of their salary to Heath’s family in the process.

So this week, the amazing happened. A new Gilliam film premiered at Cannes. And so far, the word is great. Right now the idea of a great new Gilliam movie is a bit overwhelming. All of the current reviews, including ones written prior to Cannes, are available below. I’ll keep updating as they come in.

Variety’s Todd McCarthy gives Gilliam his due HERE.

Kenneth Turan applauds Parnassus and Gilliam’s gumption HERE.

Aint It Cool News’ Harry Knowles cheerfully slobbers over it HERE.

Another AICN alumn, Quint, calls Parnassus “unadulterated Gilliam” HERE.

Reviews come in from Tarantino’s Inglorious Cannes screening

20 May

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This Wednesday morning at 8:30 a.m.  Quentin Tarantino, the rabid dog of extravagant, pop-indulgence himself, presented his  Inglorious Basterds to the Cannes audience. The new film stars Brad Pitt and follows a militia of Jewish soldiers sent out to strike fear and collect scalps among the Third Reicht, with the  finale taking place in a movie theater with Hitler himself in attendance. The trailer made it look like more of the wacky same from Tarantino, who I personally find to be frustratingly inconsistent. His original Pulp Fiction, which won him the Palme D’ or at Cannes back in 1994, is an original and energetic work and I’m quite fond of Kill Bill but most everything else that Tarantino has done has fallen short for me, especially the tedious and overblown Death Proof.

As for this one, I’m not sure. Tarantino will most certainly be drawing from war pics and sphagetti westerns and if he conjures as much fun as he did with Bill’s martial arts influences then count me in. For now though, the most compelling part of the film’s trailer is Pitt’s  crazy line: “I want my scalps!” Heres are some links to the early reviews and three clips from the film:

Variety review is up HERE.

Roger Ebert offers some thoughts HERE.

Michael Philips gives a somewhat mixed review HERE.

The Guardian is appalled HERE.

See 3 new clips from Inglorious Basterds HERE.