Saturday, October 25, 2014

Movie Review: ‘St. Vincent’

**** out of 5
102 minutes
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material including sexual content, alcohol and tobacco use, and for language
The Weinstein Company

Article first published as Movie Review: ‘St. Vincent’ on Blogcritics.

In the world of comedy, is there anyone more reliable than Bill Murray? Not really. The man can make anything funny, rising above even some rather mediocre films. And Murray has never simply played himself. From his gopher-obsessed groundskeeper in Caddyshack to Scrooged’s narcissistic Frank Cross to his most popular character Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters, there’s no role too small — even his cameo in Zombieland was brilliant. And now he gets to play yet another neurotic character, this time a crotchety old war veteran in Theodore Melfi’s hilarious writing/directing debut: St. Vincent.

Vincent (Murray) is a scruffy old-timer who loves his alcohol, gambling, and pregnant Russian stripper/prostitute Daka (Naomi Watts). His life doesn’t get any better when his new neighbor Maggie’s (Melissa McCarthy) moving van snaps off a tree branch that crashes onto his car. He also blames them for his ruined fence, something he did the night before driving home drunk. Maggie’s son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) is having a rough time adjusting to his new school dealing with his Catholic teacher Brother Geraghty (Chris O’Dowd) and the class bully Robert Ocinski (Dario Barosso). One day, Oliver needs a place to stay after school thanks to Robert stealing his phone and house key. So Vincent lets him stay next door. Seizing the opportunity of extra money, Vincent takes Oliver in and starts babysitting him, and let’s just say hilarity ensues.

Melfi makes a fantastic debut making a film that would do the Sundance Film Festival proud. Considering it premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, this is not a Hollywood affair and it’s all the better for it. Murray may be playing a grumpy old man, but he’s always sympathetic and while his babysitting techniques may include horse racing and hanging out at the bar, Vincent never puts Oliver in danger — he has the wherewithal to take a cab home after drinking. McCarthy shines as we have hoped she would when she’s not playing outrageous characters like she did in Tammy and is great as a hard-working mother dealing with her ex-husbands adultery. Lieberher plays off Murray with ease, which says a lot about a child actor making his big screen debut. Lessons are learned as they always are, but St. Vincent has tons of heart to go along with the laughs. St. Vincent continues to prove Murray is one of our most treasured comedians with no signs of slowing down.

Photo courtesy The Weinstein Company

Friday, October 24, 2014

DVD Review: BBC’s ‘In the Flesh: The Complete Season Two’

Program: **** 1/2 out of 5

Article first published as DVD Review: BBC’s ‘In the Flesh: The Complete Season Two’ on Blogcritics.

After an amazing first season (albeit consisting of only three episodes) creator Dominic Mitchell nailed all the hallmarks of great drama even while in the midst of a zombie platform with his BBC program In the Flesh. Considering you have to keep viewers watching, you could almost call this the anti-Walking Dead. Reason being, we get the point of view of the zombies dealing with their return from the dead, instead of simply following another band of survivors trying to keep from becoming dead meat. With a game cast and double the number of episodes, season two gives Mitchell even more room to let the show breathe, providing plenty of twists and turns along the way. In the Flesh: The Complete Season Two is available now on DVD, just in time for Halloween.

In the Flesh, Luke Newberry, Emily Bevan, Emmett J Scanlan, Dominic MitchellCatching up with the living and undead of Roarton, Lancashire, we’re thrown back into village dealing with “The Rising.” A new drug is hitting the streets called “Blue Oblivion,” causing the zombies to turn rabid. While everyone is trying to make nice with their returned deceased, meanwhile, the Undead Liberation Army are still trying to keep the good dead down. Kieren Walker (Luke Newberry) is dealing with Amy and her new boyfriend Simon (Emmett J Scanlan), who keeps assuring Kieren that he’ll always be her BDFF (Best Dead Friend Forever). Meanwhile, Maxine Martin (Wunmi Mosaku) starts enforcing PD (Partially Deceased) sufferers to register in a rehab program of sorts. Eventually, the Undead Prophet starts talk about finding the “First Risen” with a set of twelve apostles to help bring about a Second Resurrection by destroying whoever the First Risen may be.

All the dramatic beats of the first season remain intact, whether it’s the local townsfolk tension boiling against the returned or family squabbles at the Walker house. Kieren and Amy aren’t without their friendly pitfalls, even with Simon adding a third wheel scenario. The season really starts to come together when Simon and Maxine’s true intentions start to scratch their way to the surface. While it may not be an action-packed series, In the Flesh never tries to be. Instead, setting it’s sights on topics such as segregation. Even a subplot of possibly psychic zombies comes into play. This season adds a lot of fun new twists and feels even more fleshed out, which should be expected with six episodes for Mitchell to just kill it, and even leaves us with a fantastic cliffhanger. Bring on season three!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Blu-ray Review: ‘The Scribbler’

Movie: *** out of 5
Video: ****
Audio: ****
Extras: *

89 minutes
Rated R for violent images, some strong sexuality/nudity, and language

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: ‘The Scribbler’ on Blogcritics.

“Based on a graphic novel” can sometimes act as a warning. If you haven’t read the source material, you may wind up scratching your head. Then again, you’d never know Road to Perdition was based on one.  Full of neon lighting and bonkers storytelling, Scribbler screenwriter Dan Schaffer finds none of the fun his debut Doghouse aimed for, even while adapting his own graphic novel. Director John Suits aims high for a female superhero origin tale of sorts, but the R-rating oddly gets in the way. Featuring more titillating scenery than usual, all we’re left with is a ton of campiness, available on Blu-ray from XLrator Media on October 21.

In The Scribbler, Suki (Katie Cassidy) is being interrogated by Silk (Eliza Dushku) and Moss (Michael Imperioli). The two detectives have a stack of dead bodies they need answers for and think Suki is to blame. It doesn’t help Suki’s story that she suffers from multiple personalities and lives at a halfway house where the residents are literally dropping like flies – right out the window. While in a mental institution, Suki was given a treatment called “The Siamese Burn.” Turns out, the machine they’re using is giving Suki’s most destructive personality – The Scribbler – a chance to show itself. Now, Suki must clear her name with the help of Hogan (Garret Dillahunt), who’s been around the building a few times.

The Scribbler kicks its way onto Blu-ray, framed in a 2.39:1 aspect ratio. Considering there are no special features – if you don’t count the film’s trailer – it should come as no surprise that the film is pretty flawless. Especially for being on a 25GB disc. Colors are bright and bold without bleeding. Noise, crush, banding, and aliasing are nonexistent. Detail is exact, except where manipulated in post production. This is a demo worthy presentation, but far better than you’d expect. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is very well mixed. Especially when Suki’s personalities start talking to each other. Although, sometimes the center speaker is a tad quieter not getting completely drowned out, but definitely not as audible. Bass keeps the film’s score rocking, and there are English subtitles available.

The best part of The Scribbler, hands down, is Cassidy’s performance. You’ve never seen her like this before. Particularly if she didn’t use a body double for a big sex scene. Gina Gershon is wasted as one of the fellow loonies, and Ashlynn Yennie makes up for the lack of Sasha Grey nudity. Sadly, the film never finds the right pace, relying on how much of Cassidy you’re willing to follow. Considering they never let her look anywhere near as good on Arrow as she does here, chances are most male viewers will find plenty to keep their um, interest, piqued. And while trying to avoid spoilers, Michelle Trachtenberg is completely miscast. The Scribbler may not have any special features but it certainly makes up for it with the presentation. Approach with expectations in check and you might enjoy yourself; just don’t expect a new cult classic.

Movie Review: ‘Housebound’

**** out of 5
107 minutes
Not rated
XLrator Media

Article first published as Movie Review: ‘Housebound’ on Blogcritics.

With horror-comedy, sometimes the kitchen sink method just works. If you rely too heavily on one aspect over the other, it either stops being scary and is even less funny. When it does work, it’s a fantastic concoction. While most would hold the likes of Scream as the best of the bunch, they probably haven’t seen Peter Jackson’s early works: Dead Alive and Bad Taste. Most recently, we’ve been treated to the likes of Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, The Cabin in the Woods, and You’re Next. The one thing these films need to be is a wild ride, and writer/director Gerard Johnstone’s debut Housebound (now playing in select theaters, VOD, and iTunes) finds just the right balance across the board.

Housebound, Gerard Johnstone, Morgana O'Reilly, Rima Te WiataKylie Bucknell (Morgana O’Reilly) is having a bad night. While attempting to rob an ATM, her cohort has knocked himself unconscious, and she winds up high centering the getaway car. Sentenced to eight-months of house arrest, Kylie is sent to live with her overbearing mum Miriam (Rima Te Wiata) and step-father Graeme (Ross Harper). Straddled with an ankle monitor, Kylie quickly learns that Miriam thinks her house is haunted after overhearing her call in to a paranormal radio show. It’s not soon after that Kylie begins to also hear bumps in the night, and she may have more to fear than land lines and dial-up internet. 

Housebound finds fantastic ways to spoof the standard haunted house film while finding new ground. And just when you think you have it all figured out, director Johnstone throws another curveball at the audience. O’Reilly gets a lot of mileage out of simple facial expressions as she becomes more bewildered with the circumstance, ghostbusting security expert Amos (Glen-Paul Waru) gets plenty of hilarious one-liners, and Miriam puts her deadpan delivery to brilliant use. While the ending seems to keep going and going, don’t worry, it all winds up fitting together perfectly by the time the credits roll. There’s a nice mystery abound and Housebound is a hilarious goosebump-inducing funhouse of a film, perfect for the Halloween season. It is now playing in select theaters, as well as VOD and iTunes.

Picture courtesy XLrator Media

Friday, October 17, 2014

Movie Review: ‘The Book of Life’

*** out of 5
95 minutes
Rated PG for mild action, rude humor, some thematic elements and brief scary images
20th Century Fox

Article first published as Movie Review: ‘The Book of Life’ (2014) on Blogcritics.

While Guillermo del Toro may usually serve up a slam dunk when he sits in the director’s chair, his producing efforts are a little weaker. Although to be fair, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and Mama are better than you’ve probably heard. Del Toro was brought in to spice things up for DreamWorks Animation in conjunction with being able to kick off his own production company in order to make horror movies for kids. The first step in this direction is plastering his name on Jorge Gutierrez’s “Day of the Dead”-inspired The Book of Life. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot of life to be found.

Three childhood friends — Manolo (voiced by Diego Luna as an adult), Maria (voiced by Zoe Saldana), and Joaquin (voiced by Channing Tatum) — are placed in a bet by the rulers of The Land of the Remembered and Forgotten — La Muerte (voiced by Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (voiced by Ron Perlman), over who will wind up victorious over Maria’s heart. Afraid of losing, Xibalba sends a snake to bite Maria, sending her into a coma, and winds up killing Manolo, sending him on an adventure through the underwold. Needless to say, there is also a subplot involving the approaching threat of the villainous Chakal (voiced by Dan Navarro) and the never-ending wishy washy affections of Maria.

If you find yourself getting lost in the onslaught of plot, don’t worry, you won’t be alone. The only way one could really enjoy The Book of Life would be to sit back and enjoy the visuals. Reel FX Creative Studios created a fantastic-looking film, chock full of skeletons and skulls, but Gutierrez’s screenplay (co-written by TV vet Doug Langdale, also of Gutierrez’s animated series El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera) completely whitewashes (i.e. Americanizes) everything. They also fall back on the old DreamWorks attitude that pop songs used out of context are hilarious. For anyone who’s already sick of Mumford & Sons’ “I Will Wait,” mind your ears.

The other huge annoyance is how out of place Tatum sounds among the Hispanic voice cast. There’s no way his name is being used as a box office draw since you don’t get to actually look at him. Also, be warned that there is a deluge of poop and pee jokes. At least one of each just in the opening scene! I admit, for the first half hour I was relatively enchanted by the animation style, but once the plot kicks in everything starts to sputter and never picks back up. The worst offense for any animated feature is boredom, but that’s all that’s left to find in The Book of Life.

Photo courtesy 20th Century Fox

Movie Review: ‘The Best of Me’

** out of 5
117 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sexuality, violence, some drug content and brief strong language
Relativity Media

Article first published as Movie Review: ‘The Best of Me’ on Blogcritics.

There are plenty of ways to know you’re watching a film based on a Nicholas Sparks novel. Young love, pretty people kissing in the rain, and the death of a major character are just three. The biggest factor is usually how bad the movie is. With the exception of The Notebook — and, to a lesser degree, A Walk to Remember — there hasn’t been a single good film in Sparks’ growing filmography. His movies are usually hilariously bad, with only the dumbest of moviegoers falling prey, and this weekend’s Sparks offering, The Best of Me, never rises above his typical clich├ęs, even with two very likeable leads.

James Marsden, Michelle Monaghan, Nicholas Sparks, Luke Bracey, Liana LibertoDawson Cole (James Marsden) works on an oil rig until an explosion throws him into the ocean. Doctors are baffled that he wasn’t killed and now Dawson is convinced that there must be a reason he survived. While floating in the ocean, Dawson also has a vision of his long lost high school love Amanda (Liana Liberato). Soon after, Dawson and Amanda (played as an adult by Michelle Monaghan) are called back to their hometown to hear the will reading of their old friend Tuck (Gerald McRaney). Now, Dawson and Amanda are forced to reconcile the past, seen in flashbacks (with Dawson played here by Luke Bracey) from 1992. Meanwhile, Amanda is also facing the truth of her strained marriage and the two must battle a rekindling old flame.

The Best of Me is chock full of everything you’ve come to expect from a Sparks production, and it’s a shame. Monaghan and Marsden make a nice enough couple, and even their teenage versions work well together. That is if you can get past the fact that Marsden and Bracey look absolutely nothing alike. They don’t even have the same eye color. Prison sure does change a man, something a surprisingly hilarious line by Amanda when she complains that Dawson has only gotten better looking after 21 years.

There is also dumb subplot dragging out the runtime involving Dawson’s abusive drug-trafficking dad (Sean Bridgers) and character actions that are none too honorable. It’s too bad screenwriters Will Fetters and J. Mills Goodloe are stuck adapting a Sparks novel because The Best of Me features some of the worst dialogue of the year. Director Michael Hoffman also directs every scene with as much schmaltz as he can wring out for full diabetic sappiness. The Best of Me is ultimately an oxymoron as it only brings out the worst of Sparks.

Photos courtesy Relativity Media

Movie Review: ‘Fury’

***** out of 5
134 minutes
Rated R for strong sequences of war violence, some grisly images, and language throughout
Columbia Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: ‘Fury’ (2014) on Blogcritics.

War films just aren’t my cup of tea. There, I said it. I know — just like every other genre — they all basically play out the same. Lots of heroism and flag waving, there’s just not a lot of character development floating around to make you really care for the characters. It’s more directors just wanting to make you root for “’Murica.” So it’s nice when one comes along that finally treats you to some characterization instead of just pitting a bunch of soldiers against a common enemy. In the case of writer/director David Ayer’s Fury, there’s more human drama than usual, making the turmoil even more devastating as the finale approaches.

Brad Pittc, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal, David Ayer, FuryIt’s April 1945 with the end of World War II near. We meet our ragtag group of soldiers — Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt), Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LeBeouf), Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Pena), and Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal) — suffering from cabin fever inside their beloved tank “Fury,” with one of their gunmen dead. As the final push into Nazi Germany commences, clerk typist Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) is forced onto the battlefield under Collier’s command. Now, Norman is thrust into action having never so much as held a gun, and the 2nd Armored Division heads into enemy territory to make a final stand against Hitler’s regime.

The less you know about what happens in Fury, the better. Although, the trailer makes what happens in the big finale seem like it’s the majority of the film. Yes, the tank does break down with the SS fast approaching and the men take a stand, but there’s a whole lot more going on. Lerman continues to prove he’s more capable than some of his lesser roles and the whole crew show real camaraderie. Even LeBeouf is likeable — now that’s saying something.

Brad Pittc, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal, David Ayer, FuryAyer gives all of the men character development, something lacking from most war films. And he never skimps on the gory details of war. Upon Norman joining the troop, he finds a piece of someone’s face inside the tank, and plenty of heads pop like zits as they’re run over by tanks. There’s also a surprising amount of humor, keeping the plot from getting too grisly. Ayer also makes fantastic use of his cinematographer (Roman Vasyanov) always ensuring you can see what’s going on — for better and worse sometimes.

There’s even a moment of sweetness with Collier and Norman taking refuge in a house with two women, Irma (Anamaria Marinca) and Emma (Alicia von Rittberg). But even that features one of the film’s most intense scenes involving boiling dinner table conversation. Pitt continues to prove he’s one of our best leading men. And Fury winds up being another frontrunner in the fall season when Oscar-bait films start taking over from the summer blockbusters. Fury is a spectacular piece of war film art, with real emotion and top-notch acting, making it one of the year’s best films.

Photos courtesy Columbia Pictures