Friday, June 24, 2016

Movie Review: “The Shallows”

The Shallows

**** 1/2 out of 5
87 minutes
Rated PG-13 for bloody images, intense sequences of peril, and brief strong language
Columbia Pictures

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

Everybody has a favorite animal. While one may assume mine is the dachshund — since I have two — anyone who really knows me is more than aware that I have an unabashed love for sharks. From my annual DVR-polluting Shark Week recordings, Jaws being my all-time favorite movie, or my shark-infested bathroom, I love all things shark. Swimming with baby sharks and feeding some big ones at Coral World in St. Thomas, my wife is convinced that getting eaten by a shark would even be my prefered method of biting the big one. With that said, there’s no way I walked into The Shallows not feeling at least a little partial. Did it live up to my shark fanboy expectations? Absolutely!

Dealing with the recent loss of her mother, Nancy Adams (Blake Lively) is on her way to a secluded Mexico beach. The same beach her mother visited after finding out she was pregnant with her. After getting dropped off by the friendly Carlos (Oscar Jaenada), she runs into two local residents and it’s surf’s up, until she’s left alone and gets attacked by a giant great white shark! Stranded on a rock during low tide, her handy medical school training allows her to treat her leg wound while she tries to figure out how to get back to shore. Something the shark isn’t allowing her to do since she’s managed to surf her way into its feeding zone. Now, stranded 200 yards from the beach, fight or flight takes on the ultimate meaning as it’s time to sink or swim.

If there’s one thing The Shallows could be called, it’s guilty pleasure. But thankfully, director Jaume Collet-Serra — best known for schlock/action fare: House of Wax, Orphan, Unknown, Non-Stop, and Run All Night — and screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski keep the film moving at a breakneck pace. While there’s a lot of slow-mo, most of it is used for dramatic effect. Lively is on her own here and holds the film on her shoulders admirably. She may get characterized as Mrs. Deadpool, but Lively gets a real chance to shine here.

Audiences aren’t going for an acting tour de force, we came for the shark. There seems to be a minimum of practical effects, the CGI gets the job done. There may not be a whole lot of gore on screen — one character does get rightly bitten in half — but the girl in a bikini on great white shark action is every bit as intense as you’d hope. And the shark isn’t the only thing standing in her way of survival. There’s also a terrifying sequence involving jellyfish that would feel right at home if anyone ever thought to reimagine Finding Nemo as a horror movie.

The Shallows is one of the most fun movies playing in theaters right now and makes a terrific date movie. The jump scares are perfectly timed and Marco Beltrami’s score ratchets up the tension, making sure that no one leaves without gasping for breath at least once. This is a lean, mean fight for survival and is perfectly timed for summer.

Movie Review: “Free State of Jones”


Free State of Jones

** out of 5
139 minutes
Rated R for brutal battle scenes and disturbing graphic images
STX Entertainment

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

I’m not a big fan of the war film genre. And the subgenre of the American Civil War even less so. Glory and Gettysburg are great but they can’t all be that good. The problem is that these are the most boring wars ever put on film. It doesn’t help that there’s films like Gods and Generals that run a monumental 280 minutes, making you feel like you’re suffering through the war itself. The same can be said for writer/director Gary Ross’s latest, Free State of Jones, where not even Matthew McConaughey can save the film from feeling like an exercise in junior high educational videos.

Long story short: during the Civil War, Southern farmer, Newt Knight (McConaughey) leads a rebellion against the Confederacy while small farmers and local slaves try to secede.

Ross is no stranger to making quality pictures. He co-wrote Big, wrote Dave, along with writing and directing Pleasantville, Seabiscuit, and the first Hunger Games. So it’s more than a little bit of a letdown to see him strike out so badly with Free State of Jones. Considering he wrote and directed this himself, there’s no one else to blame. The pacing is extremely sluggish, even if the cast is doing the best they can with the material. It’s scary how long the film already is — clocking in at 139 minutes — yet suffers from choppy editing where half the time you have no idea what’s going on plot wise. Ross relies on title cards to deliver the exposition before a scene starts, but then the next scene never feels connected to what you were just told. The title cards are all filler; which is what most of the movie is. Lots of meandering around watching a whole lot of nothing take place.

There are some unintentional laughs to be had considering the film talks so greatly about corn, because the film is packed with corniness. Dunderheaded life lessons are bludgeoned on the audience while Ross never bothers to use them to make any actual kind of statement. It’s a shame with all the real life race issues we’ve been dealing with over the last few years. This is a far cry from Selma, or even Straight Outta Compton.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Movie Review: “Finding Dory”


Finding Dory

***** out of 5
97 minutes
Rated PG for mild thematic elements
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

When it comes to Pixar, I have a hard time not being biased. One of my dogs’ names happens to be Pixar after all. But, I am not afraid to admit when they stumble. The Good Dinosaur would have sat better with audiences had it not come hot on the heels of Inside Out. Monsters University may not have lived up to the original — even if it still wound up being a silly, family-friendly version of Animal House. Brave has its detractors, but what’s wrong with Pixar diving into the Disney Princess Wheelhouse? And then there’s the worst of the bunch: Cars 2. While it’s nowhere near as bad as its reputation, it’s still nowhere near as good as anything else Pixar has done in their 21 year history. Considering it’s been 13 years in the making, where does Finding Dory fit in? While it may not be Toy Story 3 good, it is a splashtacular sequel to Nemo in every sense.

Dory opens with everyone’s favorite titular blue tang as a very young fish (voiced by Sloan Murray) playing with her parents Jenny and Charlie (voiced by Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy). They warn her to stay away from the undertow, but she eventually gets swept away and winds up lost. Short-term memory loss be damned, Dory becomes an adult (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres) and can’t find her way back to her parents, leading her to eventually run into Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks). Cutting to one year after the events of the first film, Dory now lives with Marlin and Nemo (voiced by Hayden Rolence), where she helps out at school, much to the chagrin of Mr. Ray (voiced by Bob Peterson).

Soon enough, Dory starts having flashbacks and finally feels what it’s like to miss her parents. Now, Dory wants to find them, and she sets off on a set of misadventures — with Marlin and Nemo in tow — leading them all to a fish rehab center. Here, Dory must rely on the help of Hank (voiced by Ed O’Neill) — an octopus who wants to escape to Cleveland — her old whale shark pipe mate Destiny (voiced by Kaitlin Olson), a beluga whale named Bailey (voiced by Ty Burrell), a bird named Becky, and a sea lion named Gerald, to help her find her parents and get back to open water.

Expectations were sky high walking into Finding Dory. How do you live up to such lofty heights? Having original director Andrew Stanton returning was a no brainer. I wouldn’t be surprised if he ran back to Pixar HQ the minute John Carter belly flopped. Together with co-director Angus MacLane (after cutting his teeth on the shorts Burn-E and Toy Story Toons: Small Fry and the TV special Toy Story of Terror) and co-writer Victoria Strouse, the trio crafted a loving sequel that builds upon the original in all the right ways. The tears will run, whether from all the feels or from the laughs — Becky was so unexpected I could not contain myself. As exciting as it is catch up with familiar faces, there are plenty of brand new characters just waiting to fly off store shelves. If only there were plushes for Becky and Gerald — that would be amazing.

The story is every bit as poignant as you’d expect from a Pixar film, especially when it’s putting Dory front and center. Ellen brings the manically gleeful energy back and never phones it in. You can tell that she wholeheartedly loves playing this character. Brooks delivers just as much neurotic charm as we’ve come to expect and you’d never even guess Nemo was replaced. This was a no-brainer considering his original voice (Alexander Gould) is 22-years-old now. There have been a great many number of too-late sequels released over the last few years, but thankfully, Finding Dory has all the heart and laughs we’ve come to expect from Pixar.

Simply put, it’s just another fantastic notch on their belt in an incredible line of films. This is classic Pixar and there’s nothing sweeter than that whenever they have a new film out. So go ahead and jump on in, the water’s fine!

Friday, June 10, 2016

Movie Review: “Warcraft”


Warcraft

** 1/2 out of 5
123 minutes
Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy violence.
Universal Pictures

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

Is there anything scarier than walking into a film based on something where you’re a self-proclaimed noob? In full disclosure, I knew absolutely nothing about Warcraft going into its screening, aside from the fact that the trailers were atrocious. Filled with unfinished CGI that looks worse than the now outdated Avatar Na’vi, the one thing it did have going for it was director Duncan Jones (son of David Bowie, RIP).

Jones’s first feature, Moon, is classic sci-fi for those who still haven’t seen it and even his follow-up, Source Code, was a ton of fun. Now before you think I’m not a fantasy fan, I am a big fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, and to call me a fan of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series is a massive understatement.

With that being said, does it live up to expectations for fans? I was lucky enough to be sitting next to — and surrounded by — major Warcraft fans. For those who may not know — myself included — this is not based on the now uber popular World of Warcraft. This film is for the true fans who have been initiated since the days of dial up. According to the fans I tagged along with, this film is for you.

I still can’t make heads or tales of the plot. However, Jones and co-screenwriter Charles Leavitt, have definitely built a world where some more fun can be had in the future. While the special effects weren’t quite up to snuff — let’s face it, there’s only so much CGI your brain can handle before it all starts to look fake — it still brings Blizzard Entertainment’s world to, at times, breathtaking life. At least until you start to look a little too closely at things.

Pacing be damned, there are some major dead spots, and then there are also times where you just feel like you’re being pummeled with one action scene after another. For the uninitiated, you will leave shrugging your shoulders. The fans will leave clamoring for more. While there aren’t any household names, the film is filled with exactly what a huge scale fantasy should be: character actors. While you may not know Paula Patton, Ben Foster, or Dominic Cooper off the top of your head, it’s always best to have these types in your cast to really sell whatever characters you’re throwing at an audience.

I won’t even try to get into most of the Orc characters, as the actors were all coached to speak as grumbly as possible. Seriously, there should be subtitles throughout most of the film. Fortunately, Toby Kebbell is a smart enough actor to use emoting to get the most of his motion capture performance. Sadly, he’s paired up against the absolutely horrible Anna Galvin as his wife Draka. As for Foster, this is the most likeable he’s been in awhile, and Patton gets to be the badass we know she can be. Meanwhile, Travis Fimmel gives the film’s oddest performance. I don’t think he knew he was in the same movie as the rest of the cast. And Hollywood be damned, of course there’s a forced love story thrown in for good measure.

If the film is saved by anything, it’s the sweeping direction of Jones — with excellent cinematography from Simon Duggan — along with Ramin Djawadi’s Game of Thrones-inspired music. The score shouldn’t come as a surprise considering he’s that show’s composer. When the dust clears in this Orcs vs. Humans tale, it’s us noobs who will be leaving scratching our heads. The other major obstacle facing the film is that there’s no mass appeal whatsoever. As for the fans, it appears to be everything you’ve wanted and more. To quote my lifetime Warcraft playing brother-husband “Totul”: “Overall I give it two and a half stars out of four for normal people. But for those of us who love all things Warcraft, I give it three and a half out of four. This was clearly made for us, so go see it so we can get more!”

Movie Review: “The Conjuring 2”


The Conjuring 2

**** out of 5
134 minutes
Rated R for terror and horror violence
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

Aside from uber producer Jason Blum, you can’t find a harder working filmmaker in the horror genre than James Wan. Considering he’s almost always been working in the category, his movies never disappoint when you need chills running up your spine. While he may have taken a time out here and there — Death Sentence and Furious 7 — he’s delivered quite a stack of horror delights over the past 13 years. Through Saw, Dead Silence, the first two Insidious films, and the original The Conjuring, he’s back where he belongs with one of horror’s more effective sequels, The Conjuring 2.

Beginning in 1976 at the notorious Amityville house, Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) encounter one of their most heinous hauntings. A year later, the poor (literally and figuratively) Hodgson family are about to encounter England’s most documented hauntings right in their own home. Eleven-year-old Janet (Madison Wolfe) has been dealing with the possible possession of their home’s previous owner, Bill Wilkins (Bob Adrian). Bill wants the family to leave, and the Warrens are brought in to investigate before the church gets involved. And just wouldn’t you know it, the funhouse of horrors begins as the Warrens’ most dangerous case could put both their lives on the line.

No one does bumps in the night as terrifyingly as Wan. No disrespect to Guillermo del Toro, but Wan has this locked down. While at times it may slip into calculated territory, make no mistake, Wan knows how to make your hair stand on end, jump out of your seat, and hold your breathe in dread better than any other horror director working today. Yes, this time the screenplay has a tendency to feel like you’re channel surfing. It feels like you’re watching scenes skip from The Exorcist to Evil Dead, The Omen to Final Destination, and Poltergeist to Nightmare on Elm Street, but pretty much every scare always works with maximum effort. The less said about the “Crooked Man” the better — pure nightmare fuel!

The cast all prove themselves admirably, with poor Wolfe getting put through the wringer. Oddly enough, the one character we don’t feel as much empathy for is her mother Peggy (Frances O’Connor). The original Conjuring made us feel for every single member of the Perron family, but here, Peggy makes some questionable choices with her childrens’ safety. There’s also Johnny (Patrick McAuley) who you forget is even in the movie until he decides to stand up for the family and confront their demon. Surprisingly, many moments of levity help alleviate a little of the tension, something some horror movies forget. But don’t worry, The Conjuring 2 is still straight-for-the-jugular horror of the first order. The final word being, Wan manages to knock it out of the park again, delivering the year’s scariest horror movie so far. You’ve been warned.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Movie Review: “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows”


Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows

** out of 5
112 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence
Paramount Pictures

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

Considering how bad Michael Bay’s first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles offering was, there was no way the sequel could be worse, right? Breathe a sigh of relief Turtles fans, as Out of the Shadows provides a huge step in the right direction for the franchise. Now let’s be honest. Is it a good movie? Absolutely not. But considering every fan left scorned in 2014 — despite a $493 million worldwide box office haul — fans weren’t exactly clamoring for further half-shell adventures. At least not from Bay. With the exclusion of the first film’s director, Dave Green (Earth to Echo) has stepped up to deliver what fans wanted, even if it still winds up falling short of being anything more than a two-hour exercise in watching paint dry.

Our favorite ninjas are back — Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), Donatello (Jeremy Howard), Leonardo (Pete Ploszek), and Raphael (Alan Ritchson) — and still living in the shadows of New York City. After defeating Shredder (Brian Tee) from destroying the Big Apple, brilliant scientist Baxter Stockman (Tyler Perry) has discovered a way to open a portal leading to another dimension. After Stockman breaks Shredder out of prison during a transfer, Casey Jones (Stephen Amell) vows to find out who’s behind it. Meanwhile, the turtles continue to use April O’Neil (Megan Fox) and Vernon Fenwick (Will Arnett) as their eyes on the street, uncovering a plot to turn humans into animals — starting with Bebop (Gary Anthony Williams) and Rocksteady (Stephen Farrelly). Now, our four heroes in a half shell must once again save the city, with Shredder unleashing the maniacal Krang (voiced by Brad Garrett) from wreaking havoc from Dimension X with his Technodrome.

If all this sounds too good to be true, at least we get everything we want regarding characters. However, the screenplay by returning writers Josh Applebaum and AndrĂ© Nemec is still every bit as dopey as what they delivered the first time around. You’d never know these two were also responsible for Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol or Alias. It doesn’t help that the visual effects still aren’t up to snuff and it causes a disconnect when you never believe you’re watching live action Ninja Turtles. CGI has come a long way from the days of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, but never once do you feel like you’re looking at live-action versions of any of our beloved characters. They always look like something out of a computer.

Needless to say, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows is never exciting enough, never funny enough, and never engaging enough to make it good enough. It’s a film that you simply watch. Disinterested, but at least unoffended. There will obviously be a third film on the horizon and who knows, maybe third time’s the charm. This version of the franchise is at least getting better with each film as opposed to the original trilogy. Fingers crossed they can finally deliver the film they think they’ve made. But for now, it’s all close, but no cigar.

Movie Review: “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping”


Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

***** out of 5
86 minutes
Rated R for some graphic nudity, language throughout, sexual content and drug use
Universal Pictures

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com
 
Now that we’ve gotten documentaries for everyone from Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, and Michael Jackson out of the way, it’s finally time to get to a real music legend. Chronicling the release of his follow up to the smash hit album Thriller, Also, Conner4Real is mounting his triumphant return with Connquest. Filmmakers Akvia Schaffer and Jorma Taccone never shy away from the dark side as they give us a glimpse of where the magic happens, following Conner4Real (Conner Friel) through his stratospheric rise to fame after his breakup with the hit hip hop group Style Boyz. We think we’ve seen it all, but sometimes it’s what happens when the camera’s are off that’s the most buzz worthy. And rest assured, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping takes every opportunity to let it all hang out.

Everyone knows Conner4Real has been dope since the age of four. But it wasn’t until founding the Style Boyz — alongside best friends Lawrence (lyricist) and Owen — that fame really came calling. After Conner thanks himself for all his success at the Poppy Awards, Lawrence denounces the group and takes off to be a farmer in Colorado. Owen sticks by Conner’s side as his DJ, but after Connquest fails to connect with the public, Owen can see that they need Lawrence back. Conner has none of it and decides — along with his manager Harry — to bring in an opening act in the form of hardcore rapper Hunter the Hungry. Now, Conner must face his inner demons when a failed marriage proposal to Ashley Wednesday, and an on-stage magic trick going awry, sends Conner into a spiral of depression.

No one would ever assume the life of a popstar to be doink de doink on a daily basis. But, it’s painfully clear Conner means well. While he may not see how misguided his first unintentionally homophobic first single (“Equal Rights” featuring Pink) may be, he seems to have undergone a lobotomy thinking “Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song),” “Mona Lisa,” or “Ibitha” were appropriate follow-ups. Schaffer and Taccone keep the pace moving along as we witness one misadventure after another, with just about everyone in the music biz providing their two cents along the way. For the hardcore Conner4Real fans, it’s an eye opening glimpse into what it means to be one of the world’s biggest stars, with paparazzi at every turn, and the struggle to make sure your perspective manipulator is always by your side.

Basic bitches need not apply, haters better humble up, there will be no shit emojis applicable here. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is exactly what you want from a documentary revolving around Conner4Real and like Jimmy Fallon always says, “I likey dat,” and you will too.