Friday, January 13, 2017

Movie Review: “Silence”


** 1/2 out of 5
161 minutes!
Rated R for some disturbing violent content
Paramount Pictures

Article first published at

I was hoping 2017 would start with a bang. We get a week full of 2016 films finally finding wide release. I was sure it would be a fantastic way to get back into the swing of things after a three week hiatus. When Monday was Ben Affleck’s Live by Night, Tuesday brought Peter Berg’s Patriots Day, and Wednesday came Martin Scorsese’s Silence, imagine my surprise when the best film of the week wound up being Live by Night. To be honest, I did decide to skip Patriots Day after looking at the three films’ runtimes, but even if it was the only film opening this week, not even Liam Neesons, Kylo Ren, and Spider-Man can keep Silence — based on Shûsaku Endô’s 1966 novel — from being a giant bore. Bring a couple cans of energy drinks folks, you’re gonna need it.

Opening in 1633 Japan, we find Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) amidst a group torture session. Ferreira’s narration lets us know that they are Catholic missionaries in Nagasaki, and the locals have forced him into apostasy. His last letter has found its way back to Jesuit priest Alessandro Valignano (Ciarán Hinds) in Maccau, where Ferreira’s pupils Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) insist on traveling to Japan to find Ferreira and prove that there’s no way he would have committed such an appalling act. After finding a guide in the form of Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), the two young priests sneak their way into Japan. They must keep their identity hidden, while trying to navigate the Buddhist landscape where they find more help in the secret Christian village of Tomogi. Soon enough, Rodrigues finds his way to Ferreira where his own destiny awaits.

I think whether you’ll find Silence captivating or a total snooze-fest lies on where you sit with religion in general. If you are a religious person, you’re bound to find the film captivating. While it is indeed riveting for the most part, I am absolutely not a religious person and couldn’t have cared less what happens to any of the characters. Scorsese is known for his sprawling epic masterpieces, but Silence is too polarizing to be considered a masterpiece. A lot of talk has been made about the film taking Scorsese 25 years to get made, well that’s about how long the movie will feel to most viewers.

The performances are at least top notch so if you do have an interest, you definitely will not be spared on that front. But there was absolutely no need for the film to be 161 minutes long. The same could be said about most films, but even Quentin Tarantino’s over three-hour Hateful Eight at least found ways to keep the runtime paced at full hilt. Considering how much money faith-based films have managed to make over the last few years, there is hope that Silence will find an audience. I will never find a reason to ever sit through it again. I can’t even see hardcore Scorsese fans finding themselves loving the film. I know that’s not the point, the director made the film he’s always wanted to make and at least it’s something he can finally check off his bucket list.

Movie Review: “Live by Night”

Live by Night

**** out of 5
128 minutes
Rated R for strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published at

It’s still hard to believe that Live by Night is only Ben Affleck’s fourth directorial effort. He followed up his surprise debut, Gone Baby Gone, with The Town and the Oscar-winning Argo, proving his talent behind the camera was no fluke. Now, Affleck returns to his Dennis Lehane inspirations — the author also wrote the Gone Baby Gone novel — and it proves another perfect fit. Even if Live by Night falls short of the greatness of Argo.

In the 1920s, Joe Coughlin (Affleck) has returned from war with a chip on his shoulder, vowing to never follow orders again. He gets caught up in a rum war between the Irish — led by Albert White (Robert Glenister) — and the Italians — led by Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). Sides are chosen quickly for Joe after he’s betrayed by his girlfriend Emma (Sienna Miller), who also happens to be Albert’s girl, too. Joe agrees to join Maso and take over his rum bootlegging in Florida, after he learns that Albert is down there and wants to settle the score after Emma winds up swimming with the fishes.

Joe’s joined by the only friend he can trust, Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina), and the two pair up with the Suarez siblings: Esteban (Miguel) and Graciela (Zoe Saldana). After prohibition ends, Joe comes up with a plan to build a casino, even though gambling isn’t legal yet. Chief Figgis (Chris Cooper) changes his mind on giving him breathing room after his daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning) returns home from getting hooked on heroin in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Joe also finds himself in the crosshairs of the KKK after Figgis’ brother-in-law RD Pruitt (Matthew Maher) demands a high share due to his interracial relationship with Graciela.

As you can see, there is a lot going on in Live by Night. It shouldn’t come as a surprise; gangster films are never short and sweet, but they don’t always equal instant classics either. Even Martin Scorsese was playing things a little safe in Casino. But make no mistake, this is every bit the sprawling gangster film that would have fit squarely alongside any Scorsese masterpiece. Even if it feels surprisingly short shrifted. There’s a much longer film lying around editor William Goldenberg’s office somewhere, and whether it would make the theatrical version better or worse would be up for debate. What we do get is at least extremely entertaining.

Unfortunately, it also bears the cross of being a passion project — something that highly afflicts Martin Scorsese’s Silence (also opening wide this week). With Affleck directing, writing, producing, and starring, there was no one around to tell him when to stop. I’m sure this was thanks to Warner Bros., after entrusting him with the film due to the his previous successes and his biggest surprise as one of the best Batmans. It still hasn’t been announced if he’s going to be directing — and I hope he does — but it would be nice if someone was brought in to keep him a little more reigned in. The good news is that the film flies by and Robert Richardson’s cinematography is Oscar worthy, as is Elle Fanning.

While the film is taking its share of flack — it’s at a low 32 percent on Rotten Tomatoes — but this is exactly the kind of gangster movie I like. Full of flapper girls,  jazz music, fedoras, and tommy guns, Live by Night fits right alongside The Untouchables, Miller’s Crossing, and Road to Perdition. In the end it may feel slightly anticlimactic — although a loose thread getting tied up certainly caught me off guard after I was about to write it off as a missed opportunity — but there could possibly be a fuller cut come video release. I’d be more than happy to revisit Live by Night in that aspect to see it live up to its full potential and expectations.

Blu-ray Reviews: “Phantasm: Remastered” and “Phantasm: Ravager”

“Phantasm: Remastered”: *** 1/2 out of 5
Video: **** 1/2
Audio: **** 1/2
Extras: *** 1/2

“Phantasm: Ravager”: **
Video: ****
Audio: ****
Extras: ***

Article first published on

If there’s one genre where the law of diminishing returns is most evident, it’s horror. After a horror film becomes a success, it’s rarely followed up with worthy sequels. Horror fans may love their favorite franchises, but you have to admit there are some sequels that should never have happened. In the case of Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm series, it’s an even rarer case of the original director clinging to each sequel for better and worse.

Coscarelli is the very definition of cult following. I never watched the Phantasm movies growing up — the original came out the year before I was even born — but I was always attracted to the idea of Coscarelli’s deadly flying orbs, and Angus Scrimm’s iconic Tall Man is something every horror fan recognizes.

I may have shown up late to the party in discovering Coscarelli’s genre-bending shenanigans, but with Well Go USA releasing both Phantasm: Remastered and the newest entry, Phantasm: Ravager, together, I can’t say it was worth the wait. The original at least holds up as an example of low-budget filmmaking done right, but Coscarelli has handed the reigns of Ravager to first time live-action director David Hartman and the results are disastrous. Ravager is meant as a fond farewell, and a farewell is clearly all that’s left for the films if this is the best they can do.

The original Phantasm introduces us to the series’ teenage hero, Mike (A. Michael Baldwin). He’s been creeping around Morningside cemetery after his older brother Jody’s (Bill Thornbury) friend has been killed. Soon enough, Mike and Jody, and Mike’s guitar-wielding ice cream man best friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister), are fighting for their lives to discover the Tall Man’s evil plot involving resurrected bodies and evil dwarfs.

In Ravager, we catch up with Reggie (still played by Bannister) as he suffers from delusions that he can’t quite figure out whether they’re real or not. He keeps flashing back and forth between a ravaged universe overrun by the Tall Man and his spheres and the sanctity of being locked up in a mental hospital where he’s continually visited by Mike (Baldwin again), who finally let’s Reggie in on a secret as Reggie’s two existences collide into one with the sake of humanity at stake.

Well Go USA delivers both Remastered and Ravager on 25GB discs and they both look pretty exceptional. The ironic part of this being that Remastered has been given a full 4K restoration courtesy of J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robots facilities. Abrams is a huge fan of Coscarelli’s films and gave him full access to their equipment after seeing a partial 4K print at the annual Butt-Numb-A-Thon in Austin. Both come in frame-filling 1.78:1 aspect ratios.

Remastered shows just how good a low-budget horror film can look with the right amount of care. Colors are completely natural with bloods having the appropriate bright red they deserve. Blacks are nice and inky with crush never an issue and shadow detail probably better than it’s ever been. Grain is always present with noise never seeping into the nighttime sequences. Detail is always spot on.

As for Ravager, it was clearly filmed digitally and shows in every scene. It’s a startling difference when jumping from one cinematic format to the other. Remastered looks fully organic and theatrical while Ravager never looks more than being filmed for home video. Detail is extra clear, but when it comes to colors, there are lots of sequences full of banding and bleeding reds that make the film look downright garish. Noise is evident in a few sequences, with crush never overwhelming thanks to the oversaturated reds. Ravager was made for home video and it looks it every second.

Both films come equipped with 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks and sound every bit as good as they look. Dialogue is always clean and prioritized with surrounds and directionality helping lend some extra creepiness as the Tall Man’s spheres whiz about the soundstage. Bass comes in handy in a few sequences while the sound effects and music never engulf the cheesy dialogue. Both feature the same additional audio tracks and only contain English subtitles: 2.0 Stereo or Mono.

Remastered and Ravager contain nearly identical special features. Remastered kicks things off with a “Graveyard Carz Episode” (11:24) as host Mark Worman gets pumped up to meet two of his horror idols (Coscarelli and Baldwin) to unveil his work on rebuilding the series’ Barracuda car. “Interviews from 1979 with Don Coscarelli and Angus Scrimm” (27:58) include two clips from an old TV show where they discuss the film’s inspirations, budget, costumes, and sets. The most fun part watching Scrimm explain the film’s synopsis in character as his beloved Tall Man.

“Deleted Scenes” include: “Bank Scene” (1:14), “Casket Room” (1:45), “Ice Cream Scene” (4:28), “Jody Visits Mike” (0:59), “Tall Man Fire Extinguisher” (1:39), and “Tall Man Smile” (0:17). None of them really add much to the film, if anything it just shows how much more odd it could have been. Two trailers are included: “1979 Phantasm Trailer” (2:13) and “Remastered Trailer” (1:56). An “Audio Commentary” features Coscarelli, Baldwin, Scrimm, and Thornbury together, waxing nostalgic on the production.

Ravager contains “Behind the Scenes” (5:24) which shows how excited Coscarelli was to resurrect the series, with some fun clips of him and Scrimm revisiting locations used in the original film. It’s great to see Scrimm going back to where it all started, especially since he passed last January — yes, another unfortunate 2016 celebrity death to add to the list. Three “Deleted Scenes” include rough cuts of the following: “Giant Dwarf” (3:47), “Escape From Dawn’s Cabin” (2:24), and “Cuda vs. Sphere” (1:42). Again, none of them add anything to the final cut, but it was fun to learn that Derek Mears (Jason Vorhees from the 2009 reboot) was the “Giant.”

“Phuntasm: Bloopers & Outtakes” (8:40) is an excruciatingly long exercise in tedium. Most blooper reels are never funny, now imagine that for nearly 10 minutes. The “Trailer” (1:46) and an audio commentary with Ravager director Hartman and Coscarelli (who served as co-writer/producer) rounds things out. Remastered and Ravager both contain preloaded trailers for additional Well Go USA titles: Train to Busan, The Wailing (both exceptional horror features), Kill Zombie! (this one being a head scratcher as it was released on Blu-ray two and a half years ago).

Whether I was late to the party, or simply missed the boat, Coscarelli’s Phantasm series is simply just not for me. It does have its share of fans — most evident in that Scream Factory released Phantasm II all the way back in March 2013 — but there’s not much here to entice horror fans who have yet to discover the films. It’s never as outrageous as Coscarelli thinks it is, and the humor is far too wacky and weird, clashing with the deadly serious antics of the Tall Man and his killer orbs and dwarfs.

While the original film works way better than the thankfully final chapter, at least Coscarelli fans have a definitive presentation they can fall back on when trying to convince friends they need to check out this “far out” horror film. Featuring great video and audio, but saddled with throwaway special features — it would have been cool to have Abrams brought in to discuss the film, possibly shedding some light on his adoration — both Phantasm: Remastered and Phantasm: Ravager are Blu-rays that fans will be very happy to finally have in their collections.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Movie Review: “Why Him?”

Why Him?

**** 1/2 out of 5
Rated R for strong language and sexual material throughout
111 minutes
20th Century Fox

Article first published at

It came as a shock to some when director John Hamburg delivered his first comedy masterpiece with I Love You, Man. Filled with instantly likeable characters, and tons of hilarious dialogue that’s still quoted today, ILYM looked like the jumpstart Hamburg needed after stumbling through Safe Men and Along Came Polly. It’s been seven years since ILYM, but Why Him? is Hamburg’s triumphant return to the spotlight. While the promotion has been hit-and-miss, Why Him? is one of this year’s laugh-til-you-cry funniest movies. Admittedly, the film is heavy on dumb, and loaded with profanity, but the sweetness prevails thanks to Hamburg’s expert direction and an exceptional cast.

It’s Christmas in Michigan and Ned Fleming (Bryan Cranston) is doing everything he can to keep his printing company afloat. Having just celebrated his 50th birthday, it comes as a shock when he learns his daughter Stephanie (Zoey Deutch) is dating game app entrepreneur Laird Mayhew (James Franco). Soon enough, Stephanie tricks the family into joining her and Laird into spending the holidays together, with Laird springing an even bigger surprise on Ned by asking for his blessing to ask Stephanie to marry him. Ned is put off by Laird’s outrageous lifestyle — while his wife Barb (Megan Mullally) and teen son Scotty (Griffin Gluck) try to give their host the benefit of the doubt. But Laird makes a bet with Ned that Ned be calling Laird “son” before the weekend is over and get his blessing.

For a film with such a simplistic plot, it’s amazing the mileage Hamburg and his cast get out of it. It helps that there’s also a fantastic supporting cast in the likes of Cedric the Entertainer, Keegan-Michael Key, Casey Wilson, Andrew Rannells, Adam Devine, and even Kaley Cuoco helping make the shenanigans as hilarious as possible. However, the true driving force is the pairing of Franco and Cranston. What sounds like one of the most mismatched leads in history turns into a force of comedic nature. The two make a spectacular duo and leave no eyes dry from laughing too hard. As funny as the human cast may be, a chicken steals the whole movie.

Why Him? is absurdist humor through and through and no one will leave without a face or stomach that hurts from laughing. Bear in mind, the film is very much R-rated, but never feels forced or trying to shock audiences. Through it all beats a huge heart. Laird easily could have been turned into a bad guy at any point in the movie, but this is a man who loves his woman and will stop at nothing to prove it to Ned.

Why Him? is one of the year’s most flat out hilarious films and also the year’s best Christmas offering. Judging against Office Christmas Party, the two aren’t even in the same league. This is the Christmas comedy to see this season, just so long as you can handle it. Laird may speak English, but it’s littered with f-bombs. That right there may be enough to make up your mind, but even a co-worker who was uncomfortable with the salty language couldn’t deny that the film is a good time. Why Him? Because he’s the most hilarious character under the mistletoe and should not be missed!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Movie Review: “Sing”


* out of 5
108 minutes
Rated PG for some rude humor and mild peril
Universal Pictures

Article first published at

Two movies released near the end of this year were over publicized prior to their release. And, unfortunately, neither lived up to the hype.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them has its fans, but the film was nothing more than a barely serviceable pilot to set up a new batch of Harry Potter films. As for Illumination Entertainment’s Sing? It makes The Secret Life of Pets look Oscar worthy. As much as I enjoyed Pets, it’s not. But compared to director Garth Jennings’s failure here — it breaks my heart that this came from the same director who gave us The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Son of Rambow — I will happily pop Pets into my player any day over Sing.

Buster Moon (voiced by Matthew McConaughey) is a koala with big dreams. After falling in love with the theater at the age of six he’s managed to make his dream a reality. Except that now, his theater is flailing and he’s strapped for cash. One day, Buster comes up with a brilliant idea to save his theater: he’s going to put on a singing competition, offering a grand prize of $1,000 — but accidentally prints out fliers advertising $100,000.

Now, everyone in town is vying to win: Rosita (voiced by Reese Witherspoon), a bored housepig who just wants her moment to shine; Mike (voiced by Seth MacFarlane),a scheming mouse with an ego as big as he isn’t; Ash (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), a porcupine rocker who just wants to get out of the spotlight of her partner Lance (voiced by Beck Bennett); and finally Meena (voiced by Tori Kelly), a young elephant with a fear of crowds who needs to find her voice.

To be fair, Sing at least has its heart in the right place. It’s just too bad it beats to such a boring tune. After suffering through Sing my wife said to me when it was over: “You look like you were being tortured the entire run time.”

For a movie called Sing that revolves around the old “let’s put on a show” plot, there are very few instances where we even hear complete songs. Trolls pulled the same stunt last month, but at least when it was cutting a song short, it was using the song for specific plot points. Here, songs simply start, then Jennings cuts to something going on off stage, then cuts back to the end of the song.
Then there’s the fact that Buster’s whole plan makes no sense whatsoever. He’s putting on a contest, with a monetary prize, to save the theater he’s making no money on? I know it will go right over kids’ heads, but c’mon.

The long and short of it is, Sing is one of the worst films of the year with no laughs, no loveable characters, and no memorable songs whatsoever. I feel sorry for anyone who is dragged to it by their children. Don’t let their bleating mouths con you, Sing is a good time for no one but the most easily amused. Don’t say I didn’t warn ya.

Movie Review: “Passengers”


*** out of 5
116 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sexuality, nudity and action/peril
Sony Pictures

Article first published at

Thanks to the geek/nerd niche, sci-fi is becoming more mainstream than ever. While they can’t all be as bankable as Star Wars, there are at least two classics recently with Interstellar and Arrival. Screenwriter Jon Spaihts — with the help of love-him-or-hate-him Damon Lindelof — attempted to return the Alien series to more grounded terrain with Prometheus. And now, Spaihts is at it again with Passengers, another film this holiday season with huge plot misconceptions caused by its misleading marketing.

In the never-defined future, the starship Avalon is making its way through space to a new Earth dubbed Homestead II. On board are 258 crew members and 5,000 passengers. The passengers consist of men and women who are looking to escape Earth, which has become overpopulated and overpriced. Unfortunately for Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), his suspended animation pod has awakened him 90 years too soon. Alone for over a year — with his only friend being the android bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen) — Jim decides it’s time to wake someone up to join him in his misery. His unfortunate companion is Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), a journalist looking to write a story in which she basically time travels from one planet to another. Unlucky for both of them, they still have 89 years until Avalon arrives at Homestead II, while the ship starts to slowly malfunction around them. Now, the two must find a way to not only save themselves, but the additional 5,256 people hurtling through space.

Spaihts doesn’t necessarily take the time to fill his script with big ideas. What he aims for here is something more simplistic, albeit with a high concept plot. There are some truths to his fiction, such as suspending animation — even if it’s only currently possible for small periods of time — but the real story here is more focused on the drama. Therein lies the tug of war between writer/director. Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) seems far more comfortable in delivering the human drama. Unfortunately, he’s cast two of Hollywood’s biggest stars and only gets a full performance out of Pratt. He’s as reliable as ever here. As for Lawrence, we’ve seen how good, and bad, she can be. Here, she flip flops from scene to scene. When she’s clowning around with Pratt, the two have an infectious chemistry, but when it comes time for the waterworks, she fails miserably.

For those hoping to see Pratt in action, there’s several instances where he gets to play straight man, but he’s also as hilarious and likeable as always. It’s a long time before Jim wakes up Aurora — considering he’s basically stalked her for over a year, it takes a strong leading man to play this kind of Prince “Charming” — so Tyldum was smart to cast someone we don’t mind spending so much time alone with. The film’s biggest issue is when the crap hits the fan and it lurches into a pseudo action film in the last 30 minutes. Lawrence starts overacting and the plot is tied up in a pretty bow that feels like Spaihts was under the gun, came up with the easiest denouement he could, pressed his Home Depot “Easy” button, and tossed Sony his work. The special effects are at least top notch, even if the story is the weakest link here, but at least it’s not Pratt. If there’s any reason to see Passengers, it’s Pratt, and there’s more of him to see than ever (wink wink). It may not be a new sci-fi classic, but at least it’s not a complete disaster.

Blu-ray Review: “Call of Heroes”

Movie: **** out of 5
Video: **** 1/2
Audio: **** 1/2
Extras: ** 1/2

Article first published on

Back in the very early 2000s, I fell in love with kung fu/wuxia films. While not all were created equal, there was a huge swell of releases in the U.S. Through Iron Monkey, Hero, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and any movie starring Jackie Chan or Stephen Chow, I couldn’t get enough. Full of amazingly choreographed fight scenes and stunning cinematography, try as we did, Hollywood just couldn’t get the recipe right.

Chan and Jet Li may have become household names, but something was usually missing. The closest were Jason Statham’s Transporter films and Shanghai Noon/Knights. Needless to say, you had to go back to the source if you wanted to see it done right. The Ip Man series definitely stand out. Even then, most are schlocky with little thought put into the production. It gave me chills to discover that they can still do it right and director Benny Chan’s Call of Heroes is here to show us how it’s done.

In 1914, the Qing dynasty has fallen and the villagers of Pucheng City are in need of a hero. The murderous Cao Siu-lun (Louis Koo) has just killed three innocents — including a child — and the Sheriff, Yang (Sean Lau), resigns after they find out that Cao is the son of an evil warlord. Now, the city must stand against the marauding Cao if they want to stop their city from being overrun, with only the help of Yang, and the food coma-suffering Ma “Pigsy” Fung (Eddie Peng), to save the day.

Well Go USA doesn’t always treat their films to a 50GB disc, but when they do, a visually sprawling film like Call of Heroes gets the room it needs to breathe. Clarity is razor sharp with aliasing never ruining the picture. It could have run rampant with the amount of trees and sharp objects, but everything is as clean as it should be from a new production. Colors are bright with no blooming or bleed, while dark scenes never suffer from crush or loss of shadow delineation. A few seconds of banding are the only anomalies.

To go along with the crystal clear picture, we get two 5.1 DTS-HD MA tracks in both Cantonese and Mandarin. You can pick your poison on which track you select as the dialogue was filmed with a mix of the two there’s always instances of obvious dubbing. But the surrounds keep the action flowing — particularly Sheriff Yang’s whip — throughout the entire soundscape with excellent directionality, plenty of bass, and dialogue clean and crisp no matter how big the battle. Additional 2.0 Cantonese/Mandarin tracks are available, along with English and Chinese subtitles.

The special features are super short, but do manage to show off the cast and crews camaraderie on set. A “Making Of” is broken into eight segments — “Pucheng City” (1:26), “Eddie Peng” (1:28), “Wu Jing” (3:09), “Wu Jing & Eddie Peng” (1:44), “Louis Koo” (2:52), “Sammo Hung” (1:27), “Sammo & Sammy Hung” (1:58), and “Sean Lau” (1:46) — which all play one after the other even though a play all option isn’t available. The most interesting part is seeing that they literally built the entire city from the ground up and listening to director Chan talk about the chemistry between Jing and Peng. The film’s “Trailer” (1:42) is included, along with “Previews” for upcoming Well Go USA releases Operation Mekong, Cold War 2, and Three.

Call of Heroes never tries to rank itself as any kind of be-all-end-all kung fu extravaganza, but it certainly finds itself delivering what fans have been lacking. Full of interesting characters and some extraordinary fight scenes courtesy of action director Sammo Hung, Call of Heroes will make a fan out of any viewer. While the special features may be lacking, the video/audio make a blind buy a no-brainer. Call of Heroes is one of the best action films of the year you didn’t see. With it available on Blu-ray, now’s your chance to play catch up.