Friday, March 24, 2017

Movie Review: “Life”


Life

**** out of 5
103 minutes
Rated R for language throughout, some sci-fi violence and terror
Columbia Pictures

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

It was certainly an odd choice for Columbia Pictures to release Life so close to Disney’s Beauty and the Beast remake. While I get the tactic of counter-programming, Life had a ton of rumors swirling around it. Non-disclosure agreements were signed at SXSW and the long-gestating Spidey-villain Venom film was announced for next year. Suddenly, what seemed like a little sci-fi thriller with a great cast was thrust into the spotlight with some asking, “Is this a top secret Venom prequel?” While there’s no spoiler in confirming that director Daniel Espinosa’s Life has zero to do with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it is safe to say that it still holds its own. Thanks to the cast and screenwriters’ Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick’s (Zombieland, Deadpool) intense atmosphere, Life is still a whole lot of fun.

In an unspecified future, the Mars Pilgrim 7 Mission aboard an International Space Station, has just captured a Mars space probe returning with sought-after samples on board. The crew — Sho (Hiroyuki Sanada), Rory (Ryan Reynolds), Miranda (Rebecca Ferguson), David (Jake Gyllenhaal), Ekaterina (Olga Dihovichnaya), and Hugh (Ariyon Bakare) — are excited to be the first to discover that yes, there is life on Mars. Unfortunately for them, what appears to be a single cell organism quickly evolves. Rory doesn’t trust it. Hugh is fascinated by it. And Miranda is standing by for the CDC in case of an emergency. Soon enough, their discovery — named “Calvin” — starts to morph into a murderous monster. Now, the crew is pitted in a race against time to save themselves while keeping Calvin from finding its way to Earth.

Some may have a hard time with Life considering it careens so far off in the second act, away from its original homages to 2001 and Alien. What we get instead is a space station funhouse where the crew is picked off one by one as the creature continues to grow and become more vicious. There are a few random instances where the screenplay gets bogged down in exposition, but as a creature feature, it plays like gangbusters. Once it gets to the action that is. It also takes its cues from ’80s slasher films as Reese and Wernick find unique ways to kill everyone off. Meanwhile, Espinosa — best known for his foreign language offerings — makes sure to keep the pace, and heart rates, at full tilt with Calvin manages to literally be anywhere while also showing just how smart it’s becoming.

Others may balk at the anticlimactic ending. The creative team aims for a downbeat, ironic twist, and makes you wonder if Sony is planning on making enough money to warrant a sequel. Instead of a sequel, they should have had the writers stretch the screenplay out a little more, to finish the story off. As fun as Life is, it probably won’t get a second installment This is not a franchise starter. Thankfully, I was able to separate my hopes for a Venom prequel and let the film prove itself. It won’t be for everyone, but it’s definitely every bit as slick and vicious as Calvin. Could it have been a little leaner and meaner? Possibly. But that doesn’t get in the way of having a good time at the movies. This is a popcorn sci-fi entertainer and for those willing to not let the second half get in the way, you’ll walk out asking if you can finally breathe again. And that’s fine praise for any thriller. Just because it’s called Life, doesn’t mean it has to be philosophical.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Movie Review: “Beauty and the Beast”


Beauty and the Beast

*** out of 5
129 minutes
Rated PG for some action violence, peril and frightening images
Walt Disney Pictures

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

The old saying “lightning never strikes twice” may have been debunked, but it still holds true in the case of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Clinging to nostalgia, there’s not enough new to warrant director Bill Condon’s (Dreamgirls) live-action existence. While never quite a Gus Van Sant shot-for-shot remake, it comes pretty close at times. Screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos may get full credit, but all they’ve done is padded out Linda Woolverton’s original screenplay to an excessive two hours. Thankfully, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s songs save the day whenever the pacing starts to lag. For the remake — with Ashman having passed before the 1991 classic was even released — Menken has joined forces with Tim Rice to add a few new songs, all instantly forgettable.

The tale as old as time barely moves away from the original. The Beast (Dan Stevens), and his castle full of workers have been cursed by an enchantress. Years later, Belle (Emma Watson) spends her time reading books, wondering why she has to put up with the sordid village her father Maurice (Kevin Kline) has raised her to be an outcast in. Gaston (Luke Evans) preens around town with his unrequited piner LeFou (Josh Gad) in tow as the women fall at his feet even though he only has eyes for Belle. Soon enough, Maurice is trapped in the Beast’s castle, with Belle taking his place as his captive. Now, Lumière (Ewan McGregor), Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), and Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) must find a way for Belle and Beast to fall in love to break the spell before they all become stuck as household appliances forever.

I did not have high hopes for the remake. From the first trailer, something seemed off to me and I couldn’t put my finger on it until Disney finally released the first clip of Belle singing her theme song. Then it hit me, it looked like a live TV production. Was this going to be no better than the recent string of Peter Pan, Grease, Hairspray, or even worse, The Sound of Music? The good news is that once the film moves past this opening number, it manages to open up and feels like a real movie. The bad news is, as good as the cast may be — particularly Stevens as our beloved Beast — the visuals are never as good as they should be. Beast fares the worst. Ron Perlman worked wonders beneath heavy makeup back in the ’80s TV show — something this film easily could have been nominated for had they used any — but alas, they have gone and made the Beast a complete motion-capture study in wasted opportunity.

As if that isn’t bad enough, this Beauty and the Beast feels much darker than the original masterpiece. It could just be that it already was, but never felt that way considering it was animated. But the ending to this just feels warped in live action and ultimately creepy. Anyone looking forward to this will probably love every minute of it. As a huge fan of the Best Picture nominated, Best Animated winner, all I could do was breathe a sigh of relief that it isn’t the disaster I had prepared myself for. While it may get the songs stuck in your head, you’ll only find yourself hearing the originals, having ingrained themselves into our subconscious over the last 26 years.

Disney will continue beating their live-action remakes into the ground — Aladdin has already begun the casting process, along with The Lion King — we all know no one milks a cash cow the way the Mouse House does. Unfortunately for the rest of us, all we can do is be grateful that Beauty and the Beast may not be as good as The Jungle Book, but it’s also never as mediocre as Cinderella, and nowhere near as painful as Maleficent. Although, it is every bit unnecessary as can be.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Movie Review: “Kong: Skull Island”


Kong: Skull Island

***** out of 5
120 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for brief strong language
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

My love for monster movies/creature features runs deep. It’s wondrous when they get them right: full of spectacular special effects and the watching something truly larger than life. And it brings me nothing but joy that Kong: Skull Island is everything fans could hope for and more. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts — of the criminally underseen indie The Kings of Summer — and screenwriters Dan Gilroy, Derek Connolly (Jurassic World), and Max Borenstein (Godzilla) have kickstarted the Warner Bros. monsterverse with one of the best since the original Jurassic Park.

Beginning in 1944, we find a young Hank Marlow (Will Brittain), crash landing on Skull Island during a dogfight against the Japanese Gunpei Ikari (Miyavi). They quickly learn they are not alone on the island. Jumping to 1977, Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) have just arrived in D.C. to convince Senator Willis (Richard Jenkins) to fund their expedition for Project Monarch. Their mission is to discover Skull Island before the Russians can, to prove the existence of creatures from a land where time never stopped. Now, they’re headed for Skull Island with a military escort in tow, lead by Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), with tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), and photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) along for the ride. But ulterior motives come to light and quickly turn into a fight for survival. And Hank (John C. Reilly) just may be their only hope of getting off the island alive.

The only thing potentially working against Kong’s favor, is too much action. Make no mistake, this is absolutely not a retelling of the original 1933 story. There’s a specific reason the film’s IMAX poster recalls Apocalypse Now. Even while packed with way more humor than you’d guess — a Jackson one-liner steals the movie — it rarely slows to catch its breath. This is also the most flat-out violent version of King Kong put to film yet. There are some jaw-dropping moments that make you want to scream, “Did we just see that?” While it may be PG-13, there is plenty of carnage candy to behold. And yes, there is a bonus scene after the end credits.

Kong: Skull Island may be stripped down story wise, but it’s all for the better. Gone is the damsel in distress sequences. All of the action is contained to the island setting. Some may feel that the ending is anticlimactic, but in the grand scheme of things, it works as a setup. Plus, it doesn’t exactly have full closure, giving an immediate jumping point to the next film. If you’re wondering why it’s set in the ’70s when Godzilla was set in the present, pay attention. It makes sense. The new monsterverse needs the room to grow, as does Kong himself, with the already announced Godzilla vs. Kong a mere three years away. This is an amazing adventure of epic proportions sure to please anyone looking for some true fun. I know I already have a ticket to see it again this weekend in IMAX 3D. Hail to the King, Kong is back and better than ever!

Friday, March 3, 2017

Movie Review: “Table 19”


Table 19

*** out of 5
87 minutes
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual content, drug use, language and some brief nudity
Fox Searchlight

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com
Not every comedy needs to be a complete laugh riot. With a likeable enough cast, and characters you at least care somewhat about, you can get away with a lot. While not everything works in writer/director Jeffrey Blitz’s Table 19, it’s a pleasant enough diversion to get through the week as we await for the big Hollywood blockbusters to start revving up. IMDB may be misleading with it giving screenplay credit to brothers Mark and Jay Duplass, but Blitz still manages to throw together a nice little throwback to ’80s comedies that had just as much drama to go along with the comedy.

Eloise (Anna Kendrick) is in a pickle. She’s just received an invitation to her oldest friend’s wedding — which she helped plan no less. She’s torn on whether to attend or not as she was dumped two months ago by the bride’s brother, Teddy (Wyatt Russell). She decides to throw caution to the wind and shows up only to find out that she’s been delegated to the dreaded table 19 at the back of the reception hall. Thrust into the woes alongside fellow miscreants diner owners Jerry and Bina Keep (Craig Robinson and Lisa Kudrow), the sexually adventurous virgin Rezno (Tony Revolori), secretly on vacation from the halfway house Walter (Stephen Merchant), and Teddy’s old nanny Jo (June Squibb), Eloise has come to make amends, expel a truth, and face her past whether Teddy — or his new girlfriend (Amanda Crew) — likes it or not.

Simplicity is the name of the game for Table 19 and if this had been a TV episode it would almost be a bubble episode. Thankfully, Blitz was smart enough to cast engaging performers to make the material work better than it should. Not every character rises to the occasion — Rezno barely proves himself more than a nuisance — but it all comes down to Eloise’s plight in the end. If you can feel for her, you’ll be able to make it to the end of the film with a smile on your face and least a few good laughs along the way.

Table 19 will not wind up winning any awards, but it never makes itself out to be more than it is either. It’s a chance for Kendrick to be as awkwardly adorable as expected. Merchant makes a bid to steal the film away from her, but Kendrick continues to prove she can carry a film, even if it’s with a little help from the supporting characters. It does start to feel long at times, and at a mere 87 minutes it’s far shorter than most films these days. Kendrick fans will not be left wanting more. But for those wanting something a little broader, it would do you well to steer clear.

Movie Review: “Before I Fall”


Before I Fall

*** out of 5
99 minutes
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving drinking, sexuality, bullying, some violent images, and language-all involving teens 
Open Road Films

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

I was truly conflicted after sitting through Before I Fall. On one hand, I completely loathed the first 30 minutes of director Ry Russo-Young’s dark twist on Groundhog Day. On the other, I almost loved the last hour. Unfortunately, Maria Maggenti’s cliche-filled screenplay — adapting Lauren Oliver’s young adult novel — could have pulled a rabbit out of her hat, instead, she simply falls back on exactly what you saw coming from the moment our protagonist wakes up on her first of many replayed days. It’s such a shame, really. What could have wound up as quite the surprise only leaves you walking out of the theater with a bad taste in your mouth.

Samantha (Zoey “daughter of Lea Thompson” Deutch) loves being in high school. Being part of the “Mean Girls” — along with Lindsay (Halston Sage), Elody (Medalion Rahimi), and Ally (Cynthy Wu) — she spends her day collecting roses from admirers for “Cupid’s Day” before getting their party on that night. Samantha’s childhood friend Kent (Logan Miller) is throwing the party, but the outcast and bullied Juliet (Elena Kampouris) decides to crash it. Unlucky for Juliet, her message doesn’t get through and she’s thrown out. Samantha and her girls decide they’ve had enough and leave as well, only to wind up in a car wreck, where Samantha is spent reliving that day ad nauseum. Now, she must figure out why she’s stuck in a time loop and find a way out before she loses her sanity for good.

Before I Fall starts off to a rocky start. How rocky? When Ally is talking about the butterfly effect at lunch, Lindsay jumps in about how she’s heard a story that for every person who watches a pretentious video, three other people die of boredom, causing me to grab a colleague’s arm and ask him, “Are we going to die?!” But once the crash happens and Samantha sets out on her journey of self discovery and spiritual awakening, she starts spending time with other characters who used to be very minor. She takes a day off to spend one day with her younger sister Izzy (Erica “sister of Jacob” Tremblay) and then another day she skips the party altogether to go to dinner with the family.

Considering the film is a mystery at its core, it’s sad that it all falls apart so drastically in the last five minutes. It also makes the rest of the film a bit of a headscratcher. You’ll know what I mean once the credits roll. Teenagers are the obvious target here, so considering I loved most of the film, means they should really enjoy all of it. And since they’re the target demographic after all, that’s a good sign. Because there’s not much else for teen girls to flock to, this could be just the sort of counterprogramming Open Road Films can rely on against Logan for at least a decent opening weekend. It’s not the worst thing playing in theaters, and sometimes that’s good enough.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Blu-ray Review: “Bad Santa 2”

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

Article first published on Blogcritics.org

The first Bad Santa came out of nowhere and wound up being a delightfully raunchy surprise. It honestly shouldn’t have been too surprising considering it was directed by Terry Zwigoff (Crumb, Ghost World), written by the duo of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (This Is Us, I Love You Phillip Morris), and produced by Joel and Ethan Coen. Along with an amazing cast, they delivered an instant holiday classic for adults. Helped considerably by Billy Bob Thornton’s lovably seedy turn as Willie, it was only a matter of time before a sequel came along. Unfortunately, Bad Santa 2 got stuck in development hell for 13 years. Considering it took as long as it did to finally hit theaters, it’s a wonder director Mark Waters’s film has any laughs at all.

It’s been a long time since Willie and Marcus (Tony Cox) have seen each other. That’s what happens when your partner turns on you, leaving you to get shot by the police and serve your time. But Willie is every bit as surly as ever. He may hate his life, but soon enough, Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly) arrives with a mis-delivered package, and the opportunity to reunite with Marcus. Turns out, Marcus wants to offer Willie a piece of a huge score worth millions of dollars in Chicago. And just wouldn’t you know it, the real mastermind winds up being Willie’s estranged mother Sunny (Kathy Bates). A conspiracy is brewing and Sunny wants to defraud a homeless charity run by Diane Hastings (Christina Hendricks), whose husband Regent (Ryan Hansen) is stealing from. Now, the crew is back together to make, and settle, the score.

Broad Green Pictures has released Bad Santa 2 in both 4K and standard Blu-ray, and includes the theatrical and unrated versions. While I did not receive the 4K disc for review, it was finished in 4K so I would have to imagine that while the picture looks really good here, it should look even better on that disc. Colors are bright, almost verging in bloom, with some reds having a pink tone. Details are impeccable — sometimes for better and worse — with no technical anomalies. Banding, aliasing, and crush are nonexistent. As was the case with Billy Flynn’s Long Halftime Walk, some improvement can be made in the realm of shadows. Blacks aren’t as dark as they could be, but if they were — as was the case with Billy Flynn — it would result in the loss of detail. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio gets the job done. The film is a comedy after all so don’t expect to be overwhelmed with surround usage. Music never drowns out the dialogue, so don’t worry, you’ll never miss any of Willie’s snide remarks. An additional Spanish 5.1 DTS Surround track is included, along with English and Spanish subtitles.

It may not necessarily seem like a film ripe for an abundance of special features, but there are a lot stuffed in its sack. Kicking things off is a quick looks at how much Thurman hasn’t changed over the last 13 years — “Thurman Then & Now” (2:27). They joke about how Kelly has grown up and slimmed down so he was asked to put back on 50 pounds and bleach/perm his hair. “Just Your Average Red Band Featurette” (2:00) is a chance for the cast to let off some more profanities. “That’s My Willie” (3:51) is an original animated series featuring the misadventures of Willie and Thurman. “Jingle Balls” (0:35) is a quick reimagining of “Jingle Bells” using swears from the film. “Trailers and Spots” (7:14) is a collection of, well, the film’s trailers and internet spots.

A “Gag Reel” (3:59) is every bit as unfunny as the finished film. “Alternate Opening” (1:00) reintroduces us to Willie working as a janitor. “Deleted Scenes” (2:41) aren’t separated and offer nothing more to the shenanigans. “Alternate Ending” (2:49) is completely forgettable, but revolves around Willie learning life lessons. And finally, a gigantic offering of “Sneak Peeks” includes trailers for 14 films(!): Bridget Jones’s Baby, Last Days in the Desert, Knight of Cups, Song of Lahore, Break Point, 10,000 KM, Samba, Eden, I Smile Back, Learning to Drive, The Infiltrator, A Walk in the Woods, 99 Homes, and The Dark Horse. The last four all front-loaded for your skipping pleasure.

It’s too bad that absolutely none of the original creative team returned, because Bad Santa 2 really needed it. Simply slapping the ol’ Santa suit on Thornton and have him act(?) drunk while saying mean-spirited quips is not enough to make up for its existence. The original still stands as one of the funniest holiday films and thankfully, this one doesn’t tarnish its name. Featuring great video, expected audio, and flat-lined special features, only the first film’s biggest fans will find this a worthwhile follow up. It’s far from the worst sequel ever made, but Bad Santa 2 is absolutely one of the most unnecessary. At least this one was not the runaway success the first one was. There’s not a snowball’s chance in hell we’ll have to endure a third round.
 

Blu-ray Review: “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”

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

Article first published on Blogcritics.org

Ang Lee is known for making quality films. Unfortunately, every director is known to have a bad day. For Lee, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk wound up being an outright disaster. Wanting to present one of the most immersive film experiences possible, he filmed Billy Lynn in 3D, at 4K, and a frame rate of 120. It’s basically unwatchable in its native state. With next to no theaters even equipped to play it as it was meant to be seen, it was downgraded to 2D and the standard 24 frames per second. Not even the formatting could cover up the fact that he simply chose the wrong material to approach such an ambitious undertaking. The fact of the matter is, war may be hell, but so to can be filmmaking. And the real culprit, is Jean-Christophe Castelli’s mediocre adaptation of Ben Fountain’s novel and his sleepwalking cast.

Billy (Joe Alwyn) may be an Army specialist who was caught on film saving a wounded Sergeant Virgil “Shroom” Breem (Vin Diesel) during a firefight, but he’s still just a 19-year-old boy. With the rest of his unit — deemed the “Bravo Squad” in the news — he returns home to Texas where he finds himself trying to deal with his own PTSD and newfound fame. Bravo Squad is scheduled to be part of a Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving halftime show, and the stage is set for the extravaganza. But behind the scenes, the unit is dealing with their newfangled reality, while film producer Albert Brown (Chris Tucker) is negotiating the rights to their movie.

I have to admit, I was a little sad when the 2D standard 1080p Blu-ray disc arrived. I was hoping to give the 4K presentation a firm shot at redemption, especially since it plays at 60 frames per second. Alas, even with the 4K 3D 120fps picture downgraded to 2D 1080p at 24fps, it gets the job done. Unfortunately, there are only a few moments where the picture is as good as it should be. Detail is as crisp as expected, but with this being a digital production, sometimes blacks aren’t as dark as they could be. Thankfully, colors generally pop more than anticipated, even if skin tones waver into pinkish hues. The best scenes are any taking place outside in the blazing Iraqi landscapes and during the big halftime show.

Also downgraded for the Blu-ray disc is the audio. The 4K comes equipped with both Dolby Atmos and Dolby TrueHD 7.1 tracks. Here, we get a standard 5.1 DTS-HD track. The 2D disc really feels like Sony dropped the ball. However, the titular halftime show and the Iraqi war sequences manage to get the job done. It’s never as immersive as a 7.1 track might have been, but things still blow up real good when they do. Also included is a 5.1 Dolby Digital Audio Description track and subtitles in English, English SDH, and Spanish.

A collection of “Deleted Scenes” kick off the special features. The only one that really could have changed the film for the better is the first, “One Nation, Nine Heroes” (3:41) which is an alternate opening giving the unit their dues. Character introductions could have helped immensely, because you never once really care about any of the squad throughout the movie. Something that should never happen when based on true events. The rest of the scenes are: “Family Dinner” (1:27), “Old Enough to Die For My Country” (1:25), “What You’ve Seen” (1:38), “We’re Just Messing with You” (1:13), and “Get Ready” (1:16).

Four featurettes cover the production (“Into Battle and Onto the Field: Stepping Inside Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” 9:21), cast (“Assembling a Cast” 11:29), halftime show (“Recreating the Halftime Show” 6:27), and the extremes Lee put the boys through as they had to endure a boot camp to prep for the shoot (“The Brotherhood of Combat” 4:24).

Had as much time been spent on punching up the script as Lee put into attempting such a visually immersive picture, perhaps the technical merits could have stood up to scrutiny. As it stands, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a vague mess that never knows whether it’s trying to get a point across or simply aiming for satire. The meta bits certainly don’t help. We’re basically watching a filmed version of the making of the film. The cast do what they can with the material, but even they are left high and dry with Lee trying to deliver a feast for the eyes that next to no one even saw.

A colleague informed me that he blind-purchased the 4K pack out of mere curiosity, and I honestly can’t wait to at least see — as close as I can — to what Lee meant the film to look like. The 2D presentation manages to be as good as you’d expect, especially being a Sony disc — they’re always top tier — but the film certainly feels like a missed opportunity from start to finish. Only the most hardcore war film fans will find the film worth sitting through, anyone else will be bored to tears wondering what all the fuss was about.