Sunday, August 23, 2015

Movie Review: “The Curse of Downers Grove”


Movie: ** 1/2 out of 5
90 minutes
Not Rated
Anchor Bay Entertainment

Article first published as Movie Review: Not Even Bret Easton Ellis Can Save Us from ‘The Curse of Downers Grove’ on Blogcritics.

Probably the most interesting thing about The Curse of Downers Grove is that it’s co-written by author Bret Easton Ellis. After delivering such guilty pleasures as American Psycho, Less Than Zero, The Rules of Attraction, and The Informers, this is the first time Ellis has had any part adapting a book that wasn’t his own work. And, I’m not sure what motivated Ellis to be part of bringing Michael Hornburg’s book to the big screen (along with co-writer/director Derick Martini).

The titular Downers Grove is a small town where everyone knows everyone. Except in Downers Grove, every year — days before graduation — someone from the senior class dies. Chrissie Swanson (Bella Heathcote) doesn’t believe in the curse and is convinced it’s senioritis taking hold with kids being kids, i.e. using drugs and drinking alcohol. Something she half partakes of at a party with her friend Tracy (Penelope Mitchell), where the jock Chuck (Kevin Zegers) tries to rape Chrissie. Defending herself, Chrissie blinds Chuck who stalks her at every turn and takes out his revenge on her friends and brother Dave (Zane Holtz). Eventually, Chrissie has to decide if she’s marked for this year’s curse or if she may be the curse itself.

We expect cold and disconnected from Ellis’s characters in his own work, but when it comes to a horror movie, you’re left with no one to root for. That should never be the case when the lead is the “final girl” a lǻ Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween or any other horror movie ever made. The biggest twist here may be that Downers Grove is more of a horror film in tone only, and that doesn’t work when there may or may not be supernatural elements at play. What we’re really dealt is a revenge thriller that — while not ending the way you’d expect — ultimately deflates in the last scene, making the whole endeavor a huge waste of time.

The cast isn’t particularly memorable. Mitchell and Holtz are the only two who look like they’re having any fun, while Heathcoate does what she can with a role any young actress could play in their sleep. The biggest problem with The Curse of Downers Grove is the lack of pacing. It plods along from one scenario to the next, never building a sense of danger or urgency once the pieces finally start to fall into place and the finale kicks into gear. And then there’s the ending. In the film’s biggest twist, it tries to turn into The Lovely Bones or American Beauty, but it’s really just a huge cheat, making the rest of the film completely superfluous.

If one thing’s for certain, Ellis should stick to adapting his own novels, or at least let more experienced screenwriters adapt while he sticks to the producers chair. As for The Curse of Downers Grove, anyone looking for a horror film will be left wondering what they just watched, and Ellis fans will be left searching elsewhere for his missing sardonic wit.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Movie Review: “Hitman: Agent 47”


Hitman: Agent 47

** out of 5
96 minutes
Rated R for sequences of strong violence, and some language.
20th Century Fox

Article first published at The Reel Place.

The first Hitman is not remembered for being a box office smash way back in 2007. However, on a budget of $24 million, the worldwide gross of thousands shy of $100 million is actually a pretty decent success. It makes sense that a sequel was announced, even if it never came to fruition. Now, eight years later, our titular anti-hero has returned in Hitman: Agent 47, but as we’ve already seen before from 20th Century Fox, it’s way too little too late. While not the complete misfire/disaster as Fantastic Four, there was little life to be found in the first film, and even the video game’s biggest fans are going to find little here to like.

Agent 47 (Rupert Friend) is a result of human experimentation by the shadowy ICA (International Contract Agency) and he’s on a mission to find Katia (Hannah Ware), the daughter of the project’s founder: Litvenko (Ciarán Hinds). Also hot on their tail is John Smith (Zachary Quinto), secret agent for the Syndicate, lead by Le Clerq (Thomas Kretschmann). Now, a game of one upmanship and every man for himself erupts as the two organizations’ top assassins are pitted against each other to take out the father and daughter.

And that’s basically it. Director Aleksander Bach makes one of the most boring debuts ever, something an action film filled with assassins should never be. Let alone that the action scenes think they’re more over-the-top than they actually are. Just when it looks like something exciting is about to happen, the scene downgrades to pedestrian and never hits the gas. It’s a whiplash effect that makes the film feel far more convoluted than it really is.

It’s a shame that once again, Fox has managed to pump out another reboot — and in the same month no less — probably just to keep the film rights. Coincidentally, a series Fox did let go of — The Transporter — is also headed back to theater for a reboot. I have a feeling that one will be what this film should have been. But that will come as no surprise considering those films have always known how ridiculous they are. Bach should have gone the way of those and gone as bombastic as possible, it’s just about the only way to bring life to the Hitman franchise.

Unlucky for them, screenwriters Michael Finch (Predators, The November Man) and Skip Woods (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, The A-Team, and the first Hitman) can’t even manage to make a scene of dialogue coherent. Combined with Bach’s lackluster pacing, you’ll undoubtedly find yourself nodding off, only making what’s happening onscreen all that more confusing. If there was at least a sense of fun we could turn off our brains and enjoy the madness, but even that’s not possible. Hitman: Agent 47 doesn’t even jump into so-bad-it’s-good entertaining.

This is standard operating procedure August drivel, something that looked like a thing of the past. But alas, here we are, with the return of the movie dump month. The cast never looks like they’re having any fun, which never translates well to the audience. It’s taken way too seriously — which normally could at least result in a few spurts of unintentional hilarity. But all Hitman: Agent 47 will leave you with is a concern that you can’t remember a second of what you just watched. This is kind of movie that just goes in one eye and out the other.

DVD Review: “I-Lived”

Movie: ** out of 5
Extras: **

Article first published as DVD Review: ‘I-Lived’ from Maniac Director Franck Khalfoun on Blogcritics.

French horror director Franck Khalfoun may have not had the best reception when he made his debut P2, but oddly enough, it managed to get a three-star review out of the late great Roger Ebert. So it makes sense how much better received his sophomore follow-up feature Maniac was. Having never seen either of those — but with the hype aftermath of Maniac in tow — I went into his newest film I-Lived, with pretty high expectations.

Unfortunately, whatever acclaim he amassed from the gore hound crowd, this is low budget horror filmmaking at its most tedious. Armed with one of the least charismatic casts he could find, I-Lived could be retitled I-Bored. Something you can decide after it hits DVD on August 11.

I-Lived, Franck Khalfoun, Brian Breiter, Jeremiah WatkinsJosh (Jeremiah Watkins) is a video blogger who’s trying to make ends meet reviewing apps online. We learn that his girlfriend has recently dumped him and he can’t pay rent or his power bills. That is, until the new app “I-Lived” finds its way to his phone, promising to make him the man he wants to be.

Soon enough, the app sets him on a path to obtaining everything he’s ever wanted — including a girl who’s out of his league and signing a contract to become the face of a big Internet company. But just wouldn’t you know it, the app starts controlling Josh’s life and makes him complete increasingly sinister tasks — including, but not limited to, picking fights and eventually, kidnapping. Now, Josh must decide between having it all, or losing everything he thought he ever wanted if he doesn’t do what the app says.

There’s absolutely no surprise who’s running the app, considering the stakes it tries to raise on Josh as it slogs its way to the credits. It shouldn’t come as a spoiler that a meeting with someone usually a little more red-tinted and hooved shows up toward the end. This is been there, seen that, of the highest order. While Maniac was extremely gory there’s barely anything here and most of the violence happens off screen. That may work for some horror films, but I-Lived sure could use something, anything, to get audiences pulses racing. The DVD does at least include an interactive app that you can use while watching the movie, that is if you can keep yourself from doing literally anything else on your phone while suffering through the runtime.

Watkins is a horrible lead, bland and two dimensional, only managing to remind me why I refuse to watch low-rent app reviews. The reviewer is never as entertaining as they find themselves. Not to mention, Khalfoun (who also wrote the script) forces the following kinds of exchanges at regular intervals: after Josh’s landlord asks if he can finally pay rent, he asks her if that’s why he gave him an eviction notice. Um, YES! This is the kind of dunderheaded filmmaking to expect through the entirety of I-Lived, something you’ll wish you could be doing, instead of sitting through the movie.

Blu-ray Review: “Police Story: Lockdown”

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

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Jackie Chan Stars in ‘Police Story: Lockdown’ on Blogcritics.

No matter the film, Jackie Chan is always a joy to watch. Whether comedy- or drama-driven, the man has the charisma to carry any film — regardless of quality. As he’s gotten older, his roles have been dialed back a bit, it’s obvious that they’re written with his stature in mind. But no matter what, he always makes anything he’s in at least watchable. Now, Chan has joined forces once again with Ding Sheng (director of Little Big Soldier, who also wrote the screenplay) to deliver us Police Story: Lockdown — the sixth installment of Chan’s popular cop series. How does it measure up to the rest of the films? Well, Chan is certainly showing his age, but he’s still better than Sheng’s lackluster Die Hard ripoff.

Police Story, Police Story: Lockdown, Jackie Chan, Ding Sheng, Liu Ye, Jing TianChan plays Detective Zhong Wen, who is meeting his estranged daughter Miao Miao (Jing Tian) at the nightclub Wu Bar. Miao has asked to meet with her father to let him know that she is now seeing the club’s owner Wu Jiang (Liu Ye). Zhong is not happy that once again his daughter has made another precarious life decision, and before he knows it, he’s knocked unconscious, and wakes up as Wu’s hostage. Now, Wu is holding Zhong captive, along with a group of specially invited guests, as Zhong must figure out Wu’s motives and keep everyone safe. Soon enough, Wu explains his vengeful plan, and only Zhong can stop him.

Delivered, as always, on a 25GB disc, and as always, this Well Go USA title is held back from perfect marks by banding. It’s a simple enough fix, but yet they continue to pump out titles ad nauseum fixed with less room to breathe, keeping the picture from looking as good as they could. The good news is, the colors are bright and pop while never resulting in bleed, fleshtones are natural, and there is never any sign of noise or crush. Detail is also phenomenal. On the audio front, WGU does however keep treating us to stellar 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks. Bass will give your home theater a good walloping, and every punch, kick, explosion, gunshot, or helicopter flyby sound perfect, with directionality making sure everything is right where it should be in the soundfield. Additional audio tracks include English 5.1 DTS, along with Mandarin and English 2.0 Dolby Digital, and English only subtitles.

There aren’t a lot of special features, and what is here can be called mediocre at best. Included are a set of interviews featuring director Sheng (4:20) and actors Chan (3:51), Ye (6:11), and Tian (6:14). There’s also a “Behind the Scenes” (5:15) and the film’s theatrical trailer (1:41). The cast appear to be having a lot of fun working together, and Chan always seems spirited on set. It’s just a shame that they’re not given a whole lot to do. Considering the lack of stunt work from Chan himself, there’s also a major lack of stunts-gone-wrong. It’s something fans always look forward to, something that reminds us how hard he works no matter what film he’s in.

Police Story, Police Story: Lockdown, Jackie Chan, Ding Sheng, Liu Ye, Jing TianUnfortunately for fans, there’s very little comedy that was found in some of the earlier Police Story films. This is a much more serious outing, something that Chan is fully capable of, but Sheng never provides a sense of fun, or even delves into darker themes. It’s all very run-of-the-mill, with the plot eventually playing out like a mashup of Die Hard and Rashamon. You soon grow tired of the characters explaining what really happened to incite Wu’s revenge, and soon just wish for the film to reach its inevitable showdown. Chan has done better, but he’s definitely done far worse.

While light on features, the video/audio at least make the film look and sound as good as it can. It was released overseas on IMAX 3D, and I cannot fathom why. Even in two dimensions, the story is never larger than life enough to warrant the biggest screen possible, let alone a 3D conversion. There’s barely enough to service hardcore Chan fans, but I will say that I do love seeing the man still manage to kick ass and take names when given the chance. Sadly, Police Story: Lockdown could also refer to the series itself, we don’t need another Police Story, especially when there’s sadly no life left in the franchise.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Movie Review: “Straight Outta Compton”


Straight Outta Compton
**** out of 5
147 minutes
Rated R for language throughout, strong sexuality/nudity, violence, and drug use
Universal Pictures

Article first published at The Reel Place.

This may sound like an odd question, but when’s the last time gangster rap brought a tear to your eye? Believe it or not, that’s exactly what may happen while watching the N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton. Based on the rise and fall of the California supergroup, director F. Gary Gray brings a behind-the-scenes look, taking us through all the breakups and breakdowns along the way. The most surprising thing of all may be the universal themes and pathos found in Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff’s screenplay, but that’s exactly what we get. While it may come with an obvious demographic. There’s plenty here for anyone who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, regardless of race, you know who N.W.A. are: Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, DJ Yella, and MC Ren. And they’re all represented with the highest respect.

Starting in 1986 Compton, California, the teenagers are high schoolers, just trying to get by from day to day. Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr. aka Ice Cube's real life son) can’t stop writing lyrics, Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) has the beats, and Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) has the connection. With Eazy-E working in a vinyl pressing factory, he’s discovered by Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) who wants to help the group get their music to the public while creating Ruthless Records. Eventually, the pitfalls of fame are thrust upon them as they deal with racist cops — inspiring, of course, “Fuck tha Police” protesting police brutality and racial profiling — and each other. After Ice Cube quits and goes solo, a rivalry breaks out between him and N.W.A. And just when they think they can finally put their past behind them, the worst has yet to reveal itself.

I have to admit, there are definitely some surprises in store for those not as privy to the band’s history, such as myself. Eazy-E finding out he has HIV is the biggest tear jerker.  The cast does a marvelous job of recreating the band, particularly Jackson, who is the spitting image of his father. And talk about a heavy load to bare, Jackson holds his own, even when up against Giamatti. Mitchell brings a humanity to Eazy-E, something that may seem surprising, especially with the amount of finger pointing that seems to happen at one point during the band’s breakup. But boys will be boys and the true villain finally gets his comeuppance. The music keeps the pace moving, but Gray always finds time to stop and let the band come to life whether they’re on deck in a recording studio, or having the time of their life at an after party.

There are also plenty of “cameos” spread throughout such as Snoop Dogg (Keith Stanfield) and even Tupac (Marcc Rose). Gray also takes the time to reflect on the Rodney King beating as well as witnessing Jerry defend the boys against racial profiling, something we all know is still, unfortunately, happening today. Straight Outta Compton has a built in audience with N.W.A. fans, and does happen to fall into the cliches of biopics here and there, but the movie sheds light on a story that most thought would never see the light of day. Thankfully, Universal and Legendary Pictures found the best crew to bring it to the big screen, right where larger than life is right at home.

Movie Review: “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”


The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

**** 1/2 out of 5
116 minutes
Rated PG-13 for action violence, some suggestive content, and partial nudity
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published at The Reel Place.

It’s been one hell of a year for the spy genre. Kingsman: The Secret Service, Spy, Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation. There’s been thrills aplenty. And if The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is of any indication, there’s no stopping the genre this year. Guy Ritchie has been known for both fantastic (both Sherlock Holmes films, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, even RocknRolla) and some really bad (Snatch, Swept Away, Revolver), but surprisingly, he seems to fare much better when he’s working in the Hollywood system. Maybe it’s because there’s undoubtedly studio heads watching over the production. Or maybe Warner Bros. just puts complete faith in him, but he’s yet to steer wrong when he’s making a studio film. It just makes me finally excited for his King Arthur film coming out next year. Warner Bros., don’t fail me now!

In 1963, CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) arrives in East Germany to pick up Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), to take her under their wing when KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) shows up. A chase ensues and Napoleon escapes with Gaby in tow, only to learn that he’s being forced to team up with Illya in an attempt to stop Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki) from destabilizing the nuclear arms race. Gaby’s father — who just happens to be Hitler’s favorite rocket scientist — is the only one who can help the trio — who go undercover. Now, our intrepid trio must join forces to stop Victoria’s criminal underground and put a stop to a nuclear disaster.

I’ve never seen the Sam Rolfe series, but it probably helps separate the two mediums. One is a dated TV show, whereas Ritchie’s U.N.C.L.E. is a hip Hollywood blockbuster. The most surprising aspect is what a breath of fresh air it is. Ritchie — along with co-writer Lionel Wigram — has crafted the year’s most suave and hip spy movie to date. The action scenes may not be as big as you’d expect from an end-of-summer outing, but it more than makes up for it with brains. The story may start to feel convoluted — which, let’s face it, is par for the course with any of these types of films — but it all really comes together in the end.

Cavill and Hammer make a stupendous duo and together give James Bond a run for his money. Considering Cavill is British, maybe if this somehow fails to connect with audiences and he’s not busy playing the Man of Steel, Barbara Broccoli can consider him for Bond once Daniel Craig gives up the moniker. Hammer himself continues to try and build upon the shadow cast over him after portraying the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network and the critical and box office failure of The Lone Ranger, but he’s right at home against the fast and loose Vikander. Now that she’s been thrust in the spotlight after her turn as humanoid Ava in Ex Machina, Vikander never fails to live up to expectations. Even Debicki seems to be reveling in her villainous role. And Hugh Grant gets a few moments to shine as Alexander Waverly.

There’s no denying the amount of fun everyone is having on screen, and thankfully, the audience is able to have just as much. Not relying on explosions and gunfights — don’t worry, there still are — this is the best spy movie of the year. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. may not be as superficially flashy as a standard popcorn extravaganza, but it never tries to either. This one is better than that, and hopefully audiences will find it as flat-out entertaining as I did, making it the hit it deserves to be.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Movie Review: “Fantastic Four”

Fantastic Four

* out of 5
100 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, and language
20th Century Fox

fun
[fuhn]
noun
  1. something that provides mirth or amusement:
A picnic would be fun.
antonym
  1. Fantastic Four:
The Fantastic Four reboot is anything but fun.

Considering I have never cared for the Marvel comic series Fantastic Four, especially after the already dreadful 2005 and the even worse — or so we thought — 2007 sequel. And never having seen the Roger Corman-produced 1994 version, I can only imagine that it has to be far more entertaining than what 20th Century Fox has managed to kill in just three movies. If it’s called Fantastic Four, sounds like Fantastic Four, and looks like Fantastic Four, does that mean it’s still Fantastic Four? Marvel wishes.

What they have to be wishing for is getting their rights back. Not even necessarily so they can reboot it again and make it part of their Marvel Cinematic Universe, but hopefully so they can simply lock the rights in a vault, smash the key with Thor’s hammer, feed the scraps to Hulk, then have Iron Man destroy the vault by throwing it into a wormhole for a Chitauri ship to eat for lunch. Am I being too hard on the film? Absolutely not. Just you wait, intrepid filmgoers, for you will not be able to prepare yourselves for the dour, joyless dreck director Josh Trank (Chronicle) has unfathomably unleashed.

*Fear not true believers, I’m going to spoil all the boring details.

Presenting us with a full-fledged origin story, we begin this Fantastic Four with elementary age Reed Richards (Owen Judge) joining forces with a young Ben Grimm (Evan Hannemann) as they complete building a “biomatter shuttle” (aka teleporter). In high school, Reed and Ben are presenting their machine as a science fair experiment, much to the chagrin of Mr. Kenny (Dan Castellaneta). Here, Sue Storm (Kate Mara) and her adoptive father Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) recruit Reed (Miles Teller) to the Baxter Foundation. Turns out, Reed has figured out how to make Victor Von Doom’s (Toby Kebbell) own teleporter bring back what is sent over to another dimension. Soon enough, Reed, Sue, Johnny Storm (Michael B. Hall), Victor, and Ben (Jamie Bell), have their experiment threatened with being handed over to NASA to explore the alternate universe they’ve worked so hard to discover.

Wanting to become the new Neil Armstrong/Buzz Aldrin, the four men jump into the teleporter to make their own first step for all geek-kind. In the process, Victor falls into an expanding puddle of energy and gets left behind, while the teleporter malfunctions bringing back Reed, Ben, and Johnny, resulting in an explosion. Now, Reed is a real-life Stretch Armstrong, Ben has been transformed into a walking pile of rubble called The Thing, Johnny can light himself on fire and fly, and Sue has the ability to transport in and out of reality (i.e. invisibility). Knowing that the government is going to take them under command and use them as weapons, Reed manages to escape. One year later, Reed is still on the run, but is eventually taken in by Ben after being found out by Sue. And just wouldn’t you know it, here comes Victor, now calling himself simply “Doom,” with a plan to wipe out human existence, leading our unlikely heroes to a battle to save our very existence.

Anyone who thinks that sounds like it should be the setup to a spectacular action extravaganza is dead wrong. That is the entire movie! Screenwriters Simon Kinberg (who may have given us Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Sherlock Holmes, and X-Men: Days of Future Past, but also churned out xXx: State of the Union, Jumper, and This Means War), Jeremy Slater (The Lazarus Effect), and Trank himself, wouldn’t know exposition if it punched them in the face. Packed full of montages ad nauseum, there’s not one moment of excitement in the entire 100-minute runtime. This is the most boring, soulless comicbook movie ever committed to cinema. To quote my friend: “When the movie gets worse after your leads get super powers, there’s a big problem.”

The cast has zero chemistry — not even Mara, Jordan, and Cathey, whom we’re supposed to believe are a family — and while I’m normally not bothered by Teller, this is the most mediocre he’s ever been. As good as he may be in The Spectacular Now and Whiplash, this Reed Richards might as well be walking around with a bottle of Prozac glued to his hand. The whole movie feels that way too. It slogs through the paces, with a few random moments featuring special effects making you think you’re watching a work print. It’s no wonder Fox scrapped the 3D conversion, it doesn’t even look good in 2D.

This movie also makes me think it’s why Trank is no longer attached to a Star Wars film. Someone at LucasFilm/Disney undoubtedly caught an early viewing of this and put a stake in that mistake. Audiences can breathe easy now that he won’t be able to run another beloved franchise into the ground. Leave that for Lucas! As for Fantastic Four, I’m sure you already knew if you were going to bother catching a showing, but there are far better things you can do with your time and money. Like using your hard earned cash for toilet paper, or watching paint dry. Either way, that’s exactly what you’re doing if you promote this film. Avoid at all costs. There is nothing Fantastic to see here. Congratulations Trank, you’re now responsible for two of the worst superhero movies ever made.