Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Salt Lake Comic-Con FanXperience (FanX) Shatters Records and Expectations

Article first published as Salt Lake Comic-Con FanXperience (FanX) Shatters Records and Expectations on Blogcritics.

In September 2013, Salt Lake City had its first ever Comic-Con to record breaking numbers. With more than 30,000 attendees, it was the biggest inaugural Comic-Con in history. The only way to follow it up? Kick things up a notch. Taking place once again in Salt Lake City’s downtown Salt Palace Convention Center, April 17–19, Dan Farr Productions brought the officially titled “Salt Lake Comic-Con FanXperience (FaxX).” Doubling the convention’s size to take over the entire Salt Palace, records shattered again with more than 100,000 attendees. A rumor of 120,000 has been floating around, but either way, Salt Lake Comic-Con is officially the third biggest Con after San Diego and New York.


Panels ran all day, featuring better participants, including some bonafide authorities instead of simply fanboys having 45-minute discussions. So many panels happening at once limits how many you can attend, so I had to choose wisely. My first was a Back to the Future panel, moderated by my friend Jimmy Martin, who runs a number of media outlets including “Geek Show Podcast” and his own “Big Movie Mouth-Off.” The main discussion involved what makes the franchise still so beloved, and we all agreed that it essentially boiled down to Michael J. Fox. One issue discussed concerned the reason Marty and Doc are such good friends–and what might those in the Middle East conflict learn from them. But when we took a moment to ponder what the world would be had Universal Pictures stuck with the originally-cast Eric Stoltz, it was as if we were attempting to make a rift in the space-time continuum.

The second panel included the visual effects teams that brought March’s 300 sequel to life. The Third Floor and Scanline VFX brought along their pre-visualization footage to show the before and after. Basically, it was like watching a Blu-ray extra live. Interesting, for sure, but the movie didn’t work in its finished form, so it was even more tedious to see in a raw format. Another pseudo-panel covered the antics of the Geek Show Podcast–definitely an 18-and-older affair. We listened to the shenanigans of ringleader Kerry Jackson and his cohorts Jeff Vice, Leigh George Kade, Jay Whittaker, Shannon Barnson, Too Tall Tony (who was substituted by X96 Radio From Hell’s “Punk”), and of course, Jimmy Martin. The first recording they did on Thursday turned away around 50 people so seating was limited at the second recording on Friday. Needless to say, I did not arrive in time for Saturday’s recording, but hilarity always ensues. Please to enjoy at geekshowpodcast.com.

Geek Show Podcast, Salt Lake Comic-Con, FanX

The two biggest events I managed to get into on Saturday involved the likes of a couple of names you may have heard of: Nathan Fillion and Sir Patrick Stewart! Although they may have been in the biggest ballroom, seating was still first come first serve. Both were very gracious to see their fans, and coincidentally, both passed by me while riding on golf carts to their photo op and autograph sessions. Fillion came across as very humble, self-deprecating, and hilarious, discussing his first big movie (Saving Private Ryan), his feelings toward Dungeons & Dragons (it’s too drawn out), accidentally swearing at Chinese ambassadors, eating with the entire Bridge of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and his TV-character bucket list.

PatrickStewartStewart made a far-too-brief appearance amounting to a mere 30 minutes, but he made every single one count. With a little movie coming out next month (cough X-Men: Days of Future Past cough, cough), he informed us of another film he’d just premiered the night before.

He confessed to eyeing a few items in an upcoming auction (which includes one of very few things to have his complete initials on it: PHS), and to never having seen an episode of The Big Bang Theory when asked if he was ever going to make a cameo. He noted that Sir Ian McKellen was the first to congratulate him on being mistakenly outed as gay, and made him an honorary gay. Dead pan and hilarious and far too short.

The only other panel I attended was to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Stephen King’s The Stand miniseries, which  included director Mick Garris. Even the original 460-page shooting script made an appearance, and someone did get vindication after asking if anyone else felt Molly Ringwald was the wrong choice for the character of Fran. Let’s just say nearly everyone was in agreement.

GremlinsBesides attending the panels, most of my time was spent wandering the booths of vendors peddling their amazing assortment of things for sale. Helping out my friend Kat Martin at her Altered Landscapes booth offered her a much needed break, but I also made sure to stop by and visit my other friends at Black Cat Comics and Scorched by Britt. I was unable to find HIGH SCORE Mobile Game Unit, but figured a shoutout was worthy. And the only autograph I sought out was from Zach Galligan, who starred in Gremlins as the mogwai-owning Billy Peltzer. I asked him if he would make an appearance in the announced reboot (a horrible idea to begin with) and he played as coy as you’d expect, but seemed very enthused for fans to start a petition to feature him if a new movie happens.

Alas, after all the star gazing and people watching had ended, it was finally time to wrap things up after a very long two days come Saturday night. Relaxation was found at SLC’s Poplar Street Pub, where the Geek Show Podcast held their closing party. With the books closed on an outrageously successful event, how much bigger can Salt Lake Comic-Con become by September? I, for one, can’t wait to find out!

Blu-ray Review: ‘Seven Warriors’

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: ‘Seven Warriors’ on Blogcritics.

Everyone knows that aside from being one of his most highly regarded films, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is also extremely influential. From John Sturges’ Magnificent Seven to Star Wars to Pixar’s A Bug’s Life, the tale of helpless villagers in need of heroes in a time of need stems from Seven Samurai. It’s not surprising to see the Chinese variant Seven Warriors coming to Blu-ray from Well Go USA on April 22. Aided by co-director Sammo Hung, director Terry Tong brings a surprisingly violent end to a slapstick-influenced midsection. How does it measure up to the original? Warriors is better than some.

SevenWarriorsCoverTransitioning the action to the Warlord Era China, we find soldiers turning into bandits and raising hell on the local farmers. In the village of Guangxi, the people decide to take a stand to defend their homeland. Now, they have brought seven warriors to aid them against the evil doings: Liu (Ben Lam), Ghost (Ma Wu), Karl (Fui-On Shing), Ching (Jacky Cheung), Yung (Siu Chung Mok), Wu (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), and Cmdr. Chi (Adam Cheng). Together they embark on a mission to stop the nefarious Ma Cheng Piu (Lo Lieh) and bring peace back to the village.

I have to admit, I was quite surprised by the level of detail for a 25-year-old Chinese film. Typically these are not in the best shape and take an exhaustive amount of restoration to look as good as Seven Warriors does. Aside from the typical scratches and white specks, the daytime scenes fare the best with plenty of facial details, clothing textures, and background elements such as trees and fields. Considering it’s on a smaller 25GB disc, it should come as no surprise to find mosquito noise and less detail during nighttime sequences. Aliasing and banding are never an issue.

The other sore spot is the Cantonese 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Filled with one of the worst synth scores imaginable, at least the dialogue is always clean, even if it wouldn’t matter considering the English subtitles. Foley effects are appropriately embellished making the film feel more like a ’70s kung fu movie rather than a late ’80s action film. Although, the synth score does seem like a cousin to all those Cannon films usually starring Chuck Norris. The only special feature is a theatrical trailer, but there are also previews for next month’s Special ID starring Donnie Yen, along with the already available Wrath of Vajra and Badges of Fury.

There’s not a lot about Seven Warriors to offer audiences looking for another version of Kurosawa’s masterpiece, especially with that one available in a definitive Criterion Blu-ray release. I suppose the ones most likely to seek out Seven Warriors are cinephiles who just want a new flavor. This is not the worst adaptation out there, but with the original available in such an outstanding package, the high price of Criterion’s Seven Samurai is still the best bet. With surprisingly decent video however, it is worth a look for anyone in need of a fix. Even I had a phase where I had to see every DVD release from Dragon Dynasty, and this would have felt right at home amongst them.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Movie Review: ‘Transcendence’

*** 1/2 out of 5
119 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality
Warner Bros. Pictures
Article first published as Movie Review: ‘Transcendence’ on Blogcritics.

After years as a cinematographer, it makes sense to finally move into the director’s chair. Working alongside Christopher Nolan — along with winning an Oscar for Inception — means you big shoes to fill in your big debut. If anything, Wally Pfister’s Transcendence is at least the kind of big idea film you’d expect out of a Nolan cronie. The only thing holding the film back is trying to create the type of urgency screenwriter Jack Paglen lacks in his story. Brimming with ideas, it all starts to fall flat in the end, holding the film back from making its own transcendence.

Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is an artificial intelligence researcher, working alongside his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), and best friend Max (Paul Bettany). After a conference, Will is shot by a radioactive-laced bullet and now has only five weeks to live. Devastated, Will, Evelyn, and Max decide to upload him into their own AI program to save Will’s life. After Will dies, his consciousness is successfully integrated into the machine and Will and Evelyn go off the grid when a group of extremists — led by Bree (Kate Mara) — begin to hunt them down, taking Max hostage. Now, fellow researcher Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) and FBI agent Donald Buchanan (Cillian Murphy) are convinced that Will is building an army, and may or may not have more sinister plans than Evelyn wants to admit.

There are a lot of big ideas floating around Transcendence, but none that seem to get off the ground. Had the film been faster paced, maybe the ending wouldn’t have felt so anticlimactic. It just takes forever to get to the point. It touches on the issues of technology taking over our lives, and Pfister keeps things looking as big and shiny as you’d expect from a Nolan production, but the pacing is a huge issue, no thanks to editor David Rosenbloom. Working with lots of prior Nolan cast members maintains a high level of acting, but the finale never feels as epic as it should be.

The best idea that sticks is when someone at the conference asks Will if he wants to create his own God to which he replies: “Isn’t that what man has always done?” Had they stuck to those kinds of ideas, instead of opting for gunfights and explosions, Pfister may have had the kind of grand scale thinking man’s sci-fi thriller he was aiming for. If you’re interested in seeing the film, you won’t be let down. However, if you already think it doesn’t look for you, there is more here than you’d think. At least Johnny Depp isn’t stuck in another wacky role, which is a kind of Transcendence in and of itself for any film.

Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Friday, April 18, 2014

Movie Review: ‘Wolf Creek 2’

 **** out of 5
106 minutes
Not Rated
RLJ Entertainment

Article first published as Movie Review: ‘Wolf Creek 2’ on Blogcritics.

Just when you thought it was safe to head back to the outback, Mick Taylor (John Jarratt) is back in Wolf Creek 2. After an eight year hiatus, the Australian serial killer is at it again, with even more tricks up his sleeve. While the first Wolf Creek wound up being a genre favorite, no one was exactly clamoring for a follow up, but thankfully, co-writer/director Greg McLean has returned to dive even further into Mick’s trail of bodies and a host of new characters to throw on the barbie, with all the expected beheadings and dismemberment, available on VOD April 17.

John Jarratt, Ryan Corr, Wolf Creek 2After a nasty reintroduction to Mick involving the dispatch of two police officers (Shane Connor and Ben Gerrard), the story follows a couple of German hitchhikers — Rutger (Phillipe Kraus) and Katarina (Shannon Ashlyn) — headed for Wolf Creek Crater. After they make camp for the night, sure enough, Mick shows up offering them a ride to a nearby camping spot. After they refuse, Mick does what he does best killing Rutger and playing hide and seek through the brush with Katarina. Then, along comes British surfer Paul (Ryan Corr), who nearly runs over poor Katarina in the middle of the road, and offers her help. Now, Mick is hot on their trail leaving a wake of bodies, and kangaroos, littered across the Australian outback.

While the first Wolf Creek certainly falls under the horror subgenre of torture porn, Wolf Creek 2 doesn’t simply offer just more of the same. There definitely is the expected bloody carnage but McLean shoves Mick front and center this time. This entry also has a broader sense of humor, almost turning Mick into a Freddy Krueger-version of himself with one-liners and some over-the-top antics. A couple of action scenes threaten to take over, but have no worries mates, once Mick gets Paul back to his catacombs, it turns into a bloody intense one-on-one. Let’s also say, never tell a sadistic psycho: “You’ll have to do better than that.” Yes, horror hounds, Mick is back and just as nasty, making Wolf Creek 2 a welcome return.

Photo courtesy RLJ Entertainment

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

DVD Review: ‘Camp Dread’

Article first published as DVD Review: ‘Camp Dread’ on Blogcritics.

There are not a lot of great direct-to-video horror offerings. Sometimes one may sneak through the cracks, typically a theatrically intended film that gets dumped by the studio: e.g. Tucker & Dale vs. Evil — but these are very few and far between. In the case of Camp Dread, writer/director Harrison Smith has managed to take a good idea and completely ruin his own end game with horrible acting and pedestrian directing choices. Not even adding established actors (Eric Roberts and Danielle Harris) to the mix results in much more than what you’d expect from a direct-to-video production.

Eric Roberts, Danielle Harris, Camp DreadIn Camp Dread, aging horror director Julian Barrett (Roberts) has fallen from grace after a successful 1980s slasher trilogy called Summer Camp. Julian wants to resurrect his series and remake his films in the guise of a reality show in which a group of troubled 20-somethings are shipped to what they believe is an alternative to jail or rehab. Instead, Julian informs them that they are all reality show contestants, with a $1 million prize up for grabs for the last one standing. However, elimination takes on a literal meaning when a killer starts taking them out for real and Julian’s “Dead.tv” show starts to take on a far more sinister reality.

Roberts and Harris are the only ones who show any real acting ability, which comes as no surprise considering they’re actual (B-list) movie stars. But the rest of the cast are your typical horror clichés, ranging from horny jokesters to bimbo lesbians. Poor Harris is completely wasted and limited to two scenes. The gore effects are mediocre at best with some rather uninspired killings, the only original kill being an amputee who gets beaten to death with his own prosthetic leg after his good leg suffers a compound fracture. The rest are your typical slashings and stabbings. Bet you can guess what’s coming when the kitchen freezer is said to have a broken latch and a character says, “Hopefully, no one loses their head.” To sum it up, Camp Dread is more like Camp Dread-ful.

Blu-ray Review: ‘Ride Along’

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: ‘Ride Along’ on Blogcritics.

One reason Ride Along should not have worked: four credited writers. Greg Coolidge (who also gets story credit) comes from a sordid amount of comedies such as Employee of the Month and Sorority Boys; Matt Manfredi and Phil Hay have worked together on the likes of Crazy/Beautiful, The Tuxedo, Æon Flux, and the Clash of the Titans remake; while Jason Mantzoukas (most familiar as the disgustingly hilarious Rafi on FX’s The League) has contributed to Adult Swim’s gleefully subversive Childrens Hospital. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of what wound up on screen was improv as it’s obvious Kevin Hart was allowed total free-will, making the film funnier than it has any right to be.

Ice Cube, Kevin Hart, Ride AlongBen (Hart) is a fast-talking high school security guard who wants to propose to his girlfriend Angela (Tika Sumpter). Problem is Ben has to make nice to her rough-edged brother James (Ice Cube), who works as a detective for the Atlanta police department. James decides to let Ben prove himself by taking him on a ride along, requesting all 126’s (annoying calls no one wants) to try to rid himself, and Angela, of Ben forever. Ben thinks he’s up to the call of duty, but winds up in over his head after James’ most dangerous case — involving a mysterious drug lord named Omar — keeps trickling its way into their day. Eventually, Ben and James must work together just to stay alive, if James doesn’t wind up shooting Ben first.

Universal cruises Ride Along onto Blu-ray on a 50GB disc in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio. You wouldn’t expect the kind of flawless transfer from this kind of film. Black levels never suck the life out of the picture, with all kinds of shadow detail on display. Aliasing, banding, noise, or any other anomalies are non-existent as well. Detail is impeccable whether it’s facial features, clothing details, building facades, or dust in a flashlight beam. Shot with Epic Red cameras, this is one of the best looking comedies on the market.

Ice Cube, Kevin Hart, Ride AlongThe 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is as front heavy as you’d expect in a comedy, but surrounds keep ambiance alive whether it be crowded malls, chirping birds, rumbling Harley’s, or the occasional gunfight or explosion. Dialogue is never drowned out, keeping the jokes as high-flying as the bullets. An additional Spanish 5.1 Digital Surround track and a Descriptive Video Service are available, along with subtitles in English, Spanish, and French.

The special features come locked and loaded, but would seem repetitious were it not for the cast and crew involved. An “Alternate Ending” (1:42) kicks things off that feels wisely excised and six “Deleted Scenes” (8:23) include “James Meets Marko,” “Ben Dresses For Work,” “Ben Proposes To Angela,” “Drive To Hospital,” “Driving To Angela’s,” and “Omar Escapes,” In an “Alternate Take” (1:38) Hart slips into R-rated territory and is reigned back in by Cube and director Tim Story.

The rest are your typical assortment of extras including a “Gag Reel” (2:59), and a bunch of featurettes: “It Was a Good Day – On the Set of Ride Along” (11:52), “Kev & Cube’s Wild Ride” (5:16), “You Gonna Learn Today” (4:39), “Anatomy of the Big Blast” (4:50), “An Explosive Ride” (5:08), and “Atlanta: The Character” (3:19). The director’s commentary rounds things out with Story repeatedly saying so-and-so would punch them in the face for various things, including Universal if he were to reveal the film’s budget — it’s a surprisingly funny commentary.

Tika Sumpter, Ride AlongRide Along won’t go down as the funniest film of the year, but is it funny? Absolutely. Ice Cube and Kevin Hart play off each other very well, with Cube being the straight man against Hart’s spew of verbal diarrhea. The film is way better than the 18% score on RottenTomatoes. It’s unsurprising Universal ordered a sequel considering it raked in nearly six times its reported production budget.

Most critics were quick to dismiss the film while audiences ate it up. While I missed the daytime press screening the film was given locally (it was not screened for audiences in my market), I never caught the film in theaters after its release. However, having finally reviewed the Blu-ray — featuring stellar picture quality — I can see what audiences were so enthusiastic and recommend the film to anyone curious to see it for the first time, and fans will be pleased to add it to their collections.

Cover art and photos courtesy Universal Pictures

Friday, April 11, 2014

Movie Review: ‘Rio 2’

** out of 5
101 minutes
Rated G
Twentieth Century Fox Animation

Article first published as Movie Review: ‘Rio 2’ on Blogcritics.

I suppose after a film manages to make more than five times its budget back worldwide, and nab a Best Original Song nomination at the Academy Awards, its studio may feel obligated to cobble together a sequel. In case anyone forgot — which seems to be most people when they hear about Rio 2 — the first Rio opened back in 2011 and apparently Blue Sky Studios decided that since they’ve already mined the idea of getting two birds on the brink of extinction to copulate, that the only place left to go is straight into Meet the Parents territory. You’ve been warned.

Rio2PicRio 2 finds the two blue macaws, Blu (voiced by Jesse Eisenberg) and Jewel (voiced by Anne Hathaway), living the family life in Rio with their young offspring: Carla (voiced by Rachel Crow), Bia (voiced by Amandla Stenberg), and Tiago (voiced by Pierce Gagnon). While on a visit to the Amazon, Blu and Jewel’s owners — Linda (voiced by Leslie Mann) and Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro) — come across evidence that there may be a whole flock of blue macaws deep in the rainforest; meanwhile, a logging operation inches closer and closer to destroying the birds’ natural habitat.

Soon enough, everyone — including friends Rafael (voiced by George Lopez), Nico (voiced by Jamie Foxx), and Pedro (voiced by will.i.am) — band together to save the land, while dealing with the strains of relationships put on by Jewel’s father Eduardo (voiced by Andy García) and her childhood friend Roberto (voiced by Bruno Mars). To make matters worse, Nigel (voiced by Jemaine Clement, who is completely wasted) has followed the blue family, and has brought along his own minions — a poison dart frog named Gabi (voiced by Kristen Chenoweth, who is overused) and a silent tamandua — to seek revenge.

Nigel returns in Rio 2Many sequels get a lot of flak for being uninspired, but Rio 2 seriously takes the cake. Let alone the fact that having been beaten for Best Original Song by the deserving “Man or Muppet,” Rio 2 is stuffed with enough songs that it feels like director Carlos Saldanha is hell-bent on at least another nomination. Aside from the Meet the Parents rip-off plotting, the best jokes Saldanha and his gaggle of screenwriters (Don Rhymer, Carlos Kotkin, Jenny Bicks, and Yoni Brenner) can come up with revolve around iPods, fanny packs, sporks, and farts. This is not high-flying entertainment. To top it off, this is one of the most boring family films in a long time.

After being treated to a barrage of entertainment options in 2013, 2014 is off to a pretty rocky start. Not that Fox has the best track record lately; even the acquisition of DreamWorks hasn’t made them safe from box office failure (see Turbo and Rise of the Guardians, both of which are better than this). The biggest offender however, has to be Blue Sky itself. Talk about playing it safe. Churning out feature films that seem to be either worse or more boring than the last, they need to venture out from their safe zone and stop relying on Ice Age films. Epic was a step in the right direction, but who even saw it? The least I can say about Rio 2 is that anyone who had complaints about Mr. Peabody & Sherman or even Muppets Most Wanted, this is by far the worst family film of the year. And will undoubtedly remain so once 2014 comes to a close.

Photos courtesy Twentieth Century Fox Animation