Friday, April 17, 2015

Movie Review: “Monkey Kingdom”

Monkey Kingdom

*** 1/2 out of 5
81 minutes
Rated G

Article first published at The Reel Place.

Disneynature has brought quite the menagerie of documentaries since launching in 2008. The titles tell you all you need to know what each feature is about: Earth, The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos, Oceans, Wings of Life, African Cats, Chimpanzee, and Bears. While not holding any surprises, they’re always full of beautiful cinematography, and plenty of “how did they even film that” moments. No strangers to Disneynature are directors Mark Linfield (Earth, Chimpanzee) and Alastair Fothergill (co-director on Linfield’s, along with African Cats and Bears). Is there as much to enjoy about their new Monkey Kingdom? Well at least you know what to expect.

Monkey Kingdom takes us to Sri Lanka, deep into the jungle to the ancient ruins of Polonnaruwa. Here, we meet the hierarchy of a group of toque macaque, introducing us to our heroine, Maya. She lives her days under the rule of Raja (the alpha king), and his sisterhood. We learn that throughout the runtime, Maya will eventually beat the odds to make a better life for herself. Eventually, she sets her eyes on Kumar, who wants to join Raja’s clan on Castle Rock and fit in, but he’s ostracized after impregnating Maya. But it’s not all just eating winged termites and swinging on the jungle gym, because the evil Lex launches an assault on their titular kingdom and they must regroup to take back their beloved home, with Maya trying to juggle the hierarchy and taking care of her newborn Kip.

Monkey Kingdom comes narrated by Tina Fey who knows her way around line delivery enough to keep you as entertained with the narrated jokes as the onscreen monkey antics. Through the runtime, we do get to see a particularly interesting bit of footage showing the monkeys swimming. Fey asks, “Did you know monkeys can swim?” Of course we would assume so, after all, we can, right? Some of the more fun elements include the monkeys raiding a birthday party, and playing with a dog, but there are some more frightening elements on hand, like seeing a monitor lizard dragging away a monkey carcass, or the group paying their respects to a fallen comrade after Lex’s raid. However, everything is about what you’d expect in a scant 81 minute G-rated family film, with just enough to keep the young ones entertained, even if it doesn’t seem to try to educate you in the slightest.

*A note: for every ticket bought in the film’s first week of release, Disneynature, working in partnership with Conservation International, will make a donation in your honor to help protect habitat across Indonesia, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka. Benefiting hundreds of species and helping to protect fresh drinking water for local populations.

Movie Review: “Unfriended”


* out of 5
82 minutes
Rated R for violent content, pervasive language, some sexuality, and drug and alcohol use - all involving teens
Universal Pictures

Article first published at The Reel Place.

Horror movies need an ample amount of scares. While mostly relying on loud noises, a high level of tension can go a long way, especially when your film is chock-full of painfully thin characters. I had decent hopes for Unfriended — which had been playing a few festivals under its original title Cybernatural — with decent word-of-mouth out of SXSW and sitting at a currently astounding 88 percent on RottenTomatoes. Sometimes buzz can get in the way. Just take this month’s other horror offering, It Follows. A good idea can crash and burn quickly, especially when it comes to horror, and Unfriended is no exception.

It’s the one year anniversary of classmate Laura Barns’ (Heather Sossaman) cyberbullying-induced suicide and Blaire (Shelley Hennig) starts feeling remorseful as she prowls YouTube videos including Laura’s on-screen death. This doesn’t stop her from an episode of sexual Skype with her boyfriend Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm) before being interrupted by video calls from the rest of their friends: the blonde airhead Jess (Renee Olstead), pot-smoking Ken (Jacob Wyscocki), jockular Adam (Will Peltz), and an uninvited guest they can’t get rid of. The group is convinced it’s their bitchy friend Val (Courtney Halverson), as someone seems to have hacked Laura’s Facebook page, and they all start getting threatening messages. Soon enough, their mystery guest wants to play a game and they all start getting picked off one by one in increasingly gruesome ways by what may, or may not, be Laura’s vengeful spirit.

Before you quickly call afoul on Unfriended being a ripoff of a recent Modern Family episode, the film made its premiere at the 2014 Fantasia Festival. While it is an interesting idea to make a real-time horror movie with a topical subject such as cyberbullying, it’s a shame that writer Nelson Greaves and director Levan Gabriadze present us with such appalling characters. There is absolutely no one to root for, a requirement for any decent horror movie. And if you’re going to revolve your film around waiting for each character to meet their demise, you better make the kills worth the wait. At least some of the deaths are pretty gruesome, but not all of them, the best being a bit with a blender. But as far as scares, all Gabriadze can come up with is resorting to buffering video feeds cutting to loud screams.

The suspense is also short-shifted because it’s all so obvious. The writer/director may think it’s foreshadowing, but it’s really just lazy filmmaking. If you can’t guess how each character is going to die within seconds of their introduction, you must have already fallen asleep. Not that the film is a complete bore, but you need a mighty good story to pull off a film happening in “real time.” My biggest gripe is that we have five characters chatting online with their laptops and not one of them thinks to pick up their phone and call for help. It might be the biggest plot hole I’ve seen in a horror film in years.

While the last scare is really dumb and expected, at least the film doesn’t try to squeeze in a cheat ending. For real horror fans, there’s nothing to see here, move along please. Unfriended will probably wind up making a lot of money opening weekend. Making yet another notch on producer Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Productions’ belt of mostly undeserving hits — everything from the Paranormal Activity, The Purge, and Insidious franchises — but will quickly be forgotten, with audiences, and real word-of-mouth, resulting in the film being Unfriended from theaters in the blink of an eye.

Movie Review: “True Story”

True Story

**** out of 5
100 minutes
Rated R for language and some disturbing material
20th Century Fox

Article first published at The Reel Place.

Anything daring enough to call itself True Story better be larger than life, because we all know that truth is stranger than fiction. For anyone not in the know of the story behind the relationship between former New York Times reporter Michael Finkel and Christian Longo — like myself — you’re in for some pretty disturbing twists and turns. Anyone expecting a yuck-fest with the casting of real-life buddies Jonah Hill and James Franco, you’re in for a surprise. Anyone who happens to be fans because they know both of them can act — fantastically when needed — are in for a disturbing treat.

True Story introduces us to Finkel (Hill) investigating an African slave trade, only to get fired after diluting his facts, returns to Montana and wife Jill (Felicity Jones). In Mexico, Longo (Franco) is arrested for the murder of his wife, Mary Jane (Maria Dizzia), and three children. With Finkel disgraced and begging for work, he receives a call from Oregonian reporter Pat (Ethan Suplee), informing him of what Longo has done. Seizing an opportunity of a lifetime, Finkel jumps at the chance to correspond and meet with Longo who starts messing with Finkel. Soon enough, the facts begin to blur as Longo reveals that he may not be the innocent man he claims to be.

There’s a lot more to the story, but where’s the fun in spilling the beans? While you could obviously just head online to find out what happens, it’s best to walk in cold. Or if you’re already a fan of the story — you news junkies know who you are — at least Rupert Goold’s direction will keep you riveted. And his screenplay, co-written by David Kajganich, is full of smart misdirection. Fine-tuned ears will be able to keep up with Longo’s shenanigans before even Finkel figures out what’s really going on.

Franco and Hill go a long way being cast against each other, and it helps with the rapport of the journalist and possible psycho. But the real standout is by far Jones, even having just been nominated for her portrayal of Stephen Hawking’s wife Jane in The Theory of Everything, she gives a knockout performance with one scene near the end of the film that could see her nominated again. She may not have a lot of screentime, but she winds up head and shoulders above everyone. The True Story here, is that the film is haunting in all the right ways, giving us great performances from almost pigeonholed actors, with a director not afraid to shine a light at the psycho within.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Movie Review: ‘The Longest Ride’

The Longest Ride 
**** out of 5
128 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some sexuality, partial nudity, and some war and sports action
20th Century Fox

Article first Movie Review: ‘The Longest Ride’ at The Reel Place.

Considering how many films are made out of Nicholas Sparks’ novels — 10 in the last 16 years — I was bound to like one of them. After being subjected to the worst of the bunch last October (The Best of Me), it could have some bearing on why I liked The Longest Ride so much. This is a definite bright spot among the drivel we’re used to from Sparks.

While it still holds a lot of his trademarks, this is a pretty good cast, and director George Tillman, Jr. seemed an oddball choice (see Soul Food, Men of Honor, Notorious, and Faster). Even his 2013 Sundance film The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete doesn’t make him seem right for the job. But alas, Tillman has managed to pull a rabbit out of his hat and make the best Sparks adaptation since The Notebook.

In The Longest Ride, we meet bull rider Luke Collins (Scott “Son of Clint” Eastwood) who gets seriously injured as the film jumps to one year later. Now we meet college student Sophia Danko (Britt Robertson), who loves studying so much she tries to skip out on a bull riding event, but gets dragged along by her BFF Marcia (Melissa Benoist) anyway. Here, she meet cutes the dashing Luke who gives her his hat after it flies into the stands. Later that night, Luke and Sophia meet again outside a bar.

The two eventually plan a date that goes as splendidly as Nicholas-Sparks-possible, until, on the ride home, they encounter Ira (Alan Alda) in his wrecked car on the side of the road. They rescue Ira and his basket of love letters and Sophia forms a bond with Ira as he recounts his days before/during WWII (played by John Huston) with the love of his wife, the spunky art-obsessed Ruth (Oona “Granddaughter of Charlie” Chaplin). Eventually, they all learn the ups and downs of relationships as they battle either the avoidance of resentment or the casualty of it.

If any films feel cookie-cutter and and manufactured, it’s Sparks’. Full of pretty people doing boneheaded things, with a big twist that typically makes zero sense. The Longest Ride at least tries to buck some of the trends. The big twist here feels organic, and the book probably had a major overhaul in the screenwriting process, with Craig Bolotin giving us characters that are easy to like. I’ve been told the book is pretty tough to get through. The flashbacks scenes are the most effective, making you wish that this was their movie instead. Even if it feels like a live-action version of the tear-inducing montage from Up.

Robertson and Eastwood are a super cute couple and work well together, helping make their steamy moments extra steamy. Even if once in awhile they’re stuck in maudlin situations and Eastwood is forced to emote. He’s way better as the country boy, but still far from terrible. Alda could have been wasted, but his scenes with Robertson help give the present day story some added oomph.

Tillman may seem like a left-field directing choice, but he keeps the movie well-paced, making sure we’re never bored. He also lends some flair to the bull riding scenes, dragging out those eight seconds to full effect. The Longest Ride had everything going against it, but wound up being one of the sweeter movies of the year so far.

Blu-ray Review: The Mo Brothers’ ‘Killers’

Movie: **** out of 5
Video: ****
Audio: **** 1/2
Extas: Zero stars

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: The Mo Brothers’ ‘Killers’ on Blogcritics.

Sometimes the serial killer genre can feel like a dime a dozen. But once in awhile, something like the Mo Brothers’ (Kimo Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto) Killers finds a way to break free of the mold. Premiering at Sundance last year, it was one of two I missed during that festival — the other being The Babadook. In a year filled with fantastic films, I knew I had to see this one being a fan of thrillers in general, particularly when it comes to Asian cinema. Better late than never, I’m relieved to say Killers exceeded expectations and is finally available on Blu-ray from Well Go USA on April 7.

Our titular Killers are Japanese Nomura (Kazuki Kitamura) and Indonesian Bayu (Oka Antara). Nomura is already in the killing game, taking young women back to his place for a night of ecstasy, followed by their eventual demise. Bayu is a journalist on the prowl of the wife-beating Dharma (Ray Sahetapy), dealing with his own estranged wife Dina (Luna Maya) and daughter Elly (Ersya Aurelia). Nomura has been recording his kills and putting them online, something Bayu is fascinated by and can’t stop watching. Eventually, Bayu winds up killing a couple of people who are trying to mug him and begins his own descent into madness, with Nomura beginning to question his own motives and possibly developing a conscience after he takes a liking to florist Hisae (Rin Takanashi) and her son (Dimas Argobie). 

Killers doesn’t make for the most “killer” transfer, but when it looks good, it looks really good. Shot digitally, and presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the best part of the picture is definitely the amount of detail on display. The Red Epic cameras keep everything visible, helping the film be extra creepy at times, but sometimes lending a falseness to the CGI-enhanced elements. If there’s any drawback to the image, it’s the alternating of black levels from nice and inky to light grey, usually within the same scene. A faint layering of noise creeps into a few shots, and banding pops up thanks to the film being slapped onto a 25GB disc.

The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio also keeps the film’s pace booming along with plenty of low-thumping bass. Surrounds kick in during the kill scenes, while sound effects add extra squeamishness with breaking bones and sizzling skin sounding extra gross. Dialogue is perfectly clear with English subtitles available. A 2.0 Dolby Digital track is included. There are no special features.

If I had to describe Killers, imagine American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman being transplanted into The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Kitamura makes for an almost endearing psycho while Antara starts off his Bayu as a journalist with integrity, while slowly devolving into the other half of our titular Killers. The Mo Brothers keep the pace moving along and even manage to pull of an ending that makes sense — something that’s been missing from this year’s horror/thrillers. While featuring a better-than-average transfer, it is sorely lacking considering there are absolutely zero special features. It’s a good thing the film itself lived up to expectations, making Killers totally worth the wait and a recommended release for those who can stomach it.

Blu-ray Reviews: ‘My Girl’ and ‘Troop Beverly Hills’ Mastered in 4K

'TBH' - The Movie: **** out of 5
'TBH' Video: **** 1/2
'TBH' Audio: ****
'TBH' Extras: *** 1/2
'My Girl' - The Movie: ****
'My Girl' Video: ****
'My Girl' Audio: ****
'My Girl' Extras: **

Article first published as Blu-ray Reviews: ‘My Girl’ and ‘Troop Beverly Hills’ Mastered in 4K on Blogcritics.

If there’s one studio hellbent on cornering the 4K market, it’s Sony. Having already released a slew of titles — both new and old — there seems to be no end to what they’ll remaster. Some titles make more sense than others — all five Spider-Mans, Men in Black, both Ghostbusters, and Lawrence of Arabia. It’s a little surprising to see some of their other choices, like My Girl and Troop Beverly Hills, both available now, as part of their “Mastered in 4K” selections. The only logical reason being families need new Blu-rays too, and these are probably two of their top-selling video titles. That’s the only explanation, right??

My Girl, Anna Chlumsky, Dan Aykroyd, Jamie Lee Curtis, Sony Pictures, Mastered in 4KMy Girl is the classic coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of 1972 Pennsylvania. Twelve-year-old Vada Sultenfuss (Anna Chlumsky) is your everyday hypochondriac, growing up in a funeral parlor run by her father Harry (Dan Aykroyd). Over the summer, Vada learns she has a lot of growing up to do as she deals with her first crush, on her teacher Mr. Bixler (Griffin Dunne), her father moving on to new love with make-up artist Shelly (Jamie Lee Curtis), and being best friends with a boy, Thomas J. (Macaulay Culkin).

Troop Beverly Hills brings us one of Shelley Long’s most loveable performances as the bright and bubbly Phyllis Neffler. Going through a divorce from auto shop chain owner Freddy (Craig T. Nelson), Phyllis decides the best way to prove she’s not just another rich shopaholic is to become a Wilderness Girls leader. This will also help her get in better touch with their daughter Hannah (Jenny Lewis). Now, Phyllis faces the wrath of militant troop leader Velda (Betty Thomas), who sends in meek spy Annie (Mary Gross), to take down the titular troop and have them finally disbanded once and for all.

My Girl and Troop Beverly Hills both get the 4K treatment with spectacular results. TBH gets the better end of the deal with a dazzling picture that’s as bright and sunny as Phyllis herself. Colors pop, and thanks to the extra resolution, every texture of Theadora Van Runkle’s costumes come to life better than ever. Grain is nice and present with no noise reduction in sight, don’t let the inherited softness fool you, this is a product of the ’80s after all. My Girl on the other hand offers the same amount of qualities, but the image seems to have been dimmed at some point. The included theatrical trailer just makes that more obvious. No aliasing or banding are in sight, the only problem with either transfer is the slightest amount of crush in My Girl.

Troop Beverly Hills, Shelley Long, Sony Pictures, Mastered in 4KBoth features come with 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks and sound pretty good. While not big blockbuster films, the dialogue is what’s important and it comes through crystal clear. Surrounds never really get used, but do help give both films a wider range of sound than either have ever had on home video. Troop Beverly Hills only includes an additional French 2.0 Dolby Digital Track with English subtitles. My Girl comes with an additional Portuguese DTS-HD and the following 2.0 Dolby Digital tracks: French, German, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish, with subtitles available in English, English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, German, Arabic, Bulgarian, Czech, Danish, Finnish, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Italian, Norwegian, Polish, Swedish, and Turkish.

For being as random as they are to get the 4K treatment, they come with a surprising amount of extras. Troop Beverly Hills comes out on top including: “Shelley Long Remembers Troop Beverly Hills” (14:25) where she reminisces about the production and how much fun she had working with all the girls and how much she loved all the outfits. We also learn how the Girl Scouts of America didn’t want to be associated with the film, which is why the troops belong to the fictional Wilderness Girls. “The ‘Real’ Phyllis Neffler: Ava Ostern Fries” (9:31) is a sit down with Fries talking about how her daughter died five years before the interview and what a tribute the film is to herself and daughter. She also points out how much fun it was to have the young Tori Spelling on set, who is one of the members of Velda’s “Red Feathers.”

Deleted Scenes run a whopping seven minutes and include: “Gone Shopping” (:49), “Introductions” (1:02), “Wilderness Dogs” (:25), “Velda’s Speech” (1:01), “I Loosened It” (:28), “Marshmallows, Wieners & Champagne” (:55), “Beverage Break” (:37), “Velda’s Neck Grab” (:46), “Father and Daughter Bonding” (:59), and “Freddy Helps Phyllis Decide” (1:15). The theatrical trailer (1:49) rounds things out.

My Girl on the other hand comes nearly barebones, but does include: “A Day on Set” which is split into “First Kiss” (1:18) and “Bingo!” (3:24). Both are behind-the-scenes footage that’s really boring to watch if you’ve just finished the film itself. An “Original Behind the Scenes Featurette” (6:01) comes circa 1991, and probably originally aired on HBO. The film’s “Theatrical Trailer” (2:20) and a “Commentary with Writer Laurice Elehwany” offers various insights as to how she came up with the story, character names, the setting, and ultimately feels like listening to your grandma recount a story from her childhood.

Both Troop Beverly Hills and My Girl feature better-than-deserved transfers and prove worth a look for families interested in checking out the new technology. While not the most obvious picks for a 4K restoration, at least both films are highly enjoyable and harmless entertainment. With special features on Troop surprisingly overflowing, it really makes the purchase worth it, but My Girl is definitely the better of the two films, making both great additions to any family’s Blu-ray library.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Movie Review: “Furious 7”

Furious 7

**** out of 5
137 minutes
Rated PG-13 for prolonged frenetic sequences of violence, action and mayhem, suggestive content and brief strong language
Universal Pictures

Article first published at The Reel Place.

As good as the Fast & Furious franchise has become, it’s time to say goodbye. Not to the series, but officially to the late Paul Walker. And Furious 7 pulls off one of the best send offs shown  on film. I dare the most hardened fan to not get at least mildly misty eyed by the time the credits roll. Fittingly, Furious 7 winds up being the best of the series so far. Walker may be gone, but he’ll never be forgotten. And new-to-the-show director James Wan (Saw, Insidious, The Conjuring) proves he has the chops to pull off a grand farewell, along with the over-the-top spectacle we’ve all come to expect.

Picking up before Fast & Furious 6 ended, villain Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) is visiting his hospitalized brother Owen (Luke Evans) and vows revenge on the Fast & Furious team. Back in California, Dom (Vin Diesel) is enjoying being back at the old homestead, reacquainting Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), who is still suffering from amnesia, while Brian (Walker) is trying to adjust to domestication with Mia (Jordana Brewster) and their son, Jack. Soon enough, Shaw is wreaking havoc as he puts Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) in the hospital, kills Han (Sung Kang), and blows up Dom’s house. Now, the team must take down Shaw before he can get to them, along with the help of Frank Petty (Kurt Russell), who wants them to help find a spy weapon called “God’s Eye,” created by super hacker Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel).

The cast all fit perfectly into their roles, which comes as no surprise considering they’ve been playing them so long. But as this is Furious 7 there are some new additions. The best is Russell, who brings a sarcastic wit to the group and Emmanuel (Game of Thrones) seems to be sticking around for the next installment as she’s in the last scene. It’s already been announced that Russell will have a much larger role in the next one, the opposite of which we get from Johnson, who at least gets a huge fight with Statham before being relegated to the sidelines. Something I can’t help but think was another effect of Walker’s death with the production getting put on hold, Johnson’s availability may have been conflicted. And what a grand farewell to Walker. It even feels totally organic and don’t worry, Brian isn’t simply “killed off,” but it’s a fond farewell that will leave fans in tears.

Yes, the Fast & Furious franchise continues to be as convoluted as ever, but damn if it isn’t the most fun you can have in theaters right now. Director Wan may be new to the series — and action films in general — but he brings a new spark and keeps the action ramped up to 11. If you thought Fast 6 was over-the-top, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Chris Morgan has this series down pat since he took over writing duties on Tokyo Drift. Furious 7 delivers some of the biggest action scenes we’re likely to see all year. It’s the perfect way to kick the blockbuster season into high gear before Summer of Awesome 2015 finally arrives.