Saturday, May 23, 2015

Movie Review: “Poltergeist”


Poltergeist

**** out of 5
93 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense frightening sequences, brief suggestive material, and some language
20th Century Fox

Article first published at The Reel Place.

I don’t know anyone who loves the original Poltergeist more than myself. I do know one person who says it’s his all-time favorite movie, and I think I would agree that it is probably my all-time favorite scary movie. There’s just something about Steven Spielberg’s… err, Tobe Hooper’s classic that affects me deeply. I may be 34 years old, and have seen it more times than I could possibly count, but it still gives me chills to the point my eyes water every time. So, with that said, how does director Gil Kenan’s (Monster House) remake stand up to the original? Way better than you might think.

The story remains the same, but the names have been changed to protect the innocent. Just kidding. But seriously, that is about all that’s changed here. We meet the Bowen’s: doting father Eric (Sam Rockwell), loving mother Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt), and their three children Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), Griffin (Kyle Catlett), and — in the Carol Anne role — Madison (Kennedi Clements). For anyone who doesn’t know the story by now, the Bowens have just moved into a new house in Willow Point, much to the chagrin of their kids.

Times have been tough on the Bowens as Eric was recently laid off by John Deere and Amy is hoping to write a book and take care of the kids while Eric looks for work. The kids become even more unhappy with their situation when strange occurrences start happening and benevolent spirits eventually capture Madison on another plane of existence where they want her to lead them into the light. Eventually, the Bowens’ turn to paranormal investigators who call in TV star Carrigan Burke (Jared Harris), before all hell breaks loose and they lose Madison to the afterlife forever.

If there’s anything working against Poltergeist, it’s familiarity. Rarely does Pulitzer Prize-winner David Lindsay-Abaire (for his 2007 play Rabbit Hole) stray too far off the ghostly beaten path. Fanboys may cry foul because there have been a few alterations. Mainly some sequences are combined, and the 90-minute runtime lops out a good 20 minutes that may still work in the original version, but would seem like padding here. This is a far leaner story, but the familial characterization is never lacking. Especially with Rockwell and DeWitt in the parental roles. And anyone who thinks Madison’s involvement has been reduced from Carol Anne’s needs to rewatch the original. She is a far more minor character than you may remember.

Producer Sam Raimi may have done better with rebooting his own beloved Evil Dead series, but the spirit of Poltergeist remains the same. Your everyday family in peril still manages to sting as much as it did in 1982 and who wouldn’t go to these lengths to get one of their children back? With a great mix of practical and amped-up CGI, the one improvement is a super creepy escapade into what lurks within Madison’s closet. Something I didn’t realize I didn’t really want to see. These scenes may not be quite as effective as the “The Further” in the Insidious series, but I’m more than glad I haven’t been sucked into any soul-eating closets.

And what’s creepier than the original clown doll? Probably not much, but let’s just say that you don’t want to wind up with a whole box of them. Also, the tree attack is bigger than it was originally and just as thrilling. All things told, there will be people who complain about Poltergeist getting the reboot treatment, but it’s way better than most of the remakes in recent years. It’s too bad we’ve been there, done that, and still do at least once a year, otherwise, Poltergeist would have been a great standalone film. Considering I don’t even hate the original sequels, I suppose I’ll be in the minority of those more than happy that the series is back on the big screen, and won’t mind more sequels in the future either.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Movie Review: “Tomorrowland”


Tomorrowland

*** out of 5
130 minutes
Rated PG for sequences of sci-fi action violence and peril, thematic elements, and language
Walt Disney Pictures

Article first published at The Reel Place.

I never thought I’d see the day I’d leave the theater disappointed after a new Brad Bird film, but Tomorrowland has finally proven the man infallible. After such a strong slew of spectacular entertainment — Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol — it saddens me that Tomorrowland never adds up to the sum of its parts. Packing in fleeting instances of the expertly choreographed action we’ve come to expect, and the pre-requisite heart, something winds up lost in translation.

Opening with an introduction by Frank Walker (George Clooney) and Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), we flashback to young Frank (Thomas Robinson) arriving at the 1964 World’s Fair in Disneyland. He’s come to an invention convention and his jetpack is quickly written off by Nix (Hugh Laurie) while catching the attention of the pint-sized Athena (Raffey Cassidy). She gives him a pin and instructs him to follow her into the “It’s a Small World” ride where he’s scanned and packed off to Tomorrowland.

Next, we catch up with the troublesome Casey sabotaging the destruction of a NASA launch pad to keep her engineer father Eddie (Tim McGraw) from losing his job. Soon enough, she’s caught red-handed by the police and upon making bail, discovers a pin amongst her belongings. When she touches it, she’s transported to another world where anything seems possible. Eventually, Athena reappears onto the scene, after Casey tracks down Frank in Houston and is followed by violent robots who want to stop Frank and Casey from returning to Tomorrowland where Frank thinks she can stop a potential doomsday device.

Fanboys will be quick to point fingers at co-writer Damon Lindelof, but even he can’t be completely to blame. The pacing is mercilessly slow, and feels like a really long prologue to a better, more adventurous film. The padding has been laid, but where are the goods? Sadly, all I was left with was the same feeling as the poor neighbor to the family of superheroes waiting for something incredible to happen. It comes close, and aims high, but the sum of its parts just don’t add up to a satisfying whole.

The cast all perform as expected, but the problem lies with the script grasping at straws. You wait with a smile on your face as the film seems to be gaining momentum and then it all falls flat with lots of monologuing. Something Bird should absolutely know better than after hilariously mocking it in The Incredibles. While not a huge success, it is a pleasant enough diversion for the family crowd. But there’s nothing to set this apart enough to make it something you should rush out to see. Considering its 130-minute runtime, you may want to leave the youngsters home. There’s nowhere near enough excitement to keep their interest.

The saddest part may be that the prequel novel Before Tomorrowland, is way better than the film. I’m just glad I read it before the screening because it fills in a lot of blanks that may leave viewers scratching their heads. Now that I’ve read the book and seen the movie, I guess I just expected a more complete experience. And while it’s doubtful this will spawn a sequel, it sure could use one, Tomorrowland really feels like one-third of a film. Maybe if Bird doesn’t take too long on his gestating Incredibles sequel, he can come back and finish what he started because he was on to something great, this just isn’t it.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Movie Review: “Pitch Perfect 2”


Pitch Perfect 2

*** 1/2 out of 5
115 minutes
Rated PG-13 for innuendo and language
Universal Pictures

Article first published at The Reel Place.

To say I walked into Pitch Perfect 2 jaded is an understatement. While still not a fan of the first film, it has, over time, become tolerable. I would never sit down to watch it, but didn’t mind having it on in the background while doing something else.

My main issue with Pitch Perfect upon its release was the tonal disconnect between the film’s trailer and the final product onscreen. Knowing what I’m getting into with the sequel — and most importantly the change in director and writer (co-star Elizabeth Banks and Kay Cannon) — I can say that I thoroughly enjoyed PP2.

Catching up with the Barden Bellas, they are thrust into the spotlight after a disastrous performance nicknamed “Muffgate” when Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) gives the President an unintentional gift from Down Under with a wardrobe malfunction. Disgraced, commentators John (John Michael Higgins) and Gail (Banks) inform the group that they are suspended, but leader Chloe (Brittany Snow) realizes that they can’t be stopped from competing in the World A Cappella Championship in Copenhagen, which a group from the U.S. has never won because everyone hates America.

What they do have to face is Beca’s (Anna Kendrick) internship at a record studio and the unstoppable German team: Das Sound Machine. Problem is, the Bellas need to get their voice back as a group, with Beca having to find her own voice to land a real job for her tyrannical boss (Keegan-Michael Key). Lucky for Beca and the Bellas, they don’t know that their best bet just may lie in their newest addition: Emily Junk (Hailee Steinfeld).

If Pitch Perfect 2 has one issue, it’s the 115-minute runtime. The film might never be boring, but it has a lot of filler. Crammed with montages, I know the film needs to show a passage of time, but it gets a little ridiculous. However, Cannon’s screenplay features way more actual jokes than she put into the first film. Banks’ direction also helps; with how long she’s been in the comedy business, it should come as no surprise that she knows how to direct one. The jokes fly faster and stick better this time, with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. And earns its sweetness this time — especially with the continuing romantic misadventures of Fat Amy and Bumper (Adad DeVine).

But let’s face it, you’re going for the girl power and songs, right? Well on that front, it delivers. The performances are bigger and the song selection is stronger. With Sir Mix-a-lot, Pat Benatar, Mika, Fall Out Boy, and Taylor Swift getting the A Ca-treatment, you’re guaranteed to get at least one song stuck in your head for a few days. They even manage to squeeze in a new rendition of Kendrick’s beloved “Cups.” My wife doesn’t agree with me that this is the better of the two movies, but considering I liked this one more than the original should come as high praise. Pitch Perfect 2 finally finds the right balance between songs, laughs, and heart.

Movie Review: “Mad Max: Fury Road”


Mad Max: Fury Road

***** out of 5
120 minutes
Rated R for intense sequences of violence throughout, and for disturbing images
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published at The Reel Place.

It’s hard to believe it’s been 30 years since Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome hit theaters. Since then, co-writer/director George Miller has made some, well, interesting choices. The Witches of Eastwick is a wickedly hilarious good time and Lorenzo’s Oil maintains its critically acclaimed status, but then there are Babe: Pig in the City, Happy Feet and the even worse Happy Feet Two.

To say family films are not his forte is an understatement. Something he proves beyond a shadow of a doubt with the return of our beloved Max Rockatansky. While it may not feature the man who made the character we all know and love — Mel Gibson — Tom Hardy steps in to fill some mighty big shoes and thankfully, Miller delivers the year’s biggest and most badass film of the year.

While never specifying its place within the Mad Max timeline, we meet up with our beloved anti-hero Max, still living the life of solitude in a dystopian future, before being captured by the War Boys and taken to the Citadel. Imprisoned, branded, and designated as a universal blood donor, he’s kept in a cage to help the wounded heal.

Little does Max know he’s about to be pulled into the middle of a war by Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who takes off with leader Joe’s (Hugh Keays-Byrne) harem of wives, including the pregnant Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley). Now, a fight to death erupts across the Australian wastelands with Max stuck in the middle, trying to help Furiosa get everyone to the mystic “Green Place.”

A lot of films recently have seen sequels arrive decades later DOA. Mad Max: Fury Road is absolutely the exception. While we don’t get to see Gibson return to the role, Hardy makes the best of the situation. Last weekend my wife and I watched The Road Warrior to introduce her to the insanity of Miller’s dystopian wasteland, and there is the slightest resemblance between Hardy and the then-24-year-old Gibson.

Oddly enough, Max is almost a secondary character in his own movie. While the most hard-pressed fans may cry fowl, it’s a good idea to surround him with new characters to reintroduce him to a younger crowd. Theron, and the bevy of nubiles — Huntington-Whiteley, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton, Zoë (daughter of Lenny) Kravitz, and Riley (granddaughter of Elvis Presley) Keough — hold their own against the motley crew of crazed madmen.

The best part of Fury Road, however, is Miller’s insistence on using practical effects. He delivers action sequences that are hair-raising, nail-biting, and forget-to-breath intense. This is the highest octane thrill ride of the year so far. Furious 7 may have kicked off summer with a bang, but this is the real deal, no overreliance on CGI here. It’s gonna be tough for the rest of summer to play catch up with the insanity Miller has unleashed. The only thing left to really say about Mad Max: Fury Road is it’s do-not-miss entertainment of the highest order. You owe it to your eyeballs to see this film.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Movie Review: “Hot Pursuit”


Hot Pursuit

** out of 5
87 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sexual content, violence, language and some drug material
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published at The Reel Place.

Movies that seem to rip each other off happen all the time in Hollywood — whether coincidental or not. For every Antz, Shark Tale, Deep Impact, or Dante’s Peak, there’s the superior A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo, Armageddon, and Volcano. The latest entry into the “didn’t we just see this” pantheon is Hot Pursuit. No, it’s not a remake of the cult classic John Cusack flick, but instead, director Anne Fletcher has decided to follow-up her surprise smash hits 27 Dresses and The Proposal with a film even worse than The Guilt Trip. While seeming like a remake of Paul Feig’s The Heat, the similarities in plot are about all they share. The mashup teaming of Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock completely bowls over the even more unlikely duo of Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara. It’s safe to say, hilarity does not ensue.

If Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick from Election grew up to be a cop, she’d be Hot Pursuit’s Cooper. A San Antonio police officer by trade, she follows in the footsteps of her father, but can’t get above the bottom rung. Working in the evidence room, she gets called into action to save her name. “Coopered” is a term she’s had to deal with after an episode of tazing the Mayor’s teenage son winds up with him on fire. Now, Cooper is sent as a female escort to help transport Daniella Riva (Vergara) to Dallas, where her and her husband are due in court to testify against the murderous drug lord Vicente Cortez (Joaquín Cosio). But soon enough, a pair of masked gunmen kill everyone but Cooper and Riva, and the two wind up on the run with Cooper trying to keep Riva alive and clear her name after she’s framed for the shootout.

To put it bluntly, Hot Pursuit is one of the worst movies of the year. Filled with more coincidences, prat falls, and supposed jokes, it feels like a failed sitcom pilot that someone greenlit as a feature. This comes as no surprise considering the screenwriters actually are sitcom “vets,” even though every show they’ve written for was quickly canceled. What they constitute as jokes never rise above an extended bit about periods. While it may be a joke that’s been floating around since No Strings Attached, Vergara is the last person who could make the “crime scene”-period joke funny. Vergara is no Greta Gerwig. She may be endearing as the loudmouth Gloria on Modern Family, but here she’s just just irritating. You could hope that at only 87 minutes it would fly by, but this is the most unbearably long feeling “comedy” since Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. As a police officer at a real crime scene might say: “Alright, move on, nothing to see here. Please disperse.”

Blu-ray Review: “The Last Five Years”

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

Article first published as Jason Robert Brown’s ‘The Last Five Years’ Starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan on Blogcritics.

You’d probably never guess unless you knew me well, but I am a fan of musicals — when they’re good. Even the new Annie update had enough skip in its step to make for an underrated feel-good time. I also love everything from Chicago to Moulin Rouge to Singin’ in the Rain and High Society.The musicals I have a rough time with are the all-singing, no-dialogue ones. Sweeney Todd was devilishly hilarious, but Into the Woods just left me cold. The newest edition to this musical variety is writer/director Richard LaGravenese’s adaptation of Jason Robert Brown’s musical play The Last Five Years.

While the story structure — told from the leads’ points of view in reverse of one another — and star Anna Kendrick do what they can, the film is burdened by co-star Jeremy Jordan. He may have the singing chops, but he’s got a lot to learn when it comes to acting.

We start our story with poor Cathy (Kendrick) lamenting the end of her marriage to Jamie (Jordan). Cutting back and forth, we see both the development and deconstruction of their relationship. Cathy provides the reverse chronology, while Jamie starts at the beginning. The two sing their hearts out as the story reaches a crossroads and the story flips as they begin to sing from the opposite angle with Cathy showing her side of the beginning and Jamie enlightening us to the end. Jamie becomes a bestselling writer, while Cathy continues her dead-end acting aspirations. They eventually deal with their own issues ranging from neglect to jealousy and resentment leading to their marriage’s demise.

The Last Five Years belts onto Blu-ray with a serviceable enough transfer, but it may leave some thinking they need to clean their glasses. Softness prevails, with fine detail rarely in sight. While the cast’s hair is never out of place, clothing and scenery take a huge hit. Everything from trees and grass to Jamie’s five o’clock shadow all appear smudgy with costume details always lacking. Crush is never an issue — even though the image is oddly never as bright as it could be, it’s as if LaGravenese filmed every scene under an umbrella. And while aliasing never makes an appearance, there is a scene involving Skype with some noticeable noise. Colors also seem pumped up with skin tones achieving an orangey glow in a lot of scenes. Nothing is a deal-breaker, but this is not the kind of presentation you’d expect from a brand new film. I suspect plenty of post-production is the culprit.

The Last Five Years, Anna Kendrick, Jeremy Jordan, Jason Robert Brown, Richard LagraveneseAt least where a musical counts, the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track keeps the music clean and clear. The only downside to the audio is the use of live singing with some of the lines not being as clear as they should, causing a distraction because you have no idea what the character is talking about. Surrounds are kept to a minimum making the track rather front heavy. Bass keeps some of the bouncier tracks bobbing along, and the soundstage is full and dynamic. It’s not going to blow you away, but it gets the job done. Included subtitles are English SDH and Spanish, with a “Sing Along Subtitles” special feature which is obviously just standard subtitles since the whole film is sung. The only other included feature is the very brief “A Conversation with Composer/Lyricist Jason Robert Brown” (3:57) where he quickly discusses how glad he is to have LaGravenese directing and how much he loves the two leads.

The Last Five Years features a stellar performance from Kendrick who sings her guts out. Not to put down Jordan, but if he could act as well as he sings, he would have been so much better. The music keeps the pace moving along, even if Jamie starts to lose any hope of redemption as his character spirals into being a huge cheater looking for empathy. Singing an entire song complaining about being stuck with one lover after proposing does him no favors. If their relationship had a villain, it’s him. With a so-so video presentation and serviceable audio, The Last Five Years is a nice blip on Kendrick’s growing resume and just continues to prove that she can carry a film on her own, no matter the co-star.

Photos courtesy Starz/Anchor Bay

Blu-ray Review: “The Wedding Ringer”

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

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: ‘The Wedding Ringer’ Starring Kevin Hart and Josh Gad on Blogcritics.

Try as he might, Kevin Hart just can’t find the right starring vehicle. With how hilarious his standup is, you’d think it would be an easy crossover. But not even pairing up with Josh Gad can save The Wedding Ringer from being a boring exercise in vulgarity. Co-writer/director Jeremy Garelick may have come up with a decent concept for a comedy — revolving around a rentable best man at weddings — but his reliance on lowbrow and expletives becomes tiresome when the only likeable part are the leads. Hart’s theatrical endeavors may be making decent amounts of cash, but not one has been worthy of his talents; from Ride Along to Get Hard to The Wedding Ringer, now available on Blu-ray from Sony Home Entertainment.

The Wedding Ringer, Kevin Hart, Josh Gad, Kaley Cuoco-SweetingJimmy Calahan (Hart) provides a service for individuals in need of a best man. For a fee, he will instill himself into your wedding, and for additional costs, you can even have him supply a gaggle of groomsmen. Doug Harris (Gad) is just that kind of man, with seemingly no friends whatsoever, he needs to supply his side of the wedding party for his impending nuptials to Gretchen (Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting). As the big day gets closer, Doug’s desperation grows stronger, forcing him to pay for the infamous “Golden Tux” consisting of seven groomsmen. Jimmy’s only stipulation is for Doug to understand that he provides services only, not friendship. Something any viewer knows will change by the end of the film.

The Wedding Ringer is presented on Blu-ray mastered in 4K as per standard Sony operating procedure. The film looks as good as you’d expect for a freshly-minted comedy, with detail always crisp and clean. Daytime scenes are bright and clear with darkened scenes never resulting in crush. Aliasing and noise never invade and colors remain strong and natural. Compression issues are non-existent.

On the flipside, the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio could have used some more work in the mixing department. Dialogue is clear until the soundtrack kicks in and then good luck hearing anything else. Music overwhelms everything and it happens through most of the runtime. Not that there’s really anything funny to hear, but it’s a huge issue and unacceptable from a brand new film, especially from a major studio. Keep your volume in check or you may blow your speakers. Additional audio includes: French 5.1 DTS and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital. Subtitles are English Audio Descriptive Service, French, and Spanish.


The cast react to a test screening.
The special features all drive home how bad the film is when not even Hart or Gad can elicit so much as a chuckle in a collection of “Deleted Scenes” (21:45). Included are “Plant a Tree in Israel,” “Cavity Search — Alternate,” “Doris Calls for Endo,” “Invent Our Own Past,” “Bic’s Special Prayer,” “Courthouse,” “Bad Best Men — Extended,” “PJ the Waiter,” “Night Plumbers — Extended,” “Holly Monk,” “Dirty Gretchen,” “Football Whoo-ha,” “Wedding Procession,” “Hal Lane Roast,” and “Impressive Groomsmen.” A set of “Outtakes” (14:13) only has one funny bit featuring a string of malfunctioning flashlights.“Line-O-Rama” (14:19) is more of the same unfunny business as we watch elongated takes of the cast trying to improv to horrible effect.

A music video for “You Can Do This” (3:30) by Aloe Blacc features the cast goofing around, and an “Audio Commentary” rounds things out with Garelick and Gad showing good rapport that never translates to the finished product.

The biggest problem with The Wedding Ringer is that it makes the mistake of thinking vulgar automatically equals laughs. Judd Apatow has definitely proven that you can have it both ways, but Garelick steeps the film over its head in unnecessary crudity that by the time the quasi-sappy inevitable ending rolls around, it hasn’t earned one ounce of the heart it strives for. The funny thing is, it actually works better in these moments when Hart and Gad realize they can be friends. Had they let them be the entirety of the runtime this could have been a completely different beast of a film. As it stands, The Wedding Ringer may feature tons of special features and stellar video, but everyone involved deserves better.

Photos courtesy Sony Pictures