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

Movie Review: ‘Oculus’

** 1/2 out of 5
105 minutes
Rated R for terror, violence, some disturbing images and brief language
Relativity Media

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

The last few years have been better than usual for horror fans — particularly in the month of April. In  2012 we finally saw the brilliant but long-delayed Cabin in the Woods and last year we saw Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead get a facelift. I had high hopes walking into Oculus — this year’s April offering — but sadly, the third time was not the charm. Extending his eight years old short film (Oculus: Chapter 3 – The Man with the Plan), co-writer/director Mike Flanagan paints himself into a corner with a botched twist ending you’ll see coming a mile away.

JE3_7854.NEFTim (Brenton Thwaites) is just getting out of a mental institute after 11 years for the murder of his father, Alan (Rory Cochrane). His sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan) wants to help him start his new life, but not before they try to kill whatever evil entity is living inside an antique mirror. Kaylie is obsessed with the notion that the mirror was what caused their mother (Katee Sackhoff) and father to go crazy, resulting in Tim and Kaylie (played by Garrett Ryan in the flashback sequences and Annalise Basso as Young Kaylie) shooting their dad in self-defense after he kills their mother. Now, Kaylie has tracked down the mirror to force Tim into helping her destroy it before it can kill again.

Oculus comes with a heavy-handed marketing campaign touting it’s from the same producer of Paranormal Activity and Insidious. This is far from the same league as both Insidious films, but is a step up from any of the PA movies — although that’s not really saying much. Flanagan does manage to present some grotesque imagery involving fingernails, along with munching on glass and pottery, that’s all you’re getting. And while I appreciate a slow-burn (see We Are What We Are for the best recent example), Oculus heads exactly where you think it’s going, with absolutely no surprises along the way, making it feel way too long.

JE3_4956.NEFA sense of dread permeates most of the film, but is brought down even more by its cast. The worst is Sackhoff. While she may be a genre-favorite, I cannot wrap my head around her appeal. She is a horrible actress and sucks the life out of every scene she’s in faster than the movie’s evil mirror can from plants or the family dog. There aren’t even any good jump scares — the easiest horror cliché to pull off. Maybe had the ending not been presented so hackneyed it would have wound up being another genre triumph, but all it does is absolutely ruin everything that’s come before. I hated the entirely too happy ending of The Conjuring, but its ending was nowhere near as much of a buzzkill as Oculus.

Oculus is most likely to be sought out by anyone needing a Gillan fix while we wait for Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy in August. Even Amy Pond’s biggest fans won’t bother with this. While it may make a fair amount of cash due to a lack of genre fare, with something as amazing as Captain America: The Winter Soldier heading into only in its second weekend, Oculus is bound to drop off the map before most people even realize it’s in theaters.

Photos courtesy Relativity Media

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Movie Review: 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier'

 ***** out of 5
136 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, gunplay and action throughout
Marvel Studios

Article first published as Movie Review: ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ on Blogcritics.

One word aptly describes Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Wow! If I could write a one word review, that would be it, case closed. As it stands, you’d never see this coming from a duo of comedy-directing brothers. Joe and Anthony Russo may be best known for their work on Community and Arrested Development, but they’ve knocked Cap out of the park. Packed full of intrigue, plot twists, laughs, and Easter eggs — let alone tearing down everything we’ve come to know about Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D. universe — Winter Soldier is a literal game-changer and the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has been shifted forever.

Chris Evans and Scarlet Johannson in Captain America: The Winter SoldierCatching up with Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), we find him living in Washington, D.C. where he spends his mornings jogging around the National Mall. One morning he runs past Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), a war vet and PTSD counselor. Their chat is interrupted by Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) when she picks up Steve for a mission in the Indian Ocean. A group of pirates, led by Batroc (Georges St-Pierre), have taken a S.H.I.E.L.D. ship hostage and now Captain America is being sent in by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to rescue the crew, including Agent Sitwell (Maximiliano Hernández).

Meanwhile, Natasha is on her own mission to collect the ship’s data for Fury. Steve begins to question his opinion of S.H.I.E.L.D., made even more muddled after Fury introduces him to Operation: Insight, consisting of three helicarriers designed for pre-emptive threat elimination. Rogers doesn’t realize how corrupt S.H.I.E.L.D. is until Fury is attacked by the mysterious “Winter Soldier” (Sebastian Stan) and winds up on the lam after senior S.H.I.E.L.D. official Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) deems Rogers a suspect in Fury’s attack. Now, Captain America must clear his name and get to the bottom of what’s really going on at S.H.I.E.L.D. with the help of the only people he thinks he can trust, Romanoff and Wilson.

Sebastian Stan is 'The Winter Soldier'A lot of people have complained about Joe Johnston’s first Captain America outing, with it winding up as Marvel’s most underrated film of their Phase One. Phase Two has its sights set far higher, and could send viewers all the way back to the beginning, questioning what’s really been going on in the prior films. There is a method to Marvel’s madness, but nothing can prepare you for the hell that breaks loose in Winter Soldier. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have instituted a new order to the MCU so it’s no wonder the next film (Guardians of the Galaxy) takes us to a whole new world to catch our breath.

I also can’t wait to see how ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will address the events of Winter Soldier considering the entire show is based around the agency. This Captain America has more plot and incredible action than most films combined, making sure you’re never bored or confused. You’d never know this is a 136-minute film. And of course there are two end credit sequences, so make sure you stick around until the lights come back on. The only thing left to say, is the Russo Brothers have upped the ante to the entire line of Marvel films and both James Gunn and Joss Whedon will have to step up their game to outdo Winter Soldier.

Photos courtesy Marvel Studios