Friday, July 25, 2014

Movie Review: ‘Lucy’

**** out of 5
90 minutes
Rated R for strong violence, disturbing images, and sexuality
Universal Pictures

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

To say Luc Besson, whose latest film, Lucy, starring Scarlett Johansson has just come out, is a busy man is quite the understatement.

After Besson the director first blasted his way into the hearts of action movie lovers everywhere with the triple play of La Femme Nikita, Léon: The Professional, and The Fifth Element, he has mainly stuck to writing and producing — for better and worse. Kiss of the Dragon, Unleashed, District 13 along with the sequel and remake, two Takens, and all three Transporters are just some of the films he’s churned out over the last 15 years. The Family being his last directorial effort made us think that maybe he’d finally run out of steam, but now with Lucy, Besson takes us back to a tone more consistent with his earlier work and proves he’s still got some life left in him after all.

Lucy, Luc Besson, Scarlett JohannsonLucy (Scarlett Johansson) is living in Taiwan, and has been dating Richard (Pilou Asbæk) for only a week when he forces her into delivering a briefcase to Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi). Lucy has no idea what’s inside, but it turns out to be a new drug called “CPH4” that “the kids are going to love.”

Mr. Jang has the drug implanted in Lucy and three other mules, but after one of Jang’s goons beats her up, it leaks into her system, giving Lucy free reign over her brain’s full capacity. Eventually, Lucy contacts Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) to help her understand what’s happening to her. Meanwhile, Jang is hot on her trail as she starts to be able to control her own body and the world around her. It’s a race against time before she reaches a full 100 percent of her abilities.

Lucy is full of all the Besson prerequisites: action sequences set to classical music, cop sidekicks — fulfilled here by Amr Waked as Captain Del Rio — and of course, a bazooka. Lucy flies along from one scenario to the next, winding up in a finale that feels like a Besson-directed episode of Fox’s Cosmos. The best advice is to sit back and enjoy the ride; Besson is back to his style-over-substance shenanigans.

Johansson carries the film on her shoulders, bringing depth to a character that is becoming less human as Lucy races for the finish line at a breakneck pace. This is the fastest-paced action film of the summer so far. Besson thinks Lucy is full of big ideas, but as wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am entertainment is how it really succeeds. And when it comes to Besson, that’s all we want anyway. Taken at face value, Lucy is a blast.

Photo courtesy Universal Pictures

Friday, July 18, 2014

Movie Review: ‘Sex Tape’


*** 1/2 out of 5
94 minutes
Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, language and some drug use
Columbia Pictures

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

Sex tapes are nothing new in Hollywood. Everyone from Pamela Anderson and Paris Hilton to Saved by the Bell’s own Screech (Dustin Diamond) have had them stumble into public view — whether we want to see them or not. It was only a matter of time until a movie was made about the topic. And leave it to Jason Segel — who’s always willing to bare all (see Forgetting Sarah Marshall) — to star. Along with Cameron Diaz, reteaming with their Bad Teacher director Jake Kasdan, they shed some light on the most unflattering of home videos. So does hilarity ensue?

Annie (Diaz) is a mother of two who writes a mommy blog and keeps the house together while Jay (Segel) is off at work. Ten years and two kids later, Annie and Jay just can’t find the time to work conjugal visits into their marriage. Annie has just written a blog post about the lack of romance in their relationship — getting more hardcore than usual — which makes a big business a little weary of buying her blog, but CEO Hank (Rob Lowe) assures Annie that they are about to make a substantial offer.

Sex Tape, Jason Segel, Cameron Diaz, Rob Corddry, Rob Lowe, Ellie KemperTo celebrate, Annie sends the kids off to her mom’s for a sleepover and after some disastrous foreplay she gets the idea that they should make a sex tape to spice things up. And just wouldn’t you know it, Jay forgets to delete the video and winds up syncing it to every iPad he’s given out as a gift so now the two set off on a wild night to round up the videos and delete them before everyone sees them go the “Full Lincoln.”

Segel and his usual partner-in-crime Nicholas Stoller (Sarah Marshall and The Five-Year Engagement) have clearly rewritten credited co-writer Kate Angelo’s original idea — and Kasdan has let the ad-libs fly — but it never rises above standardized sitcom tropes. The driving subplot is so simple to clear up that it’s ridiculous how far the film goes after this comes to light. Thankfully, Diaz and Segel make a likeable enough couple to keep the film chugging along, but thank goodness for the supporting players. The comedic centerpiece for the film involves the couple at Hank’s house, in an elongated sequence where Jay gets chased by a dog and Annie does blow with her Disney-obsessed soon-to-be boss who just wants to rock out to some Slayer while the family’s away.

Also on the roster are Rob Corddry and Ellie Kemper who are fantastic together, even if Corddry feels a little old for her. Lowe completely steals the show, however, along with a hilarious cameo involving a break-in at YouPorn.com’s office. Segel fares way better than Diaz, but that should come as no surprise. Has she ever actually been funny anyway? At least she never breaks into hysterics and is way more watchable here than in The Other Woman.

Sex Tape is nowhere near one of the best of the year’s comedies, but it is way funnier than the trailers and TV spots make it out to be. Don’t take that as an endorsement to run out and see it, but just know that you’ll probably have a good time. Let’s just say that if there was ever a film to talk you out of ever making your own sex tape, this would be it.

Picture courtesy Columbia Pictures

Movie Review: ‘The Purge: Anarchy’


** 1/2 out of 5
103 minutes
Rated R for strong disturbing violence, and for language
Universal Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: ‘The Purge: Anarchy’ on Blogcritics.

When writer/director James DeMonaco’s The Purge came out last year, I really enjoyed the first hour of it. Then came the last 30 minutes and everything went out the window. You know a film is in trouble when the least likeable character is a kid. Let alone the fact that he’s surrounded by a group of numbskull parents and a sister who all act so inane you wonder if the movie started out as a cartoon. Alas, you can’t keep audiences away as it made $89 million worldwide against its miniscule $3 million budget. Now we get The Purge: Anarchy, and DeMonaco still never gets his point across amidst the bloodshed.

The Purge: Anarchy, The Purge, Frank GrilloBy now, you all know that “the purge” is the one night a year when all rules of society are thrown out the window, making the likes of murder legal. One year after the events in the first film, we get a whole new cast of characters. Eva (Carmen Ejogo) works as a waitress who needs a raise to pay for her father Papa Rico’s (John Beasley) medicine. Eva’s militant daughter Cali (Zoe Soul) is enamored with revolutionist Carmelo (Michael K. Williams), who believes that The Purge is a way for the rich to get richer by killing off the less fortunate. Meanwhile, Sergeant (Frank Grillo) is on his way to do his own purging when he winds up saving Eva and Cali from Big Daddy (Jack Conley). At the same time, separating-couple Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez) join them all to find a way to safety amidst the chaos, and well, anarchy.

Instead of letting us get stuck alongside the characters on the worst night of the year, DeMonaco insists on throwing his ideas down your throat. The worst being a high society auction scene that’s right out of Hostel Part III. Another case of idiocy involves Cali pointing out that the truck they’ve stumbled upon has monitors that are linked into government-run traffic cameras while Sergeant mentions that the house they’re trying to get to is a big red block like their own apartment was when they were assaulted by Big Daddy and his crew. Bet you can figure out where both of those two things are headed.

I guess DeMonaco should be given credit for not just simply rehashing his original film, but the fact that it’s “better than the original” comes as faint praise. But he sure does love loud noises to signal where audiences should jump and the time honored tradition of female characters falling down while being pursued. If you like your movies filled to the brim with coincidence and exposition then look no further. The worst part is when very last shot of the film literally threatens us that the next Purge begins in 365 days. We’ve been warned.

Photo courtesy Universal Pictures

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Movie Review: ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’

 **** 1/2 out of 5
130 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief strong language
Twentieth Century Fox

Article first published as Movie Review: ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ on Blogcritics.

As I flipped through my notebook, I realized what a dearth of entertainment I’ve sat through the last few weeks. Jersey Boys, Earth to Echo, Tammy, and the upcoming And So It Goes, this summer sure has hit a roadblock. Thankfully, this weekend sees the return of those damn dirty apes in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the sequel to the successful 2011 reboot. Bringing on director Matt Reeves — who certainly knows a thing or two about controlled on-screen mayhem: Cloverfield — was a stroke of genius. Now, moviegoers can finally get their money’s worth of entertaining cinema.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Jason Clarke, Andy Serkis, Kerri Russell, Gary OldmanTen years have passed since the outbreak of the ALZ-113 virus with humans seemingly extinct. Caesar (Andy Serkis) lives in the California woods; along with the comrades he helped escape from the sanctuary in the first film, and his wife Cornelia (Judy Greer) and son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston). Koba (Toby Kebbell), Maurice (Karin Konoval), and Rocket (Terry Notary) serve as his right hand apes. Caesar misses the humans, much to Koba’s chagrin who only remembers the cruel treatment he received.

One day, a group of humans who are supposedly “genetically immune” to the virus — Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), former CDC worker Ellie (Kerri Russell), and Carver (Kirk Acevado) — wander into their territory looking for a dam they want to fix to restore power. Koba wants Caesar to have them killed as revenge for Carver shooting one of their own, but Caesar sends them back to San Francisco where Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) leads a stronghold of humans who survived the virus outbreak. Dreyfus doesn’t trust the apes any more than Koba trusts the humans, and one of the two will spark the start of a war between the two.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Jason Clarke, Andy Serkis, Kerri Russell, Gary OldmanDawn of the Planet of the Apes won’t go down as the summer’s most fast-paced thrill ride, so you should know walking in that the film is a major slowburn. It’s never boring, but just don’t expect the usual practice of bigger and louder from this sequel. There are a lot of subtitles as we spend time in the ape world with them using mostly sign language to communicate. Screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver return, helping to keep the tone of the first film, with Mark Bomback (The Wolverine, Total Recall, Live Free or Die Hard) ostensibly brought in to punch up the action. Composer Michael Giacchino brings a vibe of Jurassic Park to the score, feeling like a warm up to next summer’s Jurassic World, but he also infuses a touch of the original series’ themes for fans to keep an ear out for.

Director Reeves delivers the goods on all accounts with the human/ape drama leading viewers to genuinely care about each group, making this one of the more heartfelt action films in quite some time. Anyone who complained that Rise didn’t have enough ape action the first time around can rest easy; money shots abound with one of the best involving Koba riding on top of an out-of-control tank, but it’s the drama that makes it all worthwhile. Not to mention the astounding visual effects from Weta Digital.

Yes, it’s finally safe to head back to theaters, and hopefully, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes does better than Rise, because it’s a hugely successful sequel that never gets bogged down in thinking they have to deliver more of the same. Summer is finally back on track. If Dawn is leading to War of the Planet of the Apes, then sign me up right now.

Photos courtesy Twentieth Century Fox

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Movie Review: ‘Earth to Echo’

** out of 5
89 minutes
Rated PG for some action and peril, and mild language
Relativity Media

Article first published as Movie Review: ‘Earth to Echo’ on Blogcritics.

When studios don’t screen movies it’s usually a bad sign. When they screen films almost two weeks in advance there tends to be more hope. Don’t let the advance viewing of Earth to Echo fool you — it’s not good. It rips off The Goonies, Explorers, and Super 8, while smothering it with an extra layer of Mac and Me. Director Dave Green and writer Henry Gayden don’t have an original bone in their bodies and it shows in every frame of the painfully long-feeling 91-minute run-time. Just when we thought the found footage sub-genre couldn’t get any worse, the cameras are handed over to a group of obnoxious kids.

Earth to EchoPre-teens Alex (Teo Halm), Tuck (Brian “Astro” Bradley), and Munch (Reese C. Hartwig) are dealing with the growing pains of having to move away from each other. A construction company is breaking ground on a new freeway and has bought out all the houses that stand in their way. One day, all of their phones start going haywire or “barfing” — the film’s terminology, not mine — and the trio of boys discover that the encrypted phone messages lead to a mysterious alien robot they nickname Echo. Soon enough, they hit the road, venturing through their Nevada town to locate the rest of Echo’s parts it needs to act as a key to a hidden spaceship with a dastardly construction worker (Jason Gray-Stanford) hot on their heels.

Train wreck sums up Earth to Echo perfectly. Tuck talks like a street thug for no apparent reason other than he happens to be the token black character. And Munch acts like he’s the twin brother to Diary of a Wimpy Kid’s Rowley. Meanwhile, Gray-Stanford appears to have recently graduated from ACTING! The filmmakers are completely oblivious to the amount of breaking and entering the boys commit, including sneaking into classmate Emma’s (Ella Wahlestedt) house.

At least director Green doesn’t try to sexualize her during the course of the movie, although Munch continually refers to her as “mannequin girl” because he thinks mannequins are hot. Featuring no consequences whatsoever to the boys’ actions, Earth to Echo is an offensive waste of time and it’s no wonder Disney washed their hands of it. The Mouse House may have financed and produced the film, but you won’t find their name anywhere near it. To use phrasing the film’s target audience might understand, I Super H8d this movie.

Photo courtesy Relativity Media

Movie Review: ‘Tammy’

** 1/2 out of 5
96 minutes
Rated R for language including sexual references
Warner Bros. Pictures

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

The road trip film is an age old tradition in Hollywood. A couple of oddball characters hit the road to get swept up in whatever wackiness may ensue. As with all sub-genres, some are better than others. While they can’t all wind up being National Lampoon’s Vacation or Tommy Boy, Melissa McCarthy has decided to take a huge group of reliable actors along for her shenanigans in Tammy. But don’t walk in expecting McCarthy to be in loveable Bridesmaids/The Heat mode here — she’s never even as funny as she has been when hosting Saturday Night Live. Co-writing with her husband/director Ben Falcone, the two can barely keep the 96-minute runtime moving, with Falcone making a complete disaster of his directorial debut.

Tammy, Melissa McCarthy, Susan SarandonTammy (McCarthy) is having a really bad day. She hits a deer on her way to work, gets fired by her a-hole boss Keith (Falcone), and comes home to find out her husband Greg (Nat Faxon) has been cheating on her with their neighbor Missi (Toni Collette). She tells Greg she’s leaving him and walks next door to her mom’s (Allison Janney) house.

Tammy decides to leave town in her grandma Pearl’s (Susan Sarandon) car, but Pearl demands she tag along. Now, the two head out for Niagara Falls — in the wrong direction — with cash and booze in hand, where all the expected mishaps and bumps along the way are dragged in tow.

Now, just take a minute and read some of rest of the cast members’ names: Kathy Bates, Dan Aykroyd, Mark Duplass, Gary Cole, Sandra Oh. With so many great names it’s to be sure-fire cast, right? Instead, every single actor is wasted with absolutely nothing to do. And while I don’t expect a lot of rationale in my comedies, every film should consist of its own kind of logic. But as Tammy plods along, it loses all common sense — and steam — with each scene. For anyone missing the days of SNL characters getting their own feature-length films — Night at the Roxbury, Superstar, The Ladies Man, It’s Pat, Stuart Saves His FamilyTammy is for you. The Blues Brothers or Tommy Boy this is not. Not even McCarthy’s biggest fans will find much to laugh at here.

Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Monday, June 30, 2014

Blu-ray Review: ‘Wolf Creek 2’

Article first published as Blu-ray 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 in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack from RLJ/Image Entertainment on June 24.

Wolf Creek 2, John Jarratt, Ryan CorrAfter 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 (Philipe 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.

Wolf Creek 2 stalks onto Blu-ray on a 50GB disc framed in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio and looks nothing short of spectacular. Blacks never cause any unintentional crush, even if McLean casts plenty of shadows into scenes. Banding never creeps into the outback skylines which are all perfectly resolved with absolutely no ringing or halos around characters. Detail is impeccable from Katarina’s peach fuzz to every drop of sweat on a character’s foreheads and every piece of foliage. Noise and aliasing never make an appearance. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is even better. Wind whips from one speaker to the next, making it feel as if you’re standing alongside characters. Silence plays an important part in a few scenes making every snapping twig add to the suspense. Bass is always deep and dialogue is always loud and clear, never drowned out by music or sound effects.

Wolf Creek 2, John Jarratt, Ryan CorrAs for special features, there may only be two, but they’re pretty extensive. First up is a play all-only collection of “Butcher’s Cut: Deleted Scenes” (23:56) consisting of nine extended scenes: “Backpacker Hostel,” “German’s Campsite,” “Sacred Canyon Waterhole,” “Colonial Cemetery,” “Butcher Rutger,” “Meeting Paul Hammersmith,” “Rabbit Truck Chase,” “Paul Finds Jack and Lil,” and “Paul at Dinner.” Next up is a meaty behind the scenes affair: “Creating a Monster: The Making of Wolf Creek 2” which runs a whopping 52 minutes. Included are interviews with McLean, co-writer Aaron Sterns, the cast and crew, and shows how much practical work went into creating Mick’s grisly kills.

While the first Wolf Creek certainly falls under the horror sub-genre of torture porn, Wolf Creek 2 doesn’t just 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 — with a near perfect audio/video presentation and a wealth of special features — making Wolf Creek 2 a welcome return and worth a purchase for fans of the original.

Photo courtesy RLJ/Image Entertainment