Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Movie Review: ‘Housebound’

**** out of 5
107 minutes
Not rated
XLrator Media

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

With horror-comedy, sometimes the kitchen sink method just works. If you rely too heavily on one aspect over the other, it either stops being scary and is even less funny. When it does work, it’s a fantastic concoction. While most would hold the likes of Scream as the best of the bunch, they probably haven’t seen Peter Jackson’s early works: Dead Alive and Bad Taste. Most recently, we’ve been treated to the likes of Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, The Cabin in the Woods, and You’re Next. The one thing these films need to be is a wild ride, and writer/director Gerard Johnstone’s debut Housebound (now playing in select theaters, VOD, and iTunes) finds just the right balance across the board.

Housebound, Gerard Johnstone, Morgana O'Reilly, Rima Te WiataKylie Bucknell (Morgana O’Reilly) is having a bad night. While attempting to rob an ATM, her cohort has knocked himself unconscious, and she winds up high centering the getaway car. Sentenced to eight-months of house arrest, Kylie is sent to live with her overbearing mum Miriam (Rima Te Wiata) and step-father Graeme (Ross Harper). Straddled with an ankle monitor, Kylie quickly learns that Miriam thinks her house is haunted after overhearing her call in to a paranormal radio show. It’s not soon after that Kylie begins to also hear bumps in the night, and she may have more to fear than land lines and dial-up internet. 

Housebound finds fantastic ways to spoof the standard haunted house film while finding new ground. And just when you think you have it all figured out, director Johnstone throws another curveball at the audience. O’Reilly gets a lot of mileage out of simple facial expressions as she becomes more bewildered with the circumstance, ghostbusting security expert Amos (Glen-Paul Waru) gets plenty of hilarious one-liners, and Miriam puts her deadpan delivery to brilliant use. While the ending seems to keep going and going, don’t worry, it all winds up fitting together perfectly by the time the credits roll. There’s a nice mystery abound and Housebound is a hilarious goosebump-inducing funhouse of a film, perfect for the Halloween season. It is now playing in select theaters, as well as VOD and iTunes.

Picture courtesy XLrator Media

Friday, October 17, 2014

Movie Review: ‘The Book of Life’

*** out of 5
95 minutes
Rated PG for mild action, rude humor, some thematic elements and brief scary images
20th Century Fox

Article first published as Movie Review: ‘The Book of Life’ (2014) on Blogcritics.

While Guillermo del Toro may usually serve up a slam dunk when he sits in the director’s chair, his producing efforts are a little weaker. Although to be fair, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and Mama are better than you’ve probably heard. Del Toro was brought in to spice things up for DreamWorks Animation in conjunction with being able to kick off his own production company in order to make horror movies for kids. The first step in this direction is plastering his name on Jorge Gutierrez’s “Day of the Dead”-inspired The Book of Life. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot of life to be found.

Three childhood friends — Manolo (voiced by Diego Luna as an adult), Maria (voiced by Zoe Saldana), and Joaquin (voiced by Channing Tatum) — are placed in a bet by the rulers of The Land of the Remembered and Forgotten — La Muerte (voiced by Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (voiced by Ron Perlman), over who will wind up victorious over Maria’s heart. Afraid of losing, Xibalba sends a snake to bite Maria, sending her into a coma, and winds up killing Manolo, sending him on an adventure through the underwold. Needless to say, there is also a subplot involving the approaching threat of the villainous Chakal (voiced by Dan Navarro) and the never-ending wishy washy affections of Maria.

If you find yourself getting lost in the onslaught of plot, don’t worry, you won’t be alone. The only way one could really enjoy The Book of Life would be to sit back and enjoy the visuals. Reel FX Creative Studios created a fantastic-looking film, chock full of skeletons and skulls, but Gutierrez’s screenplay (co-written by TV vet Doug Langdale, also of Gutierrez’s animated series El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera) completely whitewashes (i.e. Americanizes) everything. They also fall back on the old DreamWorks attitude that pop songs used out of context are hilarious. For anyone who’s already sick of Mumford & Sons’ “I Will Wait,” mind your ears.

The other huge annoyance is how out of place Tatum sounds among the Hispanic voice cast. There’s no way his name is being used as a box office draw since you don’t get to actually look at him. Also, be warned that there is a deluge of poop and pee jokes. At least one of each just in the opening scene! I admit, for the first half hour I was relatively enchanted by the animation style, but once the plot kicks in everything starts to sputter and never picks back up. The worst offense for any animated feature is boredom, but that’s all that’s left to find in The Book of Life.

Photo courtesy 20th Century Fox

Movie Review: ‘The Best of Me’

** out of 5
117 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sexuality, violence, some drug content and brief strong language
Relativity Media

Article first published as Movie Review: ‘The Best of Me’ on Blogcritics.

There are plenty of ways to know you’re watching a film based on a Nicholas Sparks novel. Young love, pretty people kissing in the rain, and the death of a major character are just three. The biggest factor is usually how bad the movie is. With the exception of The Notebook — and, to a lesser degree, A Walk to Remember — there hasn’t been a single good film in Sparks’ growing filmography. His movies are usually hilariously bad, with only the dumbest of moviegoers falling prey, and this weekend’s Sparks offering, The Best of Me, never rises above his typical clich├ęs, even with two very likeable leads.

James Marsden, Michelle Monaghan, Nicholas Sparks, Luke Bracey, Liana LibertoDawson Cole (James Marsden) works on an oil rig until an explosion throws him into the ocean. Doctors are baffled that he wasn’t killed and now Dawson is convinced that there must be a reason he survived. While floating in the ocean, Dawson also has a vision of his long lost high school love Amanda (Liana Liberato). Soon after, Dawson and Amanda (played as an adult by Michelle Monaghan) are called back to their hometown to hear the will reading of their old friend Tuck (Gerald McRaney). Now, Dawson and Amanda are forced to reconcile the past, seen in flashbacks (with Dawson played here by Luke Bracey) from 1992. Meanwhile, Amanda is also facing the truth of her strained marriage and the two must battle a rekindling old flame.

The Best of Me is chock full of everything you’ve come to expect from a Sparks production, and it’s a shame. Monaghan and Marsden make a nice enough couple, and even their teenage versions work well together. That is if you can get past the fact that Marsden and Bracey look absolutely nothing alike. They don’t even have the same eye color. Prison sure does change a man, something a surprisingly hilarious line by Amanda when she complains that Dawson has only gotten better looking after 21 years.

There is also dumb subplot dragging out the runtime involving Dawson’s abusive drug-trafficking dad (Sean Bridgers) and character actions that are none too honorable. It’s too bad screenwriters Will Fetters and J. Mills Goodloe are stuck adapting a Sparks novel because The Best of Me features some of the worst dialogue of the year. Director Michael Hoffman also directs every scene with as much schmaltz as he can wring out for full diabetic sappiness. The Best of Me is ultimately an oxymoron as it only brings out the worst of Sparks.

Photos courtesy Relativity Media

Movie Review: ‘Fury’

***** out of 5
134 minutes
Rated R for strong sequences of war violence, some grisly images, and language throughout
Columbia Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: ‘Fury’ (2014) on Blogcritics.

War films just aren’t my cup of tea. There, I said it. I know — just like every other genre — they all basically play out the same. Lots of heroism and flag waving, there’s just not a lot of character development floating around to make you really care for the characters. It’s more directors just wanting to make you root for “’Murica.” So it’s nice when one comes along that finally treats you to some characterization instead of just pitting a bunch of soldiers against a common enemy. In the case of writer/director David Ayer’s Fury, there’s more human drama than usual, making the turmoil even more devastating as the finale approaches.

Brad Pittc, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal, David Ayer, FuryIt’s April 1945 with the end of World War II near. We meet our ragtag group of soldiers — Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt), Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LeBeouf), Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Pena), and Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal) — suffering from cabin fever inside their beloved tank “Fury,” with one of their gunmen dead. As the final push into Nazi Germany commences, clerk typist Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) is forced onto the battlefield under Collier’s command. Now, Norman is thrust into action having never so much as held a gun, and the 2nd Armored Division heads into enemy territory to make a final stand against Hitler’s regime.

The less you know about what happens in Fury, the better. Although, the trailer makes what happens in the big finale seem like it’s the majority of the film. Yes, the tank does break down with the SS fast approaching and the men take a stand, but there’s a whole lot more going on. Lerman continues to prove he’s more capable than some of his lesser roles and the whole crew show real camaraderie. Even LeBeouf is likeable — now that’s saying something.

Brad Pittc, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal, David Ayer, FuryAyer gives all of the men character development, something lacking from most war films. And he never skimps on the gory details of war. Upon Norman joining the troop, he finds a piece of someone’s face inside the tank, and plenty of heads pop like zits as they’re run over by tanks. There’s also a surprising amount of humor, keeping the plot from getting too grisly. Ayer also makes fantastic use of his cinematographer (Roman Vasyanov) always ensuring you can see what’s going on — for better and worse sometimes.

There’s even a moment of sweetness with Collier and Norman taking refuge in a house with two women, Irma (Anamaria Marinca) and Emma (Alicia von Rittberg). But even that features one of the film’s most intense scenes involving boiling dinner table conversation. Pitt continues to prove he’s one of our best leading men. And Fury winds up being another frontrunner in the fall season when Oscar-bait films start taking over from the summer blockbusters. Fury is a spectacular piece of war film art, with real emotion and top-notch acting, making it one of the year’s best films.

Photos courtesy Columbia Pictures

Monday, October 13, 2014

Movie Review: ‘The Houses October Built’

*** 1/2 out of 5
91 minutes
Not rated
Image Entertainment

Article first published as Movie Review: ‘The Houses October Built’ on Blogcritics.

Considering the amount of money brought in by haunted houses across the country come October, it’s surprising there aren’t a lot of movies surrounding them. Probably the best known would be Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse from 1981. But loud noises and questionable special effects have started to take their toll on the spook house attraction and they’re starting to become more interactive to raise the terror level. Some are so extreme the average person would never even consider it. Such is the case with the underground attraction sought out by a group of friends in director Bobby Roe’s above average found footage entry: The Houses October Built. It’s available now in theaters, on VOD, and iTunes.

The Houses October Built, Bobby Roe, haunted house, HalloweenExpanding upon his 2011 documentary, we follow five friends – with the cast essentially playing themselves – on the road trip from hell. Bobby, Zack, Mikey, Jeff, and Brandy are visiting haunted houses to find the next big thrill ride. Not satisfied with the everyday attractions, they are hunting down “The Blue Skeleton,” taking them across Texas and into Louisiana. Along the way they interview cast members of the houses along the way, following a trail of clues to the big score. Little do they know that The Blue Skeleton is hot on their trails, trapping them in a game of increasing scares that the group of friends start to question whether they’re real or all part of the show.

The cast of The Houses October Built is a huge improvement over what’s typically offered in low budget found footage movies. Considering anyone with a camera in their hand can make a movie now, this is a particular area that’s been deteriorating at a rapid pace. The real haunted house footage lends an air of authenticity, but there’s way too much build up to the Blue Skeleton finale. Here is when things start to fizzle out with the happenings being to dark to see anything and falling back on typical haunted house tricks such as things appearing out of nowhere and loud noises in the dark. Roe also didn’t seem to know when to end his film. Sometimes vague endings work, this time not.

As for the handheld video work, the quality is on par with something that belongs in a V/H/S segment; the whole idea actually would have worked way better in that context. As it stands, The Houses October Built only left me wanting to watch the original documentary where Roe was more interested with the behind-the-scenes of America’s spook houses. Questioning the dark undertones and rumors that real body parts or whole corpses wind up making their way onto the show floor. The Houses October Built has a built in audience for horror hounds and haunted house aficionados and is definitely worth a look for those who seek it out.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Movie Review: ‘The Judge’

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

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

We all know dramadies are manipulative. Whether the characters wind up deserving our empathy is another matter. Surprisingly, two directors not known for making great films have now given us two of the year’s better dramedies. Last month, Shawn Levy — known for the worst family films imaginable — treated us to some Cameron Crowe-lite with This Is Where I Leave You, and now, director David Dobkin does one better. The Judge is every bit as manipulative as you’d assume, and yes, the trailer gives away most of the movie, but with Robert Downey, Jr. and Robert Duvall leading the cast, prepare to feel bad for loving this movie.

The Judge, Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Dax ShepardHenry “Hank” Palmer (Downey) enjoys being the lawyer innocents can’t afford. But life calls him home to Carlinville, Indiana, following the death of his mother. Leaving behind his cheating wife Lisa (Sarah Lancaster) and daughter Lauren (Emma Tremblay), he arrives to less than open arms by his father, Judge Joseph “Joe” Palmer (Duvall). His brothers Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Dale (Jeremy Strong) are far more welcoming. While Hank can’t seem to get out of Carlinville fast enough, he still finds time to reignite an old flame with Samantha (Vera Farmiga) before finding Joe’s Cadillac scratched up with a broken headlight and the Sheriff finding a dead body. Now, Hank has to stick around to help defend the one client he doesn’t want to and deal with all the skeletons in the Palmer closet.

Director Dobkin may be best known for comedies — the good: Clay Pigeons, Shanghai Knights, and Wedding Crashers; the bad: The Change-Up; and the ugly: Fred Claus — but it never feels forced, easing the manipulative melodrama. Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque’s screenplay almost feels like a testosterone version of a Lifetime movie, but the cast saves the day. The whole Palmer clan feels like an authentic family. Coming from a family of three boys myself, I can tell you, their portrayal is all too real. Screaming and fighting one minute to acting like nothing’s happened the next while everything sits on the backburner for another round — Dobkin and crew nail it.

The Judge, Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Dax ShepardDowney and Duvall manage to play off each other in several cases of machismo gone wild, the best part of the movie are the scenes with Downey and Farmiga, unfortunately, she is severely underused. I hope we get to see them together again because they have fantastic chemistry. Downey and Tremblay also make an adorable father-daughter. The Judge is too long for sure, but the performances make it easier to take — even if you always know what’s coming. This is definitely Dobkin’s best film so far. It’s exactly the kind of soul food movie audiences crave during the fall season, full of laughs and tissue moments.

Photos courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Movie Review: ‘Dracula Untold’

*** out of 5
92 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of warfare, vampire attacks, disturbing images, and some sensuality
Universal Pictures

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

If there’s one place Universal could truly make some big money at the box office it’s their classic monster franchises. With horror all the rave these days, they could all use an overhaul — even if the original films are still awesome — including Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolfman, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and even The Invisible Man. Are audiences up for accepting modern takes on such treasured icons? If the executives at Universal have their say, the answer is whether they like it or not. Let’s just hope the rest of the films aren’t as passable as this weekend’s Dracula Untold, but at least it doesn’t, well, suck.

Dracula Untold, Luke Evans, Dominic Cooper, Charles Dance, Universal MonstersIn this take on Bram Stoker’s classic tale, a voiceover informs us that in 1442, the Turkish army has taken control of all the young boys in Transylvania, including Vlad III Tepes. Fast forward to find a grownup Vlad (Luke Evans), now the prince, with a 10-year reign of peace about to come to an end. Sultan Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper) has ordered 1,000 boys to join his army, including Vlad’s only son Ingeras (Art Parkinson). In order to save the kingdom, Vlad heads to Broken Tooth Mountain to seek the power he needs from a demon/vampire (Charles Dance). Forced to drink the demon/vampire’s blood, Vlad now has the superhuman strength and ability to control bats and the weather to take down the approaching army. Something Vlad hopes to accomplish in the three days given him to either break the curse or feed on human blood and become the immortal mythical legend.

As much as I love my horror movies, my first sign of concern was when a TV spot finally informed me that Dracula Untold was given a PG-13 rating. Considering it looked like they were going for a dark, brooding atmosphere, I was hoping to see something along the lines of Braveheart or 300, and I still hope there’s an eventual unrated Blu-ray release. There are a couple of “ew” moments toward the end, but there’s something really lacking in the first hour. If you’re going to turn the character into an action hero, director Gary Shore and screenwriters Matt Sazama and Burksharpless should have at least given him something to do. Instead, Vlad spends most of the runtime trying to find ways to stay out of the sunlight, and finally flies into action come sundown.

Dracula Untold, Luke Evans, Dominic Cooper, Charles Dance, Universal MonstersThe cast are better than average considering most of them look unfamiliar. Evans is usually pretty boring, but it appears he’s picked up a few tips from working with Peter Jackson in The Hobbit films. Cooper gets to camp things up and is really fun to watch in the few scenes he’s given. He also is the only one who uses the stereotypical Dracula accent; everyone else just sounds English. Things take a fun turn in the final half hour — don’t worry, it’s only 91 minutes! — when Vlad is forced to embrace his fate as the titular character. According to rumor there’s supposedly an Easter egg scene used to setup the Universal Monster Universe. If it’s the end scene right before the credits, people are going to walk away scratching their heads. If Legendary Pictures and Universal really want this new monster universe to work, they’re gonna have to step up their game, but at least you won’t walk out of Dracula Untold calling it: “Dracublah.”

Photos courtesy Universal Pictures