Saturday, September 27, 2014

DVD Review: ‘The Calling’

Movie: *** 1/2
Extras: ***

Article first published as DVD Review: ‘The Calling’ (2014) on Blogcritics.

Many movies you’ve never heard of wind up taking up space on video shelves every week. Most of these direct-to-video releases aren’t very good. Once in a while, one manages to slip through the cracks and surprise everyone. This week’s better-than-average thriller is The Calling. It even features a couple of Oscar winners: Susan Sarandon and Ellen Burstyn—not to mention a cameo from Donald Sutherland.

The most surprising aspect however comes in the form of director Jason Stone. You’d never expect the man behind the original short film Jay & Seth vs. the Apocalypse—which was then expanded into This Is the End—to deliver a brooding, slow-burning, faith-based police procedural. But Sony Pictures Home Entertainment is making sure you can catch it on DVD.

The Calling, Susan Sarandon, Topher Grace, Donald Sutherland, Jason Stone, Ellen Burstyn, Scott Abramovitch, Inger Ash WolfeDetective Hazel Micallef (Sarandon) likes her town quiet. It makes her liking for pain pills and alcohol go down smoother. She lives with her mom (Burstyn) and doesn’t mind being behind the times to the point of not even owning a cell phone. (It’s still sitting on her desk in the box.) One morning she’s sent to check on someone’s elderly mother to find the mother in the living room, half-decapitated.

After another body is found a few days later, Hazel is convinced she has a serial killer on her hands, but the higher powers won’t listen. After a drifter blows into town and a newly transferred Toronto officer shows up (Topher Grace), Hazel must pool together her instincts to stop the killer before he strikes again, completing his 12 willing sacrifices.

Atmosphere and mood define The Calling, something highly lacking from a glutton of run-of-the-mill thrillers these days. Most simply want to focus their attention on the brutality of the kills and try to one-up each other on the gore factor. Screenwriter Scott Abramovitch adapts Inger Ash Wolfe’s novel with a new plot structure. He focused more on Hazel’s own demons than the Dr. Kevorkian aspirations of the killer—something they discuss in the DVD’s only spoiler-saturated special feature: “Divine Intention: Making The Calling” (15:51). Do not watch this before the actual film.

The cast helps give the film a professional air, lending the appropriate independent spirit. The Calling makes no bones about its killer, so don’t expect a barrage of red herrings. The Calling isn’t a great thriller, but a decent thriller is always a good thing when picking through new Redbox releases. Definitely worth at least a rental on an autumn afternoon.

Movie Review: ‘The Equalizer’

**** 1/2 out of 5
131 minutes
Rated R for strong bloody violence and language throughout, including some sexual references
Columbia Pictures

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

It’s sad when I have to say that one of the best films I saw in August didn’t even open until this weekend. But alas, director Antoine Fuqua and Denzel Washington have reunited to deliver one of the best TV-to-film adaptations with The Equalizer. When I saw the trailer, I was not impressed. It looked like another run of the mill thriller, with a convoluted sounding plot and nothing to distinguish itself outside the names of Fuqua and Denzel. Thankfully, The Equalizer is a big ol’ blast of badass that audiences are in dire need of.

The Equalizer, Denzel Washington, Chloe Grace Moretz, Antoine FuquaRobert McCall (Washington) lives a quiet life in Boston. His apartment is bare bones and he works at the local home improvement store where he helps encourage his co-worker Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis) to lose weight in order to get the security job at work. Robert spends his nights with insomnia, watching the hours pass by at a local diner reading books and waxing philosophical with a teenage escort named Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz). When Teri ends up in the hospital, Robert goes to make a deal with her pimp Slavi (David Meunier) and is left with no other choice but to kill everyone. Now, Robert has triggered a war against the Russian mob with their number one fixer, Teddy (Marton Csokas), trying to find out who Robert really is, find him, and kill him.

Perhaps the biggest surprise about The Equalizer is its attention to character. Fuqua’s restrained direction helps build tension as we get to know Robert and actually care for his survival. That’s something most action films rarely see these days with shoot-first-character-second attitude. Fuqua has also surrounded Washington with some great costars—Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo as friends from his former life. Leo is no stranger to the Equalizer’s world having guest starred on the original series. It’s also a reunion for Leo and Fuqua as she appeared in Olympus Has Fallen.

Screenwriter Richard Wenk never comes right out and divulges McCall’s past, but it becomes pretty clear as the film rolls on—especially during the big finale. Let’s just say, never play Home Alone with a trained killer in a Home Depot-type store. This whole sequence could also be looked at as a brilliant send-up of his early days directing Black & Decker commercials. Washington continues to get more badass with each film, showing no signs of slowing down. And while they may not be aiming for the Academy Awards again—back when Washington won for Training Day— the two of them work so well together, I welcome any sequel they have to offer. That’s something which is set up in the last scene. The Equalizer is one of the year’s best thrillers.

Photo courtesy Columbia Pictures

Friday, September 26, 2014

DVD Review: ‘Found.”

Movie: **** out of 5
Extras: ***

Article first published as DVD Review: ‘Found.” on Blogcritics.

Considering that Halloween is basically an entire month leading up to one day, you’d think there’d be more spooky offerings in theaters. This year has more than usual with Annabelle, The Boxtrolls, The Book of Life, Ouija, and Horns. But for those who want something a little more visceral, director Scott Schirmer and author Todd Rigney have adapted Rigney’s novel Found into a horror film that delivers the goods in both creepy atmosphere and balls-out gore. After making the festival rounds for two years, The October People and Xlrator Media are releasing Found on DVD September 23.

FoundMarty (Gavin Brown), is a fifth-grader to whom horror fans can relate. He loves horror movies, and has posters hanging up in his room for everything from Wild Zero and Popcorn to Street Trash and Without Warning. His older brother Steve (Ethan Philbeck) is the typical anti-social angsty teen who can’t stand his parents (Phyllis Munro and Louie Lawless). But Steve has a killer secret that only Marty knows: he’s a serial killer. He keeps the head of his latest victim in a bowling bag in his closet, and Marty is willing to keep his brother’s secret because Steve assures him that he’d never hurt him.

Their mom thinks horror movies are rotting her kids’ brains, while dad likes to secretly take Marty to see zombie movies at the local cinema. One day, Marty is browsing the video store and wants to rent a movie called Headless, but the case is empty. He finds the tape in Steve’s room and decides to watch it with his only friend David (Alex Kogin). When David makes fun of Marty for being scared, Marty decides to show him something really scary. From here on, brotherly love takes on darker tones after domestic violence brings about an ending only a horror film could pull off.

Found comes with an assortment of special features including two short films which are used as movies-within-the-movie. Headless (24:50) is unbearable — it is however, extremely effective within the context of the film. It’s been announced that thanks to a Kickstarter campaign it will be made into a full length feature. Deep Dwellers (6:21) is a little more fun, keeping the running time scant and is a nice throwback to the early days of Roger Corman. The most interesting thing about Headless, is that this is where the most violent parts of Found are, well, found. The film’s trailer is included, as is an audio commentary featuring Schirmer and Rigney.

Schirmer makes the most of his almost non-existent budget, casting his teen leads who give their all to their tortured characters. Especially Philbeck, who literally lets it all hang out when the shit finally hits the fan. The adults don’t fare so well. Found hangs on the dynamic of Brown and Philbeck who carry the film admirably. There are unspeakable acts that take place throughout, and the age-old question of does a horror film create psychopaths is up for debate. Bigotry and bullying are also touched on, along with domestic violence. Found should hopefully find an audience on home video where it’ll be far easier for horror aficionados to get their hands on it, as they should. I highly recommended it for those with strong stomachs and anyone who might want a little more from their horror movies than loud noises.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Movie Review: ‘This Is Where I Leave You’

*** 1/2 out of 5
103 minutes
Rated R for language, sexual content and some drug use
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: ‘This Is Where I Leave You’ on Blogcritics.

A good dramedy is hard for any director to pull off. While there are a fair amount of greats —Juno, 50/50, all of Wes Anderson’s oeuvre, not to mention most of John Hughes’ filmography, and any film written by Richard Curtis — director Shawn Levy now gives it a go with This Is Where I Leave You. Considering his past films include Big Fat Liar, Just Married, Cheaper by the Dozen, The Pink Panther, all three Night at the Museums, Date Night, Real Steel, and The Internship, saying this is his best film yet can’t help but sound like extremely faint praise. While Levy is no Cameron Crowe, it looks like he should make more adult films. Then maybe we could instill just a tiny bit of trust when we see his name on a poster.

This is Where I Leave You, Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda, Shawn Levy, Jonathan TropperJudd Altman (Jason Bateman) loves his life — working for radio shock jock Wade Boulanger (Dax Shepard) — and his wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer). That is until the day he comes home to find them in bed together. To make matters worse, a few weeks later, Judd’s sister Wendy (Tina Fey) calls to tell him that their father has died. Now, the Altmans have come home to roost to console their best-selling oversharing oversexed mother Hillary (Jane Fonda), who informs them that their father’s dying wish was for the family to sit Shiva (the week-long Jewish practice of intense mourning). Also on hand are the remaining siblings: Paul (Corey Stoll) and wife Alice (Kathryn Hahn), and Phillip (Adam Driver), who brings along his therapist-turned-lover, Tracy (Connie Britton). Now, the Altmans have to deal with the mourning process, and each other, after Hillary grounds them all, forcing them into the week-long Shiva.

I can’t help but think that Cameron Crowe could have directed the hell out of this material, but as it is, Levy has made good on Jonathan Tropper’s adapted screenplay of his own novel. The glue holding it all together is the cast. Even minor characters get a few chances to shine — particularly Ben Schwartz as childhood friend, now rabbi, “Boner.” The cast all act like siblings, bringing subtle nuances to make the Altmans feel like a real family. Even when they start to physically fight with each other there’s no true malice, even if someone winds up with a piece of glass sticking out of his head.

Unfortunately, not everyone has the same opportunity to put their talent to good use. Rose Byrne shows up as Judd’s unrequited love Penny, who doesn’t quite nail the motormouth character. And Timothy Olyphant is totally wasted as Wendy’s ex-boyfriend suffering from a brain injury. I can’t help but think that the sporadic toilet humor involving Wendy’s toddler stems from Levy’s old stomping grounds, but it only shows up in a few scenes. While it may run a little long, anyone with a family as crazy as the Altmans will easily relate. For those who can’t, at least you can leave telling yourself things could be worse. This Is Where I Leave You never forges new ground, and there’s not one surprise in the whole film, but as a minor diversion in the dramedy sub-genre, thankfully, it’s as good as you’d expect with such an exceptional cast.

Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Movie Review: ‘A Walk Among the Tombstones’

**** 1/2 out of 5
113 minutes
Rated R for strong violence, disturbing images, language and brief nudity
Universal Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: ‘A Walk Among the Tombstones’ on Blogcritics.

With September not being known for high quality film choices, at least there are a couple thrillers to keep us highly entertained. Later this month, Denzel Washington and director Antoine Fuqua reunite for The Equalizer, but in the meantime, writer/director Scott Frank proves he’s not just a one-hit-wonder following his directorial debut The Lookout — he’s also responsible for the screenplays: Dead Again, Get Shorty, Out of Sight, and Minority Report — with A Walk Among the Tombstones. The old saying: “They don’t make them like this anymore,” certainly applies here. Frank drenches Tombstones in good old-fashioned noir-stylings, adapting author Lawrence Block’s novel, to deliver one of the year’s best thrillers.

A Walk Among the Tombstones, Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, Scott FrankOpening in 1991 New York City, NYPD officer Matthew Scudder (Liam Neeson), winds up in a drunken shootout, taking out three people after a bar stickup. Cut to eight years later and Scudder is now eight years sober and a private detective. One night, ex-junky Peter (Boyd Holbrook) approaches Scudder about seeing his brother Kenny (Dan Stevens). As it turns out, Kenny’s wife was kidnapped, the ransom was paid, but they killed his wife anyway. Kenny wants Scudder to find the men who killed her leading to another missing person gone dead. This puts Scudder hot on the trail of two men — Ray (David Harbour) and Albert (Adam David Thompson) — posing as DEA agents, with their sights set on local drug traffickers. Everything comes to a head when they take the young daughter of Yuri Landau (Sebastian Roché), triggering Scudder to face his demons, make up for past mistakes, and put an end to the murders.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is hands down the best neo-noir since Rian Johnson’s Brick. Frank even takes time to have one character — homeless teen TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley) — name drop Dashiell Hammet’s Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. The finale even takes place during a thunderous rain storm for optimal noir effect. Neeson could sleepwalk through these roles, but he always shines. Stevens continues to impress, proving he’s more than just a pretty face on Downton Abbey. (He’s also damn good in Adam Wingard’s Sundance favorite The Guest.) Frank keeps the tension high from the opening scene and never lets up. Audiences flock to these kinds of Neeson films because he can play them so well, but A Walk Among the Tombstones is way better than Non-Stop and Taken 2. This is one of the year’s top thrillers, sitting right alongside Blue Ruin, Cold in July, and The Equalizer.

Photo courtesy Universal Pictures

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Salt Lake Comic Con 2014 Smashes Attendance Records

Article first published as Salt Lake Comic Con 2014 Smashes Attendance Records on Blogcritics.

I suppose a bar has been set when Stan Lee himself proclaims your Comic Con — or Comic Convention if a certain West Coast city has any say — “The best Comic Con in the world.” It was no small feat as the second annual Salt Lake Comic Con got underway September 4–6.

Salt Lake Comic ConChock full of celebrities tickling the delight of all ages, more than 120,000 attendees bombarded downtown Salt Lake City’s Salt Palace Convention Center to browse booths and see their favorite celeb whether in person during photo ops and signings, or on stage at a panel in one of the Ballrooms. Even in the green room you never know who you’ll run into: this year I got to meet Daniel Logan, a Utah transplant from New Zealand who played young Boba Fett in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones. Yes, this was the place to be last weekend with more than 90,000 people on Saturday alone, causing the Fire Marshal to once again bar the door.

The panels I attended were more fun and far more structured than last year with panelists now having dealt with the ins and outs of two Comic Cons. There was also the FanXperience back in April which itself drew more than 100,000 attendees. “The Power of Podcasting in Geek Culture” was moderated by local morning radio sensation Kerry Jackson from X96’s Radio from Hell (also founder of Geek Show Podcast).

Also along for the journey were fellow Geek Show members: local comedian Jay Whittaker, Jimmy Martin (host of his own Comcast film review show Big Movie Mouth Off and film critic for Salt Lake’s No. 1 news show KUTV), Trent Hunsaker, Danielle Uber Alles, Tysen Webb, and Robert Easton. Plenty was discussed about producing your own podcast, including changes and evolution of their own formats to what encouraged them to even jump into the world of podcasting.

“John Carpenter: The Master of Horror” dissected the legendary director with Fangoria/Rue Morgue writer Sean Smithson, Kristal Starr, Martin, Radio from Hell’s Bill Allred, and Ben Lane Hodson. Much was made about the highs and lows of Carpenter’s career including favorite films and moments, and whether the director will ever make another movie. The consensus being a big “maybe,” that is if someone can pry him away from his video game obsession.

A “Film Critics Roundtable” was held with fellow Utah based critics, moderated by Kerry Jackson. Included to discuss the misconceptions of having “a really cool job” were Dan Metcalf of the The Davis Clipper, Sean P. Means from the Salt Lake Tribune, Rich Bonaduce, Smithson and Martin, and 24 Salt Lake’s Audrey Rock. While a decision was never made about whether bloggers will take over the review world, they made it clear that “you get what you pay for.”

Among the celebrity panels I attended, the biggest was of course Stan Lee who was very pleased to be back in Salt Lake and adores his fans. I had the opportunity to meet Cary Elwes backstage and shake his hand while I was with Martin preparing to moderate. There, Elwes was presented with a print from his biggest fan, Jimmy’s wife Kat Martin — which attendees were able to purchase at the booth she shared with fellow artist Leigh George Kade on the exhibit floor, and online at Kat Martin Artist.

On stage, Elwes expressed his love for his adoring fans who stuck mostly to the subject of The Princess Bride during his Q&A but also reenacted a scene, discussed his love for Andre the Giant, provided his Fat Albert impression which landed him the role of Westley, and gave hugs and handshakes to questioners. He continuously plugged his book: As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales From the Making of The Princess Bride and said his tombstone will undoubtedly consist of his most famous three words: “As you wish.”

Two badass special guests took the stage separately: Ron Perlman and Bruce Campbell. Perlman was deadpan, dry, and hilarious — and took no prisoners with his language. He offered a warning upfront that children may pick up a few new words, met with thunderous laughter. He gave insight to him not being a biker guy even while starring on Son of Anarchy and when asked if there was a chance for Ice Pirates 2, he quickly answered: “F— no.”

On the flip side, Campbell was hilariously tongue-in-cheek, poking fun at the Utah swear slangs with lots of gosh dangs and hecks. With no moderator, Campbell took full control of his panel, to no surprise. Running the show like a game show host, instead of simply taking questions from a line of attendees, he treated us to a little bit of “Stupid Human Tricks.” Saving the best for last as Comic Con’s Director of Business Development Jarrod Phillips took the stage and employed Campbell into asking Phillips’ girlfriend to marry him. When Ash himself is kneeling beside you with a microphone, of course you say yes.

The original genie in a bottle Barbara Eden, took the stage with co-star Bill Daily. The two reminisced about their time on I Dream of Genie, including their favorite scenes. Eden also talked about her stand-in who also doubled for Marilyn Monroe, and her time filming with Elvis where he would sing on set in between takes. Hearing Daily use the phrase “shitfaced” stole the whole show.

Salt Lake Comic ConEden made it clear that her only regret was having Jeannie and Nelson marry. She also mentioned that she though Stan Lee was a “rascal” and he sure proved wily during his Q&A. Lee wowed the crowd with insights ranging from wanting to kill Jerry Conway for killing Mary Jane Watson in Spider-Man, admitted that he would love to collaborate with Todd McFarlane, plugged next year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron by letting us know that his cameo will be the funniest thing we will ever see, and began his crusade for "comicbook" versus "comic book."

Two stars from CW’s Arrow were in the spotlight, even if not on stage together: Stephen Amell and John Barrowman tried to bring down the house and largely succeeded. Amell was up first, moderated by Jackson, informing us that he has seen the first four episodes unfinished and realized how important music is. A scene two and a half years in the making will finally payoff this season (its third), and that there will be plenty of crossover with the new Flash show. Episode eight in particular is set to be an “extravaganza” and will be the show’s Justice League moment.

Barrowman treated his hour like a stand-up routine. He admitted that David Tennant is the best kisser he’s worked with and managed to make fun of Utah’s backward liquor laws. He can’t figure out why his hotel can’t bring a glass of wine to his room but can send up a whole bottle. It was a good hour for the LGBT community as he took a chance to share his point of view that there should be unconditional love from birth by parents and that anyone who turns their back on someone’s sexuality are the ones who should go to hell, something everyone should take to heart.

It was another amazing whirlwind three days at 2014’s Salt Lake Comic Con and with record-breaking numbers; I can only imagine how much bigger it can get from here.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Movie Review: ‘The Drop’

*** out of 5
106 minutes
Rated R for some strong violence and pervasive language
Fox Searchlight

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

Being a big fan of author Dennis Lehane’s stories or novels should make for an exciting weekend when a new one hits theaters. Considering there have only been three before — Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, and Shutter Island — it’s not many to choose from. But at least they are all really good — with Ben Affleck’s GBG arguably the best. And while I haven’t read the short story The Drop is based on (Animal Rescue), I’m sure it’s better than the movie. As it is, director Michaël R. Roskam suffers from the sophomore-slump with The Drop, even with stars Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, and the great late James Gandolfini in tow, and Lehane writing the screenplay. Maybe he should leave adaptations to someone not as close to the source material.

The Drop, Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, James Gandolfini, Dennis LehaneBob (Hardy) tends bar at Cousin Marv’s Bar for his cousin Marv (Gandolfini), which is part of the underworld money exchange with Brooklyn bars play the titular locations. One afternoon, Bob passes by a house and hears the sound of a crying animal in a garbage can. Inside, he finds a beaten pitbull pup outside the home of Nadia (Rapace). Eventually, Nadia convinces Bob to take the puppy as his own causing Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts) — who claims to be the dog’s original owner, and who may or may not have killed an old friend — to start stalking Bob. Meanwhile, a robbery at Marv’s Bar winds up with $5,000 of Chechen Mafia money missing and they want it back. Eventually, everyone must come to turns with their inner demons and ulterior motives.

Lehane definitely knows how to write a slow burn of a screenplay, it’s just too bad director Roskam doesn’t know how to pace one. Let alone that his tone is all over the map. Are we watching a gritty thriller, a love story? Here, the two mix like oil and vinegar, and it makes for a deadly dull concoction. Hardy plays Bob appropriately awkward, but Rapace is wasted as the love interest with a sordid past. If there was any reason to see The Drop, it’s to see Gandolfini up on the big screen. His passing came far too soon, but he’s the true shining performance. Had the film focused more on Cousin Marv and skipped the loosely faith-based personal issues of Bob and Nadia in the background, the film would have been as tense as a good thriller should be.

Unfortunately for The Drop, Fox Searchlight’s September release shows the studio is going along with the title and dropping it in one of the year’s notorious Hollywood dump months. No one will see this until it hits video. And it actually might play better when you can sit through it on the comfort of your own couch.

Photo courtesy Fox Searchlight