Wednesday, October 31, 2012

DVD Review: “Supernatural Activity”

Warning: Review may contain better movie references than the movie reviewed.

Article first published as DVD Review: Supernatural Activity on Blogcritics.

These days, a good spoof is so hard to find. Thanks to ZAZ (brothers Jerry and David Zucker, along with Jim Abrahams), the ’80s ushered in a wave of spoofs that no one since has even come close to equaling. Airplane!, Top Secret!, The Naked Guns, both Hot Shots!; even the Wayans Brothers were already in on the action with their own I’m Gonna Git You Sucka. Mel Brooks was capitalizing on the successful formula with his own classics, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, History of the World: Part I, High Anxiety, and Spaceballs. Robin Hood: Men in Tights and Dracula: Dead and Loving It were still better than most.

Yes, the world of spoof seemed like it could not be stopped. Unfortunately, for the new direct-to-video spoof, Supernatural Activity, even Scary Movie 3 and 4, or Superhero Movie provided more yuks. The best we’ve seen over the years are Undercover Brother and Black Dynamite, with the absolute best being Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead. As you can see, there are, and always will be, tries to keep the lampooning going. Sadly, it seems as if the golden years are thoroughly behind us. Who knows, maybe with David Zucker and Pat Proft writing Scary Movie 5 with Malcolm D. Lee (Undercover Brother) directing, it can yield new hope. But if the crew behind Supernatural Activity are any indication, the world of spoofing is still better left to the pros.

The title, Supernatural Activity, actually refers to a crew of misfits running a TV show dedicated to the world of the supernatural. Damon Dealer (Andrew Pozza, who also wrote the film), leads with his editor Brett (Brett Houston), adding orbs and manipulating footage; Brock (Donny Boaz), providing the McConaughey looks who wants to take over the show; Pepper (Jerry Oglesby), who thinks shot guns are more appropriate to ghost busting than EVP machines and calls the Bible his reality TV; and Blair Woods (Liddy Bisanz), a psychic Damon discovered at a strip joint. Damon has teamed up with documentarian Tuck Thomas (Philip Marlatt) to disprove his own TV show so that he can get away from it all, settle down, and marry Blair. She on the other hand, just wants to use the season finale to prove her own theory that a yeti-demon called Smallsquatch really exists in the heart of Hicksville, Texas.

Let the blender spin as everything Pozza and director Derek Lee Nixon can think of get tossed in to decent effect for about 40 minutes. Unfortunately, Pulp Fiction and Star Wars jokes feel as old as they are while The Office and Lost are completely out of place. At least The Office is filmed documentary-style but that’s about the only reason for it to be included. Meanwhile, everything from The Last Exorcism to the one that started it all, The Blair Witch Project get thrown in front of the bus even if they can’t quite manage to get them under it. There’s a particular zaniness to the first 40 minutes that make it fly by rather nicely, it’s when the film shifts gears and takes on the plots of The Last Exorcism, Paranormal Activity, and Blair Witch, that things take a turn for the worst and any kind of laughs screech to an abrupt halt. While the filmmakers may have at least half a decent movie, the second half is so bad, Supernatural Activity rightfully belongs a direct-to-video affair and hits shelves on November 6.

Movie Review: “Cloud Atlas”

Its parts are way better than the sum of its whole.

*** ½
172 minutes
Rated R for violence, language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: Cloud Atlas on Blogcritics.

Trying to live up to the hype after making the big budget epic Matrix sure seems to have been taxing for Lana and Andy Wachowski. Not even their own Matrix sequels managed to live up to audience expectations, but that shouldn’t be too big a surprise; we all know how the law of diminishing returns works. But besides their very first film (Bound) and that first Matrix, it seems as if they’d both decided to take their own blue pills. But on the flipside, it looks as if director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) may have been feeding them some red pills to get them back on track after the dreadful Speed Racer.

Bringing author David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas to the big screen could not have been an easy task. Six interlocking stories taking place in 1849, 1936, 1973, 2012, 2144, and even further into a post-apocalyptic future, featuring dozens of characters, any adaptation could have easily blundered. Picking a main plot thread would be pointless; the themes of the film are what are really important here. And speaking of threads, each storyline is reflective of the last, even if they don’t seem to be told in any particular order. But as Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) assures us early on, there is a method to the madness. It’s just too bad that the film is as vapid as it is pretty. Ironically, it’s the Cavendish story that works the best and it’s really pretty minor in the grand scheme of things.

In the meantime, the film is easier to follow than you’d ever believe, but the Wachowskis and Tykwer (who all co-wrote along with directing) have short shifted any kind of emotional structure. Reading the Wikipedia page for the novel makes for a more interesting read and I think had the original structure been followed they could have succeeded in this department for sure. As it stands, we’re left watching what mostly plays out as a string of interconnected skits with the cast (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Keith David, James D’Arcy, Xun Zhou, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, Brody Nicholas Lee, and Broadbent) popping up as different variations of themselves spanning across all the time periods mentioned before.

Yes, the film may be pretty to look at, and surprisingly only cost a rumored $100 million, but do we really care about any of what’s going on just because we aren’t completely confused? Cloud Atlas has huge ambitions, but it is never going to connect with audiences the way Warner Bros wants. I do have to admit that having seen the film makes me more interested in reading the novel, it’s just too bad that it took a 172-minute sizzle reel to do so. Storywise, the film is far greater than another sci-fi themed big budget epic that took in over $2 billion worldwide, but where they both have scope, only one leaves you thinking. Sci-fi seems to be finally smartening up, that is if Cloud Atlas, Looper, Prometheus, and even Safety Not Guaranteed are of any indication. It’s been a good year for the genre, and while I may not have loved Cloud Atlas as a whole, it’s definitely greater than the sum of its parts.

Photos courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Movie Review: “Chasing Mavericks”

In spite of some clunky moments, Chasing Mavericks hangs ten.

**** out of 5
115 minutes
Rated PG for thematic elements and some perilous action
Twentieth Century Fox

Article first published as Movie Review: Chasing Mavericks on Blogcritics.

Growing up I sure spent a lot of time in California. While it may have made me grow to somehow dislike Disneyland, it may also have been part of the breeding ground that is my fascination with sharks. Hitting the beach, wading around in the surf, or simply staying afloat, staring out at the horizon, I love it. I have to admit, sometimes I feel like I was born in the wrong state. Living in Utah, I hate the mountains, or anything else too outdoorsy really, but I wouldn’t trade my life for anything. There’s plenty of ways to get my fix, going to St. Thomas, VI for my honeymoon (where I got to swim with sharks albeit pups), and I also have at least one airline at my disposal. So it came as no surprise I got caught up in the adrenaline while watching the Jay Moriarty biopic Chasing Mavericks.

Beginning in 1987 Santa Cruz, California, eight-year-old Jay (Cooper Timberline), is saved from drowning when caught in a wave break after saving his friend Kim (Harley Graham). Lucky for Jay that Frosty Hesson (Gerard Butler) came cruising by right at that moment because as he tells Jay, “You just used up your entire allotment of dumb luck.” Bright eyed and full of pluck, Jay learns he lives across the street from Frosty and immediately looks up to him as the father he never had. The same night he learns that his own father has decided to leave them with a $400 Army Savings Bond. Seven years later, 15-year-old Jay (Jonny Weston) still seeks out the father figure in Frosty, who’s too busy for even his own children and wife, Brenda (Abigail Spencer).

One morning, Jay steals a ride atop Frosty’s van and winds up in Half Moon Bay, California. Frosty is meeting with some cohorts to hit the waves and Jay learns that the mythical Mavericks waves are real. Frosty is put off that someone now knows that Mavericks isn’t his own Loch Ness Monster anymore and Jay insists Frosty train him to ride the waves he’s only dreamt of. Having already been taught to surf by classmate Blond (Devin Crittenden) on the waves of Santa Cruz, Jay will stop at nothing to prepare himself to ride the wave of a lifetime. There’s also small subplots sprinkled throughout featuring a group of bullies lead by Sonny (Taylor Handley) and his unrequited relationship with Kim (Leven Rambin).

Director Curtis Hanson is not being touted as the head of production and it’s a shame. With films ranging from Bad Influence, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, The River Wild, L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys, and 8 Mile, and In Her Shoes, it could be his lackluster Lucky You to blame if anyone even remembered that that movie exists. Co-directed by Michael Apted after Hanson was dealt some health issues and missed the last three weeks of filming, you can’t really pinpoint the differences. The only thing I could assume is maybe Apted handled the scenes with Sonny and his friends because they do feel out of place. This could have been to blame on screenwriter Kario Salem (because the film does feature some pretty clunky dialogue to begin with), but Handley is a pretty bad actor to start with. The cinematography by Oliver Euclid and Bill Pope is top notch and breathtaking. And since everyone came to see why they should Live Like Jay, Chasing Mavericks will certainly show them the way.

Photos courtesy Twentieth Century Fox

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Movie Review: “Paranormal Activity 4”

Another Paranormal, now with 4x less Activity.

** out of 5
88 minutes
Rated R for language and some violence/terror
Paramount Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: Paranormal Activity 4 on Blogcritics.

There are plenty of things that go bump in the night. When it comes to the month of October there may be more than ever thanks to watching a glutton of horror movies. We all know there are lots of different subgenres of horror movies but none have been mined as repetitively as the found footage has. Thanks to the one that really started it all (The Blair Witch Project) these types of horror films have really started to run themselves into the ground. And no series seems as ready to put the final nail in the coffin as the Paranormal Activity franchise. Calling these the new Saw would be an understatement, because at least something happens in those movies.

In 2009, Katie (Katie Featherston) and her nephew Hunter went missing. Their whereabouts still unknown until now (2011) we are informed, thanks to a “Previously, on Paranormal Activity” style opening. Being brought up to speed we find out that Katie and Hunter have left Carlsbad, California, but we are moving on to Henderson, Nevada. What follows is the found footage of a new family – mom and dad, Holly (Alexondra Lee) and Doug (Stephen Dunham); teenage daughter Alex (Kathryn Newton); and six year old (Wyatt Aiden Lovekamp). Alex has a sorta-boyfriend, Ben (Matt Shively), who has a knack for recording their webchats. One night, all hell is breaking loose across the street and it turns out that their neighbor is being carted off to the hospital and the son, Robbie (Brady Allen), is going to stay with them for a few days. Soon enough, all hell starts breaking loose and it all seems linked to Robbie and his mom.

Director’s Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman make their return after they took the series in a good direction for Paranormal Activity 3. That was until the abominable final 15 minutes took a complete nosedive and began introducing the cult factor, pedophile demon weddings, and enough neck snapping to make an ’80s action star blush. The one thing going for this installment is its sense of humor. At first Ben seems like his character may be just what we needed. That and a dad who finds it hilarious how technologically advanced kids are these days. Unfortunately, you can guess what’s going to rear its head again during the finale, necks start getting snapped again, drug-induced levitating ghost rape, and more unintentional laughs than any other film so far. I left as soon as the credits finally rolled but I have read that there is a post-credit scene that’s supposed to make for a Mexican-flavored spin-off. Maybe if they get someone in line with this kind of aspect (say Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro Amenabar, Juan Antonio Bayona, or even Nacho Vigalondo), Paramount Pictures could finally pull an actually scary Paranormal Activity out of their hat.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Movie Review: “Seven Psychopaths”

Quentin Tarantino's Adaptation.

***** out of 5
110 minutes
Rated R for language and some violent images
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: Seven Psychopaths on Blogcritics.

If the last few weeks are of any indication, we’re in for a slam dunk of a fall movie season. Each film has been trumping the last starting with Looper and last week’s Frankenweenie with no slowing down in sight. Usually, September and October are reserved for wading through the garbage Hollywood doesn’t deem big enough for summer and not good enough for Oscar chances. This year seems to be changing that with some small scale outings rounding out the usual happenings like the new Saw replacement Paranormal Activity. But that doesn’t keep the rest of us from having some fun too with the crazy cast of Seven Psychopaths.

Following up a debut film such as In Bruges seems like it would be too much a feat for anyone. But Martin McDonagh actually makes it look easy. With the same brand of drama, violence, hilarity, and wits, McDonagh has written one of the best screenplays in years for Seven Psychopaths. The film is about Marty (Colin Farrell), an Irish screenwriter living in Hollywood with a title and no story. Yes, Marty is writing a movie called Seven Psychopaths but hasn’t a clue what to do.

Billy (Sam Rockwell) is dying to help Marty with his screenplay throwing him lots of bones with crazy stories and even places an ad in the newspaper asking psychopaths to call Marty to tell them their own life stories. Hans (Christopher Walken) continues visiting his wife Myra (Linda Bright Clay) at the hospital when he isn’t returning “lost” dogs to their owners for the reward and has “stumbled” upon a shih tzu belonging to gangster Charlie (Woody Harrelson). Meanwhile, a serial killer dubbed “Jack of Diamonds” is going around shooting down mobsters waiting around to whack their own targets.

It never crossed my mind that we needed Adaptation remade by Quentin Tarantino, but that’s exactly how the film plays. McDonagh has certainly outdone himself and anyone else this year so far by writing one of the funniest, smartest, most quotable films of the year. Things do get dark, but there are also hilarious moments of outrageous violence. But fear not, the nastiest bits are played for laughs. There were walkouts during some of these moments, but the film is called Seven Psychopaths people. Anyone offended shouldn’t be in the theater in the first place. But if you’re searching for one of the best films to see this weekend (the other being Argo), Seven Psychopaths is time well spent.

Photos courtesy CBS Films

Movie Review: “Argo”

The year's (and Affleck's) best film so far.

***** out of 5
120 minutes
Rated R for language and some violent images
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: Argo on Blogcritics.

Say what you want about his acting skills, Ben Affleck sure has learned a lot over the years. When it comes to directing, the man is certainly aces. Oh, and that Oscar he won for Good Will Hunting 14 years ago continues to prove its worth too after Gone Baby Gone and The Town. Granted, he may not have written this latest venture, but Argo still has his fingerprints all over it. While I may not have thought he was the best lead choice for The Town, and his Shawshank Redemption ending was as ludicrous as his fake beard, doesn’t change the fact that his Junior effort just may wind up having its name called on a more than one occasion at next year’s Academy Awards.

In November 1979, the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was attacked during the Iranian Revolution. Hostages were taken, but the six who escaped went into hiding at the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). Sixty-nine days later, Tony Mendez (Affleck), is brought in by Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) to develop what turns out to be the “best bad idea” the CIA could come up with to return home Mark and Cora Lijek (Christopher Denham, Clea DuVall); Joe and Kathy Stafford (Scoot McNairy, Kerry Bishé); Bob Anders (Tate Donovan); and Henry Lee Schatz (Rory Cochrane). Tony comes up with the idea to pose as filmmakers on a location scout for their sci-fi film titled Argo, enlisting the help of Oscar-winning make up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to help make their fake movie and bring the six Americans home.

When asked to describe the tone of Ben Affleck’s Argo I could say it’s the most intense comedy of the year, or the year’s funniest thriller. But the one word that most accurately depicts what goes down is “nailbiting.” You want to talk about riveting, look no further. Screenwriter Chris Terrio has stretched out Joshuah Bearman’s original Wired article (“How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran”) to provide Affleck his best material yet. The last hour is one to be reckoned with, and by the time it’s finally over you have to remind yourself to breathe again. It’s seriously that riveting. Whether you already know what happens or not (I did not), there’s no denying the power behind the story of two governments working together to save the lives of six people. Chock full of fantastic performances (Affleck’s best in years) and hilarious stabs at the movie industry (Arkin and Goodman nearly steal the show), Argo really succeeds at making sure your armrest never gets a break.

Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Movie Review: “Sinister”

A slow burn ruined by its own Sinister-ly bad ending.

** ½ out of 5
110 minutes
Rated R for disturbing violent images and some terror
Summit Entertainment

Article first published as Movie Review: Sinister (2012) on Blogcritics.

As nice as it is to watch horror movies at home when October roles around, the past few years have not been so kind to theaters. With four releases taking on the darker tones we’d expect, not all of them have been slam dunks (Hotel Transylvania) and the last one (Paranormal Activity 4) will probably be the lamest of the bunch. While Frankenweenie may reign critically supreme, Sinister gives it a good shot for at least 80 minutes or so. Until the big reveal starts to ruin everything. Then the film proceeds to get dumber as it ambles along to the finale that tries way too hard to live up to its title.

In Pennsylvania, Ellison (Ethan Hawke) is transplanting his family to write his latest true-crime venture. His wife, Tracy (Juliet Rylance), just wants to be reassured that they aren’t living two doors away from another crime scene; son Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario), wants to know the gory details before he’s bullied at school; and daughter Ashley (Clare Foley), wants to move back to their real home and forces Ellison to swear they will if his latest novel doesn’t work out. In the attic, Ellison finds a strange box full of Super 8 films featuring standard family outings with attached grisly endings of the families being murdered. Soon enough, Ellison hears bumps in the night, Trevor starts having night terrors, and a creepy-faced man starts appearing in each of the films.

If you can’t guess how everything is going to play out, you’ve obviously never seen a horror movie before — or any movie for that matter. Director Scott Derrickson (2008’s The Day the Earth Stood Still remake, The Exorcism of Emily Rose) does keep things (co-written by C. Robert Cargill) moving along for at least the first two thirds. But by the time the denouement starts to kick in, it all falls apart and gets dumber by the minute. The film had been sitting at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes for weeks, but has since been steadily falling as more reviews are published — and for good reason. Touting itself from “The Producer of Paranormal Activity and Insidious,” you’re better off staying home watching the latter. Sometimes a bad ending can completely ruin everything (ala the original Paranormal Activity) but in this case, at least Sinister has a few disturbing tricks up its sleeve before it reveals it’s all a big bluff.

Photo courtesy Summit Entertainment

Friday, October 5, 2012

Movie Review: “Frankenweenie”

“I can fix it,” may be Victor's mantra, but I wouldn't change a thing about the film.

***** out of 5
87 minutes
Rated PG for thematic elements, scary images and action
Walt Disney Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: Frankenweenie (2012) on Blogcritics.

As if it wasn’t nice enough to see the classic Universal monsters back together again last week in Hotel Transylvania, this week along comes Tim Burton to show them up. While Hotel isn't a complete failure, it ain’t got nothin’ on Burton’s own new masterpiece, Frankenweenie. The full length stop-motion adaptation of the 1984 short film has finally arrived. The movie could even stand as a companion piece to August’s ParaNorman if it wasn’t so much better than that late-summer film. Speaking of August, leave it to long time Burton collaborator screenwriter John August (Corpse Bride, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Big Fish) to write Burton’s best film in years. Chock full of beautiful animation and an enveloping use of 3D, the only film I can see beating this in my book could be next month’s Wreck-It Ralph.

In the small town of New Holland, Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) lives a quiet life with his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Frankenstein (Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara), and his only friend, a dog named Sparky. Mr. Frankenstein wants Victor to know that you can have both science and sports instead of one or the other, but it’s at a baseball game that poor Sparky chases a homerun and is hit by a car. Victor is so heartbroken that he takes science teacher Mr. Rzykruski’s (Martin Landau) class lesson to heart and conducts an experiment to bring Sparky back to life. He hides the reborn Sparky in the attic, but it’s not long before classmate Edgar “E” Gore (Atticus Shaffer) informs Victor that he knows his secret and forces him to show him how it’s done. Soon enough, the rest of the class all wants a piece of the action and things go from bad to worse, Gamera style.

All the classic Mary Shelley Frankenstein tropes get paid their due as Burton brings us everything one expects from a film of this ilk. Fortunately for the adults in the audience, Frankenweenie is a horror film first. There are plenty of “ew” moments and gross happenings; it is about a dog being brought back from the dead after all. But amongst the monstrous shenanigans lies the film’s greatest asset – a beating heart. Can a monster movie make you cry? If my wife is of any indication, then it's an emphatic yes—yes it can make you cry. Same goes for my 36 year old male friend sitting on the other side of her. I may be in the minority who prefers Corpse Bride over The Nightmare Before Christmas (even if he didn't actually direct it), but Frankenweenie stands as living proof that Burton’s animated adventures just keep getting better.  It also stands as the year’s best animated film.

Photo courtesy Walt Disney Pictures

Monday, October 1, 2012

Movie Review: “Pitch Perfect”

A ca-boring.

112 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sexual material, language and drug references
Universal Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: Pitch Perfect on Blogcritics.

Following in the footsteps of her probable mentor, we have another TV writer trying to strike gold in the world of film. But let me get this out of the way right now – Kay Cannon is no Tina Fey. Having worked on 30 Rock (OK, only 12 credited episodes), I was willing to give her adaptation of Mickey Rapkin’s novel Pitch Perfect a little bit of wiggle room. But no matter how funny the trailer may seem, expectations can be everything. I thought it looked ok whereas my wife thought it looked great and we were both let down, whereas a colleague thought it looked horrible didn’t think it was that bad, but trust us, it is.

In the film version of Pitch Perfect we meet Beca (Anna Kendrick), a freshman at Barden University. She’s on a free ride thanks to her professor father. Chloe (Brittany Snow) and Aubrey (Anna Camp) run the Barden Bellas and a mere four months ago lost their chance at winning the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella when Aubrey tossed her cookies all over the third row much to the delight of the judges (John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks).

The Bellas are out to save face and recruit a new group of singers. Aubrey can’t seem to cut loose. She stands by tradition forcing everyone, including Beca and Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), to do as she says even though Beca wants to try something new. Beca wants to work in the music industry and mixes mashups on her laptop when she’s not interning at the campus radio station. Now the Bellas must work together to win the ICCA and defeat the Barden boys team, the Treblemakers run by Bumper (Adam DeVine), while Beca is doing everything she can to not fall in love with the film obsessed Jesse (Skylar Astin).

What’s interesting is that Rapkin’s original book follows three separate a cappella college groups whereas Cannon chose to simply mash everything together to follow one girl and her ins and outs with rom-com clichés. It’s sad to see Elizabeth Banks listed as Producer because it’s obvious she somehow got roped into this while Cannon was working on 30 Rock. Although you can’t help but consider Banks and Higgins the film’s biggest assets as they get all the best lines. That is until she’s reduced to playing air guitar with his leg. Some people may still not be sold on Rebel Wilson (Bridesmaids and Bachelorette) but here she’s kept to a supporting character and comes off with some great lines.

Meanwhile, poor Kendrick walks around looking like she’s daydreaming about all the roles she turned down to get stuck in this one. Between this and the Twilight series, she must consider herself truly blessed whenever she gets to show up in something like 50/50, Up in the Air, or Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. The name of the game here is the overuse of slapping “a ca” in front of as many words as possible and resorting at least one character to making snow angels in a pool of vomit. But the most deadly thing Pitch Perfect truly has against it however, is that it’s “a ca-boring.”

Photos courtesy Universal Pictures