Friday, August 26, 2016

Blu-ray Review: “Clown”

Film: **** out of 5
Video: ****
Audio: ****
Extras: **

Article first published on Blogcritics.

A lot of films — especially horror films — can take awhile before finally seeing the light of day. The two that instantly spring to mind are All the Boys Love Mandy Lane and You’re Next. The real question is, was it worth the wait? The latest to join the crop of delayed releases is co-writer/director Jon Watts’s coulrophobia-drenched Clown. What started as a joke is now a full-length feature film. Watts originally created a fake trailer for the film and plastered Eli Roth’s — creator of Cabin Fever and Hostel — name on it. Next thing Watts knows, Roth is on the line offering him the chance to expand his idea.

As scared of clowns as some people already are, what happens when you put on a costume and can’t take it off? Therein lies the trouble for our poor protagonist Kent (Andy Powers). What starts as a lark for his son Jack’s (Christian Distefano) birthday party, after the clown they hired cancels, turns into a David Cronenbergian nightmare. Kent’s concerned, loving, and pregnant wife Meg (Laura Allen) now gets to put the pieces together after Kent can’t take off the costume and it starts to transform him into some kind of child-murdering demon. The only person who seems to be able to help them is the possibly crazy Karlsson (Peter Stormare) who knows way more about the costume than anyone should, but may also know the key to helping Meg save Kent.

Starz/Anchor Bay transforms Kent’s descent into madness onto 25 GB Blu-ray disc that’s just the right size for a 100-minute movie with only one special feature. Colors may not be as bold as you’d expect for a movie revolving around a clown, but this is a horror film after all. Desaturation is the name of Watts’s game and, as the film progresses, so does the color palette. Detail is never quite as sharp as you’d hope, but there’s never any sign of digital tampering. No smudgy facial features here. It also helps add some extra gruesomeness to the practical effects, even if it does make some of the CGI-enhanced moments look a little hokey. Blacks never dive into crush and the faint noise on hand appears more grain-like than mosquito noise. It’s about what you’d expect a modern horror movie to look like and gets the job done. English and Spanish subtitles are available.

Same goes for the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. While faring a little better than the video, it’s still rather front heavy, but does kick in surround usage anytime something horrific is about to happen. Deep bass also manages to keep viewers on their toes as they await characters’ impending dooms. As for that one special feature, all we get is a quick (6:24) “Making Clown Featuring Producer Eli Roth” with the cast, and a few of the crew, talking about the story and some of the behind-the-scenes work. Roth is featured most prominently discussing how much he loved the original short and how great it was to give Watts this opportunity. A digital copy of the film is also included.

Clown may not be a new classic. It is quick, efficient, and as every bit as creepy as it needs to be. I was honestly shocked that the film features so much on screen violence directed at children, although it helps make the transformation all the more frightening. Watts and Powers put everything into Kent’s evolution into the villainous monster, and the most surprising thing is that Watts is moving on from this to Spider-man: Homecoming. Considering how far he was willing to go in this film gives me great hope for some memorable super villain(s) in the new Spider-man film.

It would have been even more interesting to see how he could have handled the remake of Stephen King’s It following Cary Fukunaga’s departure. While it is nice to see him jump genres, he really could have brought a lot to the table there. As it stands, Clown is a nice little jolt for those who like movies about killer clowns. Considering they keep making them, there’s clearly an audience for it. But let’s face it, if there’s something to be scared of, Hollywood will find a way to try and make money off of it. Since the film is nearly bargain priced, it’s worth a blind buy for interested parties; just make sure you put the kids to bed first.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Movie Review: “Ben-Hur”


*** out of 5
124 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and disturbing images
Paramount Pictures

Article first published at

Ben-Hur may not be the first Best Picture winner to get remade, but it is one of the more head scratching ones. After winning 11 Academy Awards — including Best Picture — maybe we really should just accept the fact that absolutely nothing is sacred anymore. Which is kind of an ironic statement considering it features Jesus and all.

Alas, here we are, with Timur Bekmambetov — the director of Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter — at the helm, throwing everything he has into the chariot sequence and never once providing any reason for it to have been remade in the first place. It could be some way for MGM to hold onto the rights, but even that isn’t true considering it’s already been remade before — albeit on the small screen.

Beginning in 33 AD, Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is gearing up for the big showdown against adopted brother Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell). Then we cut back to eight years earlier as we find the two literally horsing around, racing each other across the plains. After Judah gets thrown from his horse, Messala carries him back home on his back.

As thankful as Judah may be, he can’t wrap his head around why Messala desires to see the world as badly as he does. So much so, that he’s willing to throw away the love his life, Judah’s sister Tirzah (Sofia Black-D’Elia), but Messala is off to fight in Rome where he works his way up the ranks under Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbæk).

Now, he’s returned home to ask Judah for help, but not before an attempt on Pilate’s life gets him cast out as a slave, where he survives a shipwreck and owes his life to Ilderim (Morgan Freeman) who uses him to shake up the Roman Empire in a wager Pilate just can’t refuse. It all leads up to the famous chariot race with brother pitted against brother in a literal race for their lives.

To give Bekmambetov credit, there are a couple of dazzling sequences. OK, two: the big chariot race and the sinking of the slave boat. These are the kind of action extravaganzas ripe for 3D and they mostly succeed. It’s just too bad the scenes are short lived, which is odd to say considering the race runs a good 15 minutes. But the best thing the film has going for it is the two-hour runtime. Some may think it feels like an eternity with it never reaching to be more than a huge budget TV movie, but keep in mind the Charlton Heston Oscar-winning classic runs a whopping 212 minutes! 

Considering all the Christian-themed movies making their way into theaters as of late, it’s kind of surprising he doesn’t play a bigger factor here. It could be that Paramount Pictures didn’t want to ostracize moviegoers and short shrifted his screentime. I may not be a religious man, but Rodrigo Santoro makes a pretty decent Jesus figure, while Huston and Kebbell don’t have the acting chops required to bear the load of the film on their shoulders.

There are some dopey moments and horrible dialogue scattered throughout Keith R. Clarke and John Ridley’s screenplay, but Bekmambetov at least tries to get the most out of his exotic scenery and seems to have saved his budget for the two big set pieces. Sadly, the chariot race is the only reason to sit through this buffed up edition of Ben-Hur, with the two leads never making anyone care for either brother. Huston fares better than Kebbell, but neither are worth sitting through the 90 minutes it takes to get to the good parts. Considering you can watch Heston’s astonishing chariot race on YouTube in full HD, it just makes even less sense to waste your time or money on this one.

The good news is it’s nowhere near the trainwreck it could have been. The bad news is, it lacks any reason to exist considering the original is still such an adored classic.

Movie Review: “Kubo and the Two Strings”

Kubo and the Two Strings

*** out of 5
101 minutes
Rated PG for thematic elements, scary images, action and peril
Focus Features

Article first published at

The one animated film I had the highest hopes for this year was Laika’s Kubo and the Two Strings. Backed by a studio that just seemed to get better with each film — Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls — and the fact that it was seeped in Asian folklore, I was sure it would blow me away. Unfortunately, the film is surrounded by tremendous hype, and I hate to be the killjoy, but Kubo is not the best animated film of the year.

Sure, it may be full of gorgeous animation and is an exquisite visual feast, but Marc Haimes and Chris Butler’s screenplay — paired with Travis Knight’s direction — never provides anything more than what I’ve already seen countless times after watching years of martial arts movies. I thought Laika would be able to dethrone Disney this year; this could be the one. Unfortunately, Zootopia still stands as the year’s best animated feature so far. Even if not for a lack of trying.

The convoluted storyline begins with our young hero Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) telling a story about himself and his mother. Washed ashore after what appears to be an exhausting battle, we learn that they have made an escape from a treacherous family, with Kubo’s grandfather going so far as to steal his left eye. After years of caring for his invalid mother, Kubo earns what little money they have by telling magic origami tales at the local village.

It’s not too long before his evil Aunts (voiced by Rooney Mara) come calling and burn the village to the ground. Kubo’s mother uses the last of her magic to save Kubo, and brings to life his talisman Monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron). Together, the two must face Kubo’s destiny to defeat the evil Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), with the help of the slapsticky warrior Beetle (voiced by Matthew McConaughey).

It really does sadden me that the film never manages to live up to the sum of its parts. The most annoying aspect may be how serious the film takes itself. There’s barely any kind of pulse or sense of humor running through its veins, making it a bit of a chore to sit through. Laika is no stranger to releasing visually stunning films, and Kubo still is, you just never care for anyone’s plight, no matter how deadly the circumstances.

Knight has worked on all the previous Laika productions so he knows how to make the stop-motion look as good as humanly possible, but Haimes and Butler don’t really give him a whole lot to work with. Considering Butler singlehandedly wrote ParaNorman, he was probably brought in to try to spitshine a final draft. Anyone who’s ever watched a family film — or any kind of martial arts film — will quickly catch on to the heavy foreshadowing, leaving no surprises of any kind.

It also feels like a martial arts film with barely any action in it. It’s almost like a Lord of the Rings for families. Not that it’s a completely bad thing, there’s just not enough heart, and nowhere near enough entertainment, to save the film from drowning in its visual splendor. We need more to keep our interest. All we’re left here is a film more along the lines of Coraline, where the studio seems far too eager to try and be the coolest looking movie of the year, while leaving the story bits sprinkled along out of necessity.

With awards season on the horizon, I’ll definitely be giving it another shot. I really wanted to like Kubo and the Two Strings, it just never gave me any real reason to. Spectacular animation does not a masterpiece make.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Movie Review: “Pete’s Dragon”

Pete's Dragon

**** out of 5
102 minutes
Rated PG for action, peril and brief language
Walt Disney Studios

Article first published at

There’s going to come a point when we won’t know which version of a Disney classic one is referring to by title alone. With the Mouse House intent on bringing just about every animated property to life, Pete’s Dragon actually stands out a little against the crowd. After The Jungle Book, Cinderella, Maleficent, and two Alice features, it’s surprising they’ve moved onto their live action features. However, anyone who may have a soft spot for the 1977 original probably hasn’t watched it recently. The weekend before seeing it, my wife and I tried to revisit it, and could barely make it through the first hour. Barely holding up, I have no issue with Disney giving this one a redux. Filled with far more likeable characters and no obnoxious musical numbers, director/co-writer David Lowery throws Pete and Elliot back into action. Even if there’s not as much of it as the trailers make it seem.

In this updated story, young Pete (Levi Alexander) is traveling with his parents when his dad swerves to miss a deer and they wind up in a car wreck. Poor Pete’s parents are both killed and after being chased by wolves, is saved by his new dragon friend Elliot. Cutting to six years later, forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) is butting heads with her lumberjack fiancé Jack’s (Wes Bentley) brother Gavin (Karl Urban). Stumbling across the orphaned Pete, she eventually brings him back to town where he quickly makes friends with Jack’s daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence) who believes his story about a dragon living in the nearby woods. The only other person who believes Pete is Grace’s father Meacham (Robert Redford) who likes to scare the local children with tall tales of his own encounter with Elliot. Now, they all set out into the woods to discover the truth behind the stories.

A colleague who had seen the film on the press junket said the only thing this movie has in common with the original is that there’s a boy named Pete and a dragon named Elliot. And while he couldn’t be more right, it’s a very good thing. Considering how many people balk when remakes tread too close to the original, it’s refreshing to get one that veers so drastically from the source. The best part is not having to sit through any of the now-dated musical numbers. And, we get characters we like way more than the overacting of the original. Not to slight Helen Reddy or Mickey Rooney, but it’s nice to see this Pete’s Dragon far more grounded — even if it’s still about a boy and his dragon. Howard is warmer here than she was in last summer’s Jurassic World, but at least you never see her running through the woods in high heels. And it is odd to see Urban playing the pseudo-villain of a movie.

As good as the last half hour of the film gets, it’s too bad there isn’t something more fun or interesting during the first hour. It’s very disheartening when the film cuts from Pete meeting Elliot to six years later. That timespan would have been way more entertaining than what we get. Misadventures should have been the name of the game here, but all we get is a fish out of water story. Had Lowery focused more of his attention on the “Misadventures of Pete & Elliot” it could have been a total blast. I can’t help but think that Lowery, and co-writer Toby Halbrooks, were hindered with a smaller budget than expected and had to make due. With the first order of business being chop out a giant effects-filled good time. It may be a shame, but at least there is still some fun to be had. You just get stuck waiting around for it. The good news is that at least the youngins won’t mind. The two I brought with me loved every minute of it, and if that’s not a ringing endorsement, I don’t know what is.

Movie Review: “Florence Foster Jenkins”

Florence Foster Jenkins

*** out of 5
110 minutes
Paramount Pictures

Article first published at

Biopics may be the hardest reviews to write — trying to find a balance between catering to those familiar with the subject and enlightening those who aren’t. When it stars Meryl Streep, there’s no doubt the film will find an audience. Let’s face it, when is she ever not good? Unfortunately, it feels like lately she’s been pandering to her fans by providing her typical stellar performances in some rather lackluster films — Suffragette, Ricki and the Flash, Into the Woods, August: Osage County, and The Iron Lady. Even if it’s unintentional, they all seem like Oscar bait and even as the titular Florence Foster Jenkins, it’s all just more of the same.

What makes it sad this time is that it comes from director Stephen Frears who knows how to make damn good cinema: Philomena, The Queen, Mrs Henderson Presents, Dirty Pretty Things, High Fidelity, The Grifters, and Dangerous Liaisons. With the help of the supporting cast — Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg — they manage to make Florence Foster Jenkins better than the snoozefest it could have been. Even if the final product still feels more like a mere blip on all of their resumes.

It’s 1944 in New York City, and Jenkins is living the high life alongside her thespian husband St Clair Bayfield (Grant). They both do everything they can to help the arts — especially music — performing at The Verdi Club because Florence believes that music matters, especially during times of war. While never letting her 50 years of dealing with syphilis keep her down, she comes up with the idea to perform an opera — what she doesn’t know is that she can’t sing to save her life. Pianist Cosme McMoon (Helberg) is brought in to accompany her as she prepares for the performance of a lifetime, while Bayfield does everything he can to keep the New York Post’s Earl Wilson (Christian McKay) from revealing how terrible she actually is.

If Florence Foster Jenkins could have used a little more of anything, it would be a heartbeat. Not to say that we never care for poor unwitting Florence, but the film just moves along without much of a skip in its step — something a movie about music needs. The cast all perform as expected, with Helberg being the standout mainly because he’s so much more likeable here than in any single episode of The Big Bang Theory. He really can play characters besides Howard Wolowitz and he nearly steals the movie right out from under Streep. How’s that for an accomplishment.

Grant is dapper as always, although his subplot of having a girlfriend on the side — played by an underused Rebecca Ferguson — makes it hard to care for how much he does seem to love Florence, while doing everything he can to protect her from harsh realities. But the film is way too slow to be as entertaining as it should be, and it’s never as funny as expected. It’s all just lots of reaction shots as the next person bears their way through her offkey performance. Streep fans will have a great time watching her bring yet another real  character to life, and those who know the story will get a kick out of it unfolding up on the big screen.

For everyone else, we’re all stuck waiting for the film to limp its way to end credits where all we can do is shrug and say, “At least Streep was good.” But she deserves better than this and here’s hoping that she can find a stronger output for all the years she clearly has left in her.

Movie Review: “Sausage Party”

Sausage Party

**** 1/2
89 minutes
Rated R for strong crude sexual content, pervasive language, and drug use
Sony Pictures

Article first published at

It’s an amazing feat when a movie has the ability to offend just about everyone these days. Considering Trey Parker and Matt Stone have yet to run out of juice on their still-popular South Park, leave it Seth Rogen and his friends to up the ante on the big screen. They hold nothing back and skewer everyone and everything in their path. It is with the utmost regard to say that Sausage Party is the grossest, funniest, outright comedy of the year. While not every joke may stick its landing, everything and the kitchen sink works masterfully in the first true mainstream adult animated motion picture.

At the grocery store Shopwell, Frank (a hot dog voiced by Rogen) lives amongst his fellow groceries where they all dream of being purchased by the “Gods” (aka humans) and taken to “The Great Beyond.” Little do they know, that their higher plane of existence is to be brought home and massacred for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. After Honey Mustard (voiced by Danny McBride) is returned to the store, he’s seen too much, and his life is threatened by the alcoholic Firewater (voiced by Bill Hader). Honey Mustard commits suicide to save himself after getting picked off the shelf again, but not before Frank — and his one love Brenda (a hot dog bun voiced by Kristen Wiig) — have more to worry about than playing “just the tip.” The truth is uncovered, and now, the foods must save themselves from their demise in a winner takes all battle.

As hilarious as the movie is, so are the credentials of its makers. Co-director Greg Tiernan is making his first foray into adult filmmaking after years of working on Thomas & Friends. Second in command — Conrad Vernon — also knows a thing or two about making hilarious animated features having co-directed both Shrek 2 and Monsters vs. Aliens — he gets a pass on Madagascar 3 after Sausage Party. And to top it all off, Alan Menken was brought in to score — along with Christopher Lennertz. Why is this such an amazing feat? Well, he is the man behind the music of such classics as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Hercules, and Tangled. Not that adult themes are anything new for him, he did work on the now-canceled ABC musical-comedy Galavant and Little Shop of Horrors. Is there anyone else more qualified to score a film about anthropomorphized food?

Rogen has brought along his usual cohorts — Evan Goldberg, Ariel Shaffir, and Kyle Hunter — to help come up with one of the most brutally hilarious screenplays of the year. It’s scathing, yet thoughtful. Leaving no stone unturned, they bounce around with themes from religion and race to food having feelings and even get extremely meta in the last act. Sausage Party could also be considered sacrilegious.  Make no mistake, this is not for the easily offended. If Deadpool hadn’t already come out, this would hands down be the most hilariously filthy film of the year. But when both films are so funny, there’s room at the top for two. Especially when they’re in such drastically different genres.

Parents, believe the R-rating. You do not want your kids watching this. Sausage Party revels in being the anti-Pixar and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. While we adults may love Pixar as much as anyone, it’s nice to have an animated feature aimed squarely at us. Filled with way too many lines to remember a favorite, not to mention just as many sight gags and movie references to make your head spin, the film has an audience — it’s everyone who may have ever wondered what a film would look like if Rogen was given true free reign to do whatever the hell he wants.

Leaving the film open for a possible sequel just makes me wonder what else he could possibly have up their sleeves that didn’t make it into this. It’s hard to believe there could be an even more outrageous second helping. If this was a warm up, Movie Gods help us all! As it stands, Sausage Party is solely for those with the taste for it and for those who do, will not leave saying, “Please sir, I want some more.” If anything, it just leaves us dying for dessert. Hopefully the box office returns grant us our wish.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Movie Review: “Suicide Squad”

Suicide Squad

** 1/2 out of 5
123 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action throughout, disturbing behavior, suggestive content and language
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published at

Has there been a more divisive film released recently than Batman v Superman? It’s really hard to think of one, except maybe Ghostbusters, and now Suicide Squad. While BvS may be divisive, it’s actually way harder to find someone who admittedly likes it — and can explain why — than it is to find someone who saw through every fault. Admittedly, it was a pretty damn good Batman movie, there’s no denying it failed miserably at being a Superman movie. Director Zack Snyder delivered a two-and-a-half hour muddled mess when it could have been a really good three-hour, R-rated home run.

Warner Bros. be damned, whoever is spearheading their DC Comics Extended Universe better get Marvel Studios’ Kevin Feige on the line ASAP, because not even David Ayer can save their interconnected films from being anything more than dour dreck. It’s no coincidence that all of this happened after Christopher Nolan left the DC sandbox. Even as dark as his Dark Knight movies were, they still managed to be, above all, fun. Alas, it pains me to say it — after months of well-executed trailers and hype — Suicide Squad is every bit of a misfire as BvS.

In the aftermath of Superman’s death, government official Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has come up with a plan to use supervillains to fight their battles seeing how the superheroes only wind up leaving collateral damage in their wake. She talks Admiral Olsen (Ted Whittal) and Dexter Tolliver (David Harbour) to let her turn loose an “Anti-Avengers” (if you will) squad of goons upon Midway City — including Deadshot (Will Smith), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Boomerang (Jai Courtney), El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), and Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) — lead by Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and his lover, poor June Moone (Cara Delevinge), who’s body is inhabited by the evil spirit of Enchantress. Little do they know, Enchantress is using June to unleash hell, after bringing her brother Incubus (Alain Chanoine) back to life to destroy all humans.

And that, dear readers, is about all the plot you get. Oh, the much publicized Joker (Jared Leto) is also running around, hoping to help Harley escape so he can have his beloved minx back. But the saddest part about Ayer’s supposed plot, is that everything even remotely good has been completely spoiled in the trailers. Speaking of which, it starts boring as we have to sit through almost every character’s backstory, set to some random golden oldie, while we have to basically sit through all of the film’s trailers. And that’s just the beginning.

The biggest issue with the film is its mistreatment of its two best characters: Harley Quinn and The Joker. First, Harley is obviously portrayed on screen by Robbie for mere sex appeal alone. Don’t tell me there won’t be a million cosplays of her scantily clad character this Halloween — for better and worse. I may not follow the comics, but I would hope that there’s more depth to the character than simply walking around half naked with a baseball bat while spouting groan-inducing one liners. If that’s all she is, why does anyone like her? Let alone women. Hopefully the next movie gives her the depth she deserves.

As for The Joker, if only he were in more of the movie. We’ve heard horror stories about Leto’s behind the scenes shenanigans as he dove into the ultimate case of method acting, but he’s barely even in the movie. It’s such a shame too. Spoiler alert: I hope the next Batman outing gives us Harley Quinn and Joker as villains to Ben Affleck’s Batman. Now there’s a trio that would be a total blast to watch on screen.

As for Suicide Squad as a whole, Ayer’s screenplay is a disaster. Possibly due to John Gilroy and Michael Tronick’s atrocious editing where you can tell there are clearly missing pieces to the puzzle. I doubt any of it could possibly make the film as different as I’ve heard the R-rated Ultimate Cut of BvS is in its complete form. One of the other main reasons the film doesn’t work is that you never once, for even a second, care for any of the characters or their possible denouements. If we do, it’s only Harley Quinn, Joker, and Deadshot. And the only reason is because we like the actors so much. The rest of the cast literally just stands around, waiting for the time the screenplay finally decides it needs one of them to do something. They just follow the rest of the squad around, making forgettable zingers that do nothing to further the plot.

I know I could easily continue ranting, but the bottom line is that Suicide Squad’s whole never adds up to the sum of its parts. Harley Quinn fans may be eager to see their favorite antihero up on the big screen, but even she deserves better than this — and so do the rest of us.