Friday, December 26, 2014

Movie Review: ‘Top Five’

*** 1/2 out of 5
102 minutes
Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, crude humor, language throughout and some drug use
Paramount Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: Chris Rock’s ‘Top Five’ with Rosario Dawson, Kevin Hart, and Tracy Morgan on Blogcritics.

Back in his heyday, Chris Rock was one of the funniest comedians around. While he’s still hilarious, he’s stayed out of the spotlight recently — except for his new movie, Top Five, hitting theaters this weekend. And he’s hosted Saturday Night Live and making the talk show rounds. While this isn’t his first foray into filmmaking as writer/director, this is definitely his best. He’s been fantastic in other people’s movies — especially Kevin Smith’s Dogma — but I Think I Love My Wife and Head of State were nowhere near the complete package seen in Top Five. For anyone who’s been missing the funny-man at his best, Top Five sees him reaching for his yesteryears to find validity in the now.

Top Five, Chris Rock, Gabrielle Union, Rosario Dawson, Tracy Morgan, Jerry Seinfeld, Adam SandlerAndre Allen (Rock) is a stand-up comedian who found Hollywood success with a string of Hammy films, playing a bear on a police force. Now, he’s engaged to Bravo reality TV star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union), while trying to be taken seriously with his new film. He’s stuck between a rock and a hard place because his fans just want to see him star in Hammy 4, and critics aren’t impressed with him playing a Haitian revolutionist in Uprize. Meanwhile, New York Times journalist Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) has been assigned to interview Andre, following him around the streets of New York, where she’s hoping to score an intimate interview with a man battling his own demons — while having a light lit on her own.

Surrounding himself with a cast of new and well-known comedians — everyone from Whoopi Goldberg, Adam Sandler, Jerry Seinfeld, and Tracy Morgan to Jay Pharaoh, Leslie Jones, Kevin Hart, J.B. Smoove, and Michael Che — sometimes it feels like a greatest hits collection. But don’t worry, Rock never gets lost in the sea of cameos, and this is Andre Allen’s story first. Rock also makes time for the possibility of finding love in the most unexpected place possible for a celebrity, all while poking fun at what they endure between fans and paparazzi.

Rock may still have not worked out all the kinks in his storytelling ability, but he definitely brings the funny and even provides a welcome sweetness to Top Five. It’s a worthy project for Rock, putting him front and center in a story that lets him be as hilarious as we remember. This is better than just another celebrity vanity project. Top Five may not be the funniest comedy of the year, but Rock has made one of the more surprisingly entertaining ones and the art-imitating-life scenario keeps the jokes flying fast and furious, including a rant about the use of the “N-word” to a Planet of the Apes/Martin Luther King, Jr. conspiracy that are worth admission alone.

Photo courtesy Paramount Pictures

Movie Review: ‘Annie’ (2014)

**** out of 5
118 minutes
Rated PG for some mild language and rude humor
Columbia Pictures

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

Believe it or not, co-writer/director Will Gluck’s new Annie is actually the third film version of the Thomas Meehan musical based on Harold Gray’s original comic strip. We all know John Huston’s 1982 version, but before the 2014 film came a Disney TV Movie in 1999 directed by Chicago-helmer Rob Marshall. What’s really interesting, is that Marshall also has a big screen musical coming out this holiday season for Disney as he trots Into the Woods. Unfortunately, there’s only one you should see, and even more surprising, it’s Annie. For anyone worried about the lyrical changes or casting choices, this is still the Annie we all know and love, through and through.

Will Gluck, Annie, Annie 2014, Quvenzhané Wallis, Jamie Foxx, Cameron Diaz, Rose ByrneIn this charmingly updated version, Quvenzhané Wallis is our “don’t call her little orphan” Annie, living as a foster child in the hard knock grips of the alcoholic Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz). Annie spends her afternoons sitting outside an Italian restaurant on Friday nights, hoping to catch sight of her parents who left here there as a baby with a note that someday they will come back for her. Knowing that the sun will come out tomorrow, Annie lives life to the fullest, but gets the opportunity of a lifetime when billionaire cellphone-mogul Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx) takes her in after a video of him saving her from being run over goes viral and his assistants Guy (Bobby Cannavale) and Grace (Rose Byrne) advise him to use this to get a head in his race for New York City mayor.

For anyone worried about their beloved Annie in the hands of the raunchy Gluck escaping unscathed, have no fear. The songs are everything you remember and there’s even some great choreography with the film moving at a rapid pace to the finish line. The most surprising aspect of this charming update, is that Gluck — and co-writer Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada) — make changes that work in the film’s  favor. Extraneous characters have been cut and some new songs fill the gap in the third act, with Wallis delivering the huge showstopper “Opportunity” at a gala.

But the best part is how hilarious the film is. With tons of cameos — the best being Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher in a film-within-the-film — the film has humor and charm to spare. Especially with little Wallis as our new Annie. Wallis is totally adorable and the rest of the cast do their best to keep up with her. Especially Foxx, who seems to be making good on his In Living Color roots by showing he can still land a punchline and spit take. The Stacks/Grace romance feels more tacked on that it should, but Foxx and Byrne make it work. Even Diaz isn’t irritating, especially involving Miss Hannigan’s hilarious new backstory.

Annie is one of three big screen musicals to hit theaters this year, and it’s undoubtedly the best. You’ll leave with a big fat grin on your face and the songs stuck in your head for days. Or years, considering we already know most of the songs. But even the new additions — while being strictly modern — never feel out of place. Annie is the most fun you can have with the whole family this holiday season.

Photos courtesy Columbia Pictures

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Movie Review: ‘The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies’

**** 1/2 out of 5
144 minutes 
Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: ‘The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies’ on Blogcritics.

It all comes down to this: one film to close them all. Peter Jackson’s sixth and final piece of the J.R.R. Tolkien cinematic puzzle in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. After being involved with this production for more than 13 years, Jackson can finally put to bed what some will surely proclaim to be his crowning achievement. Not to disrespect any of the rest of his films — King Kong and The Frighteners are still two of my favorites, and we can’t forget the fact that he cut his filmmaking teeth on hilarious splatter films (Bad Taste, Dead Alive) — but considering how much time Jackson has put into these films, it is quite the accomplishment for any director. So, how does Battle fit in and does it find time to end one trilogy while simultaneously setting up another? In one word: incredibly.

The Hobbit, The Battle of the Five Armies, Peter Jackson, Ian McKellan, Martin Freeman,

The Battle of the Five Armies opens with Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) on the loose after being awakened in The Desolation of Smaug and he’s terrorizing the fishy little Laketown. Dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) is still recovering with the aide of Fili (Dean O’Gorman) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), while the rest of the town flees for their safety. It’s all up to the honorous Bard (Luke Evans) to stop Smaug and save the folken. Meanwhile, Bilbo (Martin Freeman) is dealing with Thorin’s (Richard Armitage) case of dragon sickness and will stop at nothing short of killing his friends to find the Lonely Mountain’s Arkenstone. Outside, the titular armies are rallied by the Orcs — lead by Azog (Manu Bennett) — along with the Dwarves, goblins, elves, and Men of Dale, to make an attack on Erebor and everyone will make a final stand.

Jackson directs The Battle of the Five Armies with everything he’s got. While many found An Unexpected Journey to be meandering and aimless, others found The Desolation of Smaug to wander so far off the Tolkien-path but couldn’t deny the amount of fun they had. With Battle, Jackson finally cuts to the chase and delivers the best of the trilogy in a rip-roaring finale the prequel films deserve. The cast are as good as they have been for the entire series, with heartbreaking moments that shall not be disclosed here. My main complaint of the whole film is that Smaug winds up being not much more than a cameo, there’s only so much fire-breathing destruction you can handle in one film. We came here for the big battle, and that’s what we get!

The Hobbit, The Battle of the Five Armies, Peter Jackson, Ian McKellan, Martin Freeman,

While the film wasn’t shown at 48fps, I can’t help but think of how much better it might look. When downconverted to the traditional 24fps, there are moments of judder that take you out of the suspension of disbelief faster than the super glossy High Frame Rate ever could. I’m also tired of the low-contrast look afforded to the standard frame rate 3D. The film is very grey, and not a lot of fun to look at. Surprisingly, this is the shortest of all of the films, including the Lord of the Rings features. Instead of tacking on a million endings à la Return of the King, Jackson (along with co-writers Fran Walsh, Philipa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro) mixes things up with plenty of big moments built into the battle to keep the film from feeling drawn out. However, I’ll still be waiting with baited breath for the eventual extended edition to see what was cut.

Make no mistake, nothing stops The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies from becoming what Jackson intends it to be: a grand finale to one of the greatest film franchises in film history.

Photos courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Movie Review: ‘Penguins of Madagascar’ on Big Movie Mouth-Off

Movie Review: ‘Dumb and Dumber To’ on Big Movie Mouth-Off

Movie Review: ‘Ouija’ on Big Movie Mouth-Off

Movie Review: ‘Annabelle’ on Big Movie Mouth-Off

Movie Review: ‘The Boxtrolls’ on Big Movie Mouth-Off

Movie Review: ‘A Walk Among the Tombstones’ on Big Movie Mouth-Off

Movie Review: ‘This Is Where I Leave You’ on Big Movie Mouth-Off

Movie Review: ‘Tusk’ on Big Movie Mouth-Off

Movie Review: ‘How to Train Your Dragon 2’ on Big Movie Mouth-Off

Movie Review: ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’

**** out of 5
150 minutes
Rated PG-13 for violence including battle sequences and intense images
20th Century Fox

Article first published as Movie Review: Ridley Scott’s ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’ with Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton’ on Blogcritics.

If there was ever a director to humanize a Bible story, it would be an agnostic — so ready or not, here comes Ridley Scott’s take on Moses in Exodus: Gods and Kings. I’m not much for religion myself either, so I was very interested to see how Scott would present the story of the famed Egyptian and his mission to free his people. Delivering on a grand scale, Scott has teamed up with four writers to give a far more realistic depiction of ancient times and question whether Moses was in fact, following orders from God, or simply suffering a concussion. Does he give any kind of answer? Thankfully, he leaves a few things up to the viewer.

Exodus, Exodus: Gods and Kings, Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, Ridley Scott, John Turturro, Aaron Paul, Ben Kingsley, María ValverdeIn 1300 BC, Memphis, Egypt, Moses (Christian Bale) and Ramses (Joel Edgerton) love each other as brothers. Taken in as a baby by Seti (John Torturro), and now grown, Moses and Ramses fight side-by-side, and are even given each other’s swords as gifts after a prophecy proclaims that one will save the other during battle and become a great leader. During a trip to Pithom, while meeting with Viceroy Hegep (Ben Mendelsohn), a slave named Joshua (Aaron Paul) leads Moses to speak with Nun (Ben Kingsley), who informs him he is Hebrew, sent by his sister Miriam (Tara Fitzgerald) down the river, to be raised by the Pharaohs. Disbelieving Nun’s story, he returns to Memphis to find Seti on his deathbed.

After Seti passes, Hegep shows up to inform Ramses about Moses’s true lineage and Queen Tuya (Sigourney Weaver) has him ostracized. While traveling through the desert, Moses winds up in Midian, where he takes a wife in Zipporah (Maria Valverde). Nine years later, Moses is rounding up some sheep on God’s Mountain and hits his head during a landslide. Here, he has a vision, of a burning bush and a messenger of God in the form of a boy named Malak (Isaac Andrews). Now, Moses must step up to save his Hebrew people, teaching them the art of war to attack the Egyptians prompting Malak to unleash the 10 plagues before the final mass exodus leads them all to the Red Sea for one final showdown.

Religion aside, Exodus: Gods and Kings works wonders as grand scale entertainment. Filled with spectacular effects and wincing brutality, it’s a wonder the film skirts by with a PG-13 rating. From a vicious crocodile attack turning the water into blood to swarming locusts to the death of every firstborn, Scott and his writers quartet of writers (Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine, and Oscar-winner  Steve Zaillian) never hold back from the atrocities. Let alone that we’re pitted right in the middle of the chaos in a stunning use of 3D. Scott is definitely one the better users of the format, letting the third dimension immerse you in an ancient land, not just as a gimmick having objects leap from the screen.

The cast helped lend a definite air of realism, with Bale showing he’s still much more than The Dark Knight. He never lets his performance wander too far into crazy, providing sympathy for a man who really just wants to set his enslaved people free from tyranny. As the arrested development-challenged Ramses, Edgerton makes the man-child more likeable than you’d think without turning him into an outright villain. As for the supporting cast, the young Andrews and Kingsley fare the best, with Paul proving he was cast for having a fantastic set of crazy eyes, but poor Weaver is completely wasted and featured in only a handful of scenes. Let alone that she never once sports any kind of accent whatsoever.

For anyone looking for a more thoughtful and grounded presentation of Biblical lore, Exodus: Gods and Kings is the perfect kind of film that never turns into Bible-thumping, nor strays into any kind of sacrilege — it strikes the perfect balance. And in a year finding fewer than normal outstanding films, Exodus may not be one of the year’s best, but it’s definitely one of the year’s better.

Photos courtesy 20th Century Fox

DVD Review: ‘Phobia’ (2013)

Movie: ** 1/2 out of 5
Extras: ***

Article first published as DVD Review: ‘Phobia’ (2013) - Directed by Rory Abel’ on Blogcritics.

As if being stuck in a haunted house wasn’t bad enough, imagine if you literally couldn’t leave. In co-writer/director Rory Douglas Abel’s low-budget Phobia, our main character suffers from agoraphobia, which makes dealing with the ghostly shenanigans impossible to escape. On top of that, he may have a case of schizophrenia from grieving over his recently-deceased wife. Talk about a claustrophobic setting if there ever was one.

Is Abel up to the task of keeping our interest piqued for 84 minutes? Most of it. Unfortunately, the cast is a wishy-washy blend of amateurs that eventually breaks the suspension of disbelief and the tension. For those interested, Phobia is now available on DVD from Image Entertainment.

Phobia, Rory AbelJonathan (Michael Jefferson) is so distraught over his wife’s death, he can’t leave his apartment. His therapist, Dr. Edmondson (Peter Gregus), makes house calls to help Jonathan deal with his agoraphobia and grief. His friend Taylor (Andrew Ruth) brings him a weekly load of groceries and DVDs to help him alleviate the boredom of only being able to work from home as a stenographer.

To make matters worse, Jonathan starts having visions of a spooky dead woman (Sandra Palmeri, credited as “The Shade”) and his dead wife. Things start to go from bad to worse when Taylor goes on a trip and leaves him in the hands of Bree (Emma Dubery), who eventually warms him up to drinking and smoking pot. Let’s just say, things do not get better for poor Jonathan, and his visions become stronger and possibly more deadly.

Abel doesn’t really bring anything new to the genre with Phobia, aside from at least a new reason for someone to be stuck in a haunted house. Along with co-writer Matthew Barnes, they simply take the agoraphobia and put it through the motions of every haunted house movie we’ve seen before.

The cast is a mixed bag; few of the actors seem to be trying as hard as they should. Thankfully, Jefferson at least makes Jonathan a sympathetic character, even if the final twist makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. The DVD’s special features include a “Commentary with Producer Elias Ganster and Director Rory Abel,” which has way more energy than their film does. Also included are “Deleted Scenes” (1:21) and a “Concept Art” gallery.

If this had been released back in the glory days of VHS, the cover art alone would make me want to rent the film, but in the days of streaming and digital downloads, there’s nothing scary enough about Phobia to warrant even a rental.

Blu-ray Review: ‘The Death Kiss’ (1932)

Movie: **** out of 5
Video: ** 1/2
Audio: **
Extras: **

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: ‘The Death Kiss’ (1932) with Bela Lugosi, David Manners, and Edward Van Sloan’ on Blogcritics.

It’s nothing new these days for studios to cash in on the success of another film. It even dates back to the early days of film. There was a reason studios made actors, directors, writers, etc., sign multi-picture deals. After Universal Pictures’ successful Dracula adaptation, Tiffany Pictures decided they would cast the trio of Bela Lugosi (Dracula himself), David Manners (John Harker), and Edward Van Sloan (Van Helsing) in something completely different. Instead of capitalizing on the creature feature angle, the three are dropped in the middle of a fantastic little murder mystery in The Death Kiss.

The Death Kiss, Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Edward Van Sloan, Edwin L. MarinWhile filming a pivotal scene in the film-within-the-film The Death Kiss, star Myles Brent (Edmund Burns) is gunned down by a car of thugs, only to be shot with a real bullet. While no one on set is surprised that someone would want to kill Myles, everyone becomes a suspect and studio manager Joseph Steiner (Lugosi) is put in charge to help Detective Lieutenant Sheehan (John Wray) investigate. What looks like an accident at first becomes a clear case of murder after screenwriter Franklyn Drew (Manners) digs a bullet out of the set wall. Now, Sheehan must find the killer, with Drew leading the way with clues, in hopes of coming up with a new script. 

The Death Kiss comes out of the public domain courtesy Kino Classics touting a 35mm archival restoration and slapped with the Library of Congress label to boot. Fitting nicely on a 25GB disc and framed in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, when The Death Kiss looks good, it shines. Unfortunately, the audio and video come burdened with all the trappings of the usual anomalies consistent with public domain titles. Filled with scratches, hairs, dirt, fluctuating contrast, and missing frames, thankfully, not all is woe. At least it wasn’t run through the old DNR machine to try to scrub the image clean; otherwise, it may have felt like you were watching the whole film through cellophane.

Random color tinting pops up in some key scenes involving fire and flashlights, but considering the film doesn’t really deserve a frame-by-frame restoration, this looks really good all things considered. As for the audio, things don’t fare any better. Filled with all kinds of dropouts, fluctuations, and the standard hisses and pops, the 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio sounds about how you’d expect in a film that’s over 80 years old. This is definitely a track you’re gonna have to crank up the volume to hear. As for the special features, a “Commentary by Richard Harlan Smith” is all we get, but at least he’s an expert on every aspect of the film. There’s also a trailer for Bela Lugosi’s White Zombie.

The Death Kiss is far from a forgotten masterpiece, but there’s something refreshing when you watch older films. Filled with some fun dialogue and a really funny “twist” at the end, director Edwin L. Marin at least shines a light on the behind-the-scenes functionality of a working studio. Featuring video and audio quality that’s as good as you can expect, The Death Kiss is worth a look for anyone interested in seeing what it means when someone says “They don’t make ‘em like they used to.”

Blu-ray Review: ‘Housebound’

Movie: **** out of 5
Video: **** 1/2
Audio: ****
Extras: *** 1/2

Article first published as Blu-ray 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 available on Blu-ray exclusively on from XLrator Media) finds just the right balance across the board.

Housebound, Gerard Johnstone, Morgana O'Reilly, Rima Te Wiata, Glen-Paul Waru, SXSW, South by Southwest Film FestivalKylie 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.

If there’s one thing holding back XLrator’s transfer, it’s their continuing use of 25GB discs. If their films had more space to breathe, they’d have some technically flawless transfers on their hands. As it stands, Housebound winds up with the single anomaly of banding creeping in and in the oddest place you’d imagine: a bathroom ceiling. Thankfully, blacks are inky when necessary but leave plenty of shadow delineation with no crush whatsoever. Skin tones on the yellow side, but seems to be a post-production color correction because whenever blood finally spurts – or police car lights flash – they really pop, and never, well, bleed. And detail is excellent throughout, helping add extra creepiness to the house.

As for the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, dialogue may be a little on the muddled side, but it’s never overwhelmed by music or sound effects. Something that comes in handy as there are plenty of verbal gags to along with the atmospherics. Directionality is precise with each creak and groan right where it would be as if you were the characters onscreen. Bass also makes for some fun jump moments and English subtitles are available.

The special features may be on the slim side, but do add plenty of behind the scenes and lots of spoilers. The “Commentary By the Filmmakers” consists of director Johnstone, producer Luke Sharpe, and executive producer Ant Timson. Offering up a rowdy and rambunctious affair, they offer lots of tidbits about the whole process. A collection of “Deleted Scenes” (3:59) include on-screen explanations as to their being cut and include  “2nd Dinner Table Scene,” “Peanut Butter,” and “Stairwell Argument.”

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.

Picture courtesy XLrator Media

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Movie Review: ‘Dumb and Dumber To’

*** 1/2 out of 5
110 minutes
Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual humor, partial nudity, language and some drug references
Universal Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: ‘Dumb and Dumber To’ on Blogcritics.

Back in their heyday, the Farrelly brothers,Peter and Bobby, were household names when it came to raunchy comedy. Filling their movies with down-on-their-luck characters surrounded by wacky weirdos, they were on a huge winning streak. From their smash debut Dumb & Dumber to the cult favorite Kingpin to their biggest hit, There’s Something About Mary, the trio of hits were inarguable successes. Even Shallow Hal and Stuck on You have a sweetness to make the sick jokes go down easy.

Dumb and Dumber To, Jim Carrey, Jeff Daniels, Kathleen Turner, Rob RiggleConsidering they made a second Jim Carrey vehicle was no surprise and Me, Myself & Irene showed their relationship with the plastic-faced funnyman worked. However, not everyone can keep pumping out the hits. Eventually came the underrated Fever Pitch, but then all they had in them were  a remake of The Heartbreak Kid, Hall Pass, and their worst film to date: The Three Stooges. Thankfully, the Farrelly brothers have gone back to the drawing board and delivered Dumb and Dumber To — their first sequel — but does it live up to the 20-year-in-the-making hype? Mostly.

Two decades have passed and we catch up with Harry (Jeff Daniels) and Lloyd (Carrey) as dumb and lovable as ever. Harry has been visiting Lloyd in a psychiatric hospital all these years with Lloyd in a coma-like state after Mary turned out to be married at the end of the first film. Turns out, it was all a big gag. Harry takes Lloyd home to their old apartment where Harry has taken in a roommate to pay Lloyd’s half of the rent. Here, Harry spills the beans that he’s in need of a kidney transplant so they visit his parents. Only to find out he’s adopted.

But wouldn’t you know it, Harry finds a 22-year-old postcard from his old flame Fraida Felcher (Kathleen Turner) saying that she’s pregnant. Sadly, Fraida gave her daughter up, but Penny (Rachel Melvin) was adopted by the wealthy Dr. Pinchelow (Steve Tom). Our bumbling heroes try to visit Penny, but she has already taken off to a Ken Conference in El Paso, Texas. Now, Harry and Lloyd are on another cross-country trip to deliver a package for the doctor with his groundskeeper Travis (Rob Riggle) in tow, who has a nefarious plan with Pinchelow’s wife Adele (Laurie Holden) to kill them and steal the package claimed to be worth billions.

If Dumb and Dumber To has one thing going for it, it’s seeing Carrey and Daniels on screen together again. The two have a manic glee that’s infectious and, if you’re a fan of the first film, you should find a lot to love here. Is it a perfect movie? Of course not. Is it about what you’d expect from a Dumb sequel, even if 20 years late? Absolutely. Rob Riggle is just about the only other person in the cast who drums up laughs — and we get a twofer out of him with him playing Travis’ twin brother Captain Lippincott. Everyone else pretty much gets to play it straight, which is no surprise because we came to see the Harry and Lloyd show anyway.

There are plenty of nods to the first film — with an extended bit involving the blind, wheelchair-bound Billy (Brady Bluhm) who now has a rare bird collection in his apartment. This is definitely not one of those dreaded sequels that simply remakes the original. I wish the cameos listed on IMDB had made it into the finished film, but I won’t spoil them here as there’s bound to be an unrated Blu-ray edition. Which brings up the amount of lowbrow humor. The Farrelly brothers have never shied away from making audiences uncomfortable, but also for making you feel guilty you laughed at something, and this is no different.

Dumb and Dumber To feeds your inner child with huge doses of hilarious wordplay and childish antics. With Daniels and Carrey back in the lead, we can finally put that horrendous prequel behind us. This is as good of sequel we’re likely to get, and fans will be pleased. I should feel bad for admitting it, but as a Dumb man once said, “I like it a lot.”

Photos courtesy Universal Pictures

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Blu-ray Review: ‘The Vanishing’ (1988) - The Criterion Collection

Movie: **** out of 5
Video: **** 1/2
Audio: *** 1/2
Extras: ***

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: ‘The Vanishing’ (1988) - The Criterion Collection on Blogcritics.

Not all horror movies rely on blood and guts. While those may be what’s most associated with the genre, remember there’s also films like The Silence of the Lambs, Jaws, The Shining, The Changeling (with George C. Scott, not Angelina Jolie), even Poltergeist and The Blair Witch Project were more interested in messing with your head than throwing another dead body on the barbie. Which brings us to the latest horror offering from The Criterion Collection: The Vanishing (Spoorloos).

The Vanishing, George Sluizer, Raymond-Pierre Donnadieu, Johanna ter Steege, Gene Bervoets, The Criterion CollectionDirector George Sluizer snuck under the radar with his creepfest back in 1988, five years before he proved lightning couldn’t strike twice with his own awful American remake. Sometimes it’s the unknown and implied that’s far more effective than a man in a mask wielding a big knife, especially when the villain could be your average next door neighbor who loves his wife and kids. As they say: “It’s always the quiet ones.”

Rex (Gene Bervoets) and Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) are on vacation and seem to have an underlying disquiet to their relationship. When their car runs out of gas in the middle of a tunnel, Rex leaves her in the dark to go back and get gas. Saskia is terrified that he would leave her alone in such distress, but on the road to the next service station, they warm back up to each other. At said station, Saskia goes missing with absolutely no signs left behind. Rex goes on a three year crusade to find his missing girlfriend, which is when we are introduced to her abductor Raymond (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) who starts sending Rex anonymous letters, taunting him with the whereabouts to his beloved Saskia, leading him on a most dangerous journey.

As with all Criterion Blu-rays, the 4K scan of this now 26-year-old low budget French production looks amazing. Framed in its original Encoded onto a 50GB disc with few special features and only one audio track, The Vanishing is given plenty of room to breathe. Colors pop without bleeding and skin tones are natural, if a little on the pale side. Detail is ever present, whether it’s actor closeups, costumes, or building facades, and foliage never appear as green globs, which definitely helps considering there’s so much. Grain is ever present but never gives way to noise in even the darkest scenes; any amount of crush is clearly intentional. As for the audio, the single French/Dutch LPCM Mono track keeps the dialogue intelligible, without any annoying hissing or pops. English subtitles are of course included.

The Vanishing, George Sluizer, Raymond-Pierre Donnadieu, Johanna ter Steege, Gene Bervoets, The Criterion CollectionThe special features are on the scant side, but are worth a look. Brand new interviews with George Sluizer (19 minutes) and Johanna ter Steege (14 minutes), reminiscing about the casting, adapting, and filming of The Vanishing. Sluizer still is weary of Stanley Kubrick declaring it scarier than The Shining, but Sluizer is definitely as proud of his original film as he should be. Also included is the theatrical trailer and a leaflet featuring an essay by Variety writer Scott Foundas.

What makes The Vanishing work as well as it does is it’s leanness. There’s never any scenes that feel like exposition or unnecessary. Taken as a whole, this is one tight production. Even the finale moves along at a fast quip, taking us to places we would rather not go. If you don’t know how this ends yet, brace yourself. Back in 1988, The Vanishing wound up being a pretty big art house hit and now Criterion has provided a phenomenal upgrade from their original DVD. If you’re in the mood for something on the creepy side, or if you prefer your horror bloodless, then The Vanishing makes for the perfect purchase. Especially with such a fantastic video upgrade. Highly recommended.

Movie Review: Disney’s ‘Big Hero 6’

**** out of 5
102 minutes
Rated PG for action and peril, some rude humor, and thematic elements
Walt Disney Animation Studios

Article first published as Movie Review: Disney’s ‘Big Hero 6’ on Blogcritics.

It was only a matter of time before we finally got a big screen computer-animated superhero movie. And is it even slightly surprising that Disney was the first out of the gate? The biggest surprise may come to unknowing audience members who don’t know that Big Hero 6 is based on a Marvel comicbook. I’m sure they had a feeling it was based on some kind of comicbook, but Marvel’s name was never mentioned in any of the promotional material until recently. It’s a good thing they started association with the Marvel brand, because Big Hero 6 fits right in their wheelhouse. Full of heart and action-packed, directors Don Hall and Chris Williams have crafted one of the best animated features of the year.

Big Hero 6, Disney, Marvel, Stan Lee, T.J. Miller, Scott Adsit, Baymax, Jamie Chung, Ryan Potter, Damon Wayans Jr., Genesis Rodriguez, Alan Tudyk, Maya Rudolph

In Big Hero 6, we’re introduced to the young,  brilliant Hiro (voiced by Ryan Potter), living in the futuristic San Fransokyo, with a penchant for robot fighting. His older brother Tadashi (voiced by Daniel Henney) wishes he’d use his brain for a higher power, so one night he takes him to his “nerd school” (aka university) and introduces him to his friends: GoGo (Jamie Chung), Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.), Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), and Fred (T.J. Miller). While there, he also gets a look at Tadashi’s personal healthcare robot named Baymax (voiced by Scott Adsit) and Professor Robert Callaghan (James Cromwell) who is immediately impressed with Hiro’s microbots.

Tadashi convinces Hiro to enter a science convention showing off his microbots – telephathically controlled with a neural-cranial transmitter – to gain him admittance to Callaghan’s school. Here, a fire breaks out and Tadashi is killed in an explosion trying to save Callaghan. Hiro is sent into a bout of depression and becomes anti-social until one day he accidentally activates Baymax who informs him that his sole nanobot is trying to go somewhere. The two are lead to an abandoned warehouse where they are attacked by his own creation, controlled by a man in a kabuki mask. With the local authorities failing to believe his story, Hiro decides to upgrade Baymax into an armored karate-enhanced super machine, and together with Tadashi’s schoolmates, ban together to find the masked villain and save the city.

Whatever Big Hero 6 lacks in the originality department – it is afterall, yet another superhero origin story (hilariously pointed out by Fred every time a new plot point comes to light) – it more than makes up for in its own unique take on the subject. The hybrid city of San Fransokyo alone is a brilliant meshing of east/west cultures. The voice cast are having a ball and the action looks spectacular, especially in 3D. Screenwriters Robert L. Baird, Daniel Gerson, and Jordan Roberts have taken a few liberties with Duncan Rouleau and Steven T. Seagle’s original material, but there’s no denying the amount of fun in Big Hero 6.

While it may not be a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it has all the same amount of adventure they can get away with at a PG rating. This is almost Marvel-lite, but is there anything wrong with that? Absolutely not. Big Hero 6 is one of the last animated films of the year – the only remaining offering is DreamWorks’ Penguins of Madagascar – but isn’t quite the best. I’d still give that title to both The LEGO Movie and The Boxtrolls. But if you’re looking for something more family-friendly in your action films – something you never see these days – Big Hero 6 delivers in spades.
Also be sure to be on time so you don’t miss the fantastic short Feast and stay through the credits for a hilarious cameo.

Photos courtesy Walt Disney Animation Studios

Friday, November 7, 2014

Movie Review: ‘Interstellar’

 ***** out of 5
169 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some intense perilous action and brief strong language
Paramount Pictures

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

Well all right, all right, all right. Just when uber-director Christopher Nolan seemed like he had nowhere left to go, he just goes up. And in Interstellar, literally. With his Dark Knight trilogy laid to rest, it’s time for him to set his sights on continuing with original work, and Interstellar is no small step. While featuring a few cast members from previous endeavors, he’s now joined forces with Matthew McConaughey to take us to the stars and back.
Interstellar, Christopher Nolan, Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, John Lithgow, Mackenzie Foy, Wes Bentley,Bill IrwinIn a not-so-distant future, Earth has it in for us. Smothering the planet with dust, humankind is nearing the end of its reign. Cooper (McConaughey) is a good-old-boy farmer, living with  his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow) and two kids, Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and Murph (Mackenzie Foy). Tom is destined to follow in his father’s footsteps, but Murph shows signs of rebellion, getting into fights after bringing in old school books contradicting the corrected  versions which include details such as the Apollo missions having never happened.

One day, Murph makes a discovery leading her and Cooper on to coordinates in the secret mountainside location of NASA. Everyone thought it shut down to keep running without the public from throwing a fit over wasted tax dollars. Here, Professor Brand (Michael Caine) talks Cooper into leading a mission to find humankind a new home, along with Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), Doyle (Wes Bentley), Romilly (David Gyasi), and a robot named TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin).

As if his films weren’t already full of the “wow factor,” Nolan still shows no signs of slowing down. Interstellar is packed with breathtaking imagery, exhilarating intensity, and heartbreaking storytelling. This is definitely his most intimate film yet. Along with his brother Jonathan, the Brothers Nolan make no bones about their inspiration with plenty of homages to previous space ventures like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Contact, while still keeping the film’s vision unique. From wormholes to a whole new galaxy, there’s plenty of space exploration to keep the most hardened sci-fi buff happy.

The cast brings enough emotional weight to make the plight bigger than simply trying to find a new home for the human race. McConaughey in particular crushes your heart as he watches transmissions from home and sees his family grow up, while nearly no time passes on the  mission. Hathaway keeps the thought-provoking monologues from feeling overbearing and never false. Jessica Chastain even gets to shine as the grown up version of Murph trying to solve her own personal riddle back on Earth to figure out a way to get her dad back home.

There’s even a nice twist, but you’d be a bonafide a-hole to give it away. Let’s just say there’s a reason it wasn’t screened for the public. Seriously, this whole review is basically hyperbole because the film speaks for itself, even with the gargantuan 169 minute runtime. Just make sure you check your bladders at the door. Ultimately, you’re not going to want to miss one minute. Interstellar is another notch in Christopher Nolan’s résumé of never-ending cinematic accomplishments and one of the best films of the year.

Photos courtesy Paramount Pictures

Friday, October 31, 2014

Movie Review: ‘Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)’

**** out of 5
119 minutes
Rated R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence
Fox Searchlight

Article first published as Movie Review: ‘Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)’ on Blogcritics.

The word masterpiece gets thrown around a lot but do most of them really deserve that high of regard? Even if a film is an outstanding filmmaking accomplishment, it doesn’t necessarily mean it deserves the title “masterpiece.” Time is the one thing that can really decipher the difference between say, a masterpiece versus a genre classic. In the case of Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s Birdman, I don’t want to step on the artsy fartsy crowd’s toes, or rain on the director’s parade, but while Birdman is a technical marvel, it is far from a masterpiece. Make no mistake, this is a film you need to see, but I will probably never watch it again.

Birdman, Michael Keeton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Amy Ryan, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Alejandro González IñárrituRiggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is a washed-up, former superhero actor, staging what he hopes will be the comeback of his career with the staging of a Broadway play. As if being surrounded by egotistical, self-absorbed actors isn’t enough, Riggan is also dealing with an alter-ego in a physical incantation of his Birdman character. Riggan also appears to be able to move things with his mind.

When an actor is injured during rehearsal by a stage light, Riggan forces his lawyer/best friend Jake (Zach Galifianakis) to recruit Mike (Edward Norton), a brilliant method actor who already knows Riggan’s play inside and out possibly better than he does himself. On top of getting the play ready, Riggan is starting to come unnerved over New York Times critic Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan) aiming to get his production shut down, and his girlfriend/actress Laura (Andrea Riseborough) informing him she’s pregnant. Riggan is left trying to keep all his balls in the air and make it through opening night, but his id may have other plans in store.

Anyone who includes Birdman spoilers in their reviews, or at least gives more information than I just did, should be ashamed of destroying the ride Iñárritu takes his audience on. Filmed to appear to be staged all in one take, Iñárritu has delivered a visual knockout – in more ways than one. While this may sound like opposite opinion of what I said before, make no mistake, this is, at least, a technical masterpiece. Keeton gives the best performance of his career, and most of the rest of the cast manage to keep up. The only person who starts to become an irritant is Naomi Watts. She always come across as way more awkward in her role, never sure whether to underplay or overplay and usually winds up doing both in the same scene. Emma Stone and Amy Ryan meanwhile, are underused.

Birdman, Michael Keeton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Amy Ryan, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Alejandro González IñárrituThankfully, the finale makes up for any sort of storytelling blunders after it starts to suffer from too many cooks in the kitchen. It took four writers (Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bo) to stretch this to a two hour breaking point, but the final act more than makes up for it. My main complaint is that watching a film of this length for this long with no cuts really starts to take its toll on your eyes. Imagine not blinking for two hours and that’s almost what it feels like by the time the credits roll. Birdman is definitely one of the most cinematic experiences in years and does demand to be seen in a movie theater, you just may want to bring along some eye drops. But make no mistake, we will be seeing this come Oscar time.

Photo courtesy Fox Searchlight

Blu-ray Review: ‘The Following: The Complete Second Season’

Program: **** out of 5
Video: **** 1/2
Audio: ****
Extras: *** 1/2

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: ‘The Following: The Complete Second Season’ on Blogcritics.

After making an overnight name for himself back in 1996 with a little movie called Scream, The Following creator Kevin Williamson was one of the biggest names in Hollywood. Everyone wanted a piece of the action, begging him to write something for them. And for better and worse, the Weinstein Brothers (Bob and Harvey) had him in the palm of their hands. With the 1997 double whammy of I Know What You Did Last Summer and Scream 2, Williamson was the master the until-then flailing teen horror. Soon enough, TV came calling and he created the hugely successful Dawson’s Creek.

The Following, Kevin Bacon, Kevin Williamson, Shawn Ashmore, Valorie Curry, James PurefoyAfter six seasons of teen drama, he took another swing at the Scream-formula only with werewolves, and let’s just say studio heads prevailed in neutering what should have wound up being a modern American Werewolf in London. Needless to say, Williamson needed a hit, and turned his sights on the L.J. Smith book series The Vampire Diaries. Another smash show was born. But it didn’t take Williamson to return to his roots in a sense, with the serial killer procedural The Following. With another hit on his hands, Williamson returns with even more twists and turns – regardless of how preposterous it can getthis season of The Following is even more fun – with The Following: The Complete Second Season, available on Blu-ray in a DVD/UltraViolet combo pack from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment.

Catching up with FBI agent Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon) one year after almost catching serial killer/cult leader Joe Carroll (James Purefoy), Ryan is trying to get his life back in order. Attending AA meetings and teaching classes at the New York College of Criminal Justice, Ryan is called back into action after a subway attack by a new cult lead by Lily Gray (Connie Nielson) and her twin sons Mark and Luke (both played by Sam Underwood). The subway massacre is only the beginning as Ryan is entangled into a whole new world of terror as Lily tries to lure Joe out of hiding – something Ryan is obsessed with also, much to the chagrin of his niece Max (Jessica Stroup) and former partner Mike Weston (Shawn Ashmore). But we all know Ryan won’t stop until he finds piece of mind trying to put Carroll back in his final resting place, if he’s still alive.

The Following, Kevin Bacon, Kevin Williamson, Shawn Ashmore, Valorie Curry, James PurefoyThe video presentation of The Complete Second Season slashes its way onto Blu-ray in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, nearly flawlessly. Were it not for a very few blink and you’d miss them instances of noise in the darkest of areas, this is a top-notch presentation. Using plenty of natural lighting to keep the audience as in the dark as its characters, black levels are top notch with no crush in sight. At least not by way of the encode. If the director doesn’t want you to see something, it’s wholly intentional. With the 15 episodes spread out across three 50GB discs, compression errors are fleeting. No aliasing or banding here. Skin tones are completely natural, if a little on the anemic side, but blood is as bright as it should be in a show coated with it. As for the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, bass is the best part, keeping the tone as menacing as it should be. Surrounds could use a little more activity to envelope the viewer, but it gets the job done. Music and action never drowns out any of the dialogue either. Also available are French and Spanish 2.0 Dolby Digital tracks, along with English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles.

For a TV series Blu-ray release, The Complete Second Season comes with a huge array of features. 14 “Inside The Following” behind-the-scenes featurettes are episode specific – which means they are spoiler heavy.  Because of this I am only including the names of the episodes: “Resurrection” (1:44), “For Joe” (1:29), “Trust Me” (1:34), “Family Affair” (1:42), “Reflection” (1:39), “Fly Away” (1:54), “Sacrifice” (1:59), “The Messenger” (2:04), “Unmasked” (1:49), “Teacher’s Pet” (1:49), “Freedom” (1:44), “Betrayal” (1:43), “The Reaping” (1:58), and “Forgive” (2:05). The cast and crew take the time to prove how hard they work to bring the show out every week and make sure they keep the stakes high enough that you forget you’re watching network programming.

The Following, Kevin Bacon, Kevin Williamson, Shawn Ashmore, Valorie Curry, James PurefoyA collection of “Unaired Scenes” (called “Severed Scenes” on the case) also are spoiler heavy and are episode specific as well: “For Joe” (1:21), “Family Affair” (2:12), “Reflection” (2:33), “Sacrifice” (5:36), “The Messenger” (1:48), “Teacher’s Pet” (2:03), “Betrayal” (2:41), “The Reaping” (3:34), and “Silence” (3:59) – which also gets it’s own “Sneak Peek” (1:03) which you really should avoid watching if going into the season fresh.

The first disc contains the best feature: the 2013 San Diego Comic-Con panel featuring stars Kevin Bacon, James Purefoy, Shawn Ashmore, and Valorie Curry. Also on hand is Williamson along with executive producer/director Marcos Siega. Purefoy’s introduction alone is worth watching, fun stuff. The rest of the special features are all on the third disc: “Follow Marcos Siega” (18:12) is an in-depth look at juggling his producing duties while directing half the season’s episodes. “The Religion of Joe Carroll” (9:20) explores Joe’s grander aspirations, “Bound By a Common Foe” (6:34) focuses on Ryan and Mike’s relationship. A “Season 2 Alternate Ending” (4:37) shows a drastically different ending, which honestly would have closed the door on a lot of opportunities for season three. And finally, “The Joe Mask” (4:37) shows the evolution of the Joe Carroll mask worn by the new cult.

The Following never tries to be ground-breaking, but it does manage to put some fun new twists into the serial killer genre – even within the confines of network television. Williamson continues to put his cast through the wringer, and let’s just say that this season is even more kill-heavy than the first. There are of course some eye-roll inducing moments and characters are never above making a personal choice to serve the plot mechanics than rational thought, but with Bacon keeping Purefoy on his toes through an even bigger season, I can only imagine how season three will manage to better The Complete Second Season. Featuring stellar picture, and a plethora of extras, this season of The Following is even more fun and I can’t wait to see what Williamson has in store for poor Ryan Hardy next season.

Photos courtesy Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Movie Review: ‘St. Vincent’

**** out of 5
102 minutes
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material including sexual content, alcohol and tobacco use, and for language
The Weinstein Company

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

In the world of comedy, is there anyone more reliable than Bill Murray? Not really. The man can make anything funny, rising above even some rather mediocre films. And Murray has never simply played himself. From his gopher-obsessed groundskeeper in Caddyshack to Scrooged’s narcissistic Frank Cross to his most popular character Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters, there’s no role too small — even his cameo in Zombieland was brilliant. And now he gets to play yet another neurotic character, this time a crotchety old war veteran in Theodore Melfi’s hilarious writing/directing debut: St. Vincent.

Vincent (Murray) is a scruffy old-timer who loves his alcohol, gambling, and pregnant Russian stripper/prostitute Daka (Naomi Watts). His life doesn’t get any better when his new neighbor Maggie’s (Melissa McCarthy) moving van snaps off a tree branch that crashes onto his car. He also blames them for his ruined fence, something he did the night before driving home drunk. Maggie’s son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) is having a rough time adjusting to his new school dealing with his Catholic teacher Brother Geraghty (Chris O’Dowd) and the class bully Robert Ocinski (Dario Barosso). One day, Oliver needs a place to stay after school thanks to Robert stealing his phone and house key. So Vincent lets him stay next door. Seizing the opportunity of extra money, Vincent takes Oliver in and starts babysitting him, and let’s just say hilarity ensues.

Melfi makes a fantastic debut making a film that would do the Sundance Film Festival proud. Considering it premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, this is not a Hollywood affair and it’s all the better for it. Murray may be playing a grumpy old man, but he’s always sympathetic and while his babysitting techniques may include horse racing and hanging out at the bar, Vincent never puts Oliver in danger — he has the wherewithal to take a cab home after drinking. McCarthy shines as we have hoped she would when she’s not playing outrageous characters like she did in Tammy and is great as a hard-working mother dealing with her ex-husbands adultery. Lieberher plays off Murray with ease, which says a lot about a child actor making his big screen debut. Lessons are learned as they always are, but St. Vincent has tons of heart to go along with the laughs. St. Vincent continues to prove Murray is one of our most treasured comedians with no signs of slowing down.

Photo courtesy The Weinstein Company

Friday, October 24, 2014

DVD Review: BBC’s ‘In the Flesh: The Complete Season Two’

Program: **** 1/2 out of 5

Article first published as DVD Review: BBC’s ‘In the Flesh: The Complete Season Two’ on Blogcritics.

After an amazing first season (albeit consisting of only three episodes) creator Dominic Mitchell nailed all the hallmarks of great drama even while in the midst of a zombie platform with his BBC program In the Flesh. Considering you have to keep viewers watching, you could almost call this the anti-Walking Dead. Reason being, we get the point of view of the zombies dealing with their return from the dead, instead of simply following another band of survivors trying to keep from becoming dead meat. With a game cast and double the number of episodes, season two gives Mitchell even more room to let the show breathe, providing plenty of twists and turns along the way. In the Flesh: The Complete Season Two is available now on DVD, just in time for Halloween.

In the Flesh, Luke Newberry, Emily Bevan, Emmett J Scanlan, Dominic MitchellCatching up with the living and undead of Roarton, Lancashire, we’re thrown back into village dealing with “The Rising.” A new drug is hitting the streets called “Blue Oblivion,” causing the zombies to turn rabid. While everyone is trying to make nice with their returned deceased, meanwhile, the Undead Liberation Army are still trying to keep the good dead down. Kieren Walker (Luke Newberry) is dealing with Amy and her new boyfriend Simon (Emmett J Scanlan), who keeps assuring Kieren that he’ll always be her BDFF (Best Dead Friend Forever). Meanwhile, Maxine Martin (Wunmi Mosaku) starts enforcing PD (Partially Deceased) sufferers to register in a rehab program of sorts. Eventually, the Undead Prophet starts talk about finding the “First Risen” with a set of twelve apostles to help bring about a Second Resurrection by destroying whoever the First Risen may be.

All the dramatic beats of the first season remain intact, whether it’s the local townsfolk tension boiling against the returned or family squabbles at the Walker house. Kieren and Amy aren’t without their friendly pitfalls, even with Simon adding a third wheel scenario. The season really starts to come together when Simon and Maxine’s true intentions start to scratch their way to the surface. While it may not be an action-packed series, In the Flesh never tries to be. Instead, setting it’s sights on topics such as segregation. Even a subplot of possibly psychic zombies comes into play. This season adds a lot of fun new twists and feels even more fleshed out, which should be expected with six episodes for Mitchell to just kill it, and even leaves us with a fantastic cliffhanger. Bring on season three!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Blu-ray Review: ‘The Scribbler’

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

89 minutes
Rated R for violent images, some strong sexuality/nudity, and language

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: ‘The Scribbler’ on Blogcritics.

“Based on a graphic novel” can sometimes act as a warning. If you haven’t read the source material, you may wind up scratching your head. Then again, you’d never know Road to Perdition was based on one.  Full of neon lighting and bonkers storytelling, Scribbler screenwriter Dan Schaffer finds none of the fun his debut Doghouse aimed for, even while adapting his own graphic novel. Director John Suits aims high for a female superhero origin tale of sorts, but the R-rating oddly gets in the way. Featuring more titillating scenery than usual, all we’re left with is a ton of campiness, available on Blu-ray from XLrator Media on October 21.

In The Scribbler, Suki (Katie Cassidy) is being interrogated by Silk (Eliza Dushku) and Moss (Michael Imperioli). The two detectives have a stack of dead bodies they need answers for and think Suki is to blame. It doesn’t help Suki’s story that she suffers from multiple personalities and lives at a halfway house where the residents are literally dropping like flies – right out the window. While in a mental institution, Suki was given a treatment called “The Siamese Burn.” Turns out, the machine they’re using is giving Suki’s most destructive personality – The Scribbler – a chance to show itself. Now, Suki must clear her name with the help of Hogan (Garret Dillahunt), who’s been around the building a few times.

The Scribbler kicks its way onto Blu-ray, framed in a 2.39:1 aspect ratio. Considering there are no special features – if you don’t count the film’s trailer – it should come as no surprise that the film is pretty flawless. Especially for being on a 25GB disc. Colors are bright and bold without bleeding. Noise, crush, banding, and aliasing are nonexistent. Detail is exact, except where manipulated in post production. This is a demo worthy presentation, but far better than you’d expect. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is very well mixed. Especially when Suki’s personalities start talking to each other. Although, sometimes the center speaker is a tad quieter not getting completely drowned out, but definitely not as audible. Bass keeps the film’s score rocking, and there are English subtitles available.

The best part of The Scribbler, hands down, is Cassidy’s performance. You’ve never seen her like this before. Particularly if she didn’t use a body double for a big sex scene. Gina Gershon is wasted as one of the fellow loonies, and Ashlynn Yennie makes up for the lack of Sasha Grey nudity. Sadly, the film never finds the right pace, relying on how much of Cassidy you’re willing to follow. Considering they never let her look anywhere near as good on Arrow as she does here, chances are most male viewers will find plenty to keep their um, interest, piqued. And while trying to avoid spoilers, Michelle Trachtenberg is completely miscast. The Scribbler may not have any special features but it certainly makes up for it with the presentation. Approach with expectations in check and you might enjoy yourself; just don’t expect a new cult classic.

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 clichés, 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