Friday, January 31, 2014

Movie Review: 'Labor Day'

** out of 5
111 minutes
Rated PG-13 for thematic material, brief violence and sexuality
Paramount Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: 'Labor Day' on Blogcritics.

Every director is allowed to hit a speed bump here and there, right? Jason Reitman — son of director Ivan Reitman — has been riding a wave of greatness since he made his debut with Thank You for Smoking in 2005 and followed up with Juno, Up in the Air, and Young Adult. It’s interesting that his two best films, he didn’t write. With his new film Labor Day, Reitman has decided to adapt Joyce Maynard’s novel into a blundering bore, featuring at least as many endings as The Return of the King. Even with two fantastic leads — Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin — Reitman never finds a way to make a film essentially about nothing, feel like it’s about anything.

LaborDayLabor Day is narrated by Tobey Maguire as the adult version of Henry — played as a teen by Gattlin Griffith. Henry recounts his youth as he deals with his mother Adele’s (Winslet) broken heart after his father Gerald (Clark Gregg) moves on with a new life. One day the mother/son duo head out to the supermarket where Henry is approached by a bleeding man named Frank (Brolin). Frank has just escaped from prison while hospitalized for an appendicitis operation. Frank forces the two into taking him to their home where the three spend Labor Day weekend getting to know each other — and falling in love for the two adults — when they’re not cleaning the house, fixing cars, playing catch, or baking pies. But after Henry starts talking to schoolmate Eleanor (Brighid Fleming) he starts to question Frank and Adele’s motives when they begin asking for books from the library about Canada and Prince Edward Island.

Flashbacks reveal why Frank was imprisoned and why Adele seems to be having such a hard time coping with life — with the younger versions played by Maika Monroe and Tom Lipinski. Reitman has Rolfe Kent score the film with mysterious thriller flair. But, all the big reveals do is enhance the story’s downbeat tone and let me warn you, this is not a feel-good movie. It’s actually a huge downer, something that not even Henry and Eleanor’s exchanges, or Agent Coulson can alleviate. The pie making scene seems to go on and on forever and eludes to a sense of eroticism — it is a peach pie after all — but considering Henry is right in the middle of the process only makes it even more awkward. Juno’s dad J.K. Simmons has one scene as the peach harboring neighbor, and Brooke Smith feels like she’s about to rub the lotion on its skin, but is as wasted as everyone else.

Labor Day will definitely remain one of 2014’s dullest films. And it lives up to its title. It feels like hard work sitting through it while the pace makes it feel like it takes days to watch. C’mon Reitman, you’re better than this. Better luck next time.

Photos courtesy Paramount Pictures

Movie Review: 'That Awkward Moment'

* out of 5 stars
94 minutes
Rated R for sexual content and language throughout
Focus Features

Article first published as Movie Review: 'That Awkward Moment' on Blogcritics.

That Awkward Moment—as the title implies—invokes all kinds of puns and comparisons with its astounding level of stupidity running amok throughout the 94-minute runtime. Case in point, that awkward moment when you realize it’s going to be a long 94 minutes. That awkward moment when you realize you missed out on a new episode of Arrow and the American Horror Story season finale. That awkward moment when you realize that every character is a big, fat douche you have no interest in or care about. That awkward moment when you realize that every single character’s destiny has been set in stone since the dawn of the rom-com.

ThatAwkwardMoment2That awkward moment when you realize that Zac Efron mentioning sitting on a bench for four hours in the opening scene is equal to how long you’ll feel this movie is. That awkward moment when, at the end of the film, it tells us “Two Months Later” and you feel like it’s been two months since the film started. And finally, that awkward moment when you realize, merely four minutes in, that you’re sitting through what will stand as one of the year’s worst films and still have 90 minutes to go. Needless to say, That Awkward Moment truly is that bad.

The so-called plot involves three best friends, Jason (Efron), Daniel (Miles Teller), and Mikey (Michael B. Jordan), who make a pact to stay single. Since Jason just got dumped and Mikey’s wife Vera (Jessica Lucas) asked him for a divorce, it makes perfect sense. The boys know that the only way to forget their sorrows is to hit the bar where they meet up with Daniel’s wingwoman Chelsea (Mackenzie Davis). Mikey wants no part of this but still winds up getting a number. Meanwhile, Jason ends up going home with Ellie (Imogen Poots), whom he mistakes for a hooker. Sure enough, Ellie walks into Jason’s book cover design office boardroom, where he has to make up for the fact that he left after their rendezvous. And so begins the age old drama of boy finding girl, boy losing girl, boy getting girl back.

ThatAwkwardMomentSeriously, every scene feels cobbled together from other genre films, but writer-director Tom Gormican remains hell bent on making us think that by flipping the characters’ sexes that it’s the cleverest thing ever put on film. This is the kind of film where a Thanksgiving Day funeral is a crucial plot point. Nonsensical, deplorable, and yes, even atrocious are the best words to describe this terrible “movie.” Gormican may be credited with the screenplay, but That Awkward Moment features some stunningly grotesque and unfunny ad-libbing. Not even after Mikey uses tanning cream as lube can anyone come up with anything even remotely snicker-inducing about the situation.

The girls on the other hand—Poots and Davis—are pretty charming and make you wish that this had been their movie. Oddly enough, That Awkward Moment also features the most nudity-less sex I’ve ever seen in an R-rated film. So alas, all we’re stuck with is that awkward moment when it’s your critical obligation to not bolt for the door. Not even Efron’s naked butt will be enough to make girls want to sit through this. All it will cause is that awkward moment when girls in the audience realize they could have just sat home, watching any other movie, looking at pics of him on their phones.

Photos courtesy Focus Features

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Sundance 2014: Rest of Fest

Article first published as Sundance 2014: Rest of Fest on Blogcritics.

This was my fifth year covering the Sundance Film Festival for Blogcritics and every year it feels like the same old whirlwind. Am I tired of sitting through endless Press & Industry screenings yet? Never. I love living close enough to sleep in my own bed every night — even if having to trek down Parley’s Canyon around midnight after if I stay for a late screening. Between bus shuttles back and forth between Main Street and the Holiday Village Cinemas, and standing in line between screenings, it’s the best way to kick off every new year.

MostWantedManI managed to squeeze in a few more films, including two starring Philip Seymour Hoffman. In A Most Wanted Man, Hoffman plays German spy Gunther Bachmann in an adaptation of John Le Carre’s novel. Director Anton Corbijn (Control, The American) keeps the proceedings dour and slow-paced, surrounding Hoffman with a supporting cast including Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, and Daniel Bruhl. The acting is great, but the plot just slogs along to the final scene that never pays off and renders the entire movie moot.

In God’s Pocket, Hoffman (again) gets his hands dirty in a black comedy that, at its most scrutinized, could be called, “the worst film the Coen Brothers never made.” But God’s Pocket is at least better than that. There are plenty of laughs to be had in co-writer/director John Slattery’s (Mad Men) tale of Mickey (Hoffman) looking into the death of his stepson Leo (Caleb Landry Jones), whose mother (Christina Hendricks) doesn’t buy his passing being an “accident.” Slattery keeps the dark shenanigans plowing along and there are some laughs to be had, but you’d never call the movie fun — something most black comedies at least attempt. Richard Jenkins as a boozy journalist trying to make the moves on Mickey’s wife gets some of the biggest laughs, but John Turturro’s mother steals the whole show.

Writer/director Mike Cahill returns to Sundance after winning a Special Jury Prize for Another Earth back in 2011 with another Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize winner in I Origins. This year, Cahill brings us the story of scientist Ian Gray (Michael Pitt) who has a sexual encounter with a mystery woman at a party. Ian is working on discovering ways to help colorblind mice see correctly, but what they really want is to find an organism without eyes to help them develop sight. Meanwhile, Ian discovers his mystery woman is Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) and he tracks her down and they fall in love. The main plot revolves around an eye database that records people’s irises, but when Ian’s son’s iris matches that of a deceased man in Idaho, and Sofi’s winds up in a scan in India, Ian sets off on a new quest to find out if there’s more to the windows of the soul than meets the eye.

Cahill tries to have it both ways: esoteric and exoteric, and the film will surely find an audience — it’s already been picked up by Fox Searchlight — but Cahill tries a little too hard at times and winds up pounding viewers over the head with his case of science vs. spirituality. I Origins is also a tad too long with at least one scene that could have been completely cut out. The performances from Bergès-Frisbey and Brit Marling are better than Michael Pitt’s, even the young Kashish playing the young Salomina performs better than he does. Pitt has never been leading man material and still isn’t quite there yet. Here’s to hoping Fox Searchlight can find the right marketing ploys to get butts in the seats.

It’s not all movies during the festival; we can’t forget the lounges lined up and down Main Street.
This year I visited fewer than ever — a total of three, actually — which I’m sure is how I wound up seeing far more movies than previous years. Avocados from Mexico took over the Blue Iguana restaurant and featured desserts and cocktails revolving around the green wonder fruit including some delicious brownies and cookies. Recipes can be found on their website, but I was told that all they did was replace the butter with avocado.

Also found inside the lounge was an amazing new wine called Eppa SupraFruta Sangria. Available in both white and red, and made with organic super fruit juices including pomegranate, blueberry, Mediterranean blood orange, and acai, it’s impossible to have one glass. Look for it in stores, you won’t be sorry. The only other lounge I visited was the Stella Artois Cidre National Launch Party. My wife really likes the Red’s Apple Ale but I think it still tastes far too much like beer. Not being a beer drinker, I was surprised to find the Cidre tasting more like a sparkling wine with absolutely no beery aftertaste. The host of the party was Elizabeth Banks, but I had made my way back to the press screenings before she arrived. Apparently I also missed out on seeing Lea Thompson and Jorge Garcia.

With my five year anniversary in the bag, and 20 films under my belt, all I can say is that I can’t wait to do it again in 2015. And finally, here’s a complete list of this year’s Sundance Film Festival feature film awards:

The U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Documentary was presented by Tracy Chapman to:
Rich Hill / U.S.A. (Directors: Andrew Droz Palermo, Tracy Droz Tragos) — In a rural, American town, kids face heartbreaking choices, find comfort in the most fragile of family bonds, and dream of a future of possibility.

The U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic was presented by Leonard Maltin to:
 / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Damien Chazelle) — Under the direction of a ruthless instructor, a talented young drummer begins to pursue perfection at any cost, even his humanity. Cast: Miles Teller, JK Simmons.

The World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Documentary was presented by Andrea Nix Fine to:
Return to Homs
 / Syria, Germany (Director: Talal Derki) — Basset Sarout, the 19-year-old national football team goalkeeper, becomes a demonstration leader and singer, and then a fighter. Ossama, a 24-year-old renowned citizen cameraman, is critical, a pacifist, and ironic until he is detained by the regime’s security forces.

The World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic was presented by Nansun Shi to:
To Kill a Man
 / Chile, France (Director and screenwriter: Alejandro Fernández Almendras) — When Jorge, a hardworking family man who’s barely making ends meet, gets mugged by Kalule, a neighborhood delinquent, Jorge’s son decides to confront the attacker, only to get himself shot. Even though Jorge’s son nearly dies, Kalule’s sentence is minimal, heightening the friction. Cast: Daniel Candia, Daniel Antivilo, Alejandra Yañez, Ariel Mateluna.

The Audience Award: U.S. Documentary Presented by Acura, was presented by William H. Macy to:
Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory
 / U.S.A. (Director: Michael Rossato-Bennett) — Five million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia—many of them alone in nursing homes. A man with a simple idea discovers that songs embedded deep in memory can ease pain and awaken these fading minds. Joy and life are resuscitated, and our cultural fears over aging are confronted.

The Audience Award: U.S. Dramatic Presented by Acura, was presented by William H. Macy to:
 / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Damien Chazelle) — Under the direction of a ruthless instructor, a talented young drummer begins to pursue perfection at any cost, even his humanity. Cast: Miles Teller, JK Simmons.

The Audience Award: World Cinema Documentary was presented by Felicity Huffman to:
The Green Prince 
/ Germany, Israel, United Kingdom (Director: Nadav Schirman ) — This real-life thriller tells the story of one of Israel’s prized intelligence sources, recruited to spy on his own people for more than a decade. Focusing on the complex relationship with his handler, The Green Prince is a gripping account of terror, betrayal, and unthinkable choices, along with a friendship that defies all boundaries.

The Audience Award: World Cinema Dramatic was presented by Felicity Huffman to:
 / Ethiopia (Director and screenwriter: Zeresenay Berhane Mehari) — Meaza Ashenafi is a young lawyer who operates under the government’s radar helping women and children until one young girl’s legal case exposes everything, threatening not only her career but her survival. Cast: Meron Getnet, Tizita Hagere.

The Audience Award: Best of NEXT <=> was presented by Nick Offerman to:
Imperial Dreams 
/ U.S.A. (Director: Malik Vitthal, Screenwriters: Malik Vitthal, Ismet Prcic) — A 21-year-old, reformed gangster’s devotion to his family and his future are put to the test when he is released from prison and returns to his old stomping grounds in Watts, Los Angeles. Cast: John Boyega, Rotimi Akinosho, Glenn Plummer, Keke Palmer, De’aundre Bonds.

The Directing Award: U.S. Documentary was presented by Morgan Neville to:
Ben Cotner & Ryan White
 for The Case Against 8 / U.S.A. (Directors: Ben Cotner, Ryan White) — A behind-the-scenes look inside the case to overturn California’s ban on same-sex marriage. Shot over five years, the film follows the unlikely team that took the first federal marriage equality lawsuit to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Directing Award: U.S. Dramatic was presented by Lone Scherfig to:
Cutter Hodierne
 for Fishing Without Nets / U.S.A., Somalia, Kenya (Director: Cutter Hodierne, Screenwriters: Cutter Hodierne, John Hibey, David Burkman) — A story of pirates in Somalia told from the perspective of a struggling, young Somali fisherman. Cast: Abdikani Muktar, Abdi Siad, Abduwhali Faarah, Abdikhadir Hassan, Reda Kateb, Idil Ibrahim.

The Directing Award: World Cinema Documentary was presented by Sally Riley to:
Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard
 for 20,000 Days On Earth / United Kingdom (Directors: Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard) — Drama and reality combine in a fictitious 24 hours in the life of musician and international culture icon Nick Cave. With startlingly frank insights and an intimate portrayal of the artistic process, this film examines what makes us who we are and celebrates the transformative power of the creative spirit.

The Directing Award: World Cinema Dramatic was presented by Sebastián Lelio to:
Sophie Hyde
 for 52 Tuesdays / Australia (Director: Sophie Hyde, Screenplay and story by: Matthew Cormack, Story by: Sophie Hyde) — Sixteen-year-old Billie’s reluctant path to independence is accelerated when her mother reveals plans for gender transition, and their time together becomes limited to Tuesdays. This emotionally charged story of desire, responsibility, and transformation was filmed over the course of a year—once a week, every week, only on Tuesdays. Cast: Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Del Herbert-Jane, Imogen Archer, Mario Späte, Beau Williams, Sam Althuizen.

The Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award: U.S. Dramatic was presented by Peter Saraf to:
Craig Johnson & Mark Heyman
 for The Skeleton Twins / U.S.A. (Director: Craig Johnson, Screenwriters: Craig Johnson, Mark Heyman) — When estranged twins Maggie and Milo feel that they’re at the end of their ropes, an unexpected reunion forces them to confront why their lives went so wrong. As the twins reconnect, they realize the key to fixing their lives may just lie in repairing their relationship. Cast: Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell, Boyd Holbrook, Joanna Gleason.

The Screenwriting Award: World Cinema Dramatic was presented by Sebastián Lelio to:
Eskil Vogt 
for Blind / Norway, Netherlands (Director and screenwriter: Eskil Vogt) — Having recently lost her sight, Ingrid retreats to the safety of her home—a place she can feel in control, alone with her husband and her thoughts. But Ingrid’s real problems lie within, not beyond the walls of her apartment, and her deepest fears and repressed fantasies soon take over. Cast: Ellen Dorrit Petersen, Henrik Rafaelsen, Vera Vitali, Marius Kolbenstvedt.

The Editing Award: U.S. Documentary was presented by Jonathan Oppenheim to:
Jenny Golden, Karen Sim
 for Watchers of the Sky / U.S.A. (Director: Edet Belzberg) — Five interwoven stories of remarkable courage from Nuremberg to Rwanda, from Darfur to Syria, and from apathy to action.

The Editing Award: World Cinema Documentary was presented by Sally Riley to:
Jonathan Amos
 for 20,000 Days On Earth / United Kingdom (Directors: Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard) — Drama and reality combine in a fictitious 24 hours in the life of musician and international culture icon Nick Cave. With startlingly frank insights and an intimate portrayal of the artistic process, this film examines what makes us who we are and celebrates the transformative power of the creative spirit.

The Cinematography Award: U.S. Documentary was presented by Kahane Cooperman to:
Rachel Beth Anderson, Ross Kauffman
 for E-TEAM / U.S.A. (Directors: Katy Chevigny, Ross Kauffman) — E-TEAM is driven by the high-stakes investigative work of four intrepid human rights workers, offering a rare look at their lives at home and their dramatic work in the field.

The Cinematography Award: U.S. Dramatic was presented by Peter Saraf to:
Christopher Blauvelt
 for Low Down / U.S.A. (Director: Jeff Preiss, Screenwriters: Amy-Jo Albany, Topper Lilien) — Based on Amy-Jo Albany’s memoir, Low Down explores her heart-wrenching journey to adulthood while being raised by her father, bebop pianist Joe Albany, as he teeters between incarceration and addiction in the urban decay and waning bohemia of Hollywood in the 1970s. Cast: John Hawkes, Elle Fanning, Glenn Close, Lena Headey, Peter Dinklage, Flea.

The Cinematography Award: World Cinema Documentary was presented by Caspar Sonnen to:
Thomas Balmès & Nina Bernfeld
 for Happiness / France, Finland (Director: Thomas Balmès) — Peyangki is a dreamy and solitary eight-year-old monk living in Laya, a Bhutanese village perched high in the Himalayas. Soon the world will come to him: the village is about to be connected to electricity, and the first television will flicker on before Peyangki’s eyes.

The Cinematography Award: World Cinema Dramatic was presented by Carlo Chatrian to:
Ula Pontikos
 for Lilting / United Kingdom (Director and screenwriter: Hong Khaou) — The world of a Chinese mother mourning the untimely death of her son is suddenly disrupted by the presence of a stranger who doesn’t speak her language. Lilting is a touching and intimate film about finding the things that bring us together. Cast: Ben Whishaw, Pei-Pei Cheng, Andrew Leung, Peter Bowles, Naomi Christie, Morven Christie.

U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Use of Animation was presented by Charlotte Cook to:
Watchers of the Sky
 / U.S.A. (Director: Edet Belzberg) — Five interwoven stories of remarkable courage from Nuremberg to Rwanda, from Darfur to Syria, and from apathy to action.

A U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Intuitive Filmmaking was presented by Charlotte Cook to:
The Overnighters
 / U.S.A. (Director: Jesse Moss) — Desperate, broken men chase their dreams and run from their demons in the North Dakota oil fields. A local Pastor’s decision to help them has extraordinary and unexpected consequences.

A U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Musical Score was presented by Dana Stevens to:
The Octopus Project
 for Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter / U.S.A. (Director: David Zellner, Screenwriters: David Zellner, Nathan Zellner) — A lonely Japanese woman becomes convinced that a satchel of money buried in a fictional film is, in fact, real. Abandoning her structured life in Tokyo for the frozen Minnesota wilderness, she embarks on an impulsive quest to search for her lost mythical fortune. Cast: Rinko Kikuchi.

A U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent was presented by Dana Stevens to:
Justin Simien 
for Dear White People / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Justin Simien) — Four black students attend an Ivy League college where a riot breaks out over an “African American” themed party thrown by white students. With tongue planted firmly in cheek, the film explores racial identity in postracial America while weaving a story about forging one’s unique path in the world. Cast: Tyler Williams, Tessa Thompson, Teyonah Parris, Brandon Bell.

World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for the Delightful Ensemble Performance, and How the Director Brought His Own Unique Universe into Cinema was presented by Carlo Chatrian to:
God Help the Girl
 / United Kingdom (Director and screenwriter: Stuart Murdoch) — This musical from Stuart Murdoch of Belle & Sebastian is about some messed up boys and girls and the music they made. Cast: Emily Browning, Olly Alexander, Hannah Murray, Pierre Boulanger, Cora Bissett.

World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Cinematic Bravery was presented by Caspar Sonnen to:
We Come as Friends / France, Austria (Director: Hubert Sauper) — We Come as Friends is a modern odyssey, a science fiction–like journey in a tiny homemade flying machine into the heart of Africa. At the moment when the Sudan, Africa’s biggest country, is being divided into two nations, a “civilizing” pathology transcends the headlines—colonialism, imperialism, and yet-another holy war over resources.

The Short Film Audience Award, Presented by YouTube, based on web traffic for 15 short films that screened at the Festival and were concurrently featured on, was presented to:
Chapel Perilous
 / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Matthew Lessner) — Levi Gold is paid an unexpected visit by Robin, a door-to-door salesman with nothing to sell. The ensuing encounter forces Levi to confront his true mystical calling, and the nature of reality itself. A metaphysical comedy trip-out with Sun Araw.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Sundance 2014 Movie Reviews: 'Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead' and 'The Raid 2: Berandal'

Article first published as Sundance 2014 Movie Reviews: 'Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead' and 'The Raid 2: Berandal' on Blogcritics.

My final two films of this year’s Sundance Film Festival happened to be my most anticipated. With Sundance typically associated with the most original fare found at the local art house theaters, it’s unusual to find many sequels during the festival. Considering the originals were Sundance films, it’s fun to revisit the past with new installments. Unfortunately, Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead fails to live up to expectations; on the other hand, The Raid 2: Berandal knocks it out of the park.

DeadSnow2Picking up right where the first Dead Snow left off, we catch up with poor Martin (Vegar Hoel) as he’s attacked by Colonel Herzog (Ørjan Gamst)  finds a piece of Herzog’s sought after Nazi gold in his car. If you don’t happen to revisit the original before plopping down for the sequel, have no fear; a quick recap brings everyone up to speed. After managing to escape from Herzog’s clutches, Martin finds himself in the hospital where they successfully reattached his arm. Unfortunately, the arm really belongs to Herzog, granting Martin the power to resurrect the dead — something that comes in very handy when he needs to battle Herzog’s Nazi-zombie battalion in a fight to the err… death.

With Dead Snow 2, co-writer/director Tommy Wirkola has decided to flip the coin on his films. Where the original was more of a horror movie filled with some rather brilliant moments of visual gags and movie references, now he resorts to making a flat-out comedy with lots of gore. Perhaps Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters went to Wirkola’s head, as he introduces new American characters who uninspiringly call themselves “Zombie Squad.” Lead by Martin Starr, these characters exist for the sole purpose to broaden the films appeal — something that obviously isn’t needed considering the sequel exists in the first place.Wirkola has single-handedly ripped the heart out of his own film.

Filled to the brim with even more gore than the original, these moments work best in small doses and surprisingly get boring as the battle wages on between the four living, and the rest of the undead. The best Wirkola and co-writers Stig Frode Henriksen, Vegar Hoel can come up with are the most obvious with characters stopping to explain the references. Considering they’re mainly focused on Star Wars shows that they didn’t need to. Let the visual references sort themselves out, fanboys will get them, the force is strong with them (this is the kind of joke to expect FYI). Wirkola looked like his career was going to be promising after Hansel & Gretel and the first Dead Snow; however, now it looks like it’s headed for a quicker death than any of the resurrected in Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead.

Raid2On the other hand, Gareth Evans brings everything that made The Raid: Redemption such a success and raised the bar. Yes, The Raid 2: Berandal is going to be the best action film of the year, and my favorite film of the festival. The question is, how mutilated will its theatrical release be? Things here are even more wild and bloody and there’s no way the cut shown at Sundance will make it through the MPAA. At least seeing how the first film made its way to Blu-ray in an unrated cut means that fans will eventually get to see it as originally intended. Something I absolutely cannot wait to watch over and over. Buzz around Sundance was making the comparison that The Raid 2 is to The Raid as The Dark Knight was to Batman Begins. Does it live up to that kind of hype? Absolutely!

Picking up shortly after the first film ends, we find Rama’s (Iko Uwais) brother Andi (Donny Alamsyah) quickly dispatched by the film’s villain Bejo (Alex Abbad). Rama wants revenge, and is asked to join an undercover unit to infiltrate the Jakarta crime lords and flush out the corruption within the police force. Now, Rama finds himself imprisoned where he must earn the trust of Ucok (Arifin Putra), son of Bangun (Tio Pakusadewo), who leads the syndicate in conjunction with the Japanese, lead by Goto (Kenichi Endo). With the help of Bangun’s right hand man Eka (Oka Antara), Rama must now fight his way through the syndicate leading him on a fight to the finish against not only the crime bosses, but their deadly assassins Baseball Bat Man (Very Tri Yulisman), Hammer Girl (Julie Estelle), and the deadliest of all, Prakoso (Yayan Ruhian, aka Mad Dog from the first film).

Bigger is definitely better in Berandal, as Gareth Evans stages the most elaborate and mindbogglingly filmed action scenes the likes we’ve never seen. For anyone who thinks that action movies have been getting a little mundane over the years, Berandal is a much needed shot of adrenaline. Many shots appear as one take, but most of the extended shots actually consist of as many as 15 different takes. I could go on and on about how amazing the film is, but anyone who’s seen the first Raid knows what to expect — to a point. There are some huge set pieces to assault the senses and Evans’ career is about to explode, but we can only hope that his films remain a one-show pony as they have been. There’s no need for Evans to go mainstream because his films already have an audience. And considering he’s already working on The Raid 3 shows there’s no slowing him down and that we all have something to look forward to.

Photos courtesy of Sundance Institute

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Sundance 2014 Movie Review: 'Hellion'

Article first published as Sundance 2014 Movie Review: 'Hellion' on Blogcritics.

With Breaking Bad coming to an end, we don’t get our weekly dose of Jesse Pinkman. But at least we can find some chances of watching Aaron Paul in action on the big screen. For anyone with a bad itch to scratch, the video game adaptation of Need for Speed is coming our way on March 14, but his Sundance film Hellion will be a nice departure from caricature for him once audiences can finally see it. Something he already proved in the 2012 Sundance entry Smashed.

Hellion1In Hellion, Paul plays Hollis, a grieving father of two: 13-year-old Jacob (Josh Wiggins) and younger brother Wes (Deke Garner). Jacob plays the titular character whose childhood is spiraling out of control as he deals with his mother’s passing in his own way: vandalism and delinquency. Juliette Lewis plays Hollis’ sister and loves her nephews, wishing there was an easier way to deal with the circumstances. Soon enough, Jacob winds up getting Wes taken away from Hollis and given custody to his aunt. Meanwhile, Jacob keeps digging a deeper hole as he tries to find a way for them to get back Wes and one of Jacob’s friends coming up with a dangerous plan.

As we saw in Breaking Bad, Paul certainly knows how to turn on the waterworks. Something most male actors aren’t required to do very often. Bearded and worn, Paul delivers an all new character from his Pinkman persona, giving a powerful performance of a father at the end of his rope. Lewis is on a comeback of likeability between this and August: Osage County, finally learning that she doesn’t have to use her typical speech impediment-stylized way of talking.

As Jacob, Wiggins gives a fantastic portrayal of a troubled youth lashing out against a world he can’t figure out his place in. Writer/director Kat Chandler expands Hellion from her 2012 Sundance short into a tear jerker of a film — even if she uses way too much shaky cam. Hopefully, sooner than later, audiences will get to see that there’s more to Paul than just Breaking Bad.

Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Friday, January 24, 2014

Sundance 2014 Movie Reviews: 'God Help the Girl' and 'Hits'

Article first published as Sundance 2014 Movie Reviews: 'God Help the Girl' and 'Hits' on Blogcritics.

If there’s one thing I’m sure of as of this writing, it’s that I have only had to suffer through two horrible films at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. And the two couldn’t be more different.

GodHelptheGirlGod Help the Girl stars Emily Browning as Eve, who spends her time between being stuck in a Glasgow, Scotland rehab center and making escapes back into the real world. On one such outing, she is taken in by James (Olly Alexander) after she has an episode during a concert. The two form an instant friendship, with James introducing Eve to his music student Cass (Hannah Murray). The three decide to form a band while they spend the rest of the time canoeing and facing the back and forth of unrequited love.

Did I mention God Help the Girl is a musical? Well, unfortunately, it is. And built around Belle & Sebastian songs filled with nonsensical lyrics that are each as unmemorable as the previous. Writer/director Stuart Murdoch has brought his album of the same name to the big screen in one of the most boring musicals in movie history. Watching Emily Browning gaze vacantly into the camera — literally — as she lip-syncs along is astounding dull. Not to mention that considering there’s a choreographer credit I thought maybe there’d be more dance sequences to go with the songs. But even when there is they consist of some pretty minor moves. The one bright spot is Murray, who lights up all of her scenes bringing an amusing naïveté to Cass, but all I could think of as I left the theater was “God Help the Movie.”

HitsPic1Walking into the second worst film of the festival, I had pretty high hopes. David Cross writes and directs Hits, an astoundingly dull satire of the YouTube generation and their quest for undeserved fame online. Our lead character Dave Stuben (Matt Walsh) accidentally finds himself the center of a viral video avalanche as he crusades to have his city’s potholes filled. Meanwhile, his daughter Katelyn (Meredith Hagner) is so obsessed with getting on The Voice that she’ll do pretty much anything — winding up in the crosshairs of unwanted fame when a sex tape leaks online. An extended subplot involves a group of marauding hipsters who get swallowed up in their own excess along the way.

David Cross is so above this material that it astounds me that he is the sole person responsible for this dreck. Being able to count the times I laughed using only my fingers isn’t even the worst of it. Just try not falling asleep as one scene careens into another where even less happens than the scene prior. My colleagues laughed a lot during the final ten minutes where at a public city council meeting Dave makes his final stand. But as Cross finally unleashes his comedic abilities he wastes them in a torrent of racist bigotry. Had the film been as mean-spirited as this final scene it would have felt like the movie was trying to make a point. As it stands, there was none, other than to poke a little fun at the hipster scene, who by the way, were in attendance and seemed to be the only ones laughing. Considering the jokes are aimed at them says even more about them than the film ever could. Avoid both all costs.

Photos courtesy of Sundance Institute

Sundance 2014 Movie Reviews: 'The Skeleton Twins,' 'Obvious Child,' and 'Happy Christmas'

Article first published as Sundance 2014 Movie Reviews: 'The Skeleton Twins,' 'Obvious Child,' and 'Happy Christmas' on Blogcritics.

What would Sundance be without low budget comedies? The best of the bunch include a duo of Saturday Night Live alumni, a fired SNL comedienne, and a tale of self-destruction from a Sundance alumnus.

SkeletonTwinsThe Skeleton Twins stars Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader as a pair of the world’s most loveable twins. Milo (Hader) has just been hospitalized after an attempted suicide the same day Maggie (Wiig) is stopped from doing the same thing when she gets the call about Milo. Now, Milo comes to live with Maggie for a while as the two begin to deal with their 10-year separation and come to terms with themselves and each other.

Wiig and Hader are phenomenal together — something we already know — and first-time director Craig Johnson makes a hilarious, sweet, and sometimes demented dysfunctional comedy. Luke Wilson plays Wiig’s husband Lance, who just may be the nicest guy on the planet, while Ty Burrell plays Hader’s high school teacher flame Rich, who struggles with his own sexuality. Johnson and co-writer Mark Heyman have crafted a fantastic debut and should be headed for theaters not just because of the star power. The film speaks for itself with Hader turning on audiences’ waterworks when they’re not doubled over during the world’s funniest lip syncing duet.

A117_C002_0418MHObvious Child finds former-SNL member Jenny Slate starring as Donna; a woman in her late 20s whose life is getting the upper hand while she’s stuck in her own arrested development. She spends her nights performing standup comedy where one night her boyfriend becomes disgruntled over her true life anecdotes, confesses he’s sleeping with her friend, and dumps her in the bathroom. Not knowing how to deal with the breakup she gets drunk and sleeps with Max (Jake Lacy) and plays a wicked game of Russian roulette with her vagina and figures out she’s pregnant. Now, Donna must face the best/worst Valentine ’s Day ever as she awaits her planned abortion while dealing with the rollercoaster of starring in her own real-life romantic-comedy.

During Jenny Slate’s short-lived stint on SNL, I never found her particularly funny. She never stood out against the rest of the female performers, but maybe her firing was for the best. Writer/director Gillian Robespierre expands her original short of the same name from 2009 to deliver what will wind up being one of 2014’s funniest movies. Slate has a tendency to get a little too extreme with some of the material, but her performance is kept grounded by the supporting cast. Lacy makes a fantastic rom-com lead and Gaby Hoffman gets to squeeze in her own hilarity as Donna’s best friend. Be warned, Obvious Child is a raunchy affair of the highest order, but has a sweet streak to complement its raw honesty.

HappyChristmasHappy Christmas comes from Sundance regular Joe Swanberg as he brings the self-destructive tale of a young woman named Jenny (Anna Kendrick) who has just broken up with her boyfriend. She moves in with her brother Jeff (Swanberg) to get her life in order, but only manages to make it worse. After blacking out at a party with her friend Carson (Lena Dunham), Jeff’s wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey, who gets to use her real accent!) doesn’t trust her living there with a baby in the house. Eventually, the three begin to realize that they may need each other more than they ever knew.

Swanberg has made his second most-mainstream film yet with Happy Christmas. Coming on the heels of his last film, Drinking Buddies, it’s nice to see Swanberg hasn’t lost his touch with presenting real-life situations on film. Kendrick is amazing as always with Lynskey showing some real vulnerability behind Kelly as she slowly starts coming out of her shell. Mark Webber is also a nice touch as Jenny’s pot-dealer turned possible boyfriend even if it was a little odd to see Stephen Stills groping Scott Pilgrim’s sister. Considering how Swanberg’s films are typically released, we should see this on VOD soon enough, or eventually on Netflix. A great choice either way.

Photos courtesy of Sundance Institute

Sundance 2014 Movie Review: 'Jamie Marks is Dead'

Article first published as Sundance 2014 Movie Review: 'Jamie Marks is Dead' on Blogcritics.

If there’s one thing Guillermo del Toro’s Devil’s Backbone didn’t have, or need, was a bisexual love triangle between the living and the dead. But here we are with just that in Jamie Marks Is Dead. Writer/Director Carter Smith makes his debut adapting the novel by Christopher Barzak into a boring escape of young love between high schoolers Adam (Cameron Monaghan), Gracie (Morgan Saylor), and the ghost of Jamie Marks (Noah Silver).

JamieMarks3One morning, Gracie is down by the river when she comes across the dead body of Jamie Marks holding a suicide note. At school, students and teachers pretend that they’re sorrowful over the tragic event even though had no friends and was bullied. Adam decides to check out the scene of Jamie’s death and comes across Gracie who’s left candles burning in memoriam. Adam and Gracie are attracted to each other and spend their time dry humping and trying to ignore Jamie’s ghost who lingers outside Gracie’s house. Eventually, Adam steps up to try and help Jamie come to terms with his death, while his interaction makes everyone around him — including his mother Linda (Liv Tyler) — start to question Adam’s sanity.

If you’re looking for a modern day version of The Devil’s Backbone reimagined by Larry Clark, then Jamie Marks Is Dead is the film for you. Between the dry humping, oral sex, and teenage pubic hair — if the film is picked up for distribution — cuts will be made. While Carter Smith may be aiming for teenage authenticity, it’s probably going to be a little much for the MPAA. But I’m not quite sure who the film is made for, aside from maybe fans of the book.

A few things happen that might make sense in written form are eye-rollingly awkward on film. Jamie keeps asking Adam to whisper words into his ear which seem to have an orgasmic effect on him, but we’re never told why Jamie wants to hear these really sweet-nothings. Smith does do a good job of keeping things moody and brooding, but unfortunately, atmosphere alone does not make a good movie. Jamie Marks Is Dead isn’t a complete wash, but a more appropriate title might be Jamie Marks Is Bleh.

Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Sundance 2014 Movie Review: 'The Guest'

Article first published as Sundance 2014 Movie Review: 'The Guest' on Blogcritics.

Last August, director Adam Wingard whipped up the horror genre into a deserved frenzy when Lionsgate finally released his You’re Next. Filled with amazing kills and huge laughs, it was a breath of fresh air in a year already full of surprisingly terrific genre offerings. Now, Wingard brings The Guest to the Park City at Midnight category at this year’s Sundance. With more energy than most films know what to do with, Wingard — along with his partner in crime, writer Simon Barrett — have given us the love child of Starman, The Terminator, and The Bourne films that we didn’t know we needed.

TheGuestDavid (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens) arrives at the home of the Petersons’ who are still grieving the loss of their son Caleb in Afghanistan. While Luke (Brendan Meyer) takes a liking to David as he helps him gain some self-confidence to deal with bullying at school, his sister Anna (Maika Monroe) just doesn’t trust him. Tension starts to mount when one of Anna’s friends is killed, and her father’s (Leland Orser) co-worker commits suicide, prompting him to get a promotion. And she’s flat out told by the Army that David is actually “David,” a participant in an experiment that’s turned him into a deadly weapon on the run.

Say what you want about Wingard, but he’ll do whatever he wants. The Guest is a welcome return to the anything goes and bigger is better action clichés of the ’80s. The music instantly calls to mind the films of John Carpenter — another lesson learned from making You’re Next. Wingard isn’t scared to jump from comedy to action to possible sci-fi at the blink of an eye here. Keep your eyes peeled for some self-referential Easter eggs.

TheGuest2Wingard also outdoes most big budget action films on what can only be assumed as one percent of their budgets. The final scene is another hilarious gotcha moment that will make it hard to wipe the grin off your face leaving the theater. Stevens is hilarious as the murderous heartthrob and, if this was the ’80s, he’d probably have posters hung up on geek girls’ walls. Wingard is at the top of his game with no sign of slowing down, and I can’t wait to see what he delivers next.

Photos courtesy of Sundance Institute

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Sundance 2014 Movie Reviews: 'Blue Ruin' and 'Cold in July'

Article first published as Sundance 2014 Movie Reviews: 'Blue Ruin' and 'Cold in July' on Blogcritics.

I saw two revenge-thrillers that were both brilliant nail-biters. Blue Ruin comes from writer/director Jeremy Saulnier — the man behind the cult favorite Murder Party — and the second sees the return of co-writer/director Jim Mickle (last year’s We Are What We Are) with Cold in July. One is on his way to becoming a seasoned genre vet with no sign of slowing down venturing from the Midnight section to U.S. Dramatic Competition, and the other makes an ambitious leap forward from his no-budget origins in the Next category. I can’t wait to see both of these again!

BlueRuin1Blue Ruin features Macon Blair in a star-making debut as off-the-grid loner Dwight who has just learned that the man who killed his parents has been let out of prison on parole. In a fit of vigilantism, Dwight kills the man in a bathroom stall and heads to see his sister Sam (Amy Hargreaves). Little does Dwight know that the killed man’s family doesn’t sit well with Dwight’s act of revenge and now Dwight, and Sam’s whole family, are targets of the Cleland clan.

Full of nail-biting suspense and a finale that’ll leave you breathless, Saulnier has concocted my favorite film of the festival so far. Full of plot twists and welcome doses of humor, everyone is at the top of their game for what could have been a minor blip of a film. Devin Ratray nearly steals the show as Dwight’s long-lost friend, but Blair more than carries the load and provides a true tour de force. Already acquired by Radius/TWC (The Weinstein Company) after its debut at the Cannes Film Festival last year, you’ll be able to catch this when it releases on April 25. A must see of the highest order.

A008_C014_07319OJim Mickle’s Cold in July is a film best shrouded in secrecy. It’s almost too bad it’s based on the novel by Joe R. Lansdale from 1989. The story involves Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) who shoots a burglar in the middle of the night in East Texas 1989. Richard is told he did the right thing and that the perpetrator was named Freddy Russel. The next day, Sheriff Price (co-writer Nick Damici) informs Richard that Freddy’s father Ben (Sam Shepard) has just been released from prison. Soon enough, Ben comes prowling around and the two men learn that there are far more sinister things afoot, starting with the fact that Richard did not shoot Freddy and is still alive. Now, Richard and Ben join forces to figure out what’s really going on, calling upon the help of Jim Bob (Don Johnson), wallowing into a string of shocking events.

Mickle provides his usual slow-burn effect for about the first hour leading up to the union of Richard and Ben. From there, the twists keep piling up and you’ll never guess where things are headed, or where the road leads. Hall is fantastic as the working-class father in over his head, with Shepard providing a sinister portrayal of a vengeful father not scared to get blood on his hands. But it’s surprisingly Don Johnson who barges in to steal the show. Jim Bob is a larger-than-life character to be reckoned with, but Hall and Shepard manage to carry the weight right through to the bitter end. Another shocking masterpiece from Mickle should come as no surprise. He’s never done wrong switching gears from his zombie debut (Mulberry St.), to vampires (Stake Land), to cannibals (We Are What We Are), to revenge thriller. Cold in July is just another log on the fire that is Mickle’s career and it’s burning brighter than ever.

Photos courtesy of Sundance Institute

Sundance 2014 Movie Reviews: 'Life After Beth' and 'Cooties'

Article first published as Sundance 2014 Movie Reviews: 'Life After Beth' and 'Cooties' on Blogcritics.

Horror films are nothing new at Sundance. While they typically wind up in the Midnight category, Life After Beth — a zombie movie — has wedged its way into the U.S. Dramatic. Meanwhile, Cooties — more zombie-esque — fits the bill for the Midnight category, but is nowhere near as watchable. Both throw their jokes with an aimless effort, but neither are particularly memorable as some of the past Midnight entries — Tucker and Dale vs. Evil and both of the V/H/S films.

DSC_0255.JPGLife After Beth features Aubrey Plaza as the title character, playing the kind of part she was born to play when she returns from the dead after a snake bite. Beth’s boyfriend Zach (Dane DeHaan) is in mourning over her death, spending his free time staying out till 3 a.m. playing chess with her father, Maury (John C. Reilly). After Beth’s parents start ignoring him, he spies Beth walking through the house, and it turns out that she has either come back as a zombie, or resurrected. Now, Zach has to deal with a new Beth who seems to have incredible strength, a lust in her loins, an affection for jazz, and a boiling hunger, as the zombie apocalypse spreads through town.

DeHaan and Plaza make a nice enough couple, and thankfully, writer/director Jeff Baena runs with his concept to the very end. Reilly and Molly Shannon get the most laughs as Beth’s overprotective parents, while Cheryl Hines and Paul Reiser seem like stunt casting, and poor Anna Kendrick is completely wasted as she’s only in a couple of scenes. The gore effects are kept to a minimum, but it was fun to watch Beth’s slow transformation into a full-blown zombie. It comes off as a cross between World War Z, Warm Bodies, and My Boyfriend’s Back. The gore effects are surprisingly kept to a minimum but are effective whenever something gross finally happens. Considering the cast involved, don’t be surprised to find this one making its way to theaters or at least VOD.

And then there’s Cooties. A movie that has one of the funniest and grossest opening sequences I’ve ever seen, only to be followed up with an abysmal descent into mediocrity and brazen inconsistency. Elijah Wood stars as Clint, a substitute teacher called in to his old elementary school where a rancid chicken nugget has given the students a case of cooties and turned the children into rabid monsters. Trapped inside the school, Clint joins forces with the rest of the teachers — Lucy (Alison Pill), Wade (Rainn Wilson), Doug (Leigh Whannell), Rebekka (Nasim Pedrad), and Tracy (Jack McBrayer) — as they try to make their last stand and escape with their lives.

While there are some amusing, obviously adlibbed lines, writers Whannell (the other half behind the original Saw and both Insidious films) and Ian Brennan (co-creator of Glee and playing the school principal) think every line they’ve written is funnier than it actually is. Some of the cast could have been replaced resulting in a possibly funnier movie. Pill seems like she’s trying to act like Kristen Bell and Wilson’s jealous gym instructor would have been better played by David Koechner.

Sadly, Cooties also drags on when it’s merely only 96 minutes, never a good sign when you’re bored in a comedy. Armed with a few fun visual gags — the grotesque nugget, a ripped off pony tail, intestines used to jump rope, and a severed head in lieu of a tetherball — the dialogue is rarely funny and co-directors Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion careen their tone from scene to scene. There’s also an underlying mean streak that deflates the fun out of the movie at will. I have been waiting to see this one for what seems like forever, reading about it in the horror news sections online but unfortunately, Cooties is never infectious and should be avoided like the plague.

Photos courtesy of Sundance Institute

Sundance 2014 Movie Reviews: 'Life Itself,' 'Ivory Tower,' 'What We Do in the Shadows'

Article first published as Sundance 2014 Movie Reviews: 'Life Itself,' 'Ivory Tower,' 'What We Do in the Shadows' on Blogcritics.

At the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, 40 entries are split between the U.S. and World Cinema Documentary categories and Doc Premieres. I readily admit that I don’t have a fondness for documentary cinema and usually don’t see very many; if all year. This year’s festival was no exception: I saw two. Thankfully, they were both well worth my time. I’ve included a mockumentary as well, because it’s basically the same format.

Roger Ebert & Gene SiskelThe better of the two is unsurprisingly Life Itself. A Doc Premiere about the one and only Roger Ebert. Director Steve James bases the documentary on Ebert’s same-titled book. James covers a lot of ground, which is no surprise considering how long Ebert has been in the spotlight. From his early days as a sports reporter, being handed film critic duties at the Chicago Sun-Times, a bout with alcoholism, the TV show with Gene Siskel, his marriage to Chaz Ebert, and finally, his battle with cancer, the life of Roger Ebert is definitely one for the books.

Considering he wrote the book himself, and never wants to keep anything a secret from the public, we even get treated to the one thing people never see in a rehab situation: suction. There’s not much anyone can say about Ebert that hasn’t already been said. The man is a legend, and, without a doubt, the main inspiration for anyone within the realm of film criticism. Life Itself is both hilarious (just wait till you see the Siskel & Ebert outtakes) and heart wrenching, throwing a final spotlight on a man in only the most fitting fashion.

Ivory Tower is from CNN Films and brings up two questions: is college overpriced, and is it worth the cost anymore? Of course, director Andrew Rossi never delivers a definitive answer, because, let’s face it, there really isn’t one, but he also fails to pick a side as well. Featuring interviews with Andrew Delbanco (Director of American Studies at Columbia University), Anya Kamenetz (author of Generation Debt: The New Economics of Being Young), and Daphne Koller (cofounder of Coursera), Ivory Tower works best as an elongated news program but also features a few fascinating subjects.


The student occupancy at Cooper Union in New York builds tension without any resolve — they edit the circumstances to feel like a boiling thriller, but as often happens in real life, there has yet to be any final resolve. The students fight to keep their education free, but before the credits roll we are told that the class of 2018 will be the first to pay tuition in more than 150 years. They also shed light on schools such as Deep Springs College and online courses like Coursera, Udacity, and the MOOC (massive open online course) EdX founded by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. The information provided is very eye-opening, but is a lot to take in at once.

What We Do in the Shadows is a hilarious vampire mockumentary from Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) and Taika Waititi. Both are no strangers to Sundance — after Eagle vs. Shark and Boy — and have returned with a Midnight selection that is literally a bloody good time. A true crowd-pleaser, Shadows follows a group of filmmakers granted access to a Wellington flat of vamps consisting of Viago (Waititi), 379 years old; Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), 183 years old; Vladislav (Clement), 862 years old; Nosferatu-lookalike Peter (Ben Fransham), 8,000 years old.

We follow the hilarious bloodsuckers over the course of a few months as they prepare for the annual “Unholy Masquerade” and hear about the ins and outs that come with being creatures of the night. We also witness the birth of their newest member, Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), whose pal Stu (Stuart Rutherford) is always hanging around, and get treated to the everyday servitude of Deacon’s servant Jackie (Jackie van Beek), who is dying to be granted her promise of immortality.

Waititi and Clement hold back nothing as they spoof the living daylight out of the vampire genre, and things get even funnier whenever they run into a pack of werewolves led by Ryhs Darby. He even steals the movie with the funniest line: “We’re werewolves, not swearwolves.” That is exactly the kind of hilarious brilliance delivered through most of the scant runtime. While almost runing out of steam with a few jokes lingering far longer than they should, some stretches consist most of chuckles while we wait for something laugh-out-loud to happen, and almost always does. Expect to see this one in theaters at some point — it’s worth the wait.

Photos courtesy of Sundance Institute

Friday, January 17, 2014

Movie Review: 'Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit'

**** out of 5
105 minutes 
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and intense action, and brief strong language
Paramount Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: 'Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit' on Blogcritics.

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan character has had a bumpy, yet satisfying, history on film. Surprisingly, only four films have been made from the nine official Jack Ryan novels. Since Jack Ryan has been played by three different actors — Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, and Ben Affleck — it seems only right to not just reboot the franchise with someone younger, but to also start from scratch. That’s exactly what Paramount has done with casting Chris Pine (aka Captain James Tiberius Kirk) to kick off the franchise from the beginning, and alas, the Jack Ryan films have begun anew in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.

JackRyanPicWith a quick scene showing Ryan in college at the London School of Economics during 9/11, we skip ahead to 2003 where his chopper is shot down in Afghanistan. Avoiding paralysis, Ryan is learning to walk again where he eventually falls in love with a medical student Cathy (Keira Knightley) and is recruited by William Harper (Kevin Costner) to join the CIA. For them, he will earn his doctorate and go undercover as a financial analyst where he stumbles upon a possible terrorist attack. Promoted to field agent, Ryan is sent to Moscow to investigate hidden funds within the Cherevin Group, run by Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh). Now, Ryan is in over his head and out of his league as he attempts to uncover the truth and save the U.S. from another attack and a second depression.

For anyone worried Pine is going to just be playing Captain Kirk in another franchise, rest easy. Pine gives Ryan a sense of insecurity and he’s truly traumatized after making his first kill. Screenwriters Adam Cozad and David Koepp have gone their own way with the Ryan character, at least in the fact that they’ve started him from scratch and haven’t adapted another one of Clancy’s novels. Branagh continues to show he can deliver stellar action films, on top of adapting Shakespeare, but does rely on a little too much shaky cam when it comes time for a few key action scenes. However, a brawl in a hotel room is brutal and intense and the finale is a real nail biter. Think love child of the Bourne and Mission: Impossible films.

Audiences need not worry about Jack Ryan being a January release. Paramount has clearly stated that it was moved back from its December release to avoid competition with themselves between this, Anchorman 2, and The Wolf of Wall Street. It deserves to do well and is a great change of pace from the typical January dump month releases. Considering how abysmal 2014 kicked off last week with The Legend of Hercules — a January film if there ever was one — it just got a shot of adrenaline and is right back on track. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit kicks the new series off with a bang and hopefully additional entries will make our way sooner than later.

Photo courtesy Paramount Pictures

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

DVD Review: 'We Are What We Are' (2013)

Article first published as DVD Review: 'We Are What We Are' (2013) on Blogcritics.

With the Sundance Film Festival kicking off, it was fun to revisit Jim Mickle’s We Are What We Are — a companion piece/remake of Jorge Michel Grau’s film Somos lo que hay — which I covered at last year’s festival. A slow burn film if there ever was one, Mickle has a way of turning genre conventions on its head while relishing whichever topic he’s tackling. From zombies in Mulberry St. to vampires in Stake Land, We Are What We Are brings us a story of a family of cannibals the likes we’ve never seen. And now, We Are What We Are was finally released on DVD from Entertainment One on January 7.

WeAreCoverThe Parker family has just lost their patriarch Emma (Kassie DePaiva, Evil Dead II’s Bobby Joe to you and me) when she drowns. Now, daughters Iris (Ambyr Childers) and Rose (Julia Garner) are forced to pick up the slack. Meanwhile, their father Frank (Bill Sage) must find a way to carry on the family traditions. Outside, a storm has brought on a flood causing human bones to begin washing up in the creeks nearby the Parker’s house. Soon enough, Doc Barrow (Michael Parks) realizes that the Parkers’ mother was suffering from a rare form of Kuru Disease (linked to cannibalism in Papua New Guinea), and begins to wonder if the disappearance of his own daughter — along with at least 29 other people over the last 20 years — may have something to do with the Parker clan.

We Are What We Are comes with a healthy supply of special features. An audio commentary features co-writer/director Mickle, co-writer Nick Damici (who also plays Sheriff Meeks in the film), cinematographer Ryan Samul, along with Julia Garner and Bill Sage. Informative, enlightening, and sometimes hilarious, the group reminisces about the production and offer up lots of anecdotes; a surprisingly fun listen if you’ve already watched the film.

“An Acquired Taste: The Making of We Are What We Are” runs 55 minutes and is a behind-the-scenes peek at what it’s like to work on a film shoot. From setting up cameras to lunch breaks, everything is covered from the first day of the shoot to the last. A set of “Interviews” runs 16 minutes featuring Mickle, Sage, and Garner. As with the audio commentary, these are very fun and informative. I think these low-budget productions always tend to ramp up everyone’s enthusiasm and at least this time it’s for a deserving film.

Julia Garner, Bill Sage, Ambyr Childers, and Jack Gore
Julia Garner, Bill Sage, Ambyr Childers, Jack Gore
Everything I said in my original review still holds true: Mickle and Damici bring a brilliant slow burn to the proceedings and an ending that will knock your socks off. The final 20 minutes are unrelenting. Sage is terrifying as the tyrannical father, Childers effortlessly plays a young girl way out of her comfort zone while trying to keep traditions alive, and Garner really gives us something to chew on once she figuratively, and literally, lets her hair down.

During the interviews, Mickle says, “I kind of live by the idea you make movies that you think you’d want to see and trust that there’s enough other weirdos out there that have similar sensibilities.” Well, I am proud to admit that I am one of those weirdos and can’t wait to catch Mickle’s Sundance offering this year (Cold in July with Michael C. Hall), and anything else he has coming down the pipeline. We Are What We Are is more than a companion piece to the original; it’s a new horror classic in its own right, that should not be missed.

Blu-ray Review: 'Blind Date' (1987)

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'Blind Date' (1987) on Blogcritics.

The names Bruce Willis, Kim Basinger, John Larroquette, and Phil Hartman certainly bring you back to the ’80s, don’t they? With all of them together in a comedy from director Blake Edwards, who wouldn’t be excited? Well, back in 1987, critics sure weren’t. Blind Date opened to lukewarm reviews, but still managed to become a box office hit, paving the way for Willis in starring roles. And as hard as it is to imagine that this came out before Die Hard, it’s probably even more unimaginable for today’s audiences to think that Willis used to be heavily involved in comedy. Remember Moonlighting? Anyone? In any case, Edwards’ screwball comedy makes its Blu-ray debut on January 14.

BlindDateCoverWalter Davis (Willis) loves his job – despite dealing with grotesque sex stories dealt from a co-worker. Walter’s brother Ted (Hartman) thinks Walter works too hard and wants to set him up on a blind date. After some resistance, Walter finally agrees to go out with Nadia (Basinger). And thus begins the worst night of Walter’s life. As Walter ignores his sister-in-law Susie’s (Stephanie Faracy) warning about Nadia and alcohol because of Ted’s facetious encouragement, Nadia transforms into the wildest party animal outside a college on spring break. Things go from bad to worse as Nadia’s ex-boyfriend David (Larroquette) begins stalking them, and Nadia proceeds to ruin Walter’s life in a matter of hours. But will true love prevail? In typical rom-com fashion, you probably already know the answer. But it’s the getting there that’s the fun part.

Image Entertainment debuts Blind Date in a better-than-average transfer. As it is presented on a 25GB disc in its original 2.39:1 aspect ratio, I was worried about how the rest of the film would look considering how soft the first few scenes were. But once Walter gets to work, the image is consistently sharp, and fine detail is probably better than it was in theaters. From Willis’s suits to Basinger’s hair to pine trees and couches, the level of detail on display is quite surprising for an ’80s comedy.

BlindDatePicContrast is stable and blacks are dark but never crushing. Colors pop, especially Nadia’s red dress, but never bloom or bleed. Noise never creeps in during the night scenes and the typical anomalies never try to drag things down: banding, aliasing, all absent. The only audio track available is a pretty sad 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Normally I can review discs with the volume set around 23, but for this one, I had it cranked up to 35, and even then, I only noticed surround activity when shifting closer to the speakers. Once you find a higher listening level, it sounds quite good however. English subtitles are included, but there are no special features whatsoever. Not even a trailer.

Blind Date will never go down as a classic, but we all know Blake Edwards has cobbled together far worse. While never living up to his early career standards, it never pretends to be in the same league. But Edwards is still better than most at whipping up his farce to hilarious extremes. Willis and Basinger make a fun couple on their disastrous night out and the supporting cast – particularly Larroquette and Hartman — even steal a few scenes. Boy Meets World‘s Mr. Feeny (William Daniels) also gets some big laughs. I used to watch Blind Date quite often back in the time of VHS and I remember being excited to see the film finally available in widescreen for its DVD release. Now, Blind Date looks better than ever on Blu-ray and is worth a purchase, even if it is a bare-bones release.

Blu-ray Review: 'A Single Shot'

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'A Single Shot' on Blogcritics.

Back in 1998, director Sam Raimi proved he could still deliver a nail biter without his signature graphic content in A Simple Plan. Author Scott B. Smith adapted his own best-seller about a group of backwoods folks’ lives turned upside down after finding some lost cash into a classic thriller. Now, author Matthew F. Jones has adapted his own novel, A Single Shot, into another Simple Plan-esque thriller about another lonely woodsman up to his neck in a dangerous situation — with less satisfactory results — on Blu-ray January 14.

SingleShotCoverJohn Moon (Sam Rockwell) lives alone in a trailer after his wife Moira (Kelly Reilly) leaves him and takes their son. One morning while John is out hunting deer, he accidentally shoots and kills a young woman, leaving John to find a container with $100,000. John hides the body and takes the money to try to win back his estranged wife. Meanwhile, John begins to receive threatening phone calls and his dog is shot. Soon enough, the dead girl shows up again with a note attached, and now John must find out who he’s stolen the money from with red herrings — including local lawyer Pitt (William H. Macy), the tattooed Obadiah (Joe Anderson), and new-face-in-town Waylon (Jason Isaacs) — piling up around him.

If there’s one thing about reviewing Blu-ray discs for Well Go USA, it’s their exception presentations. A Single Shot shoots onto Blu-ray on a 25GB disc, framed in its 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Cinematographer Eduard Grau makes the most of filming in the woods. It’s interesting to see just how much director Rosenthal has degraded the picture in post-production, because in one of the special features we see on-location shooting where it’s mostly bright and sunny whereas the film takes on a very cold and muted look. Detail is always on spot on but the color desaturation sucks the life out of contrast of skin tones à la Winter’s Bone. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio keeps the ambience alive with the use of surrounds throughout, making you feel like you’re out in the woods alongside John in his misadventures. An optional 2.0 Dolby Digital track is also available, along with English subtitles.

SingleShotPicSpecial features are scant, even while being lengthy. Unfortunately, they’re very repetitive. “The Making of A Single Shot” runs 26 minutes and features on-set footage, along with interviews with the cast and crew. Director Rosenthal, screenwriter Jones, and the cast all talk up the film as expected. “Interviews” is full-length versions of the interviews with Rockwell and Macy. A trailer for the film is included and pre-menu previews include: Child of God, McCanick, and The Truth About Emanuel.

Director David M. Rosenthal does his best at keeping things cold and menacing, but fails to inject the ending with appropriate irony to make you care how things turn out. Sam Rockwell is as good as he always is, maintaining his crown for most underrated actor. While he continues to star in low-budget affairs, his Justin Hammer in Iron Man 2 was one of the year’s most memorable characters.

As for the supporting cast, Anderson turns in a decent enough performance with his limited screentime, while Isaacs is completely wasted and unrecognizable. Jeffrey Wright is awful, mumbling his way through every line of dialogue; you can never tell what he’s saying. Considering how unnecessary he is to the plot, he could have been cut altogether to give the film a better pace as the 116 minute runtime is way too long. In the end, watching Rockwell perform may be reason enough to check out A Single Shot, however, the film could have used a shot in the arm of adrenaline. A rental is your best bet.

Blu-ray 3D Review: 'Run' (2013)

Article first published as Blu-ray 3D Review: 'Run' (2013) on Blogcritics.

The world of parkour (created by David Belle) invaded the U.S. when Sébastien Foucan’s character used it in a chase sequence to escape James Bond in Casino Royale. Until then, it was flying under the radar as the main means of action in Luc Besson’s District B13. It then was used to varying degrees of entertainment — even if in small bursts — in films from Tony Jaa’s The Protector and Ong Bak to The Bourne Ultimatum, Supremacy, and Live Free or Die Hard. Even a cold opening of The Office featured the cast doing their own version of parkour with hilarious results.

Run3DCoverUsing your body, surroundings, and momentum to propel yourself from point A to B as efficiently as possible usually makes for some spectacular action sequences. So it was only a matter of time before a movie tried to focus on the art of the act, and be filmed in 3D. Unfortunately, it also came in the form of the new “thriller” Run, on Blu-ray 3D January 14. Writer/director Simone Bartesaghi has cobbled together what can only be summed up as a Step Up rip-off infused with enough dubstep to give you a nosebleed or jump out of a window. Filled to the brim with actors who have no idea what they’re doing in front of the camera, it makes parkour look way more simple than it really is.

As for the story, Bartesaghi — along with co-writer Joseph Michael Lagana — plunge us into the nomadic world of teenager Daniel (William Moseley) and his father Mike (Adrian Pasdar). Together, they move from city to city, with Daniel looting local jewelry stores. Turns out, Mike has kept them on the move after the death of his wife who was shot and then died giving birth to Daniel. The time has come for Mike to make peace with the death of his wife, and he moves them back to New York City to face his ex-brother-in-law Jeremiah (Eric Roberts). Meanwhile at his new school Daniel makes friends who also love parkour, even if at first he pretends he doesn’t know what it is. But soon enough, a fire at the local hangout forces Daniel to use his skills to save a friend, and it isn’t long before the past catches up with them, putting Mike, Daniel, and Daniel’s hopeful-girlfriend Emily’s (Kelsey Chow) lives in danger.

While Run may be filled with mediocre action scenes, at least Millennium Entertainment brings it to life with an exceptional 3D presentation. With both the 3D and 2D versions on a 50GB disc, you wouldn’t think the quality would take a hit in either dimension. Unfortunately, the 2D is a mess. As for the 3D, depth extends far into your screen with characters leaping, bounding, or walking in their own space, never looking like popup-book characters. Blacks are dark and inky, never giving way to crush. Banding and noise never rear their heads. But on the 2D side, things look atrocious. Anomalies prevail from the first shot, with noise, banding, aliasing, motion blur, and even jutter make for an abysmal viewing experience. A fireball even looks like molten lava spewing from a window during an explosion. Run was filmed in 3D and if you’re going to bother with the movie, never watch it in 2D.

RunPicAs for the audio, the 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track makes the dubstep as low-end-hitting as you can bear. The music gets the most use out of the surrounds, and while I can’t stand the style of Tree Adams’ dubstep score, fans will want to crank things up fo sho yo. English and Spanish subtitles are available. The only special feature is “The Making of Run,” running a quick five minutes, featuring the cast and crew talking about their experience making the movie. They all sound like they had way more fun in the production than you’ll ever have watching it. Pre-menu trailers are attached for Parkland, Ninja II, Charlie Countryman, and Hell Baby.

If you’re looking for a movie that features slow motion shots of hot girls walking in front of the camera, lame references to the Spider-man films, and fatherly advice in the form of: “Don’t trust people because they might hurt you, don’t trust them because they will,” then Run is right up your alley. While it may feature an exemplary 3D presentation, the wooden acting and horrible storytelling only further dumb down the action. Not even teens will find any reason to purchase this, and 3D owners would never think twice about the title to begin with. Run is direct-to-video filmmaking at its corniest.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Movie Review: 'The Legend of Hercules'

Zero stars
99 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense combat action and violence, and for some sensuality
Summit Entertainment

Article first published as Movie Review: 'The Legend of Hercules' on Blogcritics.

It seems like there are always movies opening within months of each other featuring the exact same plot, with one always being way better than the other. Last year, we saw two movies centered on terrorists taking over the White House in Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down. This year, we’ll have two very different takes on the heroics of Hercules. While we may have to wait until July to see Dwayne Johnson as the titular son of Zeus, for now be warned that Twilight’s Kellan Lutz is the title character in The Legend of Hercules.

In 1200 B.C., King Amphitryon (Scott Adkins) has just defeated Argos in the name of Queen Alcmene (Roxanne McKee) for its gold. Alcmene finds her husband’s actions to be rather unruly and seeks out help at the foot of a Zeus statue. She prays to the god to offer her a chance to birth a child that will one day grow to defeat Amphitryon and save the land from tyranny. Soon enough, Alcmene is with child and births a baby boy named Hercules. Amphitryon smells betrayal on his wife and 20 years later sends Hercules (Lutz) to battle in Egypt and die, only to be taken in by Lucius (Kenneth Cranham) as a fighter, Gladiator style. Now, Hercules must return home to defeat his father with Sotiris (Liam McIntyre) by his side, to save the love of his life, Hebe (Gaia Weiss), from being forced to marry his half-brother Iphicles (Liam Garrigan) and reclaim the land from his step-father.

Oh boy, where to even begin—as if the plot isn’t convoluted enough. I suppose all the blame usually falls on the director. And boy, has this director fallen. Renny Harlin was one of the top action directors at one point, but looking back now he only has three actually good action films under his belt: Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger, and The Long Kiss Goodnight. I can’t help but wonder if his name is more synonymous with being married to Geena Davis, who together produced the pirate flop Cutthroat Island. Anyway, there’s nothing on display here to show Harlin’s action background. If anything, Zack Snyder should have gotten a co-directing mention considering all the slow motion shots.

I haven’t even mentioned the 3D! You could call this 3D porn with how many spears and arrows Harlin throws at the screen. There also seemed to be a lot of stuff blowing in the air back in 1200 B.C. This is, without a doubt one, of the worst 3D conversions since Clash of the Titans. While technology has come a long way, this sends it back to the Stone Age. Beware any form of burning torch or fire pit if you attend a 3D viewing. I literally could not look at the screen in some scenes. One wide shot of a crowd winds up looking like a magic eye puzzle.

There’s also a throwaway line that made me laugh till I cried when a soldier blurts, “Out of my way woman.” This is saying something, considering how much laughing I did through the whole thing. The cast is either set on autopilot or overdrive. Garrigan and Adkins, in particular, chew scenery like they’re at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Weirdly, Hercules only has his God-like powers when it’s convenient to the plot. Disney’s animated feature was a better retelling than this. I’m literally wasting words here however. All you really need to know is that 2014 is off to a dismal start when The Legend of Hercules kicks things off with what will probably be one of the funniest movies of the year—even if unintentionally.

Photos courtesy Summit Entertainment