Monday, March 31, 2014

Blu-ray Review: ‘Knights of Badassdom’

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: ‘Knights of Badassdom’ on Blogcritics.

Sometimes a film can overcome release date hell, sometimes it can’t. The best examples those that manage to rise above their release dates are Cabin in the Woods and Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, two brilliant horror-comedies that exceeded expectations once finally released to the public. In fact, a Tucker & Dale sequel has just been announced.

Now, another film that has been sitting on a studio shelf has arrived with little to no fanfare — let alone the director’s original vision — as Entertainment One debuts Joe Lynch’s LARP (Live Action Role-Playing) comedy Knights of Badassdom on Blu-ray April 1. Expectations are certainly high as news stories have built hype around the next big thing in cult film classics. Does it measure up or fail miserably? Are huzzahs in order? Yes and no.

BadassdomCoverKnights of Badassdom opens on a set of friends — Hung (Peter Dinklage), Eric (Steve Zahn), Joe (Ryan Kwanten), and Ronnie (Jimi Simpson) — as they suffer a case of LARPus interruptus by the brutish Randy (W. Earl Brown) and his friends. Now, we find Joe being dumped by his girlfriend Beth (Margarita Levieva), so Hung and Eric get him drunk and stoned and drag him to their weekend LARP game in the Washington woods. Before they can get started, Ronnie reminds Eric that he must complete an animation spell upon Joe, using an ancient book that summons a succubus from hell in the form of Beth. Now, all hell breaks loose upon the merry band of LARPers as the demon starts picking off the players one by one and only the right incantation — along with the help of Gwen (Summer Glau) and Lando (Danny Pudi) — can send the demon back from whence it came.

Knights of Badassdom may have some quality issues as far as the film itself goes, but as for the Blu-ray quality, it delivers in spades. Housed on a 50GB disc in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio, this may not be a reference-quality presentation, but it’s pretty close to flawless. Colors are natural with fine detail always on display. From tree branches to ground cover, to Gwen’s fishnet stockings and every other costume, detail comes in crystal clear; something that also helps when the succubus gets transformed into its man-in-suit demon later in the film. Blacks never give in to crush and noise is completely absent. There were two blink and you’ll miss them moments of banding, the most noticeable on a restroom wall behind Pudi when he ducks for cover. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is rather front heavy, but the surrounds kick in towards the end when the action starts to ramp up and bass keeps the heavy metal soundtrack rocking. An additional 5.1 Dolby Digital track is included, along with English subtitles.

The special features are on the weak side, consisting of extremely short on-set interviews mixed with film clips, all barely passing the one-minute mark. Included are: “Steve Zahn Interview” (1:05), “Peter Dinklage Interview” (1:19); “Summer Glau Hottie Montage” (1:59), “Horr-o-medy 1” (1:11), “Horr-o-medy 2” (1:05). “Director Joe Lynch Interview” runs a longer 7 minutes, but feels especially repetitive if you’ve already watched the longest special feature: the San Diego Comic-Con Panel (from 2012!), which runs a whopping 48 minutes. The panel includes Lynch, Kwanten, Simpson, Pudi, Levieva, Glau, and Dinklage.

BadassdomPicThe best thing Knights of Badassdom has going for it is definitely Dinklage who seems right at home as a spoof of sorts to his Game of Thrones character. And it’s a nice change of pace to see Glau having fun in a role, seeing her smile is a nice change of pace from her roles as either a schizophrenic prodigy (Firefly) or a Terminator (The Sarah Connor Chronicles). The gore effects are never as over the top as you’d hope, and screenwriters Kevin Dreyfuss and Matt Wall deliver laughs fewer and farther between than they should be. Reports have been made over the years about studio interference taking the film out of Lynch’s hands, but upon finally seeing a finished cut, I can’t see how much of a difference a director’s cut could make. It would probably result in the film merely running longer, it clocks in already at scant 86 minutes, which is already perfect for this sort of film.

For any version of Knights of Badassdom to see the light of day is an achievement all its own, and fanboys are sure to eat this up because it’s hard to come by a film that embraces its premise rather than simply make fun of it. With a nearly flawless presentation, and the inclusion of the full Comic-Con panel, I suppose that makes the Blu-ray worth a purchase to those curious. Make no mistake, the film is fun, it’s just too bad that it couldn’t have been more so; something I’m leaving hype to blame for.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Blu-ray Review: 'Walking with Dinosaurs: The Movie'

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'Walking with Dinosaurs: The Movie' on Blogcritics.

When you happen to love any particular subject, you’re willing to sit through just about anything. I love dinosaurs and sharks. Jurassic Park will always be an important film to me, as it was released when I was a bright-eyed 12-year-old boy. I even have the Jurassic Park Builder game downloaded onto both my phone and Kindle. When it was announced that Twentieth Century Fox was releasing Walking with Dinosaurs: The Movie on Blu-ray March 25 (in a Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy combo pack), I knew I had to see it no matter how bad the word of mouth.

WalkingwithDinosaursCoverOriginally produced for the BBC as a six-episode documentary by directors Tim Haines and Jasper James, theatrical directors Barry Cook and Neil Nightingale and screenwriter John Collee, have completely downgraded the original series’ successful blend of documentary filmmaking and computer-generated dino goodness, into an obnoxious for-kids-only adventure. Only 10 minutes to your first poop joke folks!

The film follows a young Pachysaurus named Patchi (voiced by Justin Long) as he grows up with his herd, finds love in the form of fellow Pachy Juniper (voiced by Tiya Sircar), all while fighting the Cretaceous elements and other living dinosaurs of the era. To top it off he’s bullied by his older brother Scowler (voiced by Skyler Stone). Along for the ride is our narrator Alex (voiced by John Leguizamo), an Alexornis, who tells Patchi’s story to the young Ricky (Charlie Rowe), who has stayed behind while his Uncle Zack (Karl Urban) and sister Jade (Angourie Rice) investigate a dinosaur site after Zack discovered a Gorgosaurus tooth.

The 2D presentation of Walking with Dinosaurs: The Movie is a mixed bag to say the least. Presented on a 50GB disc in a 2.39:1 aspect ratio, there are far more video impairments than you’d ever consider from a recent theatrical release. The biggest issue is an odd pattern that washes over the screen from time to time. There’s no term for it, because it’s not a grain issue — although there is plenty of that considering the landscape is not computer-generated — but the only time I’ve ever seen this happen before is in one scene on the Naked Gun Blu-ray.

Thankfully, aside from stability issues regarding camera pans making the shrubs and trees flicker and shimmer, but noise, crush, and aliasing are never present. Detail is typically razor sharp depending on how much the camera is moving. Whenever the camera “follows” a dinosaur, the landscape becomes less detailed than the dino until the camera stops moving and then the surroundings sharpen again. I have a feeling the 3D presentation fares a little better but I would never sit through the film again to find out. I was only able to spot one instance of banding.

As for the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, you wouldn’t expect anything less than tons of bass as the dinosaurs stomp across your viewing area. Directionality and dialogue panning is spot on, however, there are a few occasions when the horrific dialogue is drowned out by a bellowing beast. The only additional track offered in DTS is Russian, but Dolby Digital 5.1 options are provided in Spanish, Portuguese, Estonian, Greek, Latvian, Lithuanian, Romanian, and Ukrainian. Subtitles are also available in all of these languages.

WalkingwithDinosPicThe included extras are strictly for tikes, and rather boring, even for an adult dinosaur aficionado. First up is an “Ultimate Dino Guide.” After an introduction and explanation of how the feature works, you can pick and choose between all the dinosaurs featured in the film: Pachyrinosaurs, Gorgosaurus, Hesperonychus, Troodon, Pterosaur, Ankylosaur, Edmontosaurus, Parkosaurus, Chirostenotes, Alphadon, and the Alexornis. “Match the Call” is a game where you match the sounds to each dinosaur while a visual puzzle arranges itself as a clue to make your guess before the timer runs out.

An “Interactive Map” displays a map of the world showing where each dinosaur was located throughout the world, offering up information about each as selected from the map. A “Brainosaur Trivia Track” offers additional dino info while the film plays, and a dreadful “Nickelodeon Orange Carpet Dino Rap” is an insufferable minute-long rap about the movie featuring Benjamin Flores, Jr. The film’s theatrical trailer is included along with a “Sneak Peek” section with trailers for Rio 2, Mr. Peabody and Sherman, Free Birds, The Croods, Turbo, and Dragons: Riders of Berk & Defenders of Berk.

I’ve read that the 3D disc includes an exclusive “Cretacious Cut” of the film, which features none of the recorded dialogue. If this were the only offered version of the film it would receive much higher marks. What’s included here is flat-out awful. I know kids won’t know why it’s so painful to hear a dinosaur blurt out “You’re about to get served” during a fight sequence, but it’s beyond groan-inducing. And don’t worry, there’s a second poop joke merely 30 minutes after the first. I suppose if you were interested in purchasing this for your own curiosity, or have kids that are dino enthusiasts, then I suggest springing for the 3D combo pack on account of the dialogue free version of the film. As far as the 2D version, it deserves to remain extinct from all self-respecting Blu-ray collections.

Cover art and photo courtesy Twentieth Century Fox

Movie Review: 'Sabotage'

* out of 5
109 minutes
Rated R for strong bloody violence, pervasive language, some sexuality/nudity and drug use
Open Road Films

Article first published as Movie Review: 'Sabotage' on Blogcritics.

Writer/director David Ayer needs to give up his day job. Ever since becoming a big deal after Denzel Washington won Best Actor for Training Day — which Ayer only wrote — his films have definitely seen a steady decline in quality. His screenplay credits where fine before he started directing his own films — see U-571, Training Day, The Fast and the Furious, and even S.W.A.T. — but things have been downhill ever since: Harsh Times, Street Kings, End of Watch. Now, he’s somehow convinced Arnold Schwarzenegger to star in his worst film yet: Sabotage.

SabotagePicReportedly based on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, Schwarzenegger plays Breacher, the leader of a DEA task force. The film opens with a huge shootout in a Mexican cartel safe house where Breacher and his team hide away $10 million before blowing the rest up. Come to find out, someone has stolen their money. Now, Breacher and company are under investigation, the team disbanded, and he’s stuck in a desk job.

Months later, his boss reinstates him after interest is lost in the case, and now Breacher — along with “Monster” (Sam Worthington); Lizzy (Mireille Enos); “Sugar” (Terrence Howard); “Grinder” (Joe Manganiello); “Neck” (Josh Holloway); “Pyro” (Max Martini); and “Tripod” (Kevin Vance) — are getting killed off one by one and Breacher must find out who’s behind it. Meanwhile, homicide Investigator Caroline (Olivia Williams) and Jackson (Harold Perrineau-yes, there are two Lost actors in this thing) are trying to assist, with Breacher using them to stay one step ahead.

Let’s get one thing straight, as soon as you cast Schwarzenegger in any movie, convoluted should be the first thing thrown out the window. Your target audience just isn’t going to be enticed to wallow through the sordid plot twists Ayer and the true saboteur, co-writer Skip Woods (Die Hard 5, The A-Team, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Hitman, Swordfish), seem to be making it up as the film plods along. Let alone the level of gratuitous violence feels like it would have been more at home in a Final Destination movie; it’s completely uncalled for in a Schwarzenegger vehicle.

SabotagePic2Had the film been an exciting thrill ride, the violence could have been easier to swallow. Sabotage starts out with a heavy sense of humor, but as it progresses it starts to take itself way too seriously. At least Schwarzenegger does what he does best, delivering machismo and dryly unintentionally hilarious lines. Although after the third “Get down!” it starts to become tedious. And seeing him work a desk job is as visually hilarious as it was Mr. Incredible. The rest of the cast are completely wasted or downright awful. Manganiello was obviously cast to wear sleeveless shirts and Enos is the worst as the drug-addicted party girl of the team. A Razzie Award is easily in her future.

Needless to say, Sabotage is bound to be simply another blip on Schwarzenegger’s continuing saga to get back into the Hollywood game. And hopefully, he can get back on track with the upcoming zombie film Maggie, and stepping back into his most iconic roles in Terminator 5 and The Legend of Conan. It’s sad that after Escape Plan, The Last Stand, and now Sabotage, even the announced Twins sequel (Triplets) sounds better than what he’s been starring in lately. C’mon Schwarzenegger, even you are better than this.

Photos courtesy Open Road Films

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Movie Review: 'Bad Words'

**** 1/2 out of 5
89 minutes
Rated R for crude and sexual content, language and brief nudity
Focus Features

Article first published as Movie Review: 'Bad Words' on Blogcritics.

Considering Jason Bateman has been acting for more than 30 years, it’s surprising it has taken him so long to sit down in the director’s chair. While having directed a handful of TV shows, including his own Arrested Development, here he certainly brings his A-game to Bad Words, his big screen directorial debut. Armed with a rapid-fire approach, he brings his one-note asshole appeal in the starring role as well. Along with screenwriter Andrew Dodge’s sophomore screenplay, Bateman bounces from one outlandishly H-I-L-A-R-I-O-U-S episode to the next.

Bad Words, Justin BatemanBateman plays our anti-hero of sorts, Guy Trilby, who has discovered a loophole in the National Quill Spelling Bee. Even being 40 years old, Guy never completed the eighth grade, allowing him to enter the competition. Tagging along is reporter Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn), trying to find the scoop on what has made Guy decide to enter in the first place.

Guy won’t spill the beans but does make friends with an arch nemesis in young Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand), left alone by his father at the contestants’ hotel. Guy soon finds himself taking a liking to the little guy, taking him out for food, alcohol, and showing him his first breasts. Meanwhile, Dr. Bernice Deagan (Allison Janney) sets out to stop Guy from winning at any cost to save the face of President Dr. Bowman’s (Philip Baker Hall) precious Golden Quill.

From period jokes to enough racial slurs to make the most seasoned audience member blush, Bad Words is an equal opportunity offender. You have to go as far as the film does at times and can never pull any punches. This may be the most hilariously offensive man-child relationship since Bad Santa. Thankfully, Bateman lets the film go balls out and never tries to cram a sudden change of heart to Guy’s plan allowing the shenanigans to escalate to obscene measures. While his directing choices may be questionable here and there — slow-motion shots are used more than necessary — Bateman keeps things roaring along and the short runtime makes sure that the film never wears out its welcome.

Beyond bawdy, but never insulting to its audience, Bad Words keeps Bateman’s moment in the spotlight from getting tarnished. Considering the amount of black comedies he’s been starring in lately — Horrible Bosses and Identity Thief — he needs to step behind the camera more often. He definitely knows when to keep himself reigned in, letting the rest of the cast have as many moments to shine; including the wide-eyed Chand who looks like he’s having the time of his life. Bad Words isn’t out to change the face of comedy, but it will certainly make your face hurt from laughing as hard and often as it does.

Photo courtesy Focus Features

Blu-ray Review: 'The Wrath of Vajra'

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'The Wrath of Vajra' on Blogcritics.

Being assistant director to the likes of Johnnie To for nearly 20 years, Wing-cheong Law was bound to make a movie of his own. And if The Wrath of Vajra — now available on Blu-ray from Well Go USA — is of any indication, he’s bound to have just as strong a career on his own. Together with action choreographers Peng Zhang and Sammo Hung, Law has packed the film to the gills with high-flying martial arts ranging from Shaolin Kung Fu to Japanese ninja to Sanda. Law has set out to make a film beginning a new Chinese superhero franchise of sorts and here’s hoping we see more of both the character and films with Law’s name as the director’s credit.

Wrath of Vajra, Blu-ray reviewFor once, the plot isn’t as convoluted as expected from a movie of this ilk. Set in the 1930s, we start with Amano Kawao (Yasuaki Kurata) imprisoned after the disbanding of the Japanese death cult Hades, but on its way to being revived after Japan meets resistance from China. Kurashige (Sung-jun “Steve” Yoo) is working to rebuild Hades by abducting children to train them as killers for the Emperor. As a child, Vajra (Shi Yanneng) was the most lethal in his class, but escaped after an accident kills his brother. Now, Vajra has returned to put an end to Hades and reclaim his place as the King of Vajra. But first he’ll have to fight his way through Tetsumaku (Baocheng Jiang), Crazy Monkey (Poppin Hyun-Joon), and Kurashige himself, even if it means employing the 17-second Deadly Moves.

The Wrath of Vajra puts the smack down on a 50GB disc in a 2.39:1 aspect ratio. As expected from a Well Go USA Blu-ray presentation, detail is sharp as a tack. Something that comes in extra handy when the rain finally kicks in for the final battle; you can’t have a kung fu movie without at least one fight in the rain, right? Colors are natural, if a bit unsaturated here and there, with blacks nice and inky with no sign of crush. Noise never rears its head, and unfortunately, one extremely noticeable instance of banding finally shows up as the film fades to the end credits.

The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track shines just as much as the video. Featuring a Mandarin/Japanese track, dialogue is always crystal clear with surrounds, music, and deep bass pitting you right in the middle of the action. Also included is a Mandarin/Japanese 2.0 Stereo mix, as well as two English language tracks in both 5.1 DTS-HD and 2.0 Stereo. English and French subtitles round things out.

As for special features, the film’s trailer is included, along with previews for additional Well Go USA titles: The Suspect, Special ID, and Badges of Fury. A “Making Of” consists of six featurettes that can be played continuously and run a combined total of 25 minutes. They are broken down into the following: “The Mission,” “Martial Arts Styles,” “The Rebirth,” “Fighting I,” “Fighting II,” and “Fighting III.” Featuring interviews with the cast and crew, and behind the scenes footage, you get to see how much passion was put into the production, along with how much of a beating the cast and stunt team endured. They really had to hit each other otherwise they knew the action wouldn’t look real. A job well done on all accounts as some of the action scenes are as brutal as you’d expect.

Law stages most of the action so you can actually see what’s going on, and it’s interesting to note that the film was apparently originally in 3D as there are 3D credits at the beginning of the film. Law also employs the help of Matt Mullins (Kamen Rider: Dragon Knight and Mortal Kombat: Legacy’s Johnny Cage) to lend some American flare to the proceedings, but have no doubt, this is the Steve Yoo and Shi Yanneng show and everything comes down their final fight. The first hour is a lot of buildup but once you get beyond that, the film becomes more fun. I highly recommend The Wrath of Vajra to martial arts and action fans, with the nearly perfect video/audio and excellent supplements making this worth a blind buy.

Blu-ray Review: 'Odd Thomas'

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'Odd Thomas' on Blogcritics.

Two names I never thought would fit well together are director Stephen Sommers and author Dean Koontz. Sommers is well known for his over-the-top CGI-laden spectacles — Deep RisingThe Mummy and Mummy ReturnsVan HelsingG.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra — so it’s honestly refreshing to see him handling something on a smaller scale. While far from a character driven independent outing, Odd Thomas is the best film on both Sommers’ and Koontz’s big screen resumes. Not since 1988’s Watchers has a Koontz novel translated so well, and considering the amount of novels he’s written — seven in the Odd Thomas series alone — it’s about time someone finally got it right. And even better for fans of the series, Sommers has stayed pretty faithful. Even if Elvis didn’t make the cut, at least the sorta-twist ending is intact.

Odd Thomas, Dean Koontz, Blu-rayOdd Thomas (Anton Yelchin) tries to live a quiet life in Pico Mundo, California. The problem is he can see dead people who want his help in finding the culprits of their death allowing them to rest in peace. He has a confidant in police chief Wyatt Porter (Willem Dafoe), who believes him due to Odd always being right, and a girlfriend he’s destined to be with forever in Stormy (Addison Timlin). Odd can also see creatures called “bodachs” that are always lingering around whenever something bad is about to go down. On August 14, Odd sees more bodachs than ever surround a man named Robert Robertson (Shuler Hensley) whom Stormy nicknames Fungus Bob because his haircut looks like a mushroom. After following Fungus Bob home, he uncovers what could be a terroristic plot taking place the next day and Odd’s friend Viola’s (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) nightmare may hold the key to solving everything.

Odd Thomas may fit snugly onto a 25GB disc, but it comes with absolutely no special features keeping most anomalies at bay. In fact, were in not for two instances of shimmer — one on Dafoe’s jacket and another on Arnold Vosloo’s shirt — the 2.35:1 framed image would be just about perfect. I can’t help but think that had Image Entertainment sprung for a 50GB disc, things would be downright flawless. Blacks are super inky but never overwhelm into crush. Detail is impeccable which should come as no surprise as the film was shot with Red cameras.

Colors are the best feature with tanned skin tones never leaping to orange with objects including foliage and Stormy’s scooter with plenty of pop while never bleeding. The single 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track isn’t a mind-blower, but when the action kicks in, prepare yourself to be immersed in surround action and deep, rumbling bass. There was an instance or two where the dialogue looked out of sync, but considering you could understand what was being said, it would be a source issue and not counted against the transfer.

Odd Thomas does have plenty of CGI thrown around, but it’s almost all used to convey bodachs on the prowl. Yelchin is definitely the best fit for the character, keeping the antics grounded. Sommers’ tone may be inconsistent, but there’s more fun than you’d expect. It’s too bad the film is playing in such limited theaters but as it’s available via VOD services, you won’t hate yourself for ordering it. Oddball is the name of the game here, but Odd Thomas is nothing short of high energy, oddball fun. There’s even a true laugh-out-loud moment involving a woman’s scream and Stormy’s reaction. Anyone who’s suffered through Koontz’ previous big screen abominations — the less said of Phantoms or Hideaway the better — can rest easy knowing that someone has finally managed to bring some life to a Koontz adaptation. Unfortunately, while there are six more books in the series, we probably won’t be seeing any more of Odd Thomas, which may be the biggest disappointment.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Blu-ray Review: 'In Fear'

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'In Fear' (2013) on Blogcritics.

Sometimes it takes a while for films that play the Sundance Film Festival to either show up in theaters, VOD, or go straight-to-video. Those that are usually more worth the wait tend to be the horror features. Poor Tucker & Dale vs. Evil took more than two years before Magnolia Pictures finally released it on Blu-ray; something typically akin to Bob and Harvey Weinstein. 2013’s festival offered up a better slate of genre fare than usual, and one of the best was director Jeremy Lovering’s experimental In Fear, featuring Alice Englert (Beautiful Creatures) and Iain De Caestecker (Agent Fitz on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), available on Blu-ray now from Starz/Anchor Bay.

InFearBluTom (De Caestecker) and Lucy (Englert) have only been dating for two weeks but decide to take off for the weekend to a music festival in Ireland. Tom springs the news on Lucy that he has booked them a night’s stay at a hotel to spend some alone time along the way. A truck meets them in front of a pub to lead them to the hotel’s gate entrance leaving them on their own to follow the signs through the countryside. After Tom and Lucy figure out that they’re stuck in some kind of maze, they have to fend for themselves as mysterious figures linger in the dark and their gas tank starts to run low. Eventually, the circumstances come to light as Tom and Lucy wind up in a fight for their lives.

In Fear makes a frightening debut on Blu-ray on a 25GB disc in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The transfer shines better in the opening parts of the film that take place in daylight. Featuring optimum clarity, it’s almost as if you could reach into your screen and feel Tom’s sweater, or run your fingers through Lucy’s hair. Once night takes over however, clarity is less distinct as Tom’s stubble gets smeary, but crush never swallows up the image. Great news considering two-thirds of the runtime is at night. Only one instance of aliasing is easily spotted on a bridge at the beginning, another of shimmer in some foliage, but banding is non-existent which could have run rampant toward the end.

The audio is better than the audio with a single 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Musical cues keep things eerie while the surrounds swallow you up with rain on the roof and branches scratching the sides of the car making it feel as if you’re sitting in the backseat. A blaring car horn still made me jump even while watching the film during the day and knowing it was coming. Dialogue is always clean and clear which could have killed the presentation considering how much dialogue there is. The only special feature included is the 12-minute “In Fear: Behind the Scenes” with the cast and crew — including Lovering, producers Nira Park and James Biddle, and stars De Caestecker and Englert — discussing the production and how Lovering never had a working script to keep the stars on their toes and their reactions genuine.

In Fear isn’t out to reinvent the genre but Lovering knows how to build suspense as things continue to go from bad to worse for Tom and Lucy. At first you may suspect an air of the supernatural but it never gets to that point keeping the threat far more realistic. As much as I already hate the woods, this film is just another nail in the coffin to keep me out of them. Considering how shoddy the GPS already is on my phone, In Fear is a simple reminder that sometimes it’s best to not head down the road less traveled. Lovering’s experiment pays off for the most part with plenty of scares and a creepy, voyeuristic approach keeping the lurking danger from becoming prescient. A definite recommend for those who like their horror more psychological than throwing buckets of gore at the audience.

Movie Review: 'Divergent'

 *** out of 5
139 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense violence and action, thematic elements and some sensuality
Summit Entertainment

Article first published as Movie Review: 'Divergent' on Blogcritics.

It should be clear to everyone that young adult fiction is all the rage in Hollywood these days. It seems like if it flies off the bookshelf, it’s going to be made into a movie. The results have been less than satisfactory to say the least. For every Hunger Games or Beautiful Creatures, there’s five Twilights, The Host, or The Mortal Instruments. Not everything is golden. This isn’t a surprise considering only three have been watchable recently. In the meantime, here comes another potential young adult novel-based trilogy, this time from author Veronica Roth — Divergent falls somewhere in the middle.

DIVERGENTIn the future, a war will have destroyed most of the world (cough, Panem, cough) and Chicago has been divided into five factions: Abnegation, consisting of the selfless; Amity, the peaceful; Candor, the honest; Dauntless, the brave; and Erudite, the intelligent. Every year, all 16-year-olds must take an aptitude test which tells them which faction they belong in, and then they must attend a reaping — err, Choosing Day — to decide between taking their place in a new faction or stay with their family. However, Beatrice Prior’s (Shailene Woodley) aptitude test comes back inconclusive meaning she’s “Divergent,” or cannot be controlled.

As the protagonist, Beatrice must participate this year, along with her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort). Beatrice chooses to be Dauntless, and joins the ranks where a 10-week training period begins. The Dauntless are being trained to fight like warriors to keep the peace amongst the factions. Here, Beatrice chooses to go by the name Tris, and meets Four (Theo James), who helps her along the way, along with her new BFF Christina (Zoë Kravitz). They find out Erudite leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet) has a dastardly plot put in motion and now Tris must come to terms with who she really is and fight a bigger battle than she ever imagined.

DivergentPicIf all of this sounds familiar, it definitely shares a plot-thread or two with Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. Which just makes these young adult novels simply a dime a dozen. Director Neil Burger handles the action scenes better than you’d expect, even if Evan Dougherty and Vanessa Taylor’s screenplay has more than its share of dopey moments. Woodley does the best she can as Tris but seems saddled with having to cry at least every 10 minutes. It’s also awkward to see her being bullied by Miles Teller’s Peter character after having seen them as a couple in last years The Spectacular Now, and Elgort playing her brother here when she’s about to be coupled with him in this summer’s The Fault in Our Stars. Theo James also comes across as a low-rent James Franco, which once pointed out makes every scene he’s in unintentionally hilarious.

As previously mentioned, Divergent definitely falls somewhere in the middle of the pack amongst all these adaptations. It’s never awful, no matter how hard Junkie XL’s score tries to make it, and there are some hilariously bad shots with some awful CGI. One scene involving Tris’ initiation where they send her zip lining through the city ruins would have been a cool scene had it been shot in 3D, and would make one hell of a fun ride at Universal Studios. Did I mention the film is also 139 minutes long? Sure, that kind of length lends itself well to something with a bigger scope, like Catching Fire, but you’ll be checking your watch often throughout Divergent, even if it’s nowhere near as bad as its RottenTomatoes score makes it seem. Being the lesser of evils is a triumph all its own in the wastelands of young adult adaptations and Divergent is a good enough diversion for the tween crowd while the rest of us wait for the first part of the final Hunger Games films to arrive.

Photos courtesy Summit Entertainment

Movie Review: 'The Grand Budapest Hotel'

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

Article first published as Movie Review: 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' on Blogcritics.

If there’s any director who does whatever he wants, it’s Wes Anderson. Never one to shy away from what makes his films so fantastic — no matter how different they are from each other —you always know you’re watching something he made. Chock-full of amazing casts, playing unforgettable characters, whether live-action or animated, there’s no end to his quirky style. His latest exercise in madcap brilliance, The Grand Budapest Hotel (based on the writings of Stefan Zweig) springs to life as a live-action version of Fantastic Mr. Fox. However, the film wears its R-rating on its sleeve and is definitely not for kids. But, you could call Hotel a kid-movie for adults as plenty of wackiness ensues with a whimsical air to the shenanigans.

GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL_c371.JPGWe begin with a young girl walking through a cemetery to sit down next to a statue where she begins reading the Grand Budapest Hotel book. A narration begins by the “Author” (Tom Wilkinson) before we move inside the story in the fictional European Republic of Zubrowka, where we meet Young Writer (Jude Law) who is staying at the hotel. He runs into the owner, Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), and the two go to dinner. Here, Moustafa tells his new friend the story of how he came to own the hotel after the death of Madame D. (Tilda Swinton). Now we skip all the way back to when Moustafa was a young lobby boy named Zero (Tony Revolori), working under the guidance of M. Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the best concierge the hotel ever had.

The plot quickly thickens when Gustave is bequeathed a priceless painting by Deputy Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum), the head of Madame D.’s estate. Her family is outraged, and her son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) who enlists the aid of Jopling (Willem Dafoe) in framing Moustafa for his mother’s murder. Gustave is wrongfully arrested and now Zero must find a way to help Gustave escape from prison to prove his innocence, keep the painting safe, stay one step ahead of Inspector Henckels (Edward Norton), and protect the love of his life Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), from both the affections of Gustave and the evil clutches of Jopling.

GrandBudapestHotelPic2The Grand Budapest Hotel is by far Anderson’s most heavily plotted film. Finding laughs around every corner — Gustave’s violent outbursts of vulgarity in particular — the fun never ends. The cast is having a ball, with some familiar faces popping up towards the end with cameos by Anderson regulars Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Bob Balaban, and Owen Wilson. Keep your eyes glued and you just might even spot George Clooney. Cinematographer Robert Yeoman utilizes various aspect ratios to represent each layer of the film which adds its own tone as well. The costumes and production design are also a sight to behold. Anderson has written his most pun-filled screenplay yet and, as is always the case with his films, once the credits roll you can’t wait to see what he’ll come up with next. The Grand Budapest Hotel is nothing short of classic Wes Anderson.

Photos courtesy Fox Searchlight

Movie Review: 'Muppets Most Wanted'

**** 1/2 out of 5
112 minutes
Rated PG for some mild action
Walt Disney Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: 'Muppets Most Wanted' on Blogcritics.

Now that the world is safe for Muppet mayhem, thanks to Jason Segel, getting Disney to reboot the beloved franchise with 2012’s The Muppets, the question for the sequel is how does it measure up? Without the assistance of Segel this time around, director James Bobin has returned, along with co-writer Nicholas Stoller and Oscar-winning songwriter Bret McKenzie, to deliver Muppets Most Wanted. It’s a follow-up that may not reach the bar set by their last outing, but is still outstanding entertainment. Young or old, you’d have to be a grumpy curmudgeon to not leave the theater with a smile on your face. This is still miles better than Muppets from Space, which will sadly always remain the weakest link in the Muppets canon.

MUPPETS MOST WANTEDNow that the music has been played, the lights have been lit, and the Muppets are a viable franchise again, a sequel has been ordered by the studio. Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) takes “The Muppet Show” under his wing and talks them into going on a world tour. Kermit (Steve Whitmire) is skeptical as always, but the gang convinces even him to take the world by storm. Meanwhile, “the world’s most dangerous frog” Constantine (Matt Vogel) has just escaped from a Siberian prison and a case of mistaken identity gets Kermit thrown in prison while Constantine takes his place. Turns out, Badguy lives up to his name as he goes on a crime spree with Constantine while touring Europe. Can Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell) and Sam Eagle (Eric Jacobson) catch the thieves? Will Kermit finally escape from the clutches of prison ward Nadya (Tina Fey)? And who is the angel-voiced maximum security singer?

Call me biased, but I can’t help but love anything Muppet-related, warts and all. Most Wanted is a pseudo-remake of The Great Muppet Caper, but goes about it much better than J.J. Abrams tried to remake Khan. Filled to the gills with possibly more cameos than the previous Muppet films combined, they never feel forced. Visual gags and verbal puns are slung with gleeful abandon. While this may be the longest Muppet film yet, Bobin keeps the pace racing along, even if at least one plot thread is basically shrugged off in the end. McKenzie’s songs may not be quite as spectacular, but a true stand out features Constantine serenading Miss Piggy (Jacobson again) where he finally gets to let his Conchords freak flag fly. Muppets Most Wanted lives up to the Jim Henson legacy giving new life to a new generation of kids. If my friends’ daughter was of any indication, thankfully the Muppets won’t be going anywhere. She wanted to watch it again as soon as it was over, and so did I.

*Be sure to get there early so you don’t miss the hilarious Monsters University short: “Party Central.”

Photo courtesy Walt Disney Pictures

DVD Review: 'Tom Holland's Twisted Tales'

Article first published as DVD Review: 'Tom Holland's Twisted Tales' on Blogcritics.

Horror fans are well acquainted with director Tom Holland. For the rest of you, he’s the man responsible for the original Fright Night and Child’s Play. He’s also contributed three episodes of Tales from the Crypt, and two Stephen King adaptations (The Langoliers and Thinner) with King’s The 10 O’Clock People currently in pre-production. While his name may not be as recognizable as his body of work, he’s still churning out lesser projects, while we wait to see if he can rise to the glory days of his work from the ’80s. Recently, Holland has written and directed nine episodes of Twisted Tales for the TV channel FEARnet, and now they’re all available on one DVD from Image Entertainment on March 18.

TwistedTalesThe nine episodes are all introduced by Holland and contained within are: “Fred and His GPS” with AJ Bowen (You’re Next) fleeing the scene of a crime with a haunted GPS. “To Hell with You” features Danielle Harris (Halloweens 4, 5, and the first Rob Zombie remake) making a deal with the devil’s minion (William Forsythe). “Boom” has an honorably discharged vet building a bomb that can’t be diffused to try to get his best friend to admit to sleeping with his wife; “Mongo’s Magick Mirror” features Ray Wise, a magic mirror, and an up-and-coming magician trying to steal it from him.

“Bite” is about a group of pot heads trying out a new blend of herbs with psychic and lycan results. “Shockwave” includes a group of socialites who must decide who lives or dies after a nuclear space explosion sends out an electromagnetic pulse that will destroy all life on earth. “Cached” follows the exploits of a killer tablet haunted by a suicidal programmer. “The Pizza Guy” is about a girl who calls upon the devil to speak with her dead sister, and finally, “Vampire’s Dance” follows a girl looking for her missing roommate at a dance club filled with, well, you can probably guess.

Holland definitely takes a cue from his days of working on Tales from the Crypt, with each tale ending with a twist, for better and worse. The acting ranges from passable — see Bowen and Harris — to downright awful. Unsurprisingly, the shorter tales fare the best, but they oddly get worse as the 142 minute runtime starts to drag on. “The Pizza Guy” features the absolute funniest line — even if unintentionally — when the girl tries to apologize to her dead sister about the fight they had causing her death with: “You never got so made that you ran out into traffic because of it.” And “Vampire’s Dance” makes no sense whatsoever.

The special features are a huge bore consisting of five behind the scenes featurettes: “The Making of Boom” (12:06); “The Making of Mongo’s Magick Mirror” (9:12); “The Making of Shockwave” (12:57); “The Making of Cached” (6:56); and “The Making of The Pizza Guy” (15:36). There’s flashes throughout the shorts that show Holland still has some life left in his career, something that gives me hope for his upcoming 10 O’Clock People. As for this collection of Twisted Tales, caution is advised, but there’s bound to be something for everyone when there’s so much content included.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Movie Review: 'Cheap Thrills'

**** out of 5
88 minutes
Not rated
Drafthouse Films

Article first published as Movie Review: 'Cheap Thrills' on Blogcritics.

If there’s one production company I’m keeping my eye on, it’s Snoot Entertainment. After the likes of You’re Next, V/H/S/2, and The Guest, I knew I was going to enjoy the show when I saw their logo pop up as Cheap Thrills began. Their movies are always chock-full of blood and laughs in equal measure and E.L. Katz’s Cheap Thrills measures up in just about every regard. With a game cast, the film escalates quickly with each scenario to the only logical conclusion, never cheating the audience. It’s garnering a cult following after playing the festival rounds including its premiere at SXSW, and is currently sitting at 100% Fresh on RottenTomatoes. Is it really that good? I think so, while certainly not perfect, the 88-minute runtime makes sure to keep things lean and mean, offering enough thrills while never feeling cheap.

CheapThrillsPicCraig (Pat Healy) is having a really bad day. After finding an eviction notice on his apartment door, he’s laid off from work and hits the bar on way home. Craig runs into Vince (Ethan Embry), an old high school friend he hasn’t seen in five years. After catching up, Craig comes clean with Vince about his recent misfortune, but both of their luck is about to change when they come across Colin (David Koechner) and Violet (Sara Paxton), a couple out celebrating her birthday. Colin and Violet like to bet each other on things like whether a man at the bar checks out a woman’s chest or behind, and ask the estranged friends to join them in the celebration. Soon enough, the betting starts to ramp up as they move camps from the bar to a strip club, back to Colin’s house. Now, Craig and Vince are in over their heads, with $250,000 up for grabs to whoever can one-up the other in a fight to the finish.

The cast members are having a ball as the one-upmanship mounts, with Healy and Embry willing to do anything on camera to win the grand prize. Let’s just say the neighbor’s dog eventually comes into play and Colin has seen some outrageous menu items in his worldly travels. Paxton even throws caution to the wind in an impromptu sex scene making it clear why Violet is dressed the way she is. Director Katz, and screenwriters David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga, keep things from getting too disgusting you have to stop watching, while still pushing the limits as to how far our contestants are willing to go. It’s one thing to have someone get a pinky chopped off, but even that goes farther than you’d think. The laughs are of the blackest variety and the film won’t be for everyone, in spite of its acclaim, but Cheap Thrills offers a ton of fun and plenty of visuals you won’t soon forget, clearing its path to becoming a new black comedy cult classic.

Photo courtesy Drafthouse Films

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Movie Review: 'Lucky Bastard'

** out of 5
94 minutes
Cavu Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: 'Lucky Bastard' on Blogcritics.

As if the found footage genre didn’t already have one foot in the grave, here comes another nail in the coffin with the porn-themed Lucky Bastard. Slapped with an NC-17 rating and revolving around a porn shoot gone wrong, you’d think the film might be ripe with possibilities. Unfortunately, there’s barely enough shenanigans to make up even a short film, let alone drag them out to feature length boredom. Had this been an actual adult entertainment production they could have gone all out with the titillation — which would have at least been a saving grace for the plodding plot. But all we’re left with are characters running around in circles while plot contrivances pile up faster than the dead bodies.

LuckyBastardLucky Bastard is the name of a porn site run by Mike (Don McManus) where a lucky subscriber gets picked to have sex with a porn star. Mike has finally convinced their most popular star, Ashley Saint (Betsy Rue), to participate, but under the condition that she gets to pick the winner. They finally set their sights on Dave (Jay Paulson), a ginger Army vet mourning the loss of his brother. Mike, Ashley Saint, Mike’s girlfriend Casey (Catherine Annette), and cameraman Kris (Chris Wylde), pick up Dave where everything instantly goes awry. Between toting a Dodgers T-shirt and freaking out when Ashley tries to grab his crotch, it goes from bad to worse after Dave starts to come off like a stalker when he reveals he calls Ashley by her real name and knows the names of her kids. Let alone that once they get to the rented reality-TV house, Dave shows his true colors after they turn him into a joke after a bout of premature ejaculation, and starts picking off the crew one by one.

Let’s get one thing straight here, Lucky Bastard may be rated NC-17, but just know that it’s only for a few quick shots of floppy penises. Like I said before, had they used real porn stars and went all out with the sex and violence, director/co-writer Robert Nathan, along with co-writer Lukas Kendall, could have upped the ante in the tired sub-genre. Even a dash of “torture porn” would have at least provided something more interesting than anything found in this snail-paced mess. Rue has been seen with her clothes off before in the far more entertaining My Bloody Valentine remake, and character actor McManus seems better fit in the tiny roles he usually plays. Here, he comes off as a low-rent Ken Marino, who would have been fantastic in something as schlocky as this. There is a good idea planted in the center of Lucky Bastard, it’s just too bad no one had any idea what to do with it. Maybe the target demographic will get lucky and someone like Digital Playground or even Hustler Video will make a spoof version.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

DVD Review: 'Big Bad Wolf'

Article first published as DVD Review: 'Big Bad Wolf' on Blogcritics.

Everyone knows the story of the Three Little Pigs—most notably from Walt Disney’s 1933 Silly Symphony cartoon. I have fond memories of the animated Tales from the Crypt episode with Bobcat Goldthwait voicing the wolf; it’s a disgusting and hilarious throwaway episode. Needless to say, we’ve never seen it told like this. Director Paul Morrell tries to bring the story to a contemporary setting and within the likes of a thriller in the form of Big Bad Wolf (or Huff if you’re looking for it on IMDb), now available on DVD from Horizon Movies. Unfortunately, Morrell is saddled with a few good ideas during the first half and nowhere to go during the second half. The main problem being that’s where the actual Pigs story finally comes into play.

BigBadWolfHuff (Charlie O’Connell) has taken on the father role to his new wife Lorelei’s (Elina Madison) three daughters: Brixie (Marie Bollinger), Styx (Jenna Stone), and Shay (Elly Stefanko). Huff rules the roost with a Bible-thumping force of hand, instilling the wrath of god into their upbringing to keep them on the straight and narrow. However, Huff is also a gun-toting, beer-swilling, drug seller, who winds up with a load of cash that Lorelei gives to the girls move on to a better life. Huff winds up killing Lorelei, along with a couple of drug runners, and is now hot on the girls’ tails to get back what’s his.

It would’ve been one thing to plant the story into a thriller context, but it was another to turn Huff into a Bible-quoting pedophile. Acting is definitely not the strong point of Big Bad Wolf, and it’s also never thrilling. The first half of the movie is at least sleazy tongue-in-cheek fun, but once Huff starts chasing his stepdaughters, Sydney Corpuscle’s screenplay loses all of its steam and turns into just another run-of-the-mill direct-to-video thriller. Horizon Movies includes two special features: the film’s trailer and the quick, seven-minute “Behind the Scenes Interviews” consisting of O’Connell, Natasha Alam, and Clint Howard. Howard says in his segment that he can’t believe no one has ever tried to make this kind of movie before, and if Big Bad Wolf is of any indication, it’s best left in the pages of a storybook. In the end, Big Bad Wolf is a big, bad bore.

Movie Review: 'Need for Speed'

**** 1/2 out of 5
130 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sequences of reckless street racing, disturbing crash scenes, nudity and crude language
Touchstone Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: 'Need for Speed' on Blogcritics.

As much as I may have disliked director Scott Waugh’s big screen debut Act of Valor, I feel the exact opposite about his latest venture: the Electronic Arts video game adaptation of Need for Speed. Waugh stages the kind of big, dumb fun we come to expect in the summer. Armed with enough car chases, crashes, and adrenaline to make most action directors blush, you’d never know these two films were from the same director.

NeedForSpeedPicNeed for Speed opens with a monologue by Monarch (Michael Keeton)—a reclusive host of underground races called the DeLeon. He talks up the likes of Mt. Kisco, New York racer Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul), how he could be the best racer in the world if he had a car that was as good as he is a driver. When Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) comes back to town with Tobey’s old flame Anita (Dakota Johnson) in tow, Dino offers Tobey the opportunity to make some big money and save his father’s mechanic shop. Dino also offers thanks by offering him the chance to race in one of his three illegal Koenigsegg Ageras, the third being driven by Anita’s brother Pete (Harrison Gilbertson).

When Pete dies after Dino crashes his car and leaves the scene, Dino’s Agera winds up missing and Tobey is the only witness that can place Dino at the scene of the crime. Tobey is incarcerated for two years for manslaughter and after being released, asks for help from his old crew—including Julia (Imogen Poots), who has connections to get him a car—to get an invitation to the DeLeon. With only 45 hours to get to San Francisco, Tobey and Julia hit the road to score an invite and prove his innocence.

NeedForSpeedPic2For a film based on a video game that is literally nothing but driving around, screenwriter George Gatins sure has come up with what could be seen as highly convoluted. Thankfully, Waugh has learned a few things after Act of Valor (which even scores a cameo as a DVD cover at a truck stop which feels right where it belongs). Aaron Paul proves he can carry a film while the supporting cast is having a blast; particularly Rami Malek and Scott Mescudi (aka Kid Cudi) who score some big laughs.

With Justin Lin taking over the Fast & Furious franchise, Waugh gives every film in that series a run for its money. Need for Speed is the best action film of the year thus far, even if it’s far from being mentally titillating. A particular plot hole is big enough that you can fly a car through it, and Waugh actually does. Adrenaline is at full force and Need for Speed (ironically slang for methamphetamine considering Aaron Paul’s Breaking Bad) is all we could ask for until summer finally kicks into full gear.

Pictures courtesy Touchstone Pictures

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Movie Review: 'Grand Piano'

**** out of 5
90 minutes
Rated R for some language
Magnet Releasing

Article first published as Movie Review: 'Grand Piano' on Blogcritics.

The first film that comes to mind when describing the plot of Grand Piano would be Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth. There we found Colin Farrell trapped in a phone booth with a sniper rifle pointed at him. On television this would be considered a bubble episode where the characters are confined within one setting the entire time. If it sounds like a lot of plot devices are in order to keep the characters in one place for 90 minutes, you’d be right. But just as Schumacher delivered thrills at a breakneck pace, so does director Eugenio Mira in his second feature: Grand Piano.

GrandPianoPicTom Selznick (Elijah Wood) is on his way to hit the stage for a comeback performance as one of the world’s best pianists. This is after a bout with stage fright lead to a break down years before. His movie star wife Emma (Kerry Bishé) is in attendance, along with their closest friends, Ashley (Tamsin Egerton) and Wayne (Allen Leech). Ashley thinks it’s weird that they aren’t allowed to sit with Emma; she’s been given a very specific seat. We come to find out why. A man with a gun (John Cusack) has his sights set on both Emma and Tom after Tom finds handwritten threats written onto his sheet music. If he plays one wrong note he’ll start pulling the trigger. Now, Tom must play the night of his life or they’ll both die.

Director Mira and screenwriter Damien Chazelle — who just won both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize for Whiplash at this year’s Sundance — keep the shenanigans barreling along as the film continues to get more ludicrous with each scene. Grand Piano comes cocked and loaded with a sense of humor as we see Tom trying to keep his wife safe, and find out who the madman is while continuing to play onstage. With dizzying camera work from Unax Mendía and nearly non-stop music courtesy of Victor Reyes, along with the cast, everyone manages to keep the film from getting too over-the-top or as deadly serious, if in the hands of a lesser director.

Visual gags even make for some hilarious moments whether it’s a reaction to a ringing cell phone or a cut to a bow being dragged across strings in lieu of a throat being slashed. Grand Piano may have a loosey-goosey tone, but it is thankfully dopey without ever becoming dumb. Grand Piano is a grand way to kick off the year’s slate of thrillers because it’s a lot of fun and should also be seen in a theater with a killer sound system.

Photo courtesy Magnet Releasing

Friday, March 7, 2014

Blu-ray Review: 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire' on Blogcritics.

When it came to seeing the first Hunger Games I was not impressed. Unable to attend the press screening, I didn’t see Gary Ross’ adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ young adult novel until after it was released on Blu-ray five months later. Having read and loved the first entry to the series, my expectations were high considering the overwhelming audience and critical response.

Catching FireCoverNot being prepared for the alterations made during the process of bringing the novel to the big screen, I was left completely underwhelmed. With the assignment of reviewing this Catching Fire Blu-ray release (available now), my wife decided she would read the first novel and we would revisit the first film. With time having passed, we were both able to accept the first film for what it is, and needless to say, she was as blown away by how much better this installment is over its predecessor as I was after the press screening back in November.

For anyone not swept up in the phenomenon, Catching Fire catches up with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) back home in District 12, along with fellow Hunger Games victor Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). Suffering from PTSD winds up being the least of her worries after a visit from President Snow (Donald Sutherland). He isn’t alone in not believing the love between the two winners and is concerned about it sparking a rebellion against the Capitol. If the two can’t convince the districts of their love Snow will have them both — and everyone they love — killed.

Katniss comes up with the idea that the two could get married after Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) warns them that they are on the gravy train for life and will always be in the public eye. Now, new head Game-maker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, R.I.P.) has come up with a new wrinkle to the annual Hunger Games for the 75th anniversary. This Quarter Quell will consist of all living victors to be reaped and thrown into battle. After Haymitch is selected, Peeta volunteers in his place and now the two must find allies within the participants — namely Johanna Mason (Jena Malone), Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin), Mags (Lynn Cohen), Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), and Wiress (Amanda Plummer) — if they want to make it out alive.

CatchingFirePic1Lionsgate brings Catching Fire to Blu-ray in a DVD/UltraViolet combo pack. The ratio starts out in 2.40:1 before opening up to 1.78:1 for the Games section as it was filmed with IMAX cameras. Considering how much of the film takes place in the shadows of the districts or under the canopy of Hawaiian rainforests, the amount of detail on display is impressive. Blacks never result in crush and particularly in the Games sequence, noise never creeps in, and shadow detail is always abundant. Whenever something does take place in broad daylight, or on Caesar Flickerman’s (Stanley Tucci) stage, colors shine brighter. From blazing oranges to neon purples, they never bleed or bloom. All other anomalies are kept at bay as well. There’s no banding, aliasing, or even shimmer either. A top-notch transfer as should be expected from a new film.

Considering Lionsgate has used 7.1 surround mixes since the introduction of Blu-ray, their DTS-HD Master Audio really outdoes themselves. Whether it be cheering crowds or attacking jabberjays, surrounds are precise and enveloping. You’ll swear you’re sitting in the middle of the jungle right alongside the Tributes. Thankfully, the score never overwhelms the dialogue with directionality spot on. Booming fireworks, death canons, and striking lightning are given even more depth with fantastic deep and rumbly LFE.

As for special features, the Blu-ray and DVD both contain the six-minute “Divergent – Sneak Peek” which is an extended look at the upcoming big screen version of the first book in the Veronica Roth series. Hopefully this winds up more like the Hunger Games and less like last year’s The Host. An “Audio Commentary with Director Francis Lawrence and Producer Nina Jacobson” is extremely dry and a chore to sit through. Consisting mostly of pointing out what’s happening on-screen, there are a few fun anecdotes, but coincidentally, they’re also featured in the Blu-ray exclusive feature.

CatchingFirePic2Speaking of which, you want special features, here ya go: “Surviving the Game: Making The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” is a 146 minute behind the scenes look with nine featurettes. Consisting of cast and crew interviews including just about everyone you could possibly think of, they are broken down into the following: “A New Kind of Hunger: Continuing the Saga” (11:07); “Visual Vocabulary: Building a World” (13:03); “Stirring Things Up: The Cast” (18:01); “Fashion Forward: Costume, Make-Up and Hair” (16:46); “Let It Fly: Production in Atlanta” (15:19); “Moves and Countermoves: Stunts and Weapons” (19:52); “Tick Tock: Production in Hawaii” (14:36); “Threading the Needle: Post-Production” (27:41); and “The Revolution Lives: Reflection and Looking Forward (9:09).” Four minutes of Deleted Scenes round things out but were wisely excised.

What else is there to say about the phenomenon that is The Hunger Games, really? Considering Catching Fire made way more money than the first and was even more critically acclaimed, fans should rejoice that Lionsgate has delivered their beloved Games on Blu-ray with a wealth of special features. That is, if they pick up this Blu-ray. It’s just too bad we have to wait so long for the two-part finale. Featuring excellent audio and video (especially the inclusion of the IMAX footage, c’mon Paramount, give us a re-release of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and Star Trek Into Darkness already!), it’s a no brainer to pick up The Hunger Games: Catching Fire on Blu-ray today!

Cover art and photos courtesy Lionsgate

Movie Review: '300: Rise of an Empire'

** out of 5
102 minutes
Rated R for strong sustained sequences of stylized bloody violence throughout, a sex scene, nudity and some language
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: '300: Rise of an Empire' on Blogcritics.

For anyone who thought Zack Snyder’s first 300 wasn’t subtle enough, from the depths of development hell comes the prequel/sequel: 300: Rise of an Empire. Also, for anyone who’s ever questioned Snyder’s storytelling sensibility, look no further. Snyder is far better at visualizing a film than he is at writing one. While Snyder’s 300 was visually stimulating and drenched in testosterone, director Noam Murro cranks everything from that film up to 11 and the results are a sense-deadening bore. Who knew the human body was filled with so much blood. It certainly tries to give Kill Bill a run for its money.

300PicRise of the Empire is clearly computer-animated and splashed across the screen with aplomb. Oddly enough, while the film is being released in both 3D and IMAX 3D, it was screened in 2D for press. Considering the amount of things thrown at the screen, I can’t imagine the 3D was any worse. The 2D just takes the questionable CGI (basically the entire film) and squashes it flat. The amount of floating debris rises to hilarious levels when you know it’s supposed to be floating out of the picture and used to create depth.

Rise of an Empire begins with Gorgo, Queen of Sparta (Lena Headey), telling the story of a battle 10 years ago between Athens and Persia. Athenian Thermistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) puts an arrow into Persian king Darius’ (Yigal Naor) chest, causing his children, Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) and Artemisia (Eva Green), to vow revenge. Now, the film begins its focus on the Battle of Artemisium, parallel to the first film’s battle of Thermopylae lead by King Leonidas (Gerard Butler). We are also shown Artemisia’s manipulation of Xerxes and his transformation from mortal to “god.”

300Pic2I suppose the person responsible for this dreck should be Snyder himself, considering he co-wrote and produced it. But director Murro also is at fault for not making us care for one minute about Thermistocles plight or even Gorgo’s revenge. The prequel/sidestory/sequel technique is a new way of handling this type of film but like I said, you never care about what’s happening. The first film gave us 300 men to root for; here we don’t even care about the father/son relationship between Scyllias (Callan Mulvey) and Calisto (Jack O’Connell). The only time the movie comes to life is whenever Eva Green is onscreen. She owns her role. Yes, she does eventually get topless, but even that is too little, too late. All Rise of an Empire leaves you with is a yearning to watch the first 300, which is time far better spent.

Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Movie Review: 'Mr. Peabody & Sherman'

**** out of 5
92 minutes
Rated PG for some mild action and brief rude humor
DreamWorks Animation

Article first published as Movie Review: 'Mr. Peabody & Sherman' on Blogcritics.

Growing up watching Rocky & Bullwinkle I was somewhat of an anomaly amongst my friends. It seems no one else had it in their childhood rotation along with the likes of Looney Tunes and The Muppets. Unfortunately, the years have not been kind to moose and squirrel. After the abominable live-action/CGI-hybrid film, I was more than surprised when DreamWorks announced their plans to adapt Ted Key’s Rocky & Bullwinkle characters from Peabody’s Improbably History into the feature-length Mr. Peabody & Sherman.

MrPeabody&ShermanPic1Thankfully, once it was announced that director Rob Minkoff was attached as director I released a sigh of hope considering he was one of two directors responsible for The Lion King. However, even though he did direct the first Stuart Little, he was also the man who wrought us Stuart Little 2, Disney’s Haunted Mansion, and Jackie Chan’s beyond awful Forbidden Kingdom. I am happy to announce that Minkoff has delivered in spades.

Mr. Peabody (voiced by Ty Burrell) is a talking dog who also happens to be the smartest being in the world. Sherman (voiced by Max Charles) is his adopted son and it’s his first day of school. Classmate Penny (voiced by Ariel Winter) doesn’t like know-it-all Sherman and bullies him in the lunchroom causing Sherman to retaliate by biting her. The incident brings upon the wrath of Mrs. Grunion (voiced by Allison Janney), who threatens to take Sherman away from Mr. Peabody and will be launching a full investigation into their home life.

Mr. Peabody sees a way to fix everything by inviting Penny and her parents (voiced by Leslie Mann and Stephen Colbert) over for dinner. Soon enough, Sherman shows off Mr. Peabody’s time-traveling WABAC machine, where Penny wants to stay in 1332’s Ancient Egypt and marry King Tut (voiced by Zach Callison), but everyone knows King Tut dies young and so too will Penny. Now, Mr. Peabody and Sherman have to rescue Penny and find their way home again, all while traveling through different eras of historical events ranging from the 1789 French Revolution to 1508 Florence, Italy to 1184 B.C.’s Trojan War.

MrPeabody&ShermanPic2To put it lightly, Mr. Peabody & Sherman consists of more puns than most films. The fact that only one writer (Craig Wright) is credited is almost mind-blowing. While most of today’s kids will have no idea who these characters are, there’s something for everyone to enjoy; even if you’re a couple of adults out for a night on your own. The voice cast—especially Burrell—is clearly having a ball along with Minkoff as he riffs from one scenario to the next.

Hilarity abounds even if the film doesn’t find its footing until after about the first 10 minutes. But once it does, the laughs rarely stop. Sight gags and verbal puns come fast and furious and the animation is top notch, as expected. While it may not reach the level of perfection last month’s LEGO Movie possessed, it’s head over heels better than January’s Nut Job. There have been rumors that if this film succeeds, a full-length Rocky & Bullwinkle film will get the greenlight. Here’s to hoping, as Mr. Peabody & Sherman is all around first-class entertainment for everyone.

Photos courtesy DreamWorks Animation

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Movie Review: 'Odd Thomas'

**** out of 5
100 minutes
Not rated
RLJ Entertainment

Article first published as Movie Review: 'Odd Thomas' on Blogcritics.

Two names I never thought would fit well together are director Stephen Sommers and author Dean Koontz. Sommers is well known for his over-the-top CGI-laden spectacles — Deep Rising, The Mummy and Mummy Returns, Van Helsing, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra — so it’s honestly refreshing to see him handling something on a smaller scale. While far from a character driven independent outing, Odd Thomas is the best film on both Sommers’ and Koontz’s big screen resumes. Not since 1988’s Watchers has a Koontz novel translated so well, and considering the amount of novels he’s written — seven in the Odd Thomas series alone — it’s about time someone finally got it right. And even better for fans of the series, Sommers has stayed pretty faithful. Even if Elvis didn’t make the cut, at least the sorta-twist ending is intact.

133363_bcOdd Thomas (Anton Yelchin) tries to live a quiet life in Pico Mundo, California. The problem is he can see dead people who want his help in finding the culprits of their death allowing them to rest in peace. He has a confidant in police chief Wyatt Porter (Willem Dafoe), who believes him due to Odd always being right, and a girlfriend he’s destined to be with forever in Stormy (Addison Timlin). Odd can also see creatures called “bodachs” that are always lingering around whenever something bad is about to go down. On August 14, Odd sees more bodachs than ever surround a man named Robert Robertson (Shuler Hensley) whom Stormy nicknames Fungus Bob because his haircut looks like a mushroom. After following Fungus Bob home, he uncovers what could be a terroristic plot taking place the next day and Odd’s friend Viola’s (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) nightmare may hold the key to solving everything.

Odd Thomas does have plenty of CGI thrown around, but it’s almost all used to convey bodachs on the prowl. Yelchin is definitely the best fit for the character, keeping the antics grounded. Sommers’ tone may be inconsistent, but there’s more fun than you’d expect. It’s too bad the film is playing in such limited theaters but as it’s available via VOD services, you won’t hate yourself for ordering it. Oddball is the name of the game here, but Odd Thomas is nothing short of high energy, oddball fun. There’s even a true laugh-out-loud moment involving a woman’s scream and Stormy’s reaction. Anyone who’s suffered through Koontz’ previous big screen abominations — the less said of Phantoms or Hideaway the better — can rest easy knowing that someone has finally managed to bring some life to a Koontz adaptation. Unfortunately, while there are six more books in the series, we probably won’t be seeing any more of Odd Thomas, which may be the biggest disappointment.

Photo courtesy RLJ Entertainment