Friday, October 31, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo courtesy Fox Searchlight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos courtesy Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Movie Review: ‘St. Vincent’

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

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

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

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

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

Photo courtesy The Weinstein Company

Friday, October 24, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Blu-ray Review: ‘The Scribbler’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie Review: ‘Housebound’

**** out of 5
107 minutes
Not rated
XLrator Media

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

With horror-comedy, sometimes the kitchen sink method just works. If you rely too heavily on one aspect over the other, it either stops being scary and is even less funny. When it does work, it’s a fantastic concoction. While most would hold the likes of Scream as the best of the bunch, they probably haven’t seen Peter Jackson’s early works: Dead Alive and Bad Taste. Most recently, we’ve been treated to the likes of Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, The Cabin in the Woods, and You’re Next. The one thing these films need to be is a wild ride, and writer/director Gerard Johnstone’s debut Housebound (now playing in select theaters, VOD, and iTunes) finds just the right balance across the board.

Housebound, Gerard Johnstone, Morgana O'Reilly, Rima Te WiataKylie Bucknell (Morgana O’Reilly) is having a bad night. While attempting to rob an ATM, her cohort has knocked himself unconscious, and she winds up high centering the getaway car. Sentenced to eight-months of house arrest, Kylie is sent to live with her overbearing mum Miriam (Rima Te Wiata) and step-father Graeme (Ross Harper). Straddled with an ankle monitor, Kylie quickly learns that Miriam thinks her house is haunted after overhearing her call in to a paranormal radio show. It’s not soon after that Kylie begins to also hear bumps in the night, and she may have more to fear than land lines and dial-up internet. 

Housebound finds fantastic ways to spoof the standard haunted house film while finding new ground. And just when you think you have it all figured out, director Johnstone throws another curveball at the audience. O’Reilly gets a lot of mileage out of simple facial expressions as she becomes more bewildered with the circumstance, ghostbusting security expert Amos (Glen-Paul Waru) gets plenty of hilarious one-liners, and Miriam puts her deadpan delivery to brilliant use. While the ending seems to keep going and going, don’t worry, it all winds up fitting together perfectly by the time the credits roll. There’s a nice mystery abound and Housebound is a hilarious goosebump-inducing funhouse of a film, perfect for the Halloween season. It is now playing in select theaters, as well as VOD and iTunes.

Picture courtesy XLrator Media

Friday, October 17, 2014

Movie Review: ‘The Book of Life’

*** out of 5
95 minutes
Rated PG for mild action, rude humor, some thematic elements and brief scary images
20th Century Fox

Article first published as Movie Review: ‘The Book of Life’ (2014) on Blogcritics.

While Guillermo del Toro may usually serve up a slam dunk when he sits in the director’s chair, his producing efforts are a little weaker. Although to be fair, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and Mama are better than you’ve probably heard. Del Toro was brought in to spice things up for DreamWorks Animation in conjunction with being able to kick off his own production company in order to make horror movies for kids. The first step in this direction is plastering his name on Jorge Gutierrez’s “Day of the Dead”-inspired The Book of Life. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot of life to be found.

Three childhood friends — Manolo (voiced by Diego Luna as an adult), Maria (voiced by Zoe Saldana), and Joaquin (voiced by Channing Tatum) — are placed in a bet by the rulers of The Land of the Remembered and Forgotten — La Muerte (voiced by Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (voiced by Ron Perlman), over who will wind up victorious over Maria’s heart. Afraid of losing, Xibalba sends a snake to bite Maria, sending her into a coma, and winds up killing Manolo, sending him on an adventure through the underwold. Needless to say, there is also a subplot involving the approaching threat of the villainous Chakal (voiced by Dan Navarro) and the never-ending wishy washy affections of Maria.

If you find yourself getting lost in the onslaught of plot, don’t worry, you won’t be alone. The only way one could really enjoy The Book of Life would be to sit back and enjoy the visuals. Reel FX Creative Studios created a fantastic-looking film, chock full of skeletons and skulls, but Gutierrez’s screenplay (co-written by TV vet Doug Langdale, also of Gutierrez’s animated series El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera) completely whitewashes (i.e. Americanizes) everything. They also fall back on the old DreamWorks attitude that pop songs used out of context are hilarious. For anyone who’s already sick of Mumford & Sons’ “I Will Wait,” mind your ears.

The other huge annoyance is how out of place Tatum sounds among the Hispanic voice cast. There’s no way his name is being used as a box office draw since you don’t get to actually look at him. Also, be warned that there is a deluge of poop and pee jokes. At least one of each just in the opening scene! I admit, for the first half hour I was relatively enchanted by the animation style, but once the plot kicks in everything starts to sputter and never picks back up. The worst offense for any animated feature is boredom, but that’s all that’s left to find in The Book of Life.

Photo courtesy 20th Century Fox

Movie Review: ‘The Best of Me’

** out of 5
117 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sexuality, violence, some drug content and brief strong language
Relativity Media

Article first published as Movie Review: ‘The Best of Me’ on Blogcritics.

There are plenty of ways to know you’re watching a film based on a Nicholas Sparks novel. Young love, pretty people kissing in the rain, and the death of a major character are just three. The biggest factor is usually how bad the movie is. With the exception of The Notebook — and, to a lesser degree, A Walk to Remember — there hasn’t been a single good film in Sparks’ growing filmography. His movies are usually hilariously bad, with only the dumbest of moviegoers falling prey, and this weekend’s Sparks offering, The Best of Me, never rises above his typical clichés, even with two very likeable leads.

James Marsden, Michelle Monaghan, Nicholas Sparks, Luke Bracey, Liana LibertoDawson Cole (James Marsden) works on an oil rig until an explosion throws him into the ocean. Doctors are baffled that he wasn’t killed and now Dawson is convinced that there must be a reason he survived. While floating in the ocean, Dawson also has a vision of his long lost high school love Amanda (Liana Liberato). Soon after, Dawson and Amanda (played as an adult by Michelle Monaghan) are called back to their hometown to hear the will reading of their old friend Tuck (Gerald McRaney). Now, Dawson and Amanda are forced to reconcile the past, seen in flashbacks (with Dawson played here by Luke Bracey) from 1992. Meanwhile, Amanda is also facing the truth of her strained marriage and the two must battle a rekindling old flame.

The Best of Me is chock full of everything you’ve come to expect from a Sparks production, and it’s a shame. Monaghan and Marsden make a nice enough couple, and even their teenage versions work well together. That is if you can get past the fact that Marsden and Bracey look absolutely nothing alike. They don’t even have the same eye color. Prison sure does change a man, something a surprisingly hilarious line by Amanda when she complains that Dawson has only gotten better looking after 21 years.

There is also dumb subplot dragging out the runtime involving Dawson’s abusive drug-trafficking dad (Sean Bridgers) and character actions that are none too honorable. It’s too bad screenwriters Will Fetters and J. Mills Goodloe are stuck adapting a Sparks novel because The Best of Me features some of the worst dialogue of the year. Director Michael Hoffman also directs every scene with as much schmaltz as he can wring out for full diabetic sappiness. The Best of Me is ultimately an oxymoron as it only brings out the worst of Sparks.

Photos courtesy Relativity Media

Movie Review: ‘Fury’

***** out of 5
134 minutes
Rated R for strong sequences of war violence, some grisly images, and language throughout
Columbia Pictures

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

War films just aren’t my cup of tea. There, I said it. I know — just like every other genre — they all basically play out the same. Lots of heroism and flag waving, there’s just not a lot of character development floating around to make you really care for the characters. It’s more directors just wanting to make you root for “’Murica.” So it’s nice when one comes along that finally treats you to some characterization instead of just pitting a bunch of soldiers against a common enemy. In the case of writer/director David Ayer’s Fury, there’s more human drama than usual, making the turmoil even more devastating as the finale approaches.

Brad Pittc, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal, David Ayer, FuryIt’s April 1945 with the end of World War II near. We meet our ragtag group of soldiers — Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt), Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LeBeouf), Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Pena), and Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal) — suffering from cabin fever inside their beloved tank “Fury,” with one of their gunmen dead. As the final push into Nazi Germany commences, clerk typist Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) is forced onto the battlefield under Collier’s command. Now, Norman is thrust into action having never so much as held a gun, and the 2nd Armored Division heads into enemy territory to make a final stand against Hitler’s regime.

The less you know about what happens in Fury, the better. Although, the trailer makes what happens in the big finale seem like it’s the majority of the film. Yes, the tank does break down with the SS fast approaching and the men take a stand, but there’s a whole lot more going on. Lerman continues to prove he’s more capable than some of his lesser roles and the whole crew show real camaraderie. Even LeBeouf is likeable — now that’s saying something.

Brad Pittc, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal, David Ayer, FuryAyer gives all of the men character development, something lacking from most war films. And he never skimps on the gory details of war. Upon Norman joining the troop, he finds a piece of someone’s face inside the tank, and plenty of heads pop like zits as they’re run over by tanks. There’s also a surprising amount of humor, keeping the plot from getting too grisly. Ayer also makes fantastic use of his cinematographer (Roman Vasyanov) always ensuring you can see what’s going on — for better and worse sometimes.

There’s even a moment of sweetness with Collier and Norman taking refuge in a house with two women, Irma (Anamaria Marinca) and Emma (Alicia von Rittberg). But even that features one of the film’s most intense scenes involving boiling dinner table conversation. Pitt continues to prove he’s one of our best leading men. And Fury winds up being another frontrunner in the fall season when Oscar-bait films start taking over from the summer blockbusters. Fury is a spectacular piece of war film art, with real emotion and top-notch acting, making it one of the year’s best films.

Photos courtesy Columbia Pictures

Monday, October 13, 2014

Movie Review: ‘The Houses October Built’

*** 1/2 out of 5
91 minutes
Not rated
Image Entertainment

Article first published as Movie Review: ‘The Houses October Built’ on Blogcritics.

Considering the amount of money brought in by haunted houses across the country come October, it’s surprising there aren’t a lot of movies surrounding them. Probably the best known would be Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse from 1981. But loud noises and questionable special effects have started to take their toll on the spook house attraction and they’re starting to become more interactive to raise the terror level. Some are so extreme the average person would never even consider it. Such is the case with the underground attraction sought out by a group of friends in director Bobby Roe’s above average found footage entry: The Houses October Built. It’s available now in theaters, on VOD, and iTunes.

The Houses October Built, Bobby Roe, haunted house, HalloweenExpanding upon his 2011 documentary, we follow five friends – with the cast essentially playing themselves – on the road trip from hell. Bobby, Zack, Mikey, Jeff, and Brandy are visiting haunted houses to find the next big thrill ride. Not satisfied with the everyday attractions, they are hunting down “The Blue Skeleton,” taking them across Texas and into Louisiana. Along the way they interview cast members of the houses along the way, following a trail of clues to the big score. Little do they know that The Blue Skeleton is hot on their trails, trapping them in a game of increasing scares that the group of friends start to question whether they’re real or all part of the show.

The cast of The Houses October Built is a huge improvement over what’s typically offered in low budget found footage movies. Considering anyone with a camera in their hand can make a movie now, this is a particular area that’s been deteriorating at a rapid pace. The real haunted house footage lends an air of authenticity, but there’s way too much build up to the Blue Skeleton finale. Here is when things start to fizzle out with the happenings being to dark to see anything and falling back on typical haunted house tricks such as things appearing out of nowhere and loud noises in the dark. Roe also didn’t seem to know when to end his film. Sometimes vague endings work, this time not.

As for the handheld video work, the quality is on par with something that belongs in a V/H/S segment; the whole idea actually would have worked way better in that context. As it stands, The Houses October Built only left me wanting to watch the original documentary where Roe was more interested with the behind-the-scenes of America’s spook houses. Questioning the dark undertones and rumors that real body parts or whole corpses wind up making their way onto the show floor. The Houses October Built has a built in audience for horror hounds and haunted house aficionados and is definitely worth a look for those who seek it out.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Movie Review: ‘The Judge’

*** 1/2 out of 5
141 minutes
Rated R for language including some sexual references
Warner Bros. Pictures

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

We all know dramadies are manipulative. Whether the characters wind up deserving our empathy is another matter. Surprisingly, two directors not known for making great films have now given us two of the year’s better dramedies. Last month, Shawn Levy — known for the worst family films imaginable — treated us to some Cameron Crowe-lite with This Is Where I Leave You, and now, director David Dobkin does one better. The Judge is every bit as manipulative as you’d assume, and yes, the trailer gives away most of the movie, but with Robert Downey, Jr. and Robert Duvall leading the cast, prepare to feel bad for loving this movie.

The Judge, Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Dax ShepardHenry “Hank” Palmer (Downey) enjoys being the lawyer innocents can’t afford. But life calls him home to Carlinville, Indiana, following the death of his mother. Leaving behind his cheating wife Lisa (Sarah Lancaster) and daughter Lauren (Emma Tremblay), he arrives to less than open arms by his father, Judge Joseph “Joe” Palmer (Duvall). His brothers Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Dale (Jeremy Strong) are far more welcoming. While Hank can’t seem to get out of Carlinville fast enough, he still finds time to reignite an old flame with Samantha (Vera Farmiga) before finding Joe’s Cadillac scratched up with a broken headlight and the Sheriff finding a dead body. Now, Hank has to stick around to help defend the one client he doesn’t want to and deal with all the skeletons in the Palmer closet.

Director Dobkin may be best known for comedies — the good: Clay Pigeons, Shanghai Knights, and Wedding Crashers; the bad: The Change-Up; and the ugly: Fred Claus — but it never feels forced, easing the manipulative melodrama. Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque’s screenplay almost feels like a testosterone version of a Lifetime movie, but the cast saves the day. The whole Palmer clan feels like an authentic family. Coming from a family of three boys myself, I can tell you, their portrayal is all too real. Screaming and fighting one minute to acting like nothing’s happened the next while everything sits on the backburner for another round — Dobkin and crew nail it.

The Judge, Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Dax ShepardDowney and Duvall manage to play off each other in several cases of machismo gone wild, the best part of the movie are the scenes with Downey and Farmiga, unfortunately, she is severely underused. I hope we get to see them together again because they have fantastic chemistry. Downey and Tremblay also make an adorable father-daughter. The Judge is too long for sure, but the performances make it easier to take — even if you always know what’s coming. This is definitely Dobkin’s best film so far. It’s exactly the kind of soul food movie audiences crave during the fall season, full of laughs and tissue moments.

Photos courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Movie Review: ‘Dracula Untold’

*** out of 5
92 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of warfare, vampire attacks, disturbing images, and some sensuality
Universal Pictures

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

If there’s one place Universal could truly make some big money at the box office it’s their classic monster franchises. With horror all the rave these days, they could all use an overhaul — even if the original films are still awesome — including Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolfman, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and even The Invisible Man. Are audiences up for accepting modern takes on such treasured icons? If the executives at Universal have their say, the answer is whether they like it or not. Let’s just hope the rest of the films aren’t as passable as this weekend’s Dracula Untold, but at least it doesn’t, well, suck.

Dracula Untold, Luke Evans, Dominic Cooper, Charles Dance, Universal MonstersIn this take on Bram Stoker’s classic tale, a voiceover informs us that in 1442, the Turkish army has taken control of all the young boys in Transylvania, including Vlad III Tepes. Fast forward to find a grownup Vlad (Luke Evans), now the prince, with a 10-year reign of peace about to come to an end. Sultan Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper) has ordered 1,000 boys to join his army, including Vlad’s only son Ingeras (Art Parkinson). In order to save the kingdom, Vlad heads to Broken Tooth Mountain to seek the power he needs from a demon/vampire (Charles Dance). Forced to drink the demon/vampire’s blood, Vlad now has the superhuman strength and ability to control bats and the weather to take down the approaching army. Something Vlad hopes to accomplish in the three days given him to either break the curse or feed on human blood and become the immortal mythical legend.

As much as I love my horror movies, my first sign of concern was when a TV spot finally informed me that Dracula Untold was given a PG-13 rating. Considering it looked like they were going for a dark, brooding atmosphere, I was hoping to see something along the lines of Braveheart or 300, and I still hope there’s an eventual unrated Blu-ray release. There are a couple of “ew” moments toward the end, but there’s something really lacking in the first hour. If you’re going to turn the character into an action hero, director Gary Shore and screenwriters Matt Sazama and Burksharpless should have at least given him something to do. Instead, Vlad spends most of the runtime trying to find ways to stay out of the sunlight, and finally flies into action come sundown.

Dracula Untold, Luke Evans, Dominic Cooper, Charles Dance, Universal MonstersThe cast are better than average considering most of them look unfamiliar. Evans is usually pretty boring, but it appears he’s picked up a few tips from working with Peter Jackson in The Hobbit films. Cooper gets to camp things up and is really fun to watch in the few scenes he’s given. He also is the only one who uses the stereotypical Dracula accent; everyone else just sounds English. Things take a fun turn in the final half hour — don’t worry, it’s only 91 minutes! — when Vlad is forced to embrace his fate as the titular character. According to rumor there’s supposedly an Easter egg scene used to setup the Universal Monster Universe. If it’s the end scene right before the credits, people are going to walk away scratching their heads. If Legendary Pictures and Universal really want this new monster universe to work, they’re gonna have to step up their game, but at least you won’t walk out of Dracula Untold calling it: “Dracublah.”

Photos courtesy Universal Pictures

Friday, October 3, 2014

Movie Review: ‘Gone Girl’

***** out of 5
149 minutes
Rated R for a scene of bloody violence, some strong sexual content/nudity, and language
Twentieth Century Fox

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

If there were anyone more qualified to adapt Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl than David Fincher, I’d be scared to see their vision. Fincher is synonymous with this kind of material: bleak and sardonic. Thankfully, he always seems to keep a sense of humor running beneath the material; otherwise, Gone Girl could have wound up being one super-depressing film. Led by exactly the kind of leading man necessary to pull off “empathetic, yet despicable,” Ben Affleck shines as the man looking for his missing wife. He and game-for-anything Rosamund Pike play a couple from hell who give Oliver and Barbara Rose from War of the Roses a run for their money.

Gone Girl, David Fincher, Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Gillian Flynn, Tyler PerryNick Dunne (Affleck) is not having a cheery five-year anniversary as he stops at the bar he co-owns with his sister Margo (Carrie Coon), not looking forward to this year’s anniversary treasure hunt. After a phone call from a concerned neighbor, Nick goes home to find his wife Amy (Pike) missing.

He calls in the police, with Detectives Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) and Jim Gilpin (Patrick Fugit) on the scene. The clues start to pile up, with Nick looking like he might have had something to do with Amy’s disappearance, while flashbacks shed some light on where the marital strains started. With the likes of TV personality Ellen Abbott pointing her finger at Nick, eventually he is forced to bring in the help of attorney Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry) to sort through the red herrings and find Amy.

The best way to describe the tone of Fincher’s Gone Girl is to say it’s like casting a soap opera with fantastic actors and cranking the insanity up to 11. Chock full of horrible characters, the movie may make it hard to root for anyone, so the best thing to do is to sit back and bask in the audacity of it all. Flynn adapts her own novel better than anyone else could — infusing the aforementioned sense of humor. Let’s just say sometimes bat-shit-crazy characters are far more interesting on film than in a novel, and they are something Fincher is very well known for. His usual directing style comes in handy, shrouding the characters in mystery and never flinching when things start to get really twisted. And the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross keeps an underlying menace throughout.

Gone Girl, David Fincher, Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Gillian Flynn, Tyler PerryAffleck and Pike bring their A game, with Affleck in particular giving one of his best performances. I also wouldn’t be surprised if an Oscar nomination is in the cards for Pike, or possibly Flynn for bettering her book. As for Affleck, he’s perfectly cast as someone whose face you wouldn’t mind punching, and there are even some fun jabs made at his expense — especially his chin.
The supporting characters shine, with Coon, Dickens, and Perry never getting lost in the shuffle. I was weary of Perry, seeing how he’s been so dreadful in literally everything he’s ever been in before this, but he gets some huge laughs.

At two and a half hours, the film could have been too long, but Gone Girl is never, ever boring and keeps the audience on their toes the entire time. Gone Girl is not just one of the year’s best thrillers, but one 2014’s best films, period – absolutely do-not-miss entertainment.

Photos courtesy Twentieth Century Fox

DVD Review: ‘The Paranormal Diaries: Clophill’

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

Article first published as DVD Review: ‘The Paranormal Diaries: Clophill’ on Blogcritics.

Believe it or not, there’s still a tiny bit of life left in the found footage genre. The key is to present them in a documentary style instead of just having a bunch of obnoxious characters run around with cameras. Directors Michael Bartlett and Kevin Gates (who also supplied the story and screenplay) set their sights on a real location known for supernatural activity.

Paranormal Diaries: Clophill, Clophill, HalloweenThe Paranormal Diaries: Clophill may be an awful title, but for at least the first hour, the “investigation” into the creepy shenanigans of the St. Mary’s Church in the village of Clophill, England, plays out like one of the better ghost hunting shows found on cable. Does it hold its own up to the credits? You can find out on DVD September 30 from Image Entertainment.

A documentary crew, led by documentary coordinator Craig (Craig Stovin) and interviewer Criselda (Criselda Cabitac), set off to shed some light on the spooky happenings surrounding the dilapidating church in Clophill. Along for the filming is the director Kevin (Gates), co-producer Mike (Bartlett), and cameraman Mark (Mark Jeavons).

They interview everyone they can find in Clophill: local residents, priests, incident witnesses, and former cult members. While searching the area, they come across what could be human bones, a horn, and a rotting bird carcass. It doesn’t take long before a ghost named Sofie starts trying to make contact, and of course an Ouija board comes into play before all hell tries to break loose.

For a good portion of the film, Clophill feels like a true documentary. Bartlett and Gates treat their subject with authenticity and had they trimmed the proceedings down to the standard 42-minute runtime of a TV special, the tension could have really proven itself. Unfortunately, there’s plenty of dead air, with characters standing around whispering and asking each other, “Did you hear that strange noise?” The ending even aims for a bit of Blair Witch meets The Last Exorcism action, which just means they had no idea how they wanted to end it. So it does just that, it ends abruptly.

The acting is above average for this kind of production, but dragged out to feature length, there just aren’t enough thrills to keep your interest piqued. It’s funny to mention that Clophill is too long when there’s 22 minutes worth of deleted scenes. However, the two audio commentaries are more interesting, consisting of one with cast members Stovin, Cabitac, and Gates, and the second featuring solely Gates. There is a good movie hidden within The Paranormal Diaries: Clophill, but when it comes to the month of October, we expect more from our horror movies. Keep expectations low and you might find some entertainment — especially if you watch late at night or with the lights off.