Friday, December 26, 2014

Movie Review: ‘Top Five’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo courtesy Paramount Pictures

Movie Review: ‘Annie’ (2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos courtesy Columbia Pictures

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Sunday, December 14, 2014

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Movie Review: ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos courtesy 20th Century Fox

DVD Review: ‘Phobia’ (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blu-ray Review: ‘Housebound’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture courtesy XLrator Media