Friday, January 30, 2015

Movie Review: 'Project Almanac'

Project Almanac

**** out of 5
106 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some language and sexual content
Paramount Pictures

Article first published at The Reel Place.

If there’s one thing I really like, it’s being pleasantly surprised. Project Almanac had quite a few strikes going against it before I saw it. Being produced by both MTV and Michael Bay for instance. And it’s another found footage film which has dug itself a hole so deep there was no sight of anything new. Thankfully, director Dean Israelite and screenwriters Andrew Deutschman and Jason Pagan found a way to breathe new life into the genre with time travel. The final result winds up being way more fun than I anticipated, and winds up being the best new film of January. (Not to discount American Sniper, but I consider that a December release since it opened in limited theaters to snag its Academy Award nominations.)

David (Jonny Weston) is a high school senior with high hopes of admittance to MIT. After making an acceptance video with the help of his friends Quinn (Sam Lerner) and Adam (Allen Evangelista), and his sister Christina (Virgina Gardner), he’s let down with only an offer of $5,000 in financial aid. David’s mom (Amy Landecker) puts their house up for sale to help pay for tuition, but David finds an old video camera in the attic, discovering himself attending his own 7th birthday party. In the basement, David and his friends find old schematics to “Project Almanac” that his dad was working on before dying in a car crash. David and his friends realize that his dad was working on a time machine and decide to continue what his dad started. After establishing a set of rules, it’s obvious someone will eventually break them and soon enough, the Butterfly Effect is set into motion and David has to figure out how to set things right.

To be honest, Project Almanac should not be as much fun as it is. Israelite keeps things moving fast, but also allows enough set up for us to surprisingly care for the characters. You don’t have to completely turn your brain off to enjoy the time traveling shenanigans. Filled with tons of pop culture references and homages — including a great visual gag straight out of Back to the Future — they namedrop everything from Doctor Who to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Looper. Everything manages to gel and works spectacularly, except for maybe the last two minutes. If I could go back in time, I’d tell writers Deutschman and Pagan to let their film end on their About Time heartfelt ending. While possibly setting themselves up for a sequel, I hope it doesn’t happen, but if we know producer Michael Bay and Paramount, there will probably be more time hopping adventures. At least if the same crew sticks around, this is one franchise I can actually get behind.

Photo courtesy Paramount Pictures

Blu-ray 3D Review: ‘The Boxtrolls’

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

Article first published as Blu-ray 3D Review: Laika’s Oscar-Nominated ‘The Boxtrolls’ on Blogcritics.

With the announcement of the 2015 Academy Award nominations, as much as it was a shock to see The LEGO Movie snubbed, it did give me hope for the second best of the year: The Boxtrolls. As good as How To Train Your Dragon 2 is, and as good as Song of the Sea or The Tale of the Princess Kaguya may be, at least we don’t have to worry about hearing the award going to Big Hero 6. Laika Studio’s hilarious stop-motion adaptation of Alan Snow’s Here Be Monsters! book is one of 2014’s most underrated animated features and wholeheartedly deserves to win. Following on the heels of Coraline and ParaNorman, Laika shows no signs of slowing down as they only seem to get better with each film and now The Boxtrolls is available in a 3D/2D/DVD/UltraViolet combo pack.

Boxtrolls, Laika, Academy Awards, Oscar-NominatedDirectors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi bring the town of Cheesebridge to life, where we meet the mischievous trolls, who have taken in a baby they name Eggs (voiced by Isaac Hempstead Wright). While they may be living undiscovered below the city, the scheming Archibald Snatcher (voiced by Ben Kingsley) has made a deal with the city’s mayor Lord Portley-Rind (voiced by Jared Harris) to exterminate every last boxtroll in exchange for the chance to wear a coveted white hat. Adventure and hilarity ensue after Snatcher catches the boxtroll Fish (voiced by Dee Bradley Baker) and Eggs must join forces with Portley-Rind’s daughter Winnie (voiced by Elle Fanning) to rescue Fish and the rest of the boxtrolls, and stop Snatcher’s bigger evil plans.

Universal Pictures brings The Boxtrolls to Blu-ray 3D in a stunningly perfect presentation, even with both the 3D and 2D on the same disc, plus all the special features — also in 3D. Every minute detail of the stop motion production shines flawlessly. Every stitch of the costumes to every wrinkle of facial features, there’s not one missing detail. As for the technical side, you name it, Boxtrolls doesn’t have it. Banding, noise, aliasing, crush? Nada. Perfect sums up the picture and that also goes for the 3D. Sparing the use of pop-out effects, the third dimension is used to fully envelop you into the animated world with depth in every scene, no matter the lighting. Ghosting or crosstalk are also non-existent. Demo disc through and through.

Unless you’re talking about the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. While dialogue is clean and crisp, and directionality is exact, there’s not as much surround ambiance as you’d expect. Not even the music is used to engulf viewers into the action. At least they use the rear speakers to keep directionality and panning in check when the action scenes kick in. Just don’t expect it to sound like you’re walking the streets or sewers of Cheesebridge.

Boxtrolls, Laika, Academy Awards, Oscar-NominatedThe special features may seem overwhelming, but they never wear out their welcome. The film itself features an audio commentary with the directors and they’ve also recorded a track for the “Preliminary Animatic Sequences” (17:29). This is broken into six segments: “Baby In the Trash,” “Eggs In the Underworld,” “Man on a Horse,” “Trubshaw’s Inventorium,” “Cheese Shop,” and “Tea & Cheese.” “Dare To Be Square” (32:48) consists of five EPK-styled making ofs with interviews of the cast and crew and behind the scenes footage: “Voicing the Boxtrolls,” “Inside the Box,” “The Big Cheese,” “Deconstructing the Dance,” and “Think Big: The Mecha Drill.” Five Featurettes (13:00) rounds out the extras: “The Nature of Creation,” “Trolls Right Off the Tongue,” “Allergic To Easy,” “Let’s Dance,” and “On the Shoulders of Giants.” 
The Boxtrolls is undoubtedly 2014’s most underrated animated feature even if LEGO is the reigning champ. Directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi do an amazing job at breathing life into the world of Cheesebridge, with screenwriters Irena Brignull and Adam Pava admirably condensing Snow’s novel down to 90-minutes from a 500+ page book. The voice cast is having a ball with Kingsley’s Snatcher and Tracy Morgan’s Mr. Gristle stealing the show. Fanning continues to show she’s the real star of the Fanning sisters and Wright manages to be far more likeable as Eggs than he is as Bran Stark on HBO’s Game of Thrones. Featuring an outstanding 3D presentation and some fun behind-the-scenes footage, The Boxtrolls is t, and demands a spot in every home video library.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Movie Review: 'Blackhat'

** out of 5
133 minutes
Rated R for violence and some language
Universal Pictures

Article first published at The Reel Place.

Director Michael Mann may not be a household name, but he’s definitely responsible for some classic thrillers over the last 30 years. He even first introduced moviegoers to Hannibal Lecter in Manhunter long before Anthony Hopkins made him iconic. There’s no doubt you’ve seen Thief, The Last of the Mohicans, or Heat, but not every outing is a homerun. His most underrated film is still the Tom Cruise/Jamie Foxx team-up Collateral. And even The Insider and Ali were decent enough biopics. Unfortunately, after the likes of Miami Vice, Public Enemies, and now Blackhat, Mann is definitely delivering some snoozefests.

In China, a power plant has just been hacked, causing an explosion and evacuation. At the New York Stock Exchange, soy is skyrocketing. Turns out, a hacker is using a RAT (Remote Access Tool) to cause the havoc. Now, China and the U.S. need the help of Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), a furloughed hacker serving time, to lay his hammer down and find out who’s behind the nefarious schemes. Along with the help of Carol Barrett (Viola Davis), the Chen siblings — Lien (Wei Tang) and Dawai (Leehom Wang) — and U.S. Marshal (Mark Jessup), Hathaway leads them across the globe from Chicago and Los Angeles to Hong Kong and Jakarta to stop the blackhat from whatever his end game may be.

If Blackhat owes any movie, it’s The Matrix. There are multiple laughable scenes the are ripped straight out of that movie showing electronic information making its way across the highways of the internet. As for the cast, only Davis seems to be having any kind of fun, but is surrounded by a supporting cast that all know how boring and dated Morgan Davis Foehl’s screenplay is. Even Hemsworth sleepwalks through every scene with absolutely none of the charisma he brings when playing Thor. But the ineptness of the writing doesn’t come as too much of a surprise from one of Adam Sandler’s cohorts. Let alone that dispatching of the main villain results in little more than slapping a “That was easy,” Staples button and his evil plans wind up completely shrug worthy and only makes the plot even more confusing.

And do not believe the advertising campaign by Universal Pictures making this look like a stunning piece of action, it is a huge bore. Running at a far too long 133 minutes, Mann’s editor should have taken another pass at the film. Not to mention that there was no way to edit out the atrocious sound mixing or the unintentionally bad dubbing whenever the Chinese characters are talking in their native language. The film also looks like most of it was shot with a phone camera. Needless to say nothing works. Everything is as luckluster as you can get. Blackhat is nothing more than standard operating procedure when it comes to January releases.

Blu-ray Review: ‘Horns’

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

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

Considering how long it took to get director Alexandre Aja’s adaptation of Joe Hill’s novel Horns to audiences, you’d expect the film to be far more troublesome than it is. Having not read the novel, I can’t say whether the film was a complete success, but for what it is, it’s a better than average horror/comedy. Something audiences can finally judge for themselves with the film finally available on Blu-ray from Anchor Bay. Just a warning: like Hill’s father (Stephen King), it appears as though he’s going to need an even stronger director to bring his sordid tales to the big screen in the future. Surprisingly, Aja has a stronger grasp of drama than he’s known for (see: High Tension, The Hills Have Eyes, Piranha 3D), and with Daniel Radcliffe in the lead, at least he has an actor who can carry a film on his own.

Horns, Daniel Radcliffe, Alexandre Aja, Joe Hill, Juno Temple, Joe AndersonIn Horns, Radcliffe stars as Ig Perrish, who’s dealing with being accused of killing his long-time girlfriend Merrin (Juno Temple). His parents (Kathleen Quinlan and James Remar) and brother Terry (Joe Anderson) are trying to deal with whether or not their son really committed the crime, while seemingly all of his childhood friends have turned against him. The only people giving Ig the true benefit of the doubt is his friend/lawyer Lee (Max Minghella), and the town-slut Glenna (Kelli Garner). It’s not until Ig wakes up with a pair of horns growing out of his temples that Ig’s life really takes a turn for the weird, as the townsfolk start admitting their deepest yearnings to him. Something that eventually comes mighty handy in Ig’s pursuit of the real killer.

Horns doesn’t quite strike a deal with the devil in the video department, but possesses a healthy presentation landing on a 50GB disc with only one special feature. Framed in a 2.39:1 aspect ratio, detail is razor sharp for the most part, which comes in handy considering how much of the film takes place out in the woods, or in the rain. Colors are natural and contrast is spot on, even shadow detail is better than average with no crush in sight during the nighttime scenes. Banding or aliasing never rear their heads. The only anomaly comes right from the source as there are a few scenes that feel right out of an ‘80s movie where the top and bottom of the frame look slightly out of focus with the middle of the screen clear as a bell. Aside from that, this may not be a top-tier transfer, but it looks fantastic for a horror film.

Horns, Daniel Radcliffe, Alexandre Aja, Joe Hill, Juno Temple, Joe AndersonJust as good as the video is the film’s 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Music is used to great effect with the score weaving throughout every speaker, creating an enveloping soundscape. Song selections may be blaring but never drown out the dialogue which helps considering the film is pretty heavy with it. The only special feature is “The Making of Horns” (18:48) covering the whole production. Everyone from director Aja to Radcliffe, to Hill and the rest of the cast and crew, everyone talks about how much a labor of love it was to bring the film to the big screen. Watching them wrangle the live snakes – the one around Radcliffe’s neck is even real! – shows how much they wanted some authenticity on set. And as if Hill wasn’t already a man after my own heart by being the son of King, but seeing him sporting an Amity Island shirt just makes me love him even more. And I haven’t even read any of his books yet!

As for the film itself, not everything works. It does have a tendency to feel like an everything but the kitchen sink affair, but aside from the careening tonal shifts, Aja keeps the intensity running for the full 2 hours. At least you’re never bored, something that even a scant 80 minutes can sometimes feel like an eternity when compared to something as atrocious as the recent Ouija. The love story works with Radcliffe performing admirably as a man literally facing his demons – along with everyone elses. The only thing that doesn’t completely work is the involvement of Merrin’s necklace that seems to have some kind of power of its own but is never explained even once in the film. But for anyone interested in seeking out Horns considering it’s almost direct-to-video release, the video/audio, and story, make it worth at least a rental for Radcliffe fans looking to see how he fares now that he’s not just “The Boy Who Lived.” Between this and What If, it was a great year for Radcliffe, making Horns an above average horror offering.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Movie Review: 'Taken 3'

Taken 3
** out of 5
109 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and for brief strong language
20th Century Fox

Article originally published at The Reel Place.

Well, we didn’t ask for a remake of The Fugitive — which we all know was a big screen adaptation of a TV show to begin with — yet that’s exactly what Taken 3 is. While originality isn’t necessarily what we want when watching  a Luc Besson movie, they could at  least be a little more sly about it. When we see Liam Neeson’s Bryan Mills character finding his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) dead on his bed, chased by police, and finally, making an escape into the sewer system, there’s obviously going to be a case of deja vu. If only they’d had the cajones to have Forest Whitaker’s Inspector Franck Dotzler follow him to the edge of a water spout, it could have been a chance to poke direct fun at The Fugitive. But even in that case, Leslie Nielsen did that way back in 1998 with Wrongfully Accused.

In this third installment of the surprisingly successful series — even if the box office had already sputtered with Taken 2 — it’s a good thing this is the last. The original was a surprise success, but we all know what that means in Hollywood: “Greenlight a sequel!” And if there’s one thing studio heads love even more, it’s a trilogy. So alas, now we find Bryan Mills dealing with his estranged wife, stuck in a marriage on the verge of divorce to Stuart St John (Dougray Scott), while the two exes try to keep their kindling feelings from crossing any lines. There’s also a subplot about their daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) finding out she’s pregnant which gets brought up in only two scenes. Talk about filler. Meanwhile, Bryan is on the run from the police, trying to find the vicious ’80s-reject super-killer Oleg Malankov (Sam “Not Willem Dafoe” Spruell). And if you can’t figure out what’s really going on within the first 15-minutes, you need to watch  more movies.

The biggest problem with Taken 3 is that there’s not one scene that comes across as either believable — even with the necessary suspension of disbelief — or fun. Everyone is going through the motions, with Neeson in particular looking completely bored in this outing. Returning director Olivier Megaton may have the best name to direct this kind of film, but his films are continually getting worse. Not sure what it says about a director when his best film is Transporter 3; Taken 3 is full of shaky-cam/quick-cut editing and you never have a clue as to what’s happening. The best example is during a freeway chase where Megaton can’t even properly set up which vehicle Mills is sitting in and then screenwriters Besson, and his usual partner-in-crime Robert Mark Kamen, proceed to write action sequences as if we’re still in the ’90s. Over-the-top is the name of the game, which only helps ease things a tiny bit with hilariously bad making up most of the runtime.

Thankfully this is the final chapter in the lives of the Mills family as even the film’s tagline reads: “It ends here.” And thank the film gods for that, because the saddest thing about Taken 3, is that the only thing actually taken is your 109 minutes.

Photo courtesy 20th Century Fox

Movie Review: 'Selma'

***** out of 5
128 minutes
Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment, and brief strong language
Paramount Pictures

Article originally published at The Reel Place.

If you’re going to make a movie about Martin Luther King Jr., it better be powerful. Thankfully, that’s exactly what we get from director Ava DuVernay’s biopic Selma. With the help of screenwriter Paul Webb, the two bring us an almost slice-of-life take on the genre. Focusing on a single event that was nothing short of crucial to King’s impact on the Civil Rights Movement. DuVernay may surround David Oyelowo’s portrayal of King with an all-star cast, but he carries the film on his own — something anyone poised with representing a man of such acclaim should be able to do effectively.

Opening with King’s Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, we move onto the bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama church which killed four innocent little girls. We are also introduced to Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) trying to register to vote in Selma, Alabama. Segregation may be illegal in the United States, but that hasn’t stopped it from happening. This particular portion of the Civil Rights Movement involves  King’s meetings with President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and his advisor Lee C. White (Giovanni Ribisi) where King is trying to get the President to stop the intimidation tactics used to prevent blacks from registering to vote.

With Johnson putting the voting issue on the back-burner, J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) keeps asking if there’s anything the FBI can do to “help.” Pressure starts to rise when King heads to Selma to form a peaceful protest which leads to outbursts of violence and the possibility of a 54-mile march to Montgomery. But even the most peaceful protests can lead to deadly consequences, most importantly the shooting death of Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) and minister James Reeb (Jeremy Strong).

A film like Selma could stand as a wake up call if it weren’t for the terrifying situation recently in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City with the deaths of black men Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Unfortunately, in today’s world, we don’t have a Martin Luther King Jr. to lead the way, but it seems that’s exactly what we need. The United States is still overcoming these issues and someday we can all dream that they will finally end. It’s particularly sad that it’s been 50 years and the nation is still full of racism and bigotry. It seems like maybe people are just better at hiding it to avoid the consequences. But recent events just make Selma seem as timely as ever — and even more important.

Selma is an important movie and can hopefully point out that the more we try to change, unfortunately, the more things stay the same. History is trying repeating itself, and we should not be moving backward. We need more movies like Selma to help us never forget the fight that’s still ongoing today.

As for the film itself, DuVernay does a masterful job of bringing 1965 to life, for better and worse. She’s able to get a transformative performance out of Oyelowo, and even the more minor supporting characters get chances to shine. Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, in particular, sheds a light on what it must have been like to be married to such an important figure, never shying away from the terror that also came with it. Don’t be surprised to see Brad Pitt’s name as producer, he also helped bring us 2013’s Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave. And there’s no doubt we’ll be seeing Selma nominated when the contenders are finally announced for 2014. Selma is without a doubt one of the best, and most important, film’s of 2014.

Photo courtesy Paramount Pictures