Saturday, February 28, 2015

Movie Review: ‘Focus’


**** 1/2
104 minutes
Rated R for language, some sexual content and brief violence
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published at The Reel Place.

If anyone has a more schizophrenic list of films under their belts, it’s the writing/directing team Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. Getting their foot in the door with the screenplay to the first Cats & Dogs film, they then went on to write the raunchy Bad Santa and Bad News Bears remake. But the duo really came into their own when they took over directing duties and brought us the underrated I Love You Phillip Morris, Crazy, Stupid, Love., and now the Will Smith vehicle Focus. Showing a behind the scenes look at the world of grifters, Ficarra and Requa pit Smith in the dangerous world of easy money.

Nicky (Smith) is enjoying a night out alone when Jess (Margot Robbie) plops down at his table asking him to be her boyfriend to get away from a handsy guy at the bar. The two hit it off and go up to her room where Jess and a partner try to rob him. Calling them out on their con, Jess wants Nicky to show her how she can be better, so he agrees to show her a few tricks of the trade. Eventually, he takes her under his wing and plunges her into his grifting underground full of pickpocketing entrepreneurs.

After they make a big play at a football game, taking over $2 million in cash from gambling addict Liyuan (BD Wong), Nicky leaves Jess on her own, because he doesn’t want their affection to complicate things. Now, three years later, they run into each other in Buenos Aires, where all their feelings come roaring back as Nicky plans on making out with a long con on her new boyfriend, billionaire race car owner Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro). Nicky has to find a way to try to steal not just Garriga’s money, but Jess’s heart again, with Garriga’s bodyguard Owens (Gerald McRaney) being Nicky’s biggest obstacle yet.

For anyone wishing Fifty Shades of Grey had any shred of romance prepare yourself for Focus. This film has sexual tension to spare. To say it bends Fifty Shades over a spanking bench and shows it who’s boss is an understatement. Some may be put off by the age difference between Smith and Robbie, but Robbie holds her own and manages to come off years older than her real age of 24. The two have the on-screen chemistry a film like this deserves as a couple we want to see beat the odds. It helps that Smith is finally back in the kind of role he can play in his sleep: shameless, charming, and even sexy. He’s definitely been finding time to hit the gym for all his lady fans out there.

Ficarra and Requa’s screenplay keeps chugging along, even if the big football scene starts to drag, but thankfully has a hilarious payoff. The same can be said about the whole movie. With as many twists and turns as they throw at us — featuring some amazingly choreographed sleight-of-hand sequences conceived by Apollo Robbins — they never go one twist too far instead of aiming for a huge “gotcha” moment. Something they also managed to pull off in a completely different way in Crazy, Stupid, Love. With February known as one of Hollywood’s dump months, I was a little worried that the directors had lost their touch. But fear not, Focus gets Will Smith’s career back on track — even if temporarily — and it’s nice to see February go out on a high note.

Movie Review: ‘The Lazarus Effect’

The Lazarus Effect

*** out of 5
83 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of horror violence, terror and some sexual references
Relativity Media

Article first published at The Reel Place.

At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, there was a disturbing trend amongst the horror film selections: they all suffered from lackluster endings. It seems as if all the directors and writers had some really fun ideas and then painted themselves into a corner. The same problem comes calling once again in The Lazarus Effect, the new thriller from Blumhouse Productions — the company responsible for the Purge, Paranormal Activity, and Insidious films. Not even this group of really good actors can save the film from its ridiculous finale.

Scientists Frank (Mark Duplass) and Zoe (Olivia Wilde) have created a serum in the basement of an unnamed university, hoping to bring the dead back to life. The couple have put off a married life together to complete their research, along with the help of Clay (Evan Peters), Niko (Donald Glover), and college student documentarian Eva (Sarah Bolger).

The group finally sees their testing pay off after they bring back a dog named Rocky (Cato) who was seemingly put down due to cataracts. Somehow, the serum has also managed to cure its ailments, but they notice the dog’s brain activity is a little on the overactive side. After Big Business swoops in and steals all their documents from violating the school’s ethics code, the team sneaks back into the lab to duplicate the experiment, resulting in Zoe’s electrocution. Grief-stricken, Frank talks everyone into using the serum to bring Zoe back to life, causing all hell to break loose.

If The Lazarus Effect has one thing going for it, it’s the scant runtime. Clocking in at only 83 minutes, at least director David Gelb moves things along at a mostly breakneck pace. Unfortunately, Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater’s screenplay is a huge mess. While it starts off promising enough, it trades in any kind of creepy atmospherics for slasher tropes. Wilde and Duplass make for a nice enough couple, but eventually, Frank’s motives take a too-quick, unexplained turn. Wilde does what she can as the possibly-possessed Zoe, but what they aren’t advertising is that the film is a bigger ripoff of Luc Besson’s Lucy than the ’80s cult classic Flatliners. Turns out, Zoe isn’t possessed, her brain is evolving at an exponential rate: what should take millions of years is happening in minutes, we’re told.

The dopiest aspect of The Lazarus Effect is when it dissolves into the old science vs. religion talk. Dawson and Slater have absolutely nothing to say on the subject, which is probably why they seemed to throw their hands up in the air and turn Zoe into another killer-on-the-loose à la Michael Myers or Jason Vorhees. And then there’s the ending. I would never give anything away, and let’s face it, all horror films have their audience, but this one takes a serious turn for the unintentionally hilarious. The last scene is so confounding, it oddly leaves me hoping for a sequel for a true battle between good and evil. As it stands, The Lazarus Effect is only deserving of being another Blumhouse Production bound to make a huge profit opening weekend before it’s quickly forgotten and rushed to video.

Blu-ray Review: ‘Dracula Untold’

Movie: ***
Video: ****
Audio: **** 1/2
Extras: ** 1/2

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: ‘Dracula Untold’ starring Luke Evans 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 rage these days, they could all use an overhaul — even if the original films are still awesome — 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 “Yes” 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. And is now available in a Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy combo pack.

Dracula Untold, Universal Classic Monsters, Dracula, Luke Evans, Charles Dance, Dominic Cooper, Gary ShoreIn 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.

Dracula Untold doesn’t quite soar in its Blu-ray presentation, but it’s far from a slouch. Placed on a 50GB disc, it has plenty of room to stretch its wings, and the 2.35:1 aspect ratio is definitely an improvement on the theatrical presentation. When it was released back in October, the picture was muddy and dull, with no life to be found. On Blu-ray, detail is new and improved, both for better and worse. Better in that the blacks are deep and inky, with a few instances of intended crush, but worse in that it hinders a few of the CGI-filled sequences. However, it also makes some of those sequences look better. Colors are muted for the most part, but any action in the daytime is plenty lifelike, and some scenes, particularly the final battle between Vlad and Mehmed is oversaturated and too bright. However, there’s no banding, noise, aliasing, or ringing to be found either.

The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is just as impressive. Filled with plenty of ambiance pitting the viewer in the middle of the action, it also shows even more immersion whenever Vlad bursts into his flying bats incarnation. Every speaker gets put to full use, with plenty of deep bass for random jump scares and battle action. Dialogue is never drowned out and delivered clearly with a little bit of directionality added in. Additional audio tracks include: Spanish and French 5.1 DTS, and subtitles are available in English SDH, French, and Spanish.

Dracula Untold, Universal Classic Monsters, Dracula, Luke Evans, Charles Dance, Dominic Cooper, Gary ShoreThe special features are mainly of the EPK (Electronic Press Kit) variety and become rather repetitious. Included are “Luke Evans: Creating a Legend” (19:46) which looks like it was meant as a scrapped picture-in-picture special feature with Evans speaking as literal as possible to what’s happening onscreen; “Alternate Opening” (2:11) features an optional commentary track with director Shore and Production Designer Francois Audouy who dismiss the scene as “too Errol Flynn” and delayed the story — wisely excised; six “Deleted Scenes” include “Vlad Finds Scattered Turkish Armor,” “Village – Babayaga,” “Vlad Mesmerizes Ismail,” “Vlad Kills Ismail,” “Vlad & Mirena: Blood Thirst,” and “Vlad & Cazani: Dead Boys.”

“Day in the Life: Luke Evans” (10:05) follows Evans on a day of shooting from getting picked up outside his own home to the end of the day; “Dracula Retold” (6:55) tries to make the viewer believe that some kind of actual history was woven through the story, but let’s face it, most of this is either myth or legend. “Slaying 1000” (5:03) gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the visual FX. And finally, “The Land of Dracula” is an interactive map taking you through “Cozia Monastery,” “Borge Pass,” “Castle Dracula,” and “Broken Tooth Mtn.” which is filled with short featurettes and FX breakdowns.

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 unfortunately, this was not the hoped for unrated Blu-ray. 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, Universal Classic Monsters, Dracula, Luke Evans, Charles Dance, Dominic Cooper, Gary ShoreThe cast is 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 is also the only one who uses the stereotypical Dracula accent; everyone else just sounds British. 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 set up 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.” Featuring an above average video/audio presentation, with plenty of skippable extras, Dracula Untold ultimately feels like a lackluster episode of Game of Thrones with a vampiric subplot thrown in. This is for Dracula completists only.

Blu-ray Review: ‘Birdman’

Movie: *****
Video: *****
Audio: *****
Extras: *** 1/2

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Oscar-Winning ‘Birdman’ starring Michael Keaton Wins Best Picture and Director for Alejandro González Iñárritu on Blogcritics.

A funny thing happened during my second viewing of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman — this time as a Blu-ray review — I finally recognized the brilliance everyone has been talking about. And now that it’s won the Academy Award for Best Picture, I’m happy to report that Birdman can safely perch in my Blu-ray collection, now available from 20th Century Fox.

Birdman, Michael Keaton, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Oscars, Academy Awards, Best PictureI originally dismissed the film, to quote myself: “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 Birdman, I don’t want to step on the artsy fartsy crowd’s toes, or rain on the director’s parade, but while it 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.” I take back every word.

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is a washed-up, former superhero actor, staging what he hopes will be the comeback of his career by directing, producing and starring in  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.

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 Riggan does himself. In addition to prepping the play, 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 (Riseborough) informing him she might be  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.

As for the video presentation, 20th Century Fox lets Birdman soar with a near flawless presentation in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on a 50GB disc. In fact, if it weren’t for one shot of banding at the 88 minute mark, and a slight amount of judder in the opening pan of Riggan’s dressing room, I’d have nothing else to mark it down. This is a demo disc through and through. Blacks are inky without resulting in crush. Colors are bold and dynamic while never bleeding. Detail is breathtaking, thanks to Emmanuel Lubezki’s Oscar-nominated cinematography.

The 5.1 DTS-HD audio track is almost even better than the video. With Antonio Sanchez’s wrongfully disqualified score thumping across the soundscape, we’re also treated to plenty of deep and rumbling bass, with a mesmerizing soundfield, planting the viewer right in the middle of every scene. Directionality is absurdly spot-on with no line of dialogue getting swallowed up by the panning camera movements. You will believe you’re on set of every scene. Additional audio tracks include French DTS 5.1, and 5.1 Dolby Digital in Spanish, Portuguese, Czech, Hungarian, Polish, and Turkish. Subtitles are offered in English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Dutch, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Icelandic, Korean, Mandarin, Polish, Romanian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian, and Turkish.

While the special features may not be overflowing — which let’s face it, would have only hindered the video/audio — but they definitely give you an amazing behind-the-scenes look at the production.

Birdman, Michael Keaton, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Oscars, Academy Awards, Best PictureBirdman: All-Access (A View from the Wings)” (33:28) kicks things off with the cast and crew taking a moment to listen to a speech from Iñárritu on what was probably the first day of shooting. He explains to everyone that he will “kill himself to make this the best,” and thankfully he didn’t have to in order to achieve such an accomplishment. The amount of rehearsal involved is astonishing and only goes to show how much hard work was put in from everyone.

“A Conversation with Michael Keaton and Alejandro González Iñárritu” (14:03) sits down the star and director who show what a great dynamic the two have and the enthusiasm and how they hope the audience finds themselves having individual personal experiences rather than spelling things out. “Gallery: Chivo’s On Set Photography” is a collection of pictures taken throughout the production with both a Manual and Auto Advance option.

Looking back at my final paragraph from my original review, I couldn’t be more wrong. Birdman really is the masterpiece everyone proclaimed it to be. While I originally really liked the film, I felt it was a little overrated. I now see the error of my ways. Iñárritu has delivered a marvel of a film, and I’m glad I took the time to go back and revisit it before it was declared Best Picture. While light on features, there’s no doubt we’ll eventually see a fully loaded Blu-ray release, but with stellar video/audio, Birdman is a film worth flocking to grab on Blu-ray.

Movie Review: ‘Hot Tub Time Machine 2’

Hot Tub Time Machine 2 
** 1/2 out of 5
93 minutes
Rated R for crude sexual content and language throughout, graphic nudity, drug use and some violence
Paramount Pictures

Article first published at The Reel Place.

I can only imagine the difficulty in trying to come up with an idea to make a sequel to Hot Tub Time Machine. Considering the only cast member to not return was John Cusack definitely gives one pause, especially after he publicly stated that he was never even approached for Hot Tub Time Machine 2, when his character was the lead. As with Dumb and Dumber To, mixed results are the name of the game, and while that one came 20 years too late, even five years was too long for this one.

Most of the boys are back: Lou Dorchen (Rob Corddry), is a millionaire thanks to his band Motley Lou and the invention of Lougle (aka Google); Nick Webber (Craig Robinson) is a successful “songwriter” meaning he’s continuing to rip off songs he already knows are hits in the future/present; Jacob (Clark Duke) is living in the shadow of Lou as his butler, whether he admits it or not. And we get told Adam (played by Cusack in the first film) is MIA on an existential journey after publishing a hit book based on their time-traveling antics. What little plot we get this time revolves around our hapless heroes using their titular time machine to save Lou from death after he’s shot in the crotch at a party. Does hilarity ensue? Ehh… mostly.

If there’s one thing missing the most in Hot Tub Time Machine 2, it’s the presence of Cusack. The first film was a spectacular throwback to the films he helped popularize and worked as a dandy spoof to bat. For the sequel, well, I hope you enjoy the rest of the cast as much as they hoped because they’re all we get. Director Pink has none of the nostalgic charm he did with the first film, and screenwriter Josh Heald is never too low to stoop beyond the grossest joke. Case in point, while probably thinking they’re making a callback to the first film, Lou and Nick wind up getting a faceful of bodily fluids. But where the initial film pulled off a hilarious punchline, the literalness of the joke here just makes it disgusting.

Fear not, there are a lot of funny jokes at work here, but they are fewer and far between. Walking out of the screening I seemed to be the only person around with anything even slightly positive to say. First impressions were better than when I started writing this review. The film may not be a complete disaster, but it won’t go down as one of the worst of the year. It’s never as charming as the original, and let’s just say that Corddry still has a long way to go before being able to carry a film on his own.

Thankfully, the returning cast, and a few new faces — especially Adam Scott as Adam’s estranged son, and Community’s Gillian Jacobs as his fiancée — try to keep the pace moving. Except that even at what should be a quick 93 minutes, it does start to drag in some parts. The worst being a particularly homophobic stretch involving the boys on a game show. For anyone looking for kind-of-more-of-the-same, you might get enough laughs to justify the ticket. For anyone hoping a sequel that at least feels like the first film, Hot Tub Time Machine 2 will never live up to expectations.

Movie Review: ‘The DUFF’


*** 1/2 out of 5
101 minutes
Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual material throughout, some language and teen partying
CBS Films

Article first published at The Reel Place.

Sometimes the bar is set low for watching a movie. And other times you wind up pleasantly surprised — as is the case of The DUFF — which is even better. Especially when said film falls in the realm of the worn-out teen-comedy genre. We all know what’s going to happen before the credits roll, but it has a smart enough script and enjoyable cast to make the destination worthwhile.

With Mae Whitman and Robbie Amell in the leads, The DUFF winds up way better than it looks. Director Ari Sandel wrings more laughs than expected from screenwriter Josh A. Cagan’s adaptation of Kody Keplinger’s novel. It’s on the  same level as Mean Girls or Easy A, while never getting as mean spirited as Jawbreaker. While still a far cry from the John Hughes classics, The DUFF isn’t the waste of time — like the trailer indicates.

Our “D.U.F.F.” in question is high schooler Bianca Piper (Whitman) who is trying to survive the awkward high school years in the shadow of her two hotter, more popular friends, Casey (Bianca A. Santos) and Jessica (Skyler Samuels). Bianca is clueless to her DUFF predicament until her childhood friend/next door neighbor Wesley Rush (Amell) tells her that she’s their “Designated Ugly Fat Friend.”

While Wesley tries to assure her it’s just a term and she’s neither fat nor ugly, Bianca has no choice but to take measures of her own against her best friends, and eventually, the whole school. After the most popular girl in school and Wesley’s on-again/off-again girlfriend Madison (Bella Thorne) unleashes a viral video threatening Bianca’s any chance of being taken for who she really is, it’s up to Wesley to navigate her through the ruthless halls of high school and the awkward dating world as well.

We all know films released in February are bound for disaster, yet somehow, The DUFF manages to be way better than it should be. Whether it’s director Sandel’s pacing, or if there was more on-set improv than screenplay, it all comes together hilariously. While definitely not perfect, and nowhere near a classic, there’s plenty to keep you laughing along to the semi-hypocritical final scene. Note: You shouldn’t have your main characters doing the exact opposite of the point you’re trying to make in the narration.

The biggest saving grace is the cast. Whitman and Amell are super cute together, and even have some actual comedic chemistry, which goes a long way to helping through the more cliched moments. And it doesn’t hurt when Bianca proves her smarts by correcting Wesley over his improper use of “irregardless.” In supporting roles, Ken Jeong continues to be a big screen irritant, but Allison Janney does get to have fun as Bianca’s mom. The DUFF definitely won’t go down as one of the year’s best comedies, but it’s at least a fun comedy, filled with likable and believable characters — in spite of the actors’ ages — you can finally root for.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Blu-ray Review: ‘John Wick’

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

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: ‘John Wick’ starring Keanu Reeves on Blogcritics.

Some movies you wish you hadn’t missed in theaters — they start to build up a certain level of hype. I may have missed the John Wick press screening, but couldn’t be more excited to have it in my video library now. Even waiting in line for Press and Industry screenings at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, people kept talking about the excellence of John Wick; even if it was probably because Keanu Reeves was starring in Eli Roth’s festival film Knock Knock. A colleague of mine even told me John Wick was over-the-top, but badass. This only raised expectations. Does it live it up to the hype? Is John Wick the action movie we’ve been longing for? Absolutely. And it’s available on Blu-ray now from Lionsgate Home Entertainment.

John Wick, Keanu Reeves, Willem DafoeJohn Wick (Reeves) is having the night from hell. After crashing his car, he falls out onto the street bleeding, watching a video of him and his wife, Helen (Bridget Moynahan). We then flashback to the beginning of our story where we learn that Helen just died from an unnamed illness and John has quit the hitman lifestyle. One night, John receives a Beagle puppy with a note from his wife saying that she’s leaving him with this gift because he needs something to love. It isn’t long before his grieving is interrupted by a home invasion involving Iosef Tarasov (Game of Throne’s Alfie Allen), son of crime lord Viggo (Michael Nyqvist of the original Dragon Tattoo film series), with Iosef stealing his car and killing his puppy. Now, John unleashes a roaring rampage of revenge. Because who wouldn’t?!

Lionsgate continues to deliver some of the best transfers on Blu-ray with John Wick being no exception. Detail is always razor sharp, with bright and bold colors that never bleed. With a film revolving around the seedy underworld of New York City, thankfully crush never becomes an issue. Unless you’re the directors recording the commentary. They commented that there was on whatever monitor they were watching, but on a properly calibrated HDTV there’s not. Aliasing and banding are also kept at bay, along with no sign of noise. Needless to say, there are zero compression issues.

On the audio front, I wasn’t sure what to expect from my first Dolby Atmos experience, I do know that it downcoverts to 7.1 Dolby TrueHD without the proper equipment, but man, this track sure packs a wallop! Be prepared for a whole new level of surround sound right from the Atmos logo. Bullets whiz by from every angle; directionality is spot on; bass keeps the action booming. You want an enveloping surround field, you got it. This is definitely my new audio demo disc. Also available are Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 and English 2.0 tracks. Subtitles are available in English, English SDH, and Spanish.

John Wick, Keanu Reeves, Willem DafoeJohn Wick comes locked and loaded with some really fun special features. An audio commentary from co-directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch offers up lots of fun, behind-the-scenes anecdotes. As informative as they are, it’s hilarious to listen to them try to keep up with the pace of their own film. They mention there was a two and a half hour cut which may have made for a lesser film, but it’s funny to hear them caught off guard as each scene progresses. “Don’t F*#% with John Wick” (15:17) gives an inside look at Reeves training with the choreographers, along with the producers, cast, and directors talk about how professional he is and how much writing changed for the action scenes based on whether something worked on camera or not.

“Calling in the Calvary” (11:58) brings to light the supporting characters brought to life by the likes of Willem Dafoe, John Leguizamo, and how the Perkins character (Adrianne Palicki) was originally intended to be male. “Destiny of a Collective” (6:19) covers the stunt work of Studio 8711, praising the directors for making such a leap from stunt work to directing and how it’s such a blessing to be continuing their work with Reeves, something they’ve been blessed with since the first Matrix. “The Assassin’s Code” (5:18) gives an inside look into the seedy underworld Wick works in and “N.Y.C. Noir” (6:00) shows off the locations including the Navy docks. “The Red Circle” (6:26) spotlights the big shootout in the club and bathhouse scene. Do not watch this before the film or it ruins all of the fun.

The final word on John Wick is that it’s the best action film of 2014 you probably didn’t see. Featuring a killer performance from Keanu Reeves who’s in total-kick ass and not-taking-names mode, this is the most fun he’s been since the original Matrix. Never taking the time to get convoluted, John Wick may be simple, but that’s what most action films should be. There’s been a growing trend of epic spectacle in the genre, and here, everything is stripped to bare bones necessity. With a near perfect video presentation, and one of the flat out best audio releases yet, John Wick is a definite must-own and warrants a blind buy for any action fan.

Movie Review: ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’

Kingsman: The Secret Service

***** out of 5
129 minutes
Rated R for sequences of strong violence, language and some sexual content
20th Century Fox

Article first published at The Reel Place.

A lot can change when adapting a graphic novel for the big screen. In the case of Kingsman: The Secret Service, it helps that director Matthew Vaughn co-created the source material. Vaughn also took the time to breathe life into the subject of spies in the modern world, and even classed things up a bit. Comicbook writer Mark Millar (also responsible for Kick-Ass) may have wrung a lot of laughs in comic form, but Vaughn and his big screen co-writer Jane Goldman (Stardust, K-A, and X-Men: First Class) make the film version even funnier, and way more badass.

The Kingsman are a secret service of select operatives. The best of the best is Harry “Galahad” Hart (Colin Firth) who has just lost his new recruit after jumping atop a terrorist with a bomb in the Middle East. Harry visits the man’s wife and child, Little Eggsy (Alex Nikolov), presenting them with a medal of honor and a promise that if they ever need help to call the phone number on the back of the medal and relay a secret message. Seventeen years later, Eggsy (Taron Egerton), is a military dropout always looking for trouble, never batting an eye at stealing a car and leading police on a chase.

After winding up in jail, Eggsy calls the number on the back of his father’s medal and Harry is awaiting him as he’s released from custody, no questions asked. Soon, Harry introduces Eggsy to the undercover world of the Kingsman. Meanwhile, celebrities from around the globe have been going missing, and all signs point to the maniacal tech-guru Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), along with his sidekick Gazelle (Sofia Boutella). Now, the Kingsman are put to the ultimate test of stopping Valentine, with Eggsy hoping to just make it through training without winding up in a literal body bag.

If that sounds like a lot of exposition, I didn’t even touch most of it. The film is two hours of plot, but never feels convoluted. In fact, it breezes by with intertwining story threads at constant full throttle. It also helps that director Vaughn has improved the original story. While plenty of fans will feel like there were too many changes, they help make a far better movie than sticking with the original comic. The core story stays the same, but consider this the bizarro world version. Plus, the whole cast is having a blast. Something that rings true in every Vaughn film.

The violence is almost on par with Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, but surprisingly less bloody. The violence really takes over at a hate mongering church in Kentucky where we’re finally able to sit back and bask in the glory of Vaughn’s violence gone wild. Taking a page out of Gareth Evans’ Raid films, this scene will go down as one of the best action sequences of the year and the same can be said for the film itself. Kingsman: The Secret Service is hilarious, classy, razor sharp, and brutal.

For anyone who’s complained that adult action fare has been watered down, things are finally looking up. Put Kingsman right alongside John Wick and action fans can find themselves with films to cheer about. It’s clear that as of right now, Vaughn can do no wrong. Do not miss Kingsman: The Secret Service.

Movie Review: ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’

Fifty Shades of Grey

** 1/2 out of 5
125 minutes
Rated R for strong sexual content including dialogue, some unusual behavior and graphic nudity, and for language
Universal Pictures

Article first published at The Reel Place.

If there’s any silver lining for the Fifty Shades of Grey film adaptation, it’s that it’s not as bad as anticipated. Mind you, this is not a good movie. And while you could say that the film never had any hope due to the source material, it’s been publicly stated that the director had brought in Oscar-winning screenwriters to try to polish things up, much to the chagrin of the best-selling book’s author E. L. James. Apparently she was against trying to make a passable product, alas, all we’re left with is a film that’s neither as awful as expected, nor as good as it could have been. I’ve also talked to numerous people who have read the book who told me there were massive important scenes missing, which may have actually saved the characterization. As it stands, Fifty Shades of Grey simply winds up being Fifty Shades of Bleh.

In case you don’t know by now, the story revolves around mousey English Literature-majoring Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson). After her journalism studying BFF/roommate Kate (Eloise Mumford) gets sick, she sends Anastasia to interview 27-year-old billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). The two are almost instantly smitten with each other, and Christian begins to basically stalk Anastasia, including her job at the local hardware store where he drops in to buy cable ties, rope, and duct tape. “Everything you’d need to be a serial killer,” Anastasia says. “Not today,” Christian quips back. Soon enough, Christian is picking her up from drunken bar escapades, fixing her laptop, and taking her virginity. It’s all fun and games until Christian presents her with a contract, asking her to become his submissive, where the two will spend their nights in his “playground” of S&M ecstasy.

If there’s one thing the film has going for it, it’s the fact that director Sam Taylor-Johnson clearly knows what kind of material she’s been handed. Filled with some of the most cringe-worthy dialogue this side of Twilight — which makes sense since this started out as Twilight fan fiction — but surprisingly, the actors make it far more watchable than you’d expect. And not just because they spend so much time with their clothes off. Dakota has proven likeable before, but here she becomes the film’s heart, something lacking from just about every frame she’s not in.

As Christian Grey, Dornan does what he can, but while the novel let women fulfill his physique with whatever their imagination desires, here, we’re stuck with an actor who just looks like any other guy on the street. Lacking the charisma to convince us that 15 other women have been conquested, he’s at least fun to watch verbally and physically spar with Johnson. In fact, anytime characters are simply having conversations is where the film far exceeds the steamier sections, which have all the eroticism of a Red Shoe Diaries episode.

In the end, is there really anything left to say that could possibly stop fans from running in droves to see their flavor-of-the-month novel up on the big screen? Absolutely not. But to quote my friend walking out of the screening: “At least it was better than the book.” How’s that for faint praise?

Blu-ray Review: ‘Poker Night’

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

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

Like books, movies should never be judged by their cover. When I saw the press release for Poker Night, it looked like another serial killer/slasher flick, but with a surprising cast. Ron Perlman we all know and love whether it’s as Hellboy or Sons of Anarchy, the man’s a genre legend. And Giancarlo Esposito has gained quite the following after his terrifying turn as Gus Fring from Breaking Bad.

Poker Night, Ron Perlman, Giancarlo EspositoFeaturing a masked killer holding a “Killer Hand” on the cover, look at the featured image and tell me this doesn’t look predictable. Thankfully, writer/director Greg Francis delivers something unexpectedly less serious, with some scenes outright hilarious. And on purpose! Poker Night is available now on Blu-ray from XLrator Media.

We meet the hero of our story, Jeter (Beau Mirchoff), bleeding on a lawn surrounded by police. Jeter narrates the story, explaining the differences between wisdom and hindsight, neither of which were on his side. Soon, we learn that Jeter has been on the trail of a serial killer, who just so happens to have recently taken his girlfriend Amy (Halston Sage).

Now, the masked madman has also taken Jeter captive and he must use everything he’s learned from poker night — featuring a hand of veteran hotshots: Lieutenant Calabrese (Perlman), Bernard (Esposito), Davis (Corey Large), Cunningham (Ron Eldard), and Maxwell (Titus Welliver) — to outwit his captor and save himself and Amy. 

Poker Night slashes its way to Blu-ray featuring pretty decent transfer. Framed in a 2.39:1 aspect ratio, if it weren’t for the amount of noise buzzing throughout the runtime, this would be an even better presentation. Colors range from properly balanced to oversaturated to undersaturated with a lot of post-production added to the mix. Detail is always sharp, lending some extra gruesomeness to the random bits of gore.

Blacks are deep and inky with no crush, and banding never creeps in. As for the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, dialogue can be a little on the soft side, but only when the surrounds tend to kick in. Being a front-heavy mix, at least it never gets in the way of hearing what’s being said. Ambiance is lackluster, aside from a scene at a bar. All in all, this gets the job done with bass kicking in for the prerequisite jump scares. English subtitles are also available. The only special feature is the film’s trailer.

Writer/director Francis could have picked up the pace here or there, and the ending leaves a little to be desired. Once it gets to what feels like the wrap-up, you realize there’s still 10 minutes left. But at a mere 105 minutes, the story is involving enough, the mystery engaging enough, and the torture surprising enough to keep you watching. The cast is having fun, with each of the cop’s stories coming across like those Dean Winters-starring Allstate commercials. Comical, but intense in tone. Poker Night often times feels like a sillier version of Seven, but is good enough to warrant at least a rental.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Sundance 2015: ‘Racing Extinction,’ ‘DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD: The Story of the National Lampoon,’ ‘Hot Girls Wanted!’ and ‘Pervert Park’

‘Racing Extinction’: **** out of 5
‘Hot Girls Wanted!’: ***
‘Pervert Park’: **

Article first published as Sundance 2015: ‘Racing Extinction,’ ‘DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD: The Story of the National Lampoon,’ ‘Hot Girls Wanted!’ and ‘Pervert Park’ on Blogcritics.

While I may not be the biggest fan of documentaries, I wound up seeing more than I usually do at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. This year’s crop included Racing Extinction, DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD: The Story of the National Lampoon, Hot Girls Wanted, and Pervert Park. From what I heard around the festival, I didn’t even make it to the best of the bunch. But at least two of those I was able to see were engaging enough to warrant recommendations, and it’s not surprising that the best of those is from the man responsible for The Cove.

Sundance, Sundance Film Festival, Racing Extinction, Louie PsihoyosRacing Extinction comes from Louie Psihoyos (The Cove), and examines mankind’s responsibility for driving species to extinction — including our own. With the world being polluted at an alarming rate, Psihoyos covers everything from the blue whale to shark finning to plankton, a tiny oxygen-producing organism. “Save the plankton; save the world,” could be a smart advertising campaign, but the filmmakers also take time to show us the acidification of the ocean, manta ray populations being slaughtered for gills, and, with some fancy cameras, everyday pollution from vehicles and the manufacturing industry.

At one point, Psihoyos states “baby boomers have made the biggest impact the world has ever seen,” but in the end, we’re all responsible. Psihoyos even demonstrates how much damage he’s contributing simply by making his film.  Smart filmmaking is something we expect from Psihoyos, who finds a way to turn Racing Extinction into a near thriller, and at least he provides some eye-opening facts and visuals to go along with the guilt-tripping. A shark trying to swim without its fins is particularly heartbreaking, making even me question that next bite of shark steak, even if I would never, ever eat shark fin soup. This is another must see from Psihoyos, even if it never reaches far enough to make even the most cynical viewer cry as he did in The Cove.

Sundance, Sundance Film Festival, National Lampoon, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, Chevy Chase, Jim Belushi, Saturday Night Live, Douglas Tirola, SNLDRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD: The Story of the National Lampoon whisks viewers back to the ’70s for a look at the crew behind the scenes during their rise to satirical glory. Director Douglas Tirola manages to interview everyone from co-founder Henry Beard to possibly every editor/contributor they had. Hilarity is the main name of the game, but Tirola does manage to shed a sad light on the rise and fall of co-founder Doug Kenney — after the initially unsuccessful premiere of Caddyshack — who winds up tragically dead, and no one knows what really happened. Considering DSBD has been in production for four years, it’s a shame Tirola never managed to include interviews with Bill Murray or the late Harold Ramis, but it’s still fun to see them behind the scenes with the likes of Gilda Radnor and Jim Belushi before they made it big after Saturday Night Live. Even Chevy Chase humanizes himself considering the bad word-of-mouth he’s been receiving lately and shows a real sadness while reminiscing about Kenney.

The film moves at a brisk pace but ultimately starts to feel long-winded even at a scant 98 minutes, and ends rather abruptly. DSBD does manage to shine a spotlight on the National Lampoon during its heyday. It would have been nice to see how the moniker was handled in its later years. The film end of the magazine is very brief, and it’s clear Tirola wanted to focus on Kenney, but when you title your film The Story of the National Lampoon, you should find some closure for the subject at hand. It’s still worth a watch to relive the hilarious magazine at its peak of greatness.

Sundance Film Festival, Sundance, Hot Girls Wanted, Stella May, Belle Knox, Ava TaylorFor anyone wanting a light shed on the seedy underbelly of amateur porn, Hot Girls Wanted! may sound like a dream come true. Unfortunately, directors Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus merely scratch the surface, presenting the subject more like a slice-of-life than a true documentary. Focusing on Tressa Silguero (aka Stella May), Bauer and Gradus follow her through her time spent working for talent agent Riley’s “Hussie Models” out of south Florida.
We do get to see Tressa battling her own personal demons, explaining how sex outside of porn scares her after getting heartbroken in real life and she might as well hop on a plane and make some money out of it. A behind-the-scenes expose of the smallest order follows as we see her tell her parents the truth, her boyfriend’s distaste for her “profession,” dealing with the industries demand for testing, and trips to the doctor to have golfball-sized cysts drained.

You can tell that Bauer and Gradus want us to feel bad for Tressa choosing this as a profession, but this was a choice she made all her own so you never really feel any empathy. Same goes for the rest of the girls featured — Tressa’s BFF “Ava Taylor” in particular always comes across as disenchanted despite her wealth of videos online. The most interesting fact is when they discuss a model’s “shelf life” explaining that a girl can last anywhere from as short as a week to only as long as a year. Anyone interested in the subject need not worry, Netflix has purchased the film so expect to see it available sooner than later.

While it may have won the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Impact, not even Hot Girls Wanted! left you feeling as icky as Pervert Park. Focusing on a trailer park in St. Petersburg, Florida, Nancy Morais founded a community for sex offenders to reintegrate themselves back into the community. While directors Frida and Lasse Barkfors claim they’re trying to bring an understanding to the residents of the Florida Justice Transitions trailer park and the struggle to break the cycle of their own sex crimes, all they really do is turn it into a free-for-all confessional. Here you’ll get to listen to people try to explain their leaps in logic of traveling to Mexico to find a prostitute only to wind up kidnapping and raping a five-year-old girl, or a mother trying to get through her tale of having sex with her own eight-year-old boy and blaming it on the fact that her own father did the same thing to her.

There is a tale of morality gone awry buried deep, and I mean deep, inside Pervert Park, but the directors never get into the real psychological issues and none of the residents are seeking professional help. All we ever see them doing is attending a counseling session with other offenders like an AA meeting. There are some mental health issues that could have been examined, but the Barkfors never go there. This is one of those films that proves just because a film wins an award at Sundance, doesn’t mean it’s a must see.

Photos courtesy Sundance Institute

Movie Review: ‘Jupiter Ascending’

Jupiter Ascending 
** out of 5
127 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some violence, sequences of sci-fi action, some suggestive content and partial nudity
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published at The Reel Place.

For anyone keeping track, it’s been almost 16 years since the Wachowskis (siblings Andy and Lana) blew audiences minds with The Matrix. Too bad for them, that’s also how long it’s been since they made anything of that caliber again. While The Matrix Reloaded let everyone down by focusing on the action and skimping on story, we all learned why when they got to “the meat” of their Matrix films in Revolutions and wish we’d never asked for it. Visual eye-candy is where the Wachowskis thrive, but now they’re trying to meld the two in Jupiter Ascending, their biggest endurance test yet.

Here, we learn that Earth, and many other planets, are seeded by alien royalty. Earth is basically a human farm where the aliens harvest evolved creatures to produce a youth elixir. Bathing in this elixir allows one to live forever. After the death of the matriarch of the House of Abrasax, siblings Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Kalique (Tuppence Middleton), and Titus (Douglas Booth), are on the verge of war over their inheritance. They all know that Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is the true heir to Earth (based on DNA duplication) and Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) — a lycanthropic warrior — is sent to find her from the bounty placed on her head by Balem and save Earth from their pending harvest.

If any of that made a lick of sense, we can all thank Wikipedia. Having suffered through the film, you really have to be paying attention to get any kind of plot out of what’s happening onscreen. Jupiter Ascending is all flash with no substance. And even the flash wears out its welcome in the first half hour. Tatum may get to strut around with his shirt off while looking like he’s been sucking on the sourest lemon ever. Kunis’s Jupiter is wide-eyed and thoroughly confused, while asking “what’s going on?” countless times leading to unnecessary exposition. Had the Wachowskis added just a little bit more context, we could turn our brain off and at least try to enjoy the ride, but man, what a bloated mess.

Don’t be surprised to see this one nominated in countless categories at next year’s Razzie Awards, especially Redmayne. There’s really no describing how awful he is here — it’s such a shame after how fantastic he just was in The Theory of Everything. The Wachowskis are clearly hoping for their own Star Wars franchise, but this is as bad as haters claimed John Carter was. That film is way better than its reputation, while Jupiter Ascending is way worse than you think. One of the year’s worst films has arrived early, but considering it was pulled from its original release last summer, merely two weeks before, mind you, you know what you’re in for. February is one of Hollywood’s “dump months” and there isn’t a more fitting time to release Jupiter Ascending.

Movie Review: ‘Seventh Son’

Seventh Son

*** out of 5
102 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense fantasy violence and action throughout, frightening images and brief strong language
Universal Pictures

Article first published at The Reel Place.

The epic/fantasy sure has run the gamut since Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and Harry Potter made it mainstream. Suddenly, everyone wanted a piece of the almighty box office dollar for better and worse. Even with Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy at a close, studios are still wringing them out. Even if something lesser like this weekend’s Seventh Son doesn’t live up to audience expectations. Hopes were higher than usual with Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore attached to the adaptation of author Joseph Delaney’s The Spook’s Apprentice. While the retitled Seventh Son may not crash and burn, it’s not a complete success either.

The book’s “spook” character refers to Master Gregory (Bridges), whose apprentices keep meeting untimely demises. They are also all the “seventh son of the seventh son.” His latest apprentice is Tom Ward (Ben Barnes) who joins Gregory on his quest. Tom also has visions which comes in handy after the evil witch Mother Malkin ( Moore) escapes from her imprisonment by Gregory years before. Things are further complicated with Ward needing to be trained in the ways of the spook in just a week, and Tom’s meet-cute with good witch Alice (Alicia Vikander). Tom and Alice discover they are destined to be together forever, but Mother Malkin has far more dubious plans.

For anyone worried from the trailers of Seventh Son, this is not that disastrous. While the release date changes also don’t work in the film’s favor — it was originally intended to be released by Warner Bros. in February 2013 — it was put on the back burner for post-production and then got pushed back even further once Legendary Pictures moved from WB to Universal. For anyone interested in the film, there’s plenty to like.

Moore is as campy as you’d hope for an evil witch character and Barnes makes a likeable hero to root for. If there’s anyone who seems to be phoning it in, it’s Bridges. While he’s always fun to watch, it’s the mumbled drunken speech pattern he’s fallen prey to over the last few years that almost gets in the way. It also doesn’t help that writers Charles Leavitt and Steven Knight make the finale completely lackluster and a certain character’s demise all too easy.

As it stands, Seventh Son may not be a great movie, but it’s more fun than you’d expect. The 3D could have used some sharpening up — I had to suffer through another screening in the inferior Dolby 3D which just needs to be put out to pasture — but the visual effects are as believable as they can be. If you want to see it, a matinee is the way to go, as Seventh Son offers up plenty of adventure to pass the afternoon, just don’t go in expecting the birth of the next Lord of the Rings franchise.

Movie Review: ‘The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water’

The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of Water

 **** out of 5
93 minutes
Rated PG for mild action and rude humor
Paramount Pictures

Article first published at The Reel Place.

When parents are dragged to a kids movie, it’s in the filmmakers’ best interest to include content adults will enjoy as well. And if there’s one animated show that knows this better than most, it’s SpongeBob SquarePants. SpongeBob’s creator, Stephen Hillenburg, may have written and directed the first big screen adventure, but series director Paul Tibbit, knows what makes the show so great. And Tibbit keeps The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie: Sponge Out of Water filled to the brim with an archaic, anything-goes surreality. No joke is too low; even when they are, there’s a certain level of cleverness — not to mention charm — that makes it all work.

Sponge Out of Water introduces us to the nefarious pirate Burger-Beard (Antonio Banderas) who is searching for a magical book about SpongeBob’s (voiced by Tom Kenny) latest adventure in Bikini Bottom. It turns out that anything written inside the book comes true. But the book is missing a page containing the secret Krabby Patty recipe. In Bikini Bottom, Plankton (voiced by Mr. Lawrence) is also trying to steal the recipe from Mr. Krabs (voiced by Clancy Brown). Once Plankton manages to steal the recipe, it’s made to look like SpongeBob was in cahoots, and Bikini Bottom becomes an apocalyptic cesspool when the Krusty Krab restaurant runs out of Krabby Patties. Now, it’s up to SpongeBob and Plankton to join forces to clear their names by building a time machine, taking them into a race through space, time, and above water, to save the day.

Typically animated features are packed with writers and co-writers, but with Sponge Out of Water, things are kept to a tight two in Glen Berger and Jonathan Aibel. While both are new to the world of SpongeBob and friends, thankfully they’ve stayed on the good side of their resume. While they’ve been responsible for both Kung Fu Pandas and Monsters vs. Aliens, they also wrote the last two Alvin and the Chipmunks sequels. I’m sure the guidance of director Tibbet and creator Hillenburg being responsible for the story helped keep them in check, but things definitely could have gone awry. As it stands, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water is a fantastic way to kick of the year’s family films.

The voice cast, and Banderas, are clearing having a blast, with no joke too silly or over-the-top to avoid. While there may be the expected poop and fart jokes, they’re not only kept to a minimum, they’re actually kind of funny. Since Tibbet and company don’t rely on these jokes it keeps them from smothering the fun out of the film. Not to mention the film/pop culture references that’ll fly right over kids’ heads — the best being a nod to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and an “Epic Rap Battle.” The 3D aspect doesn’t really add anything until the action is taken above water in the real world, but it’s here that it really shines. The live-action versions of our characters are completely believable and almost more endearing than their hand-drawn counterparts.

The final word is that The SpongeBob SquarePants: Sponge Out of Water is a hilarious romp that keeps insanity running wild, ensuring everyone is having a good time. Something most animated films seem to neglect, usually making these films an endurance test for adults. It took over 10 years for a sequel to arrive in theaters and who knows if we’ll ever see another adventure of SpongeBob and his friends on the big screen. At least Sponge Out of Water has given us an adventure that goes out on a high note.

Sundance 2015: ‘It Follows,’ ‘Reversal,’ ‘The Nightmare,’ and ‘Hellions’

‘It Follows’: *** 1/2 out of 5
‘Reversal’ : ****
‘The Nightmare’: **
‘Hellions’: ** 1/2

Article first published as Sundance 2015: ‘It Follows,’ ‘Reversal,’ ‘The Nightmare,’ and ‘Hellions’ on Blogcritics.

When it comes to paying cinematic homage to those that came before, no other film genre does it more openly than horror. While some critics cry foul when they do this, I like it when current directors show respect for those who laid the groundwork. Case in point at this year’s 2015 Sundance Film Festival: writer/director David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows. A new breed of haunting is unleashed venereal-style after Jay (Maika Monroe) has sex with her boyfriend. Turns out, an evil spirit is getting passed from partner-to-partner, and the only way to “stop it” from coming after you is to pass it on.

Sundance, Sundance 2015, Sundance Film Festival, It Follows, Park City at MidnightMitchell sets up a respectable homage to John Carpenter’s Halloween, featuring lots of tracking shots and looming menace, and the cast does a terrific job of adding the needing empathy. However, Mitchell winds up painting himself into a corner, and never figures out how to end the film. He aims for a Christopher Nolan-headscratcher, but doesn’t follow his own rules long enough for it to work. It Follows has been gathering plenty of acclaim after premiering at the Cannes Film Festival last year and is still at 100% on RottenTomatoes. I wouldn’t say the ending is bad enough to ruin the whole film, but it sure does leave a bad taste in your mouth. There will be far worse horror movies released this year, so It Follows is definitely worth checking out so that at least you’ll get to see one of the better ones. Having been picked up by Radius-TWC, expect to see it sooner or later.

Another sub-genre that always finds its way to Sundance is the female revenge thriller, and this year’s entry, Reversal, is a lot of fun. There are always a lot of walkouts during the Sundance Park City at Midnight selections, but this is one worth sticking it out. Director José Manuel Cravioto delivers a lot of flash, with Rock Shaink Jr. and Keith Kjornes’s screenplay providing some fun twists to the standard roaring rampage of revenge. While never winding up as the female Django Unchained, Cravioto has a lot of fun dispatching the men responsible for Eve’s (Tina Ivlev) disappearance six months ago. Leading her to the seedy underbelly of sex trafficking, she takes the brutalized Phil (Richard Tyson) on a night he’ll never forget as they drive from one house to the next to save the rest of the girls.

Sundance, Sundance 2015, Sundance Film Festival, Reversal, Park City at MidnightReversal’s ending is definitely a love-it or hate-it affair. Two of my colleagues walked out feeling cheated, saying: “It’s like watching watching Death Proof without the last scene.” But I felt there was enough bloodshed to warrant leaving the finale in my head. I can only imagine what happens after the credits roll. The only pseudo-problem is the character of Lea (Bianca Malinowski) who starts off as really annoying but is only in a few scenes. As for Ivlev, she makes a fantastic lead, full of hate and malice for her captors, while keeping the audience rooting for Eve to the bitter end. Reversal was picked up by IFC Midnight, so expect to see Ivlev’s take down of Buddy Revel at some point this year.

Not every film in the Park City at Midnight can be a winner. The Nightmare — from the director of Room 237 — is a documentary about the terror of sleep paralysis. Consisting of eight subjects scattered across the U.S. and one in England, director Rodney Ascher manages to create a sense sense of impending doom for the scary stories, but never gives any kind of enlightenment to the phenomenon.

The Nightmare is a snore of a film, something that should never be the case when making a film about sleep. Ascher resorts to cheap scares such as dropping a giant spider on the camera lense with the tried-and-true horror music sting to elicit gasps. If Ascher had actually shed a light on the effects of his poor subjects, or maybe even talked to actual doctors, it could have been a fascinating documentary. He even glosses right over the fact that the phenomenon carries over through many different cultures across the world. Unless you like listening to strangers tell you scary stories for 90 minutes, there’s absolutely nothing to see here.

Sundance, Sundance 2015, Sundance Film Festival, Hellions, Park City at MidnightI was holding out hope for director Bruce McDonald’s Hellions, as it was the last horror film I screened at the festival. Unfortunately, it takes itself way too seriously. With a storyline involving trick-or-treaters literally from hell, I was hoping for something a little more mean spirited or even outright hilarious, but McDonald shows no signs of life. It’s Halloween and 17-year-old Dora (Chloe Rose) discovers she’s pregnant. Things go from bad to worse when she’s left home alone and the malevolent guests show up on her doorstep with her baby daddy’s head in a sack and a quest to take her baby from her.

There are some interesting things going on with Pascal Trottier’s screenplay — like the fact that her pregnancy goes through all nine months in one night after one of the trick-or-treaters touch her belly — but McDonald drains the life out of the film with no tricks or treats up his sleeves. Not even Robert Patrick as an ass-kicking cop can save the film that’s just lots of noise and no fun. Daniel Gray and Tom Brown’s animated short film Teeth screened prior and packs way more fun into its scant six minutes about a man with a hilarious oral obsession leading to a surprising end.

Photos courtesy Sundance Institute