Saturday, October 31, 2015

Movie Review: “Our Brand Is Crisis”

Our Brand Is Crisis

*** out of 5
Rated R for language including some sexual references
107 minutes
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published at The Reel Place.

If there’s anything I willingly admit to not knowing much about, or even paying attention to, it’s politics. Ask me anything you want about a movie and I seem to have somewhat of an eidetic memory, but I freely admit I know nothing about politics. So it should come as no surprise that I knew the Sandra Bullock film Our Brand Is Crisis was coming out, but had no idea it was based on a documentary from 2005 of the same name. The original was an examination of the questionable campaign tactics of Greenville Carville Shrum in the 2002 Bolivian presidential election.

The David Gordon Green dramedy is a fictionalized account, which is probably even more boring than the true events. You would think a film surrounding such a sensational event could whip your interest into a frenzy, but alas, screenwriter Peter Straughan has saddled Green with a schizophrenic mashup that has moments worthy of Pineapple Express anarchy. The movie winds up getting excruciatingly boring whenever it takes a serious turn. The sad thing is that it works way better in comedy mode, with the last half hour completing tanking the rest of the film. I’m not shocked about this considering Straughan also wrote Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the most boring spy movie ever committed to film.

I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if Our Brand Is Crisis was greenlit because Straughan is friends with producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov — and Clooney gave his life to help save hers in Gravity. The trio of men are also responsible for another “wacky” drama The Men Who Stare at Goats. The only plus to Brand is watching Bullock deliver another winning performance as “Calamity” Jane Bodine, who is talked into helping with her brass knuckle scheming tactics to help Pedro Gallo (Joaquim de Almeida) win the election. She brings her all to the verbal sparring with Billy Bob Thornton, the man hired to lead the opposition’s campaign. Anthony Mackie is also a delight as he tries to be Jane’s right hand man.

If there’s any reason to see Our Brand Is Crisis it’s to watch Bullock shine. It still irks me that these are the kinds of roles she’s best in, yet somehow won for The Blind Side, where she gave one of the worst performances that year. Not enough funny, and a boring serious side greatly affect the entertainment factor as Green tries to have his cake and eat it too. It’s a shame that he seems to throw his hands up in the air as Straughan’s screenplay starts trying to wrap itself up and give the characters unnecessary life lessons. Not even the most hardened artsy fartsy film lover is going to walk away completely satisfied. Our Brand Is Flippy Floppy would have been a better title since Crisis merely finds itself in one of identity, leaving everyone unfulfilled in the process.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Movie Review: “Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse”

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse

**** out of 5
93 minutes
Rated R for zombie violence and gore, sexual material, graphic nudity, and language throughout.
Paramount Pictures

Article first published at The Reel Place.

If there’s any genre on its last breath these days, it’s zombies. Overflowing between theatrical and television, zombies are everywhere. Not all of them suffer from a lack of brains. They can’t all be Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland, but Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse makes a great effort and more than lives up to its outrageous title. For once, there is a glutton of spooky movies invading the multiplexes this October — Crimson Peak, Goosebumps, Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, Hotel Transylvania 2, and now Scouts — and only one of them completely sucks.

The ironic part is that Scouts’ director Christopher (yes, son of Michael) Landon directed the last entry in the finally defunct Paranormal Activity franchise The Marked Ones. Coincidentally, I’ve heard that’s just about the only watchable film in the whole series. So it shouldn’t come as a shock that Scouts Guide winds up being such an enjoyable romp. Armed with a game young cast — and a few seasoned comedic vets — the blood and jokes fly with more than enough of them managing to stick.

Ben (Tye Sheridan), Carter (Logan Miller), and Augie (Joey Morgan) are the only members in Scout Leader Rogers’s (David Koechner) scout troop. Ben and Carter only stick around because Augie is hellbent on earning every badge known to man. But their friendship is about to hit a speed bump when they head out for one last campout, with Ben and Carter planning to sneak off to a super secret senior party. Little do they — or the poor town of Deer Field, California — that a zombie outbreak is spreading and it’s about to be up to them to stave off the ward of flesheaters. Thankfully, they have a new friend in strip club cocktail waitress Denise (Sarah Dumont), who joins them on their quest to save Carter’s sister/Ben’s unrequited love Kendall (Halston Sage) before the town gets bombed.

If there’s one horror movie that gets as much mileage out of its budget as Scouts Guide, it’s the Evil Dead remake. This is no-holds-barred gore that flows as fast as the jokes from the actor’s mouths. Landon — co-writing with Emi Mochizuki and Carrie Evans — keeps the gags (sometimes literal) coming at a rapid fire pace. Sheridan, Miller, and Morgan make a fantastic trio, and it was nice to see Dumont get way more to do than stand around and show off her legs. Poor Sage is delegated to damsel in distress, looking like she literally walked over from the Goosebumps set. Koechner and Cloris Leachman also get a lot of mileage out of their roles, with Koechner having a hilarious post-mortem fight with Augie while Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” playing in the background.

There isn’t a lot of publicity surrounding the release of Scouts Guide, which is a shame. The film clearly has an audience with it being a horror movie, but the film is truly hilarious. It even has a bit of heart — and not just of the literal kind — something that comes in mighty handy when our heroes are up to their necks in zombies. There’s even a nice nod to Halloween for eagle-eyed viewers, and things get truly outrageous when the senior party finally falls under attack. For a genre settling into a sad case of rigor mortis, Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse has something for everyone. The good news is, the genre isn’t dead yet, it’s gonna have to wait a little bit longer before it reaches its dying breath. For now, audiences should pay more attention and make sure to squeeze this one into their Halloween weekend. You won’t be sorry.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Blu-ray 3D Review: “Jurassic World”

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

Article first published as Blu-ray 3D Review: ‘Jurassic World’ Evolves from Must-See to Must-Own on Blogcritics.

In one of the opening scenes of Jurassic World, park operator Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) says, “No one’s impressed by a dinosaur anymore.” The monster hit’s box office would beg to differ. With a record-shattering  No. 1 opening weekend of $208 million, the world was ready for a new Jurassic movie. While some questioned whether or not sophomore director Colin Trevorrow was up to the task of finally delivering a sequel worthy of Steven Spielberg’s original Park, he proved naysayers wrong in just about every way. Winding up in third place on both the all-time worldwide and domestic — I still consider it second domestic since Titanic only beats it by $7 million and only with the inclusion of the 2012 3D re-release — the Jurassic franchise is back and bigger than ever!

Jurassic World, Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton, Colin Trevorrow, Steven Spielberg, Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D'Onofrio, Ty Simpkins, Nick Robinson, Omar Sy, B. D. Wong, Irrfan Khan, Jake Johnson, Judy GreerIt’s been 22 years since John Hammond’s ill-fated Jurassic Park never opened after a disastrous preview weekend. Jurassic World has since picked up where Hammond left off and has been a huge success for eight years running. The problem now is the public demand more: bigger, louder, cooler

Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong) has the answer and has engineered the new Indominus Rex. Claire is presenting the new attraction to potential sponsors, but CEO Masrani (Irrfan Khan) is worried about the new creature’s paddock and asks to have the park’s raptor whisperer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) inspect. And wouldn’t you know it, the geneticists also managed to make the I-rex smarter. It manages to escape, wreaking havoc on Isla Nublar, with Jurassic World under attack by a new super-predator that’s about to eat its way up the food chain.

Jurassic World stomps onto Blu-ray in a 3D/2D/DVD/Digital HD combo pack courtesy of Universal Home Entertainment and makes the most of its 2.00:1 framed 50GB disc presentation with nearly flawless results. Virtually every scene is filled with depth and object separation. This is one of those looking-through-the-window transfers with not a whole lot of things spilling into your room. Some have complained of crosstalk throughout the presentation, but I never saw any on my passive 3D TV. Blacks look best ironically during sunlit scenes, but the last 40 minutes, during the prolonged night scenes, also look great. The only time there’s a hiccup are in scenes taking place inside Jurassic World’s control room. Here, the transfer slightly falters with muted grayish-blacks and far less depth. Outside of these scenes, the transfer shines. Blacks are inky with no crush, and there’s never any aliasing or banding. This is as top notch as you’d expect from a huge summer blockbuster.

Jurassic World attendees want bigger and louder? Well, that’s exactly what we get with the 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Surrounds aren’t quite as active as you’d expect for the first 40 minutes or so, but they do provide a nice enveloping case of ambiance, making you feel like you’re standing next to every character in each scene. You always know where a dinosaur sits off camera. When the pteranodon and dimorphodons finally get unleashed upon the guests, they dive bomb your room from every speaker, panning from left to right and overhead with exact precision. And what would a movie about dinosaurs be without plenty of wall-shaking, picture frame-rattling bass? Universal delivers another one of the best sound mixes of the year — the other being Furious 7 of course — and it should come as no surprise they spared no expense. Additional audio tracks include Spanish and French DTS 5.1 with subtitles in English SDH, Spanish, and French.

While the special features may not be overwhelming, at least they’re a lot of fun. The cast and crew clearly loved their trip back to Jurassic and it more than shines through in the end result. These first two can be found on the 3D disc but aren’t necessarily in 3D. “Deleted Scenes” (6:08) consists of sporadically cut or trimmed parts of existing scenes, some are completely new, but most are simply extensions.

There are no titles for each, but the funniest bit involves Claire covering herself with dino droppings to cover up the scent of her perfume and lotion. “Chris & Colin Take on the World” (8:57) is a sit-down chat with the star and director. The two have a great rapport and ask each other various questions regarding their love and respect of the first film, with the best bit stemming from Pratt’s premonition about starring in Jurassic Park IV and ignoring calls and texts from Spielberg while on set for Parks & Recreation.

“Welcome to Jurassic World” (29:52) dives into the making of the film with interviews including everyone from Spielberg and Trevorrow to producer Frank Marshall and cast members Pratt, Howard, Wong, and Jake Johnson. They discuss the director’s intentions of poking fun at the corporate world and how they set out to achieve their goal of making a new park so realistic it would convince audiences they want to visit. Mission accomplished. We also get to visit the sets and locations while Trevorrow is relieved they never had to do any reshoots because they simply rewrote scenes taking place in the control room for any alterations to the story they needed to make.

“Dinosaurs Roam Once Again” (16:29) sheds light on the creation of the dinosaurs, including the new villain: Indominus Rex. Interviews with Dennis Muren and Phil Tippett give us a look at the creation of the one robotic dinosaur that was used, and ILM shows how they utilized tablet apps which could insert the dinosaurs at the click of a button to help cinematographer John Schwartzman set up shots. We also get to see doomed babysitter Zara (Katie McGrath) perform her own stunt as she’s attacked by pteranodons and eaten by the scene-stealing mosasaurus.

 “Jurassic World: All-Access Pass” (10:11) presents Pratt and Trevorrow in the “control room” where they discuss Pratt getting real life animal training to help with his raptor scenes. It also shows how they used a Sphero to figure out how the gyrospheres would work. “Innovation Center Tour with Chris Pratt” (2:01) is a quick look at the innovation center from the film with Pratt clowning around with the funniest joke being Pratt trying to pronounce a dinosaur’s name. Finally, “Jurassic’s Closest Shaves – Presented by Barbasol” (3:00) is a short collection of the entire series’ action sequences.

Jurassic World stunned the world with its return to Isla Nublar and made everyone feel like it was 1993 all over again. Breaking records left and right while entertaining the world is no easy feat, but Trevorrow has definitely breathed new life into a franchise fans feared would be extinct forever. Thankfully, World integrates enough pieces to a larger puzzle to expand the series even further with at least two more sequels headed our way. Featuring a fantastic 3D presentation and an appropriately bombastic 7.1 mix that will leave you enthralled in the action. Not to mention more special features than the Marvel Cinematic Universe has ever thought to bless us with, Jurassic World is one of the best Blu-rays — not to mention one the year’s most fun films — of the year, making good on its theatrical run with another fantastic Jurassic addition to our home video libraries.

Movie Review: “Steve Jobs”

Steve Jobs

**** 1/2
122 minutes
Rated R for language
Universal Pictures

Article first published at The Reel Place.

If there’s one man who can can give Quentin Tarantino a run for his money on a screenplay’s wordcount, it’s Aaron Sorkin. For those who don’t enjoy the words of QT, then at least your ears can enjoy Sorkin’s work — while still as foul-mouthed, at least it’s centered around real people, making the dialogue more palatable to the masses. As if the heights of his Oscar winning adaptation of The Social Network weren’t dizzying enough, now he’s set his sights on bringing to light the life and times of one of the greatest marketers of our time with Steve Jobs. Having director Danny Boyle calling the shots only sweetens the deal. And then you throw in the likes of Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet in the leads and man, let’s just say that there will be plenty buzz surrounding the film before the Oscar winners are announced next February.

Sorkin shines the spotlight on critical moments in Jobs’s (Fassbender) career, with the film taking place in three sustained scenes. The first opens in 1984 with the launch of the Macintosh which Jobs is sure will change the world. Behind-the-scenes, Jobs is facing the issue that the computer won’t do the one thing he wants most: to say hello. With his head of marketing Joanna Hoffman (Winslet) by his side, he tries to pull out all the stops to make engineer Andy Hertzefeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) fix it. Jobs is also saddled dealing with a paternity suit from Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) trying to make Jobs step up to being father to five-year-old Lisa (Makenzie Moss). The film also takes us through the launch of Jobs’ own NeXT Black Cube in 1988 and to the Apple iMac launch in 1998, where Lisa, now 19 (played by Perla Haney-Jardine), needs money for both college and trying to take care of her mother.

For two-thirds of the runtime, Steve Jobs is a masterful whirlwind. It’s not until we get to the 1998 section that things take a turn for the more dramatic and the pacing hits a small snag. The cast are all apt to spew Sorkin’s brilliant dialogue and Boyle manages to deliver one of his best film in an already amazing filmography — 127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire, Sunshine, Millions, 28 Days Later…, Trainspotting, and Shallow Grave. The Beach, A Life Less Ordinary, and Trance notwithstanding, that’s quite the list of fantastic entertainment already under his belt, and there’s clearly no signs of him slowing down.

As for Sorkin, the man is guaranteed another Best Adapted Screenplay nod — if not another win — it’s a shame he doesn’t do more narratives, then he could really give Tarantino a run for his money! Fassbender is at the top of game, making Jobs both the world’s biggest dick, yet also empathetic. You see the man’s drive oozing from every pore, but we still find sympathy in the estranged relationship he has with Lisa. All three actresses — also portrayed by Ripley Sobo at age nine — playing Lisa manage to show her own conflicted emotions with the man she knows is her father, whether he wants to admit it or not. Winslet herself melts into Joanna, I didn’t even know it was her until the credits rolled! Seth Rogen manages to squeeze in a few show stopping moments as frenemy Steve Wozniak and Jeff Daniels gets to play surrogate father as John Sculley.

The Oscar bait seems to be getting served on a nearly weekly basis this fall, and Steve Jobs is no exception. Razor sharp and brilliantly written, this is a look behind the curtain at one of the most inn

Movie Review: “Bridge of Spies”

Bridge of Spies

**** 1/2 out of 5
141 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some violence and brief strong language
Touchstone Pictures

Article first published at The Reel Place.

If there’s one thing Steven Spielberg manages to nail in his long repertoire of film, it’s the period drama. Always based on true events, the man always delivers. With Lincoln, War Horse, Munich, Amistad, Schindler’s List, Empire of the Sun, and The Color Purple, most directors would be lucky to ever make even one film as good as any of those.

The man can always be counted on for at least delivering powerful and top-notch entertainment, even if some are better than others — The Lost World anyone? OK, I love that one on a guilty pleasure level — but still, you have to admit there are plenty of sequences featuring nail-biting suspense. And the same can definitely be said of his most recent opus Bridge of Spies.

This time, he’s back with Tom Hanks, and armed with the Coen brothers (Joel and Ethan) on screenplay duties, to create a crackling look at a man faced with the impossible task of defending an accused Russian spy.

Bridge of Spies opens with a breathtaking chase scene through the streets and subway of 1957 Brooklyn, New York. Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) has just been arrested for espionage and is quickly thrown in prison. Insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Hanks) is called upon to take Abel’s case. James is instantly thrust into the public eye — putting himself, and his family in peril along the way — while trying to prove that America really does stand for justice for all. Things take a drastic turn when a U.S. pilot gets shot down in Russia, pitting the two countries against each other, demanding the return of their countrymen.

If there’s one thing Spies has working against it is the 141 minute runtime. The pace is damn near perfect — with the Coen Brothers dialogue being of particular icing on the cake — but you may feel a wee bit restless if you’ve been up since 4:30 a.m. Thankfully, the film boils with suspense, and even those who are familiar with the story will still be enthralled.

Hanks and Rylance give knockout performances and Spielberg shows he has no signs of slowing down. Armed with some of the best dialogue of the year also helps. The big surprise, however, may be the film’s humor. Hanks has always been able to play dramatic mixed with comedic and vice versa. It’s just part of why he’s so damn good. And he plays off Rylance with gusto.

There’s not anything I would change about Bridge of Spies — save for watching it again with a full night’s rest under my belt — making it one of the year’s best films, in a year already overflowing with great films, and spy films at that! Hopefully word-of-mouth can help the film find an audience. We all know when people mention Spielberg and blockbuster, we’re never talking about his period dramas, but for once, maybe that can change. Bridge of Spies is another fantastic addition to this fall’s must-see lineup.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Movie Review: “Goosebumps”


**** 1/2 out of 5
103 minutes
Rated PG for scary and intense creature action and images, and for some rude humor
Sony Pictures

Article first published at The Reel Place.

A big screen adaptation of R.L. Stine’s beloved Goosebumps was set to fail. Originally released as children’s horror books, it’s difficult to determine an audience. After both a live action and animated TV series ran their course, does anyone still care? Could there possibly be another story left to tell? The answer, to both, is a resounding yes.

Awareness is higher than you’d expect with both youngsters and their parents eagerly awaiting what almost works as the Goosebumps story to end all Goosebumps stories. To keep expectations in check, why not just find a way to throw all of the classic characters into one and have a giant monster mash? Well, that’s exactly what director Rob Letterman (Gulliver’s Travels, Monsters vs. Aliens, and unfortunately Shark Tale) and screenwriter Darren Lemke (Turbo, Jack the Giant Slayer, Shrek Forever After) have done.

In this entry to the Goosebumps canon, Zach (Dylan Minnette) has just moved from New York to Madison, Delaware. His mom Lorraine (Amy Ryan) is his high school’s new vice principal and they now live next door to the creepy “Mr. Shivers” (Jack Black), who just so happens to have a precocious teenage daughter Hannah (Odeya Rush). On the night of the big school dance, Zach thinks Hannah’s dad is abusing her and breaks into the house to save the day.

Joined by his forced-upon sidekick Champ (Ryan Lee), they discover that Mr. Shivers is actually author R.L. Stine. They accidentally unlock a Goosebumps manuscript they find on a bookshelf, unleashing the “Abominable Snowman of Pasadena,” that manages to unlock another book featuring the devilish ventriloquist dummy “Slappy” (voiced by Black). Now, it’s a race against time to save the town after Slappy starts freeing all of Stine’s creations and burning the manuscripts so that nothing can stop them.

Goosebumps seriously could be called the biggest surprise of the year. Full of likeable characters played with zest by the cast, everyone looks like they’re having a good time bringing Stine’s beloved creatures to life. Even supporting characters played by Jillian Bell and Ken Marino manage to score some chuckles. Sure, the special effects aren’t all top notch — the werewolf looks as hokey as the giant praying mantis looks fantastic — but what else would you expect from a family film?

The good news is the film delivers across the board. Featuring way more laughs than most comedies — especially those aimed at a younger crowd — the runtime is a nonstop rollercoaster of entertainment. The only comparison I can think of would be to call it “The Cabin in the Woods for the whole family.” It really is that much fun. It never gets too intense for the youngsters, and there are more than enough jokes that’ll fly over their heads for the parents. Goosebumps is family entertainment at its best and the most fun everyone can have as a whole.

Movie Review: “Crimson Peak”

Crimson Peak

**** 1/2 out of 5
119 minutes
Rated R for bloody violence, some sexual content and brief strong language
Universal Pictures

Article first published at The Reel Place.

With just two horror offerings so far, this October is one for the books. Sometimes we’re lucky to get one horror movie if at all, and this year we get two — in one week! While Goosebumps is made for all ages, fear not fellow adults, Guillermo del Toro has delivered another knockout with Crimson Peak.

Loaded with breathtaking imagery, sumptuous production design, and Oscar caliber costumes, Crimson Peak may not be the most original ghost story put on film, but damned if it’s not one of the best looking. Del Toro has pulled out all the stops here and it almost feels like del Toro overload. Anyone who may have felt disappointed with Pacific Rim can rest easy. He’s right back in his horror wheelhouse where we love him the most.

There are many secrets to Crimson Peak, so let’s be brief. Edith (Mia Wasikowska) believes that ghosts are real. Especially after her mother returns from the grave when she’s a child to give warning: “Beware of Crimson Peak.” As an adult, Edith is an aspiring writer who loves the macabre. She considers herself a Mary Shelley, not a Jane Austen. However, she’s unable to publish anything without a shoehorned love story all because she’s a woman. One day, along comes the alluring Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) who is in search of financial backing for a machine to mine red clay back at his England home, the dilapidating Allerdale Hall.

While in the midst of wooing the young Edith, her father (Jim Beaver) is murdered, she falls on Thomas for support, the two are married, and on their way to Cumberland, where Thomas’s shrewish sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) lies in wait. Turns out, Allerdale is their childhood home, and it’s full of all kinds of aforementioned secrets and ghostly spooks—not to mention a giant hole in the roof that lets in leaves and snow. The main thrust of the story revolves around the Sharpe’s seemingly ulterior motives and Edith’s childhood friend/unrequited love Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam) on a mad dash to save her.

Del Toro gleefully fills every frame and second of runtime of Crimson Peak with all the necessary creatures that go bump in the night. He’s even brought along regular Doug Jones to play both Edith’s mother and Lady Sharpe, Thomas and Lucille’s murdered mother. Things get as intense as you’d expect and there are quite a few moments of gasp-inducing sequences — even a particular instance that will leave you breathless in the finale.

The cast play their characters to the hilt. Wasikowska manages to be as strong as she is 1900s’ feminine. Hiddleston gets to shine in a role where he’s not overshadowed by his better looking Marvel costars. And Chastain gets to get her hands dirty and let loose as we’ve never seen her before. But the film’s biggest star is Allerdale Hall itself. Built from the ground up for filming, if Crimson Peak isn’t nominated in most of the technical awards, there’s no justice this year.

But don’t worry, it isn’t all set design. The story is interesting enough to keep your attention through all the spectral shenanigans, and the tension never lets up. Things even get a bit kinky, something Del Toro is never one to shy away from. He dares you to watch, and your eyes will thank you. This is the year’s best horror film, period, and Crimson Peak is the one film that every self-respecting horror buff, or even artsy fartsy filmgoer, needs to see in theaters. Some horror films set out to scare with loud noises, thankfully, Del Toro knows that we deserve an experience, and that’s exactly why Crimson Peak succeeds.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Movie Review: “99 Homes”

99 Homes

**** out of 5
112 minutes
Rated R for language including some sexual references, and a brief violent image
Broad Green Pictures

Article first published at The Reel Place.

Being a homeowner now makes me relieved I wasn’t seven years ago with the housing crisis. With families being evicted left and right, you might feel a little disconcerted watching writer/director Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes if you’ve purchased a bank-owned home. With that being said, it never really makes you feel bad for these families either. Making its debut at the Venice Film Festival last year — it also played this year’s Sundance Film Festival — it’s full of outstanding performances from Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon. And they are the reason the film works.

Dennis Nash (Garfield) is a down-on-his-luck construction worker, barely getting by. So much so that he heads to court to try to keep his family home, but not without it winding up in the hands of the bank. Now, Nash, along with his son Connor (Noah Lomax) and mother Lynn (Laura Dern), are forced to move into a motel, living amongst other fellow evicted families.

Through chance, foreclosure realtor Rick Carver (Shannon) takes Nash under his wing. As it happens, Rick is the same man who tossed them out of their own home. Offering Nash the chance at some real money, he goes to work for Carver, cleaning up the same homes Carver is evicting people from — essentially making him the biggest hypocrite ever. With opportunities rising, Nash’s new job finds him pitted against a brutal morality struggle.

99 Homes definitely feels like a Sundance film, even featuring a tried and true sudden ending. It was something that felt like an epidemic at this year’s festival, so it didn’t come as much of a surprise that once the film found a resolution, it quickly rolled credits. However, Bahrani and co-writer Amir Naderi definitely make the viewer unsure of which side they should be on. Who wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to make enough money to buy their own house back? The moral complicity seethes through Garfield’s performance — this is a father at the end of his rope.

But the real star of the film is by far Shannon. The man is electric and terrifying, solidifying yet another potential Best Supporting Actor nod, standing right alongside Benicio del Toro in last week’s Sicario. The story may be average, but the directing and acting are top notch, making 99 Homes yet another reason to be thankful for all the adult entertainment being delivered this fall.

Movie Review: “Pan”


** out of 5
111 minutes
Rated PG for fantasy action violence, language and some thematic material
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published at The Reel Place.
First thing’s first, if there’s one thing any adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s beloved Peter Pan doesn’t need, it’s songs by The Ramones and Nirvana. I suppose, maybe, somewhere down the line there could be a version riddled with pop songs. But when your film is trying to be a straight up prequel — as in the case of director Joe Wright’s Pan — by the time it’s already invested a good 30 minutes of setup in the real London ruins of World War II, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Blitzkrieg Bop” couldn’t be more out of place. There. So, with that out of the way, how does the rest of the film stack up? Well, it’s a visual stunner at times.

The biggest problem is that screenwriter Jason Fuchs pounds the audience over the head with prequelitis. Every line feels like a setup to a sequel that hopefully never “graces” us with its presence. Meanwhile, the cast is directed to overact as much as humanly possible. Hugh Jackman can be known for subtlety, but here he’s bound and determined to chew up and spit out scenery. But the most out of place is definitely Garrett Hedlund — he who seems to think Hook needs to be brought to life as a mashup of Jack Nicholson pretending to be James Stewart as Indiana Jones. You almost have to see it to believe it. In other words, don’t. You can thank me later.

In this installment of the ever growing list of Peter Pan adaptations, poor Peter (Levi Miller) has just been left at the door of an orphanage. Twelve years later, Peter is living the hard knock life amongst sadistic nuns, with only his best friend Nibs (Lewis MacDougall) to keep up his spirits. One day, London is under attack, and just wouldn’t you know it, Peter has just figured out that the other boys are being sold to pirates for rations. Soon enough, Peter is swept aboard a flying pirate ship, captained by Blackbeard (Jackman) himself.

Blackbeard runs a mining operation full of singing prisoners, where they’re looking for the key to immortality: pixie dust. At the mines Peter meets Hook and the two escape. To avoid the evil clutches of Blackbeard, they wind up crashing one of Blackbeard’s ships in the jungle where they’re imprisoned by Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara) and her Piccaninny tribe. Now, everyone’s lives are at stake with Blackbeard hot on their trail, and his end game is to follow Peter’s destiny to unlocking the hidden world of pixies.

Nothing adds up in this adaptation. Chock full of horrible acting and action scenes that are outright ludicrous — did you know if you shoot a Piccaninny they explode into pastel smoke clouds? — and while they do look pretty dang good in 3D, the story and acting is so atrocious you’d never know it’s from the same director of Hanna, or even Anna Karenina and Atonement. This is Neverland on acid, and not in any good way. It’s never a good sign when the finale feels like you’ve woken up in the middle of a Dragon Ball Z episode or M. Night Shyamalan’s Last Airbender.

I suppose I should point out that the girl sitting next to me was eating up every minute of it. Laughing at the inanity, gasping at the audacity, and crying at the sentimentality. For the rest of us, you’re going to be hard pressed to find a cohesive reason to suffer through the runtime. As much flack as people have given Steven Spielberg’s Hook over the years, at least it had a sense of fun. Just because Wright splashes one of the most fully realized versions of Neverland to grace the screens, doesn’t mean you have to pay to see it. There are way better movies out right now, and Pan is just another blip on an ever growing list of adaptations. Even P.J. Hogan’s Peter Pan was way better than this. Audiences should just do themselves a favor, save the money and stay home and watch the Disney classic.

Blu-ray Review: “Tremors 5: Bloodlines”

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

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: ‘Tremors 5: Bloodlines’ Shows There’s Still Some Fun Left in the Series on Blogcritics.

After the first Tremors became an instant fan favorite/cult classic, it was only a matter of time before a greenlit sequel. Unfortunately, to an extent, Tremors II: Aftershocks only saw the return of Fred Ward and Michael Gross — Kevin Bacon did not. The second entry also wound up going straight-to-video and the “Graboids” have never returned to the big screen. Thankfully, the series has at least never forgotten what makes it work: action, comedy, horror, and plenty of monster carnage. The tongue-in-cheek formula may not work quite as well in Tremors 5: Bloodlines, but at least the series has never lost its sense of fun. It knows the ridiculousness of the premise and runs with it every time.

Tremors, Tremors 5, Tremors 5: Bloodlines, Michael Gross, Jamie Kennedy, Don Michael Paul, Woodrow Truesmith, M.A. Deuce, John Whelpley, Graboids, AssblastersThe third sequel — Tremors 4: The Legend Begins was a prequel — finds us in South Africa, where the “Assblasters” of the third film have been discovered in the Cradle of Humankind. Brought onto the scene is film mainstay Burt Gummer (Gross) who is in need of fixing his image with his show “The Survivalist with Burt Gummer” not doing so well. New cameraman Travis Welker (Jamie Kennedy) has just arrived and may have ulterior motives, but joins Burt on his quest to rid another homeland of the odd Graboids that seem to have found their way across the Atlantic Ocean. Now, Burt and the local yokels are up their asses in blasters, while someone else has taken part on the hunt for their eggs, as the creatures continue to evolve into even more dangerous territory.

Universal Studios Home Entertainment blasts Tremors 5 onto Blu-ray on a spacious 50GB disc, presented in a screen-filling 1.78:1 aspect ratio. For being released straight to video, this is one top notch presentation. Banding, aliasing, and crush are awol — some have mentioned a few instances of noise, but I didn’t see any on my TV. Colors are bright and vibrant with an extreme amount of detail bringing every inch of dirt, thread of clothing, or sun-cracked skin to light. It’s a shame the original film has never gotten this treatment. Universal keeps releasing top tier video like this on lackluster sequels while the original is still one of their worst looking presentations ever.

The English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is also mighty engaging. Surrounds make the most of the action with dialogue never getting drowned out no matter how much growling, shouting, or exploding occurs. A lively amount of LFE also helps keep the film’s title ever present. Additional audio tracks include French European, Castilian Spanish, L.A. Spanish, and Italian 5.1 DTS Digital Surround, with subtitles in English SDH, French European, French Canadian, Italian, German, Castilian Spanish, L.A. Spanish, Swedish, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Portuguese, Arabic, Hindi, and Icelandic.

Tremors, Tremors 5, Tremors 5: Bloodlines, Michael Gross, Jamie Kennedy, Don Michael Paul, Woodrow Truesmith, M.A. Deuce, John Whelpley, Graboids, AssblastersThe special features aren’t overflowing, but what’s offered are at least pretty fun — even if they don’t add much to the film. A collection of “Deleted and Extended Scenes” (10:21) are only available as a whole, with no context whatsoever. The only one of interest is a deleted action scene that would have seen the Graboids diving into aquatic territory, but for whatever reason — possibly budgetary — it is seen here in a workprint version. “Outtakes” (6:58) run way too long and never have any laugh-out-loud moments, but at least the cast and crew appear to have actually enjoyed making the movie. And finally, “Tremors 5: Behind the Bloodlines” (8:10) gives us a look back at why the franchise is still chugging along, and how the power of Burt keeps the tone intact after all these years.

Tremors 5: Bloodlines could have been a disaster. It is, after all, the fifth of a series that no one probably ever saw coming, aside from selfless fans like myself who love the series even 25 years later. Director Don Michael Paul doesn’t have the greatest resume — Half Past Dead, Who’s Your Caddy?, and other DTV sequels: Jarhead 2: Field of Fire, and Sniper: Legacy — but he sure seems to be feeding a niche for Universal. He’s also been tapped to helm Kindergarten Cop 2 replacing The Governator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) with Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren).

If that’s where his career is taking him, this may be the one highlight and could wind up being his masterpiece. It’s a good thing screenwriters Woodrow Truesmith, M.A. Deuce and John Whelpley understood what’s kept the Graboids digging along all these years. Fans will be more than pleased that the action, laughs, and thrills still hold up, with a top notch video/audio presentation to boot. The series may never live up to the original’s charms, but at least it hasn’t hit rock bottom yet either. Tremors 5 is way more fun than you’d expect.

DVD Review: “June”

Movie: *** out of 5
Extras: **

Article first published as DVD Review: Director L. Gustavo Cooper’s ‘June’ on Blogcritics.

Telekinesis is nothing new in film. The first films that probably spring to mind are Stephen King’s Carrie and Firestarter. There have been both good and bad along the way: from Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood, Zapped!, and Patrick. They aren’t going anywhere, which won’t come as much of a surprise when it’s usually saddled into the horror genre.

June, telekinesis, L. Gustavo Cooper, Victoria Pratt, Kennedy Brice, Casper Van Dien
With that in mind, comes director L. Gustavo Cooper’s June, which tries to shoehorn in a pseudo coming of age tale, with mixed results. Armed with better-than-average special effects and a game cast, it doesn’t breathe new life into the sub-genre, but anyone who may find the synopsis interesting at least won’t feel like they’ve wasted their time.

We learn in an opening flashback, and through narration by Lily Anderson (Victoria Pratt), that when she was a teenager, her baby was used in a cult ritual, trying to fuse her with the powerful mythological “aer.” Now, poor June (Kennedy Brice) is a 9-year-old foster child, moved from home to home due to her incredible telekinetic powers that usually leave the homes in pieces.

Eventually, June is found out by social worker Victor Emmanuel (Eddie Jemison) and brought to live with Lily and her husband Dave (Casper Van Dien). Victor makes sure June knows this may be her last chance to finally find a home that’s a good fit for her. But neither June, nor Dave, know that June is finally going to have to face her inner demons to discover who she really is.

RLJ Entertainment brings June to DVD, and the image looks reasonably theatrical considering the low budget direct to video launch. The special effects sometimes start to show their seams, but thankfully those instances are kept to a minimum with the bulk of the action revolving around flying objects. The audio also keeps the atmospherics in check with said items panning from speaker to speaker with a fair amount of resonating bass. The ’80s-styled synth score never drowns out the dialogue, making sure you always hear what characters are either whispering or yelling.

For such a low budget feature, it sure comes with plenty of extras. “The Elements of June” is broken up into five features: “Cast” (3:23), “Make-up” (2:07), “Music” (5:01), “Producing” (3:30), and “Making Of” (6:37). For anyone interested in the process of making a low budget film look better than it should, the cast and crew do a great job of showing how they pulled it off. “The History of Aer” (3:11) is a mini faux-documentary with interviews of believers, skeptics, and “scientists.” And finally, there’s a collection of five “Social Services Files for June” (8:36) with a play all option: Ramon and Leticia Satani (1:45), Howard and Lily Dwyer (2:06), Paul and Trisha Patel (1:24), Joe and Monica Carter (1:34), and Candy and Tim Williams (1:47).

June isn’t the kind of film that’s looking to win awards, or develop a cult following, but it never tries to be anything more than it is either. It’s a slice-of-life feature about a little girl trying to find her place in the world — even if she usually manages to destroy most of it in the process. The cast is way above average — particularly Van Dien who is almost unrecognizable in his bearded manliness — and lend a gravity to the proceedings, even if one character decision at the end feels more like just another crank of the plot mechanics wheel turning. Interested parties will find plenty to like here, just don’t expect any kind of modern masterpiece of mayhem. With expectations in check, audiences will have a good time with June, available now on DVD.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Movie Review: “The Martian”

The Martian

***** out of 5
141 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some strong language, injury images, and brief nudity
20th Century Fox

Article first published at The Reel Place.

Everyone’s been asked the old “if you were stranded on a desert island” question a million times, right? Well, what if it was Mars? That is the struggle astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) faces in Ridley Scott’s amazing new sci-fi/thriller The Martian.

Based on the novel by Andy Weir, I hoped we’d be in for something of top caliber with both Damon and Scott involved. Let alone the supporting cast features a slew of A-listers, and being adapted by Drew Goddard (Cloverfield, The Cabin in the Woods, Netflix’s Daredevil). To say the film lives up to expectations is one thing, but as Watney would say, “here’s the rub”: the film is even better than the book!

Botanist/mechanical engineer Watney is left stranded on Mars after he’s presumed dead by his fellow crewmates during an emergency evacuation: Lewis (Jessica Chastain), Martinez (Michael Pena), Johanssen (Kate Mara), Beck (Sebastian Stan), and Vogel (Aksel Hennie). The world is stunned by the news of Watney’s fatality, but even more shocked when it’s discovered by Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) that he’s still alive.

Now, Watney is forced to make good on his skills and plans to “science the shit out of” his situation. Growing potatoes and using condensation for water reclamation, he’s in a race against time before he starves to death. Meanwhile NASA must find a way to either at least get him more food while they plan his rescue, or just simply figure out how to do even that.

Due to technical difficulties, I was unable to see The Martian the way Scott intended it in 3D. Even in 2D, the film is just a wonder to behold. It’s the best rescue film of its type since Castaway, Apollo 13, or even Gravity — of which is the easiest to compare. The film is never bogged down in the science of the situation — although there is plenty of nerd-moments carried over from the novel.

Also making its way from page to screen is the film’s sense of humor. You’d kind of have to have a sense of humor to survive the situation, and Damon brings out the best lines. Some straight from the book, some added by Goddard, but all brought to deadpan hilarity by Damon. It takes a strong presence to make us care for such a facetious everyman and Damon certainly takes the cake.

There’s a lot of science running through The Martian, but it never gets in the way of the story, which has been carefully streamlined and tightened up. A man who’s odds are never in his favor, is fighting to keep himself alive with any chance of hope light-seconds away, i.e. about four years. The aforementioned rest of the cast assist Damon admirably, while Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Donald Glover all hold their own with plenty of moments to shine.

Featuring astounding special effects, both hilarious and heartbreaking moments, plenty of heroism, and enough jaw-dropping, heart-pounding set pieces to keep you on the edge of your seat, The Martian is here to plant its flag before we’re overrun with the rest of the year’s Oscar bait. This shall not be excused as just another excuse for Scott to play around in space, it’s one of the year’s best films, period.

Movie Review: “Sicario”


**** out of 5
121 minutes
Rated R for strong violence, grisly images, and language

Article first published at The Reel Place.

The buzz surrounding the new war-on-crime film Sicario is at an almighty high. Every TV spot is declaring how good it is. It helps that the film is from Denis Villeneuve, Oscar-nominated for his Canadian film Incendies, who received further acclaim with his Jake Gyllenhaal/Hugh Jackman thriller Prisoners. With the help of three A-list stars — Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, and Josh Brolin — Villeneuve manages to make good on the promise of a film you might not soon forget. But is it one of the year’s absolute best? I’m afraid it’s not quite that good — at least as a whole. And if there’s anything we’ve learned from the Academy, one spectacular performance does not a Best Picture make.

Diving right into the action, we’re thrust into the middle of a hostage situation where FBI agent Kate Macer (Blunt) leads a raid on a quiet house in Chandler, Arizona seemingly devoid of life. What they do find is 42 dead bodies hidden inside the walls. A bomb also goes off in a shed outside killing two agents. Kate wants to find the people responsible and her boss Dave Jennings (Victor Garber) convinces her to volunteer to help Matt Graver (Brolin) and Alejandro Gillick (Del Toro) find the elusive drug lord Manuel Diaz (Bernardo P. Saracino). Now, tension at the border is sky high with Kate questioning Matt and Alejandro’s motives, with the passing days becoming more and more dangerous before ulterior motives begin to surface.

The best thing Sicario has going for it is, by far, Del Toro’s presence. Benicio is at the top of his game here, with a performance rivaling Javier Bardem’s ruthless killer in No Country for Old Men. Riveting and terrifying, Del Toro makes Alejandro a man so scary that “if looks could kill” is an understatement. As for the rest of the cast, Blunt’s Kate comes as a huge surprise as the film’s punching bag. She’s constantly put in harm’s way, just to further Matt and Alejandro’s quest to take down Diaz. Meanwhile, Brolin is becoming typecast and just seems to be playing Josh Brolin again. It’s a good thing he’s so damn charming.

Unfortunately, the one thing that does get in the way of Sicario is its pacing. At 121 minutes it feels way longer. There’s not a lot of padding, just a lot of plodding. Scenes are dragged out way longer than they should be, mainly just to show off Roger Deakins’s cinematography — and to allow Del Toro to make his performance as menacing as possible. This causes the finale to feel unrewarding. Some real crap goes down, but you’ll probably be too busy keeping yourself awake to wonder if what you just saw happen really did. However, the performances make it all worthwhile, so it’s definitely worth checking out. Between this, The Martian, and The Walk, it’s a fantastic time to be an adult at the cinema.

Movie Review: “The Walk”

The Walk

**** out of 5
123 minutes
Rated PG for thematic elements involving perilous situations, and for some nudity, language, brief drug references and smoking
Sony Pictures

Article first published at The Reel Place.

While Robert Zemeckis was busy playing in his uncanny valley of The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol (the animated Jim Carrey one) — all abominations BTW — he made a stumbling return to live-action with the Denzel Washington starring Flight, the most shallow and transparent Best Picture nominee since A Beautiful Mind — at least Flight didn’t win. So I had my reservations when he announced that he’d be adapting a film of Philippe Petit’s autobiographical To Reach the Clouds that chronicled his dream of walking a tightrope between the two towers of the World Trade Center.

The other reason to give pause to this is the fact that a documentary about Petit’s shenanigans (Man On Wire) was released a mere seven years ago. Let alone that the release of the film’s first trailer made it seem like a complete retread. The good news is, Zemeckis has kept the same structure as Man on Wire’s director James Marsh, with The Walk having the feel of a heist movie. While it also feels somewhat like an origin story, it’s certainly fitting considering Petit’s larger than life aspirations. The fact that he not only pulls off the stunt just makes it even more audacious. And the same can be said of Zemeckis himself, this is the best film he’s made in 15 years.

The story has been condensed, but the thrill remains the same. We meet Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) standing on the torch of the Statue of Liberty. Here, he introduces himself and we’re whisked away to 1973 where he’s essentially a street rat. Performing in the streets for spare change as a juggler, he meets Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley) whom he convinces to teach him his secrets of tightrope walking. In the streets he meets fellow street performer Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) whom he convinces to join him on his quest to walk between the Twin Towers. Along with two other accomplices — Jean-Louis (Clément Sibony) and Jeff (César Domboy) — they’re off to New York City to attempt a feat the world will never see again.

All the Zemeckis trademarks are found in The Walk. Gee-whiz technological achievements. Characters you care about. An Alan Silvestri score. Yes, Zemeckis is back in full force. Word on the street is that people are throwing up all over the country in screenings and that’s something that should come as a badge of honor. The man hasn’t made a watchable film since Castaway, and now is able to turn around and make you lose your lunch is quite a statement. I may not be terrified of heights, but there are endless moments that would make the most daring filmgoer feel butterflies in their stomach. Terrifying is one word. Fantastic is another.

It’s incredibly crowd-pleasing with everyone in the cast playing their part to the hilt. Some snickered at what sounds like a ridiculous accent coming out of JGL’s mouth, but anyone who’s seen the documentary knows that’s exactly how Petit sounds. It’s too bad he wasn’t brought in to narrate the film, it could have made it just a little bit better. As it stands, The Walk is another beautifully crafted, if stomach rolling, notch on Zemeckis’s belt. It may not be his best movie, but it’s still one of the year’s best. And with it opening in IMAX 3D theaters today — a week and a half before it expands nationwide — it’s the only way to see it. The Walk is one you won’t want to miss!