Saturday, January 21, 2017

Movie Review: “Split”


***** out of 5
117 minutes
Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence and some language
Universal Pictures

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Not many directors have dragged their own name through the mud the way M. Night Shyamalan has. After the trifecta of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs, he burned everyone with the “twist” in The Village and the jig was up. What followed was the unfathomably awful quartet of Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender, and After Earth. To say Shyamalan had fallen from grace was an understatement. After a two-year hiatus, he returned with Jason Blum as producer to deliver The Visit — while not a return to form — another notch on the “found footage” belt. Love-him-or-hate-him, Shyamalan was back and suddenly relevant again — it certainly helped to have launched the Wayward Pines TV show on Fox. And now, with Split, he’s finally making the comeback we all hoped was in him.

Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) has been pity invited along on a shopping trip with Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula). In the parking lot, Claire’s father (Neal Huff) is assaulted and the three girls are taken hostage. Their captor, Kevin (James McAvoy), is holding them in some kind of basement. But Kevin is the least of their worries. Turns out, Kevin is also Dennis, Patricia, Hedwig, Barry, Orwell, Jade, and 16 other individuals. Yes, Kevin has a personality disorder, and schedules unexpected visits with his psychiatrist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley). His doctor is studying him to make a case that maybe the fractured are greater than we are and actually use more brain percentage than the rest of us. For Casey, Claire, and Marcia, they’re in for the fight of their lives as a 24th personality is trying to surface in the form of “The Beast.”

Split is by far Shyamalan’s best film in 16 years. It’s hard to believe Unbreakable came out that long ago — and still stands as his best film. But Split is everything fans have been waiting for since we were all let down so spectacularly with The Village. He’s up to his old tricks and there is what some are calling a “twist” ending, but it’s more than that. And that’s all I can say about it. How we weren’t forced to sign non-disclosure agreements is beyond me. The last scene may not work for everyone, but I haven’t been this excited walking out of a movie since Cabin in the Woods. The first rule of talking about Split is you don’t talk about the ending of Split.

Hopefully, Shyamalan’s early fans will come back out of the woodwork to bask in the glory of his return because this is the one we’ve been waiting for. Even without the last scene, it totally works on its own as one of the year’s first great thrillers. Intense from start to finish, the cast — hats off to McAvoy and Taylor-Joy’s performances — along with Shyamalan’s breakneck pacing keeps the audience riveted. My initial reaction walking out was “mind blown” and I immediately let a few enquiring minds know that they had missed out. There are some films you wish you could see again for the first time, Split is one of those movies. The best thing to do is trust in Shyamalan. We’ve been burned before, but there’s no need to fear here. Welcome back Shyamalan, this is the director we’ve missed!

Friday, January 13, 2017

Movie Review: “Silence”


** 1/2 out of 5
161 minutes!
Rated R for some disturbing violent content
Paramount Pictures

Article first published at

I was hoping 2017 would start with a bang. We get a week full of 2016 films finally finding wide release. I was sure it would be a fantastic way to get back into the swing of things after a three week hiatus. When Monday was Ben Affleck’s Live by Night, Tuesday brought Peter Berg’s Patriots Day, and Wednesday came Martin Scorsese’s Silence, imagine my surprise when the best film of the week wound up being Live by Night. To be honest, I did decide to skip Patriots Day after looking at the three films’ runtimes, but even if it was the only film opening this week, not even Liam Neesons, Kylo Ren, and Spider-Man can keep Silence — based on Shûsaku Endô’s 1966 novel — from being a giant bore. Bring a couple cans of energy drinks folks, you’re gonna need it.

Opening in 1633 Japan, we find Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) amidst a group torture session. Ferreira’s narration lets us know that they are Catholic missionaries in Nagasaki, and the locals have forced him into apostasy. His last letter has found its way back to Jesuit priest Alessandro Valignano (Ciarán Hinds) in Maccau, where Ferreira’s pupils Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) insist on traveling to Japan to find Ferreira and prove that there’s no way he would have committed such an appalling act. After finding a guide in the form of Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), the two young priests sneak their way into Japan. They must keep their identity hidden, while trying to navigate the Buddhist landscape where they find more help in the secret Christian village of Tomogi. Soon enough, Rodrigues finds his way to Ferreira where his own destiny awaits.

I think whether you’ll find Silence captivating or a total snooze-fest lies on where you sit with religion in general. If you are a religious person, you’re bound to find the film captivating. While it is indeed riveting for the most part, I am absolutely not a religious person and couldn’t have cared less what happens to any of the characters. Scorsese is known for his sprawling epic masterpieces, but Silence is too polarizing to be considered a masterpiece. A lot of talk has been made about the film taking Scorsese 25 years to get made, well that’s about how long the movie will feel to most viewers.

The performances are at least top notch so if you do have an interest, you definitely will not be spared on that front. But there was absolutely no need for the film to be 161 minutes long. The same could be said about most films, but even Quentin Tarantino’s over three-hour Hateful Eight at least found ways to keep the runtime paced at full hilt. Considering how much money faith-based films have managed to make over the last few years, there is hope that Silence will find an audience. I will never find a reason to ever sit through it again. I can’t even see hardcore Scorsese fans finding themselves loving the film. I know that’s not the point, the director made the film he’s always wanted to make and at least it’s something he can finally check off his bucket list.

Movie Review: “Live by Night”

Live by Night

**** out of 5
128 minutes
Rated R for strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity
Warner Bros. Pictures

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It’s still hard to believe that Live by Night is only Ben Affleck’s fourth directorial effort. He followed up his surprise debut, Gone Baby Gone, with The Town and the Oscar-winning Argo, proving his talent behind the camera was no fluke. Now, Affleck returns to his Dennis Lehane inspirations — the author also wrote the Gone Baby Gone novel — and it proves another perfect fit. Even if Live by Night falls short of the greatness of Argo.

In the 1920s, Joe Coughlin (Affleck) has returned from war with a chip on his shoulder, vowing to never follow orders again. He gets caught up in a rum war between the Irish — led by Albert White (Robert Glenister) — and the Italians — led by Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). Sides are chosen quickly for Joe after he’s betrayed by his girlfriend Emma (Sienna Miller), who also happens to be Albert’s girl, too. Joe agrees to join Maso and take over his rum bootlegging in Florida, after he learns that Albert is down there and wants to settle the score after Emma winds up swimming with the fishes.

Joe’s joined by the only friend he can trust, Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina), and the two pair up with the Suarez siblings: Esteban (Miguel) and Graciela (Zoe Saldana). After prohibition ends, Joe comes up with a plan to build a casino, even though gambling isn’t legal yet. Chief Figgis (Chris Cooper) changes his mind on giving him breathing room after his daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning) returns home from getting hooked on heroin in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Joe also finds himself in the crosshairs of the KKK after Figgis’ brother-in-law RD Pruitt (Matthew Maher) demands a high share due to his interracial relationship with Graciela.

As you can see, there is a lot going on in Live by Night. It shouldn’t come as a surprise; gangster films are never short and sweet, but they don’t always equal instant classics either. Even Martin Scorsese was playing things a little safe in Casino. But make no mistake, this is every bit the sprawling gangster film that would have fit squarely alongside any Scorsese masterpiece. Even if it feels surprisingly short shrifted. There’s a much longer film lying around editor William Goldenberg’s office somewhere, and whether it would make the theatrical version better or worse would be up for debate. What we do get is at least extremely entertaining.

Unfortunately, it also bears the cross of being a passion project — something that highly afflicts Martin Scorsese’s Silence (also opening wide this week). With Affleck directing, writing, producing, and starring, there was no one around to tell him when to stop. I’m sure this was thanks to Warner Bros., after entrusting him with the film due to the his previous successes and his biggest surprise as one of the best Batmans. It still hasn’t been announced if he’s going to be directing — and I hope he does — but it would be nice if someone was brought in to keep him a little more reigned in. The good news is that the film flies by and Robert Richardson’s cinematography is Oscar worthy, as is Elle Fanning.

While the film is taking its share of flack — it’s at a low 32 percent on Rotten Tomatoes — but this is exactly the kind of gangster movie I like. Full of flapper girls,  jazz music, fedoras, and tommy guns, Live by Night fits right alongside The Untouchables, Miller’s Crossing, and Road to Perdition. In the end it may feel slightly anticlimactic — although a loose thread getting tied up certainly caught me off guard after I was about to write it off as a missed opportunity — but there could possibly be a fuller cut come video release. I’d be more than happy to revisit Live by Night in that aspect to see it live up to its full potential and expectations.

Blu-ray Reviews: “Phantasm: Remastered” and “Phantasm: Ravager”

“Phantasm: Remastered”: *** 1/2 out of 5
Video: **** 1/2
Audio: **** 1/2
Extras: *** 1/2

“Phantasm: Ravager”: **
Video: ****
Audio: ****
Extras: ***

Article first published on

If there’s one genre where the law of diminishing returns is most evident, it’s horror. After a horror film becomes a success, it’s rarely followed up with worthy sequels. Horror fans may love their favorite franchises, but you have to admit there are some sequels that should never have happened. In the case of Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm series, it’s an even rarer case of the original director clinging to each sequel for better and worse.

Coscarelli is the very definition of cult following. I never watched the Phantasm movies growing up — the original came out the year before I was even born — but I was always attracted to the idea of Coscarelli’s deadly flying orbs, and Angus Scrimm’s iconic Tall Man is something every horror fan recognizes.

I may have shown up late to the party in discovering Coscarelli’s genre-bending shenanigans, but with Well Go USA releasing both Phantasm: Remastered and the newest entry, Phantasm: Ravager, together, I can’t say it was worth the wait. The original at least holds up as an example of low-budget filmmaking done right, but Coscarelli has handed the reigns of Ravager to first time live-action director David Hartman and the results are disastrous. Ravager is meant as a fond farewell, and a farewell is clearly all that’s left for the films if this is the best they can do.

The original Phantasm introduces us to the series’ teenage hero, Mike (A. Michael Baldwin). He’s been creeping around Morningside cemetery after his older brother Jody’s (Bill Thornbury) friend has been killed. Soon enough, Mike and Jody, and Mike’s guitar-wielding ice cream man best friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister), are fighting for their lives to discover the Tall Man’s evil plot involving resurrected bodies and evil dwarfs.

In Ravager, we catch up with Reggie (still played by Bannister) as he suffers from delusions that he can’t quite figure out whether they’re real or not. He keeps flashing back and forth between a ravaged universe overrun by the Tall Man and his spheres and the sanctity of being locked up in a mental hospital where he’s continually visited by Mike (Baldwin again), who finally let’s Reggie in on a secret as Reggie’s two existences collide into one with the sake of humanity at stake.

Well Go USA delivers both Remastered and Ravager on 25GB discs and they both look pretty exceptional. The ironic part of this being that Remastered has been given a full 4K restoration courtesy of J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robots facilities. Abrams is a huge fan of Coscarelli’s films and gave him full access to their equipment after seeing a partial 4K print at the annual Butt-Numb-A-Thon in Austin. Both come in frame-filling 1.78:1 aspect ratios.

Remastered shows just how good a low-budget horror film can look with the right amount of care. Colors are completely natural with bloods having the appropriate bright red they deserve. Blacks are nice and inky with crush never an issue and shadow detail probably better than it’s ever been. Grain is always present with noise never seeping into the nighttime sequences. Detail is always spot on.

As for Ravager, it was clearly filmed digitally and shows in every scene. It’s a startling difference when jumping from one cinematic format to the other. Remastered looks fully organic and theatrical while Ravager never looks more than being filmed for home video. Detail is extra clear, but when it comes to colors, there are lots of sequences full of banding and bleeding reds that make the film look downright garish. Noise is evident in a few sequences, with crush never overwhelming thanks to the oversaturated reds. Ravager was made for home video and it looks it every second.

Both films come equipped with 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks and sound every bit as good as they look. Dialogue is always clean and prioritized with surrounds and directionality helping lend some extra creepiness as the Tall Man’s spheres whiz about the soundstage. Bass comes in handy in a few sequences while the sound effects and music never engulf the cheesy dialogue. Both feature the same additional audio tracks and only contain English subtitles: 2.0 Stereo or Mono.

Remastered and Ravager contain nearly identical special features. Remastered kicks things off with a “Graveyard Carz Episode” (11:24) as host Mark Worman gets pumped up to meet two of his horror idols (Coscarelli and Baldwin) to unveil his work on rebuilding the series’ Barracuda car. “Interviews from 1979 with Don Coscarelli and Angus Scrimm” (27:58) include two clips from an old TV show where they discuss the film’s inspirations, budget, costumes, and sets. The most fun part watching Scrimm explain the film’s synopsis in character as his beloved Tall Man.

“Deleted Scenes” include: “Bank Scene” (1:14), “Casket Room” (1:45), “Ice Cream Scene” (4:28), “Jody Visits Mike” (0:59), “Tall Man Fire Extinguisher” (1:39), and “Tall Man Smile” (0:17). None of them really add much to the film, if anything it just shows how much more odd it could have been. Two trailers are included: “1979 Phantasm Trailer” (2:13) and “Remastered Trailer” (1:56). An “Audio Commentary” features Coscarelli, Baldwin, Scrimm, and Thornbury together, waxing nostalgic on the production.

Ravager contains “Behind the Scenes” (5:24) which shows how excited Coscarelli was to resurrect the series, with some fun clips of him and Scrimm revisiting locations used in the original film. It’s great to see Scrimm going back to where it all started, especially since he passed last January — yes, another unfortunate 2016 celebrity death to add to the list. Three “Deleted Scenes” include rough cuts of the following: “Giant Dwarf” (3:47), “Escape From Dawn’s Cabin” (2:24), and “Cuda vs. Sphere” (1:42). Again, none of them add anything to the final cut, but it was fun to learn that Derek Mears (Jason Vorhees from the 2009 reboot) was the “Giant.”

“Phuntasm: Bloopers & Outtakes” (8:40) is an excruciatingly long exercise in tedium. Most blooper reels are never funny, now imagine that for nearly 10 minutes. The “Trailer” (1:46) and an audio commentary with Ravager director Hartman and Coscarelli (who served as co-writer/producer) rounds things out. Remastered and Ravager both contain preloaded trailers for additional Well Go USA titles: Train to Busan, The Wailing (both exceptional horror features), Kill Zombie! (this one being a head scratcher as it was released on Blu-ray two and a half years ago).

Whether I was late to the party, or simply missed the boat, Coscarelli’s Phantasm series is simply just not for me. It does have its share of fans — most evident in that Scream Factory released Phantasm II all the way back in March 2013 — but there’s not much here to entice horror fans who have yet to discover the films. It’s never as outrageous as Coscarelli thinks it is, and the humor is far too wacky and weird, clashing with the deadly serious antics of the Tall Man and his killer orbs and dwarfs.

While the original film works way better than the thankfully final chapter, at least Coscarelli fans have a definitive presentation they can fall back on when trying to convince friends they need to check out this “far out” horror film. Featuring great video and audio, but saddled with throwaway special features — it would have been cool to have Abrams brought in to discuss the film, possibly shedding some light on his adoration — both Phantasm: Remastered and Phantasm: Ravager are Blu-rays that fans will be very happy to finally have in their collections.