Tuesday, October 29, 2013

"Halloween" 35th Anniversary Blu-Ray Review

When it comes to “slasher” films, you’d be hard-pressed to find one better than John Carpenter’s 1978 classic Halloween.
What sets it apart from typical genre fare, like Friday the 13th, is that Michael Myers is no maniac in a mask.
He is quite simply a physical embodiment of the pure, unwavering evil that can lurk anywhere – even in the quietest, most unsuspecting neighborhoods.
Such terror deserves home entertainment treatment of the highest order, and audiences get that with the all-new 35th anniversary Blu-Ray release of Halloween.
The most notable feature that distinguishes this from previous releases is the all-new, high definition image transfer supervised by Dean Cundey himself, the film’s original director of photography.
The result is a gorgeously clear picture that looks like it could’ve been filmed yesterday.
By looking at still photographs comparing this version to the 2007 Blu-Ray release, it’s clear that Cundey’s 35th anniversary transfer is the definitive viewing experience.
The color scheme is cooler and less vibrant, allowing for more natural looking images that are truer to Carpenter’s original vision.
The transfer also retains its slight graininess, lending a sense of authenticity that’s true to Halloween’s original theatrical presentation.

As for the sound, Cundey includes a new Dolby TrueHD 7.1 lossless audio track, which means the movie’s original soundtrack has been completely reconstructed to sound as clear as ever.
Carpenter’s haunting score is beautifully crisp.
Its classically foreboding presence is enhanced to evoke a greater sense of dread than ever before.
Additionally, a brand new audio commentary from Carpenter and star Jamie Lee Curtis is included.
This was my favorite special feature for the way Carpenter and Curtis josh each other – while she’s freaking out at every other scene, he’s telling her how silly she is.
Through their easygoing banter, the duo provides remarkable insights into the filming experience, the mythology, casting, and technical elements of the production.
The only other new feature is an hour-long documentary titled “The Night SHE Came Home,” in which a camera crew follows Curtis as she meets fans at her first ever horror convention.
It’s entertaining and worth a few viewings simply because this is the first time that Curtis has ever acknowledged the passionate Halloween fan base.

Her distaste for horror films and wish to disassociate from the “scream queen” image are reasons why Curtis has taken 35 years to reach out.
Other special features have all been ported over from previous home video releases.
The “On Location: 25 Years Later” featurette showcases the South Pasadena shooting locations that have, by and large, remained unchanged since the late 70s.
Though it features rare appearances from the late Debra Hill and star P.J. Soles, such a dated feature feels out of place on a 35th anniversary release.
If anything, they should’ve updated it with the cooperation of Carpenter and Curtis.
It would’ve been fun to see their reactions and hear their stories about filming on location so many years ago.
Remaining features include a collection of scenes shot specifically for the film’s television presentations, as well as original theatrical trailers, television, and radio spots.
Michael has never looked or sounded better, so fans looking for the definitive Halloween viewing experience should head to Best Buy or Target to pick up a copy.
 Even if you're a first-time viewer, this classic horror film is a worthy addition to any home video collection.

Friday, October 25, 2013

"The Counselor" Review

If Hollywood were to produce its own “greatest hits” album, it might look something like “The Counselor”.

On the surface, the film features one of the best pedigrees in the history of American cinema. You’ve got a proven director in Ridley Scott (“Gladiator,” “Alien”), a screenplay from arguably one of the greatest American novelists of all time, Cormac McCarthy (“No Country for Old Men”), and a cast of Hollywood’s most talented players including Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt.

What’s more is that the television spots during Monday Night Football make it look like the next riveting episode of “Breaking Bad.” Heck, Dean Norris even makes a brief appearance as the wholesale buyer of a large shipment of cocaine in “The Counselor.”

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

McCarthy’s story picks up when a nameless, cash-strapped lawyer (Fassbender) invests in a big drug deal, contrary to the advising of his associates (Bardem, Pitt). Inevitably, the deal goes awry, forcing our hero into an abyss of increasingly dire straits.

In trying to create intrigue and suspense in his first-ever screenplay, it’s clear that McCarthy shouldn’t quit his day job.

A reviewer on “The Counselor”’s IMDb page put it best, saying that “McCarthy fails to realize that he isn’t writing a book here.” Real people don’t often speak in monologues, which is how most of the dialogue is delivered. As such, the story becomes bogged down under the weight of its own profundity. It’s almost impossible to tell what exactly is going on at any point in time.

The aforementioned scene with Norris feels entirely out of place, and it doesn’t help that the characters in the scene are both introduced and abandoned over the course of 3 minutes. We never see any of these guys again after Norris’s character makes the deal. That being said, the rest of the film features a colorful cast of characters inhabited by capable actors.

Diaz steals the show as Malkina, the girlfriend to Bardem’s Reiner. Her ulterior motives lend a welcome sense of depth to both her character and to the film’s final act. Diaz manages to balance confidence and initiative in a manner that’s imposing, yet undeniably sexy.

This is made apparent to, not just the audience, but Bardem’s character in a scene involving her and a car. Watching it is like watching a train wreck – it’s terrible, but you just can’t bring yourself to look away.

Trailing in Diaz’s wake is the rest of the A-list cast, each given ample time to flex their chops in what feels like a series of long-winded vignettes that serve as exposition.

In the end, I think those audience members looking for recourse after the recent departure of dear Heisenberg will be disappointed by “The Counselor.” A series of interpersonal scenes with cryptic dialogue fail to make a cohesive story apparent in McCarthy’s screenplay. It’s just boring and unengaging, which are two things that stories like “No Country for Old Men” and “The Road” certainly are not.

That being said, the cast makes “The Counselor” consistently watchable. Although with such an outstanding pedigree, “watchable” is a major disappointment.


Sunday, October 20, 2013

"Carrie" Review

In 1976, Brian De Palma brought “Carrie” to terrifying life in a film considered by many who have seen it as a classic of the horror genre.
Oscar-nominated performances and still timely themes surrounding religion and teen bullying have cemented De Palma's 'Carrie' as one of the most well-respected horror films of the past 40 years.
With such a reputation to live up to, Kimberly Peirce's 2013 "Carrie" feels as though it's afraid to be different, much like its teen protagonist.
Wrongly billed as a "re-imagining" of Stephen King's classic novel, "Carrie" tells the story of a sheltered high school girl who discovers that she has telekinetic powers after being bullied and ridiculed by her classmates.
If kids with cell phones speaking different slang are all that set this "re-imagining" apart from De Palma's original, then Peirce and her creative team need detention and prom privileges revoked.
While teen angst is timely as ever, especially in today's cyber age, Peirce doesn't bring much to the table in terms of presentation.
The production design, from Carrie’s house, to the school and the prom, looks and feels exactly like the original.
The script, from original “Carrie” screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen and “Glee” producer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, features dialogue that sounds verbatim to Cohen’s 1976 screenplay.
That being said, the new scenes tacked onto the script were executed rather well.
The film’s chilling opening sequence features Carrie’s mother, Margaret White (Julianne Moore) wailing for help and forgiveness from a bed strewn with bloodstained sheets.
If the screams of agony weren’t frightening enough, several religious icons and grotesquely melted candles litter the bedroom, lending a creepy Gothic vibe to a bizarre scene that concludes with Margaret giving birth to Carrie in the bed.
Later on, after finally accepting Tommy Ross’s invitation to prom, Carrie gleefully goes to a store to pick out fabric for a dress – giving the audience a glimpse of how she feels coming into her own, despite an abusive mother and mean classmates.
Give all credit to Chloe Grace Moretz for stepping out of Sissy Spacek's shadow and making this role her own.
With every timid look, smile and tear shed, her emotions feel genuine and confident — qualities sorely lacking from the rest of the production.
As for Margaret, Moore is the only choice for the character made famous by Piper Laurie's grim, Oscar-nominated performance.
Since I only first saw the original after finding out about this remake, I could only see Moore whenever Laurie was onscreen.
Moore is nothing short of terrifying in her turn as Carrie's religious fanatic mother.
Though it's well acted, Peirce's "Carrie" is an unnecessary impersonation of a superior film with important themes that still hold up today.

Save yourself the price of a prom ticket and watch the 1976 version of "Carrie" on Netflix this Halloween.


Friday, October 11, 2013

"Captain Phillips" Review

Each week during this past spring and summer, it felt as if we were getting another new sci-fi picture about an impending apocalypse. Now that the fall awards season is underway, the theme seems to have turned to individual survival.

Last week featured Sandra Bullock in Alfonso Cuarón’s breathtaking Gravity, a film about an astronaut trying to make her way back to earth.

This week, it’s Tom Hanks as a hostage in director Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips.

Set in the spring of 2009, Captain Richard Phillips sets out with a crew of 20 men on the Maersk Alabama, a cargo ship carrying food and supplies to impoverished countries in Africa. When the minor threat of a pirate attack in their waters becomes an impending reality, there’s little Phillips or his crew can do when their only weapons are high-powered water hoses and one flare gun. From there, Phillips is forced to fight for his life when the pirates kidnap him onto a lifeboat and hold him for ransom. 

As director, Greengrass brings the intense, kinetic style of filmmaking that made his two Bourne films so terrific. The deft camerawork of cinematographer Barry Ackroyd along with Henry Jackman’s pounding musical score create a sense of urgency that’s grounded in stark realism. Save for a gorgeous opening shot of Phillips’ northeastern home, the camera is always moving.

That means most of the action is filmed “shaky-cam” style which contributes to a feeling of seasickness, in this case. Though I never felt the effects myself, Captain Phillips would be hard to recommend to anyone who typically suffers from motion or seasickness.

As for the performances, it’s impossible to picture Tom Hanks not getting a Best Actor nod for his work as the titular character. Every phrase he utters and every change of the look in Hanks’ eyes allows the audience to know precisely what Phillips is thinking. He is easy to empathize with in his everyman portrayal of the captain. The ending alone features some of the most amazing work I’ve ever seen from the actor and is certainly the highlight of his performance here.

We see a man, who at once had power over a crew of 20 individuals and was able to hold his own against armed captors without a weapon, revert to an almost infant-like state of dependence. Hanks’ ability to pull off the contrast in just those last few minutes is unparalleled to the work of any other actor so far this year.
As the leader of the pirate hijackers, Barkhad Abdi proves perfectly menacing in his first ever acting role. Watching this newcomer spar with the likes of Hanks, during what is arguably one of the best performances of the actor’s career, is incredible.

We’re not supposed to sympathize with the pirates, despite our understanding of their plight and motivations. Abdi’s anonymity is consistent with the sense of hyper-realism that Greengrass is trying to portray. A name actor in that part would have diminished the film’s impact.

The script from Billy Ray (Breach, The Hunger Games) is strong for a piece based on source material from Phillips himself. It perfectly captures his side of the story. However, the narrative would have felt more complete if it had shown the captain reuniting with his family or with his crew after such an ordeal. Sadly, we never get that.

While it doesn’t quite reach the visual or poetic aspirations of “Gravity,” “Captain Phillips” is fall’s next great thrill ride. See it.


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Top Picks for the Halloween Season

It’s my favorite time of year again! Here are some of my top movies to watch during the Halloween season. Be sure to check them out for a few good screams!

Widely considered Alfred Hitchcock’s most shocking film, Psycho is the “slasher” that defined a genre and set the benchmark for modern horror movies. Halloween is the only other film of its kind to come close.

No list would be complete without this perennial favorite from WKU’s own John Carpenter. After 35 years, Halloween still stands the test of time as a post-Psycho affirmation of the “slasher” genre and one of the scariest of its kind for its silent, brooding antagonist and haunting musical score from Carpenter himself.

The Conjuring
This recent chiller from Insidious director James Wan is destined to become the next horror classic. Fine performances, a strong story, and slow-burning thrills are punctuated by a spooky, slam-bang climax that rivals The Exorcist. Homage is paid to that and several other old-school favorites, including Poltergeist and Child’s Play.

The Exorcist
An engrossing story about two priests enlisted to save the soul of a young girl after she is possessed by the devil. The infamous “pea soup” scene is just one of several spine-tingling moments that have earned The Exorcist the title of "scariest movie ever made" by top critics.

The Evil Dead
To this day, Sam Raimi’s 1981 cult classic is still considered one of the most graphic, gut-wrenching pictures ever made, despite its use of practical visual effects over CGI. The film has a dark sense of humor that soars on the wings of Bruce Campbell’s over-the-top performance. Such humor was sorely missed in this year’s remake.

At the time that I first saw Sinister last October, it was the scariest movie I had ever seen. Director Scott Derrickson doesn’t cheat with his scares, evoking a sense of dread in every frame. It becomes more and more stylized by the end, but it’s still a bloody good time that caused me to lose sleep for days.

The Blair Witch Project
You have the creative team of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez to thank for popularizing the “found footage horror” genre with this cult favorite. Made on a shoestring budget in the late 90s, Blair Witch is still one of the most realistic thrillers you’re likely to see. Its minimalist approach proves that the human imagination can be more frightening than any vampire, mummy or werewolf out there.

Paranormal Activity 3
In my opinion, this is the best of the Paranormal Activity franchise. Rewinding the story back to the VHS days of the late 1980s, this prequel hints at how and why the “activity” began. The scares start early and don’t let up, culminating in the series’ most shocking ending.

The Cabin in the Woods
This entertaining thrill ride from the creative duo of Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Drew Goddard (Cloverfield) turns horror movie clichés on their head with a classic setup but a completely atypical payoff.

I enjoy the wacky sense of humor with which director Ruben Fleischer and scribes Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick approach this romp while packing on satisfying zombie action. Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, Jesse Eisenberg and Abigail Breslin make for endearing leads.

Donnie Darko
Though not technically billed as a “horror” film, Donnie Darko is a season staple for its intricate plot, bizarre imagery and Halloween-time setting. A young Jake Gyllenhaal affirms his A-list status with an arresting performance.

The Nightmare Before Christmas
While Tim Burton’s stylized, stop-motion settings and characters certainly evoke the spirit of the season, Nightmare technically doubles as both a Halloween and a Christmas movie. It’s just as good any time of year.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

"Gravity" Review


Beyond Earth’s atmosphere, there exists an immense void.

No oxygen, no water, no air pressure and nothing to carry sound.

“Life in space is impossible,” or so the title card at the beginning of “Gravity” leads us to believe.

 To start things off, director Alfonso Cuarón (“Children of Men”) primes the audience for an assault of the senses with a deafening, brain-rattling drone from composer Steven Price that halts quickly, suddenly dropping the audience into the quiet vastness of outer space.

It’s not the loud score that’s shocking so much as it is the stark quiet and the sharp contrast in sound.

This clever filmmaking technique grabs the audience and refuses to let go, sucking them in like a massive vacuum in the film’s first 30 seconds.

From there, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki conducts a dazzling, 13-minute, single-take ballet of sweeping camera movements that seem to dance in and around the Hubble space telescope on which the featured space travelers (George Clooney, Sandra Bullock) are at once conducting repairs, then suddenly sent adrift by a blizzard of flying debris from the destruction of an obsolete satellite.

These first 13 minutes use 3D imagery and masterful camerawork to place the audience right alongside the actors, allowing them to embark on as realistic a spacewalk as most moviegoers are ever likely to experience.

“Gravity” is most assuredly a technical marvel and the most essential use of 3D presentation since “Avatar.”

Aside from the visual wizardry, Cuarón and his son Jonás pen a succinct script.

Superficially it’s just a story about finding your way back home, even if it takes kickback from a fire extinguisher to get you there. 

(Real-life NASA astronaut Michael J. Massimino confirmed to Dennis Overbye of The New York Times that such use of a fire extinguisher is indeed accurate and not a corny stunt.)

Perhaps more deeply, it’s about the re-invigoration that our lives get from second chances.

Parallels for rebirth and new life can be discerned throughout, though these might warrant multiple viewings in order to fully grasp and dissect them.

Such parallels stem from the heavy-handed backstory of Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock).

We’d still care about her even without the tragedy she once faced at home because we’re along with her for the ride, experiencing the same emotions as she feels them in any given moment.

However, the backstory proves essential to Stone’s character, allowing her to undergo the transformation from a timid, rookie medical engineer to a steadfast survivor emerging from her re-entry capsule like a butterfly from its cocoon.

With every desperate gasp for air and every call to “Houston” (voice of Ed Harris), Bullock gives the performance of her career, capturing the raw emotion needed to make Dr. Stone an affecting character that the audience can root for.

As astronaut Matt Kowalski, Clooney brings his trademark cool and suave, collected nature, never raising his voice or appearing panicked in the face of imminent danger.

He provides a handful of laughs in the early goings when he speaks to “Houston,” telling funny, anecdotal stories that serve as character development for Kowalski.

The stars make a great contrasting pair, with Bullock’s Dr. Stone the withdrawn antithesis to Clooney’s cowboy Kowalski.

“Gravity” is the kind of movie that some people wait their whole lives to see.

The groundbreaking visual effects, spectacular 3D imagery, masterful cinematography, arresting musical score and bravura performances make Alfonso Cuarón’s mission to space gripping, intense, emotional, and near-perfect on every technical level.

The best, most exhilarating movie of 2013 thus far demands to be viewed in 3D on the largest IMAX screen possible.

No other format would do it justice on first viewing.


Wednesday, October 2, 2013

"Rush" and "Don Jon" Double Feature

Professional sports have always featured their fair share of playboys.

Basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain is said to have had relations with over 20,000 women over the course of his career.

New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski once came under fire for releasing photos of himself with a porn star.

In the case of Formula One race car driver, and subject of the new movie Rush, James Hunt, the number of women he slept with is upwards of 5,000.

As the saying goes, “to the winner go the spoils.”

But that doesn’t mean you technically have to be a world champion to knock ‘em dead.

That's clear in Don Jon.

In his screenwriting and directing debut, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a New Jersey Lothario known to his “boys” as Don Jon.

Despite his escapades with a seemingly incalculable amount of women whom he picks up at bars with his buddies, Jon can’t seem to shake his addiction to pornography.

In director Ron Howard’s Rush, Hunt (Thor’s Chris Hemsworth) can’t seem to shake his addiction to the limelight.

While similar in their hotheaded approaches to women, both characters find themselves in completely different narratives.

Don Jon is a confident, modern romantic comedy that subverts the standard clichés of its genre with edgy humor and honest, endearing performances.

Rush is a sports film that more than lives up to its title while chronicling the intense, true-life rivalry between Hunt and Austrian driver Niki Lauda on the 1970s Formula One racing circuit.

Above all else, these two films feature outstanding leads and superb editing.

Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore and Tony Danza lead a cast of honest, believable characters in Don Jon.

Gordon-Levitt assures his place among Hollywood’s elite players and budding filmmakers while Johansson remains convincing in a role tailor-made for her.

Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl both make strong, earnest turns in Rush.

As for the editing, Lauren Zuckerman’s work on Don Jon is akin to that of Jay Rabinowitz's on Requiem for A Dream.

Zuckerman's frenetic, music video-style editing of Don Jon's vicious cycle of addiction desensitizes the audience in the same visual style of Requiem's graphic drug trips.

Hypnotic, attractive, fast-paced editing never lets these films introduce a dull moment.

Rush’s most hypnotic sequences come on the racetrack, with cars zooming by at 200 miles per hour.

Editor Daniel Hanley makes the experience all the more intense with exciting race footage juxtaposed against point-of-view shots that give the audience a sense for what it’s like behind the wheel of a Formula One race car.

Don Jon and Rush are neither boring, nor overbearing thanks to the work of their editors.

But like their philandering leading men, these films are not without flaw.

Don Jon introduces a heavy-handed tonal shift in the last 5 to 10 minutes that serves an important purpose in terms of character development but feels out of place. 

Gordon-Levitt inserts a sermon on true love that feels awkward against the funny, breezy musings of the previous hour and twenty minutes.

While I found it to be the best sports film in years, Rush somehow lacks the “it” factor to make it an Oscar shoo-in with characters that some critics may chastise as egotistical and unlikable.

Despite the similarities and differences, for better or worse, Rush and Don Jon are two wonderfully enjoyable films, albeit ones with flawed, egotistical leading men.

Don Jon: 8/10
Rush: 9.5/10