Monday, July 25, 2016

"Star Trek: Beyond" Review

Having switched allegiance to Star Wars, J.J. Abrams steps out of the director's chair for the third installment of his rebooted Star Trek movie series. Star Trek Beyond is helmed by Justin Lin (the Fast & Furious series) and written by Simon Pegg & Doug Jung. Out of these three newer movies, this is the one that feels the most like classic Star Trek. It's also the least entertaining.

Here we find the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise at the mercy of Krall (Idris Elba), a villain who despises Starfleet and everything it stands for. With the crew divided and held captive on a remote planet, it's up to Captain Kirk (Chris Pine), Scotty (Simon Pegg), Chekov (the late Anton Yelchin) and the fierce nomad Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) to get everyone back and stop Krall from wiping out Yorktown, a vital Starfleet base.

Facing steep odds, the crew use the visceral power of none other than the Beastie Boys' hit song "Sabotage" as a space weapon to destroy thousands of technologically superior swarm ships.

Seriously, that happens.

It isn't a spoiler for the end of this movie so much as it spoils the franchise. Now, every time I think of Star Trek, I will recall this scene and be salty. The shark has irrevocably been jumped. Thanks, Justin Lin / Simon Pegg.

More of the problems I had with this movie...

Elba proved back in April that he can play a ruthless, terrifying villain when given the right material (see The Jungle Book). Here, he's underutilized as Krall and feels like yet another disposable "baddie of the week." His exact motive isn't revealed until the last 25 or so minutes, so prepare to spend most of this movie wondering exactly what in the hell this guy's beef with the Enterprise is.

I also couldn't stand the cinematography. The frame seems to constantly rotate 180 degrees, and when it's not doing that, everything feels like it's shot at a 45 degree angle. I walked out afterwards with a splitting headache, (Chris) pining for the days of J.J.'s lens flare.

I'll show myself out in a minute...

Otherwise, Star Trek Beyond is less of a "bad" movie and more of a "decent" two-hour TV episode. As I mentioned, out of the now three rebooted films, Star Trek Beyond is the most in-tune with the original television series. The character dynamics are more consistent with their original counterparts, which fans of the show should love. Kirk finally drops the smarmy playboy shtick and fully embraces his role as a leader. Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Bones (Karl Urban) spend most of the film together, and their repartee could not be more perfect. Yelchin makes what is likely his best turn yet as Chekov, and I look forward to seeing what remains of his tragically curtailed, unreleased filmography.

Star Trek Beyond just doesn't have much else that makes it feel distinctly cinematic and therefore worthy of your hard-earned cash at the box office. The IMAX showtimes may try to convince you otherwise, but this is precisely the kind of action flick you wait to enjoy on cable.


Wednesday, July 20, 2016

"Lights Out" Review

In 2013, writer/director David F. Sandberg created a chilling short film called "Lights Out." It made rounds through several horror festivals before going viral on YouTube the following year.

In 2016, Sandberg has returned to the horror scene with a feature-length interpretation of that short film, aptly titled Lights Out.

This nimble 80-minute version follows a troubled family as they struggle to maintain sanity following the death of their patriarch. A malicious spirit named Diana makes that difficult. As Becca (Teresa Palmer), her boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia), and younger brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) encounter Diana in the dark, they learn more about her and the troubled past she once shared with their mother Sophie (Maria Bello).

For PG-13 horror, one could do far, far worse than Lights Out. It's a solid story which cracks along at a great pace. By the time you leave the theater, you'll hardly recognize that it's been less than an hour and a half.

Another great thing about this movie is that the characters are generally more well-realized than your typical horror bodies. Becca, Martin and Bret are all resourceful, smart people, and they react realistically for their situation. On a couple of occasions, different characters encounter Diana before simply turning and running away to find a weapon and hide. Just about anyone who sees something or someone scary in real life would probably do this. The only character I didn't care much for was Sophie. She's developed well enough, but I feel like this is the 800th time I've seen Maria Bello play somebody's strung-out mother. Get her another script like A History of Violence!

The interesting thing about Sophie's character, though, is that the whole story proves very maternal because of the stakes she carries for the villain. There's no Diana without Sophie. Sophie doesn't want to lose her "friend," but she also has a motherly duty to protect her children. Lights Out owes a lot to Jennifer Kent's The Babadook in this way. There's a grieving family, a distraught mother, resourceful children in peril, and a monster which, in many ways, is made stronger by feeding into that sense of grief. Diana and The Babadook even look similar.

This actually brings me to a couple things that I didn't care for in Lights Out. I mentioned before how I didn't care to see Bello play the strung-out mom yet again, even though she does it quite well. Another thing I didn't like was Diana's look. The monster in Sandberg's original short film is a creature of horrifyingly unique design. When Diana is finally exposed in a terrifying sequence reminiscent of the best haunted house attractions at Halloween, she looks just like your standard craggly witch. One would think that with a studio budget, Sandberg would make another unique looking monster. Diana is scary as hell when she's seen in the dark throughout the movie, but when she's ultimately revealed, it's a bit of a letdown. It's also upsetting that the film relies so heavily on unearned jump scares. Having seen the film just twice, many of them don't hold up. There are one or two that occur in places you don't quite expect, and therefore those shocks work. But the film's freakiest moments come whenever the characters see Diana off in a corner disappearing and reappearing in flashing lights. That buildup is scarier than the inevitable payoff where the monster reappears in the dark, simply standing closer to whoever is watching her.

In the end, Lights Out is a decent first studio feature for Sandberg, even though I personally think it works better as a short film. Horror fans should see this one as it makes a strong case for why the genre still needs PG-13 movies.


Monday, July 18, 2016

"Wiener-Dog" Review

Acclaimed writer/director Todd Solondz (Welcome to the DollhouseHappiness) returns with another pitch-black examination of the human condition, this time through the eyes of a dachshund as it moves from owner to owner.

Wiener-Dog is a story told in four parts.

The first:
After adopting the dog, a young, naive boy (Keaton Nigel Cooke) gets an education in mortality from his dysfunctional parents (Julie Delpy, Tracy Letts). A severe bout of diarrhea forces the family to give the dog up.

The second:
Dawn (Greta Gerwig), a veterinarian's assistant, steals the dog away from the clinic after nursing it back to health. One day she reunites with an old friend named Brandon (Kieran Culkin), and the two set off on a road trip to score drugs. The trip ultimately leads them to the home of Brandon's brother Tommy (Connor Long) and his wife April (Bridget Brown). It's there that Brandon informs Tommy of their father's death. In the wake of this news (and essentially all but a girlfriend to Brandon), Dawn realizes that Tommy and April need a furry friend more than she does at the moment. She leaves the dog with them on the way out of town.

The third:
Some time later, the dachshund winds up in New York City under the care of a disillusioned screenwriting professor named Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito). Schmerz achieved success in Hollywood thirty years ago with the release of a comedy he hated. In the present day, Schmerz's forays into Hollywood prove fruitless. He's disrespected by his students and underappreciated by the administration at his institution. He's stuck in an existential rut. That is, until he eyes his dog and asks "What if..?"

The fourth:
The titular puppy finds a home with a curmudgeonly old lady (Ellen Burstyn). She's visited by her granddaughter Zoe (Zosia Mamet) and her boyfriend Fantasy (Michael James Shaw). Fantasy is a controversial installation artist, and so Zoe begs her grandmother for money for Fantasy's latest project. Nana hesitantly turns over the money and is later confronted by a dozen projections of her younger self. "This is you if you had continued to play the piano," says one angelic voice. "And this is you if you if you had left bigger tips," says another. This segment culminates the entire 90-minute picture in one extremely bleak, unexpected moment.

The movie ends in a rather sobering place when you think about what each of these four stories and their mascot represent. That said, It's still a place where you'll have trouble stifling bewildered chuckles. Solondz's brand of black humor proves endearing here because the characters are so well-realized and that dog is just so darn cute. When I walked out of the theater afterwards, I felt like my cinematic palette had been cleansed.

Wiener-Dog is a well-rounded, well-acted ensemble flick whose cynical outlook actually feels refreshing after a steady diet of safe big-budget blockbusters. This movie isn't for everyone (especially not kids!); but if you appreciate offbeat comedies, you'll get a kick out of it.


Thursday, July 14, 2016

"Ghostbusters" (2016) Review

After about 30 years and countless failed attempts to turn the original Ghostbusters into a trilogy, Sony has hit the reset button and put director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat) in charge of one of the most beloved comedy franchises in cinema history.

Honestly, though, if it were really as "beloved" as the vocal minority on the internet would have you believe, there would probably be no less than eight decent Ghostbusters movies and a theme park. Instead all we've had are two movies (only one of which is any good), a short-lived cartoon, a bunch of mediocre video games, and a flavor of Hi-C if you can count that. Ecto Cooler was gone for nearly 30 years!

Having seen Feig's all-new Ghostbusters movie (this makes three), I can promise that you're childhood isn't ruined just because some silly girls wanted to come play for two hours of your miserable life. Heck, they literally brought your favorite neon green refreshment back just for you! Anyone who brings Ecto Cooler is A-OK in my book.

Suffice it to say, that's not a ringing endorsement of the entire film. It has plenty of flaws, but Ghostbusters (2016) earns a fair shake from someone who was open-minded about the casting but was extremely let down by the trailers. 

The story they go with here isn't entirely different from the original. Here, paranormal enthusiast and university professor Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) is let go just as she's about to be given tenure. With nowhere else to go, she turns to estranged colleague Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) with whom Erin co-authored a book about the paranormal. Since Abby and Erin originally parted ways, Abby has been working with Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), a brilliant and eccentric engineer, to try and prove the existence of ghosts. Following a close encounter at a local mansion-turned-museum, the girls enlist Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), an MTA officer with a knack for New York history. Together they investigate myriad disturbances which all turn out to be part of a much larger scheme.

Feig has stated that he wanted to populate this movie with the funniest people he knows, all of whom happen to be women. We've all seen this principle cast do hilarious work when given the right material. If Feig thinks these are the four funniest women on the planet, then, for the love of Cinema, get them a script to show for it! Having loved Bridesmaids and The Heat, almost none of the comedy in Ghostbusters worked for me. Wiig is simply never funny, McCarthy is perhaps too reigned in, and Jones just shouts the entire movie. The original cast returns for cameos, but even they feel mostly forced. The only person with any nuance whatsoever is McKinnon as Holtzmann, whose archetype leans heaviest on Dr. Peter Venkman with the smarts of Egon to boot. You can tell she has a manic, perhaps even sociopathic, energy lurking just below the surface waiting to bust out. And, by God, it does. The final act of the movie loses itself a bit, but Holtzmann finally lets loose on a few ghosts in her own little Matrix-like sequence. After waiting the whole movie to really feel something special, that was the moment that had me like "YAAAAAAASSSSSSS!!!!!"

In truth, the character who really made me laugh the most was Chris Hemsworth as Kevin, the Ghostbusters' bumbling receptionist. It's so refreshingly off-type for the actor that one can't help but fall for his confident comic timing and innocent charm. 

Several reviews have criticized Feig for populating this universe with male characters who are all ignorant knuckleheads while the girls appear to be the only ones capable of "bringing balance to the Force," so to speak. It's this reviewer's understanding that feminism is about equality, not making one gender look better than the other. If that's the case, any "feminist" agenda this movie may purport to have is undermined from the start. That said, I thought the guys in this movie were far more interesting than the girls, apart from McKinnon. I enjoyed Hemsworth, and the villain Rowan (Neil Casey) works for this plot despite having generally little to do until the final act. Also, Andy Garcia as the mayor of New York City is priceless. The joke about being the mayor from the movie Jaws killed me!

What ultimately won me over were the film's generally strong horror-movie elements and stellar visual effects. Most of the scenes in that mansion at the beginning are executed with a firm understanding of what makes our skin crawl in haunted house movies. A door opens on its own over here as candles are snuffed out by a chilly breeze over there. The ghosts also are much scarier-looking here than in previous installments thanks to advances in CGI. Most of them look like the brainchildren of Guillermo Del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth, Pacific Rim), a filmmaker with a knack for dreaming up horrifying monsters. 

At the end of the day, the new Ghostbusters is worth your time. After the tapestry of vitriol that's hung over this film since its inception, I wish it could've been even better. It probably won't be enough to shut the vocal minority up, but it generally delivers what you'd expect from a summer blockbuster. There's nothing wrong with that. Its place in the zeitgeist and underlying message/agenda should serve as interesting topics of discussion going forward.

(P.S. It's absolutely better than Ghostbusters II.)


Wednesday, July 13, 2016

"Swiss Army Man" Review

It's been about a week since I've seen this movie, so I'd just like to get my thoughts about Swiss Army Man out there quickly and as best I can...

There is nothing else out there quite like Swiss Army Man.

Hank (Paul Dano) is stranded on an island with nothing left to live for. During a suicide attempt, he spots a corpse floating in the wake. Hank goes to investigate and finds that the seemingly dead body won't stop farting. Turns out, with that kind of gas, the corpse makes a great jet ski. Hank then literally rides the back of his new friend to the coast of northern California. It's there that Hank and his new dead pal Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) embark on a surreal journey to get home.

This isn't your typical Weekend at Bernie's. There's something much deeper going on in Swiss Army Man. Writing/directing team Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert find the comedy inherent in the concept of death in order to tell one of the most unique life-affirming stories you're likely to see in cinema. Dano turns in another solid performance while Radcliffe makes a hard case for Oscar consideration. Seriously, that farting corpse will break your heart, re-assemble it, and then break it again.

I'm hard-pressed to find anything about this movie that didn't endear itself to me. From Manny's anatomical compass to aptly-timed usage of the Jurassic Park theme, I had a smile on my face from start to finish. For now, I'm declining to say more since the greatest pleasures of Swiss Army Man are best left for oneself to discover. Feel free to discuss with me on social media after you've seen it. It's just that kind of film.


Thursday, July 7, 2016

"The Neon Demon" Review

From Nicolas Winding Refn, the director of Drive and Only God Forgives, comes another uncompromising vision in fluorescence and blood. Though it may not be singularly unique, Refn's The Neon Demon is about as bold and unsettling a film as I've seen in quite some time. It's the perfect movie to shatter through the mundanity of another safe summer blockbuster season.

Before seeing The Neon Demon, I recommend checking out Kevin Kolsch & Dennis Widmyer's Starry Eyes as well as Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan. This triple feature from Hell offers three bloodcurdling visions of the toxicity of fame. Specifically, The Neon Demon centers around a young, up-and-coming model named Jesse (Elle Fanning). Jesse moves to Los Angeles from a small town like so many young girls dreaming of fame and fortune. On her first job, she meets Ruby (Jena Malone), a talented makeup designer. Ruby introduces Jesse to Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote), two other models against whom Jesse will likely compete for jobs. Threatened by the new girl's youthful, doe-like beauty, Gigi and Sarah will do whatever it takes to devour the competition before the industry corrupts Jesse forever.

Compared to Refn's previous work, The Neon Demon isn't quite as accessible as Drive. Anyone looking to study the director should start there, and then maybe work their way backwards to Bronson, Valhalla Rising, and the Pusher trilogy. End it with the neon-drenched double bill of Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon. Only God Forgives, for me, is the toughest to digest. It's very slow, and the message isn't entirely clear. The Neon Demon is sort of a happy medium between Drive and Only God Forgives. Its pacing is deliberate, but it actually has a script with a story and characters worth following.

The Neon Demon revels in the macabre a bit more than anything I've seen from Refn before. This is a horror film in the art-house sense. From the film's chilling opening shot, to a photo shoot where Jesse is swathed in nothing but gold paint, to a nightmarish runway rave sequence, every frame is a visual feast. Regardless of how unsettling and unsubtle the journey may be, it is impossible to tear your eyes away from the screen. It culminates in a shock ending the likes of which Hollywood doesn't have the balls to put in movies anymore.

Fanning is tremendous in the lead role with Malone standing out among the supporting cast. Mad Men's Christina Hendricks and The Matrix's Keanu Reeves both have small roles that they fill nicely. Hendricks plays a representative for a modeling agency with Reeves as the manager of the grungy motel Jesse lives at.

Bottom line is that if you are someone who prefers movies that are straightforward rather than overtly bizarre, you should probably stay away. But if you're someone who enjoys horror stories that aren't all haunted houses and jump scares, or if you appreciate Refn's previous work, you should find plenty to love in The Neon Demon.


Monday, July 4, 2016

"Marauders" Review

When I saw the first trailer for Marauders, I had nearly forgotten that the project existed. Living in Cincinnati, you hear about big stars like Bruce Willis and Law & Order's Christopher Meloni coming to town to shoot a new film. I remember hearing they were around but little about what their movie was. Then a couple of months ago the trailer debuted, showing a taste of the finished product. There were several money shots of the downtown skyline - the kind that firmly established the film as a Cincinnati story. There would be no mistaking this setting for New York or Los Angeles. The rest of the trailer looked like fairly standard bank-heist-movie fare, but I was excited for a full-tilt action picture set in Cincinnati. Marauders turned out to be a day-and-date VOD release; you could find it on streaming services and cable OnDemand the same day I paid to see it in a small, locally-owned movie theater. This theater typically gets all the movies that are made in Cincinnati since it seems to be the preferred space for locals working on these projects. There's something inherently special about sitting among an audience full of folks who either acted as extras, served as a grip or worked catering for the film you're seeing on the big screen. This adds a wholly unique dimension to the moviegoing experience regardless of the quality of the finished product; thus it's inherently set apart from a lot of the other movies you'd normally go out to see.

Having said that, I wish I could've apologized to everyone else I saw Marauders with. It is so morose, so convoluted and so tragically awful that surely the talents of every single person involved - both in front of the camera and behind - would have been better served back at their day jobs.

I'll attempt to divulge a general synopsis here, but the story is so far up its own ass that I'll likely miss something - Jeffrey Hubert (Willis) is the head of a multinational bank headquartered in the Queen City. Several of his local branches are robbed by highly-trained professionals. With the local police dragging their feet, the feds are called in to investigate. Agent Jonathan Montgomery (Meloni) leads the charge with Agents Stockwell (Dave Bautista) and Wells (Entourage's Adrian Grenier) in tow. Volatile from his wife's violent murder, Montgomery throws himself headlong into the investigation, working tirelessly to find and stop the perpetrators. As events proceed, however, military and political conspiracies reveal themselves.

The film starts off promising enough with a well-executed robbery scene and some great shots of the city of Cincinnati. It only goes downhill from there. VOD "Ed Wood" Steven C. Miller (Extraction, Submerged) allows far too many blatant continuity errors to slip by his watch. Somehow that doesn't surprise me. In one scene, Montgomery has a conversation with one of the bank robbers over Skype. On at least three occasions, we see Montgomery standing there talking to either a blank screen or the desktop. In another scene (this will only really stand out to Cincinnatians) two characters say that they need to go to West Chester to meet with a witness. Cut to the guys in a car riding through Covington, Kentucky on their way to meet that witness. For those of you who aren't familiar with Cincinnati, West Chester is about 30 minutes north of Covington. In a less self-serious film, these errors might be met with laughter of the "so-bad-it's-good" variety," but Marauders woefully lacks any sense of fun whatsoever. It's so bleak that the city of Cincinnati is portrayed in a constant state of thundershowers. We actually have sunshine here in real life. This isn't Seattle.

Without tongue-in-cheek sensibilities, nearly all of the drama falls flat. The characters we're supposed to empathize with - like Montgomery and police lieutenant Mims (Johnathon Schaech), whose wife is dying of cancer - are rendered inert as a result.

Two things kept me from completely tuning out of this movie - the setting and the performances. Even though Miller recycles one too many shots of the city, it's still cool to see a Cincy-set action picture on principle alone. I also thought Meloni, Bautista, and Grenier acted well even though Meloni's pretty much been playing this role for years on television. The movie itself doesn't feel too far off from last week's Law & Order reruns. Willis is sadly a caricature of himself these days as he's starting to slip down the same paycheck-to-paycheck path of Nicolas Cage. Let's hope the rumored Die Hard recalibration and Eli Roth's Death Wish bring him back to form.

Marauders appeals only to those from the city of Cincinnati. Even then, that's a bit of a stretch. Literally no one else should bother.


Friday, July 1, 2016

"The Purge: Election Year" Review

With 4th of July weekend upon us, it's that time of year again to celebrate America's greatness by taking our frustration out on others! C'mon, your friends are doing it. Your neighbors are most likely doing it too. Heck, even your dentist! It's time to "purge and purify!" It's what saved America from economic ruin, and it will continue to do good for years to come!

At least that's what the New Founding Fathers would have you believe.

The Purge: Election Year is the third installment in writer/director James DeMonaco's wildly successful action-horror franchise. These films have never been incredible; always more interesting in concept than execution. But nobody could ever fault DeMonaco for not producing something wildly original, maybe even "refreshing." Come to think of it, isn't that what "purging" is all about? To cut through the dreck on the way to a higher, cleaner existence?

It may not stand out from the summer movie stable as much as it would like to, but Election Year is most assuredly the kind of "purge" this series needed. This film comes closer to realizing the enormous potential DeMonaco's high concept than either of its predecessors.

The story picks up two years after the events of The Purge: Anarchy. Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) is now the head of security for Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), an anti-Purge crusader vying for the presidency against a candidate backed by the New Founding Fathers of America. Leo and Charlie share a unique bond in blood that makes them perfect foils for what the purge represents. In Anarchy, Leo spared a man's life once he weighed the true consequences of his actions. On the other hand, Charlie witnessed her family helplessly slaughtered on "purge night" eighteen years prior. Threatened by Senator Roan's maverick personality, the New Founding Fathers orchestrate an attack on her life during the annual purge. On the run with no one to trust, Leo and Senator Roan cross paths with local deli owner Joe (Mykelti Williamson), his hired help Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria), and their friend Laney (Betty Gabriel) who drives a triage van helping those injured by purgers. Together they'll face foreign tourists, neo-Nazis, and twisted teen girls in an effort to survive the most dangerous night of the year.

By its very nature, Election Year is no masterpiece. That said, it's consistently entertaining, and the biggest problems I had with it are really just nitpicky. For example it'd be great to see a Purge movie set on a larger scale at some point. This one does a decent job of opening up the world to give us a sense that there's more going on than just what's happening to our protagonists. But on a night where ALL crime is legal, surely people are doing more than just murdering each other. I found myself itching for a tense bank robbery or a Wall Street big wig committing tax fraud or something. That stuff puts butts in seats just as much as murder does. Have you seen Dog Day Afternoon? Wolf of Wall Street? Heck, just Wall Street?

Also, Election Year ends in an odd place that took me right out of the entire experience. It's odd because for a film that's meant to be a cautionary tale and a critique of our current political climate, the ending feels grossly out of time.  If you listen closely, you can also make out a setup for a potential sequel. The good thing is that if DeMonaco moves forward on The Purge 4, from what the setup is, it should be a logical progression of the story as opposed to just another money-mandated installment.

I enjoyed my time with Election Year on the whole despite the flaws that I myself projected onto it. It's a well-told story with just enough subplots and characters to keep things fresh. The best part is that all of them reach satisfying conclusions. That's rarer than you may think, especially in horror movies.

These movies have only gotten better with each installment, and should there be more purging to come, sign me up.