Friday, September 23, 2016

"The Magnificent Seven" (2016) Review

I'm running short on time today, so forgive me if I rush through this...

Antoine Fuqua's reboot of The Magnificent Seven doesn't try to outdo its 1960 predecessor or Kurosawa's Seven Samurai before that. Short on pretense, and with this cast, The Magnificent Seven 2016 is the popcorn movie we've been waiting for all year.

Following a brutal attack on a small village at the hands of a greedy businessman (Peter Sarsgaard), a young woman (Haley Bennett) calls on travelling lawman Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) to help her find justice. Expecting a fight, Chisolm rounds up a diverse set of reprobates to defend, and hopefully retake, the town.

Chris Pratt, Vincent D'Onofrio, Ethan Hawke, Byung-hun Lee, Martin Sensmeier, and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo round out the "magnificent seven." They all fit wonderfully into their roles and showcase electrifying chemistry. Of course the bigger movie stars get the most screen time, but each character is afforded a satisfying presence.

The action set pieces are also wonderful. This is old-fashioned blockbuster filmmaking at its finest. A large cast of extras (Actual people! Not CGI!), practical explosions, gunfights and other in-camera stunts make the film feel all the more refreshing even as its story retreads familiar plot points.

It's nice to get a solid western in your cinematic diet every once in awhile. The Magnificent Seven 2016 may itself only be as healthy and invigorating as the popcorn devoured while watching it, but it comes to us at an appropriate sociopolitical time. This is a reboot I don't think anybody realized we needed, but it's here now, and it deserves your attention.


Tuesday, September 13, 2016

"Blair Witch" Review

It has been 17 years since The Blair Witch Project revolutionized the horror genre with its slow-burning mythos and micro-budget "found footage" cinematography. Up until this July's Comic-Con event in San Diego, director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett (both of You're Next and The Guest fame) were thought to have made a new feature titled The Woods. Superlatives on the teasers billed it as "the scariest movie ever made" and "a gamechanger" for the horror genre. At the Comic-Con screening, Wingard and Barrett officially revealed that The Woods is actually Blair Witch, a continuation of the original 1999 cult classic.

After seeing the new film for myself, Blair Witch is to The Blair Witch Project as The Force Awakens is to the original Star Wars - enjoyable, but overall an all-too-familiar rehash with a bigger budget and better special effects. If Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez had studio backing 17 years ago, this is exactly the film they would've made.

The plot is essentially the exact same as before. Fans will recall Heather, Josh and Mike being lost and presumed dead following the events in the Black Hills woods near Burkittsville, Maryland in October 1994. As lore has it, their footage was recovered and released circa 1998-99. Flash forward almost 20 years. Heather's younger brother James (James Allen McCune) comes across a YouTube video which allegedly sheds light on the Blair Witch legend and the events of 1994. James is convinced that Heather is in that clip. He decides to head to Burkittsville in order to find answers. In tow are his friends Peter (Brandon Scott), Ashley (Corbin Reid), and Lisa (Callie Hernandez) - who, as fate would have it, needs a subject for her college documentary assignment. Armed with body cameras, walkie-talkies, DSLRs, and a drone, the group ventures into the cursed woods completely unprepared for what awaits them.

This new Blair Witch is a bit of a challenge to dissect. I feel as though my thoughts are split completely down the middle. On one hand, it's well performed and still feels like the living nightmare of your friends, siblings and neighbors. The film also ups the scare quotient significantly compared to its predecessor. A lot more wild and terrifying stuff happens to the group this time around thanks to Wingard's command of atmosphere. He toys with our fear of the dark in an even more convincing fashion than this year's other genre standouts Don't Breathe and Lights Out. It just upsets me so much that, on the other hand, the movie seems to betray everything that made The Blair Witch Project a classic. Where the original relished in subtle, slow-building tension, Blair Witch 2016 may as well smack you over the head with a sledgehammer. This is a "found footage" film that leans heavily on ear-shattering sound design, oddly placed musical cues, and random jump scares throughout most of its 90-minute run time. It isn't until the last 20-30 minutes when the most frightening and suspenseful material comes to light. Even then, Blair Witch leaves far less to the imagination than before, and I despise it for that. Its payoff also feels woefully familiar while positing more questions than answers. I smell a "new"-ish multi-million dollar studio franchise.

It's extremely difficult to avoid measuring this new film against the original. That often comes with the reboot/sequel territory. On its own merits, Blair Witch is as decent a "found footage" feature as we've seen in quite some time. Thank God the trend seems to finally be losing steam. It remains a generally solid chiller that should serve horror fans well during this upcoming Halloween season. However, I think this will be one of the most polarizing movies in years. Some audiences are going to adore it, others will easily loathe it. (A few folks even walked out of the screening I attended.) If you're okay with a Blair Witch movie that's well-acted, well-directed, well-paced, and terrifying, yet completely unsubtle and oftentimes tragically familiar, then this film comes recommended to you.


Monday, September 12, 2016

Best Horror Movies to Watch for Halloween

Every year, I like to make a list of the scary movies I'm watching in preparation for the Halloween season. I'm not on pace for the massive list I made last year, but I'm still stoked at some of the titles I've been able to dig up for 2016.

I will continue to update this post with horror films as I watch them.

House on Haunted Hill (1959) - Streaming on Amazon Prime Video and Hulu
Carnival of Souls (1962) - I watched my Criterion Collection Blu-ray. Any self-respecting horror fan ought to have this classic chiller in their home collection, but otherwise you should be able to find it just about anywhere. I've seen high-quality streams on Shudder and Hulu, and lesser quality ones for free on the Internet Archive. 
Blood Feast (1963) - Streaming on Shudder
Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) - Streaming on Shudder
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) - MPI & Dark Sky Films released an incredible 40th anniversary Blu-ray a couple years ago with a 4K remaster of the film and 7.1 lossless audio. I watch my copy every year. All others can find a lesser-quality version streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Carrie (1976) - All-new Collector's Edition Blu-ray available from Shout! Factory
The Hills Have Eyes (1977) - Streaming on Screambox
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) - All-new Collector's Edition Blu-ray available from Shout! Factory
Phantasm (1979) - Brand new 4K restoration screened at Art House Theater Day, September 24th.
Dressed to Kill (1980) - Streaming on HBO platforms / Blu-ray available from The Criterion Collection
The Fog (1980) - Collectors' Edition Blu-ray available from Shout! Factory
Friday the 13th (1980) - I have the uncut Blu-ray, but if this slasher classic isn't in your collection (shame on you if it isn't!) it's usually on TV at some point during the season.
An American Werewolf in London (1981) - I have the original "Full Moon Edition" Blu-ray. Universal just re-released an alleged "remastered" version, although I've heard reports of false advertising.
The Howling (1981) - Found it for free through OnDemand on Time Warner Cable
Madman (1981) - Streaming on Amazon Prime Video and Shudder / Vinegar Syndrome released a great Blu-ray last year
The Beyond (1981) - You can find this gory classic streaming on Screambox and Shudder, but Grindhouse Releasing's Blu-ray is a must-own. Get it on Amazon.
The Burning (1981) - Collector's Edition Blu-ray available from Shout! Factory
Pieces (1982) - Streaming on Shudder / There's also an incredible Blu-ray available from Grindhouse Releasing
Poltergeist (1982) - I watch my Blu-ray copy every year. You can still find the Blu, but Amazon has the DVD for $4.
The Thing (1982) - All-new Collector's Edition Blu-ray available from Shout! Factory
Angst (1983) - Streaming on Shudder
The Evil Dead (1983) - Blu-ray available on the cheap just about everywhere this time of year
The House on Sorority Row (1983) - Streaming on Amazon Prime Video and Shudder
Sleepaway Camp (1983) - Collector's Edition Blu-ray available from Shout! Factory
Children of the Corn (1984) - Streaming on Netflix
C.H.U.D. (1984) - Streaming on Shudder
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) - Blu-ray available most places on the cheap. You should be able to catch bits and pieces of this franchise on cable TV all season.
The Mutilator (1984) -  Alternate title is "Fall Break." You can find this slasher streaming on Shudder.
Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) - Found on Blu-ray at Best Buy for around $7. Will also dig this one out again around Christmastime!
Demons (1985) - There's an amazing Blu-ray available from Synapse Films. Otherwise, you can find "Demoni" streaming on Shudder.
Re-Animator (1985) - Streaming on Netflix and Shudder
The Stuff (1985) - Streaming on Shudder
The Return of the Living Dead (1985) - All-new Collector's Edition Blu-ray available from Shout! Factory
Demons 2 (1986) - This one is also available via Limited edition Blu-ray steelbook from Synapse Films. I streamed it on Shudder.
Night of the Creeps (1986) - I have the Director's Cut Blu-ray which is on Amazon for under $10. Otherwise, I think it's streaming on Shudder.
House (1986) - Streaming on Shudder
Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986) - Viewed for free through Chiller On Demand via Time Warner Cable. Check cable providers.
The Fly (1986) - On Blu-ray at Best Buy in the $5-7 price range
Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (1987) - Blu-ray available on the cheap just about everywhere right now. Best Buy is your Best Bet.
Hellraiser (1987) - Streaming on Netflix and Shudder
The Lost Boys (1987) - Screened as part of $5 Friday Night Flicks at Kenwood Theatre
Slaughterhouse (1987) - Streaming on Amazon Prime Video, Shudder and Screambox
Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988) - Part of the "Halloween: Complete Collection Limited Deluxe Edition" Box Set from Shout! Factory. Best place to find this on Blu-ray now is on Amazon.
Child's Play (1988) - Brand-new Collector's Edition Blu-ray available from Shout! Factory
Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988) - Streaming on Shudder
Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988) - Streaming on Hulu
Poltergeist III (1988) - Viewed for free through Chiller On Demand via Time Warner Cable. Check cable providers.
Pumpkinhead (1988) - Collector's Edition Blu-ray available from Shout! Factory
Society (1989) - Blu-ray available from Arrow Video. Also streaming on Shudder.
Army of Darkness (1993) - Collectors' Edition Blu-ray available from Shout! Factory 
The Blair Witch Project (1999) - Couldn't find on streaming services this year. Available for cheap on Amazon. Take that deal!
Sleepy Hollow (1999) - Streaming on Amazon and Hulu
Donnie Darko (2001) - Found on Blu-ray at Best Buy for, I think, $7
Cabin Fever (2002) - Streaming on HBO platforms
Scary Movie 3 (2003) - Streaming on Netflix
Shaun of the Dead (2004) - Available for cheap on Amazon
The Amityville Horror (2005) - Found this one on Blu-ray for $5 at my local Best Buy. Go figure, because now it's streaming on Netflix.
Halloween Night (2006) - Streaming on Screambox
[Rec] (2007) - Streaming on Crackle
Trick 'r Treat (2007) - Blu-ray available from Amazon
The Messengers (2007) - Streaming on Hulu and Crackle
Murder Party (2007) - Streaming on Shudder
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) - Streaming on Netflix
The Strangers (2008) - Unrated Blu-ray available on Amazon
Return to Sleepaway Camp (2008) - Streaming on Shudder
Friday the 13th (2009) - Rented through VOD service
The Unborn (2009) - Streaming on Netflix
Insidious (2011) - I found this one in the bargain bin at Wal-Mart, but it's also streaming for free on Crackle
Monster Brawl (2011) - Streaming on Shudder and Screambox
Sinister (2012) - I have the Blu-ray, but I've also seen this one streaming on Shudder. It should also be airing on SyFy Channel all throughout the season.
Stitches (2012) - Streaming on Netflix
Contracted (2013) - Streaming on Netflix
Evil Dead (2013) - Streamed for free through FXM on Time Warner Cable OnDemand
Mr. Jones (2013) - Streaming on Netflix
The Den (2013) - Streaming on Netflix
WNUF Halloween Special (2013) - Streaming on Shudder
The Houses October Built (2014) - Streaming on Netflix
Honeyspider (2014) - Streaming on Amazon Prime Video
Goodnight, Mommy (2014) - Streaming on Amazon Prime Video
Contracted: Phase II (2015) - Streaming on Netflix
The Hallow (2015) - Streaming on Netflix
We Are Still Here (2015) - Streaming on Netflix and Shudder. I have the Blu-ray from Dark Sky Films which is available exclusively through Best Buy,
The Girl in the Photographs (2015) - Streaming on Netflix
Dead Rising: Watchtower (2015) - Streaming on Crackle
The Vatican Tapes (2015) - Streaming on Amazon Prime Video
They Look Like People (2015) - Streaming on Netflix
Darling (2015) - Streaming on Netflix
Hellions (2015) - Streaming on Netflix
Baskin (2015) - Streaming on Netflix / Blu-ray available from Shout! Factory
The Invitation (2015) - Streaming on Netflix / Blu-ray available from Drafthouse Films
Deathgasm (2015) - Streaming on Netflix
The Final Girls (2015) - "Free movie weekend" rental on Microsoft Movies & TV
Crimson Peak (2015) - This one is in my Blu-ray collection. Best Buy has it for around $12 at this point.
The Dead Room (2015) - Streaming on Netflix / Blu-ray available from Shout! Factory
The Forest (2016) - Streaming on HBO platforms
Dead Rising: Endgame (2016) - Streaming on Crackle
Hush (2016) - Streaming on Netflix
Holidays (2016) - Streaming on Netflix
Most Likely to Die (2016) - Streaming on Netflix
The Witch (2016) - Blu-ray is on sale currently for $10. You can also find the film streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
The Conjuring 2 (2016) - Blu-ray available now
Lights Out (2016) - Blu-ray available now
Don't Breathe (2016) - Now in theaters
Blair Witch (2016) - Now in theaters
Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016) - Now in theaters

Thursday, September 1, 2016

"The Light Between Oceans" Review

M.L. Stedman's best-selling romance novel comes to life in an evocative film from writer/director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines). While occasionally melodramatic, The Light Between Oceans boasts stellar performances, a riveting story, and the best cinematography this reviewer has seen in 2016.

Michael Fassbender plays Tom Sherbourne, who is selected to be the keeper of the Janus lighthouse off the coast of Western Australia. He falls in love with Isabel (Alicia Vikander). The couple marry and live together at the isolated lighthouse. After a tumultuous turn of events, Tom and Isabel find a rowboat adrift in the shallows. On it are a dead man and a crying, newborn baby girl. When they decide to take the child in rather than report it to the authorities, Tom and Isabel open a Pandora's box with consequences neither of them are prepared for.

The Light Between Oceans is a film in three, possibly four, distinct parts. The first is your classic romance; the second raises the stakes with the arrival of the baby; the third gives us the consequences of Tom and Isabel's decision; the fourth is a satisfying epilogue. I can understand how some viewers might find these proceedings a bit slow. In many ways, The Light Between Oceans is a big cheesy romance. But it's so much more than that. Cianfrance has always paced his films deliberately, and if you're patient, you'll be rewarded by the performances and the visuals at the very least.

Fassbender and Vikander are wonderful in their respective parts. These are two of the best film actors working today, and I expect them to be in contention for awards at year's end. Rachel Weisz rounds out a rock-solid supporting cast.

Visually, this is a positively resplendent film. Cianfrance has gone on record saying that he sought to make "a John Cassavetes movie in a David Lean landscape." It isn't particularly colorful, or stylized, or what have you. The rocky island on which Tom and Isabel live is evoked in dim, grey tones. It feels slightly gothic that way. Cianfrance and DP Adam Arkapaw also lean heavily on extreme close-ups during some of the more dramatic, interpersonal moments. Maybe this contributes a bit too heavily to the whole "melodramatic" critique, but I think it services the performances quite well. This is a film that wears its emotions on its sleeve, and the performances and camera work meld beautifully in order to support that.

Even if you're not a fan of sweeping Hollywood romances, give The Light Between Oceans a shot. There's enough going on here that it should deliver something for everyone - cinephiles, romantics, bookworms, and all who appreciate engaging stories alike.