Friday, September 26, 2014

THE EQUALIZER Review: 8 out of 10 (This film = Bad Ass Fun)

If you haven't already figured this out...Denzel makes nearly anything better.

THE EQUALIZER is directed by Antoine Fuqua (TRAINING DAY, OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN)  , and stars Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas, and Chloë Grace Moretz.  It is based on the 80s CBS television series of same name.  Washington stars as Robert McCall, a retired intelligence officer who has left his Special Forces background for a quiet life.  He is a lonely man,  fastidious in his habits.  His routine is consistent and rigid, and very little disturbs his life.  However, he doesn't sleep well. His late nights take him to a local café where he meets Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz) who works as an escort for a local Russian mobster.  When Teri is threatened and later injured by her mob handlers, McCall decides to use his skill set to intervene on her behalf.  Thinking he is only disrupting some local pimps, he soon realizes that he has interfered in a larger mob syndicate with political connections, corrupt cops, and power to leverage.  McCall has to decide how deep he is willing to commit to his new found crusade.

Denzel has quite a background in cinematic bad-ass roles.  Going all the way back to RICOCHET (1991), and on to other underrated films like Tony Scott's MAN ON FIRE (2004), the dystopian BOOK OF ELI (2010) and last year's glorious action romp 2GUNS.  Some of these films are mediocre or even passable on paper.  All of them are made better by Denzel.  Let's face it, this is an actor that elevates just about everything he is in.  If an announcement was made tomorrow for a remake of BATTLEFIELD EARTH starring Washington, privately we would all shake our head, wonder what Hollywood has come to...then privately do a mental double take and think, "Well, it *does* have Denzel in it..."

THE EQUALIZER is an exercise in action spectacle.  Fuqua brings his "A" game to sequences that range from restaurants to dark alleyways, to a final sequence in a  big box hardware store.  And who doesn't want to see the creative use of gardening and power tools to defeat nameless and faceless Russian mob lackeys?  Washington offers his same said quiet cool to McCall.  His backstory is ambiguous, but his skills are not.  There is a nice consistent device where Fuqua offers McCall's surveying of his foes--all through the reflection of his eye.  It is a fresh, creative storytelling visual for something that has otherwise been done to death in other action fare.  As McCall mows his way through the Russian mob syndicate, there are smaller side missions of justice that he begins to take on--for co-workers and friends.  It seems that once the white knight torch is lit, there is no dampening the flame.  However,  though there is a familiar story arc here, it is no less satisfying.  Marton Csoskas has a great performance here as the big bad Teddy--the Russian's smarmy cleaner and problem solver who can't fix all the mayhem that McCall is creating.  When the two finally go head-to-head, there is an action lover's gratification to it all. 

Call it a guilty pleasure, or just an action lover's cinematic gift to themselves--THE EQUALIZER is a familiar story that has some great performances, fun action sequences, and a worthwhile payoff. Also...Denzel.


Sunday, September 21, 2014

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES Review: 6 out of 10 (Familiar Crime Territory)

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES is a new crime thriller based on a novel by Lawrence Block, directed and written by Scott Frank. It stars Liam Neeson as Matthew Scudder--a former NY police detective turned private eye.  Scudder is the subject of over a dozen crime novels.  In 1986, one of the books brought  Scudder to screen in EIGHT MILLION WAYS TO DIE starring Jeff Bridges.  With such a rich backstory and so much characterization to pull from, this film benefits, and at the same time, is damaged by so much previous history.

Neeson does a serviceable job here in a film that feels very much like a throwback to the late 70s and early 80s crime thrillers of directors like Sidney Lumet.  As opposed to his unstoppable action heroes in films like TAKEN, Scudder is a damaged man and recovering alcoholic.  He has instincts that he trusts, and police experience to rely on.  But ultimately, he spends most of the film doing investigation in a very old school fashion.  Hired by a local drug dealer, Scudder takes on a case to find the men who kidnapped and killed the dealer's wife.  It doesn't take long before he begins to find similar cases and begins to track his prey using the patterns he uncovers.

The film is light on action, focusing instead on the crime drama aspects.  Center to that is Scudder befriending a homeless teen named TJ, played by Brian "Astro" Bradley (EARTH TO ECHO).  Astro does a fine job in his portrayal  of TJ-- the street smart kid who partners with Scudder as well as providing the sympathetic crutch for the hero.  The problem is, this part of the film just doesn't work.  It feels very tacked on and doesn't really advance the plot.  Likely this is a recurring character in the novel that screenwriter Scott Frank felt necessary to include.  In addition, the movie is set in 2002, which again offers no advantage  or difference to the storytelling apart from showing that Scudder hates cell phones and the internet--neither of which is tantamount to the plot.  Finally, the film works in a very predictable fashion, of Scudder tracking and capturing the criminals.  It isn't that the film is bad, or unwatchable.  However, it also isn't anything fresh, original, or even has something distinct about it.

The character of Matthew Scudder might be better off with FX, HBO, or the like taking this rich history and potentially developing a series from him.  Clearly there is some interesting aspects to his backstory that a film this short couldn't truly explore, and some ancillary characters that aren't truly developed.  A nice rental down the road for Liam Neeson fans, A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES takes a familiar gait and doesn't explore anything new.


Saturday, September 20, 2014

THE MAZE RUNNER Review: 9 out of 10 (Find a Way Out to the Theater to See It)

For all of the crush of YA novel adaptations that have been released in the last decade, mostly involving female leads, THE MAZE RUNNER arrives and outshines nearly all of them, teasing a compelling mythos and strong cast.  Based on the 2009 book of the same name, the film stars Dylan O'Brien (MTV's TEEN WOLF), Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster (LOVE ACTUALLY), and Will Poulter.

The film opens ambiguously as sixteen-year-old Thomas, portrayed by O'Brien, awakens in a rusty elevator with no memory of who he is.  The elevator delivers him to the middle of an intricate maze, along with a slew of other boys, who have established a functioning society in this large sprawling center they call The Glade. They cook, grow food, build shelters, and help each other survive.  Each morning, the walls to the maze open in The Glade, and some of the best and strongest of the boys (called "runners") go out to map the maze and attempt to discover a way out.  Each evening, the doors close, and the maze is stocked with dangerous creatures called "Grievers" that patrol the maze, forcing the runners to return to The Glade.  For three years, this cycle has continued, but when Thomas arrives, everything begins to change. Secrets are revealed, the maze begins to change, and while some of the boys believe in Thomas, there are others who fear he is only another terrible piece of the confusing puzzle.

The film works as a sort of post-apocalyptic take on Lord of the Flies, with its own dash of The Most Dangerous Game.   The film is beautifully shot, mixing the pastoral green palette of The Glade with the harsh industrial, imposing walls of the maze, surrounding the boys in concrete and steel.  There are rules, duties, and roles for everyone in The Glade, but with no memories of the past, the pressing "why" and "how" questions lie just below the surface.  Thomas is driven to discover more about the maze, and his dangerous curiosity begins to change the landscape... literally. Dylan O'Brien is certainly a new young talent to watch, and as this film franchise grows, its inventive story may work to surpass even THE HUNGER GAMES.  It is already a far better film with more interesting ideas than the dull DIVERGENT.  The biggest difference is the film's ability to build a convincing world that the viewer can completely lose themselves in.  Fans of the novel will see some changes in storytelling, but author James Dashner himself blessed the rewrites and, in a recent interview, even went so far as to say that it improved on the original from a visual storytelling perspective. 

THE MAZE RUNNER has a lot of solid aspects: a strong cast, great special effects, lots of action, and a cleverly devised dystopian premise. What is most compelling about the film is that it reveals many secrets along the way, but maintains its mystery.  More questions are raised at the climax of the film as the movie teases its future sequels.   It is rare to anticipate the next chapter of a film series from the moment the credits roll, but THE MAZE RUNNER certainly pulls that off.  There are some familiar story telling elements to be sure, and a few of the characters are quickly identifiable as "red shirt" targets.  However, overall the movie creates a new and interesting world for moviegoers to explore and experience.  It stands as one of the better films I have seen this year, especially when matched up with other movies in its subgenre.  Intense, imaginative, and compelling.  Highly Recommended. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

TUSK Review: 3 out of 10 (Potential lost to a Cinematic Prank)

Have you ever witnessed  a scary campfire tale or even a ghost story at a sleepover?  The type of story that pulls you in, involving you to the point where the hairs stand up on the back of your neck?  Sure, some of the ideas are fantastic and unbelievable-- but you suspend your disbelief in favor of the thrill of being frightened.  Just at the point where the scares hit a fever pitch...the teller of the tale begins to snicker, then giggle, then chortle out loud, washing away any level of fear and tension.  However, not to leave his story unfinished, the narrator continues to drone on--laughing at his own story, and adding in his own silly jokes.  Problem is, no one wants to hear him anymore.  The mood is ruined.  You buy in for a scary story and get a goofball who ends up telling a ridiculous, over-the-top yarn.  All the feels are gone...and only annoyance remains.  TUSK is that story--a horror comedy(?!?) film  written and directed by Kevin Smith, and based on a story and long running joke from his own podcast. 

That should have been the first warning.

The film stars Justin Long and Haley Joel Osment  as Wallace and Teddy--a pair of podcasters who make their money and build their fanbase by ridiculing others and touting their base humor.  Encouraging their listeners to do the same--the two use the latest in viral videos and pop culture to feed their show.  (Sound familiar?  SModcast, anyone?)  Justin Long embraces the persona of a ego maniacal lout--complete with 70s style moustache.  On a road trip to Canada to tease his latest victim, Wallace finds his prank target dead of suicide.  Now in Canada... and without a story, Wallace finds a handbill in a bar from an old man seeking companionship who is full of stories.  On a whim, Wallace decides to follow up to see if he can develop a new angle for his podcast.  Michael Parks stars as the strange recluse Howard Howe, who meets Wallace at his home and entertains him with fantastic stories of his own personal history--then drugs and kidnaps him to be his latest victim.  It seems that Howard has a strange predilection with the walrus.  His goal?  Transform man into animal.

It is a sort of horrific idea of body transformation that is nothing new to the horror genre.  However, it is the madness of the characters that makes it watchable...for a while at least.  Long and Parks are both up to the task and the film creates some solid pacing and even grotesque moments as the strange old hermit begins to hack apart and patch together poor Wallace to become his new friend "Mr. Tusk."  Parks in particular is truly terrifying as he waxes nostalgically about his naval history in one moment, while gnashing his teeth in another.  In line with his indie release RED STATE, it seems that Smith starts out to create a scary (albeit outlandish) tale with ideas of man's own animalistic tendencies.  And then the final reveal of the man/walrus occurs...

And it is absolutely ridiculous.  And one has to wonder if Kevin Smith has outright pranked his entire audience.  Leaving behind all the chilling ideas, the audience is left staring at Justin Long in a strange Frankenstein-like rubber suit that immediately washes all the previous tensions away.  The joke is on the audience, but Smith keeps telling his tale.  And it gets worse.

Much, much worse.

The film adds in a completely unnecessary romantic subplot involving Wallace's best friend (Osment) and his girlfriend Ally. (Génesis Rodríguez)  After some frantic voice messages from Wallace, the two decide to track down their friend.  Once they reach Canada, they employ the aid of one Guy Lapointe--a French-Canadian detective who has been searching for the serial killer/walrus creator for years.  Lapointe is played in cameo by Johnny Depp, an actor whose own reputation has been sagging in recent years as a result of acting in silly caricature.  Here, he does himself no favors. The character Lapointe is even listed in the credits as playing "himself" which only adds to the outrageous self absorbed nature of this movie.  Depp plays this Canadian detective like a wacky cross between Inspector Clouseau and Jerry Lewis.  From the moment he appears on camera, the film grinds to an absolute halt.  Eyes crossed and speaking in an outrageous accent, it seems as if Lapointe stepped out of another really awful and unfunny film, and immediately ruins this one.  It also easily becomes the most annoying, unfunny cameo character created in recent memory.  Equally inexplicable is how and why Smith retains this awful and unfunny performance in the film.  As the story plods ahead, less as a comedy but more a series of "WTF" moments strung together for laughs, it is as if all the actors are now trying to keep a straight face as they deliver their lines in the second half of, what seems to be, a completely different film.  By the time we reach the climax of the movie that might have offered something terrifying, it is instead just eye rolling awful.  Add in Fleetwood Mac's 70s hit of the same name, and the film is completely around the bend.  What is worse is the story continues even further to a denouement  that is outright stupid.

No doubt, it is *exactly* what Kevin Smith and his fans are looking for.  But the rest of the audience is left wondering what happened.  It is an indulgent project of a film that is little more than a petty joke.  Smith admits that the project was driven by his loyal and rabid fanbase and a hashtag of #WalrusYes after this story was manufactured on his podcast. Smith might have taken an outrageous joke and transformed it into a terrifying film of kidnapping and body mutilation.  Instead, he decides to play his original story and joke all the way to the end.  Audio from the original podcast is played over the credit sequence, and as you hear the original recording and the laughing of Smith and his podcast partners, it is clear that the audience has been duped. 

TUSK is a tale of two movies--one that is outright great thriller, and the other ridiculous adolescent joke that serves only fans of Kevin Smith and his podcast.  The project might have worked as a sort of YouTube long running goofy series, perhaps, but as a mainstream release and a promotional trailer that bills the film as a horror movie, time will tell if those who aren't in the know will appreciate Smith's punking them.  Now being billed as a part of a "Far North" trilogy, the next couple of films from Kevin Smith are titled YOGA HOSERS and MOOSE JAWS, the latter of which is described as JAWS except with a moose.  But with money to burn and a fanbase who will hashtag their support, Smith can continue to produce vanity projects for an audience that will support him.  As for me, count my vote #WalrusNo.


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

HECTOR AND THE SEARCH FOR HAPPINESS Review: 8 out of 10 (A Joyful Journey)

I have said this before and I will say it again, watching movies is an entirely subjective experience.  Typically a film of this sort just hits me wrong.  And though I make no excuses for it, I liked HECTOR AND THE SEARCH FOR HAPPINESS quite a bit, actually.  Directed by Peter Chelsom who has had his fair share of "feel-good" movies in his career brings the novel of the same name to the screen.  Supposedly, it was an international best seller, though according to NYCC interviews with Chelsom, the screenwriters took quite a few liberties with the book.  The film stars Simon Pegg as Hector-- a buttoned up but quirky psychiatrist who has become worn down with his own stale life. Hector confesses to his girlfriend, Clara (Rosamund Pike), that he feels like a fraud: he hasn't really tasted life, but offers advice to patients who just aren't getting any happier.  Facing this sort of humdrum crisis, Hector decides to take a journey to research the elusive idea of "happiness" from every corner of the globe.

The rest of the film works as a sort of melodramatic travelogue of sorts.  Hector journeys through China, Tibet, Africa, and the USA (by way of Los Angeles) and is ready to ask anyone and everyone where the secret of their happiness lies.  He encounters several guides along the way: a rich banker who finds happiness in excess; an escort who provides it for a price; a monk in Tibet; an old friend who works at a medical clinic in Africa; an old flame to answer the question "What If?"  Like any journey narrative, Hector collects wisdom from each and every one, cataloguing them all in his journal--which includes his own doodling and sidebar notes.  The film makes a whimsical choice of offering pages of the journal by way of occasional animation--which creates a sort-of innocent view of the world from Hector's perspective.  Hector encounters sadness, fear, and elation along the way.  Each encounter works to build on the next.  Unfortunately, one chapter that fails miserably is a dark turn in the story involving danger, drugs, and a kidnapping.  Seeming to be cut from a different film altogether, this sequence fails to match the rest of the film and really does little to drive the plot or the character ahead.  The film quickly rebounds, however and Hector bounces ahead on his quest for joy.  Lots of other films have followed this template to (lesser) certain degrees of success: last year's SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY, Julia Roberts' EAT PRAY LOVE, and even Wes Anderson's least approachable project THE DARJEELING LIMITED.  Why is HECTOR a better film?  Simple.  Simon Pegg. 

Pegg brings a child-like infectious quality to Hector and his adventures. Different from most of the rest of his work, Pegg creates this man who is naïve, bored, and unhappy--and slowly takes in the world around him: good, bad, indifferent.  Pegg brings warmth and charm to Hector's metaphysical globe trotting, where other actors might have only brought over-the-top theatrics.  Faithful readers know, sentimentality is typically the victim of my scoff and scorn.  Maybe I am getting soft in my old age.  Then again, maybe Simon Pegg is my man-crush.  Either way, HECTOR AND THE SEARCH FOR HAPPINESS will bring moviegoers a joyful cinematic treat for those who seek it out.

Friday, September 5, 2014

FRANK Review: 5 out of 10 (A Heady, Dark Humored Tale)

FRANK is a strange little indie film that fails to fall completely into one genre or another.   The film is an independent production that feels like it should be a comedy, but deals with far more serious issues.  However, not nearly a drama, the movie goes for slapstick humor throughout.  FRANK stars Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy and finally Michael Fassbender as the title character-- an eccentric, titular man who wears a large papier-mâché head at all times.  However, to be clear, he isn't exactly the protagonist of the movie either.  John (Domhnall Gleeson) is a struggling songwriter who is stuck in a dead end job, trying to get his own music career started.  Frank is the leader of the band "Soronprfbs," an experimental music group that is looking to cut its first album.  After their keyboard player attempts to drown himself, John volunteers to step in and be the newest band member.  Thinking he is off to play a gig for the weekend, John is whisked off to the far country to help Frank and the rest of the band record their first album.  Maggie Gyllenhall plays Clara, an aggressive sidekick to Frank, full of her own strange quirks, unpredictability, and rages on her obsession with the band leader.  Scoot McNairy is Don, the band's manager who met Frank in a mental ward, and still deals with suicidal tendencies.  The other band members show their own aggressive and strange ways as the group spends months together attempting to record sounds, lyrics, noises, etc. for Frank's musical magnum opus.

It is an odd film, to be sure.  Mental illness is on display and running amuck without care or treatment.  Nearly every character has their own particular brand of insanity.  The focus is certainly the guy in the big head, however.  Frank's own OCD ways of getting the perfect sound for the album runs the band ragged, but his own strange charisma continues to drive them forward.  Fassbender's performance as Frank is difficult to assess.  His lines are muffled throughout, and the actor seems to rely on an abundance of overacting by way of physicality--which only pushes further the portrayal of madness.  When John begins to post their rehearsals on social media, the band is invited to SXSW to play--and the band has to decide if they genuinely seek fame, or are just seeking the adoration of Frank.  It is John who is really the center of the film as we watch him orbit around all of the other band members.  A sort of sane fish-out-of-water, John himself begins to lose himself in the idea of Frank.  It is only when he discovers the real man under the mask that the film truly gets interesting.  Too little, too late, however. 

The movie is *loosely* based on comedian Chris Sievey's alter ego Frank Sidebottom.  I say loosely because it was a comedic sidebar--a sort of performance art for the comedian.  Here, Frank wears the head because of his own insecurities--a manifestation of his mental disease.  However, the head also works to feed this strange ego-maniacal character that the other band members obsess over.  The film has is share of laughs and strange comedic moments, but also deals with dark issues of mental illness, suicide, and obsessive-compulsive behaviors.  It is a strange and overly quirky movie that is full of misfires.  FRANK may offer a strange attraction to some, but for me it was just a big headed mess.


Thursday, September 4, 2014


I had the chance this week to attend a private screening of a new documentary about a local college mascot: Texas Tech University's own "Raider Red."  Sponsored by The Texas Tech Federal Credit Union, the film chronicles the history and legacy of the gun-toting mustachioed caricature.  Originally created by local cartoonist Dirk West, Raider Red spent many of his early years only in the sports cartoons of newspaper print. Pulling a bit of inspiration from the looks of Yosemite Sam, over time, the character has come to represent the values of the University itself.  History tells that the Southwest Conference banned live animals from "away" games, leaving Texas Tech's own Masked Rider and horse in the stables at home, unable to promote school pride and spirit.  Wanting a representative for fans and players, the mascot was born and brought to life off of the pages of Dirk West to rally the fans and the team. 

Raider Red has seen several iterations over the decades--from paper mache giant heads, to the more kid-friendly version of today.  From his start as a mere local West Texas icon, Raider Red has gained national notoriety by winning the Capital One College Mascot of the Year award in 2012--which includes a $20,000 scholarship.  Reaching the finals of that contest again in 2013, Raider Red now is iconic in symbolizing Texas Tech, along with the University's  Red and black "Double T."

Directed by Paul Hunton, GUNS UP!: THE HISTORY OF RAIDER RED is a nice retrospective of history, as well as putting a more personal identity to the mascot.  Showing the story of the students who volunteer to become this mascot--along with the hundreds of appearances that they make--brings a human side to the story.  The film carries stories from the past and present, and spotlights the unique tale of Raider Red.  A well done film that puts a spotlight on a local legend, this is a must see for Tech fans, alumni, and West Texans. Airing locally in the West Texas area on PBS KTTZ on Thursday September 11 at 7pm, the film will also be available soon on DVD and to download digitally.  Contact Texas Tech Public Media office for more information about how you can get a copy.  For now, get a taste of this documentary with the posted trailer below.


Guns Up: The History of Raider Red Trailer from KTTZ-TV 5, PBS on Vimeo.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Gotta See Them All: Summer 2014 Breakdown

So...After forty-nine films from Memorial Day weekend through Labor day weekend--a span of about 100 days...that is nearly a movie every two days.  WHEW!  I am not sure I will ever put myself through this again...though I will admit I likely discovered a few films that I might not have otherwise seen.  There were also some moments where I wanted to gouge my cinematic eyes out.  Now to be clear, this is a window from May 23rd--August 31st, so films like CAPTAIN AMERICA: WINTER SOLDIER, GODZILLA, and others released earlier than that don't fall into the list.  So with a few highlights and several low lights, lets breakdown the Summer of 2014--with links to the original reviews included..

Late MAY/JUNE:Easily the highlights of this month came with some indie films that myself...and about four other people actually saw.  Hopefully, many of you will find these films when they are available on Netflix, Amazon, or VOD.  The first is the great noir COLD IN JULY.  Some strong performances by Don Johnson and Sam Shepard along with some straight-up revenge-- 70s style-- makes this a really fun watch.  THE SIGNAL is a sci-fi thriller with enough twists to keep you engaged.  It is a movie that demands you to think--rare these days.  Finally, the big mainstream film that was critically underseen was EDGE OF TOMORROW.  Lambasted for its generic title--there is talk now of it being remarketed as "LIVE DIE REPEAT."  Either way, it is a fun film that is worth a watch.

The lowlights are pretty low.  The miserably unfunny A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST might bring out Seth MacFarlane apologists, but likely won't garner any other fans.  This was certainly one of the most difficult films to sit through all summer.  ALONE YET NOT ALONE was a limited release Christian-esque movie that is so terrible it actually becomes funny at times--and certainly offered more laughs than MacFarlane's western.  The near racist revisionist approach to history in an effort to favor white Christians is egregious, offensive, and off-putting for anyone who has actually cracked a history book.

An indie film that seemed to gain some traction over time was the dystopian movie SNOWPIERCER starring Chris Evans.  With a unique storytelling device, and plenty of action, quirks, and originality, this film won over many who sought it out.  BEGIN AGAIN is a musical (that isn't a musical) from the director of the film ONCE.  Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley offer great performances, and the soundtrack is flat out great.  Finally, is the sword-and-sandal adventure that was better than it should have been-- HERCULES.  Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is perfectly cast and Ian McShane is a fun surprise in a movie that was one of the best times I had in the theater all summer.

What can I say about TAMMY.  Ugh.  That about wraps it up actually.  Melissa McCarthy continues down the one-trick pony trail of tired and unfunny fat jokes mixed with stupidity.  Rob Reiner brings a rom-com for the geriatric crowd with AND SO IT GOES that might be perfect for that demographic who might need a nap about 20 minutes in.  Finally, LUCY is a film that disappointed audiences everywhere that were hoping to see ScarJo in an action film and got something else entirely: a crappy movie that makes no sense at all.  Oh, Luc Besson how far you have fallen.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY ruled the summer--and for good reason.  Marvel has produced one of its most likeable films with great characters, a fun soundtrack, and a forgettable villain.  Alas, they can't seem to get the entire formula right.  But it is still tons of fun.  BOYHOOD is a film that is a bit overhyped, but still worth seeing.  A film that will certainly hit people differently based on how they relate to the characters, director Linklater deserves credit for creating something historic--an epic made over 12 years.  Two romantic comedies that surprised me is the fun and whimsical WHAT IF and the trippy, mysterious film THE ONE I LOVE.  Both give me faith in revitalizing the rom-com with smart choices and good filmmaking.

On the other hand, the perfect storm of terrible filmmaking blew in this summer with INTO THE STORM.  And when I say it blew, I mean it stands as one of the worst films I have seen in the nearly six years I have been working as a reviewer.  IF IS STAY was the question I was asking myself about twenty minutes into a terribly overwrought melodrama that begs to be laughed at instead of cried over. Finally, another Christian sports inspiration football film has arrived in WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL.  Problem is-- there is barely any football in it, and despite that fact that Jesus himself was the coach, it only inspired me to hate on all those brats on the team.  Yet another Christian film that approaches big problems like abuse, poverty, and death and solves them with throwaway verse quotes and empty speeches.

There you have it--the highs and lows of the last three months.  There are lots of other films I could recommend--some with some solid "8" scores that were great to watch.  Just scroll back over the history of the summer...all 49 reviews...and see if you can find some of your favorites, or maybe a few you might have missed.


Saturday, August 30, 2014

THE ONE I LOVE Review: 8 out of 10 (Original and Romantic all the way to The Outer Limits)

THE ONE I LOVE is easily one of the most interesting, and at the same time, original films that I have seen this year.  It is compelling, mysterious, and driven by some strong performances requiring subtlety and nuance in order to really succeed.  It does.  Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss star as Ethan and Sophie--a young married couple who have struggled in their relationship and are looking for help.  Like many other couples, Ethan and Sophie no longer seem to have that same spark as when they first fell in love.  There is also hints of past indiscretions by Ethan.  Desperate to save their relationship, they seek the counsel of Ted Danson who plays a mysterious marriage therapist with some strange techniques.  After a tough session, he sends the two of them to a weekend away at a private retreat. "Every couple I send there comes back renewed!", he claims.  The two head off to a beautiful private estate, with both a main house, guest house, pool, and acres of scenic grounds to spend time on.

What happens next in this film begs to be seen and not read here.  Keeping this review completely spoiler free, the movie takes a turn into a sort of Twilight Zone episode for relationship reconciliation.  What is most important to say is that both Duplass and Moss offer strong performances here that require them to paint their characters with delicate strokes rather than the typical melodramatic over-the-top offerings that most romantic relationship fare brings.  First time director Charlie McDowell tells a high minded story that mixes in the mundane and the fantastic.  The pacing, editing, and camera work mixes high anxiety with tranquility.  Once the film begins to unfold and reveal its secrets, there are a few gaps in the "how" and "why" that may frustrate some, but in the end I found these holes to be both necessary as well as adding to the ambiguity that is part of this film's charm.  There are several twists in the movie, including those that are nearly impossible to telegraph. At the heart of this film are ideas of self-esteem, healthy relationships, and communication between a couple. 

Awarded high marks for some strong performances and brash originality, THE ONE I LOVE is a fresh reinvention of the romantic film.  Recommended--and for the love of cinema, please go see this film spoiler free. 

For those who are looking to be intrigued even further by the mysteries of this film--check out the trailer for the movie here:


Friday, August 29, 2014

AS ABOVE SO BELOW Review: 5 out of 10 (A Film Lost by Found Footage )

Less of a horror film and closer to a thriller, AS ABOVE SO BELOW has some really interesting ideas for a movie that are executed so poorly that it loses any chance at success.  Starring Ben Feldman (MAD MEN) as George and Perdita Weeks (THE TUDORS) as Scarlet--the two are fascinated with French alchemist Nicholas Flamel and his creation of the Philosopher's Stone.  Now though this might be a great opportunity to crossover into a Harry Potter horror film, alas, the movie opts to go the way of a bunch of French hipsters.  Legend has it that the stone carries miraculous powers of healing, eternal life, and unlimited wealth.  Feeling like a mixture of an Indiana Jones meets Da Vinci Code, the adventurers are interpreting signs, symbols, and maps to find the elusive treasure--buried in the hundreds of miles of catacombs underneath Paris.  However, as they begin their quest underground to seek the stone, the entire team begin to experience haunting visions of their past as well as some of their own deepest fears.  The catacombs themselves seem to be possessed by a sort of evil--and the stone itself seems to be feeding this ghastly beast.

Sounds like a fairly interesting premise, no?  That is until you consider the contrived side-plot of the film.  It seems that Scarlet is also being filmed by Benji  (Edwin Hodge) to create a documentary about her quest to find Flamel's stone.  That's right--another contrivance to create (yet) another found footage horror film.  Director John Erick Dowdle is no stranger to this process--as the director of QUARANTINE. Scarlet recruits George as an expert in dead languages to join their team.  In addition, they seek out some experts in the Paris catacombs who can help guide them through the miles of tunnels.  Of course, these additional cast members are French--with outrageous accents!  They are also all fodder for the film, and might as well all being wearing "red shirts" as the film carries on. 

Between all of the helmet cams and the tight spaces of the catacombs--the film induces both claustrophobia as well as a healthy case of motion sickness.  Typically not affected as much by "shaky-cam", there were several times where I had to avert my eyes from the screen just to re-adjust my vision.  It is frustratingly difficult to watch.  It seems that the formula for the film is to slow one character to a standstill, have them pause and center on some frightening image, just out of focus and beyond the dim flashlights--then run through the tunnels while the camera bumps, shorts out, and fizzles.  Rinse and repeat.  In the end, the interesting idea of these catacombs and their ancient secrets are all traded away for just another haunted house flick.  There are several other unexplained plot devices--not the least of which is the cause of all of the haunting visions, the power of the Philosopher's stone, and much of the film's perpetuated mythos.  It is unfortunate, because the story here does have some hooks that might have made for an above average horror/thriller.  There are some curious ideas behind the quest to find Flamel's secrets and the history of ancient alchemy.  However, by the end of the film, I just needed an alchemist to mix me up some Dramamine. 

AS ABOVE SO BELOW might have been a very compelling horror-adventure film, and does have a few chilling and out-right scary moments.  Unfortunately, because of the "found footage" device, it is more easily chucked into the forgettable bin.