One Minute Review: The Woman In Black 2: Angel Of Death (2015) [2.5]

thewomaninblack2angelofdeath-sideposter

THE WOMAN IN BLACK 2: ANGEL OF DEATH
Release Date
2 January 2015
Director
Tom Harper
Screenplay
Jon Crocker
Susan Hill
Drama, Horror, Thriller
Rated PG-13 some disturbing and frightening images, and for thematic elements
98 minutes

05twohalf-stars— 2.5 out of 5 stars

“The Woman In Black 2: Angel Of Death” lives and dies by jump scares. Void of any real horror innovations or standout performances, the tension is built through atmospheric suspense, relying on dark corners and moving shadows to do all the heavy lifting. Revisiting the daunting Eel Marsh House from the original, this time we’re thrown into WWII as a group of children and their caretakers use the mansion as shelter from the bomb Blitz in London. Once again, the Woman in Black makes her presence felt by revealing herself to a mute orphan boy named Edward who’s being picked on. Actress Phoebe Fox steps into her first theatrical leading role as one of the children’s caretaker, Eve Parkins. Despite coming off completely pleasant and comfortable in the role, her inability to hit certain emotional marks leaves her performance rather one sided.Every scare and storyline in the film feels as dusty and weatherworn as the house itself. Checking under beds, chasing ghosts that no one else sees, questioning unlocked doors that are supposed to be locked; all of these plainly show how unwilling new horror is willing to adapt and evolve. Even the deaths of the children this time around are brushed over. Whereas in the original, children were killing themselves with lye, oil lamps, and simultaneously jumping out windows, in the sequel, they are merely found dead in the morning or found choking or asphyxiating themselves. As if marking off boxes on a horror 101 checklist, Eve is not sleeping well due to nightmares, is called crazy when she says she’s seen someone in the cemetery, and is threatened to leave by one of the villagers. What the film does get points for, however, is set design, which did not take much, seeing as the majority of it was established in the original. With the return of the creepy dolls and monkey figures, as well as the house itself, surrounded by the rising tide marshes and the lonely crossed grave marker in the water, this feels like an appropriate revisiting of said set pieces, reminding of the focal points in the Radcliffe version.

By the time “The Woman In Black 2: Angel Of Death” reaches its conclusion, it becomes painfully clear that little thought was put into the writing. The characters are one-dimensional and paper thin, the twists are laughable, and the climax is not only telegraphed but poorly executed. Another problem exists within the existence of the Woman in Black in general. Decent haunting films most often provide a possible solution to the tainted spirit, giving the protagonist a shot at turning the tables and ridding the haunted place of the spirit. Even in the original, Radcliffe’s character sought out a solution, by seeking out the Woman in Black’s dead son whose body was never recovered. Instead of having that driving force, the sequel takes on the role of simple damage control, but against an unstoppable force, trying to keep the characters alive is simply not entertaining enough. The meat and bones of the story would be figuring out a solution and trying to carry it out. Instead it basically falls into slasher film territory, except with no blood and gore and the Woman in Black filling in for Jason or Freddy. “The Woman In Black 2: Angel Of Death” botches the horror possibilities of a film set during WWII, remaining a predictable and forgettable sequel, ultimately illuminates that Hammer Films is not ready to step out of their comfort zone.

One Minute Review: Unbroken (2014) [3.5]

unbroken-sideposter2

UNBROKEN
Release Date
25 December 2014
Director
Angelina Jolie
Screenplay
Joel and Ethan Coen
Richard LaGravenese
William Nicholson
Drama, War
Rated PG-13 for war violence including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language
137 minutes

07threehalf-stars— 3.5 out of 5 stars

Incredibly inspirational, “Unbroken” finally tells the unbelievable true story of USA Olympian and WWII veteran Louis “Louie” Zamperini, who just passed away in 2014. Based on the non-fiction book of the same title, written by Laura Hillenbrand (“Seabiscuit”), the screenplay is credited to Joel and Ethan Coen, whose flair for style and pushing boundaries is nowhere to be seen in the adaptation to the screen. Newcomer Jack O’Connell plays Zamperini, proving to have a bright future ahead of him, with the face that makes him perfect for Hollywood and the talent to back it up. Director Angelina Jolie and cinematographer Roger Deakins painstakingly deliver the unbearable gauntlet of misery that Zamperini endured including a plane crash into the ocean, surviving 47 days on a raft with sharks circling below and Japanese bombers firing from above, and withstanding the cruel treatment in a Japanese Prisoner Of War camp in Tokyo. How one man can tolerate so much hardship in such a short period of time is baffling.

Familiar faces pop up throughout the film, offering strong supporting performances, including Domhnall Glesson as Zamperini’s pilot friend, Russell “Phil” Phillips, Jai Courtney as co-pilot Hugh “Cup” Cuppernell, and Garrett Hedlund and Luke Treadaway as fellow POWs John Fitzgerald and Miller. The true supporting star is Japanese singer-songwriter Miyavi, who plays the POW villain, Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe. His hellish turn provides an award caliber antagonist for the second half of the film. This being only Jolie’s second time directing a feature, some visual and structural stylings fall through the cracks, as the visuals create an overproduced veneer that leaves a disconnect from the characters and a flashback structure that is abandoned after the first act. Taking very little chances and playing safe with every aspect of the film, from its character development to its shot choice, Jolie shows her inexperience, begging the question how deeper this film could have been in the hands of Steve McQueen or even the Coen Brothers. Regardless of who’s telling the story, however, experiencing Zamperini’s trials, seeing actual pictures of him returning from the war, and realizing he lived to see this film completed is a humbling experience and an unforgettable testament to the true power of human will.

One Minute Review: What If (2014) [4.0]

whatif-sideposter

WHAT IF
Release Date
15 August 2014
Director
Michael Dowse
Screenplay
Elan Mastal
Comedy, Romance
Rated PG-13 for sexual content, including references throughout, partial nudity and language
102 minutes

08four-stars— 4 out of 5 stars

“What If” or “When Wallace Met Chantry”: Can men and women just be friends? Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan attempt to answer this question in their latest romantic comedy, “What If”. Meeting at a party in Toronto and enjoying each other’s company, Wallace (Radcliffe) quickly discovers that his new crush, Chantry (Kazan), has a serious boyfriend. Thus begins the struggle of starting and maintaining a platonic relationship based on mutual, unreciprocal attraction. Definitely a love story that has been told before (i.e. “When Harry Met Sally”), the bright, young cast helps to deflect any retraced material, while offering up cynical, off-beat, and back-and-forth banter that puts Radcliffe and Kazan’s chemistry on full display, producing a similar sizzle present between Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel in “500 Days Of Summer”. Kazan continues to carry the torch as the adorable and approachable love interest that Deschanel used to be while Radcliffe moves further and further away from his “Harry Potter” persona.

Wallace lasts longer in the friendship than I would have, as my attraction for Zoe Kazan in particular would have instantly proven too much of a burden for me to carry. Also, with the women surrounding Wallace throughout the film, including his ex-girlfriend, played by Sarah Gadon, and Chantry’s sister, Dalia (Megan Park), I assuredly would have caved to their advances. These talented women, along with Adam Driver and Mackenzie Davis, turn in stellar supporting performances, raising this mid-level comedy to much more memorable heights. Relatable and down-to-earth for most of the film, eventually the writing becomes indulgent, providing too many romantic comedy tropes and too many nicely tied bows. The conflict feels forced at times, with unwarranted character shifts spawning out of unprovoked arguments. Worse than that, the resolutions to these arguments come off just as unnatural. In the end, it is Radcliffe and Kazan’s allure that inevitably keeps the film afloat. So, can men and women just be friends? From my personal experiences so far, they cannot. Separating physical attraction from a platonic relationship is grueling, to which the creator’s of “What If” would likely agree.

Ten Favorite Films of 2014

Whiplash-5547.cr2

Even though this was one of my busiest years yet, I still had time to see over 350 films, a third of which were released in 2014. I saw old classics that I had never seen before like “Amelie” and “Spirited Away” and new classics like “Birdman” and “Joe”. I completed my Oscar Challenge this past January-February, which was 46 days, 42 films, and 15 shorts, even going so far as to pick 17 out of the 24 categories correctly. And I am already looking forward to this year’s Oscar Challenge which will begin in two short weeks.

As far as my top 10 films of the year, I feel like I described it perfectly last year:

“I look at these films as ones I’d never want to lose, ones that I anticipated months and even years before their release dates, ones that I remember fondly as I sat in the theater viewing them, most of them even multiple times and then ones that I sought out to purchase when they became available on home video. These films are the ones I will remember decades from now and will refer to as my favorite films that year. These films encapsulated what I go to the movies for, whether it be the performances or the story, the era or the genre. No matter the reason, I loved these films without a shadow of a doubt. This is my brutal honesty, against the norm or not.”

TransformersAgeOfExtinction-posterheader10) “Transformers: Age Of Extinction” (Dir. Michael Bay)
If there’s one film on my top ten that will get me the most grief, it is “Transformers: Age Of Extinction,” but to be fair, I’ve loved all of these films in this franchise. I often say these films could be Optimus Prime simply transforming for two hours and I would still love them. Give him all the crap you want, Michael Bay knows how to make an action film that excites the child side of me and with rich colors and way too many explosions, it’s impossible for me to look away.

Interstellar-posterheader9) “Interstellar” (Dir. Christopher Nolan)
Even when Christopher Nolan has a slight misstep, it still resonates as one of the best films of the year. One of the only problems with “Interstellar” is that is overreaches and becomes too complicated for its own good. And to become more complicated than “Inception” is saying something. But with epic cinematography and amazing special effects, along with stellar performances from Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, “Interstellar” still lands effectively enough.

TheRover-posterheader8) “The Rover” (Dir. David Michôd)
A simple revenge flick set in a subtle post-apocalyptic Australia, not only does Guy Pearce steal the show chasing after his stolen car, but even Robert Pattinson begins to redeem himself as an actor. Certain films have a darkness element to them that cannot necessarily be described and “The Rover” has it, making you think anything is possible within the confines of that film. This clinches a spot on my top ten by having one of the best conclusions to a film all year.

Snowpiercer-posterheader7) “Snowpiercer” (Dir. Bong Joon-ho)
Highly original, “Snowpiercer” took everyone by surprise this year by bringing a foreign director to the world of big budget, Hollywood-like film-making. Surrounded by a cold and snowy post-apocalyptic world, the last surviving humans are on a train barreling around the world. Complete with a class system that sees the back of the train living in squallier, Chris Evans’ character leads a rebellion to the front of the train, showing some of the most imaginative characters and set designs of any film this year.

DawnOfThePlanetOfTheApes-posterheader6) “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes” (Dir. Matt Reeves)
Not only are the motion capture and visual effects taken to another level in “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes,” but the character development and quality of the story are as well. Introducing exciting new characters played by Jason Clarke and Gary Oldman, this sequel builds off the first film wonderfully while making you invest even more in this band of apes.

CaptainAmericaTheWinterSoldier-posterheader25) “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (Dir. The Russo Brothers)
Ten films down and Marvel is still making solid superhero films, this time with “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” which takes some of the best villain elements of “The Dark Knight” and puts them in an espionage thriller backdrop. Everyone involved, including Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, and Robert Redford, are at their bests, delivering one of the most engaging and game-changing Marvel Cinematic Universe films yet.

Joe-posterheader4) “Joe” (Dir. David Gordon Green)
To be perfectly honest, it’s been awhile since David Gordon Green or Nicolas Cage did anything particularly memorable, but “Joe” is a huge step in the right direction. Reminiscent of the mood created in last year’s “Mud” and starring Tye Sherdian (also from “Mud”), Green develops such deep characters and weaves a story full of such complications and conflicting emotions, that it is impossible not to feel something during this film.

TheDrop-posterheader3) “The Drop” (Dir. Michael R. Roskam)
Thanks to an impressive trailer featuring the unique music of Robert Delong, I had been anticipating “The Drop” for most of last year. Tom Hardy steals the show in this slow burn drama based on Dennis Lehane’s 2009 short story “Animal Rescue”. Playing the soft-spoken Bob, Hardy plays off the supporting cast perfectly, featuring one of Naomi Rapace’s best performances yet and one of James Gandolfini’s final roles. With everything leading up to one particular night in the film, the eventual conclusion and mild twist left me so in awe that it instantly became one of my favorite films of the year.

BreatheIn-posterheader2) “Breathe In” (Dir. Drake Doremus)
After having only seen two of his feature films, Drake Doremus is becoming one of my favorite directors. First with “Like Crazy” becoming one of my favorite films of 2011 and now with “Breathe In” landing in the top 5, the man has a way with crafting romantic emotional dramas. Most of the credit goes to Felicity Jones, an actress that I have a huge crush on right now and is stealing the show in every film that she graces. Her quiet demeanor and impeccable control over the way she wear her emotions on her face make her so much fun to watch. Dealing with the complicated emotions of marriage, new love, age differences, and family dynamics, Doremus can say more with one scene than many dramas can say with an entire feature.

whiplash-posterheader1) “Whiplash” (Dir. Damien Chazelle)
Much like my reaction to “Her” last year, “Whiplash” had me breathless on more than one occasion. As an aspiring musician, films based around music often strike a bigger chord with me and delving into the psyche of commitment towards the craft and the ultimate drive to become the best, highly connects with me. I have always enjoyed J.K. Simmons’ work, but he takes his career to an entirely new level with his Oscar-worthy performance as the oppressive conductor who will compliment you one second and toss a cymbal at your head the next. And the drum sequences, in particular the ones involving blood and, of course, the climax of the film, are jaw-dropping, literally putting you on the edge of your seat. This was my favorite film of the year as soon as I saw it, and nothing has been able to top it.

Continue reading

One Minute Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) [3.5]

teenagemutantninjaturtles2014-sideposter

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES (2014)
Release Date
8 August 2014
Director
Jonathan Liebesman
Screenplay
Josh Appelbaum
Andre Nemec
Evan Daugherty
Action, Adventure, Comedy, Fantasy, Science Fiction
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence
101 minutes

07threehalf-stars— 3.5 out of 5 stars

Michael Bay’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” are definitely not the ones you knew from your childhood. This time around they are motion captured CGI rather than complete animation or dudes in rubber suits but that is actually a step in the right direction. Their bodies might look steroid-ridden but their iconic humor endures, with their adolescence shining through. They are brothers, they each have unique personalities, and yet they always stick together. With Michael Bay as producer, the film takes on the tendencies of the “Transformers” franchise with its action-over-substance mentality and major set piece moments over an actual plot progression. Character depth is extremely thin, especially for leading lady Megan Fox, who looks good as April O’Neil, yellow jacket and all, but that’s about it. Will Arnett even has a hard time finding his comedic footing. However, some of the magic from the Turtles’ heyday prevails, simply shrouded by action movie mediocrity.

In this incarnation, April’s father and Eric Sacks (William Fichtner) are involved in creating a mutagen that is being tested on four turtles and a rat. But when their lab goes up in flames, young April nabs the test subjects and sends them into the sewers to save their lives. Years later, they grow to become the teenage mutant ninja turtles that we know and love. Grown up herself, April is trying to breakout as a journalist but to no avail. Stumbling upon some activity from a local gang called the Foot Clan sends her into a whirlwind that involves rediscovering the grown Turtles and their new life as crime fighters. When Eric Sacks gets wind that his experiments are still alive, he and the archnemesis Shredder resolve to capturing the Turtles and bleeding them of the mutagen in a plot to take over the city.

At times, the narrative constructs of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” feels like the creators going “see, we know the Turtles’ lore” with pizza references and a few “cowabungas” thrown in. These nods are, of course, to attract previous fans, but the film also includes plenty for newcomers, like a freestyle rap in an elevator that ends up being one of the highlights of the film. Even the assault van makes an appearance. Following with the trend of grounding these superhero films in reality, Master Splinter (voiced by Tony Shalhoub), the rat turned sensei, is grotesque looking, so much more deliberate than his representations in the animated series and the previous films. However, that reality is completely abandoned when it comes to Shredder, who loses everything from his previous embodiments and becomes completely unbelievable. With boomerang knives for hands and the stature of Megatron, the bastardization of this Turtles character is particularly upsetting. The writers even have a chance to slightly redeem themselves with the flesh-and-bone villain of Eric Sacks, played by the powerhouse William Fichtner, but instead write him with the most stereotypical villainous tendencies that make his character complete two-dimensional. Even the fight sequences that the film relies on are hit-or-miss, with the downhill sledding sequences hitting rather well while the battle in the sewer and the fight on the top of a skyscraper come off like exact replicas of fight sequences in “The Amazing Spider-Man” between Peter Parker and the Lizard. Continue reading

One Minute Review: When The Game Stands Tall (2014) [2.0]

whenthegamestandstall-sideposter

WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL
Release Date
22 August 2014
Director
Thomas Carter
Screenplay
Scott Marshall Smith
Neil Hayes
Drama
Rated PG for thematic material, a scene of violence, and brief smoking
115 minutes

04two-stars— 2 out of 5 stars

One part spiritual drama, one part “Varsity Blues,” neither quite lands their footing in “When The Game Stands Tall”. Based on the true story of the De La Salle Spartans high school football team who had a record-setting 151-game 1992–2003 winning streak, the film picks up around their eventual defeat and the emotional and spiritual journey that follows when trying to get the streak back. Just short of memorable lines like “I don’t want your life,” the film piles on too much, overwhelming with the multiple themes and story-lines that happen simultaneously. A father is angry because his son’s not playing, a black teammate heading off to college is gunned down, and the coach struggles with his own health issues, all of which do not even scratch the surface of the happenings in this film. Following not only in the footsteps of every other football film ever made, but really any drama that has come before it, “When The Game Stands Tall” even tries capitalizing on the recent success of religious based films by tacking on a spiritual themes, as De La Salle is a Catholic high school, but it just ends up feeling blatant and forced.

“Varsity Blues” became the classic that it is today because it was gritty and pushed boundaries in 1999. It reflected what was actually happening in small towns that were only driven by sports. It launched careers for most of the ensemble cast and even spawned several parodies years later. “When The Game Stands Tall” has none of this. The better story might have been following the team with the winning streak, as at least the anticipation of potential losses may have added some suspense. Instead, each football game that is portrayed in the film feels more scripted than normal, telegraphing its moves and stabbing you in the face with its foreshadowing. Everyone in the cast feels like a watered down version of someone from “Moneyball,” with Jim Caviezel and Michael Chiklis offering some of the year’s worst performances, bringing out laughs when there should be tears or heartwarming moments. If anyone was going to shine, it would have been Alexander Ludwig (“Lone Survivor”) as the running back, Chris, but even he feels like a watered down version of James Van Der Beek. So save yourself the disappointment and if you have not seen Brian Robbins’ “Varsity Blues,” pop that in instead, where you will see better performances, hear a better soundtrack, and not be bombarded with a faith-based afterthought.

One Minute Review: Frank (2014) [4.5]

frank-sideposter

FRANK
Release Date
5 September 2014
Director
Lenny Abrahamson
Screenplay
Peter Straughan
Jon Ronson
Comedy, Drama, Mystery
Rated R for language and some sexual content
96 minutes

09fourhalf-stars— 4.5 out of 5 stars

The mythos of the Midas Touch tells the story of a king that is granted the power of turning everything he touches into gold. Obviously this sounds like an awesome idea, but once you turn a few of your friends and family members into gold, you start to realize its not such a great gift. Sometimes I wonder whether the power exists in some people (myself included) to turn everything they touch into shit. Now I don’t mean literal shit, because that’s disgusting. What I mean is, every time that person enters a situation, whether it be a relationship or occupation, every thing seems to fall apart. It’s a big reason I could not see myself in a high stress job like a surgeon or a pilot, because I never quite feel like I could excel to the highest levels of that profession without completely messing something up. At the heart of the festival film “Frank” is the same idea.

When we meet Domhnall Gleeson’s quirky main character, Jon, he is attempting to write a new song by observing the world around him. The problem is that none of his ditties are particularly good (“Lady in the red coat, what you doing with that bag?”) although most of them are quite hilarious. Everything changes when he happens across a raving man trying to drown himself in the ocean. The man’s bandmates watch from the shore, expressing their need for a new keyboard player. They find out Jon plays keyboard and that sparks an invitation for him to play Soronpfrbs’ next show. That night at the show, Jon witnesses the insane mess that is the band, including Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the hateful theremin player, Don (Scoot McNairy), the mannequin loving manager/producer, and of course, the papier-mâché head wearing lead singer, Frank, played masterfully by Michael Fassbender.

Who could have guessed that one of the best performances of the year would come from Fassbender hidden behind a fake head for an entire film? Jon eventually abandons his humdrum life to record an album with the band at a retreat in the woods. He becomes transfixed with the enigmatic Frank, who is so creative and musically talented that he can spontaneously write a touching song about a tuft of carpet without a second thought, while Jon cannot even write a song with actual words. This leads Jon to tweeting and YouTubing about his adventures, which includes learning of his bandmates previous mental hospital habilitations, squawking like birds during their practice, and never actually recording for their album. By the time they do record, Jon accepts an invitation for the band to play in Austin, Texas at the South By Southwest Music Festival, to which the only band member excited is Frank, who has secretly been wanting the band to be popular. What follows is the complete unraveling of a band, all with Jon at the heart chaos. Continue reading