Friday, March 31, 2017

[Review] The Devil's Candy

The Devil's Candy is a metal-as-hell horror film that burns with torment and dives into themes of destructive passion and madness as well as the dizzying fear of parental falters.

Struggling painter Jesse (Ethan Embry) and his wife (Shiri Appleby) and daughter (Kiara Glasco) move into a haunted farmhouse (stop me if you've heard this one before). Eventually, Jesse slips into a troubling trance and his paintings get creepier and creepier. Oh yeah, and a crazy kidnapper (Pruitt Taylor Vince) with lingering ties to the cursed home is on the loose. The situation smells more peculiar than an unwashed Metallica t-shirt.

As Sean Byrne's (The Loved Ones) film progresses, things grow increasingly fiery and grim. Brutal intercuts blur the lines between paint and blood. Views of darkened and forbidding rooms might have you reaching for a night light. Disturbing kidnapping scenes raise an alarming amount of terror. And when the abrasive soundtrack isn't shredding, it morphs into something effectively distorted and doomy, summoning a constant sense of dread 'til the very end.

An interesting aspect about the film is that we don't actually see any ghosties, demons, or furniture flying across the room. Instead, we witness Satan's evil grasp solely through the possessed characters' actions. It's a scary thing--Jesse's descent into personal hell and how it negatively impacts his family. Not to mention, the kidnapper's utterly monstrous crimes. The film runs at a slim 75 minutes, and while it lacks some background explanation and depth for the supporting characters, I appreciated its straight-to-the-point aim. The Devil's Candy is one of the better horror films of the year so far, and it's definitely worth seeking out on VOD... if you dare. *cue the frantic guitar riffs*

( 7.5/10 )

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Thursday, March 30, 2017

[Review] Mean Dreams

With shades of Jeff Nichols' Mud and David Gordon Green's Joe, Nathan Morlando's Mean Dreams is a crime thriller and coming-of-age tale of young love in Middle America.

New faraway-neighbors Jonas (Josh Wiggins) and Casey (Sophie Nélisse) both come from troubled households, with parents that are either abusive or just worn down by the hard farm life. After growing fond of each other, Jonas and Casey decide to run away together with plans to never look back. But of course things don't quite go as planned.

It's a familiar story, but it certainly isn't run-of-the-mill. The picture's lush cinematography greatly captures the wind-kissed textures of rural scenery--swaying fields, forgotten trees, and cloudy skies that seem to shift with the mood of the story. Wiggins and Nélisse really drive the film as strong leads, gaining our sympathy from the get-go. The late Bill Paxton, in one of his final roles, gives a scary-good performance as a crooked cop and Casey's despicable, aggressive alcoholic father.

Mean Dreams sees two young souls in search of something better out of last straws and pure desperation. Chases ensue and bullets fly, as Jonas and Casey go from walking on eggshells to looking over shoulders. So don't let the straight-to-VOD label fool you, this is a gripping getaway.

( 7.5/10 )

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Monday, March 27, 2017

[Review] Life

When a movie is titled Life, it seems like it has a lot to live up to. It either has to be encompassing and grand, or ultra-specific. Director Daniel Espinosa's Life actually focuses in on the prospect of extraterrestrial life. And yeah, it's similar to Alien, but it's still surprisingly good sci-fi horror.

Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, and Olga Dihovichnaya are the crew aboard the International Space Station, studying a specimen from Mars. After some careful probing, sure enough, they learn that it's living. It's alive! So much so that they dub it "Calvin". Calvin is cute and friendly at first, but eventually it turns aggressive. And big. And scary.

Life carries a major sense of gravitas and momentum, as it opens with the illusion of an extra long take, tracking the astronauts as they weave through the spacecraft corridors and utilize the highly advanced equipment. It's visually stimulating stuff, from the majestic views of Earth to the futuristic technology at-hand. Sometimes the film even launches into some disturbing gross-out horror. In fact, this thing packs thrills that are significantly more tense than what the trailer cuts displayed. The narrative grips hold, and never really lets up, bringing on plot turns that consistently up the ante.

The cast is impressively convincing in this setting, but the show-stealer is Calvin itself--a solidly rendered, translucent CGI octopus-like creature that increasingly evolves and needs to feast on other life in order to survive. Once its slithery self lets loose, the paranoia on board skyrockets, creating an unsettling atmosphere that's primed for some sweaty chills.

As opposed to last year's big alien encounter Arrival (hold your spacesuits, I'm not suggesting they're on the same level), this film takes a much more pessimistic, cautionary, monster movie approach--posing the question: Are we sure we even want to discover what other types of life are out there?

( 7.5/10 )

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Thursday, March 23, 2017

[Review] Beauty and the Beast

If there's anything guaranteed in the near-future of the film industry, it's superhero movies and live-action Disney remakes. Last year's The Jungle Book re-imagining was quite successful, thanks to its splendid visuals, so how does Beauty and the Beast fare? Well, not as well... For all its enchantment, there are some translation flaws that are difficult to just dust away.

This tale as old as time is pretty loyal to 1991's iconic animated musical. A curse is cast upon a vain prince (played by Dan Stevens, The Guest) and his castle, where he'll remain a beast unless he can find true love before the last rose petal falls. On the other side of the land, lives the kind-hearted and inquisitive Belle (Emma Watson). When her father is taken prisoner by The Beast, she exchanges places with him and is left stranded in the castle (kinda creepy). But could she be the one to break thee spell?

One thing that sorely sticks out about this film is the hammy acting. It's as if the human cast haven't diverged from the cartoony form of the characters--especially Luke Evans' Gaston and his sidekick (played by Josh Gad) who's almost too annoying to bear. The whole rendition is cloaked in a layer of melodramatic cheese, and even if you write it off as stagey fantasy, there are a lot of things you really have to let fly. I mean, this is a story about a young woman who falls in love with a horned creature within a couple days (I say "a couple days" as if somehow a couple months would be better). At its surface, it's an inherently odd premise, one that you might question more-so now then when you watched the film as a kid. And even though the heart of the main point is metaphorical--"don't judge a book by its cover", and that "beauty is found within", it seemed to work a lot better in its original animated setting. As for the rendering of The Beast, he looks a bit too computerized and it isn't fully convincing against the backdrop.

I know this all sounds harsh, which is why I'm getting to the high points now. The visual grandiosity and ominous atmosphere of the castle is very impressive. Then there's the fan-favorite anthropomorphic objects with their quirky personalities and great voice cast: Lumiére (Ewan McGregor) the candlestick, Cogsworth the clock (Ian McKellen), Mrs. Potts the teapot (Emma Thompson), and her son Chip the teacup (Nathan Mack). But it's the songs that really are the film's strongest feature--from the elaborate "Be Our Guest" sequence that dazzles to the ceiling, to the classically stirring melody of the title song, to the new addition of the soaring "Evermore" which arrives during The Beast's major point of despair, feeling like a theatrical emo anthem.

So, this remake didn't completely win me over, but I did get swept away in its spell a few times.

( 6.5/10 )

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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

[Review] Burning Sands

This Netflix Original film is a starkly dramatic depiction of a hazing horror story. Both urgent and engrossing, Gerard McMurray's debut Burning Sands is certainly worth adding to your viewing list.

The film follows college student Zurich aka Z (Trevor Jackson) and his group of roommates at a historically African-American university as they pledge to join a renowned fraternity, with Trevante Rhodes (from Best Picture-winner Moonlight) playing one of the leaders. When the crew begins the notorious "Hell Week", they're forced to endure mental and physical abuse that not only crosses the line, but destroys it and sets it aflame.

Similar to last year's Goat, the film is a depraved down-spiral into false brotherhood, toxic masculinity, sadistic abuse of power, and outright humiliation--displaying the blinded desire and exhibiting the irrational lengths these young men will go for a sense of identity, status, and respect in being part of a coveted group. While we as an audience can sit back and think this is ridiculous why don't they just get out?, unfortunately there isn't an easy escape option when extreme peer pressure and the fear of the dangerous repercussions for leaving or failing are out in the open.

Thanks to the impressive cast and gripping direction, Burning Sands is a harrowing cautionary tale that feels raw, real, and relevant--like it was ripped straight from the headlines. Most importantly, it spotlights the major difference between building one's strength and traumatically breaking it down.

( 7.5/10 )

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Monday, March 13, 2017

[Review] Kong: Skull Island

Have you heard the news? Kong: Skull Island is a colossal mountain of chest-pounding fun.

The plot for this encounter with the iconic beast is fairly straightforward: A group of soldiers, scientists, and documentarians head out to uncharted territory--the ominous Skull Island, where King Kong rules. And mayhem ensues. Along for the journey is a stacked cast: John Goodman, Corey Hawkins, Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Shea Whigham, and Samuel L. Jackson.

The film has an energetic and throwback vibe, enthusiastically recalling campy monster movies of the past and classic war films like Apocalypse Now. When the crew's helicopters first fly over the island, I was half-expecting the Jurassic Park theme to start playing (there's even a crowd-pleasing Easter egg that Samuel L. Jackson delivers). The lush, exotic, and monstrous visuals combined with the wily kinetic camerawork makes this a highly immersive experience. And as well-crafted as an adventure spectacle this is, it never takes itself too seriously. In fact, it's really funny and full of humorous one-liners and apeshit setpieces--like Tom Hiddleston sprinting through a volcanic pit while slicing vicious winged creatures with a katana in slow-motion. The highlight of the cast and surefire favorite is John C. Reilly, as he impeccably plays a kooky but wise longtime resident of the island.

But of course the real star is Kong in all his roaring power, tremendously large scale, and impressive CGI glory. He's a friend if you treat him well, a pulverizing foe if you mess with his home. Other creatures join the party too, like yaks the size of dinosaurs, hair-raising spiders, and nasty lizard-like predators who John C. Reilly's character calls "skull crawlers", or at least until he realizes that name sounds stupid out loud.

Make no mistake, this is the type of film where you specifically come to see King Kong rip a giant octopus apart, and you get exactly that--and then some. Kong: Skull Island isn't a blockbuster--it's an earth-buster... Sorry, that sounded better in my head.

* 8.5/10 *

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Saturday, March 11, 2017

[Review] The Girl with All the Gifts

Zombies. The buggers are here to stay. Personally, I'm a little burnt out on the genre, but The Girl with All the Gifts is a decent brain-chewing specimen with just enough tweaks to keep things interesting.

That girl with all the gifts is Melanie (Sennia Nanua), seemingly a half-zombie with partial immunity to the fungal outbreak infecting the world here. She can still think and act like a sweet and smart little human, but she craves flesh, occasionally launching into Hungry Hungry Hippo-like munchathons. When the military base where she's being studied gets overrun by a horde of "hungries" (that's what they call the zombies), Melanie escapes with her compassionate teacher (Gemma Arterton), a tough-as-nails Doctor (Glenn Close, great), and a couple of army grunts.

It's an intriguing take on a tale of survival--walking alongside the deadly enemy and the potential key to a cure for the future. Sennia Nanua's spirited performance really makes us root for her character's well-being. The film brings the usual close calls while flinging the sloppy amounts of blood and guts that you'd expect. It doesn't skimp on skin-crawling imagery either, like the close-up of a zombie baby with a rat dwelling in its stomach (yikes). Aside from the gross stuff, it's set in a thick dystopian atmosphere--the picture steeped with a sepia haze and filled with evocative shots of vines taking over skyscrapers. Unfortunately, the story loses some of its *ahem* bite during the midsection. There's a little too much uneventful wandering around, and it trudges to a fitting yet underwhelming conclusion.

Still, it's not the worst way to spend an hour and 50 minutes--from a distance, of course.

( 7/10 )

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Thursday, March 9, 2017

[Review] Catfight

Sandra Oh and Anne Heche play bitter rivals in Catfight!, an absurdist comedy directed by Onur Tukel. It's a film that left me feeling indifferent, yet somehow in awe of its execution.

After a fallout as friends in college, Veronica (Oh) and Ashley (Heche) have taken very divergent paths. Veronica is a wealthy homebody in a fancy Soho apartment, while Ashley is a frustrated painter in a messy studio. When the two randomly meet again at a party (and have a bit too much wine), they reignite their feud, and by that I mean they beat each other bloody in a stairwell.

What ensues is a long-term, class-fluctuating grudge match of three rounds. It's dark. It's cynical. It's brash. And it's kind of obnoxious. But it gets points for being a wholly bizarre and unique bout. The film is a no-holds-barred farce with a lot of biting sociopolitical satire and pre-election commentary thrown in, which is sometimes too on-the-nose for its own good (there's a bit about what type of trees Hilary, Bernie, and Trump would be that instantly feels like a passé Facebook meme in movie form).

The unabashed fart jokes and cartoonishly brutal and long fight scenes are pretty funny, though. In fact, the brawls are so over-the-top that I could practically imagine WWE's Jim Ross commentating during them ("Bah Gawd she's going for the wrench!!"). Sandra Oh and Anne Heche are fully game here, even if their characters are thoroughly unlikable. Unbearable, even. The film itself is often intentionally off-putting, so it might actually make you miserable throughout the duration.

Catfight isn't exactly for everyone, but if this sparks your intrigue, it's worth taking a swing, just for the sheer spectacle.

( 6/10 )

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Monday, March 6, 2017

[Review] Logan

Not your usual Wolverine movie. Not even your usual superhero movie, for that matter. The minimally titled Logan is a dark and grisly swan song for Mr. Claws that slashes with potent violence and pierces with affecting heart.

It's the year 2029 and the grey and aching Logan (Hugh Jackman) spends most of his days swigging booze and hiding out in a warehouse near the Mexican border. There he also takes care of Professor X (Patrick Stewart) who seems to be going senile, which makes his powerful brain all the more dangerous. It's a depressing sight really--seeing sickly and geriatric icons wearing down...It certainly gives a whole new meaning to "superhero fatigue". But they still have some work to do. When a mysterious young mutant named Laura (Dafne Keen) enters the picture, they're tasked with transporting her to a safe place called Eden, which may or may not exist. All the while, a ruthless faction of criminals and scientists are on their trail, led by a smarmy fellow named Donald (Boyd Holbrook).

Between its Western grit, rugged action sequences, and focused roadtrip story, Logan seems to have more in common with stuff like Hell or High Water or Blood Father than it does with X-Men Origins: Wolverine or last year's bloated X-Men: Apocalypse. Here the desolate world is mostly stripped away of any magic or vibrancy--its color palette the equivalent to a dying crop. The film is entrenched in a somber tone of looming death, and director James Mangold is hellbent on taking us through the pits of despair, giving weight to every turning point.

Logan is also by far the most graphic superhero film to ever grace the big screen, and it contains some shockingly grim scenes. Its bloody, painful, puncturing fights are executed with unflinching detail--I'm talking severed limbs and decapitated heads before you can even think that's gonna leave scar. And thankfully, the uniquely moving climax forgoes the bombast and instead opts for intensely grounded combat and well-earned emotional gut punches.

This is definitely Hugh Jackman's meatiest performance as Wolverine, and it's a great performance in general, comic book movie or not. A big standout is newcomer Dafne Keen--her silence, cold stare, and overall badassness might remind you of Eleven from "Stranger Things". Patrick Stewart plays Professor X at his most vulnerable, foul-mouthed, and sweet all at once. And while Boyd Holbrook's Donald isn't the most notorious baddy on his own, the guy has sure mastered the role of scumbag.

This film honors the end of an era. The last of a dying breed.

* 9/10 *

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Saturday, March 4, 2017

[Review] I Don't Feel at Home in this World Anymore

Melanie Lynskey and Elijah Wood are the offbeat duo in the Netflix Original, I Don't Feel Aat Home in this World Anymore. If you think that title sounds a lot like melodramatic emo material, you wouldn't be completely wrong. But the film itself is primarily a darkly comedic thriller with low-key shades of loneliness, isolation, and snapping frustration.

Ruth (Lynskey) is a timid and reserved nursing assistant who reaches a new level of jaded after her house gets broken into and burglarized. With no help from the police, she teams up with her oddball neighbor Tony (Wood, with a rat tail that rivals Shia LaBeouf's in American Honey), a morning star and nunchucks enthusiast who seems to have been preparing his whole life for a time like this. When the two set out to recover Ruth's belongings, they get caught up in a local crime ring. And things get ugly.

This comes as the directorial debut of Macon Blair, who has starred in both of Jeremy Saulnier's color-coded and heavily lauded films, Blue Ruin and Green Room. And it appears Blair has drawn some influence from his buddy. While not as visually striking or narratively intense, the film brandishes a rusty white trash element and is splattered with messy, head-clobbering violence that brims with a slightly sadistic sense of humor, all clashing in a bat-crazy climax.

The consistently great (and underrated) Melanie Lynskey gives a pitch-perfect reactive and proactive performance as an unassuming individual who's suddenly being thrusted into a disheveled and dangerous world, while Elijah Wood is thoroughly amusing in full-eccentricity mode. And even though these two are first acquainted during an altercation about dog poop on a front lawn, what I liked about this combo is that they're less a mismatched pairing and more not-so-different loners wasting away in a decaying town where any semblance of kindness has gone down the drain.

I won't repeat the title again, but I do recommend plopping down on the couch, slicing open a bag of sunflower seeds, hitting the Netflix button, and letting this film rip.

( 7.5/10 )

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Thursday, March 2, 2017

[Review] XX

Billed as "Four Deadly Tales by Four Deadly Women", XX is a collection of short horror films that tap into the strange, the gross, and the gruesome, but none of it is really all that scary or memorable.

First up is The Box, which revolves around a suburban family and the nosey young son who suddenly stops eating after he peeks into a Christmas present that he wasn't supposed to. The film fully hinges on the mystery of what he saw and why it's making him behave the way he is, but not a whole lot happens between the beginning and end, so it feels like an extended one-note tease that unfortunately doesn't offer up much in the way of payoff. If that's the point, then I guess the point is empty.

Annie Clark aka St. Vincent makes her directorial debut with Birthday Party, which stars Melanie Lynskey as a mother in the midst of last-minute preparations for her daughter's birthday celebration. Much to her shock, she finds her husband's cold, dead body slumped in an office chair (!), and she does her best to hide it before all the hyper little guests arrive. It's so absurd and amusing, comical and colorful, and there's a manic and stylish quality to it. It's a playful and creepy farce about someone trying to make everything perfect only to have things go the complete opposite.

In Don't Fall an obnoxious group of hikers set up a campsite in a remote (and possibly off-limits) section of the desert. One of them is stung by what appears to be a cursed petroglyph and shes turns into a demonic beast. Thanks to some killer makeup and special effects, the monster looks pretty terrifying and there's a particularly great shot of its silhouette against a foggy moonlit backdrop. But as far as story, it doesn't really do anything different from a run-of-the-mill creature-feature, aside from its agreeable and cautionary Stop messing around with sacred stuff! narrative.

And lastly, Karyn Kusama (The Invitation) directs Her Only Living Son, a film that delves into the life of a mother worrying about her unhinged, anti-social son (he pins squirrels to trees and tortures other kids at school). It appears to be a We Need to Talk About Kevin situation. Initially this is the darkest, the most engaging, and most tonally solid of the bunch, so I thought Okay they've saved the best for last... But then the film takes a ridiculous and anti-climactic turn. Ugh.

XX isn't a bad thing to throw on around Halloween time, but overall the end results are disappointing.

( 6/10 )

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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

[Review] Collide

A movie about a completely personality-less dude who steals money, deals drugs, and crashes cars all for LOVE and because he believes in fate (aw, how romantic)...

Casey (Nicholas Hoult) and Juliette (Felicity Jones) are a couple of freewheeling Americans who hook up in a German nightclub. From there, the film dives into a neo-trash junk pile of gassed up melodrama and not-so high-octane heists.

Leading the criminal enterprise is a flamboyant Ben Kingsley, donning a thick and cartoony Eastern European accent and wielding around gold-plated pistols. When we first meet him, he's lounging amid a group of scantily clad women and watching 1985's aerobics drama Perfect (starring Jamie Lee Curtis and John Travolta). "Good film - the acting not so much," he says, as if is poking fun at himself here, but unfortunately a bit of self-reflexive hilarity doesn't save this from being a total trainwreck.

The eye-rolling schmaltz. The questionable editing. The chase sequences that somehow just drag... It's all kind of insufferable. Nicholas Hoult is painfully bland, and Felicity Jones' character is completely wasted, as she's relegated to sitting around reading letters and talking on the phone while Casey is out doing his cool crime stuff. It's frankly an odd role to see her in, especially following the prestige pic The Theory of Everything and her thrilling lead role in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Throughout the duration, Hoult's character reiterates his devil-may-care philosophy and lifestyle, you know, because everything has already been pre-determined and stuff. So I guess the fate of Collide was always a big crash and burn.

( 3.5/10 )

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