Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Don’t Breathe

Every so often, a movie comes around that gains a bit of  momentum from the get-go.  Movies like 1996’s Scream was an innovative force that righted the horror movie ship that had nearly been capsized near the end of the 80s, entering the 90s.  In 1998, The Blair Witch Project was a terrifying experience—thanks to the advent of the internet and the viral marketing that touted the film as real found footage—that completely blew people away with its unseen terror.  At the turn of the century, the American versions of The Ring (2002) and The Grudge (2004) were steps in the right direction, with the first three Paranormal Activity films from 2009 to 2011 being the last (in my opinion) of the truly terrifying films exploding onto the cinema scene.

Just as a movie becomes the talk of the town, of course you have to tie in the director of said film and that would be Fede Alvarez.  This man really knows his craft and has been a pivotal fixture in the world of horror since coming onto the scene to direct the rebooted Evil Dead series of films back a few years ago in 2013.  I had such dreadful feelings for that movie until I sat down and watched it back then, wondering where this guy had been all along.  The amusing thing is…Alvarez hasn’t really been that busy since filming that reboot, only directing an episode of the Netflix series, “From Dusk Till Dawn,” since then.  So I was happy to see his name tied to Don’t Breathe and knew I didn’t need to see any reviews to know I was going in for a fun experience when I sat down in the theater.

A few weeks before this film was released, I’d been treated to seeing a television spot that had played on a regular basis, giving us review tags towards the end of the promo.  “Savagely unpredictable” and “Brutal…delightfully twisted” was a couple of quotes from Daily Dead.  “Gut wrenching” was another by CollegeMovieReview.com, but my favorite was “Modern horror masterpiece” by Screen Rant because that’s basically what I’m always looking for in a movie.  As a horror movie buff, I’m constantly hunting for the next best thing to arrive and really jumpstart the genre to take it back to the glory days of the 1980s. 

I can positively say there is nothing I like better than to sit in a dark theater and watch a terrific horror movie.  The only thing missing these days is the crowds that had used to fill the theaters back then, having to resort to sitting in a nearly empty theater as I had with this film.  Maybe it’s because I live in a rural town and not everyone is into going to the movie house to catch a flick or perhaps millennials these days are just too caught up in keeping their noses to their smartphones as they constantly browse and post in the social media web sites, not wanting to set it aside 90 minutes or so to enjoy a movie.  Either way, it’s okay with me because I hate when I get caught in a theater with crowds who talk to each other or use their phones…that’s a big pet peeve of mine.  But I had no such problem with this viewing, so without further ado, here’s the synopsis of Don’t Breathe

Three friends—Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Money (Daniel Zovatto)—break into the house of a wealthy blind man (Stephen Lang), thinking they’ll get away with the perfect heist.  They’re wrong.

It’s funny, Don’t Breathe starts off with the audience’s understanding that the three main characters of Money, Rocky, and Alex are not the protagonists, but three lowlifes that rob houses.  Alex’s father works for a renowned security company that furnishes alarm systems for most of the residences around town, keeping most of the keys, codes, and virtual information in his home office.  Alex then uses that to help himself—as well as his friends—to whatever he can get his hands on within these homes.  These scenes have the potential to really anger the audience to go against these three, especially seeing some of the things they do inside these homes (Money is actually seen pissing all over one room before leaving).  So at the beginning of this film, you’re definitely set to take the side of the Blind Man once they make the decision to rob his home.

We then get some exposition of each character’s life, where we understand how Alex is the brains, Money is the shady lowlife strength of the group, leaving Rocky to be the love interest of Money.  But there’s a bit of a love triangle here as we see that Alex has feelings for her, so it’s understood that that bit of subplot is going to develop later in the film, even as it causes a little friction between the two males.

As I’d mentioned, we don’t see Alex, Money, and Rocky as the protagonists—especially when we first encounter the Blind Man in his home—but it soon changes after being in the house for a while.  Soon, we see that the homeowner is not so handicapped as the tables turn very quickly and quite violently.  The three characters who had been seen as the predators at first, quickly turn to prey and that’s when the audience gets the rollercoaster ride that this film had been progressing towards.

If I were to describe this film, I’d call it a very suspenseful—a home invasion type of flick that’ll intensify your nerve endings, making you ready to jump out of your seat.  Disappointingly, we really don’t get too many jump scares, but when they happen, it’s amazing and not forced.  The film, as a whole, works so well and keeps you at the edge of your seat, especially during the scenes where the three friends have broken into the house while the Blind Man is asleep inside.  Every movement or sound they make will have you cringing, knowing full well that the man must have more acute hearing or other senses, and you’re just waiting for him to catch these kids in the act of their crime.  The film is very entertaining and exciting in that aspect.

Besides directing this terrifying film, Fede Alvarez co-writes this story with Rodo Sayagues, who has worked with Alvarez on most of his work.  They really seem to know each other and work well together because they'd truly created a work of art with the Evil Dead reboot as well as Don’t Breathe. 

Stephen Lang has been in the business for quite some time, starting off as a character actor that you’d probably seen dozens of time to a major screen presence that you can’t help but to take notice.  The first time I really had taken notice was when he played the central villain in the action-comedy, The Hard Way, opposite James Woods and Michael J. Fox.  You might also remember him as Ike from the film, Tombstone, playing one of the of outlaws of the Cowboys posse.  However, most will probably know him as Colonel Miles Quaritch from Avatar.  It seems the more I watch films, the more he pops up in some obscure flick, and that speaks volumes about his acting prowess.  You can see all the films I’d just mentioned and you can almost think you’re seeing a different actor in each one. 

Dylan Minnette is another actor that’s popping up here and there as he firmly plants his feet in film and television.  Although he’s got quite a résumé in TV, I can’t help but to remember him best as the bully that gets his in the terrific Let Me In.  Most recently, I’d seen him in the highly entertaining Goosebumps movie, so it seems like he’s taking the next step in the more mature world of acting by taking part in Don’t Breathe.

I almost didn’t recognize where I’d seen Jane Levy before, realizing I’ve seen her recently in the reboot of Evil Dead.  Though she has a smaller summary of productions that she’s been featured in, it’s going to be interesting where her career goes after the release of her next starring role—Monster Trucks.

Daniel Zovatto, as the character of Money, primarily plays the douche bag here.  He’s the one you don’t care about within the bunch as he’s here to be the instigator, being the push of the story to get our three main characters into the Blind Man’s house and get the action started.

I’ll say this—of course, without spoiling any of the plot—this film takes a sick turn, leaving you appalled by the twist that shows up within the third act.  It was something I really did not expect at all and it really caught me off guard, leaving me cringing during a key point of the climax.

My final “bit” on Don’t Breathe?

Maybe the only problem I have with the story is suspending disbelief that Alex would be friends with these other two.  Even more difficult to believe is that Rocky would have anything to do with a lowlife like Money, especially when we see that her mother is involved with someone of that same caliber.  However, I’d only thought that way in the beginning and it became more easy to accept as the story moved on, especially after being treated to some character development of each of the friends, especially Rocky.  All in all, Fede Alvarez is an awesome filmmaker and I am quickly becoming a fan of his work, waiting with bated breath to see what’s coming down the line for him.  He knows how to create an atmosphere, doesn’t give us unbelievable scenarios, and can get the audience to relate to everything that happens on screen.  The camera work is excellent, making this average-looking house seem like a giant maze.  He and Rodo Sayagues wrote an excellent story here, covering all bases to explain why no one is calling the cops or coming over to investigate the commotion.  I like what they did here and I can’t wait to add this to my home media collection.

Thanks for reading!

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Friday, August 26, 2016


What better path would one take, than the path of acting and moviemaking, especially if they looked an awful lot like their father, Clint Eastwood?  And what better part of that path would one take than the western part?  Yes, Scott Eastwood, son of famed man-with-no-name westerner, has been on the movie scene since 2006 with quite a few known productions under his belt.  Of course, the first five films Eastwood had been in were under the guise of Scott Reeves, possibly to try a make a name for himself instead of having he and his father being accused of nepotism whether that was the case or not.

The first time I’d seen Scott Eastwood in a film, and knowing that it was Clint Eastwood’s son I was watching on screen, was in Texas Chainsaw 3D.  I wouldn’t have known if it wasn’t for my wife asking if it was him that had appeared on the television screen during some moment of the movie.  But his part of that movie was very minimal and unimportant, not to mention that the movie wasn’t highly regarded as anything but a B-graded horror movie (which I’d liked, in spite of that).  Not long after that appearance, I’d seen him again in the film, Fury, as Sergeant Miles, and in the film we’re going to talk about today, Diablo.

As I’d mentioned, Scott Eastwood looks remarkably so much like his father that you could mistake photos of him to be ones of his father in the 50s or 60s.  Seeing that Scott obviously wanted to make a name for himself without the aid of the family name during his first five films, you’d think he wouldn’t want to tread in the same genre that made his father famous—namely, western films.  However, after reading up on Scott, it’s said that directors and producers send his agent numerous western scripts per month and decided on this one due to its unique plot, which we’ll dive into soon.

Clint Eastwood is one of my favorite actors and I have quite a large collection of his films on DVD and Blu-Ray, so seeing that his son, Scott, starred in this film pricked my ears up a bit.  Knowing that Clint is aging well past his acting prime—and has actually gone on record to say that he’s retired from acting—I kind of want someone to fill his shoes, to carry the torch of his bad-assery into this generation of film, so who better to take that place than his own son, Scott Eastwood? 

As always, going through the new releases on Netflix, I’d stumbled across this one, actually thinking it was an old film of Clint Eastwood’s, and had become intrigued by the plot description.  However, this was chosen before my new rule of only watching movies with an average star rating of three or more.  Diablo only had 2.5 at the time, but I’d taken a chance and thought it’d be worth it. 

Was I right?  Let me give you the synopsis and we’ll discuss.

A young civil war veteran, Jackson (Scott Eastwood), is forced on a desperate journey to save his kidnapped wife, Alexsandra (Camilla Belle).

So, yes, this film starts off pretty well, giving us your normal western fare and scenery.  As the small synopsis spells out, we know that Eastwood is going on a journey to find his wife, so that conjured up images of him riding his horse through the wilderness to do just that.  At times, yes, that’s what he’s doing, but the film gets pretty boring during these areas of the film and only gets interesting when he meets up with the character of Ezra (Walton Goggins).  But just as it gets interesting with that character, he goes away and isn’t seen for a while.  The movie just gets a little boring again until Eastwood’s character finds his old friend, Benjamin Carver (Danny Glover).  At this point of the movie, I thought it was going to duplicate the story we’d seen in Unforgiven, with the two men traveling together on the journey.

I’ll stop there because the twist of the story is shown to the audience and becomes quite a different movie from then on out, presenting a problem in my opinion.  See, the one-eighty shown here is given way too early and changes everything about the movie, who the good guys are, who the bad guys are, and just leaves everything confusing for a bit.  The line in the sand becomes a bit faded.  I’ll say this—most of you will be able to see the twist coming and it can appear shocking to some, but after realizing there’s still a bit of time left in the movie, it’ll probably make you tilt your head in puzzlement.

Without that shake-up that’s presented to us, I still don’t know if the movie would’ve been any better.  I guess I just had a whole different movie plot in my head when I’d started watching this, like many of the westerns I’ve seen—the good guy is wronged, goes on a vengeful adventure, and finally gets his comeuppance.  Though we get to see Eastwood’s journey come to an end and give us a pretty good ending to the movie, the twist that was shown to us to end the second act throws this whole story into the air and confuses the hell out of the audience.  Again, I’m not going to give anything away, but you’re left throughout the third act wondering if that twist was just something that was going to manifest back into alignment, changing everything back to the way we all thought it was headed in the first place.

If there’s anything I’d liked about this film was Eastwood’s performance…he really has a persona and a way about him, just like his father, and can act.  Though he has little to work with in this script, he does what he can with it and I’ll applaud him for that.  The inclusion of Walter Goggins in this film added levity to Eastwood’s serious tone, basically giving us his Boyd Crowder character from the “Justified” television series (I highly recommend that show), but it seems that’s what we usually get from him in any film or television show in which he’s seen.

Director Lawrence Roeck doesn’t have too many films under his IMDb bio, this being only his second film.  Without getting into the reveal of the twist and despite it, he does a decent job in his direction of the movie, giving us good views of the scenery as well as tight shots to show Eastwood’s character’s tension at times.  The combination of Roeck’s direction and Dean Cundey’s cinematography make this a beautiful picture to see, but it’s not enough to help the boredom you may feel when experiencing this film. 

Maybe some of the blame can be placed on the writers of the story.  I see that Carlos De Los Rios is credited as one of them and had noticed that some of his past work is just some of the rip-off movies that take advantage of the original film’s fame, like King of the Lost World (seemingly a play on King Kong and Jurassic Park films) or The Da Vinci Treasure (The Da Vinci Code).  Plus, Lawrence Roeck, himself, is credited as one of the writers, which doesn’t say much.

If you haven’t guessed my take on this film already, let me give you my final “bit” on Diablo.

It’s a shame, really, especially after reading some of the backstory on Scott Eastwood and his choice to star in this film.  Being such a fan of his father’s and wanting someone to take over the mantle that he’d created for himself since the late 60s, I was quite disappointed in the outcome of this film.  It had some potential, left me wanting something to cling onto, but just let me down after watching it.  I’ll say this, though…the look of the film and Eastwood’s presence is a saving grace and kept me watching.  Many films that weren’t as bad as this one had me turning them off before the they ended, but I kept going forth and stayed until the credits rolled.  The end result, however, speaks volumes, and what it speaks, wasn’t very good.  Diablo is a bit boring, showed its hand way too early, and wasn’t very satisfying at the end.  If you’re someone who wants to watch Scott Eastwood’s every move as a fan, then go right ahead and spend an hour and a half with this.  Otherwise, this should be skipped.

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Monday, August 22, 2016

Knock Knock

When the name, Eli Roth, comes to mind, I instantly think of the film Hostel each and every time.  Although Roth has had quite a few mild hits in his directing and producing repertoire, I can’t really say anything sticks out as being a film that I can claim as extraordinary or worthy of historic preservation.  Unfortunately—or fortunately...depending on how Roth looks at it—he’ll probably be forever known as the director of “torture porn.”  I don’t know how he feels about that, but I’ve read that he does like to push the limits in his films, so maybe he doesn’t mind the term.  Though I would think he’d like to be known for being a more well-rounded  filmmaker, even if he stays in the horror movie realm, he has the infamy either way.

As an actor, I really think Roth’s got the chops for it, as well as being able to display some good comedic timing in some of his performances.  When I’d first witnessed him acting in a film, I thought he was following in the footsteps of Alfred Hitchcock where he’d just place himself in cameos within his own movies.  In Cabin Fever, that’s exactly what he’d done and I thought it was pretty interesting how he’d kind of showed up there as sort of a red herring, but ended up being just a little humorous throw-away of the story.  Roth’s appearances in film didn’t just stop with roles in his own films, but showing up in some of his colleagues’ flicks, like the small part in Death Proof or the bigger role in Inglourious Basterds—both films by his friend and colleague, Quentin Tarantino.  He’s been seen in The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Southland Tales, Piranha 3D, and a few others, so if ever gives up directing, he still would have quite an acting career to go on.

Eli Roth has a moderately large catalog of projects he’s produced since his first hit film, Cabin Fever.  IMDb.com lists about 40 productions, past and future, including one that’s coming up sometime in the future—Thanksgiving.  If you were able to see Grindhouse—A.K.A., the double feature of Death Proof and Planet Terror—then you know about the faux trailer that played during intermission about a slasher which takes place during that holiday.  Like Machete before it, looks like the fake trailer earned enough interest to actually turn it into a real film.

Until that comes about, I’m here to talk about Roth’s 2015 film, Knock Knock.

When Evan (Keanu Reeves), a devoted husband and father, is left home alone for the weekend, two stranded young women, Genesis (Lorenza Izzo) amd Bell (Ana de Armas), unexpectedly knock on his door for help.  What starts out as a kind gesture results in a dangerous seduction and a deadly game of cat and mouse.

Now, there was a few things I’d noticed when seeing the credits roll.  Firstly, besides four other people involved in writing and developing the story, Eli Roth is credited as one of the writers.  Seeing what this movie is about, and that it involves infidelity, it must’ve been a tough subject matter for Roth.  Not that he’s ever been unfaithful to his wife, but just the fact that his wife, Lorenza Izzo, is one of the stars of the movie.  In fact, she plays Genesis...one of the two girls that show up in this story.  More on that later.  But the other strange item that came up during the credits was the name Sondra Locke and that she was the executive producer of the film.  If you’re not familiar with that name, she’s an actress, and one most notable as being Clint Eastwood’s girlfriend during the 70s and 80s, even starring with him in quite a few of his movies during that time.  I guess I’m just surprised to see her name, it just seemed like a strange involvement.

So...about the film.

Quite often, when getting my Netflix discs in the mail, I usually don’t mind playing them in our family room, where we have our main TV that we use to watch television shows or family films.  But I’d known the reputation of Knock Knock and it’s not too difficult to see what the movie’s about, even if you haven’t seen the trailer.  The description on the sleeve says it all, so I knew that I had to play this DVD elsewhere and that’s why I have a movie room (one of our spare bedrooms complete with a television and Playstation 4, along with many movie figures, photos, and props) in a separate area of our house.  The comments I would receive from my wife during this film isn’t something I’d care to sit through.  The one argument I can just imagine us having would start with my wife asking me, “What would you do?” and me defending myself, saying, “I wouldn’t do that!”  Of course, she’d react with, “Yeah right, you know you would do the same thing!”  To avoid all that and being as diplomatic as I could, I ventured upstairs to the movie room to sit through this film in peace.
So, the movie is a simple story of a family man, Evan (Reeves), who needs to work on his architecture project while his wife, Karen (Ignacia Allamand), and their children, Jake and Lisa (played by real life brother and sister, Dan and Megan Baily), take a trip to the coast for a weekend trip.  Later that night, there’s a knock at the door and as Evan answers, he sees two beautiful girls that are drenched from the rain and explain that they’re lost.  So I’ll stop right there because this is the turning point for the film, the part where, if it was me, I’d say I would call an Uber for them and that they were welcome to sit on the porch to wait for it.  No way in hell would I let them in, no matter how nice they seemed, and I wouldn’t feel sorry for them.  At most, I’d grab a blanket or towel for them to keep warm and dry, but they would not step foot in my house.  Primarily, this is how the argument would begin between my wife and I regarding this story.  She’d tell me she wouldn’t believe me and so on, and so on, etcetera, etcetera.  To tell you the truth, I probably wouldn’t even open the door. 

As I’d mentioned before, one of the girls is played by Eli Roth’s wife, Lorenza Izzo.  Seeing what she gets into here, having some implied sex scenes with Keanu Reeves, her and Roth must have a pretty good marriage.  But Izzo is the shining star here, even outperforming Reeves (I guess that’s not too difficult of an accomplishment) within this feature.

Now, let’s talk about the acting here in the film.  When the film opens up, we see the everyday-life Evan enjoys with his family.  As playing man and wife, Reeves and Allamand seem to have some okay chemistry together, making me believe that they can be married.  However, the interactions he had with the children seemed a little out of place and forced.  It almost seemed like he’d just met them on the set that day.  For the most part, this is only for mere minutes of the movie’s commencement, so it didn’t take me out of it completely.  Once we get the meat of the story going, it really keeps your attention.

Before getting into this movie, and just the fact that it is an Eli Roth film, I was thinking the movie was going to turn into an all-out horror film.  I was under the impression that maybe Keanu Reeves was going to get tortured by these girls or some people would be murdered...I mean, come on...this is Eli Roth!  But, no, the movie wasn’t made in that fashion.  It’s more of a suspense film, but it’s all about the uncertainty of what these two psychotic girls are planning to do.  Make no mistake, however, because this film is pretty extreme and you’ll really debate with yourself what you’d do in Evan’s position.  And not only the choice he makes to invite the girls in from the cold rain, but about other decisions he makes throughout the story. 

I’m not sure if this was a supplemental extra on the disc or just something that was discovered online, but I guess there was an alternate ending to the film.  I won’t give it away because I’d have to give away the ending of the film as it is on DVD, but I wish Eli Roth would’ve left it in, maybe as an after credits stinger.  After watching it on YouTube, it made me realize that it was something I’d thought the movie might feature.  But then I’d realized that it would change the fundamental message of the story.  Anyway, if you do decide to watch Knock Knock, I’d recommend looking up this alternate ending and see what you think.

So...my final “bit” on Knock Knock?

Overall, the film is enthralling—most of the time making you angry because of the actions of the girls, sometimes cheering Evan on, and a few times you’ll be shocked...a little.  The acting seems real enough, at least enough to make you shake your head at times, but the main crux of the film with Reeves, Izzo, and de Armas is the best part—the interactions are both uncomfortable and absorbing.  Whatever goes on within the story, whether it’s a lull or something uncertain, you’re going to want to see how the film will end.  Without spilling it, I really wasn’t satisfied and kind of wish they’d kept that alternate ending intact.  I’ll recommend this film, but not highly, just dimly.  The film is an interesting subject, but it’s all one note and doesn’t really expand beyond what’s seen in the trailer.
That’s it for now...thanks for reading!

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Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Star Trek Beyond

Before getting into this review, and as a preface to everything regarding the Star Trek cinematic series, I have to say that I’m not really a “Trekkie” or “Trekker” or that big a fan of the whole television and film franchise prior to J.J. Abrams's involvement.  I can honestly say that I’ll be—and have been—looking at this new rebooted series as a neutral movie-goer and won’t be biased in any way, shape, or form.  I am, however, a sci-fi movie enthusiast and consider the genre a close second, right next to horror.  But give me a science fiction film, set in space, with aliens and space ships, with laser blasts and action, all mixed together with tons of visual effects, and I’m all in for the 90-minute ride.

I’ve said it before, J.J. Abrams is close to taking over the mantle where Steven Spielberg is residing.  With his production company, Bad Robot, inheriting the Star Trek franchise as well as Star Wars, there’s no further elevation he can reach.  Yes, he’s got a lot of television under his belt, took over the Mission: Impossible series of films, and has so many film projects lined up for quite some time, so we’re in for years and years of cinematic adventures.

As for the Star Trek film franchise, not to mention the multiple television series throughout the years, I’ve enjoyed some of the earlier films and television episodes here and there.  The first four films I’d enjoyed quite a bit and actually own them on Blu-Ray, watching them occasionally when the feeling arises.  Part five and beyond had really lost me and I’d never decided to venture forth with those sequels, forgetting about them and seeing part four as the final film in that series.  I’ve seen some of the earlier television series of the 60s in syndication when I was a kid, but never felt I was a big fan.  All newer shows were never within my radar and I’d just stayed away, thinking you had to be a diehard enthusiast to watch and understand.

It wasn’t until my first theatrical viewing of Cloverfield that a spark of interest lit up inside me, seeing the teaser for the 2009 film where we see workers welding and laboring on a huge craft, hearing famous recordings of John F. Kennedy and American astronauts, seeing that it was the USS Enterprise as the shot widened out, all of it ending with Leonard Nimoy’s voiceover: “Space…the final frontier…”  I had been sold, right there, developing the desire to see the movie when it was to be released. 

So here we are now, seven years later, with the second sequel to the series…2016’s Star Trek Beyond.  I really like that J.J. Abrams, et al, are going away from the number tagged on each sequel, choosing to add a title after the words, Star Trek.  With the first sequel, the title convention was Star Trek Into Darkness.  No number…not even a colon to separate the title.  With Beyond, it describes what the main characters actually do in this story…they go beyond the reaches of space and that’s how the main crux of the story begins.

The USS Enterprise crew, led by Captain James. T. Kirk (Chris Pine), explores the furthest reaches of uncharted space, where they encounter a new ruthless enemy, Krall (Idris Elba), who puts them and everything the Federation stands for to the test.

The story here is well told and entertaining, never letting up once it gets going.  I’d been a little concerned near the start of this film where we get some exposition from Captain Kirk as he enjoys a drink with Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban).  The scene was a bit boring, but I had understood it needed to be included to help out the story as a whole.  The men have a drink to quietly celebrate the captain’s birthday, but Kirk only thinks about how he’s turning a year older than his father’s age when he was killed during his Federation service.  At the same time, Spock (Zachary Quinto) is going through a life-changing event as he receives news that Ambassador Spock (Leonard Nimoy, appearing only in a digital photo) has passed away.  Both men contemplate leaving their positions to pursue other roles and these subplots are things to think about for both characters as their story plays out in this movie.

Near the beginning of the film, the USS Enterprise docks at a space station in the vast reaches of the cosmos called Yorktown.  It’s a wonderful creation where one of the characters actually describes it perfectly, like a glass snow globe in space.  But you haven’t really seen anything like this in film, as the visual effects are staggering and incredible.  It’s difficult to explain, but the world within the interior of this space globe defy gravity, having parts of the city appearing upside-down and other right-side-up…all of this with the film giving us the point-of-view of the USS Enterprise flying through this wondrous inner scape.  I have to admit…I felt a little nauseous, getting a bit of motion sickness as I’d witnessed this.  At the same time, however, I had found it fascinating.  Many other scenes feature such minimal attention to detail, with planetary geography and plant life…it’s really so much to take in, but it really gives the film the sense that the characters are on alien worlds and not just filming on some dressed up movie set.

Although Idris Elba does a magnificent job as Krall, I felt it was a waste to have him spend the majority of the movie underneath all that makeup.  I’d known that he was in the film, but kind of forgot about it, not knowing who was the actor playing this villain when I’d first laid eyes upon him.  You’d think that they could’ve gotten a stuntman or lesser-known actor to play the part in this movie, like someone who’s used to wearing a bunch of latex and makeup…someone like…Doug Jones…?

A few things that can’t be overlooked, one of which I’d already discussed a little, is the passing of two actors in this franchise.  Leonard Nimoy, although only in the previous two films for cameo-like roles, is a staple of the Star Trek mythos and will always be remembered as Mr. Spock.  Though he’d been in a lot of other roles (I had particularly liked him in 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers), it’s hard to envision him as anybody but Spock.  The other loss the Star Trek world had faced was the passing of Anton Yelchin earlier this year.  You’ll see in a later review my admiration of this young actor, but he really took the reins of the Chekov role and went with it full force.  It’s a shame, really, that this had to happen to one of the main characters.  I wouldn’t want to be in the shoes of the person—or people—that will have to make a choice on whether to replace him or write the character out of the subsequent sequels.  It’s a lose-lose situation, regardless.  But Yelchin’s death is a big loss to the world of film because that kid really had a great career ahead of him.

As I’d said, being that I’m not a big Star Trek fan, I really hadn’t caught a lot of the callbacks that I’ve heard some people talk about.  What I had caught, however, was a few here and there, reminding me of some of the previous Star Trek films that had featured the original cast.  For instance, near the beginning of the film, when Kirk and McCoy share a drink, it reminded me of a similar scene in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  A deliberate one, but more of an accolade to the original actor—George Takei—who had played Sulu in the television series as well as the original films, was to write in a character development to have Sulu (John Cho) be represented as gay.  Unfortunately, that added  characteristic was not condoned by Takei, citing that it wouldn’t have been Gene Roddenberry’s intention to have the character represented that way.  Another little touch that I’d noticed and have heard other people mention was towards the end of the movie, when Kirk toasts his crew, making mention to the ones that are absent.  At that moment, the camera lingers on Yelchin, giving a nice nod to the late actor as sort of a chapter closing on his character.

The rest of the cast are all pretty much here, but one takes a backseat and doesn’t do much except earn a paycheck—Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana).  She has a minor role in this sequel, which is too bad, but she does help move the plot along when it comes to an important point in the story.  Interjected in the film is a new character, and one that we’ll probably see again—Jaylah (Sofia Boutella).  Her performance added a bit of levity and played well alongside Simon Pegg’s Scotty.  Just like the television series, the rest of the crew on the USS Enterprise are a series of faces that we’ll never see again, but that’s not necessarily bad.

Star Trek Beyond has quite a few action scenes, though not as many as the previous two films, but enough to keep your blood flowing at times.  Combined with the visual effects, this film will keep even the younger, smartphone-obsessed, crowd into the film during the second and third acts.  Mixed with the effects, there is some incredible work with prosthetics and makeup, giving us some freaky-looking aliens, one of them really using her head for one of the scenes.

Of course, when you have Simon Pegg in the cast—and one of the writers, I might add—you’re going to be treated to some humorous moments.  Pegg’s scenes, as Scotty, keep those moments lighthearted and fun, and that’s where the actor really excels.  Scotty’s little friend, Keenser (Deep Roy), is back as well and had me laughing when a skill is brought to life on screen as he sneezes on a cell lock to disintegrate it, being that his snot is acidic.  I’m not sure if that was a writing contribution from Pegg, but I’m willing to bet it was.

Finally, with J.J. Abrams helming the first two films of this rebooted franchise, he decided to give the reins to Justin Lin (of the latest Fast & Furious films) for this outing.  While watching this, and knowing full well he was the one who was behind the camera, I felt he gave a bit more excitement when it was called for and apathy during the times of the story when things seemed bleak.  Though I think Abrams is a very talented writer and director when it comes to character arcs, Lin does just as well with taking the audience to an extravagant world, and makes going to the movie fun again.

So…my final “bit” on Star Trek Beyond?

Once again, J.J. Abrams, along with Justin Lin, bring us a pleasurable family-friendly sci-fi adventure, with out-of-this-world visuals and action.  The film features a perfect blend of action, science, some scares, and humor, with the Star Trek mythos perfectly in place.  I loved every minute of it, even the little bit of exposition between McCoy and Kirk, and look forward to more of this reimagined film series.  Though it may be tough to go forward without the character of Chekov—though a minor character, but memorable nonetheless—I’m still going to be rooted in the theater’s seat, waiting to see what’s in store for the crew of the Enterprise on their next adventure.

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Thursday, August 11, 2016

Cheap Thrills

I guess you can say I’m a Netflix cheerleader, always mentioning how I get the discs mailed to me every month and the enjoyment I get when I find a good film to watch on their streaming service.  The day I’d discovered this DVD mailing service—jeez, it must’ve been 18 or 19 years ago—I knew it’d be a hit and that the company would grow indefinitely.  Well, I was right on both counts, but I had never known at what rate, and to what extent, the conglomerate would grow.  If I’d really and truly knew, I probably would’ve invested in Netflix stock, enjoying my riches right now.  But, no...I’m a blue-collar worker, taking enjoyment out of writing about films I’ve seen and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

So…once again, I found myself itching for some entertainment—something horrific, dramatic, action-packed, or funny—as I found myself plopped on the couch and sifting through the streaming menu.  One such film that had been on the trending portion of the menu (the titles that members had been watching or rating a lot) and saw the title, Cheap Thrills, float by with a rating of over three stars.  But…I thought it was a straight comedy and really didn’t feel like clicking on it at that point in time.  One of the reasons why I thought it had been a comedy was that the title cover featured the main cast, all looking at the camera and smiling, even though one of them had a very bloody nose (take a look at the movie poster and you’ll see what I mean).  Another reason I had thought this was a straight comedy was the inclusion of David Koechner in the cast—which turned into a motive on why I decided to watch it.  Even after reading the synopsis, I still had trouble pulling the trigger on this one, just due to that happy-go-lucky movie poster.

Well, I finally clicked on the play button just the other day and became instantly absorbed by this one.  So, let me break down the plot for you before we discuss…

A scheming couple—Colin and Violet (David Koechner and Sara Paxton)—put Craig (Pat Healy), a struggling family man and his old friend, Vince (Ethan Embry), through a series of increasingly twisted dares, paying the friends excessive amounts of money if accomplished,  The tasks go on over the course of an evening at a local bar—and ending up at the couple’s home—with the challenges becoming very precarious.

At the commencement of this film, I have to admit that I had my doubts, especially when we see the main character losing his job and becoming very depressed, finding himself at a bar and having a beer.  Now I’ve never understood the concept of heading to a bar after work to drink and unwind, feeling it’d be awkward to sit down in the company of strangers and becoming inebriated.  The way I’ve always unwound after work was to go home and watch a ballgame or a movie…maybe I don’t understand the going-to-a-bar philosophy because I don’t drink.  But that was my dilemma as I was going through this introduction of our main character, Craig, until his old friend, Vince, walked in.  At that point, I’d really grew engrossed in this film.

I don’t mean to sound callous, but, man, has Ethan Embry aged!  The first time I’d seen him in anything was the coming-of-age teenage movie, Can’t Hardly Wait (don’t judge me), back in 1998.  At 20 years old, he played the part of a high schooler and it worked.  Now, at 38, he definitely can play the older man, seeming like he partied a bit since that 1998 film.  As a matter of fact, he was recently in a commercial with Christie Brinkley, playing her husband as they were driving in a vehicle for an SUV advertisement.  It was a play on the Vacation movies, since they were playing the theme song from the first film and the reason why, I’m guessing, that they were in this commercial together was that Brinkley was in the first film and Embry was in Vegas Vacation, playing the part of Rusty.  Point of all this?  Even though she’s 24 years Embry’s senior, you can’t tell, as they seem like the same age and believable as a married couple.

Well, that went off the rails pretty quickly, didn’t it?  Anyway…back to Cheap Thrills

When Vince walks in and sees Craig, sitting with him and catching up on old times, that’s when the movie really gets going and changes gears.  We get perfect character development between these two old friends and it works because these two actors have great chemistry, making you believe they’re truly good friends.  Yet, they have a yin-yang type of relationship once they’ve met Colin and Violet—Craig not wanting to take part in a lot of the dares, while Vince is ready to do anything to get his hands on some easy money.  At first, Craig is the levelheaded friend between them with Vince vigorously egging him on to perform some of the tasks, but as they become more and more violent, both Craig and Vince change their personas dramatically.  It’s a true look at how money can change people.

Cheap Thrills is by no means a perfect movie, as it needs the audience to accept something that drives this story and that’s the character of Colin and his motivation, which seems to be just to have some merciless fun as he takes advantage of the destitute character of Craig.  Also, it’d be hard to believe that someone that has the means to so much money would easily throw it around, taking a chance that the victim he chooses won’t just give up and take the money he’d achieved so far, not choosing to go for more provocations.  If you can set that aside, which is easy to do because your thought process will be working to figure out what Colin’s angle is throughout this whole ordeal, you can appreciate this fun movie.

2013’s Cheap Thrills is E.L. Katz’s directorial debut, only followed up by ABCs of Death 2 and one episode of ‘Scream: The TV Series.”  He’s got a film coming out in 2017 called Small Crimes, and has been a writer on quite a few productions.  However, this story was penned by David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga, an obvious writing team, who have collaborated on a few projects, but this stands out above the rest. 

You know, I’d mentioned Ethan Embry a bit (though maybe not in such a good light), but I really hadn’t gone into Pat Healy’s history in cinema.  Though I didn’t recognize him while watching this film, I still didn’t really know who he was even after reading through his IMDb.com bio.  But the man has been in the business for quite some time with 90-plus productions he’s acted in, from popular television series to a number of films.  Healy was exceptional in Cheap Thrills and I’d enjoyed his performance as the everyman who usually doesn’t get a break, yet finally fights to get one in this story.

Although Sara Paxton was sort of wasted in this film with nothing much to do, David Koechner was surprisingly amazing in this flick.  Usually he plays a funny—yet dumb—throwaway character.  Here?  He’s a likable, but ruthless, individual.  It’s actually weird to see him play someone serious when all you know him as is Champ Kind from Anchorman.

So what’s my final “bit” on Cheap Thrills?

I dug it, man!  From the moment Embry and Healy interact in the bar, I was stuck on this movie and felt the need to see it all the way through.  The further you get in the story, the more you want to stay to see how it’ll end.  It’s strange at times (especially Koechner’s martial arts skills) and will have you guessing on what the outcome will be, and you may even go through a range of emotions as things play out.  But it’s fun to see how each challenge is dealt with by the two main characters and although the ending has a little something to be desired, the end results will stay with you for a while.  Highly recommended.

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Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Invitation

More and more, I seem to follow the advice of personal critics rather than the professional ones when it comes to watching films.  I still enjoy reading a review from some quarterly or online magazine, but I tend to lean more on the side of what some Average Joe will have to say about a movie in layman’s terms rather than going through a reviewer’s piece who feels the need to insert cerebral wording as if they’re some kind of artist…uh…never mind.  The point is, I like to follow what the typical crowd likes more than one movie critic.  So I have a habit of going with the given stars on a movie from the Netflix site and it never looks to lead me astray.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m going by a new rule now where I’ll only watch never-before-seen movies with an average rating of 3 stars or more.  I’ve tried viewing a few that had less—only because a web site or magazine raved about the film—but they always seem to let me down.  Don’t get me wrong, however, because I’ve seen some films rated 3 or above that I’d ended up turning off, not liking them.

So, especially when I shuffle through the streaming titles, I want something to grab me and make me enjoy the time spent sitting through a feature, so when I’d noticed The Invitation on the menu, and seeing that it had an average of 3.4 stars, I’d decided that I would fix my movie-watching night with it.  The good movies featured on Netflix streaming are few and far between, but they’re getting better.  For now, there are just too many one- to two-star movies in their list of titles that it gets tiring shuffling through them.

While attending a dinner party at his former home, Will (Logan Marshall-Green), thinks his ex-wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), and her new husband, David (Michiel Huisman), have sinister intentions for their guests.

I have to admit, my finger had been hovering over the power button on my remote during the beginning of this film.  In the start of this film, as the two characters, Will and his girlfriend, Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi), are driving to this dinner party and it’s just a boring start to the film as we see them in the car travelling to the get-together.  The acting seemed a bit wooden, but looking back, maybe the director was trying to convey Will’s state of mind as we later find out he and his ex-wife had lost a son.  But until I understood that, I felt that the onset of the story seemed to stand still.  But once the couple reach their destination, I had let up and relaxed my finger, yet I had other issues in which to contend.

So, the crux of the story, as mentioned in the synopsis, is that Will is meeting up with a group of friends that haven’t gotten together in a few years.  But the mystery is alluded to right away that Will’s ex-wife, Eden, and her new husband, David, hadn’t been heard from at all in two years.  Bringing the obscurity even further is why all of a sudden they decided to invite all their friends to their home—a home Will used to share with Eden and his late son, Ty (Aiden Lovekamp, seen in flashbacks)—for a dinner party.  And being there plays a big part in Will’s feelings and state of mind.

So when Will and Kira arrive at the house and greet the friends, making their introductions to Kira, the feeling shown is unease—right away.  Many times during the course of Will catching up with some of the other friends or the strange interactions between him and David made me wonder why he’d even stay at this point.  Hell, even a little accident that Will and Kira get into before getting to the party would be enough of an excuse for me to turn around and go home.

At this point, this is where The Invitation messes with your mind and leaves you constantly guessing as to what’s going on.  On one hand, you see it from Will’s point-of-view, seeing the suspicious actions of a few people and leaving you with the belief that something bad is going to happen, that he and Kira should just leave.  At some points, the movie makes it look like Will is paranoid, especially when he blows up at one point, pointing fingers at some of the others.  The back-and-forth they do in this film really puts you on a rollercoaster ride of emotions.

Not only do things not seem right, even though Will is apparently surrounded by old friends, but two dinner guests, Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch) and Sadie (Lindsay Burdge), add to the unease due to their behavior and background (at least explained by Pruitt himself).  The interactions from these two add to the what-the-fuck moments in the film and continue to leave you—the audience—guarded on what’s to come.

If there’s anything that I'd really liked in the film, one scene that kind of shocked me, was the final shot before credits roll.  It was an “oh shit” moment that I really did not see coming, not to mention the suggestion of a sequel.  Of course, I don’t want to give it away, but it opens up a whole new aspect to this movie and makes the story bigger and less isolated just in those few minutes.

Directed by Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body, Æon Flux), she certainly set an apprehensive disposition in scenes when needed, somber at times, fearful as well.  But I think the acting took a hit when setting it all up.  The only time I’d really dug the acting was when Will started to speak up assertively and becoming accusatory…at that time, the movie really started moving for me, but I’d also noticed that this was well over halfway into the movie.  Sure, there’s a lot of character build-up—which you really need to have when you have such a large ensemble of actors working together and sharing a lot of screen time—but just the fact that I had checked my watch during this movie says a little about the average audience member’s possible investment in the story.  The writers, Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi—I believe they’re a writing team, as I see they’ve worked on a lot of productions together—really put together an original and intriguing story, so kudos to them.

So my final “bit” on The Invitation?

Like I’d mentioned, the acting was a bit sluggish here and there, the chemistry between a group of people—who are supposed to be all friends—wasn’t really apparent, but as I’d mentioned before, it might’ve been something the director was banking on to help out the vibe of the movie.  The story, however, keeps you involved and wondering how it was going to end, questioning whether or not Will was just going a little mad because of the grief he’d felt back at his old house and reliving a lot of old memories with his wife and son.  It’s definitely a moody piece that’ll make your skin crawl at times, will make you feel sorry for Will—sometimes for the other friends—but pays off by the time the film ends.  I definitely do recommend it and I’d probably see it again if it happened to be on one of the cable channels.  If you’ve got Netflix streaming, you should check it out.
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