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Anti-Film School’s 10 Most Anticipated Movies of 2014

With the boring movie months of January, February, and March slowly inching by, it’s time that we start getting excited about the big movies that have been receiving the hype treatment over the past year. In 2014, audiences will be getting talking raccoons, a brand new Christopher Nolan epic, a Captain America follow-up, and a remake of arguably the greatest monster movie ever made. So, without further ado, here are the ten movies I just can’t wait to see in 2014.

10.) Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

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It’s been nearly ten years since Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller ushered us into the noir world of Sin City, and we’ve been salivating for more ever since. With an A-list cast that includes veterans Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis, and Jessica Alba, and newcomers like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Eva Green, Josh Brolin, Ray Liotta, Jeremy Piven, and Stacy Keach, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For’s trailer indicates that we are in for another heaping, black and white dose of steamy lap dances, sexy femme fatales, and back-alley tough guys who walk on the wild side. Bring on the gruesome mayhem!

 

9.) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

I’ll be the first to admit that I wasn’t expecting much out of 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. However, director Rupert Wyatt surprised both mainstream audiences and critics with his white-knuckle prequel about the ape uprising. Now we have Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which promises to up the apocalyptic scope and chaotic action to chilling highs. This time around, James Franco is out, but the always-reliable Gary Oldman is in, as well as newcomers Jason Clarke, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Keri Russell. And we can’t forget the excellent Andy Serkis, who returns to raise hell as the ape kingpin, Caesar. Under the direction of Matt Reeves and taking place several years after the events of Rise, Dawn appears to be a worthy follow-up to the superb original.

8.) The Sacrament

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Ti West has twice proved he is a filmmaker to watch within the horror genre. His 2009 breakout The House of the Devil was a retro nightmare, and his 2011 follow-up, The Innkeepers, was one of the spookiest horror films of recent memory. For his third act, The Sacrament, he uses the devastating actions of Jim Jones and his People’s Temple as the framework for this “found footage” freak-out. While the “found footage” subgenre has certainly worn out its welcome (*ahem* Paranormal Activity, I’m looking at you!), if there is anyone out there who could really give it its bite back, it would be West, who hinted that he had a handle on it with his unforgettable segment in 2012’s V/H/S.

7.) Neighbors

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If you haven’t seen the raucous trailer for Seth Rogen’s new suburban comedy about a bunch of frat bros who move in next door to a mild-mannered couple with a newborn baby, you need to fix that right this instant. Though it wasn’t written or directed by Rogen, I’m crossing my fingers that the scruffy funnyman is still riding the highs of last year’s comedic gem, This Is the End, which had critics and audiences everywhere doubled over in laughter. Based on the footage that has been revealed, it could prove to be a raunchy follow-up to that fireball of a comedy, even if it doesn’t quite pack the star power or the gimmick of actors playing “themselves.” If nothing good comes from Neighbors, it sparked the brilliant and hilarious idea to throw a Robert DeNiro party.

6.) X-Men: Days of Future Past

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The X-Men series has been severely hit or miss. Director Bryan Singer’s first two installments in the franchise were solidly made superhero films. The third film, which was taken over by Brett Ratner, left a lot to be desired. In 2011, director Matthew Vaughn got the franchise back on track with X-Men: First Class, effectively meshing Cold War history with a whip-smart origin story. With Singer back in the director’s chair, and a time-jumping plot line that promises to mix the old cast with the new, X-Men: Days of Future Past is poised to be a comic book movie to keep your eye on this summer.

5.) Guardians of the Galaxy

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With their cinematic universe fully formed and humming along nicely, Marvel dares to expand with this August’s Guardians of the Galaxy, perhaps the most bonkers release yet. While director James Gunn’s space adventure is certainly a gamble, the trailer—which gives very nice introductions to the five main characters—suggests that this sci-fi adventure will have a stronger comedic tone to it. With plenty of rollicking space action on display, Guardians of the Galaxy seems to have plenty of potential, even with a talking raccoon that wields a machine gun and hocks loogies. Hopefully, it will be a welcome departure from the Iron Man and Thor movies.

4.) The Amazing Spider-Man 2

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The last time Spidey swung across movie screens, his reboot was somewhat of a bore, mostly because new director Marc Webb rehashed a bunch of stuff we already knew about Peter Parker. With all the origin mumbo jumbo out of the way, it seems like Webb and his cast are really letting loose for an epic showdown between good and evil. Boasting not one, not two, but THREE superbaddies to face off against Spider-Man, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 could very well be this summer’s The Avengers. It looks to have the pulpy action to rival it, and like all good comic book sequels, it doesn’t seem to be shying away from a darker tone and heavier dramatics. Is it May yet?!

3.) Interstellar

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Not much is known about Christopher Nolan’s latest sci-fi epic Interstellar, but does that even matter? Christopher freakin’ Nolan is directing it and that is literally all we need to know! Shrouded in Nolan’s expected secrecy, Interstellar is said to be about a group of explorers who discover a wormhole and use it to push the limits of human space travel. The IMDB cast list is bursting with A-listers (Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Ellen Burstyn, John Lithgow, and more), and the stock-footage heavy trailer hints at larger-than-life filmmaking. What is even more exciting about Interstellar is the fact that Warner Bros. has chosen to release it in the thick of awards season.

2.) Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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Of all the solo Avengers films that Marvel has produced since 2008’s Iron Man, my favorite has been the WWII period piece Captain America: The First Avenger. With it’s pulpy aesthetic and rollicking action, Captain America seemed alive with the spirit of classic blockbusters like Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. I loved it. With Captain America: The Winter Solider, the stakes are higher and the destruction is nastier than ever. Did I mention that it looks to be much more interesting than Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World combined? While Marvel’s reluctance to release it this summer has slightly concerned me, Captain America: The Winter Solider seems like it will be a fierce comic book movie, and the gloomiest chapter in Marvel’s Avengers series yet. Bring it on.

 

1.)  Godzilla

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There has been talk for years of another Godzilla reboot—one to scrub away all the horrid memories of that 1998 remake that should have been called Jurassic Park: New York City. With Puff Daddy and Matthew Broderick out and Bryan Cranston and director Gareth Edwards in, Godzilla 2014 is shaping up to be the mack daddy of summer movies. Seriously, have your seen the damn trailer?! It looks incredible, with some of the most savage city-smashing ever put on celluloid. What’s even better is that the filmmakers are re-establishing the idea that Godzilla is a walking A-bomb—a radioactive creation of the Atomic Age that continues to stomp on through the cinema history books. And here is the best yet: the movie actually looks pretty freaky! Oh, and did I mention that it appears that Rodan and Gigan will be joining in on the worldwide destruction? Yeah, let’s just get in line now.

TRAILER TUESDAY!

“You won’t believe your eyes! You won’t believe your ears!” You won’t believe your mind! It’s the trailer for 1975’s Inframan, directed by Shan Hau.

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RoboCop (2014)

RoboCop

by Steve Habrat

In 1987, director Paul Verhoeven unveiled RoboCop, a satirical science fiction blockbuster that has been long celebrated by critics and audiences as a classic of the genre. Despite offering gruesome thrills and unrelenting action, this beloved classic has even earned recognition from the prestigious Criterion Collection and was released by the arthouse company on laserdisc and DVD a few years back. It should come as no surprise that a remake of RoboCop was rumored for many years—unsurprisingly, really, considering that Hollywood is running on fumes in the creativity department. After almost ten years of development, America finally has Brazilian director José Padilha’s RoboCop, a buffed and bloodless affair that features a staggering A-list cast. With names like Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson, and Jackie Earle Haley filling up the cast list, you’d think that there must be something solid to this blatantly unnecessary remake of a classic. Truthfully, RoboCop 2014 isn’t nearly as bad as you may have expected it to be. It’s far from empty headed and the veteran performances carry plenty of weight, but the film is so concerned with making an intelligent statement that the film nearly forgets to have any fun or offer any adrenaline-pumping set pieces. It also makes the grave mistake of handing over the title role to Joel Kinnaman, a newcomer that works hard but never fully earns our sympathy or respect.

RoboCop picks up in Detroit, 2029, with police officer Alex Murphy (played by Joel Kinnaman) and his partner, Jack Lewis (played by Michael K. Williams), doing some dangerous undercover work in an attempt to bring down crime boss Antoine Vallon (played by Patrick Garrow). In their investigation, they begin to discover that Vallon may have ties to several officers in the Detroit police department. After a nasty confrontation between the undercover officers and Vallon’s men, Jack is left severely wounded and clinging to life. Alex manages to make it through the confrontation unscathed, but Vallon’s men soon track him down and implant an explosive device inside his car. While enjoying a quiet evening at home with his wife, Clara (played by Abbie Cornish), and his young son, David, the device is triggered, leaving Alex with fourth degree burns covering his body. Meanwhile, in Tehran, the United States is waging war with the help of robotic soldiers and hulking droids created by OmniCorp. On American soil, OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellers (played by Michael Keaton) is pushing to have these robots and droids patrol American streets, but he is met with resistance from Senator Hubert Dreyfuss (played by Zach Grenier), who claims that the robots and droids lack human emotion. Desperate to make his vision a reality, Sellers enlists the help of Dr. Dennett Norton (played by Gary Oldman) to meld man with machine. After a lengthy search for a proper candidate, Sellers and Norton settle on Alex for the human/robot program, and in the process create a revolutionary new figure of justice—RoboCop.

Where most blockbusters today attempt to mask their lack of intelligence with countless CGI battles, gunfights, fistfights, and miles of devastation, RoboCop begins with heady debates about the use of robots and droids in the thick of war. The battle rages on a nightly news program called The Novak Element, hosted by Pat Novak (played by Samuel L. Jackson). In this sequence, we are treated to some tense urban action sprinkled in between Novak’s bug-eyed stare and his questioning of America’s “robophobia.” Points are made on both sides of the issue, bullets fly, bombs explode, and things seem to be getting off to a strong start even before the credits have rolled. Padilha and his crew are letting us know that they are well aware that the original RoboCop was interested in smarts just as much as it was interested in spilling blood, and you have to commend them for acknowledging this. However, as the seconds tick by in RoboCop 2014, it becomes increasingly clear that the filmmakers seem reluctant to have a little fun. There is a brief rush of giddy excitement when Alex steps into a training session in an abandoned warehouse, but the action feels square and the approach is uninspired as Jackie Earle Hayle’s Rick Maddox taunts the stomping RoboAlex by calling him “Tin Man.” I’m sad to report that the action rarely picks up from here, only really cutting loose during the final showdown in the OmniCorp lobby.

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While the action may not exactly take your breath away, a good majority of the performances will keep your eyes glued to the screen. Perhaps the most mediocre of the bunch is Kinnaman, who fails do anything interesting with his screen time. He’s the typical macho cop/mushy family man in the early scenes, and when he’s sentenced to his new RoboArmor, he’s only sporadically pathetic as he realizes that he will never have a normal life again. Still, he can droop his mouth into a proper frown as he aims his machine gun and fires at the bad guys, which is always an action-movie plus. The ever-welcome Oldman is the top dog here as Dennett, the doctor tasked with placing the injured cop inside a machine. Oldman earns more sympathy when he is forced to switch off Alex’s emotions than the actual RoboHero does. Keaton nails his role as Sellers, the ruthless OmniCorp CEO who may not be as upstanding as he seems. Jackie Earle Hayley does a fine job as Maddox considering that the screenwriters have handed him the film’s worst dialogue. Strapped inside his exoskeleton, he looks like something out of Elysium, but he still finds a groove as a certified badass. Jackson is his usual shouting self as Pat Novak, the nightly news host who speaks directly to the audience and acts as a pale moderator to all the heated debates. Abbie Cornish rounds out the main cast as Alex’s suffering wife, Clara, who slowly regrets allowing the suits of OmniCorp to slap her husband inside that black armor.

Undoubtedly the most controversial change in RoboCop 2014 is the PG-13 violence that the studio opted for rather than the gruesome R-rated approach Verhoeven took to the original. Throughout it’s nearly two-hour run time, there is barely a speck of blood, which makes it clear that Columbia intends to turn this new RoboCop into a sanitized series that will sell just as many toys as it does tickets. Despite the lack of bloodshed and carnage, Padilha’s RoboCop is still a well-paced story that builds quite nicely. The only time that the film really drops the ball is with Vallon and his villainous shenanigans. He is quickly bumped off and forgotten so that Padilha can make room for bigger and badder tricks. It also wouldn’t have hurt to include villains that are a bit more colorful than what we are left with. Overall, you can’t fault RoboCop 2014 for attempting to be much more than a mind numbing, popcorn-muncher of a film, but this constant strain to be saying something prevents the audience from receiving the action jolt they are craving. Maybe a different lead would have helped, too. Oh well, as far as remakes go, it could have been much, much worse.

Grade: C+

TRAILER THURSDAY!

If you want wild and crazy, then this is the trailer for you! Behold the trailer for 1987’s Thunder Cops, directed by Jeffrey Lau.

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The Best and Worst of 2013

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by Steve Habrat

What a spectacular year 2013 was at the movies! The early months were slow—something that was to be expected—but when we finally hit the summer movie season, things took off with a bang. There were out-of-this-world science fiction thrillers, city-shredding superhero epics, and plenty of blood curdling horror to give you a chill during those sweltering months. As the summer days faded and we entered awards season, things really got good. There were wolves from Wall Street, moody folk singers, HIV-positive outlaws, cranky old sweepstakes winners, and 70s conmen all ready to keep our minds off the snowy weather outside. So, without further ado, here are Anti-Film School’s picks for the best and worst films of 2013.

10.) The Wolf of Wall Street

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Legendary director Martin Scorsese’s newest cinematic outing is a three-hour trek through a land dominated by sex, drugs, and sleaze. Our tour guide through this non-stop party is Leonardo DiCaprio, who gives one of the most daring performances of his acting career as Jordan Belfort, a slimy stockbroker who had more money than he knew what to do with. Wickedly hilarious and about as raunchy as R-rated movies can get, Scorsese gives us an up-close-and-personal look at the underbelly of wealth and greed, presenting it all as a runaway train destined to horribly crash and burn. While it’s been accused of being overly excessive and revolting, that’s the whole point—we’re meant to recoil in disbelief at what we are seeing. It just so happens that Scorsese injects each and every second with irresistible charisma, even as it lobs dwarves at the audience, throws champagne in our face, and leaves the audiences coughing up a cocaine cloud.

9.) Blue Jasmine

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Woody Allen’s latest film about a wealthy New York City socialite who lost her riches when her husband gets caught up in a nasty financial scandal finds the neurotic filmmaker embracing a punishing reality that leaves a sting that just doesn’t seem to fade. Early on, Blue Jasmine is laced with Allen’s dry wit, but the lightweight appeal is soon engulfed by dark storm clouds of swirling madness. They close in on the brilliant Cate Blanchett, who gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Jasmine, our bitter heroine who flat-out refuses to accept her crippling fall from the designer-brand arms of grace. Complimenting Blanchett’s outstanding performance is the equally wonderful Sally Hawkins, who is here as Ginger, Jasmine’s modest and impossibly sweet sister who allows the scoffing Jasmine to shack up in her tiny little California apartment. With it’s polished story in place, and a number of charming performances from a colorful cast consistently impressing, Allen perfectly positions us for the lightning bolt climax that will leave you paralyzed in your seat. Bravo, Mr. Allen!

8.) Prisoners

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Last year, I saw several hair-raising horror films at the local Regal Cinemas, but none left me as shaken up as director Denis Villeneuve’s ripped-from-the-headlines thriller Prisoners. Like a cross between The Silence of the Lambs and Death Wish, Prisoners tells the terrifying story of two little girls who suddenly go missing on a rainy Thanksgiving Day and their father’s who grimly set out to track them down by any means necessary. With stomach-churning torture sequences, a dreary Seven-like atmosphere, and emotionally draining performances from an A-list cast (good luck getting Hugh Jackman’s seething determination out of your head), Prisoners is a white-knuckle masterpiece that is given even more power due to the recent news of Areil Castro and the three girls who were missing in Cleveland, Ohio. Believe me when I tell you there is no way to leave Prisoners unaffected. It will disturb you on levels you never thought possible.

7.) Captain Phillips

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Bringing the unflinching realism that he brought to the Bourne series and United 93, director Paul Greengrass returns with Captain Phillips, which tells the breathtaking true story of the 2009 pirate attack on the Maersk Alabama. Told in a chilling, fly-on-the-wall style, Captain Phillips is an exercise in pure tension and raw authenticity. It also finds star Tom Hanks at his absolutely best as Captain Richard Phillips, the man who was taken hostage by four terrifying Somali pirates in a confined lifeboat. While Hanks furiously reminds us of his seasoned acting abilities, Captain Phillips ultimately belongs to breakout actor Barkhad Abdi, who gives a menacing performance as Abduwali Muse, the lead pirate who refused to give up. Bursting at the seams with heart-pounding suspense, Greengrass finds momentum in the confines of the lifeboat, where Phillips pleads with the pirates to give themselves up and avoid a devastating showdown. It’s in these moments where Greengrass humanizes the monsters, and makes a piercing comment on the lengths some men will go to make a living.

6.) Gravity

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If you were one of the five people out there that didn’t see Gravity in 3D on the big screen, you really missed out on an extraordinary experience. While it may not have the most robust storyline, Gravity was pure, how-did-they-do-that?! entertainment that left audiences with the weightless sensation that they truly were drifting around among the stars with George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. While director Alfonso Cuarón handles the stunning visuals with overwhelming confidence, it’s Bullock, who gives a show-stopping performance as Dr. Ryan Stone, a grieving astronaut floating through a shattered existence, who cradles Gravity’s shimmering heart and soul. With performances and special effects working in perfect harmony, Gravity weaves a poetic tale of rebirth that culminates in an emotional blast that allows the film to rocket near the top of the best science fiction films ever made. A starry-eyed crowd pleaser of the highest order.

5.) American Hustle

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In mid-December, director David O. Russell’s 70s-set caper about a handful of quirky con men and FBI agents took the box office by storm. Featuring the best ensemble cast of the year (Christian Bale! Amy Adams! Bradley Cooper! Jennifer Lawrence! Jeremy Renner!), American Hustle is a cartoonish deconstruction of the American dream and what it takes to make a name for yourself in the good old U.S.A. With plenty of leisure-suit style to burn and a sexy strut that is impossible to resist, American Hustle is a dryly hilarious and entrancing slice of gold-platted entertainment that is carried off into classic territory by Christian Bale, who has never been better as Irving Rosenfeld, the pudgy con artist with the loudest comb over to ever hit the big screen. With its popularity growing by the day, Russell’s work is quickly becoming a new American classic, one that will surely be revisited for it’s layered script, retro swagger, impeccable costume work and set design, and laid-back sense of humor. This is one cool movie!

4.) Nebraska

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After diving into some weighty territory with 2011’s Hawaii-set dramedy The Descendants, director Alexander Payne trades the palm trees for a John Deere tractor with Nebraska. Set against the barren landscape and the small, boarded-up Americana towns of the Midwest, Nebraska is a sweet and soft-spoken little road movie carefully navigated by legendary thespian Bruce Dern and former SNL funnyman Will Forte. Following a senile old man on a quest to claim one million dollars that he believes he won and his patient son that accompanies him on his journey, Payne’s newest effort is a touching trip down memory lane, one that visits rundown farmhouses, old watering holes, and shady backstreets of year’s past. It’s all marvelously atmospheric and nostalgic, given a razor-sharp comedic edge through Dern’s cranky performance as the frizzy-haired sweepstakes winner Woody Grant. When Dern isn’t busy hogging the frame, actress June Squibb keeps you doubled over in laughter as Woody’s unfiltered wife, Kate. Though it may be in black and white, Nebraska is given plenty of color through its unforgettable cast of characters and it’s genuine warmth that sticks with you long after the credits have rolled.

3.) Dallas Buyers Club

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Who knew that Matthew McConaughey had this performance in him?! After proving himself to be a talent to be reckoned with in Mud, the drawling actor best known for his work in romantic comedies took critics and audiences by surprise with his turn as HIV-positive cowboy Ron Woodroof in director Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club. Boasting the strongest performances of the year from a lead actor and a supporting actor, Dallas Buyers Club, which is based on an extraordinary true story, is a powerful look at the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, and the lengths that one man went to bring proper treatment to both himself and countless others suffering from the disease. Serving up unflinching looks at the terrible symptoms of AIDS, Vallée’s film never spends too much time remaining downbeat. It’s got an optimistic mindset and hope shining brightly in its eyes. And then there’s McConaughey, who undergoes a shocking physical transformation as a hard-living, homophobic outlaw who reluctantly joins forces with a breathy transgender woman. His performance is a revelation, complimented by a delicate turn from Jared Leto as the transgender Rayon. The Academy may as well hand them their Oscars now.

2.) Inside Llewyn Davis

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After shooting their way across the Wild West with their 2011 remake of the John Wayne classic True Grit, Joel and Ethan Coen return to movie screens with Inside Llewyn Davis, a Polaroid glimpse of the rise of folk music in Greenwich Village. Set in 1961, this character-driven period piece about a homeless folk singer with a bad attitude found the Coen’s relishing their return to the realm of dark comedy. Blustery and frigid, Inside Llewyn Davis is made even chillier through star Oscar Isaac’s breakout turn as Llewyn, a grieving and starving artist who shacks up on the couches of friends and family members, reluctantly takes care of an orange tabby cat, and only bears his soul through the gorgeous acoustic songs he strums out for packed night clubs. While its open-ended climax may leave some viewers fuming, Inside Llewyn Davis is an elegant character study, one that examines those who risk it all to make it big. As an added bonus, the film features a number of toe-tapping folk numbers that range from swelling and emotional to inescapably cute and catchy. Good luck getting “Please Mr. Kennedy” out of your head!

1.) 12 Years a Slave

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Towering over all the other releases this awards season was director Steve McQueen’s sobering 12 Years a Slave. Daring to shine a light into the darkest corners of American history, McQueen’s powerhouse film pummels the viewer with the horrifying true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man kidnapped and tossed into the brutal jaws of the American slave trade. Unblinking with its sequences of abuse and torture, 12 Years a Slave is a film that is overwhelming and crucial, one we desperately want to recoil away from, but one that demands to be seen, heard, and felt for the remainder of our days. Though it is deeply disturbing, 12 Years a Slave ranks as the most handsomely filmed and detailed period piece of the year, and the work from stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Lupita Nyong’o has to be seen to be believed. A film that was long overdue, 12 Years a Slave is a motion picture that dares to confront and challenge with a realism that most American films shy away from, and in the process, it becomes an instant cinematic classic that will stand as a constant reminder of our blemished past.

And now, the best of the rest:

-       The Conjuring and You’re Next both brought the horror genre back with a deafening “BOO!”

-       Pacific Rim was a candy-colored blockbuster sugar rush, and Elysium was the smartest sci-fi epic of the summer.

-       Spring Breakers was a demented, day-glo fantasy about living the fast life in a constant paradise.

-        Ain’t Them Bodies Saints was a poetic tribute to Terrance Malick’s classic Badlands.

-       Out of the Furnace was a formulaic but unnerving and rusted out backwoods revenge thriller

-       This Is the End was a raunchily rambunctious and gut-busting apocalyptic comedy from the minds of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg.

-       Saving Mr. Banks was a feisty, family friendly look at Walt Disney’s rocky quest to make Mary Poppins.

And now, the worst of 2013:

3.) Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

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This dreadful follow-up to the severely overrated 2004 original recycles the same jokes that were used the first time around and the results are absolutely disastrous. The glaring lack of effort from Will Ferrell and company leaves you feeling like you were robbed blind.

2.) Insidious: Chapter 2

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After delivering two impressive back-to-back scarefests, director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell found it necessary to further the events of the first Insidious with this confused follow-up that tasted like moldy, month-old leftovers. Pray that these demonic forces have been banished for good.

1.)  The Hangover Part III

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The Wolfpack returns for a third and final time in this bizarre climax that never even once tries to be funny. The gross-outs and shocks are all there, but director Todd Phillips and his crew are clearly disinterested and in it strictly for the paycheck. This was the biggest turd of the summer and the most excruciating cinematic experience I had all year.

Mini Review: Hell Ride (2008)

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by Steve Habrat

In 1966, Roger Corman’s American Internation Pictures (AIP) released The Wild Angels, an outlaw biker gang movie that gave birth to a brand new exploitation subgenre. With The Wild Angels a hit and biker culture breaking through into the media, AIP quickly started churning out more of these rough-and-tough biker films that featured up-and-coming stars like Peter Fonda, John Cassavete, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, and Larry Bishop. While Bishop never quite achieved the A-list status as some of the other actors that made appearances in these films, he remained a cult icon that obviously caught the eye of exploitation mega-fan Quentin Tarantino. In 2008, Tarantino encouraged Bishop to write, star, and direct a throwback to the outlaw biker films of the 60s and 70s, even offering to executive producer the picture if Bishop would agree to make it. The result of this collaboration is Hell Ride, a jumbled and awkward nod to the exploitation genre that gave Bishop his start. The only thing that keeps Hell Ride from being tossed into the junkyard is the presence of fellow genre stars Michael Madsen, David Carradine, and Dennis Hopper, who try their damndest to make sense of the script and add some extra slicked-back masculinity to all the blood, sex, and violence. It also slightly helps that the film boasts a fairly authentic late 60s/early 70s visual style and a gritty Ennio Morricone-esque score.

Hell Ride introduces us to Pistolero (played by Larry Bishop), the grizzled president of the motorcycle gang called the Victors. We learn that in 1976, Pistolero’s beautiful girlfriend, Cherokee Kisum (played by Julia Jones), was brutally murdered by the Deuce (played by David Carradine) and Billy Wings (played by Vinnie Jones), two high-ranking members of a rival motorcycle gang called the Six-Six-Six’ers. Many years pass and the Six-Six-Six’ers gang falls apart, but Pistolero still craves revenge. After a veteran member of the Victors is murdered in the same manner as Cherokee Kisum, Pistolero begins to suspect that the Six-Six-Six’ers are reforming and attempting to make a comeback. Seeing his chance to exact his revenge on the Six-Six-Six’ers, Pistolero rounds up the Gent (played by Michael Madsen) and Commanche (played by Eric Balfour), two fellow members of the Victors and close friends of the heartbroken president, to help him wipe the rival gang out once and for all. With several members of the Victors either switching sides or turning up dead, Pistolero races to track down the Decue and Bill Wings before they can reach him. In the process, Pistolero learns that Cherokee Kisum had some secrets of her own, and that one of his new gang members may have a connection to the slain woman.

Hell Ride #2

If you’ve seen the trailer or glanced at the poster for Hell Ride, you’ve noticed that Tarantino’s name shows up in big bold text on both, making it seem like he played a major part in the film’s production. About five minutes into the actual film, you’ll realize that is far from the truth. Where Tarantino is capable of delivering a casual cool that seems effortless, Bishop’s tough-guy style just seems forced and uninspired—amazing considering that this guy’s career began in these types of macho outings. Visually, Bishop understands how to make the film feel like a forgotten exploitation film from the 70s. It switches from gritty black and white shots of leather-clad bad-asses rocketing down dusty highways to vibrant LSD trips out in the rocky deserts. Strewn throughout the retro visual style is a plethora of sex, drugs, roaring steel, and violence, all set to a Morricone-esque score that gives the film a slight spaghetti western feel. The orgies, beheadings, ambushes, and motorcycle porn all seem appropriate, especially since Bishop is trying to pay tribute to a hardened exploitation subgenre. But where he really looses his grip on the project is with the characters, convoluted plot, and the cringe-worthy dialogue. It’s especially painful because these guys are veterans of the B-movie circuit.

In addition to writing and directing Hell Ride, Bishop also leads a legendary cast deep into the sizzling desert. A good majority of Bishop’s performance finds him mumbling his dialogue, staring down his opponents over his slouching sunglasses, or squeezing girl’s butts in a lame attempt to show he’s a real lady-killer. Madsen brings his Elvis-like cool to the role of the Gent, but he struggles with flimsy dialogue and a lack of anything substantial to do aside from standing around. Balfour does a surprisingly decent job at trying to hang with these grizzled beefcakes, as his character is the only one with anything resembling depth. The legendary David Carradine’s is reduced to being strapped to a chair and carefully growling bland dialogue at Bishop. Dennis Hopper seems to be having a grand old time back on his hog, but weirdly, Bishop seems like he is constantly restraining him when he should be letting him go full crazy. Rounding out the cast is Vinnie Jones as the wildly profane Billy Wings, a ruthless villain that is largely absent until the final stretch. Overall, for all the talent involved with Hell Ride, the entire project comes off as cheap and amateurish, which is perplexing because it should have been a rock-solid, testosterone-fueled thrill ride. To make it worse, the plot is like a tangled ball of yarn that Bishop can’t even sort out. This rusty clunker would have been better suited as a brief three-minute faux trailer in Grindhouse. It would have been a hell of a lot more fun.

Grade: D-

Hell Ride is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

TRAILER TUESDAY!

“His anger is building…and it’s going to explode!” Here is the trailer for the 1977 AIP exploitation picture Rolling Thunder, directed by John Flynn.

PS– Keep an eye out for a young Tommy Lee Jones!

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Lone Survivor (2013)

Lone Survivor 2013

by Steve Habrat

Way back in 2012, one of the first films that kicked off the summer movie season was director Peter Berg’s sci-fi Hasbro epic Battleship, which ended up being one of the biggest flops at the box office that summer. Whether you loved or loathed Berg’s aquatic aliens-vs.-humans blockbuster, it was clear that he is a very patriotic gentleman. A little over a year and a half later, Berg returns to the big screen with Lone Survivor, a breathtaking true war story that sheds the cartoonish Navy propaganda of Battleship and embraces a hair-raising grittiness that drops you right into the cold heart of combat. While Lone Survivor can be accused of bookending itself with the typical war movie sentiments (brotherly bonds, lump-in-the-throat jingoism), the film avoids clichéd mediocrity through the fluid chemistry between its hardened cast members, it’s pulse-pounding gunfights, and a shell-shocking brutality that leaves you sore and aching for hours after seeing it. More importantly, Berg works in a nerve-racking moral debate, which he uses to set the character’s fates into doomed motion.

Lone Survivor tells the true story of four Navy SEALs, Petty Officer Second Class Marcus Luttrell (played by Mark Wahlberg), Lieutenant Michael Murphy (played by Taylor Kitsch), Sonar Technician Matt Axelson (played by Ben Foster), and communications officer Danny Dietz (played by Emile Hirsch), who were sent into the rocky hills of Afghanistan to gather surveillance on Ahmad Shahd, a high-ranking member of the Taliban. The SEALs set up camp just outside the village where Shahd is believed to be hiding, but their position is soon compromised after three goat herders happen to stumble upon their position. The SEALs take the goat herders prisoner, but after a lengthy debate about whether to kill them or let them go, the SEALs decide to let them go back to their village. But soon after being letting them go, the goat herders quickly report the run-in to Shahd, who orders a small army of Taliban soldiers to take to the hills and smoke out the Americans. With poor radio connection and no way out, the outnumbered SEALs are forced to engage the charging Taliban forces in a gunfight until they are able to radio the nearby American base for extraction or reinforcements.

Given the film’s title, it is no secret that only one soldier (Luttrell) makes it out alive from this confrontation. Still, Berg ups the film’s tension considerably, and he applies a bruising realism that practically blasts you from your chair. Berg begins the film with stock footage of soldiers in basic training, reconfiguring themselves to be able to endure the intensities of war and the unforgiving environments where they may fight. It’s pretty captivating stuff, and you can’t help but admire these men for doing this, but when our four protagonists are wedged into the rocky Afghani terrain and taking bullets from all angles, it’s truly difficult to imagine that the wounds suffered are met simply with loud groans and a quick grits of their teeth. Rest assured that realism wins out, especially when a heavily wounded Dietz goes into shock after taking a few bullets and having several of his fingers shot off. And then there is the violence itself, which ranges from a nauseating decapitation early on, and then culminates in compound fractures, shrapnel protruding from legs, and spraying gunshot wounds that are executed with exploding squibs and red corn syrup, which gives the violence an extra punch that isn’t shaken off easily. What truly is astonishing is that these four men were able to keep their composures, even after tumbling down rocky cliffs and clearly suffering unimaginable internal injuries that must have been excruciating.

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Berg’s swipes at realism are also aided by the performances from Wahlberg, Kitsch, Foster, and Hirsch, who all seem to instantly click as a unit. Over the past several years, Wahlberg has worked hard to establish himself as a serious actor, and with Lone Survivor, he continues to earn our respect. His performance as Luttrell is one that the audience really feels as he drags himself over jagged rock and collapses in a nearby stream. Kitsch, who was the star of Berg’s Battleship, gives an authoritative performance as Mike Murphy, the group’s leader who has the final say over how to deal with their grim situation. Foster, an actor who has always remained shy of the mainstream, contributes an impressive performance as Axelson, a man who was willing to do whatever it took to keep his fellow brothers alive. Then we have Hirsch as Dietz, the boyish communications officer that slips into shock after having several of his fingers taken off by whizzing bullets. When they are all together, the group really makes the brotherly camaraderie seem natural, even if they sometimes flirt with burly clichés. Rounding out the main cast is Eric Bana as Lieutenant Commander Erik S. Kristensen, who attempted to lead the rushed rescue mission that ended tragically. Also on board is Ali Suliman as Mohammad Gulab, the kindly Afghani villager who was willing to do whatever he could to protect the horribly injured Luttrell.

While Lone Survivor is certainly gripping and unforgiving, the film isn’t completely immune to a few creeping clichés. There are the expected slow-motion acts of heroism that coax tears to the eyes of the viewer, and the brotherly bonds, while convincing, are laid on pretty thick. Clichés aside, Lone Survivor’s real problem shows up when the guns start blazing and the grenades start exploding. The action looks, sounds, and flows spectacularly, but Berg allows it to overshadow his human subjects, which results in speculation that the filmmakers may have cared more about making an action picture rather than remaining fixed on the men who fell in this fight. Still, these complaints are minor, and they are neutralized by the moral debate at the film’s turning point. Watching the SEALs deliberate the fates of the three goat herders—a group that consists of an elderly man, a teenager, and a young boy—is something that will really ignite conversation when the credits roll. Overall, stretches of Lone Survivor will feel slightly familiar to most audience members, but Berg and his cast do a fine job at paying tribute to the men who lost their lives during Operation Red Wings. It’s a tribute made with scorching realism and teary-eyed patriotism, sending you away with a renewed appreciation for those who lay down their lives for freedom.

Grade: B+

TRAILER TUESDAY!

“If you’ve got to fight — fight dirty!” Here is the trailer for the 1974 exploitation classic The Street Fighter, starring Sonny Chiba and directed by Shigehiro Ozawa.

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

Catching Fire #1

by Steve Habrat

Last year, a little movie called The Hunger Games snuck into theaters and became a monster hit. Remaining number one for several weeks and earning rave reviews from both audiences and critics, it was clear which young-adult-novel-turned-blockbuster-movie was filling the space left open by the Harry Potter series and the concluding Twilight series. With Lionsgate clearly understanding they have a major moneymaker on their hands, the studio furiously got to work on a follow-up that is dropping a little over a year after the first film. Among the big blockbusters bringing 2013 to a close is director Francis Lawrence’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, an inevitably darker middle chapter that is surprisingly thoughtful and entertaining, something you’d never imagine from a film that was slapped together in a rush for a big payday. With star Jennifer Lawrence still bringing down the house as the girl on fire herself, Katniss Everdeen, Catching Fire allows the talented young star to dig into the trauma left over from the first film and in the process, give audiences a resilient heroine who refuses to go down without a fight. I’ll take Miss Everdeen’s rebellious spunk over Bella Swan’s angsty high school drama any day, and it appears that quite possibly America is feeling the same way!

Catching Fire picks up several months after the 74th annual Hunger Games, with Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence) still coming to terms with some of the horrors that she saw during the games. On the eve of the Hunger Games Victory Tour, President Snow (played by Donald Sutherland) pays an unexpected visit to Katniss and her family. President Snow warns Katniss that she needs to continue with her fake romance with fellow Hunger Games winner Peeta Mellark (played by Josh Hutcherson) in order to calm the unrest brewing in the districts. If she doesn’t comply, Snow will kill both her family and Gale Hawthorne (played by Liam Hemsworth), the mineworker Katniss has been carrying on a secret romance with. Katniss agrees to continue on with the charade, but as the Victory Tour gets underway, she sees what her win has meant to the twelve districts and the brutality being carried out by Snow’s forces. With rebellion on the horizon, Snow and new Gamekeeper Plutarch Heavensbee (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman) devise a new way to eliminate Katniss and crush the hopes of the twelve districts. They decide to recruit all the previous winners from past games to compete against each other, drawing out some of the most dangerous contestants in the area. Realizing that Peeta and Katniss have their backs against the wall, mentors Haymitch Abernathy (played by Woody Harrelson) and Effie Trinket (played by Elizabeth Banks) get to work preparing the kids for this new game.

At nearly two and a half hours long, you could almost split Catching Fire into two different movies. The first half of the film dares to be intimate with the trauma that Katniss and Peeta suffer from and how their lives have been changed forever. They are yanked from district to district, paraded in front of grieving families who were forced to give up one of their own to the games, while scraggly town citizens look on with a mixture of awe and resentment. One particular scene has Katniss tearfully recalling her fallen friend Rue, a tearjerker moment nicely followed by that famed whistle and three finger salute. It is within these scenes that we get to see the extent of Snow’s brutality and manipulation, as his masked forces, known as Peacekeepers, pump bullets into the heads of anyone who dares show hints of rebellion. They flood into districts, trash homes and markets, and install a whipping post for anyone who acts out. As the anger simmers and director Lawrence ventures to the lavish capital where elite citizens, who sip drinks to purge their full bellies in order to eat more, rub elbows, you’ll begin to see this is going the route of class warfare. There appears to be no middle class, just those with everything and those with almost nothing. It’s heavy stuff for a young adult story, especially when Snow and Heavensbee begin discussing how to control the masses. They devise puff pieces that divert the attention of the public, blinding them to the violence and oppression spilling into the streets. It’s within this first hour that Catching Fire really does ignite, effectively earning its right to brood and scowl.

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As we enter the second hour of Catching Fire, we begin meeting all sorts of different characters that seem to be introduced simply so we know who the hell they are in the third film. They are all characters that we want more from (Jenna Malone’s Johanna Mason, Amanda Plummer’s Wiress, Lynn Cohens’s Mags, to name a few), but sadly, Lawrence is forced to cover so much ground that he just can’t quite balance everything out. He has to maintain focus on Katniss and Peeta as they battle for their lives on a tropical island with as many manipulated threats as well as flesh and blood threats. There are spots where the pacing seems to stall as the contestants attempt to make sense of a lightning tree, poisonous CGI fog, CGI mandrills, and, yes, CGI tidal waves—computerized threats that drown out the human dangers that prowl that tangled mess of vines and leaves. Furthermore, the film asks us to really care when several secondary characters are killed; something that is extremely difficult considering that we have barely been gives the chance to get to know some of them. When several of the contestants finally group together to stay alive and more secrets emerge from the island itself, things manage to perk up and the thrills once again pack their punch in the grim final stretch.

As far as the A-list cast is concerned, Jennifer Lawrence is top dog once again. She’s a feisty heroine who isn’t afraid to let the world see a few tears stream down her face. Whether she is in the concrete streets of one of the districts or in the sweltering heat of the island, she remains the poised hellraiser that we fell in love with in the first film. At times, the script threatens to allow a Twilight-esque love story take control of her character, Lawrence places her character’s love life on the back burner, something that is solidly believable considering the harsh realities of the world she inhabits. Hutcherson’s Peeta is still the softie with clear feelings for Katniss, feelings that go beyond a simple friendship. Hemsworth is still underused as Gale, the beefy blue-collar mineworker who swoons for Katniss and isn’t afraid to fight back against the ruthless Peacekeepers. Banks and Harrelson are still as colorful as ever as fashionista Effie and drunken Haymitch, the eccentric mentors to Peeta and Katniss. Sutherland is still commanding as the calculating dictator Snow, who is willing to kill as many people as he needs to in order to keep his citizens in line. Hoffman is equally cruel and savage as Heavensbee, the ruthless new Gamekeeper that will stop at nothing to make sure Katniss perishes in the game. Other newcomers include Jeffrey Wright as the brainy Beetee, Plummer as Beetee’s sidekick Wiress, Jena Malone as the axe-wielding Johanna, and Sam Clafin as the charming new ally Finnick.

Compared to the original film, Catching Fire expands its scope and improves its special effects, but there are places where the computerized wizardry still looks dated. The sprawling shots of the Panem capital look great, the fire that was ablaze on Katniss’s dress has improved, and the futuristic shuttles the glide above the capital are convincing, but the poisonous fog looks cheap, the tidal waves appear rushed, and a spinning portion of the island looks way too cartoonish for its own good. One aspect that I am particularly torn over is the way the film ends, in a “to be continued…” style that doesn’t allow this installment any sense of closure, something I found immensely infuriating. However, despite leaving the door wide open, I did admire the way the film sprung multiple twists and turns in the story in such a short period of time, and I particularly liked the final blow that is sure to leave members of the audience gasping in shock. Overall, while the second half may pale in comparison to the first and some of the characters may be left a bit underdeveloped, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire still rewards with a smart script, a darker tone, and a fantastic performance from Jennifer Lawrence. Bring on round three!

Grade: B  

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