Ouija Review

Still from Ouija 1

In 1890, businessman Elijah Bond introduced the Ouija board as a commercial product. It was a parlor game referred to as a spirit board in which participants would place their hands on a planchette hovering above the board. Supposedly, spirits would lead the planchette across the board of letters and numbers to communicate with the living. Of course, once the planchette starts moving, it feels more like a guessing game of who is moving it. It was later deemed more supernatural by spiritualists who try to find ghosts and demons in anything. From that very thin concept for a game that is primarily played at sleepovers, Platinum Dunes has warped the board from wood to screen in a thoroughly confusing and tired horror film. There are some deeper origins in the assembly of the planchette, but that would be far too intriguing for this throwaway thrill.

The movie begins with a gaggle of girls trying to scare themselves by contacting the dead with the infamous board. They get a little spooked and stop. Years later, the girls have turned teenager and Debbie finds herself digging the old oak out for a singular contact with the other realm. After some moving of the planchette, she tosses the board into her active fireplace as if the board had been tormenting her throughout her life. But to her surprise the board returns and the planchette apparently turns her eyes completely white. It apparently doesn’t blind her as she is able to pick up the plugged in Christmas tree lights, fashion a noose out of them and hang herself from the second story of her house.

After the funeral, her friends find the board as well and for some strange reason decide to play the game. There’s hardly any explanation given for this as the plot has to keep moving. They all gather around a dark room and attempt to speak with the dead. The planchette moves and responds to their queries. They assume the spirit moving along the board is the ghost of Debbie as she warns them of a crazy mother. One of them picks up the planchette and Debbie can be seen from the glass piece with her mouth sewn shut. She points to another ghost which is a screaming old woman that attacks them. Golly, gang, a mystery needs solving!

The mystery does attempt to throw a few twists into the mix with discovering the scary child and mother that haunt Debbie’s house. The problem is there is little explanation given for any of the creepiness. The ghost of the house apparently can take hold of your body once you look through the planchette which makes your eyes go white and your mind suicidal. But the rules keep changing as others who have the look of death in their eye can infect others with a shocking scream. What is this evil force that consumes them and why does it need them to kill themselves? It’s revealed by a surviving elder of the old, dead and crazy that the only way to stop all the madness is to burn the corpse of the ghost and the ouija board. Except we’ve already established that burning the ouija board does nothing but bring it back.

Even if you can toss all the supernatural nonsense with no rules, this horror film screws up the one thing that could’ve saved it: the scares. Not only are the frights not scary, but they give warnings far in advance. Word to the wise for directors who want to do jump scares: don’t build up any anticipation by placing in moments of brief quiet. Such build has to warrant a terrifying visage and not just the expected tricks. Maybe it’s now a requirement by the MPAA that PG-13 horror movies need to have that advanced warning for anything scary.

Still from Ouija 2Ouija could have had the potential as one of those amusing ghost stories for teens, but it squanders any logic or terror that may have been there. In other words, the movie plays out exactly like you’d expect with a thin script and light attempts at horror. I’ve never actually played with a Ouija board before, but I wager it’s probably a lot more fun than the cinematography in this movie makes it out to be. In that sense, Ouija appears more like an elongated commercial for the game complete with a visible spirit grabbing one’s hand and guiding it across the board. But, wait, if you can see and hear the spirit at some point, why does the ghost need to use your hand to speak? I can just see Platinum Dunes taking a shot at making a spooky Magical 8-Ball picture in which a visible ghost makes you shake the ball so that it can speak.

Rated 1 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark McPherson, CinemaParadiso.co.uk

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Norte: The End of History Review

Still from Norte: The End of History 1

Out of the Philippines comes the captivating 2013 film Norte: The End Of History. For 250 minutes (four hours and ten minutes), you are taken on a ride that contains interesting characters, intelligent dialogue, and commentary on the state of Philippine society.

In the span of one day, three lives are thrown into utter chaos, with none able to be the same again. We follow a law student who commits a double murder but avoids capture; a family man who faces the true murderer’s harsh prison sentence; and a mother with their two kids that walk the desolate countryside whilst seeking redemption.

I have to begin with the cinematography by director Lav Diaz. Diaz did an excellent job at capturing the desolate landscapes, which was shown at length in the drawn-out long shots. It didn’t need to use green-screen or other filmmaking ‘cheats’, and was a true capturing of the beauty and bleakness of nature.

Still from Norte: The End of History 2Not all films are about car chases, pretty ladies, and shoot ‘em ups. The film’s creators introduce interesting characters, delve into issues not commonly expressed so thoroughly, and wrap-up in not the most happiest way. With it being so long in duration, you could rightly think it drags on, but there is no wasted moment and it all adds to the whole film.

I had never heard of any of these actors and actresses before. Because of this, I was able to see them entirely as the characters, and let them live these lives.

Norte: The End Of History makes its point but loses some momentum and interest when the shots go too long. I understand that it is Diaz’s technique, but when it happens so often over the four hour duration, it starts to feel old.

A backing soundtrack is one of the most over-looked parts of a feature film. In Norte, the use of silence draws immense attention to itself, elevating the film’s atmosphere. We don’t have the music to help us know how to feel about a scene, and instead are forced to contemplate it along with the characters.

For the most part, critic and audience responses are in-line with my review. It has achieved very positive feedback and has won numerous awards (from acting to its technical production).

What I love about film festivals, is that it is the perfect place to find gems like this. It is here that independent films and those from smaller countries can take the stage and show that Hollywood is not the only creator of brilliant films.

For some, it will be too long (and this isn’t even Diaz’s longest film), but it is worth the time. It is also probably best not to read too many reviews from Diaz’s hard-core fans, because their position elevates his interesting work to impossible levels of brilliance.

Will this become a cult hit? I doubt it, but I definitely respect the experimentation and think everyone involved did a great job.

Rated 3 out of 5

Reviewed by Michelle Sommerville, CinemaParadiso.co.uk

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To Be Takei Review

Still from To Be Takei 1

The documentary To Be Takei takes us on a light and breezy stroll with the famed Star Trek actor. Made clear by his constant string of work and a highly active social media presence, George Takei has never slowed down and we never once see him relax in this documentary. He’s always buzzing, moving, talking and smiling with more projects in the making than any other Star Trek cast member. This documentary gives us some insight into his life with a handful of interviews detailing his life, his career, his politics and his general nature. It’s not exactly the hardest or revealing of subject matter, but it sure does manage to crack a smile.

Though ever the optimist and positive influence, Takei doesn’t shy away from his dark past of tragedy and suffering. He speaks with great detail, to both the camera and many foundations, about what it was like growing up in a Japanese-American internment camp. He relays the hardships for his parents that he had to endure from having his life turned upside down. Though he was released from the camps at a fairly early age, his pain was far from over. After discovering his homosexual orientation, it opened up a strange, frightening and wonderful new world for him. It was one that he would have to keep bottled, however, for his career in acting was just getting off the ground.

Star Trek opened up new ground not just for Takei, but for Asian-Americans desiring more from media than the usual stereotypical portrayals. Many would grow up to recognize Takei as the helmsmen of the USS Enterprise, Hikaru Sulu. It was a revolutionary show to be apart of with a highly diverse cast for its time with challenging parables. Takei had a quite a lot to do on the show as in his favorite episode, The Naked Time, where he got to take off his shirt and galavant around the ship with a fencing sword. The writers originally conceived him brandishing a samurai sword, but a fencing sword meant so much more to Takei since he was inspired as a boy by Errol Flynn’s swordplay in Robin Hood. To be able to relay that same inspiration to a new generation and an entire race must’ve been an incredible experience.

But Takei didn’t have as much luck after the series ended. He starred in a series of very offensive roles that were the exact opposite of what he was aiming for. He also had to hide his homosexuality for several decades more. But there were some glimmers of hope as in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country where Sulu had moved up in rank to captain of his own starship. To Takei, that was the Sulu Star Trek movie in which he swoops in to save the day.

After much political tension circling gay marriage, Takei stood silent no longer. When he finally came out to the public, it was a huge relief. He’d always been so upbeat, but now he was ecstatic to finally be honest with himself. The public mostly greeted him with open arms, the gay community propped him up as a spokesperson and his trademark “oh my” became the battle cry of the strange and beautiful. A handful of interviews follow Takei’s appearance on the Howard Stern show, a program in which most guests get rather personal with Howard’s direct questioning. The format clearly helped Takei relax and just be himself after years of doing the opposite.

The sections of the film that are not relegated to talking heads is a road trip through Takei’s regular routine. We see how he preps for his various gigs, attends interview programs and signs autographs at conventions. This is a man who simply does not turn off the charm even around his nervous wreck of a husband. The two of them go up to a mountain to spread some ashes of their relatives, but still treats the sorrowful trip with a slight twinge of humor. Takei remarks that while the ashes may be in the mountain, some of the relative’s ashes would end up at the cleaners having been blown into his clothing. It’s also rather amusing how the two of them find it hard to ignore the camera, commenting on if they should do another take or when to cut.

Still from To Be Takei 2To Be Takei is as charming as the man himself, but also just as heartfelt and sweet. It puts his life on display with some great archival footage, humorous animations and smile-worthy bits of Takei just being himself. Though his optimism never seemed to diminish, Takei seems far happier in his twilight years with his own stage production, too many gigs to count and a spouse he couldn’t be happier with. Curiously missing from the documentary is the one-on-one he had with a member of the Westboro Baptist Church that ruthlessly despises his homosexuality. Whereas every other person would blow up at the furious hatred in the Church’s heart, Takei holds his ground with remarkable calm and focused debate skills. You just can’t break that unbeatable smile.

Rated 4 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark McPherson, CinemaParadiso.co.uk

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Of Horses and Men Review

Still from Of Horses and Men 1

‘Odd’, ‘confusing’, and ‘horses’. These were my first thoughts for Of Horses and Men. After watching the film, not much changed in my opinion. However, there were still elements that really attracted me, such as its short-story-esque narratives. It is also a foreign-language film with English subtitles, making it not everyone’s cup of tea.

Human relationships are hard enough, but when you experience the love for an animal, it is a whole other thing. Of Horses and Men is a combination of different stories that give us an insight into a handful of characters and their relationships with their horses. The stories interlock brilliantly, each exploring the events with a dark-comedic style.

Written and Directed by Benedikt Erlingsson (with a more extensive acting resume than his other works), Of Horses and Men contains witty and intelligent dialogue, with stories and characters that are entertaining.

Not only were the actors brilliant in their portrayals, but the horses were excellent. The latter were not merely props, but often were the main characters, and through whose eyes we viewed the human characters and events. It is interesting to note that the cast all knew how to ride and handle the horses, so all we see of them together is actually the cast and not doubles.

As both an aspiring novelist and filmmaker, I love that Erlingsson has found a way to combine the two in a way unlike we usually see. The film is made up of approximately six separate stories, all with similar themes, but allowing the individual characters to lead in different ways. There is one main story, but the way they all interact with each other is flawlessly done.

Still from Of Horses and Men 2The scenery was beautiful and raw, with a true sense of realism. We don’t have the rolling green pastures that dazzle on camera, and instead are shown an expanse both stunning and daunting in its vast emptiness. The majority of the film takes place in the outdoors, and it is clear the connection to nature is also a big part of the characters.

One point I have to commend greatly, is the way Erlingsson introduced each new ‘chapter’. We see the reflection of the character in the eyes of the horses, and while we don’t really view the movie through their eyes, it is a creative way to begin each story.

I will give this warning: the film contains some very unpleasant moments. Not all are what I would call ‘necessary’, and bring down the overall enjoyment of the film.

Despite some of its flaws, the film has received overwhelmingly positive critic and audience reviews.

It is a comedy, drama, and romance all creatively rolled into one, without losing track of the characters and their individual storylines. I am not usually one to experiment too much with films, but that is definitely something this film challenges me to change. It is original, and a film you should add to your ‘must see’ list.

Rated 2 out of 5

Reviewed by Michelle Sommerville, CinemaParadiso.co.uk

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My Old Lady Review

Still from My Old Lady 1

Going into this film, I did not know what to expect. I had not read or heard anything about it, and the poster gave little away. My Old Lady, while not my type of film, did have interesting characters that drove the film along. It is a Dramatic Comedy that I don’t see making too much of a splash in the industry. It was nothing new, but it did well with the basics.

The film follows Mathias Gold (played by Kevin Kline), an American from New York who has just inherited, from his father, an apartment in Paris. It is only upon arrival, that he discovers Mathilde Girard (Maggie Smith). Mathilde is an elderly woman who resides in the house, and, along with her daughter (Kristin Scott Thomas), cause Gold more fuss than he could ever have expected.

I do not think anyone can deny the acting brilliance of Maggie Smith. Whether you have seen her in the Harry Potter series, or films for older audiences, she always manages to steal the show. Her co-stars – Kevin Kline and Kristin Scott Thomas – were hard-pressed in rivalling her immense talent and experience. That is not to say that they were not good, but Smith was the best. It could not have been easy to play these intricate characters, so kudos to them all.

Disappointingly, despite the good acting, the story was boring and drawn-out. I did not engage with it, and was not eager to know how it would end. The characters were the driving force, but also not entirely likeable. It was only during the latter half of the film that the story become really interesting, and if you made it this far, you most likely stayed till the end.

Being filmed in Paris, France, it is no surprise that the film had some breathtaking scenery. The house in question was also lovely, and is arguably the film’s fourth main character.

Still from My Old Lady 2As I said before, the characters were what kept the film going. They were brilliantly created by Israel Horowitz, who managed to, as the film progressed, uncover layer upon layer of their characters. While a lot of their backstories revolved around the same issues – their relationships with their mothers or fathers – each of the main characters dealt with it in a different way.

My Old Lady has achieved impressive box office earnings, but has not faired quite as positively with critic and audience reviews. Complaints focus on the film’s slow progressing storyline, with audiences finding it difficult to maintain attention.

While this is not my type of film, it was not the worst out there, and I am sure there are those that will like it – particularly if you like films such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, or The Hundred Foot Journey.

The film is probably not the best for younger audiences. It does not contain anything overly inappropriate, but it does not seem to be something that would keep them entertained. Check it out for yourself.

Rated 3 out of 5

Reviewed by Michelle Sommerville, CinemaParadiso.co.uk

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Life Itself Review

Still from Life Itself 1

Life Itself turns the camera around to focus on the medium’s greatest critic: Roger Ebert. The plump movie lover was well-regarded for his many movie reviews, countless books, film courses, film festivals and, of course, the Siskel & Ebert television program that coined the “thumbs up” rating. Whether you agreed or disagreed with his opinions, he always seemed to be present in the film community as a man who could both uplift a small film of brilliance and decimate a mega blockbuster of cliche. In the wake of his death in 2013, this documentary takes a hard look at Ebert from his early days up to his final months where he was still typing away his next review.

Director Steve James visits Ebert in his twilight days at the hospital for more rehab. Despite the loss of his voice from surgeries, Roger was still in high spirits through all his pain and struggles. Through his computer voice, he urges Steve to film himself in the mirror so that he can be in the movie as well. One of his grandchildren shows him a Lady Gaga toothbrush to which Ebert bashes it against his head in humorous annoyance. He’s even cracking jokes with the people around him with what little communication he has to work with. In between his visits, Steve sends Ebert questions over email that he answers with his trademark wit and elegance in writing. At one point Ebert comments on how he was glad that Steve James wasn’t afraid to film the suction of his neck. He wanted everybody to see him for all that he was and not just a faceless critic saddled behind his blog.

Lifting bits from his autobiography of the same title, Life Itself takes aim at Ebert’s life as a whole rather than just his career. Through various interviews with his friends, we learn about Ebert’s early struggles with alcohol and his questionable taste in women. Through various critics and directors, we try to comprehend his motive for writing the screenplay to Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Through many filmmakers, we learn how Ebert was able to uplift early directors with his reviews that gave attention to otherwise unnoticed talent. In particular, Martin Scorsese becomes rather choked up when the only thing that managed to get him through his rough life was Ebert’s glowing words of his early films. He must’ve just been a mess when Ebert actually invited him onto his television program to discuss the best films of the 1990’s with one of Ebert’s being Goodfellas.

Of course, the rivalry between him and Gene Siskel is covered which is how most people first came to know the man. It comes as not much of a surprise that neither one wanted anything to do with one another. It also doesn’t come as a surprise that they’d bicker about everything from who gets first billing to where they would eat that day. Though they appeared laughably dated and amateur in their first few years, something magical happened from their bickering: there was serious movie talk on television. At times when critics didn’t receive screenings for films big or small, Siskel and Ebert would talk about them. When movies seemed to be changing with the culture, you could bet Siskel and Ebert would address it on their program. While they viciously attacked each other verbally on and off the small screen, their love of movies brought these polar opposites together that eventually bred a sort of brotherly bond.

While there is plenty of archival footage to be found on Ebert’s long running movie review program, Life Itself chooses to focus on the lesser seen aspects. There is footage from his wedding to Chaz. There are photos of him with hopeful filmmakers who were honored to have their small films seen and reviewed by such a figure. There is even some footage of Ebert just relaxing and having fun with his grandchildren that is remarkable to see. Accompanying all this are Ebert’s own words, either through his computer voice or his audio book reader, displaying just how poetic one man could be even when his voice left. As someone who used to watch his program and read his articles almost religiously as a young adult, it was surreal and glorifying to see an icon I admired so human and complete. He was somebody I appreciated not just as a critic, but as a human being. His personality, encyclopedic knowledge of film and intelligent wizardry of the pen made him so much more than any other critic could offer.

Still from Life Itself 2Life Itself is a simply wonderful film about the man who many of us let into our homes once a week for advice on movies. He redefined how we perceive and view the medium by bringing true movie criticism to the forefront of mainstream culture. Much like Gene who died doing what he love, Ebert never slowed down and never lost his drive. Even after losing his jaw, he kept writing reviews and even kept a syndicated movie review program going. Ebert’s passion held fast longer than his body through all his pains and frustrations that we see on screen. He did not just die with dignity; he died having lived one of the most profound lives any human could hope for. One of his many parting words he states as he approaches death’s door is that our true purpose in life is to make each other happy. For someone who still gets joy out of viewing the archival footage of his show and the musings of his many novels, I’d like to think Ebert surpassed his mission.

Rated 5 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark McPherson, CinemaParadiso.co.uk

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15 Romantic Films for Valentine’s Day

Happy Valentine's Day

It’s another year where chocolates and flowers skyrocket off the shelves with every couple celebrating the day of romance. It’s a busy little day for specializing in all the lovey-dovey with the potential for grand public gestures and decadent dinners. But what happens when your plans fall through or you don’t happen to have that special someone in your life quite yet? Why not stay in and take in a romantic movie. Forget all the dressing up and hectic scheduling of dinner plans and horse carriage rides. Forget scouring dating sites and ploughing through your contact list finding something to do. Relax on the couch, pop in one of these romantic movies and gorge yourself on those heart-shaped containers of candy. Your favourite restaurant may be all booked up and your future sweetheart may still be waiting out there for you, but these movies will always be here. Not to mention Valentine’s Day is on a Saturday this year so that should entitle you to a little bit of relaxation.

15. The Spectacular Now

If the usual crop of romance aimed at the younger crowd seem far too artificial, The Spectacular Now is a welcoming breath of fresh air. Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley play an unlikely pair of high school seniors that end up falling for each other. What follows is a high school romance that taps into all the pains and joys of youthful love that only writer Michael Weber (500 Days of Summer) could deliver. None of the dialogue feels forced and none of their actions feel manufactured. As far as young romances about transitioning into adulthood go, The Spectacular Now is one of the best for not condescending to its demographic.

Still from The Spectacular Now
14. Warm Bodies

Sure, we could put Twilight on this list as a shameless bit of horror romance, but Warm Bodies manages to capitalize on the cross-genre experience with the right amount of comedy. A zombie finds himself attracted to a human female in the wake of a zombie apocalypse. Evolving past his base needs for human flesh, the zombie dubbed R learns to better himself for his Julie and perhaps cure the world of its bloody epidemic. Warm Bodies is not the first film to attempt such a concept, but it is the one horror-romance with the most charm and tenderness to actually run with such a love story and make it competent. It’s an easy recommendation as an off-beat romance for the horror lover.

Still from Warm Bodies
13. Sleepless in Seattle

If An Affair to Remember seems a tad too dated, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan provide a suitable modern remake of the 1957 classic. Hanks plays a single father seeking a better life after the death of his wife. His little boy calls into a radio program for help getting his dad a wife. Enter Meg Ryan as a Baltimore journalist genuinely interested in the man despite currently being married. It’s a long-distance love that eventually leads up to the infamous Valentine’s Day convergence atop the Empire State Building. With a fateful meeting and a cute kid, it’s an easy play for the heart.

Still from Sleepless in Seattle
12. Enough Said

One of James Gandolfini’s last films also happens to be his most tender performance for a man best known as an on-screen mobster. He connects with Julia Louis-Dreyfus as they are both divorced parents who begin to connect with wonderful chemistry. While Dreyfus perfectly plays a woman still hung-up on her ex, Gandolfini displays a kinder and gentler side as a sweetly funny man trying to deal with his empty nest. With its surprisingly sharp wit and genuine comedy, Enough Said is an exceptional bit of romance for the older audience.

Still from Enough Said
11. The Fault in Our Stars

Love comes in all shapes and sizes. It can be found anywhere be it a high school dance or, in the case of The Fault in Our Stars, a cancer support group. Hazel and Augustus are two patients who may have different types of cancer, but share in their love literature. Confused about the ending of a certain novel, the two set off on a trip to Amsterdam for the author to tell them in person. Without going too over the top with its dramatic scenario, the romantic journey of these two is treated with intelligence and humour that the sadness of a tragic end doesn’t feel so artificial. It’s a worthy tear-jerker for all its ambition.

Still from The Fault in Our Stars
10. The Best of Me

Nicholas Sparks’ bittersweet romance novels seem tailor made for Valentine’s Day since just about every film adaptation of his books is released around this time. The Best of Me is yet another title to add to that list. Michelle Monaghan and James Marsden play former high school sweethearts that find each other once again after 20 years apart. A friend’s funeral doesn’t exactly make for the best reunion and it turns out they both still have conflicting forces pushing them away from each other. Directed by Michael Hoffman, The Best of Me delivers on all the expected melodrama we’ve come to expect from a Nicholas Sparks story.

Still from The Best of Me
9. Say When

For the young woman who just isn’t quite ready for that big commitment, Say When offers up a pleasing bit of dramedy for the quarter-life crisis. Keira Knightley ends up making friends with a younger Chloe Grace Moretz when she finds herself pulling back from the future. She receives a proposal for marriage, but backs out into a world of playful childhood which will not last for long. Directed by Lynn Shelton, Say When is an all-too-relatable coming-of-age scenario for any woman on the brink of a romantic crossroads.

Still from Say When
8. When Harry Met Sally

Easily the most famous of all movie romances for its unforgettable deli scene about sexuality. Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan play two very open individuals about how men and women connect. Over the course of a drive, they bounce around ideas regarding if sex can get in the way of the opposite sexes being just friends. Director Rob Reiner provides a personal touch having made this film after his recent divorce. The result is a romantic comedy with perfect chemistry and hilariously telling lines. It’s a film immortalized by one of cinema’s greatest punchlines “I’ll have what she’s having” in response to Sally faking an orgasm in a deli.

Still from When Harry Met Sally
7. P.S. I Love You

For the grieving widow or a lover who just wants to cry, P.S. I Love You carries the idea of how a loved one can stay with you long after their passing. Hilary Swank plays a wife who loses her husband Gerard Butler to a brain tumor. But after his passing, Butler leaves Swank a series of messages designed to help her climb out of her hole of sadness. Based on the best-selling novel by Cecelia Ahern, P.S. I Love You is a bit of a fantasy given how many messages Butler leaves behind, but what woman wouldn’t want this extra adventure to feel just a little bit closer after losing their own partner?

Still from P.S. I Love You
6. If Only

Jennifer Love Hewitt and Paul Nicholls connect as a couple in London. But when their storybook love is cut short by Hewitt’s passing, Nicholls is surprisingly given a second shot at love for one day. In what he believes to be his last day with the woman he loves, Nicholls takes Hewitt out on the town for the time of her life. Mostly ignored by critics, If Only is a bittersweet tale romance built for the tears by director Gil Junger (10 Things I Hate About You).

Still from If Only
5. The Notebook

When it comes to romantic tear-jerkers, The Notebook is the go-to title for weeping rivers. It’s a story of how the love of Noah (Ryan Gosling) and Allie (Rachel McAdams) can transcend several barriers. From ignorant parents to World War II to the unfortunate effects of dementia, these two always end up back in each other’s arms. For it’s tale of love that lasts the ages, The Notebook is sure to please all romantic viewers from the love-crazy teenagers to the cosy elderly couples.

Still from The Notebook
4. Love Actually

Though seemingly built more for the Christmas season, Love Actually is the romantic movie equal of a box of chocolates. You open it up and you’re presented with a variety of love tales. With more than a dozen different characters followed on Christmas in London, there is plenty to love in a stellar cast that includes Keira Knightley, Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman just to name a few. It’s a sweet bit of comforted joy presented by master romance director Richard Curtis (Notting Hill).

Still from Love Actually
3. Notting Hill

Continents collide when Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts fall for each other in Notting Hill. Rather than go straight for the sweet stuff, director Roger Michell teases the audience by letting their romance blossom on screen for a longer period of time than normal. The chemistry of a female movie star and a London bookseller plays out slowly, giving us plenty of time to buy into their characters as real people. For most audiences it would be enough to see Grant and Roberts hook up quickly on screen, but Notting Hill doesn’t skimp on the character development to make it believably evolve and be naturally funny.

Still from Notting Hill
2. The Vow

In another test-your-marriage scenario, a happily married couple is put to the test when the wife suffers memory loss from a car crash. Rachel McAdams plays the unlucky wife who cannot remember her husband played by Channing Tatum. She instead ends up falling for her former fiancé played by Scott Speedman, so it’s up to Tatum to romance his wife back into his arms. Based on the real life Carpenter couple, The Vow displays just how far a man will go to rebuild the woman he loves. A note to the guys to be ready for that moment after the movie where your partner asks if you would change anything about them. Take a cue from Tatum on this one.

Still from The Vow
1. Le Week-End

Who says romantic movies need to be relegated to the young and passionate? Le Week-End finds an English elderly couple played by Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent traveling to Paris. Their relationship is on the rocks, however, and the two find themselves bitterly bickering in the city of love. But some much needed spontaneity ends up rekindling some of that old spark. It doesn’t turn them into a rejuvenated couple overnight and still leaves some patches left to be mended, but these two ultimately end up falling for each other with all their faults. A fantastic recommendation for an older-aimed romantic comedy with a remarkable amount of honesty and emotion.

Still from Le Week-End
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Jessabelle Review

Still from Jessabelle 1

In the realm of films about paranormal horror and possession, Jessabelle is a painfully dull exercise in the routine. It’s a ghost mystery where the thrill isn’t in what the protagonist can do about it, but how she discovers the truth. This is a film that cares not for real characters that do anything interesting or enduring, but treats them as shells thrown around like dolls by the plot. We’re not interested in what anybody has to do or any logical reasoning for their actions. All that matters to this film is that the mystery go from point A to point B as quickly as possible.

The movie’s protagonist is Jessie, an unfortunate woman who loses both her husband and her unborn child in a car crash. Left immobile in a wheelchair, she decides to stay with her quiet and drunk dad in his Louisiana home. The only available room is her dead mother’s old room that dad hasn’t touched in years and actually blocked it off with furniture. Inside the room is a collection of VHS tapes recorded by Jessie’s mom that are intended for Jessie herself. It’s strange enough that this woman made all these tapes for her daughter who would never see them until she was a fully grown adult, but then she proceeds to give her daughter a tarot card reading. And, of course, the reading is bad juju.

Cue the haunted house cavalcade of spooks. Your scares for this picture include ghost children standing in the darkness, bug infestations, a slew of not-so-frightening jump scares, surgery nightmares and lots of blood to bathe in (literally). There is no tension to these scenes as none of it catches us off-guard. Is it even a surprise that a supernatural mystery on the bayou involves voodoo? The true mystery involves who Jessie’s mom is actually talking to in the video and why it might not be the same Jessie. From that minor spoiler alone, you can probably figure out the ending already. I did and found myself counting down the minutes until the “big revealing” hoping that there is little more at the end besides the not-so-thrilling shock.

Before that point, however, characters have to make really stupid decisions and sleepwalk through their actions to get to the next plot point. At one point Jessie’s dad in a fit of rage for her discovering the tapes takes a wheelchair and chucks it into the lake. He knows she is getting closer to a secret that he doesn’t want her to find out, but takes the wrong route. And apparently the rest of the community is in on the dark past as well when Jessie goes snooping further through interviews that lead to crazy women speaking in tongues and mobs assaulting her with guns. But if you already know the secret, it doesn’t seem like the biggest thing to keep hidden from a family member. Doesn’t she have the right to know? What good is going to come from keeping this tragedy a secret?

The whole mystery is ruined by the extreme lack of surprise and tension. Even the simplest of scares are ruined by poor timing and staging. A bug flies onto Jessie’s hand which surprises her and causes a glass to fall from her hand and shatter on the floor. We see the bug fly in and place itself long before she discovers it. Talk about lazy. Many of the scenes with the ghosts are almost staged like action sequences with the spirits whipping around Jessie, vomiting blood all over her face. I was tempted to see her pick up a knife or some other weapon to go all Evil Dead on the paranormal entities. It may be a stretch for her character, but some fight in her would be better than the hollow figure that doesn’t seem to do anything. Even in her wheelchair, she does little more than watch the increasingly creepy tapes and scream at the amateur spookiness.

Still from Jessabelle 2The only shining star of Jessabelle is the star itself, Sarah Snook. She puts her best foot forward in a film that is riddled with the mundane of horror concepts. The longer the film gets and the deeper the plot goes, the less intriguing and entertaining it becomes. If it had some decent frights, it could’ve held a crowd. If it had a surprising twist, it could’ve been engaging. If any horror film hopes to capture an audience, it has to climb out of the pit of cliches and provide some true thrills. Some level of competence and inventive creativity could’ve saved this bayou thriller from turning into just another bland attempt.

Rated 1 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark McPherson, CinemaParadiso.co.uk

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The Immigrant Review

Still from The Immigrant 1

James Gray’s The Immigrant is a beautiful and tragic tale of one woman’s struggle in 1920’s America. It captures the look of the era through its amber tones and period settings, but never compromises on the grimness of its debauchery. It features remarkable and complex characters, but never leads them down a predictable path. Though often dark and tearfully depressing, the rollercoaster ride of a drama it takes us on keeps this period piece incredibly infatuating for all its slow pacing.

Ewa Cybulski (Marion Cotillard) is a Polish immigrant who arrives in New York in the worst way. Her sister is detained on Ellis Island to be screened for disease and her relatives living in the city have abandoned her. With nowhere to go and no one to help her out, she is lucky enough to draw the attention of Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), a local businessman who provides her shelter. Bruno appears as a kind soul at first, warmingly inviting her into his home and explaining the ins and outs of the American system. But the more Ewa learns about him, the more fearful she becomes. Bruno runs a local strip joint and off-the-books brothel for which he forces Ewa into the fold. The girls of the business do their best to comfort her, but she still sleeps with a knife under her pillow.

She finds herself trusting no one in her laser-focused desire to be reunited with her sister. When Bruno sells her off to a customer for sexual favors, Ewa maintains her stiff upper lip and goes along with the act. But she makes it abundantly clear to Bruno that she hates him and that the sight of her sister will not grow foggy among all the filth in the world. The only friend she finds is in Bruno’s cousin Emil (Jeremy Renner), an illusionist with a heart of gold. He’s eager to get Ewa to her ultimate goal which angers Bruno. It’s not that she is Bruno’s main attraction of his show or even that she ranks in the most cash. It’s because Bruno is madly in love with Ewa, but cannot display his affection as the shrewd man of business he has become.

Marion Cotillard delivers a powerhouse performance as Ewa. Despite all her misfortunes and the lost look of melancholy eternally etched on her face, the character still keeps the hope buried under her exterior. On the outside she is a frightened woman who acts like a deer in headlights. But on the inside she has a primal force of survival and dedication to family that only bares its fangs in rare moments of defense. What’s most intriguing about her character is that her heart still pulls her back from the tantalizing desires of revenge. Bruno is a despicable man who is tortured by his frustrations of money and acclaim. But when given the opportunity to kick the man when he is down, she refuses. She can still see through all his toxicity that there is a damaged man. And while she may not share his feelings out of pity, she still takes pity for the man who ultimately wanted to help her.

The New York setting does not dumb down for this period drama. The cops are portrayed as corrupt individuals that beat citizens and spew as much racism as the saliva they wretch on their targets. The atmosphere of moral decency bares down heavily on our female protagonist. She is initially stopped on Ellis Island for her “loose morals” in providing sexual favors on the ship ride over. The irony being that her means of surviving on the streets of New York is to make her morals even looser. It must’ve taken every ounce of her conviction to continue on without bursting into hysterics or going on a crazy murder spree. The faith she displays in the system for getting back her sister is an enduring journey that rewards her, but not without much heartache and sacrifice.

Still from The Immigrant 2The Immigrant succeeds at being a stunning depiction of an age of corruption with characters who struggle in its quicksand. It has plenty to say and gives the actors plenty to work with in a serious story of real characters. There is a surprising amount of depth and passion in the performances for the love triangle in which the girl ends up with nobody. The payoff is a bittersweet realization that there is some love in a world so dark, but you have to look hard through the grimy exteriors. What a beautiful movie that never lets us have an easy answer or a simple character.

Rated 5 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark McPherson, CinemaParadiso.co.uk

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The Penguins of Madagascar Review

Still from The Penguins of Madagascar 1

It was clear from the first Madagascar movie back in 2005 that the strongest, most appealing characters were the penguins. The secret agent style ramblings and antics of the four birds provided an endless wealth of comedic joy through their straight-faced tone. Not only have they been an essential inclusion in every Madagascar film, but they’ve also received a plethora of short films and even their own TV series. Finally, after years of being relegated to the side act on screen, the penguins of Madagascar have finally landed their own movie. And though this effort may not warrant a new spin-off franchise, the foursome at least have enough in them to pull off their first theatrical venture.

The characters of Skipper, Kowalski, Rico and Private are once again on trail of hot loot in highly guarded locations. They go to all the trouble of breaking into Fort Knox, bypassing the gold and heading straight for the last known vending machine of a particular cheese snack. But they are soon faced with a Bond-style madman in the form of a vindictive octopus named Dave (voiced by John Malkovich). Jealous at the attention the penguins received at the New York zoo, he dawns the human disguise of Doctor Octavius Brine. What he lacks in creativity for his name he makes up for with his maniacal revenge plot to destroy the public image of penguins.

But the four are not alone this time as they have some help from an animal secret agency, North Wind. Led by a wolf simply referred to as Agent Classified (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), they dedicate their technological know-how and fancy equipment to protecting animals that cannot protect themselves. Annoyed by the confliction between their parties, the North Wind decide to ditch the penguins after providing enough of the plot to them. A MacGuffin is introduced as well as a secret evil lair on a typical island setting for the penguins to infiltrate. These were most likely left over from some defeated Bond villain.

The plot is nothing all the unique, but it does provide a solid basis for the snappy physical comedy the penguins are best known for. In one of the most hilarious sequences, the rash leader Skipper ends up sending his men from the inside of a cargo plane to a freefall towards the Sahara. Mere miles from their own deaths, they try to think on their feet with what little they have to work with. One of them happens upon a box of parachutes, but that do boring of a convenience. They smack into another plane they could easily ride to safety, but change their minds when they discover it is headed for France (they’re apparently not big fans of their currency). They find a bounce house which is inflated just in time before they hit the sand. After a graceful landing, they’re still not made of stone that they don’t take a few minutes to enjoy their inflatable discovery.

The characters themselves have retained their charm with that quick wit and maneuvers. They continue to walk the fine line between ignorance and intelligence with well-planned infiltrations meant for meager accomplishments. Their short stature allows them to dip and zip into any area like a pack of tuxedo-dressed ninjas. Even when they’re delivering straight-faced orders and dialogue, they’re still fun to watch like a well-oiled machine of action scenes. Giving a little more dimension to the four, the youngest dubbed Private is seen as the rookie with something to prove. He naturally gets his shot when the chips are down which results in a rather unconventional ending.

Still from The Penguins of Madagascar 2Penguins of Madagascar never compromises on its frenetic nature or irreverent brand of humor. Whereas the Madagascar films provided short bursts of the little deviants, Penguins just keeps firing with a plot and characters just as crazy as the iconic four. It’s also some of the most spot-on action movie satire I’ve seen in quite some time. For instance, how is it that whenever villains interrupt a television feed they make it seem so simple with clear picture and no audio problems? When Dave contacts the North Wind to mock them, he fiddles with the controls to get both the audio and visuals to display correctly. The North Wind try to talk him through getting his settings correct as I’m sure most people utilizing Skype have experienced at one point or another. I have to wonder if James Bond himself would bother directing his nemesis through the process in an almost certain classy tone.

Rated 4 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark McPherson, CinemaParadiso.co.uk

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