Actress Review

Still from Actress 1

How much do you know about Brandy Burre outside of being regular character Theresa D’Agostino on The Wire? In Actress, we get to see Burre’s full range as an actor and human being, left to ponder which is which on screen. There are staged moments when we see Burre in an apron at the sink and question whether this is something she actually does, how she views herself or how she wants us to see her. It’s this questioning that makes Actress so appealing, but also incredibly frustrating.

Having left the world of acting to raise her two kids, Burre now lives a life of desperation as a mother who has lost her love for her husband. Her days are spent getting the kids off to school, doing the grocery shopping and cleaning up the house. The quiet moments of a house with toys strewn about and dirty dishes in the sink paint her life as being one of bold loneliness where she finds herself drinking wine alone in sweat pants. But is this all an act? In other scenes, we see her in a classic housewife dress and apron. She also spouts some rather melodramatic dramatic lines and speaks to her little children as if they were adults. Is she preparing for roles or this the real woman? The camera hides the honesty. Her kids and husband don’t seem to reveal anything either as they mostly stand off to the side, watching her struggle with being a mother and a woman.

Director Robert Greene toys with our perceptions of one woman struggling with the loss of her acting career and trying to gain it back. Burre left The Wire after 15 episodes when she became pregnant. Throughout this film we see her long for those days to a concerning degree. She laughs in dismay at her royalty checks from the show which don’t even crack a dollar (I wonder if the sales of the new Blu-ray set pushed that number up slightly). She brings trots out DVDs of The Wire to show her mother and discuss the series. Burre wants back in and tries to inch her way back in despite the presence of her children and her increased age since The Wire.

Though clearly staged to an almost absurd degree, Greene manages to touch on the real emotion he wants to evoke out of Burre’s situation. It’s one that any parent who leaves behind a career can relate. There are very surreal moments as when she sits in the room of her children in a bean bag chair amid board games and toys. She says that she is not acting and states that this is her creative outlet. Is it? Burre repeats this saying with a different meaning as if the filmmakers needed another take. Is it another take? Is Burre practicing her acting chops in front of the camera or does Greene just want to pull our leg about what is real? Question after question, staged scene after stage scene, screwing with the audience at every turn, Greene challenges us to define Burre with a foggy lens.

Still from Actress 2If nothing else, Actress will serve Brandy Burre as a platform for her talents and a helpful addition to her resume of work. In that respect, the film is oddly intriguing about trying to decipher what lies ahead for Burre being unknown as much as her presence in this film. Is she acting for the camera or truly bearing her soul for the audience? Perhaps she can never be herself in front of a camera and refuses to adhere to the documentary format of pretending that she is not being watched. Burre wants the attention and wants us to see her for all she is worth. It may sound rather pathetic, but with all that has happened in her hectic life, could you blame her?

Rated 3 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark McPherson, CinemaParadiso.co.uk

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Goodbye World Review

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When the end of the world comes, what will you miss most? Will it be your family who live across the country with a fate uncertain? Maybe it would be the loss of global communications that allowed all of us to stay in touch from around the globe? For the aged hipsters of Goodbye World, it’s Starbucks and YouTube. They jokingly discuss such topics while indulging in wine and salad as if it were your run-of-the-mill dinner party, completely oblivious to the mass chaos and carnage befalling other people right outside their window. It may be the end of the world, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be smoking weed and getting naked in a hot tub while a giant cloud of smoke from destruction rages miles aways. Perhaps I’m just a prude who can’t enjoy himself while society devolves and people are slaughtering each other for resources from your backyard.

It seems as though writer/director Denis Hennelly was given the task of making an apocalyptic movie, but decided to skirt around the topic and focus on the subject as more of an overly soapy hipster drama. A group of friends that span the spectrum of stereotypes all converge at a mountain cabin that is sufficient with stockpiled resources and solar energy. You have the anarchy encouraging college teacher, the hippy-dippy couple, the Homeland Security government know-it-all, the cackling young hackers and the uptight domesticated couple. There’s a young child present as well, but she exists mostly in the background as set decoration. They all arrive at the cabin as the United States descends into chaos thanks to a texting virus that spams “Goodbye World” and takes down power plants. Resources become scarce, violence breaks out, etc.

But none of that is going to stop these people from squabbling like hens about their relationships and life choices. Who wants to talk about rationing resources and helping out other people when you can giggle about trimmed pubic hair? These people are not just oblivious to the world they mock – they’re downright stupid in their childish ways. While going around the room asking about what each one of them will miss from the old world, one of the women answers with volunteering. I’m pretty sure volunteering doesn’t stop because you can’t access the internet. There are most likely lots of people you could help during the aftermath of a societal apocalypse. Nobody in the room calls her out on this, merely laughing and writing off her answer as lame. She should have chosen something more cool like coffee shops or cat videos.

There isn’t much to like about any of these characters as they all spend the majority of the time blithering about high school level politics and making incredibly selfish decisions. While shopping for supplies at the now gun-protected general store, the Homeland Security woman of the group spends the majority of their remaining cash on tampons despite being at least twenty times the price. While leaving the store, they notice a man being hassled by bullies for his materials and do nothing to help him out. When the neighbors ask them if they have any medicine to spare, they deny they do despite holding a hefty sum in their storage shed. There is practically zero trust with any of these people that you don’t feel so bad when military men forcibly try to use the house as a base.

Still from Goodbye World 2With such terrible characters that bicker and feud at the worst of times, Goodbye World made me say good riddance to our society. The only element more enraging than the massive egos and obsession with first-world problems during the apocalypse is that we never see a downfall. All their supposed well-meaning karma pays off as nobody dies and nothing is destroyed as they begin to rebuild society. The movie rewards their backwards nature despite the hedonistic hiding and two of the adults in the group sharing a portion of the blame for bringing down society. All is forgiven apparently as these characters were able to come to terms with who they are. Such a shift in focus for an apocalypse movie may seem like a welcome change of tone, but you’ll be begging for an earthquake or Mad Max style gang to run these people through by the time they start fighting about hip hop in the house.

Rated 1 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark McPherson, CinemaParadiso.co.uk

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Jurassic World Review

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There’s a moment in Jurassic World where Bryce Dallas Howard asks Irrfan Khan if the latest genetically modified dinosaur is scary enough for kids. Irrfan says it’s scary enough to frighten adults. When Bryce asks him if that’s good, he replies that it’s fantastic. There is indeed a certain thrill that comes from a dinosaur picture like Jurassic World that entertains with its action and adventure, yet still dabbles in a horror aspect. I saw this picture with two little girls that seemed to be having just as much fun as us cackling adults for a picture where prehistoric creatures have humans for lunch. I couldn’t help but see myself in those kids being amazed by the sight of grand and terrifying beasts on screen once more.

The new Jurassic Park film is the dark little fantasy we all dreamed about when first setting eyes on the 1993 original. A theme park with dinosaurs is now stocked to the brim with visitors, merchandise and rides – all of which is ready to be ripped to shreds by prehistoric creatures. We can sense the carnage coming that it makes all the expanded areas of the park carry a giddy sense of anticipation. We see a gyroscopic sphere-shaped vehicle and can’t wait for the teeth and claws to gnash on the glass. We see the lair of some giant new attraction and can’t wait to see it get loose. We get a big view of a massive aquatic dinosaur and can’t wait to see him do some more chomping. It may sound grim to be anxious for death and destruction at a family attraction, but, given that this is the fourth Jurassic Park movie, you should know what you’re getting yourself into.

Unlike the previous films, Jurassic World is much closer to a monster mash in its story and spectacle. Eccentric CEO Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan) has giddily transformed the park into a science experiment of fusing dinosaurs into new breeds thanks to the willing Doctor Wu (played by B.D. Wong, reprising his role from the previous films). The park operations manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard in a red bob) has a similar tunnel vision as a number cruncher more concerned with profits and the marketing of new companies tacked on to new dinosaurs. The only person in the park that seems concerned about the well being of the dinosaurs as actual creatures is Owen Grady, played by Chris Pratt with both adventurous spirit and scientific knowledge. He’s become so infatuated with training a group of raptors that he’s on the cusp of having them roll over. So, of course, we have to have our military jerk (Vincent D’Onofrio) who desperately wants these creatures to be bred for war. And don’t forget the two kids put in peril (Nick Robinson, Ty Simpkins) for that special dose of Spielberg allure to excitement.

Jurassic World harkens back to the original in more ways than one. Acting as a sequel to the previous films, World is built around the ruins of the old Jurassic Park. This leaves plenty of Easter eggs scattered throughout the park that make everybody who saw the original film revert back to the eccentric vibe of 1993. The old Jeeps are present, the DNA cartoon character is back and there’s a gold statue of Doctor Hammond (the doctor from the first film played by the late Richard Attenborough). Aside from the physical nods, there are plenty of directorial nods to the predecessor which works out to be both a blessing and a curse. Expecting that moment where a giant dinosaur gets up close and personal with its prey that you can see the reflection in the eye? You’ll get more than you bargained for. Want some raptor on human violence with vicious teeth and claws? This film does not disappoint. Or maybe it does if you were expecting something more than that.

Director Colin Trevorrow plays around with the material with more popcorn fun than creativity and ingenuity. There’s not much to talk about with the human characters outside of Pratt’s general cool presence and Howard’s high-energy frantic nature. Everyone just sort of fulfills their required role for a film where prehistoric animals run amok in the park. There’s far more going on with the creatures than the characters. It shares much more in common with the Godzilla films where you’re more concerned about the old dinosaur beating the hybrid dinosaur than the two kids coming to terms with their parents’ divorce. Somewhere around the third act, the humans become non-existent players as the raptors and T-Rex can take it from here.

Still from Jurassic World 2Jurassic World celebrates all the fun and flaws of the Jurassic Park franchise as a pleasing summer blockbuster fit for chomping popcorn. Having experienced the original, this film took me back to that era where Monday recess was a buzz of battling dinosaurs on the big screen. The kid in me is beaming with big eyes for how a T-Rex and a raptor take on a monster-saurus. But the adult in me wants to look down on its simplistic human characters and reliance on the old tropes. Well, the kid inside me seems to be having more fun, so I’ll go with his analysis of this being an awesome picture where good dinos join forces to fight the evil dino.

Rated 4 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark McPherson, CinemaParadiso.co.uk

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Jinn Review

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Those pesky devils in magma-striped ash skin are back again and it’s up to another chosen few to stop them. You can be sure to expect some holy battles of good versus evil, angels versus demons, holy incantation versus satanic babble, blah versus blah and so on. Creating these action fantasy pictures involving the lore of angels and demons is a fairly big risk as they often descend into been-there-done-that-a-million-times-over territory. Jinn is another notch to the wall, though it is mildly amusing in how it ridiculously tries to insert some thrills into this mess.

The jinn are nothing new as far as ethereal monsters go. The once fire-based rulers of the Earth, the jinn now exist in smaller numbers as the angels attempt to snuff them out in the presence of man. Some bearded man resembling Jesus takes the fight to one jinn in 1901 India. He enters a shack where our demon appears more like he’s ready for a heavy metal concert than destroying humanity. With his terribly assembled mummy figure and long-haired wig, the jinn succeeds in placing a curse on our undisclosed Jesus clone despite being armed with a blessed arsenal. His future bloodlines will be tormented by the jinn from birth, but that apparently didn’t stop his family from expanding. You’d think one part of the family tree battling the jinn would mention to the relatives that they should adopt instead of having another kid.

Now the film jumps to present day Michigan where Shawn (Dominic Rains) must prepare for battle. He doesn’t learn of these jinn until he’s fully-grown and expecting a child when Shawn finally discovers a tape from his dead father explaining the curse. How long has he been putting off watching a VHS tape from his late father? Either his dad is stuck in the past or Shawn is the laziest character in this film. He’s kicking himself for placing the tape so low on his to-do list that it’s now too late. The fun has already begun for the jinn who decide to prank Shawn by moving the furniture in his house and capturing his wife just as they are about to kiss. This movie would have been a great comedy if the whole curse of the jinn were just stupid little pranks like stealing Shawn’s mail or slapping sandwiches out of his hands.

Aiding Shawn in the quest for his wife are the magical kung-fu warrior Gabriel, the sword-wielding priest Father Westhoff and the warrior-gone-insane Ali Amin. They train Shawn, put him through the special tests, equip him with holy weapons and we’re off to the bland races of action. The motions the movie goes through are rather hilarious in how they’re presented. Shawn’s career is that of a car designer so, of course, he has to show off his rad looking sports car. How does he show it off when battling these evil creatures? I kid you not, Shawn actually uses his car to outrun a smoke monster. His car is pretty darn fast so you can rest easy around him if The Fog or The Mist decide to attack.

For as ridiculous an effect as that scene featured, most of the creature and makeup effects are not too shabby. The more we see of the jinn throughout the picture, the better they look as magma-based beings that smoke when doused with holy water. The jinn open up portals to lead their armies against Shawn. But when Shawn kills a jinn messenger who warns him to give up, the jinn merely leave knowing they’re beat. Wouldn’t want to waste all those computer graphics on a fight scene where we know the ending.

Still from Jinn 2Jinn makes an earnest attempt at trying to be an angels versus demons action film, but writer/director Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad narrowly misses the mark with this mythological material. He seems to be intentionally hamming it up to feature priests swinging swords and Dominic Rains showing off his abs in gratuitous shots. It seems as though everyone involved had a fun time with this production, but that enjoyment doesn’t quite transfer over to the audience. They will be bombarded with overlong rules and exposition for what essentially amounts to run-of-the-mill hocus pocus tactics for battling evil monsters. Something so simple as Jinn could use more levity rather than take itself so seriously. Can Shawn not laugh at the fact that his car outruns a smoke monster?

Rated 2 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark McPherson, CinemaParadiso.co.uk

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Barely Lethal Review

Still from Barely Lethal 1

Barely Lethal is another one of those cross-genre pictures where there was a mixup at the movie factory. Director Kyle Newman either got some secret agent action in his high school teen movie or he got some high school hijinks in his secret agent movie. Whatever his intentions, the result is not some wonderful discovery of peanut butter and jelly sandwich proportions. It’s more of a ridiculous mess that doesn’t taste as completely awful as you’d expect. Perhaps a peanut butter and ketchup sandwich.

The film starts out promising enough with Hailee Steinfeld playing Number 83, a trained assassin since birth that takes an interest in the teenager elements she was denied. She’s not entirely alone given that she’s part of the Prescot Academy which seems to specialize in training young girls to be trained killers. I’m not too sure where this school is hosted, but their classroom appears as the old war room from Doctor Strangelove. I’d like to think the class was using this room as a temporary location of old storage rather just being a lame excuse for what visually constitutes a secret organization. Their instructor Hardman (Samuel L. Jackson) drills them on all forms of offense and defense as when he gives them a test at their desks to stab a doll in the correct body points.

Tired of all the killings and training, Number 83 one day discovers the films Mean Girls and Bring It On. Impressed by the depiction of high school, 83 decides to fake her death during a mission and become a normal high school girl by the name of Megan. This is where the film gets interesting as this mostly sheltered spy tries to adapt to a high school setting based on her preconceptions. She is offered a spot at a lunch table by some cheerleaders, but is so indoctrinated with the non-existent high school caste system that she believes it to be a social trap. This could have been a hilarious script with 83 basing all of high school off old misconceptions from movies about teenagers.

That is, if the film were actually trying to go for that angle. Barely Lethal spends more time actually adhering to the high school movie cliches than actually mocking them. It wants to poke fun, but never deconstruct. She spots the dorky A/V geek labeling him as such and the cocky guitar player who she has a crush on. The guitar player wastes no time at all wooing her with a song on stage and the A/V geek just quietly stands off to the side looking at her shyly. We know how this is all going to turn out, but Megan apparently doesn’t. This makes me question how her assassin trained mind reacts to such media. Either she has a poor means of reading people (surprising for a secret agent) or she desperately needs to see more high school movies for that magic to wear off.

The biggest kink in Barely Lethal is that it barely even understands the world it aims to mock or dance within. The high school of this movie seemed to come with an air of reality to contrast movie depictions, but that’s sucked right out the window in favor of such tropes. The dialogue is extremely base to the point where all the enthusiastic nature of the characters turn sour from such a script. Hardman captures Megan at one point to question what she is doing. When Megan begins to cry in frustration, Hardman yells “Prescott’s don’t cry!”. He turns to his assistant Pedro (Steve-O) and asks if she is crying. Pedro replies with “maybe she saw The Notebook too many times.” It’s a bit that if it doesn’t whisper sexism, it screams desperation.

The action scenes that begin to ramp up in the third act are not too shabby, but seem to come at strange times and with little smarts. Megan’s rival, Number 84 (Sophie Turner), joins the high school as well to keep an eye on Megan and steal her boyfriend away. When the jealousy grows bitterly large, they start a fight while at prom and in front of everyone. They take it to the hallways where firehoses are used as blunt weapons. They take it to the kitchen where they attack each other with pans and knives. All these moments including some car chases are brilliantly staged, but wouldn’t having a public fight at the prom blow your cover?

Still from Barely Lethal 2The bottom line is that Barely Lethal just barely cares about its own premise. Whereas films like Kick-Ass eventually found a tone with the action and the absurd, this attempt is all over the map and never anywhere all that original. It could have been a crazy and silly action picture, but is mostly toned down. It could have been a savage high school satire, but it’s far too interested in the traditional to make light of the expected. Teenage girls might get a kick out of it as a sort of reverse, female revision of Kingsman, but anyone outside that demographic are going to find themselves let down for a premise that peters outs and twists into a sophomore effort. I would not be surprised at all if director Kyle Newman’s only experience of youth in high school is through Mean Girls and Bring It On being his inspiration.

Rated 2 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark McPherson, CinemaParadiso.co.uk

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The Canal Review

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The indie horror scene has been exploding lately with creative and crafty filmmakers that really know how to create true terror that cuts deep. I’m relieved that today’s horror talent is finally starting to make more personal and psychological pictures on the terrorized family. A family should not just be mere bowling pins that a director can use for his bucket of horror tricks. It’s no fun watching a pin get knocked down. But when a concerned father becomes grief stricken at losing his cheating wife and raising his child, there’s a reason to care for the people on screen when ghosts and murder is involved.

Director Ivan Kavanagh wraps us in from the beginning with interesting characters to follow. David (Rupert Evans) is a film archivist who tries to engage a field trip of students by relating his work to watching ghosts. Little does he know that he’ll soon be eating those words when he runs across some old footage of a murder in his very house from a century ago. But before we get to all the scares of spooks that can only be spotted through film, let’s establish the psychological angle. David, a dedicated father to his child and loyal to his wife, suspects that the woman he loves has been cheating on him. His suspicions are correct as he follows her to a construction site where she is being ravished by another man. He picks up a hammer in anger, but leaves in disgust before they see him. Vomiting at a dirty public toilet, a sinister voice whispers to David from the dim darkness. The last thing he spots before blacking out is his wife being attacked by another man.

He comes to the next morning to discover his wife is missing and soon discovered dead in a canal. Now, of course, a mystery follows from such an earthshaking event, but it’s treated with real emotion as opposed to just being a plot stepping stone. We see David’s look of shock and enraged disbelief when the body is discovered, the soundtrack silenced of all voice and ambiance. A funeral follows where the related family is deeply depressed by the passing of such a woman, but hold a silent distance towards David.

Suspected by the cops for her death that was ruled as an accident, David becomes obsessed with tracking down the true killer. His path leads him towards archival footage where the ghosts that dwell within his home begin haunting David relentlessly. He starts hearing strange sounds behind the walls and digs through the drywall and brick hoping to prove he’s not crazy. Of course, nobody well can hear what he hears, but a select few can see the shadowy figures he captures only on camera.

This seems like familiar territory, but Kavanagh spins this twisted web better than anyone else. Psychological terror is much more effective than the usual batch of haunted house scares. Both of which play out beautifully as David descends into madness trying to protect his name and his cute son. As he slowly starts going down the hole too deep, he makes some futile attempts of intelligently removing others from the equation. He sends away his son with the nanny to a hotel, but when he checks in on them from a webcam he notices the ghosts have followed his little boy. Everyone is now scared around David including himself for when he finally makes the shocking discovery about the true killer. It’s probably not going to be a surprise for anyone who can piece these films together, but it’s still so masterfully assembled and shockingly revealed that you lose yourself in its artistry.

Still from The Canal 2The Canal is first-rate horror with a chilling plot, eye-catching cinematography and scares that really get under your skin. It’s slow when it wants to be moody and intense when it wants to shock. It’s often hard to watch at times, but I absolutely love that feeling when a horror film gives me true goosebumps rather than manufactured jumps. Director Ivan Kavanagh blends a few different styles of horror together that turn out much better than one might expect. The end result is a movie that leaves the viewer gripping the edge of their seat right up to the final shot with genuine surprise and dread.

Rated 4 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark McPherson, CinemaParadiso.co.uk

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Last Knights Review

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The color palette and tone of Last Knights reflects the decaying nature of the sword and sandal genre. It’s a bleak and dreary existence of washed out colors and tired actors. The genre is dying from a lack of originality, depth and (at this point) energy. Rather than seeing the current state as an opportunity for director Kazuaki Kiriya to inject some enthusiasm, he has turned in a picture that does not stray or invigorate. Whatever sense of action and adventure that was intended comes off more as a lazy husk of a genre film, desperately crawling on its last legs for a mere twinge of thrills to be had.

The muted Clive Owens feels very miscast as the loyal Commander Raiden, a knight devoted to the Bartok Clan. He coldly serves his elderly master Bartok (Morgan Freeman) without question. But when the master of the clan is beaten by an insulted by the emperor’s advisor, Geza Mott, Bartok fights back and must be punished for his actions. Seeking complete humiliation, Geza sentences Bartok to death via decapitation from his own Commander. Raiden is shocked, but regretfully complies with the sentence. He must certainly seek revenge against such an inhumane tyrant for making him kill his master, but not before he crawls into a bottle and rapes some women before staging an assault against the bad guy.

There’s just no motivation to any of this tale though. Much like Clive Owen’s character, it struggles to go anywhere or do anything. Everything feels far too bleak and hollow with nothing at all pleasing or engaging on screen. Just trying to describe the film’s bland tone and setting is making me tired. I could feel the boredom resonating off the screen from the actors who were clearly just phoning it in for a script that deserved nothing more. The actors try to remain cold and stoic, but you can sense the yawning. You just know they’re dreaming about starring in something much more fun and important as opposed to throwing on armor and pretending to be serious warriors. I started having daydreams about some better movies Clive Owens could star in. Maybe as an astronaut….yeah, I could see him as an astronaut….or even a scientist….

….wait, what movie was I writing about?

Oh, yes, Last Knights. Well, I suppose the film has one positive in that it features a very diverse cast of characters. There are white actors, black actors, Iranian actors, Korean actors and so on. It’s a pretty colorful band of warriors that get a chance who get to swing some swords. Say, wouldn’t it be cool if a capable director remade The Seven Samurai with a cast like this? Not a direct remake, mind you, but something in the same template as with The Magnificent Seven. They could save a town and do some real awesome anti-hero stuff. Maybe set it in the age of knights….where the knights have to save a town from a dragon army….yeah, that’d be pretty cool….

….sorry, dozed off again.

Of course, you have to have your sword battles in an action setting such as this. And, wow, does Last Knights leave you starving. The climactic battle at Geza’s castle would seem like another opportune moment to throw some real pizzazz at the screen. But it’s just a forgettable mess of poorly shot sequences and slow-motion focus. The battle takes place at night with so much armor and swords running around it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys. Say, speaking of night battles, remember that massive fight scene from Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers? Wasn’t that such a well-choreographed scene with clearly visible effects and enough going on so you never felt bored? I remember seeing that in the theater…it was amazing to see on the big screen…..yeah, good times…..

….are we still talking about this Last Knights movie?

Still from Last Knights 2This feels as though it should be the last movie about knights given how this one seems so decrepit. With dull characters, lackluster fight scenes and a color palette that appears as a muddy gray, it’s a real chore to muster any emotion for this movie too serious for its own good. I can’t even be mad at Last Knights since it just doesn’t want to try, lifelessly lying on the ground as it wriggles through the motions with an even drier delivery. Watching this film is a draining experience, removing any hope there is for this genre that seems to attract the most half-thought scripts and the least amount of acting ability. Call it, pull the plug or shoot it in the face. Just put Last Knights out of its misery for being so boring it’s tragic.

Rated 1 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark McPherson, CinemaParadiso.co.uk

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Pitch Perfect 2 Review

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There is no reason why the acapella sports-esque picture Pitch Perfect should warrant a sequel outside of the obvious financial gain. Pitch Perfect 2 features no developed arc, no expanded world to the singing competition and no new gags that do not echo the original. While never really toppling its predecessor as a sleeper hit, it at least maintains the charm for a film that plays more like a victory encore than a satisfactory continuation.

The Bellas are back once again, singing their hearts out at more acapella competitions and never attending college classes which seem to be non-existent at their school. But when Bella member Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) experiences a shocking wardrobe malfunction during their performance, the group is kicked out of competing. The only way back in is, of course, more acapella competitions. Shifting to the international level, their new competition is (what else) an evil group of serious Germans, dressed in black and with laser-focus on their song and dance numbers. But, naturally, the Bellas don’t go head to head before they skirmish with underground singing groups and have the obligatory montage of training and self-discovery.

With such a frantic pace of doling out acapella numbers and absurd dialogue, this script has little time to develop any of its characters. Beca (Anna Kendrick) sneaks off to her internship at a record company, but still requires much more confidence in her talented voice. Fat Amy begins to form a romance with a fellow acapella singer, but it’s mostly played up for jokes as opposed to any real character (can’t have that with wild cards I guess). And that’s about as far as the character development goes for this musical ensemble. The familiars are all present including the obese lesbian (Ester Dean), the cooky asian (Hana Mae Lee) and the two vicious announcers (Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins) that savage the plucky girls (“You’ll all just be pregnant soon anyway.”). But if you’re expecting any of them to receive any extra depth or attention that wasn’t in the first film you are in for one massive disappointment.

There are some new characters brought into the mix, but add very little. Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) is the new Bella member with a great voice, but she’s more of a vessel for expanding the history of the group that relates to her mother (Katey Sagal). David Cross plays an obsessed acapella fan and judge, but it’s mostly just David Cross doing David Cross for a short time. And Keegan-Michael Key plays up Beca’s boss with his trademark displays of comical frustration. There are no major surprises from any of them – doing exactly what you’d expect for just about any guest role they’ve been signed on for.

The only area where it feels some originality was applied to this film is in the acapella numbers. Whether elaborately staged to absurdity or spinning out of control like a trainwreck, they certainly draw the eyes and the ears. The biggest issue with the format is addressed as Beca attempts to infuse an original song into the mix (a faux pas of the acapella community). The judges and commentators frown on such an inclusion almost as much as Amy’s nudity, but Beca seems determined to break the rules and ascend the Bella’s to another level. It’s a showy final number that perfectly plays up the talent and camp of the whole presentation. The Bellas transcend the very name of acapella to a new realm: original songs.

Still from Pitch Perfect 2 2Pitch Perfect 2 should be titled Pitch Perfect Redux. It’s a second helping of what made the original so noteworthy, but never breaks free of the old to stand well enough on its own. Rather ironic the way this sequel mimics the acapella style of singing over songs as covers. Likewise, this sequel treads on similar notes, but fails to put much of a spin on its predecessor. It’s not a terrible song given its devotion to preservation. But why dip into a cover if the original is so much more memorable? Perhaps there’s some subtle commentary about the nature of acapella within its conception. Is the film that deep? A fleeting thought before Fat Amy comically stumbles down the stairs.

Rated 2 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark McPherson, CinemaParadiso.co.uk

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Bad Ass 3: Bad Asses on the Bayou Review

Still from Bad Ass 3: Bad Asses on the Bayou 1

Since The Expendables roster is already too large, Danny Trejo and Danny Glover have really committed themselves to their own old-guys-kick-butt action franchise. Keeping up with The Expendables sequels, writer/director Craig Moss has finally crafted a trilogy. First there was Bad Ass (Danny Trejo), then there was Bad Asses (Danny Trejo, Danny Glover) and now there is Bad Asses on the Bayou. Moving the action from Los Angeles to Louisiana, Moss does little more than change scenery for another round of B-movie cliches better suited for a trailer than a full-length movie.

Frank Vega (Danny Trejo) and Bernie Pope (Danny Glover) make their return in a fairly big way when they foil a bank heist amid their squabbling about medication. The security camera footage is released to the public, their exploits go viral and the Bad Asses are now noteworthy again. This is gotten out of the way early so most of the characters in Louisiana will be familiar with the fighting geezers and so they don’t have to prove their worth. Attending a wedding on Bernie’s side of the family, the bride-to-be is kidnapped and it’s up to the old guys to kick some butts on the bayou. The cops are obviously no help because what fun would that be in an action picture if our heroes can’t follow a trail of clues on their own and intimidate the bad guys.

What follows is a series of scenes where Trejo and Glover go to a location and then fight some people for information. They go to a gas station and beat up some dudes. They go to a strip club and shoot somebody in the leg. They go to a kitchen and broil half a chef’s face in a rather gruesome fashion. All is in the name of finding the captive girl and it gets rather repetitive real quick. I’m surprised they didn’t stop by a Denny’s and smash their Grand Slams over the face of the waiter who knows something. These guys are never wrong in their interrogation targets either. Every single person knows somebody and begins to run the moment either Trejo or Glover asks a question. You’d by think by the third instance, these guys would have formed some elaborate trap for making sure their suspects can’t escape. Just because they’re old doesn’t mean they can’t read a pattern. The only element that has a breath of fresh air is when the two buddies attempt to land a cargo plane. It would be incredibly thrilling if I hadn’t already seen this exact same footage in Air America from 1990.

Still from Bad Ass 3: Bad Asses on the Bayou 2The only shining praise for Bad Asses on the Bayou is that it holds itself back just far enough from the brink of being painfully awful to watch. There’s a running gag of Glover constantly having to evacuate his bowels, but it’s used as a mere roadblock as opposed to some gag that will come full circle when Glover takes a dump on the bad guys. There’s a disconnect with the modern world based on the way they dress, but never any dopey scenes with them desperately trying to figure out internet culture. The few moments of intended comedy feel more genuine and universal, free of internet memes and in-my-day speeches. Perhaps Craig Moss is slowly learning how to make a more capable action film.

If Moss is getting better, I’m curious to see what he does in the next film which the credits cite will be Bad Asses in Bangkok. But, then again, that means I’ll actually have to watch Bad Asses in Bangkok and suffer through the same old formula once more. In the immortal words of Murtaugh from Lethal Weapon, I’m getting too old for this.

Rated 2 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark McPherson, CinemaParadiso.co.uk

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San Andreas Review

Still from San Andreas 1

What exactly does one expect from these natural disaster pictures? Gene Siskel once remarked that with the tornado disaster movie Twister you know you’re going to get fantastic special effects from Industrial Light and Magic – so why not create a great script around it? The answer was simple: Twister didn’t have a script when it was first presented to producers as a special effects reel and purchased upon first glance. Given the progression of disaster movies since that point, it’s hard to deny the formula. Based on the history of this genre, there are only two types of disaster movies that fit into my critical range: they either do exactly what they’re supposed to or they annoy with their stupidity. The most glowing recommendation I can give for a film like San Andreas is that it wasn’t so ridiculously goofy in its thinly written plot for destroying California.

It helps to have a decent cast not hamming up this ride. Dwayne Johnson is always such a likable actor with tough, yet cuddly, aura on screen. He has to use every ounce of his charisma to make you care for Ray the EMT worker that abandons his post for his daughter and on-the-rocks wife. The good news is that he does at least show some concern for protecting the populus, even if it is only the ones currently in proximity to his family. He directs people away from a tumbling building, carries an injured girl to safety and even beats up a looter holding a gun to his face. There’s plenty of room for “The Rock” to flex his muscles with this one. Paul Giamatti does his thing as the nervous geologist trying to warn everybody about impending doom before it’s too late (and then really is). And Carla Gugino and Alexandra Daddario fill out the roles just fine as Ray’s wife and daughter respectively.

But, of course, the big star here is the city itself – succumbing to mother nature’s wicked terrors. Director Brad Peyton packs the screen with plenty of destructive eye candy that you’d expect from such a popcorn-munching movie. Buildings topple into one another, holes open up in the Earth, raging waters rush through the streets and a massive wave of water engulfs the Golden Gate bridge. Most of these spectacles are par for the course, but Peyton adds in extra detail to make the city destroying all the more exciting. Ray’s wife is caught in a collapsing building where she witnesses rooms and stairs crumble with people dropping to their deaths. The Hoover Dam cracks and breaks off into the river in an amazing sequence. In one of the more ridiculous moments, Ray decides the only way to survive a large tidal wave is to go over it with a boat. Just in case that isn’t thrilling enough, Peyton throws a surprise tanker at the top of the wave as well.

What helps keep the tension pumping is how human the family drama is made by such likable characters. It’s nothing miraculous for this genre, but it sure makes you actually care about who will live and die when chaos unfolds. Perhaps it’s best that most of the characters are kept at a distance, longing to reconnect with loved ones as opposed to making them resolve conflict during lulls of the disaster. There’s barely a moment for anybody to catch their breath or allow for any inane and soapy dialogue. Wave after wave of nature’s wrath pummels the screen and the characters. There is no grand scheme to stop this or powerful resolution to the family conflict. Ray just needs to find his wife and daughter, get in, get out and salute the national guard.

Still from San Andreas 2While San Andreas offers no big surprises for the disaster genre, it’s at least competent enough to be a pleasing popcorn flick. There’s nothing here that will turn heads, but plenty to keep the eyes open. It’s a movie that knows exactly what it wants to be and plays exactly to its strengths, filtering out the common shortfalls of forcing flawed human drama or playing the events up too comically. It is what it is and it does a satisfactory job. Nothing new and no disappointments. Just a thrilling experience watching California turn to rubble as people scurry for their lives.

Rated 3 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark McPherson, CinemaParadiso.co.uk

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