Strange Magic Review

Still from Strange Magic 1

George Lucas has always viewed himself an old fashioned filmmaker. In various interviews, he’s stated how he intended Star Wars to be more of an upbeat adventure of traditional archetypes and wondrous stories. That certainly seems to have been his intentions when he wrote the story of Strange Magic, a fantasy tale that relies more on character and music than epic battles or grand special effects. It’s also a rather noble effort given that he essentially wanted to create an animated adventure for girls – specifically for his three daughters. That’s all well and good, but whatever magic there was on the page did not translate well into animation.

The story is at least there with some fresh elements to a familiar mixture. It’s the old good versus evil for the micro world of fairies and bugs. We’ve got our bright territory of a fairy kingdom and the dark region of dirty swamp creatures. On the fairy side, Marianne (Evan Rachel Wood) is a princess who is excited to finally be married to a prince. Her fairy tale life is cut short, however, when she discovers her pompous fiance Roland (Sam Palladio) is seeing another woman. Betrayed, she swears off love and becomes a fairy warrior. Gone are her flowing dresses and garlands – replaced with armor and swords to match her new sass. Thankfully, this is not seen as a descent into a darker path of battle, but a lifestyle change that allows her to express herself more openly for her true love.

As Roland and a smitten gnome Sunny conspire to obtain a love potion for their women, the evil Bog King (Alan Cummings) takes note of their efforts when they steal the potion from his prisoner, the Sugar Plum Fairy. After much screaming and growling, the King makes his move by taking hostage the beautiful fairy Dawn. It’s up to Marianne to become the hero that saves her best friend. The only major problem is the love potion has now complicated the quest and transformed the story into a bizarre love triangle – branching out to the point where it is more of a love hexagon.

Hardly any of the fun that was intended from such a story is lost when transitioning into an animated feature. As with any animated film, the initial element any viewer would notice not firing on all cylinders is the visual aspect. The computer graphics themselves are not too shabby, but the character designs just reeks of a student reel or tutorial demos. Maybe I’ve just seen too many computer generated fantasy creatures from shorts and video games, but generic is the one word that comes to mind when I see the stringy Bog King or the elf-faced Marianne. It’s a big let down considering how director Gary Rydstrom wanted the film to look beautiful. In terms of environments, he certainly hit the mark, but I wish he’d taken some extra time to fill this forest with more than ho-hum characters.

Rydstrom’s background is mostly as a sound designer for various animated films, notably on the works of Pixar. This is rather astounding given how he approaches the heavy musical aspect of this picture. Rather than go for some original songs, the soundtrack is wall-to-wall covers of popular songs including “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” and “Love is Strange.” So much notable music is inserted that the crew just barely turned the film into an opera. None of these numbers are that notable from the soundtrack, however, since there isn’t much of a unique take on any of them. And if you’re going to use that much copyrighted music, you better be doing something grand with that material with exceptional singing voices or striking visuals to set it against.

Still from Strange Magic 2What’s most distressing about Strange Magic is the same problems with George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels: a lack of consistent tone. Even when not directing, Lucas’ shatter-shot influence is all over this film. One moment it is attempting to be a whimsical romance, the next it’s a manic musical of fairies pretending to play guitars like rock stars. Perhaps Gary Rydstrom keeps the numbers and quips coming at you in rapid fire that you won’t take note of the shortcomings in the design or the inconsistencies in mood. Strange Magic may have its heart in the right place for a fantasy story built for a young female audience, but it lacks that extra depth in direction to make it sing and rise above just being a pretty picture.

Rated 2 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark McPherson, CinemaParadiso.co.uk

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It Follows Review

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It Follows may draw from the well of classic 1980’s horror, but it only fishes out the notable elements. The finest features happen to be its tone, lifting the creepy synthesizer soundtrack and dark photography right out of the era. These are inserted not as campy winks, but skillful homages used as ingredients for an original horror story. It’s that extra edge which helps transform a spooky allegory about teen sex into something more engaging and far from the simple traps of commercially viable horror films.

It doesn’t take the obvious or easy route for a concept of ghosts that haunt via sexual transmission. Writer/Director David Robert Mitchell keeps the ghastly nature aloof and intriguing, slowly building the mystery. While the true nature of the magnetic ghosts is revealed, the film takes time to develop some real teenage characters. These are the types that relax in pools on cloudy days and spend nights cozied up to the television watching bad sci-fi movies. They are the easygoing products of the suburbs, quietly falling in love and secretly fooling around in the backseats of cars. But the latest love interest of Jay (Maika Monroe) turns out to be a boy infected with visions of the paranormal. After passing down his condition to her during one romantic night in the car, he briefly explains her new condition. She will start to see ghosts that will slowly start walking towards her, inching closer until they can zip in for the kill. The only known way to get rid of them is to pass this trait onto another through sexual intercourse.

You can probably guess how Hollywood could ruin such a plot. It could turn into a wild sex romp of the teens bickering and feuding, passing the condition back and forth among each other like a game of hot potato with some of them raping each other to avoid death. It could even insert some tasteless jokes about practicing safe sex and how a condom could’ve prevented ghost visions. At its worst, this could’ve been a warped bit of propaganda for abstinence, which it very likely could be for the most gullible of viewers.

But Mitchell has a wickedly crafty hand for creating more of a chill than a bludgeoning message. Part of creating such a real world is Mitchell’s inspiration for the walking ghosts from a nightmare he had at a young age. He utilizes the sexual transmission as a means of passage more than a major allegory. It’s easy enough to see why Mitchell wanted to keep such a script so secret given how he remarked that saying the concept out loud “sounds like the worst thing ever.”

His worries can be put to bed, however, seeing as how he has created one heck of a horror picture with beauty and smarts. It feels very personal and relatable the way there are plenty of moments where the characters are just hanging out without much going on. Jay comes in from the pool and drips a little bit of her wet hair on to her TV-watching friends as a playful joke. There’s a very relaxed tone to these college kids who are quietly enjoying their youth. By that same coin, the terror and dread of looming death is perfectly set by the photography and music. It came as no surprise to discover that Mitchell’s biggest inspirations were the works of George Romero and John Carpenter, encapsulating their methods of building on terror. He turns the decayed areas of Detroit, Michigan into a gorgeous spectacle with wide-angle lenses and dark lighting.

Mitchell also relies on more atmosphere than gore in how most he plays up more genuine thrills than blood. The kills are mostly kept off screen, playing more with your imagination and fears of the following spirits. The opening scene finds one unlucky girl escape to a beach where she speaks her tearful goodbyes over the phone. The film then cuts to morning where her corpse has her legs bent so far back they have snapped off at the bone. Not only does the film leave it up to the audiences to discover what the ghost does, but it leaves it entirely up to the kids to decide how to deal with them. There is no lengthy backstory or spooky old relic they have to track down to lift this curse. They’ll have to use their wits to defeat these ghosts rather than some lame MacGuffin. It may sound a little off that guns are actually effective against these ghosts, but sometimes it’s more engaging to go with something more simple than blessed bullets or ancient artifacts.

Still from It Follows 2It Follows is the moody bit of horror that plays on the best elements of the genre classics, but never winks or ribs with its nods to the greats. There’s been quite a bit of these atmospheric horror films as of late, many of which with a similar parable for sex. But David Robert Mitchell soars over the competition with a film that’s both mesmerizing to watch, thrilling to follow and engaging to be immersed within. Where other horror films struggle with trying to generate scares in little nuggets of jumps and stabbings, It Follows creates one long sense of unease throughout that sticks with you long after the credits. Mitchell may be lifting from several classic horror movies, but the greatest artists steal and he has just raided the Fort Knox of horror films.

Rated 5 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark McPherson, CinemaParadiso.co.uk

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See You in Valhalla Review

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Dearly beloved,

We are gathered here to lay rest to the awkward family reunion comedy. It tired to live on throughout the years as a subgenre just barely in the limelight, but its time has come. If an all-star cast couldn’t make it work in This is Where I Leave You Now, what hope did this little indie comedy have? It was fighting an uphill battle in the way it wanted to be dark, strange and heartwarming with a dysfunctional family. Actually, that may not be accurate. I’m not so sure the film had any fight in it the way it struggled to be relevant for a scenario on life support. See You In Valhalla did not aim to be offensively bleak or overly sentimental, but just sort of sat in the corner of an average comedy – too safe and innocuous for its own good – waiting out the remaining days of exhausted humor. This film did not shine or amaze in its setup of a death in the family that brings this ensemble together. Perhaps it didn’t want to, deciding to go out quietly.

Johanna (Sarah Hyland) returns to her hometown to meet with her crazy batch of relatives after being away for four years for the funeral of her brother. Her dad’s home turns into a madhouse of the expected quirky siblings. There is her gay brother Barry, a psychiatrist who has fallen in love with his patient who requires some more rehab. There is the responsible brother Don who is now a father to a Republican daughter. We all know that the daughter will bicker and squabble with the gay couple about marriage equality. It was preordained from the setup and will be done as destined in the unwritten book of movie cliches. Don’s wife is a hippie nurse who will, of course, yak about organic food and aligning your auras. We should not expect anything more from this subgenre. It is worn and slow in its old age – struggling to maintain face with its low budget. We need not be so demanding of our elders.

The sappy and the silly are placed in their proper order. Barry’s partner Makewi takes shrooms and becomes consumed building an arc from some wood he stole from a construction site. Johanna laments her old flame having a kid when she gave her own child away years ago. Cut back to Don’s daughter getting into a comically heated debate with Barry about homosexuality, then whip back to the father of the house demanding his children and grandchildren respect each other. Johanna, attempting to be the glue of the family unit, reads up on Maxwell’s life and comes across plenty of viking musings that led to his death at the hands of a meth dealer. Is it even a spoiler at this point to mention that the family eventually bonds over giving Maxwell a traditional viking funeral?

The only character who strays from the predictable is Makewi just for how weird he appears. While everyone else goes through the motions, Makewi believes he is being willed by a divine spirit commanding him to form the boat that will lead to the viking funeral. He is not just being willed by a spirit, but by the audience. We are pleading for something different and original out of this subgenre and Makewi does his best to be different. His methodology and outlook on the events is so out there that it begs for more exposure. Why did this film feel the need to stay on the beaten path, dabbling in parenthood and drinking at the bar? The antics of a man consumed by divine will in his eccentric state of drug use hold our interest far more than anyone else. If not for a broken husk of an ensemble comedy, Makewi would take center stage.

Still from See You in Valhalla 2But let us not dwell on the lesser moments of the family reunion comedy in the twilight years and instead remember it for the golden times. The Royal Tenenbaums gave us much to admire both from its snappy writing and stylish photography. But now it is time for the comedy subgenre to move on to a better place – somewhere where it will be more fondly remembered than looked down on for still existing. We can only hope that it has moved on and does not linger around in the near future as any attempt at revival will only disappoint. Let the final nail labeled See You In Valhalla seal the coffin of awkward family comedies.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust – something better come along, it must.

Rated 1 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark McPherson, CinemaParadiso.co.uk

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Home Sweet Hell Review

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There are dark comedies and then there are mean comedies. Dark comedies find an absurdity and unique humor in such subjects as death and destruction of society. Doctor Strangelove is a prime example for laughing at the mistakes that lead to the apocalypse. Mean comedies create the most vile and disgusting characters, expecting you to laugh or feel something when they are brutalized and punished for accidents and misdeeds. Up until now I always used the film Very Bad Things as an example in how it portrayed scummy characters killing each other over a dirty secret. But now Home Sweet Hell has taken its place in my mind as the king of awful, mean-spirited comedies.

The film is a depraved microcosm of shady business people and violent scamming thugs. It’s a world where meek men like Don (Patrick Wilson) are chewed up and spat out in repetition. Despite being the business owner of a successful furniture store, it’s Don’s domineering wife Mona (Katherine Heigl) that takes more control. Her shrewd lifestyle has become so controlling that she has to schedule sexual intercourse weeks in advance to be intimate with Don. She’s a vicious man-hating wife who praises her daughter and shuns her son. This naturally leaves Don a mess of sexual frustration and unease at both home and office. So he shyly jumps at the sexual advances of his new young hire Dusty (Jordana Brewster). But, what a shock, turns out she just wants to scam him out of money by faking a pregnancy.

There are no women who genuinely love a reasonably good looking man as Don in this universe. They are all evil individuals who aim to destroy men at every turn. Even Don’s daughter is raised to be as such the way she looks down on her brother, smearing her perfect grasp of the French language in his face at every turn. Mona becomes a cartoonish figure in how she manipulates Don into a life of cover-up murders to maintain the prim and proper suburban life. While she coldly and calmly cuts up bodies, Don stares helplessly off to the side in quiet desperation.

Of course, we’re all waiting for that moment where he says enough is enough and finally gets revenge, but it’s held off until the very last minute of the picture. For almost the entire film, we’re mostly just watching Don being taken advantage of by everyone including a gang of thugs that force him to try crystal meth. He’s kicked down by everyone in the film for so long that I don’t even care if he gets revenge. I just wanted this depressingly misguided nightmare of a black comedy to end.

The material is already devoid of any laughs for being so despicable, but it’s not helped by the performances. Katherine Heigl said in an interview that this role was out of her wheelhouse for being so dark. It’s not only out of her wheelhouse; it’s outside reality. I can’t blame her for throwing herself into the role of a psychopathic woman who cuts up people, but this isn’t the role to showcase her darkly comedic edge. She’s sufficient villain material, but villains only work well if there are heroes. In comparison, Patrick Wilson is sort of just doing his usual shtick of acting awkwardly around all the madness – too shy to take part in any of this farce. Both of these actors could have had their satirical moments to shine, but they’re bogged down in the muck of a script that finds more comedy in bad things happening to bad people.

While the film is an easy target as a misogynistic rant, there is one element that slightly intrigued me about this setup. Don’s bloody revenge doesn’t occur until the very end of the picture as he spends most of the movie being a manipulated puppet. Perhaps the film drags this aspect out long enough so that Don appears somewhat justified in killing his wife, extending it outward to be more considerate for woman before taking the dark plunge. Of course, in order to buy into that logic, you have to believe it’s right for a husband to murder his wife. And even if you bought into that, you’re still left with an empty conclusion about how horrible married life appears. The more I think about it, I just know this horrible little film is going to be used as a source in some terrible term paper on the subject of attacking women.

Still from Home Sweet Hell 2Home Sweet Hell could be funny if it weren’t so occupied with being a vulgar war of the sexes. Not only does it refuse to offer any moral ground to a single event that transpires, but it also makes the fatal mistake of not taking advantage of the satirical possibilities. One need only look to films like Serial Mom and Grosse Point Blank for telling and entertaining tales that can playfully splash in dark comedic waters. Home Sweet Hell, in comparison, is a bitter and rancid concoction that only aims to offend. There’s no specific target for whom it wants to offend, but it’s most likely anyone who has a shred of empathy in their soul for the opposite sex. It’s too easy to say this film hates women. It just hates people in general.

Rated 1 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark McPherson, CinemaParadiso.co.uk

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Son of a Gun Review

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From beginning to end, Son of a Gun is an exciting tale. Now, I’m not just saying this because I’m proud of this fellow-Australian production, but because it really does draw you into the story and entertains you. I give it four out of five stars, and would highly recommend it to anyone of-age.

Son of a Gun tells the story of JR (Brenton Thwaites) – nineteen years old and already in prison. Prison life is not a good life, and it’s not long before JR needs protection, and that comes by Brendan Lynch (Ewan McGregor). A notorious criminal, Lynch of course wants something in return, and recruits the young man as his criminal protégée upon his release. But when you’re surrounded by criminals, you quickly learn that no one can be trusted. Things go from bad to worse, and it doesn’t take long for mentor and protégée to come to blows.

When it comes to reviewing a film, you must look at a combination of elements – how well they act independently, and how well they mix together. One of the most important, but not the only element, is the story. Son of a Gun definitely has numerous similarities with other films of this genre, but it shouldn’t detract too much from the overall enjoyment.

The acting in this film was excellent. I’ve never been a Star Wars fan – cue the gasps – so I wasn’t hung-up on Ewan’s performance. While he was very good, the film was clearly dominated by now-26 year old Thwaites. Since beginning his professional career back in 2010, he has landed bigger and better roles, and this ranks high among them. Alicia Vikander also did a fantastic job, and brought a much needed feminine element to the cast.

The more technical elements of the film – action and fight choreography – were near-flawless. I don’t know too much about fight moves and car chases, but it was entertaining, and that’s what you want first and foremost.

Along with the directing and work of the actors, the writing was as excellent. Dialogue was believable, the story progression were cogent, and character arcs were compelling.

From grimy drug houses, to a mafia boss mansion, all locations in-between. The set decoration for this film was brilliant, and it is great to see it being done in Australia.

Still from Son of a Gun 2Son of a Gun has done average in terms of audience and critic online and in-print reviews. While most seemed to like the acting and story, others have pointed out its implausibilities and its apparent inability to hold a candle to similar films in the genre.

Its violence, adult language, and sexual content make it unsuitable for younger audiences, but it does add to the story. Overall, it is a great Australian production and one I would recommend to anyone.

Rated 4 out of 5

Reviewed by Michelle Sommerville, CinemaParadiso.co.uk

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Stonehearst Asylum Review

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What happens when the ones running the asylum are more depraved than the patients? The 2014 film Stonehearst Asylum is based on the work ‘The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether’ by the acclaimed author Edgar Allen Poe. Over one hundred years later, and the story is still compelling. I give this adaptation three out of five stars.

This film follows medical school graduate Edward Newgate (played by Jim Sturgess), who begins work at Stonehearst Asylum – a mental institute. But, as can only be expected, things do not go smoothly, and none of the characters will ever be the same again.

With over one hundred years since the original story was written, you are likely to have heard the plot and know its details. But, if you haven’t yet experienced this work, by all means avoid the trailer, and enjoy the film. Do your best to avoid spoilers, and you are sure to enjoy this work.

Despite some ‘big name stars’ credited in this film, only a few of them play more than a minor role. Though Jim Sturgess, Kate Beckinsale and David Thewlis (all brilliant) play leading roles, the star of the film was undoubtably the brilliant work of Ben Kingsley. He used his talent to bring an interesting character to life, and added to its overall success.

Stonehearst Asylum was directed by Brad Anderson, who, while not having the most extensive directing resume, has shown that he knows what he’s doing.

The same can also be said about writer Joe Gangemi. Though he had the excellent work by Edgar Allen Poe to start from, his screenplay was good, with interesting character and story progression, and intelligent dialogue.

Without a doubt, the location and scenery added to the feel of the film, and did a great job of starting you out feeling uneasy.

Quite surprisingly, this film has not been warmly-received by either audiences or critics. Online and in-print articles and reviews critiqued it for its lack of hard-hitting humour and stuttering pace.

Still from Stonehearst Asylum 2Overall, Stonehearst Asylum is not a film for everyone, but is definitely worth a watch. It is hard to best describe the genre of this film, with a mixture of elements of horror, mystery, and black-humour, among others. It has not been widely advertised, and I had not even heard of it before. So, if you get the chance, check out this film, and see if you can spot the twists and turns before they come.

Rated 3 out of 5

Reviewed by Michelle Sommerville, CinemaParadiso.co.uk

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Preservation Review

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In the hands of commercial horror producers, a script like Preservation would be a tired slasher picture in the woods. A group of adults venture into the great outdoors for some camping and end up being hunted. It sounds all too standard for a horror picture, but actor-turned-director Christopher Denham manages to makes something so simple much more entertaining than it should be.

Make no mistake, however, as this doesn’t break too far from the slasher target gallery. The good news is that the targets are actually real people. Their not despicable beings who deserve torment, nor perfect beings of happiness. Wit and Mike decide to take a trip into the middle of the woods to hopefully become more attached and serious about their marriage. It’s a rather tough order given Mike’s obsession with work via his cell phone and the third wheel of his veteran brother Sean. They’re not all predictable and they’re not all saints. Wit isn’t much for hunting, but doesn’t shy away from cutting up a dead deer with her nursing experience. Sean may seem like he’s the most level-headed of the group, but he still has his own demons in the form of PTSD. And while Mike means well for both of them, he’s distant and paranoid of Sean’s relationship towards his wife.

These little moments of character provide a decent distraction for when the trio stupidly travel onto a closed nature preserve. As the stress between them builds, they wake up the next morning with their tent and camping gear gone. It isn’t long before they find themselves running for survival as they are hunted by a gang that lurks in the distance. Concealed in skull-designed masks and moving via bicycles, a young group of hoodlums take aim at the camping adults with rifles and knives. Eventually, only three of the group is left and the one remaining has to go into Rambo mode for survival.

The punk kids who terrorize this lot of campers are nothing all that special. They’re just some teenagers who hunt for sport before mom calls them home for dinner. There is no sinister motivating force of a society that has wronged them or the old hat of inbred spawns of the backwoods. Their murders seemed to be inspired out of boredom. That being said, their methods are quite effective for some nihilistic youth. The travelers mark a smiley face on a tree to find their way back, but the killers paint plenty of smiley faces all over for them to become lost. They setup an array of traps around the woods from rope slings to bear traps. Even the way they silently communicate through their phones is pretty smart. As far kids hunting adults, these are some of the most efficient little devils I’ve seen on film.

While I admire the craftsmanship of creating a thrilling run-for-your-life scenario in the woods, the film still falls into some mighty big pits of the horror genre. Have you ever been annoyed by a victim turning their back to a killer having not confirmed if they’re actually dead? Preservation trots this trope out quite liberally not once, but twice. I don’t mind these moments when they come as genuine surprises, but how many times can a thrill be generated from turning your back to the killer when their death has not been confirmed nor their weapons disarmed? I’m not expecting these simple tourists to become expert tacticians in field combat, but have none of them ever seen a horror movie? Such staged moments for death made it much harder to appreciate the well-shot scenes of being stalked through the mountains, hunted in a dark cabin or stabbed through the walls of a porta potty.

Still from Preservation 2Preservation may stomp on familiar territory for this horror genre, but it still has some bits of originality in crafting an intense outing of backwoods survival. It’s a solid example of taking a standard horror template that seems worn and gives it just enough of a fresh coat of paint to make it decent. Cliche and trope-heavy as it may be, I have to applaud the effort at making a horror film that tantalizes a sensationally original terror tale. If only it had put a little more effort into its direction and kills, this could’ve been the sleeper hit it was most likely aiming to be.

Rated 3 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark McPherson, CinemaParadiso.co.uk

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Happy Valley Review

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Amir Bar-Lev takes a fly-on-the-wall approach in his documentary about the Penn State football scandal. He presents a series of interviews from all involved around the college town and presents their own perspective. The results speak for themselves as a shocking expose on controlling damage for an institution that has become a religion for the people of Happy Valley. This is a town so bitterly desperate to maintain its own name and save its title from being tragically irony.

One thing is very clear from these series of events: college football has a corrupt air of tribalism, at least for the students, faculty and local residents of Penn State University. For many years, coach Joe Paterno and assistant coach Jerry Sandusky were heralded as gods of the community. So when the horrific truth was revealed that Sandusky had sex with children and Paterno did little more than quietly report it to staff, Happy Valley shutters violently. There are two camps that spawn in this revelation; those that want their legacies scrubbed and those who want their legacies to remain golden.

When Joe is fired from coaching, the students explode on the town in a destructive riot. Cars are turned over and streetlights are forced to the ground as they chant for Joe. They attack the media vans and cameras, claiming it is their fault for dragging Joe through Sandusky’s mud. The mere thought that Joe was wrong for not fighting against this disgusting secret doesn’t cross their minds. They’ve known Joe for years and he’s been the idol of the college’s football program. He couldn’t have been a bad guy in all this. Paterno’s fans attempt to explain away his actions as if reporting the Sandusky sex abuse once was good enough. What more could he do? We may never know how he truly felt or what he did to deal with this as he passed away in 2012 before the trial.

The opposing side is just as committed in the way they want to forget, but by removing Penn State’s legacy all together. It’s not enough that Paterno was fired from coaching as his statue and plaque would have to be removed, in addition to his wins. Before the statue was taken down, however, there were battle lines being drawn around it. A protester pickets near the statue which angers those who desire to have their picture taken with Paterno. They viciously talk back to him and destroy his paper sign for shaming such a figure. In their fiery hearts, they know Joe is a saint. He’d have to be. To say otherwise would tarnish all those years of his contributions to Penn State football.

The NCAA shames the college for keeping such a dirty little secret as such for all this time. Did Penn State deserve the fines and restrictions that were charged against them? Perhaps it’s the only way to bring the town’s attention to this issue which they choose to bury their heads in the sand about. Sure, Sandusky was terrible and Paterno did nothing when he learned of his sexual crimes, but they did create a heck of a football program. Perhaps the most disturbing moment is when a college game is silenced for a moment to pay respect to the sexual assault victims of Sandusky. A Penn State player quickly moves on and makes with the trash talk. In his interview, he seems more concerned with the game than anything else. It’s that mesmerizing spell of football the shuts out everything else. All the abuse, the scandals, the victims and the depravity evaporate for a few hours for everybody to roar for the home team.

Still from Happy Valley 2Happy Valley is a disturbing and telling documentary that holds a mirror up to the corruption and tribalism of a college football scandal. It’s an institution that has ingrained itself so deep into American culture that no amount of immorality or illegality can shake its foundations. In that sense, the NCAA may have been justified in their decision to punish Penn State. The move brought tears and shame to the community, but would that feeling have been present if the Sandusky scandal was swept under the rug quietly with no damaging consequences to the school itself? The film leaves many of these questions up to the viewer after laying all the cards out on the table. It’s up to the viewer to decide if Penn State was bullied into guilt or if they were too soft on such crimes. In either case, it’s one of the most fascinating looks at how football controls American culture to an absurd degree.

Rated 4 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark McPherson, CinemaParadiso.co.uk

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The Cobbler Review

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Films like The Cobbler are a trap. Its terrible nature seems almost a given by Adam Sandler’s inclusion as the lead, but it doesn’t have the familiar tone and odor of a Sandler comedy. The story appears rather simple and clever with a plucky little shoe repairer trying to find a better life. It’s engaging enough that you start to get into it, but that’s when the teeth of this time-eating beast snap shut around the viewer. And when it bites down, it chomps so hard that you’ll be kicking yourself for days after being so gullible.

The whole plot starts off as an innocent enough concept. Max Simkin (Adam Sandler) is a lonely New York cobbler who spends his days buried in his work. His customers look down on him as the weird, shy guy that fixes their shoes. But when his modern machinery breaks down on a busy day, Max ventures down to the basement to utilize his missing father’s old shoe stitching device. When he successfully fixes a pair on the aged machine and tries them on, he takes on the former of the owner. It doesn’t matter the race, gender or age of the customer. He can be all of them thanks to some strange stitching magic that is never really explained.

From this point, the movie can go one of two ways as its tone has been fairly timid up until this discovery. It could proceed as a sweet little indie comedy about a man trying to better himself and his community through small acts of learning to walk in another’s shoes (literally). Or it could just turn on easy mode with a series of lazy gags concurrent with Sandler’s resume for comedy. It’s actually surprising that the film goes with the latter. One might think there would be some dignity given director Thomas McCarthy’s resume of directing The Station Agent, The Visitor and Win Win. I’m sure Sandler thought so as well when he signed on for the project, but the film just retreats far too quickly into Sandler’s safe zone of humor.

What does Max do with such powers over identity? He abuses it by being able to step into the role of a worry-free child who can get into trouble and an upper class resident who takes sexy showers with his hot wife. There is no concern about the danger he will cause others as it’s established early on that he’s more interested in sElling his store than strengthening his dying community block. But after his robbery attempt results in a political entanglement to destroy the neighborhood, Max comes around and uses his magical shoe powers to help his community save the rec center. Sorry, I meant the lower class block of homes and businesses. Though I suppose there might be a rec center on that block.

While all this was pretty simple and uninteresting writing, I wasn’t as offended by the picture as Sandler’s previous films which try so hard to generate laughs. The first fourth of the film is actually pretty competent and sweet before it starts coming apart with cliches. At the very least, I was grateful that Sandler didn’t have to interact with CGI animals or scream and shout with a vast array of ear-splitting “voices”. But then the finale reveals itself as the most baffling of a twist ending I’ve ever seen. It comes so far out of left field that it feels like another movie’s ending was spliced into this one. Nothing at any point in this entire film would lead you to believe anything that happens in the last five minutes of this film. Let’s just say it involves a cameo by Dustin Hoffman, an expensive car and an underground base.

Still from The Cobbler 2I’m now convinced that Adam Sandler’s mediocrity is contagious. It’s the only explanation I can fathom for Sandler taking on a project with accomplished writer/director Thomas McCarthy and still managing to make a dud of a comedy. It lacks any acting talent from Sandler who seems to believe not showing any acting is subtle. The film’s moral core is absent in how Sandler’s character is forced through the motions of this artificially sentimental story. And I still can’t get over that ending and how McCarthy could be pleased with such a big middle finger to the audience. You know you’ve been pranked when the film earnestly states the line “You are the guardian of soles. You are the cobbler.”

Rated 1 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark McPherson, CinemaParadiso.co.uk

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They Came Together Review

Still from They Came Together 1

Finally, after decades of these romantic comedies that regurgitate the same formula, we finally have a spoof. It may not hit the same heights as Airplane! or Hot Shots, but it comes pretty close in how it savages every aspect of the constant subgenre. Perhaps I’ve just been burnt out on these romantic comedies that never seem to stray off course that something as insanely satirical just hit the right spot. It was refreshing to finally see the usual notes intentionally played up for a laugh.

For most romantic comedies, the story does not matter. Hardly anybody goes to see these movies for the tension of who will end up with who. You know the two leads will become an item right from the poster and you’re only watching to see how the two actors play off each other. But They Came Together makes the story so insane and ridiculous you can’t help but pay attention to the over-the-top nature. The film wears its concept on its sleeve the way the two leads of Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler relay their relationship to their friends over dinner. They laugh as they begin their story stating how it’s like something straight out of a romantic comedy. The initial elements are satirized right from the beginning with the two describing their qualities that make them perfect romantic leads. Molly (Poehler) stumbles through her house as an absent minded klutz and Joel (Rudd) agrees with her assertion that he’s a striking man who is jewish, but not too jewish.

The two of them naturally start off as enemies – Molly runs a small candy shop and Joel works for the corporate candy company that seeks to buy them out. They start out as enemies with mutual friends, but will soon go through the usual motions of the developing couple. They’ll swoon over coffee, fight over flaws and finally confess their love for each other at Molly’s wedding to the wrong man. These are all very common moments in your run-of-the-mill romantic comedy, but writer/director David Wain approaches them with finding some comedic twist. Sometimes he’s clever in how he plays up the absurdity with nonsensical dialogue. Molly and Joel find a common interest at the bookstore in that they both love fiction books. Of course, Molly’s not-right-for-her guy despises fiction novels. Other times Wain goes for simplest jokes as when the couple comment on a waiter having a pole up his butt which turns out to be quite literal.

Wain’s batting average for this script is fairly high on the big laughs, aided mostly by an all-star cast of comedic greats. Bill Hader and Ellie Kemper listen to Rudd and Poehler’s recant with the perfect reactions for trying to decipher just why the couple is telling them all the useless details. Michael Ian Black plays up his sneering cynicism as Joel’s nemesis co-worker who steals away both his promotion and his previous girlfriend. Christopher Meloni gets some great moments to shine as Joel’s dunce of a boss who makes gross mistakes and judges his employee promotions by speeches more than work ethic. And the rest of the cast is a big who’s-who of comedy that includes Ed Helms, Kenan Thompson and Jack Mcbrayer among others.

Still from They Came Together 2They Came Together is the perfect satirical chaser for those strung out on the current crop of romantic comedies that never change and never end. It finds a way to take the genre and turn it on its head. It’s as if David Wain took a Mad Libs approach to romantic comedies and kept writing in goofy phrases all over the template pages. At its best, They Came Together will put to bed some of the romance cliches that are trotted out in this picture for how simple and artificial they really are.

Rated 4 out of 5

Reviewed by Mark McPherson, CinemaParadiso.co.uk

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