Archive | April, 2017

V/H/S Series – Review: Part 1

16 Apr

Found footage horror movies were a huge deal up until recently, and there was a good deal of bad mixed in with a handful of good. I firmly believe that if found footage is done correctly, it can be very effective, but the film makers who attempt this walk a fine line to make it seem realistic without making it look cheap. Perhaps one of the most recognizable series that implements the found footage style are the V/H/S films. These were mostly seen on the festival circuit before being released On Demand and then put on home media. I’ve never seen these movies, but I’ve heard plenty about them, so let’s dive right in.

Let’s start with the original 2012 film, V/H/S.

A gang of criminals is hired by a mysterious source to break into an elderly man’s house to retrieve a single VHS tape. What’s on the VHS tape is not explained and is deemed unimportant, so the thieves take the job. They easily break into the house but are shocked to find the old man dead and his house covered in an assortment of VHS tapes. In order to root out the correct tape, they start to watch what this man has in his collection, but are horrified at what they find. What is on these tapes are documented cases of horror that include a mysterious murderous entity, a siren that forces herself on men to feed her bloodlust, webcam footage that shows an unspeakable lie, a stalker hunting a couple on vacation, and a house that holds a deadly secret. While the thieves watch these tapes, they become aware of strange things happening around them that may have some connection with the dead man and what he has on these tapes.

So, I definitely have some things to say about V/H/S. Some of it’s good and some of it isn’t so much. Let’s get the negatives out of the way. First off, this is a found footage movie, and I believe that if found footage movies are done right, they can be a real success. This one takes that gimmick and goes a bit too far with it. The frame story of the thieves breaking into the old man’s house to find the VHS tape is fine, but it’s almost destroyed by these glitches in the tapes they’re using. This happens for the first few minutes, which didn’t really bother me, but they just kept happening. It drove me crazy. As I’m sure you’ve gathered, this is a horror anthology filled with short films. That being said, some of these shorts really didn’t do anything for me. The one that sticks out for being the most bland is the one titled Second Honeymoon. These shorts run close to 20 minutes long, so when one is really boring, it feels way longer than it actually is. This one leads absolutely nowhere, and it’s followed up by another short that also falls pretty short. This makes for a middle section of this movie that seems to drag on forever, but that’s the risk you take with anthology movies like this.

WhenV/H/S decides to get good, however, it gets real good. The general consensus from the critics I’ve heard from is that the first short and the last are the strongest, and I’m certainly inclined to agree. The first short called Amateur Night is a terrifying trip that has an excellent build up and an even better payoff. The final short called 10/31/98 isn’t the scariest of the bunch, but it does feature some pretty cool special effects that is the perfect climax to the style and mood that this movie has been building. There’s something startling about some of the imagery that’s used in this movie, and that’s probably what I’m going to remember the most about it. Since it is a found footage film, there are select elements that can’t be seen, which works since whatever you concoct in your imagination can be way scarier than the reality, but what is shown is brutal and has a style all its own.

V/H/S didn’t set a new standard of horror films when it came out, but the ripple that it made was well deserved. Comparing it to something like The Witch or It Follows isn’t really fair, but for what it is, it’s a pretty impressive low budget scare fest. There are certain segments that don’t hold up nearly as well as some of the other ones, and the acting can be a bit off at times. What does hold the movie up are some genuine scares and cringes that the scarier portions of the film provide.

Final Grade: B-

A year later, the sequel, simply titled V/H/S/2, was released. If this isn’t one of the most badass sequels I’ve seen in a while, I don’t know what is.

When two private eyes are hired to find a missing college student, their investigation leads them to a house that seems abandoned, except for a set up of televisions, a laptop, and a series of VHS tapes. The investigators begin to watch the tapes which seem to show unspeakable horrors. A man sees the vengeful undead through a new high tech prosthetic eye, a man on a bicycling trail is bitten and turned into a zombie, journalists witness a violent cult hit the climax of their worship, and aliens wreak havoc on kids having a slumber party. While the tapes don’t appear to be linked, it becomes clear to the investigators that something is very wrong with the house they’re in, and terror soon strikes them as they become part of their very own VHS tape to add to the collection.

Take everything you liked about V/H/S and turn it up to 11, and that’s how you get V/H/S/2. This really is one of the strongest sequels I’ve seen in a while, and certainly one of the strongest sequels in the horror genre. There are so many memorable moments in this film that it’s hard to wrap my head around all of them. If you want to talk about real horror, I’d be in trouble if I forgot to single out Timo Tjahtjhanto and Gareth Huw Evans’ segment titled Safe Haven. I have yet to watch the next film in this series, but I can say that this segment is going to be the strongest in the whole series. Take the real world horror of a Jonestown situation and add the supernatural, plus make it found footage so you’re smack dab in the middle, and you got some excellent moments of terror. I also want to single out Eduardo Sánchez’s and Gregg Hale’s A Ride in the Park, where we see through a zombie’s point of view via a Go Pro on his helmet. This is works as a zombie horror movie, but also a sort of wacky dark comedy.

I do have a few complaints about this movie, and they really just have to do with the strength of a couple of the tapes. The frame narrative with the investigators really doesn’t seem like much, but the end pay off makes it all worth it, so that one gets a pass as a positive. The first short titled Phase I Clinical Trials has a good idea if it were an episode of The Twilight Zone. For a movie that has shorts like Safe Haven in it, I expected a little bit more. It has some scares, but it’s over before it begins and there’s really nothing to it. The last short called Slumber Party Alien Abduction also doesn’t hold up as well as the two that come before it. There’s some interesting sound work and the aliens have cool reveals, but it feels underwhelming after the gems that have already been shown.

V/H/S/2, despite some of the segments being weaker than others, is a really good horror anthology film that is even better than its predecessor. It takes the scares, the gore, and the ideas and turns them way up to create a horror film that I may never forget. All the film makers that worked on this movie each had a specific task, and some of the made gold while the others follow up with silver. Never was I bored during this movie and it’s one that I’d love to watch again.

Final Grade: B+

So there’s the first two entries of the V/H/S series. Both were solid movies, but I have to give the edge to the sequel. Stay tuned for my next review where I’ll talk about V/H/S: Viral and the spin off movie, SiREN.

T2 Trainspotting – Review

7 Apr

One of my favorite movies of all time is the 1996 Danny Boyle film Trainspotting, which is based on a 1993 novel of the same name by Scottish author Irvine Welsh. This film seems to have always been with me since it seems like a week can’t go by without me referencing it or just having it cross my mind when a certain song comes on. I just love this movie to death, and to me it’s a perfect film. For years, a sequel has been talked about and going through different phases of production, but here we are in 2017 and we finally have T2 Trainspotting. This is a time of sequels and reboots and remakes, so a lot of people may be turned off by this idea, but Welsh did write a sequel in 2002 called Porno. With Boyle, screenwriter John Hodge and Irvine Welsh all back on board for this sequel, I was also on board and this film did not disappoint.

20 years after deceiving his friends and running off with a whole bag of money, Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) finally returns to Scotland with the hopes of reuniting with friends and family. His friends all seem to be in different states of decay with Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) managing a run down bar and addicted to cocaine, Spud (Ewen Bremner) still a heroine addict who’s lost nearly everything, a Begbie (Robert Carlyle) in prison with a strong personal vendetta against Mark fueling his every action. Pretty soon, Mark and Simon get over their troubles with one another and turn, once again, to a life of crime with the plans of converting Simon’s bar into a brothel. They enlist the help of Spud and Simon’s girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) to help wth the transformation. Things start to get out of hand, however, when Begbie escapes from prison and starts gunning for Mark, while Simon and Spud do their best to cover for him. Amongst all of the crime and the business plans, this gang’s past is quickly catching up to them and there’s nothing they can do about it.

I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t nearly jump out of my seat when I saw each character return in their respective introductions. These are some of my favorite characters ever put to the screen, because no matter how troubled and deceptive they are, you can’t help but love them. It’s been 20 years since the original film came out, but the way these actors seamlessly return to their roles, it feels like the first film could have come out yesterday. The shenanigans they get into are very reminiscent of the first film without it ever feeling like Danny Boyle, John Hodge, and Irvine Welsh are just capitalizing on its success. This isn’t a film about nostalgia for the audience, but more so about the dangers of becoming to enraptured in your past that you’re unable to look forward, which is the case for most of the characters in this movie.

If  were asked to describe this movie in one word, I could easily give you the answer: seamless. This is a seamless transition into a sequel that feels so natural, it’s almost as if this were always meant to be. The end of the first film isn’t quite a cliffhanger, but it does leave the audience wondering if the certain betrayal that happens is enough to make them change their lives. This film answers that question with a resounding “no.” This is an excellent postscript to the questions that can arise at the end of the first film while offering a deeper understanding of these complicated characters as they enter middle aged life. While there is a sense of nostalgia and love of Trainspotting with small references to scenes from that movie, it comes with the danger that too much nostalgia will ruin your foresight, a theme that I just can’t get enough of.

While T2 Trainspotting is just the sequel I needed, it does come with a storytelling flaw that stops it from reaching the esteemed heights of its predecessor. I this movie, Mark and Simon are turning back to a life of crime in order to turn Simon’s bar into a brothel. Cool. I’m into that story. Meanwhile, Spud is dealing with his own problems, which get explored more when he’s brought into Mark and Simon’s plan. Also cool. What’s upsetting is that certain interesting plot points go nowhere after awhile in favor of something completely different to happen in the final act of the movie. Luckily, the plot points that are abandoned are not the most interesting parts of the movie, but it feels like a lot of time was wasted for such a big part of the story to just be completely abandoned like it never existed. It leaves the second act of the movie feeling disjointed and certain scenes feeling unnecessary. It’s kind of a weird decision and I’m not sure I fully understand why they took the movie in that direction.

T2 Trainspotting is exactly the sequel that the first film needed even if it doesn’t reach the level that its predecessor did. The bottom line is that I loved this movie. I really, really did. It’s like these actors never stopped playing these characters since they return with what seems like such ease. Danny Boyle and his crew also seem to not miss a beat with the kinetic editing and often outlandish style of the film. If certain plot points were cleaned up, I would have been very pleased, but the most interesting parts of the movie remain intact as the characters face elements of life that they just aren’t prepared for. I can’t wait to see this one again.

Final Grade: A-

The Painted Veil – Review

7 Apr

Way back in 1925 a book was written called The Painted Veil, which told a story of love, heartbreak, and betrayal in the midst of a cholera epidemic in rural China. I’m not sure what the initial reaction was to the novel, but it spawned a plethora of adaptations dating back to 1934 and starring Greta Garbo. Another adaptation happened in 1957 with the film The Seventh Sin, an overlooked movie that cost MGM a great deal of money. The version I’m going to be talking about is the 2006 film starring Naomi Watts and Edward Norton. The Painted Veil is one of those movies where I’m really glad to have watched it, but it’s not something that’s going to stick with me for very long.

Kitty (Naomi Watts) is a well known and admired socialite who has no real interest in doing much of anything with her life, despite the pleas of her parents to find someone to marry and build a family with. Kitty is taken off guard one night when she meets a bacteriologist named Walter (Edward Norton) who asks her to marry him the next time they meet. She agrees to the marriage for the sole purpose of getting as far away as possible from her family. The couple move to Shanghai for Walter to continue his work, but Kitty meets Charlie (Liev Schreiber), a British government official, and they begin an affair. Walter quickly learns this and volunteers for a position to study Cholera in a rural village suffering from an epidemic. He brings Kitty along as a punishment and threatens to create a scandal if she doesn’t accompany him. It is in the middle of the sickness and the death that Kitty and Walter are forced to face mortality and their own selves to discover what is really important in their lives.

The first thing that pops out at me in The Painted Veil, and where I think the film is most successful, is in its production design. This is a gorgeous looking movie that’s beautifully shot and filled with excellent costumes and set designs. Being a period piece, it’s very important that the film has a sense of time and place, and this one knows and understands its time very well. This is why I really love well made period pieces, because they have the ability to transport you to a time that you’ve never seen before or never had the chance to experience. This also comes in handy when dealing with the plot point of a cholera epidemic. It hits the viewer hard and director John Curran pulled no punches in showing the horror that these people went through before a real cure was found.

You can clearly tell that the studio and makers of this film were really trying to push this movie as Oscar bait. Unfortunately, it never got to that point. I will say that they cast the right actors to get audiences’ attention, including mine. I think Edward Norton and Naomi Watts are two powerhouse actors, and usually give their all to whatever movie they’re in. The same can be said about their performances in The Painted Veil. They have really good chemistry together, which makes it all the more upsetting when the hostility between their characters reach their boiling points. There’s also real fear behind the stone wall façades that the two characters have built up, which make them feel all the more human. There’s also some great performances by the film’s minor roles with Toby Jones and Anthony Wong.

It’s hard to pinpoint where this movie falters, but I can’t help shake the feeling that the full potential of this film wasn’t reached. It may be that this story and its archetypal characters have been seen a dozen times before since the original story was written way back in 1925. There’s lots of flash in the production design and the acting, but I knew exactly where the story was going to go before I even started watching the movie. I had a good idea of what was going to happen based on the plot summary and most things I predicted came true. That takes a lot of joy and fun out of watching a movie since it feels like I’ve seen it all before. There are certain plot points in movie that can be predictable and have the movie remain intact, but when I can guess the entire movie, beat by beat, it kind of makes me rethink how entertaining the movie actually was.

I’m glad that I watched The Painted Veil because it has some really great production design, very good acting, and an interesting enough hook to get me engaged in the story. I feel as if I don’t need to see it again, however, because at the end of it all it was a very predictable film. It doesn’t dare to be different from any other romantic period drama, and it actually seems to try really hard to stay within the parameters of a very exact formula. If anyone ever asks me if they should watch The Painted Veil, I’d say sure, but I’d never go out of my way to recommend it.

Final Grade: B

Ghost in the Shell – Review

2 Apr

Back in 1989 a three volume manga series called Ghost in the Shell was released and told a story concerning a dystopian future where it becomes almost impossible to see where humanity ends and technology begins. This short manga series paved the way for an entire franchise to thrive and grow on. First, there was the mega hit anime film from 1995, which totally floored me the first time I watched it and only got better when I revisited it. There was also a very popular anime series titled Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, of which I have some experience with, but not as much as I’d like. There’s been a whole string of sequels and adaptations, and now Hollywood has thrown itself into the mix. Does it stand up with the original source material? Not quite, but it does work as engaging popcorn entertainment.

In the future, cybernetics have come so far that robotic upgrades to the human body has become something as normal as plastic surgery. The most extreme case of this blending of organic and artificial is Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson), whose body is completely cybernetic but is controlled by a human brain. The Major, along with her partner Batou (Pilou Asbæk) and boss Chief Aramaki (“Beat” Takeshi Kitano), defend Section 9 again all sorts of criminals, but specialize in cyber terrorism. After an attack on a business meeting run by the powerful Hanka Industries, the Major and the rest of the Section 9 bureau go on the hunt for a new, powerful cyber terrorist who appears to be targeting scientists that worked on a specific project for Hanka. As the clues begin to add up, the Major is forced to take a good, hard look at herself and begins to learn about her past and the lies that she’s been being fed to keep her complacent.

When I first saw this version of Ghost in the Shell, I left the theater super excited. I was ready to go back in and watch the movie again, but as time has gone on, that excitement has sort of waned. Don’t misunderstand me, though, I still really enjoyed this movie. The over the top hype has just died down a little bit. Let me get the best part of this movie out of the way first. This is a stunning film to look at. There’s so much going on in most of the shots of this movie that I found my eyes darting around the screen just to take in all of the little bits that make up the breathtaking whole. This is an achievement of what practical and CGI special effects are capable of. Along with the gorgeous city wide shots and the not so glamorous streets and alleys comes action sequences that are impossible to forget. Director Rupert Sanders and cinematographer Jess Hall have a very strong grip on how to make an action sequence seem to burst from the screen. The compositions, use of slow motion, and even the minor visual tricks make the action in Ghost in the Shell some of the best I’ve seen in quite some time.

So the special effects and action sequences are all way above average and stand out as something truly remarkable. Unfortunately, the same can’t quite be said about the story. The story isn’t bad, but it didn’t really grab me as hard as it should have. The plot about the cyber terrorist was engaging and his design is great, but there were parts that didn’t really do it for me. Part of the story is the Major investigating her past to find out what really happened to her. Those scenes don’t have the emotional or mysterious resonance as they probably should, because we already know something is amiss from the beginning just because of how certain characters are acting. I had a pretty good idea about what was going on, and it really didn’t break any new ground like the 1995 anime film did. Granted, the story in that film took a back seat to the grand philosophical discussions about technology and humanity, which made it clear that that’s what that movie was about. This one has a story that takes a back seat to the action, but it also doesn’t have the thematic strength of the 1995 film either.

Any fan of the Ghost in the Shell franchise will also have a good time picking out easter eggs sprinkled throughout the film, but they will also appreciate some scenes that have been meticulously recreated for this live action blockbuster. This isn’t really an objective part of my review, but it was kind of thrilling seeing some of the iconic moments from the franchise brought to life with a super large budget. It also helped that the actors were largely committed to their roles. Johansson does a great just as the Major, and does a great job at bringing a human side to the character while also feeling mechanical. She has truly established herself as an action star for this generation. Another stand out is “Beat” Takeshi Kitano as Chief Aramaki, but that’s really no surprise. It’s always a joy to see Kitano in anything.

Ghost in the Shell isn’t going to be the next Blade Runner or Matrix movie, but for me to sit here and tell you that it doesn’t provide a really entertaining couple of hours would be a down right lie. The story could have been beefed up to be actually mysterious and it could have raised more questions in the way the 1995 film did. In terms of its action and its role as being a big budget extravaganza, it succeeds more than it fails. I can see how people new to the franchise may be a little confused or uninterested in parts of it, but as a fan of the original anime film and what I’ve seen of Stand Alone Complex, I thought this was a damn good adaptation.

Final Grade: B+