Movie Reviews

youre-nextReview: You’re Next (2013)

You’re Next was scooped up by Lionsgate when it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2011 only to fall into a distribution black hole for two years before finally seeing a theatrical release in 2013. Despite almost no marketing and a relatively unknown cast the film grossed twenty million thanks to word of mouth and critical praise. Critics are not often kind to the horror genre and with the slew of overused iconography, clichéd characters, and the digital hand-held trend that has everyone and their mother making found footage films, it is no mystery as to why critics and film buffs cringe at most recent entries in this genre. Which is why You’re Next, an unapologetically brutal slasher film shot on sleek, rich film stock stands out from the crowd.

The film starts off fairly predictably, with a family getting together in secluded vacation house. As we’re introduced to the family members, it is obvious there is a high level of tension from the start and the reunion plays out with a soap opera-esque level of melodrama; so much so that we welcome the interruption when the home-invasion part of the film kicks into gear.

A group of attackers descends on the house with meticulously planned traps designed to slaughter the home’s inhabitants. With razor sharp dialogue, fast pacing and merciless treatment of the “stupid” characters, this film wastes no time separating itself from the herd. In this film you can expect the dumb, annoying characters to be punished in wickedly clever ways, which let’s face it, we all enjoy to some extent. Predictable elements such as “no cell phone signal in the wilderness” are explained with the more believable “attackers are jamming the signal” and instead of the family being “trapped” inside the house some do manage to leave, only to have rather disturbing encounters when they do.

YNshotThe writing is good, I’d say above par for slasher standards, and the unknown actors make the “Who’s going to live/die?” question difficult to predict. The main plot “twist” is predictable, but the film treats the audience as if they’ve figured it out for themselves already and not as some big revelation. And it propels the story forward, explaining who the attackers are and their motivation(s).

The attacker’s biggest rival emerges as one of the family member’s girlfriends, Erin. Erin defies the stereotypical victim tropes and proves to be more than capable of turning the tables on the bad guys. Her counter-attack propels the film forward and keeps viewers on the edge of their seats to the very end; an end that serves as a nod to a classic home-invasion film of the sixties.

Once you’re done enjoying the thrill ride that is You’re Next, I suggest checking out director Adam Wingard’s and writer Simon Barrett’s talented (and twisted) contribution to V/H/S. And look for this filmmaking duo to continue pushing the boundaries of contemporary horror. You’re Next is available on DVD and currently streaming on Netflix Instant.

My scoring:
Acting – B
Editing – A
Cinematography – A
Writing – B+
Directing – A-
Sound – A

CRITICal: When film critics fail, the audience suffers
**Originally published June 2013**

As a former film student who’s logged hours of film theory and analysis classes, I’ve come to respect critic’s opinions. I particularly like Rotten Tomatoes’ percentage-based-on-collective-reviews method. However, lately I’ve relied too heavily on RT’s ratings to sway me on films that I’ve been “on the fence” on and I’ve paid for the mistake.

You see previews for a blockbuster like Hangover 3 labeled with a positive “funniest movie of the summer” or “most entertaining film you’ll see all year” and you know to read between the lines. But you see an “artsy” flick or some indie receive high praise from the film community and you tend to trust the professional consensus.

So here’s 3 recent misfires and why:

SPOILER ALERT – There’s all kinds of spoilers in the reviews below. Read at your own risk.

Side Effects
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Ronney Mara, Jude Law, Channing Tatum, Catherine Zeta-Jones

Praised as a Hitchcockian thriller. Suspenseful, daring, tons of twists and turns, keeps you on the edge of your seat… No, not even close. Some parts in the plot were unpredictable, I’ll give them that. And it’s a solid cast. I’ve enjoyed most of Soderbergh’s films. All entertaining. Some even intriguing and captivating. So when critics referred to Side Effects as his best work to date I rushed to the theater. However, this one proves to be more preposterous and improbable with every scene. And after a gripping start, it transforms into a socio-political drama about the pharmaceutical industry.

Tatum is in the first 10 minutes of the film – maybe more if your an asshole who clocks his screen time – but that’s what it feels like. Rooney Mara gives a great performance. Jude Law as well, in fact it’s hard to argue with the critics who say it’s his best performance to date (I still stand by My Blueberry Nights as his best).

The big “twist” comes down to Mara’s character simply playing the stock market. She wants to make a killing investing in stock of a drug company by sabotaging their competitor in a highly publicized fashion – by killing her husband and blaming the drug so that its competitor’s stock skyrockets. And apparently Zeta-Jones is in love with her and will doing anything to help her pull it off. The lesbian love affair is built up as the big unveil at the end. Seriously? It’s 2013. She’s suppose to be intelligent doctor and they make her out to have the brains of horny high schooler.

The pace is shaky too, goes slow and methodical in the beginning then rushes through the last 20-30 minutes. I guess Soderbergh realized the twists didn’t carry the shock value they were going for so he sped through the anti-climatic ending.

The film is also guilty of one of my pet peeves – explaining itself with flashbacks of footage you just saw minutes earlier in the film. How stupid do you think your audience is? How badly stricken with ADD are we that we can’t remember a car accident from an hour earlier? Sigh. So as much as it pains me to say it because I very much respect the filmmaker and cast. This one was a huge disappointment. I still scratch my head at all the positive praise and high RT rating it received.

RT Rating: 83%
My Rating: 55%

Killing Them Softly
Director: Andrew Dominik
Cast: Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini

Man am I glad I waited to rent this one. Actually I’d prefer the 100 minutes of my life back. Again, I’ll start with the positive before ripping into its flaws.

Ray Liotta shines in his part, though he’s been playing a gangster in practically every movie he’s been in since the 80s so he probably slept through the role (for that matter so did Pitt and most of the audience). He is good at what he does. That said, it should tell you a lot when I name him the highlight. Apparently the film stays true to the book. Thus I should have familiarized myself with the book and been prepared, that one’s on me. Moreover, I was not familiar with the director, but now I know to avoid his work. And I also know why he hasn’t worked much.

Brad Pitt is hardly in it. He looks bored and indifferent, doesn’t put any effort in creating an interesting character. James Gandolfini has a bit part and he’s great in it, but his character makes Tony Soprano look like a saint; his character is so eccentrically abhorrent it’s tough to believe …or watch.

Here’s the whole movie: Pitt is hired to kill a guy, he does, then argues about being shorted on the pay only to be told it’s recession rate. That’s the whole film right there. Political commentary is blatantly riddled throughout the film. Lots of anti-Obama rhetoric. I don’t care what side you’re on politically, if you want a political docu-drama you’d have rented something else, something more intelligent. This film is the director’s personal soapbox. One scene is just Brad Pitt siting at a bar watching Obama give a speech. And everyone from gangsters to hitman complain about how the economy is hurting business. Can you image the cast of Casino or Goodfellas sitting around complaining about the economy? Zzzzzzz.

The film is uneven, tedious, and unremarkable. It also wastes a good cast, which is probably the worst crime commited in this film.

RT Rating: 75% (worth noting that there was a 30% differential between critics & audience at the time of publishing)
My Rating: 25%

The Place Beyond The Pines
Director: Derek Cianfrance
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Rose Byrne

This movie is comprised of 3 short films in which the characters are interconnected. It would have been helpful to know this going in. It’s also 2 hours and 20 minutes long and plays out so slowly that you feel like you’ve been in the theater for much, much longer.

I know I’ve tried to start out with some positive remarks, I will say that the cinematography is good and Cianfrance has potential to be a decent filmmaker if he lets someone else write the scripts.

Gosling is only in the first vignette and exits much too early. The film goes downhill from there, not the fault of the remaining actors who do what they can with the material. The film suffers from weak writing and editing. Scenes are dragged out for no apparent reason.

Lots of eye contact, not much dialogue. Which is fine if you can keep the story going through a character’s actions or motives, this film succeeds in neither. The audience learns a key revelation in the 3rd act and then has to wait a painstaking hour for the characters to have the same revelation. And it’s about as anti-climatic as could be.

Unbalanced narrative, scattered themes… tries to be profound and ultimately fizzles out.

Marketing really irritated me with his film – Gosling is billed as an Evil Kenevil-turned-bank-robber. Sounds exciting! And it is for about two scenes and 20 minutes of the film. When Gosling exits, so can you.

RT Rating: 82%
My Rating: 40%

Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

I stumbled upon an interview with Stieg Larsson years ago, while he was writing what would become known as the Millennium Trilogy. Larsson was no stranger to headlines himself and with his novels making waves all over Europe, gaining greater traction after his passing, he’d left an indubitable mark in the crime fiction world. He’d piqued my curiosity and I began reading about his life, parts of which seep into his work, and the story he wanted to share with the world.

When the first edition of the English translation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo hit the book shelves I spent half the day in Barnes & Noble. I was hooked. And it pained me to have to wait for the translations of the remaining books in the series to become available. Those were some long months as each was released about a year apart. Now, 4 years later I found myself sitting in a theater enraptured by David Fincher’s telling.

Honestly, like many people who are fans of the books, I didn’t think the movie would do it justice. Larsson’s narrative is a complex one with numerous characters and intertwining plotlines; it’s an ambitious story to cram into a 2-3 hr film. So you go into the theater expecting disappointment. Plus, if you’ve read the books and seen the Swedish films, the odds of being bored are pretty good. I mean how many times do you want to read and/or watch the same story being told?

All this considered, I couldn’t help but have high expectations. From casting to writing to directing to scoring to cinematography to editing, this was an all-star team in my book and I wanted nothing less than a 2hrs and 40 min of stellar entertainment. And they delivered. A roller-coaster metaphor would be very appropriate way of describing this film, despite the cliche.

First off, fans of the series will see a few minor and one major change in Steve Zaillian’s adaptation. No big spoilers, I promise. This is one of the first times I’ve seen a book-to-screen adaptation and thought the book’s author would have applauded the changes made to the story. It’s actually an improvement from the book because it omits some of the minutia – like Mikeal’s affair with Cecilia (I mean seriously does he have to sleep with every female character? In the books the answer is yes, he does.) – to focus on the main mystery and not risk slowing down the film’s fast pace. The biggest change to the plot is how this mystery is solved. Zaillian’s solution actually makes more sense and the revelation gives the same satisfactory sense of closure to viewers. I believe Larsson would have approved.

Trent Reznor’s soundtrack is incredible and adds intrigue to the otherwise daunting research scenes. However, it plays over some of the crucial dialogue to make some scenes needlessly-jarring. There were several occasions when I felt I was watching a David Lynch film. After exercising restraint in The Social Network, Fincher gave Reznor free reign this time around and while great in some scenes, it hurts others. Albeit, The James-Bond style opening number is fantastic.

The casting was excellent all around. Daniel Craig gives a solid performance. He said in an interview he was stick thin from Cowboys & Aliens so he had to put on the pounds by eating pizza. Where are these pounds exactly? Mikaell is written to be handsome but with a few extra pounds around the middle and out of shape. Daniel Craig’s Mikael is fit and toned. No real issue there, just an observation. The casting of the supporting roles is dead-on and all the actors do a superb job; Robin Wright and Christopher Plummer in particular.

Much has already been said about Rooney Mara. Mostly positive. As it should be. I liked her portrayal of Lisbeth. She has good chemistry with Craig, too. Obviously it’s a challenging role to take on and requires some serious talent. Mara deserves all the praise and award nominations coming her way.

One inconsistency that bothered me more than it should have – the dragon tattoo on her back is really just on her shoulder blade. This symbol carries a lot of weight [obviously] throughout the series. Fincher’s decision to make it a subtle trademark may have been a good one, but I’m still on the fence with that choice.

If you are not familiar with the story, be aware that there are some paralyzing scenes of sexual violence. Fincher shoots these scenes with raw, unflinching brutality that will have viewers squirming in their seats. It makes the revenge sequence that much sweeter – though not much easier on the stomach. Take comfort in knowing these torture scenes are depicted in excruciating detail in the book.

My scoring:
Acting – A
Editing – A+
Cinematography – A
Writing – A+
Directing – A
Sound – B+

Review: The Town (2010)

A group of guys from the wrong side of the Boston tracks and a main character torn between his old life and his new love. Sound familiar? Ben Affleck’s newest flick, The Town, does share some similarities to Good Will Hunting, but he finds a way to break free of the mold with a compelling heist plot that, while somewhat contrived and melodramatic, still shapes up to be one of the best films I’ve seen this year.

Based on the book Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan (co-author of The Strain Trilogy), Affleck’s adaptation captures the gritty action and “family” tension that makes the book so good. To Affleck’s credit, he isn’t afraid to get down and dirty with some ambitious shoot-outs and well-constructed action sequences – there’s car chase through narrow streets of Charlestown that’ll have you holding your breath the whole time; very well executed. Perhaps he’s auditioning to direct the next Bourne installment?

While Affleck plays the reformed drug addict with a conscious, his three bank robbing buddies are all very 1-sided; criminals driven by greed. We get very little depth or insight into how these guys became friends & cohorts other than a little back-story between Affleck’s character and his best friend, played by Jeremy Renner.

Jeremy plays an unsympathetic blood-thirsty criminal and does well with what he has to work with. We learn a little about his loyalties when he explains his motives for his first murder – this scene between him and Affleck is one of the strongest in the film. While I think the role was a decent call post-Hurt Locker, I’d like to see him take on a part with more layers. The talent’s there, he just doesn’t get to use it much in this film. John Hamm also gives a solid performance as the FBI agent determined to bring them in. Even (and yes I’m going to say it) Blake Lively gives a strong effort with her supporting role. I’m sorry to say, but the weakest link in the film is Rebecca Hall, who plays the female lead. She gives a believe victim performance, but she’s too reserved with the role and it just comes across as cold and unlikeable.

The biggest flaw is the poorly executed climax that tests both the limits of the story’s character development and Affleck’s directing skills. I will keep this review spoiler-free, but the ending gets a little ridiculous and takes the film from solid neo-noir to bloated blockbuster wanna be; loosing some of what was making the film good in the process.

A nod to Affleck’s directing – he did a commendable job of capturing the culture and atmosphere of Boston’s less desirable neighborhoods. He may very well be on the road to becoming the Spike Lee of Boston, but he probably shouldn’t audition for Paul Greengress’ job anytime soon.

My scoring:
Acting – A
Editing – B
Cinematography – B+
Writing – A-
Directing – B
Sound – B