Friday, April 11, 2014

Review: Oculus

Release date: April 11, 2014
Running time: 105 minutes
Starring: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cochrane
Who to see it with: Psychological horror fans


Last year, The Conjuring spooked audiences by relying on suspense and creepiness rather than cheap jump scares. Oculus works similarly, with additional doses of psychological horror and sibling drama. In Oculus, the Russell family suffers a tragedy that leaves half of them dead and sends then ten-year old Tim (Brenton Thwaites) to a mental hospital. The police do not buy his claim that the deaths are the fault of the family's haunted antique mirror. When he is released eleven years later, he is now convinced that his memories are delusional, but his older sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan) has reacquired the mirror and will not rest until she can prove its role in her family's shattering.

Oculus stands out from many recent horror films with its lack of a traditional monster. There are few truly scary moments; the creative horror premise often feels like a foundation for a creepy supernatural drama. The mirror's vaguely explained "powers" leave Tim and Kaylie struggling to figure out if what they are hearing and seeing is real rather than running from creatures. This story is intermingled with flashbacks to their youth detailing what happened when eleven years before. These looks at the past help the story's pacing, giving a break from the siblings' ordeal while providing important background information.

Oculus gets a lot of mileage out of a small cast. Much of the film features only Tim and Kaylie, with the occasional appearance of their parents (Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cochrane) in the flashbacks. I really liked Kaylie. She seems a little smarter and more prepared than the average horror heroine and has a likable intensity. Unfortunately, the story loses some interest toward its end when it shifts away from the first half's question of, "Is the mirror actually haunted?" and the conflict between disbelieving Tim and possibly bonkers Kaylie. And it takes a little too long for the siblings to realize that they may be in over their heads, especially considering Kaylie's extensive research into the mirror's alleged victims. Oculus is not scary, but its focus on psychological horrors and their effects on a family is refreshing and often creepy.

Rent it.

Review: Cuban Fury

Release date: April 11, 2014
Running time: 98 minutes
Starring: Nick Frost, Rashida Jones, Chris O'Dowd, Olivia Colman, Kayvan Novak
Who to see it with: Someone who loves the Cornetto Trilogy


Bruce Garrett (Frost) used to be an international salsa dancing sensation, until a run in with some teenagers squelched the fire under his feet and ended his love affair with Latin dance. However, when he uncovers that his attractive new boss (Jones) also loves the dance of fire, he's determined to rekindle the flame of salsa to win her over. If this sounds like a ridiculous premise, it's because it is. The premise of the film makes no sense but it doesn't have to. The film itself is surprisingly funny and Frost is a loveable character that you want to see succeed. He's joined by a funny supporting cast including his sister (Colman) and a surprisingly outrageous friend / dance companion in Novak. All the characters are over the top, especially Garrett's teacher (played by Ian McShane), and are enjoyable to watch. I didn't care much for Garrett's coworker (played by O'Dowd); I know that he's supposed to be an annoying antagonist but at some point his antics went from being annoying to being absurd.

As I said before, the film has a pretty ridiculous premise and, as a result, the plot is equally comical. But it's supposed to be and it works for this film. Like the dance that inspired the film, the pacing is steady with very little slow down. The dialog is mostly sharp with what appears to be a nice mix of written dialog and improvised content. And, since the film is based on dancing, the dancing itself is mostly enjoyable. Frost, understandably, does not shine as a dancer but the film does what it can to minimize you noticing. He does an admirable job trying to showcase this difficult dance, but there are some noticeable moments that just look off. But, that being said, part of the draw of the film is seeing Frost do the salsa and for fans looking for that won't be disappointed. In the end, Cuban Fury is a ridiculous, but funny, movie that fans of the Cornetto Trilogy should definitely check out.

Watch it.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Review: Draft Day

Release date: April 11, 2014
Running time: About 105 minutes
Starring: Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner, Ellen Burstyn, Denis Leary, Chadwick Boseman
Who to see it with: Your football friend, maybe someone from Cleveland


How great is it to see Kevin Costner back on the big screen? After a long, Costner-less drought of films, he's back in three movies in the first third of the year. Draft Day follows a newer manager of the Cleveland Browns as he strategizes, manages, and handles the most stressful day in professional sports. 

The story of the film is predictable with enough twists to keep it interesting. The dialog is serviceable but won't win any awards for writing. Kevin Costner's acting is the main draw, playing an experienced but disregarded football manager trying to get his bearings and make a name for himself. Denis Leary is a great addition as the team coach trying to deal with the decisions Costner is making. Garner is mostly forgettable as his girlfriend / salary manager, popping in to solve random problems here and there but without enough of a relationship to make her meaningful. 

One of the interesting aspects of the film is the amount of NFL influence. The sponsors are all NFL sponsors (GM, Dominos, etc). The managers and GMs emphasize player character over all other aspects. You can tell that the NFL was heavily involved in the movie, but if you like the league it probably won't bother you. Draft day isn't a great movie, heck it might not even be a good movie. But, it's an interesting sports movie that follows the game from a different perspective. It's not really a first round draft pick, but it's a fun movie that you might want to check out in the later rounds.

Rent it.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Review: Rio 2

Release date: April 11, 2014
Running time: 101 minutes
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Anne Hathaway, Jemaine Clement, Kristin Chenoweth, Bruno Mars
Who to see it with: Someone looking for an Amazon adventure


Rio 2 is the sequel to the surprisingly good original film from Blue Sky Studios (part of 20th Century Fox). The movie sees Blu and Jewel now living comfortably in Rio de Janeiro with their three kids. Blu, since he was raised by humans, is comfortable with the city life and the amenities that it offers, but Jewel prefers her kids grow up in the forest, like she did. Conveniently, a pair of exploring ornithologists discover a hidden nest of blue macaws deep in the rain forest, prompting Jewel to convince the family to travel back and see their roots. 

Starting with the animation, it's absolutely gorgeous. The credits listed separate feather and fur teams, and it shows. The birds look amazing and there are some really intricate details that pop out of all the characters. Additionally, the scenes in the jungles are wonderfully lush, with dense forests and beautiful flowers. The voice acting is good, with a very famous cast including some interesting new comers like Bruno Mars,, and Kristin Chenoweth. I especially liked Chenoweth's character and identified her immediately. The voices are recognizable without being distracting, although I didn't love Eisenberg's Blu. He does a good job, but I just didn't like the overall character. 

The story starts off as an adventure, but that journey is only part of it (although, there is a very beautiful animation effect that happens during the travel, which I enjoyed a lot). The whole story is a little far fetched, even for a kids movie, but it does the job. Once they get to the forest, you meet the bulk of the new characters and many of the main dilemmas. Like many kids films, the plot turns pretty quickly at one point and wraps up with a far too convenient ending. But, the film does have some good overall lessons about family and knowing your roots. Overall, Rio 2 is a beautiful, fun kids movie that you'll enjoy, but won't really stick with you after you leave the theater.

Rent it.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Review: Bad Words

Release date: March 14, 2014 (limited)
Running time: 89 minutes
Starring: Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn, Rohan Chand, Allison Janney, Philip Baker Hall
Who to see it with: Someone who can appreciate funny, un-politically correct antiheroes


Jason Bateman makes his directorial debut with Bad Words, the story of a foul-mouthed 40-year-old named Guy Trilby (played by Bateman) who uses a loophole to enter a children’s spelling bee. The farfetched premise is occasionally used to poke fun at the personalities of the bee contestants and their overzealous parents, but mostly serves as an excuse to place Guy in an absurd situation. Bateman gets to play against his usual straight gut type like he did in body-switching comedy The Change-Up. Kathryn Hahn’s initially mild-mannered reporter aids Guy while covering his story. At first, she seems like Guy’s “straight man”, but becomes funnier as she reveals her odd quirks.

The dark comedy is lightened by Guy’s relationship with fellow contestant Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand), a friendly ten-year-old who won’t leave Guy alone his signs of disinterest. Their bond provides some of the film’s funniest moments when Guy’s bad behavior rubs off on him. The kid seems like he may be included to humanize Guy—he’s an irredeemable jerk until he gives him a chance—but their interactions don’t feel forced. Guy’s attitude makes him a reliable source of mean, dirty jokes, but the character may be better than the movie. His secret background and late-movie decisions don’t make the greatest story nor make him as sympathetic as seemingly intended. Bad Words could have done more with its absurd premise, but is a funny showcase for an against-type Jason Bateman.

Rent it.

What to Watch This Weekend: March 21, 2014

We recommend renting this film, but if you really want to see something in theaters, you will probably enjoy Bad WordsIt could have done more with its absurd premise, but it is a funny showcase for an against-type Jason Bateman.

On DVD: Frozen
Disney's Academy Award-winning film is now available to rent. It won best animated feature and best song. It's a good movie with beautiful animation and great music. It's not perfect, but it's a fun movie for the whole family with plenty of cool moments.

20 Feet from Stardom is an interesting look at the many trials and occasional triumphs experienced by performers who receive far too little recognition. It's a great documentary and shouldn't be missed now that it's available for streaming.

Netflix Link

Mud features a strong performance by Matthew McConaughey as the title character who meets two boys in the back woods of a southern town. The film offers an engaging Southern drama that manages to keep an interesting story along some beautiful Southern landscapes.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Review: Muppets Most Wanted

Release date: March 21, 2014
Running time: 112 minutes
Starring: Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell, Tina Fey 
Who to see it with: Someone who absolutely loves the Muppets.


Muppets Most Wanted follows the Muppets after wrapping on their last movie, as they hope to capitalize on their newly renewed fame and embark on a world tour. This trip takes them to Germany, Spain, England, and Russia to perform for their world fans. Unfortunately, they are duped by their tour manager (Gervais) who is not looking out for the Muppets best interest. On top of this, a dangerous frog, who looks very similar to Kermit, has escaped from a Russian prison and is going to to cause the Muppets even more trouble. The film brings back most of your favorite Muppets and includes a new character just introduced in the last movie. The puppeteers animating the Muppets are great and the characters move and emote with an amazing amount of life. Additionally, all the voices sound authentic to the originals and it's easy to get drawn into these performances. 

As you would expect from a movie about a world tour, the Muppets visit a variety of locales and interact with many different individuals. Although this could have been a fun lesson about various world place, it ends up being the same event with a different backdrop without teaching anything about that location. The story itself just feels like an excuse to go to various cities, so why not teach kids about those locations while it's there? Additionally, there are some unnecessary European comments that play to various stereotypes about what some Americans think about European work ethic. It's possibly harmless, but in a kids movie I expect to not have these types of stereotypes to imprint on young minds. Additionally, the film as a whole, and the Muppets dialog particularly, aren't terribly funny. The best thing about the film, however, are the various celebrity cameos. They come on stage for a short time and play a funny character or say a line or two. Overall, maybe I'm being too critical, but Muppets Most Wanted felt like it could have been an interesting world tour movie teaching kids about various locales, but ended up feeling like a rushed sequel to the last film.

Rent it.