Reviews

Theatrical and DVD reviews.

Lone Star Cinema: The Rookie

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Still from The Rookie

My alternate Super Bowl programming this year was a DVD of The Rookie I checked out from the library. I had first seen the baseball drama closer to its original theatrical release in 2002 and remembered enjoying the story, but hadn’t really thought of the Disney film in the past ten years.

Dennis Quaid (Frequency, The Day After Tomorrow) leads the movie based on the true story of Jimmy Morris, a Texas high-school baseball coach who makes a deal with his team that he will try out for the major leagues if they win district and go on to state. Rachel Griffiths (Muriel's Wedding) plays his wife Lorri, the school counselor. I had forgotten that before he started the sitcom mega-hit Two and a Half Men, Angus T. Jones played the adorable son here. See how young he is in the still posted above.

We are shown the origins of the strained relationship between adult son Jimmy and his father Jim Morris Sr. (Brian Cox, only about seven years older than Quaid). It feels like this is something that might have been compounded more in the screenplay than in real life. Still, it is an interesting contrast to the relationship Jimmy has with his own young son, who helps in team practices and is almost a little shadow to his dad.

Review: Fifty Shades of Grey

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Fifty Shades of Grey

Ouch!
-- Anastasia Steele, far too infrequently in Fifty Shades of Grey

Oh, Hollywood, why do you tease me so, only to leave me sorely disappointed?

I'm referring, of course, to your tepid cinematic treatment of my most favorite kinky novel, Fifty Shades of Grey. I longed for ecstatic screams of agony and agonized screams of ecstasy, but the film delivered little more than one-percenter fu and some really lame spanking scenes.

I know that many a fine novel has suffered greatly in its journey to the big screen; such is the nature of turning books into movies. But your treatment of the brilliant Fifty Shades of Grey is downright disrespectful and, dare I say, deserving of a sound thrashing.

Before I get to the thrashing, I'll give those unfamiliar with Fifty Shades a Grey a two-sentence plot summary: College student Anastasia "Ana" Steele (Dakota Johnson) meets kinky billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), who wants nothing more in life than to tie her up and beat her. Initially shocked, she finally submits to him -- and to the wanton desires of the naughty girl she truly is. That's really all there is to the story; great literature need not be complicated.

Review: Kingsman: The Secret Service

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Kingsman: The Secret ServiceFilmmaker Matthew Vaughn's already well-established catalog (X-Men: First Class, Kick-Ass) gains a new entry this week with the release of his comedy spy adventure and arguably best film to date, Kingsman: The Secret Service. This James Bond meets Attack the Block romp was scripted by Vaughn and frequent collaborator Jane Goldman, and is based on the comic The Secret Service by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons.

Taron Egerton stars as Eggsy, a study in wasted potential due to bad influences and an unsteady home environment who's recruited to a secret organization of upper-crust spies by Harry Hart, aka Galahad (Colin Firth). Only one recruit can complete the training, and Eggsy is at a disadvantage competing with his well-heeled rivals. This theme of class warfare is reflected in the larger story as quirky internet billionaire Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) carries out an evil world-wide plot that the Kingsmen must foil.

Let's talk about Jackson for a minute. He is prolific, to say the least, and diverse, but his character Valentine is something entirely, hilariously different, with a comical lisp and vague OCD tendencies. The character is something of a clothes horse, always sporting stylish threads but wearing the same leather baseball hat in different colors to match his outfit. Valentine is an obsessive movie buff and as much a product of pop culture as a shaper of it. He rationalizes his twisted views with grade-school logic, and he's at once the most unique and memorable character Jackson has ever brought to life.

Jackson isn't the only character playing against type. Mark Strong, usually at home as the villain, appears here as Merlin, the technical expert. Firth, however, is as usual the perfect, polished English gentleman. The picture of refinement and class, he explains to Eggsy the origins of the Kingsmen among the elite tailors of London and the virtues of manners and a bespoke suit.

Kingsman: The Secret Service is exactly what you have come to expect from Vaughn. He cleverly riffs on spy films with satire, not spoof, delivering a continuous stream of laughter on top of an action story you can really sink your teeth into. I loved little throwaway lines like the mention of a shoe phone that call back to other spy properties, and spectacular fight choreography and effects lead to an explosive climax that is more over-the-top than anything Vaughn has done in his career.

Review: Still Alice

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It's hard to begin to review a film like Still Alice. I was warned that this movie might be considered a modern horror film, as it depicts the life of one woman with early-onset Alzheimer's disease. Although the film doesn't shed any positive light on getting older, it does take a deeper look at the importance of memory and family.

Alice (Julianne Moore) has just celebrated her 50th birthday surrounded by a loving husband (Alec Baldwin) and three grown children. She thrives on both her family and teaching at Columbia University, reknowned for her work in linguistics and communication. Life seems on track until she begins to forget words and people's names rather suddenly. A trip to the doctor reveals a rare form of familial Alzheimer's Disease and a life of slow but sure decay for Alice.

Still Alice is painful to watch; not because the film is poorly done, but because it's so truthful all the way through. Alice's decline in memory and basic functioning evokes a real fear in its audience, especially when you realize it's capable of happening to you or someone you know. Perhaps the saddest truth is watching Alice's frustration at her everyday loss, little by little. Her character is most relatable in the way that she tries so hard to cling to her memories, as many of us often do as we age.

No other actor could have played this role like Moore. Others could have portrayed it, but Moore brings a depth to Alice that is both hopeful and heartbreaking. A pleasant surprise is the complex relationship Alice has with her youngest daughter Lydia, played by Kristen Stewart. The role sheds a new light on Stewart, one of a larger acting scale not previously seen. It's perhaps the first role I've actually enjoyed her in.

The best bit of hope the story provides is learning to live in the moment. In a heartfelt speech midway through the film, Alice explains that although having this disease is a struggle, she must learn to live with her loss. What a difference it makes, she explains, to learn to be present in a single moment. That speech, that thought, echoed in my head long after the credits rolled.

Sundance Review: The Forbidden Room

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The Forbidden Room Still Photo

The Forbidden Room debuted at Sundance Film Festival, and a significant portion of the audience left the screening within the first 15 minutes of the opening credits. This polarizing film is a symphonic cacophony of visual and aural stimulation, with interludes of absurd humor to relieve the pressure. Co-directors/writers Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson along with co-writers Robert Kotyk, John Ashbery and Kim Morgan crafted the story like a traditional Russian nesting doll, with tales within tales -- and sometimes within inanimate objects such as a urine stain within which a battle rages. Lovers, murderers, chanteuses, vampire bananas, motorcycle girls and skeletons are just a few of the macabre players in this delightfully demented and disturbing tale.

The challenge of The Forbidden Room is to follow the threads of each of the stories that are interwoven in a crudely but lovingly handcrafted tapestry. After a brief introduction on "How to Take A Bath," we meet the crew of a submarine that has been trapped underwater for months due to an unstable cargo and missing captain. While the men struggle to survive by eating -- and breathing via -- flapjacks, they encounter a woodsman (Roy Dupuis) who mysteriously appears aboard their doomed home. As they contemplate the fate they are not willing to accept, they encounter even more fears in the dark rooms and corridors as well as within the woodsman's tales. The internationally acclaimed cast include Clara Furey, Louis Negin, Céline Bonnier, Charlotte Rampling, Géraldine Chaplin and Luce Vigo.

Review: Jupiter Ascending

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Jupiter AscendingLana and Andy Wachowski are two of my favorite current filmmakers. The Matrix rocked my worldview, and Cloud Atlas expanded my worldview, claiming a place as my very favorite movie. We've come to expect the very best from them, but not every movie can rock your world. Sometimes we have to settle for just "really damned good."

Jupiter Ascending encompasses the Wachowskis' grand visions of galactic empire within the confines of a relatively small action-adventure story. Their aesthetic, with a dreamlike quality, seems to draw on influences from every big science-fiction film of the past but mixes them together in new and original combinations. Immediately after it screened for press, Facebook and Twitter feeds were full of complaints from critics calling the movie a mess. It may not be for everyone. It misses a few beats, but it gets more right than it does wrong. If you're on the same wavelength as the Wachowskis, you should enjoy Jupiter Ascending as much as I did.

The story follows a Russian immigrant girl, named Jupiter because of her astronomer father's obsession with the planet, as she is attacked and aided by competing alien forces due to an accident of her birth. Her DNA is a perfect match for the eons-dead queen of a galactic empire, and the queen's heirs, her three children, each approach Jupiter in attempts to woo or threaten her and gain control of her now vast resources.

Mila Kunis is perfect for the role of Jupiter, with her combination of dark gorgeous looks and childlike innocence. In their interview with Hitfix's Drew McWeeny, the Wachowskis discuss their goal to make her a particularly feminine heroine rather than a female character who acts like a male hero. This is one goal I feel they failed to achieve, as time and again they place Jupiter in the position of damsel in distress so she can be rescued by Caine (Channing Tatum). This happens with such frequency that he becomes the hero of the story.

Slamdance Review: Clinger

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Clinger Still Photo

Houston-shot comedic horror film Clinger premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival with full houses for both screenings. This quirky feature directed by Michael Steves (Hello, Cruel World) and co-written by Gabi Chennisi (Dark Water), Bubba Fish, and Steves is entertaining horror that turns the rom-com genre on its head, both literally and figuratively.

Jennifer Laporte stars as Fern Peterson, a high-school girl who aspires to receive an athletic scholarship to MIT. She experiences her first love with classmate Robert Klingher (Vincent Martella), who overwhelms Fern with adoration and gifts. Just as Fern admits to Robert that they should end their relationship, Robert dies in a freak accident and returns from the dead as a love-sick ghost. With the aid of her track coach and semi-retired ghost hunter Valeria Kingsley (Alicia Monet Caldwell), Fern must overcome Robert's attempts to ensure their everlasting love.

Clinger is a refreshing departure from a typical high-school romantic comedy, with strong characterization of lead and supporting actresses. While Fern clearly appreciates the affection from Robert, there's a reluctance that can be seen in her expressions -- especially in a photo where Robert grasps her in an overly affectionate stranglehold. Laporte is phenomenal in her role of a young woman conflicted by her emotional attachment to her first love and its impact on her chosen path in life.

Review: Amira & Sam

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Amira and Sam 

Romantic comedies are not exactly known for being rooted in realism. Movies in this genre always include an element of fantasy, whether it is minor or major, to make viewers wonder if it could ever happen to them. There are elements to Amira & Sam that feel surprisingly authentic and even when it begins to feel a little contrived, I do think its heart is in the right place. 

Martin Starr (Freaks and Geeks) is Sam, an army solider who has recently returned home and is struggling to reassimilate. He returns to civilian life by working security as a doorman for a highrise apartment building. One night, he makes the mistake of chastizing an elevator full of privileged assholes after seeing one of them urinate outside the front door. They mockingly call him a "redneck cop" and dare him to do something about it. Sam lets the elevator doors close, but quickly shuts down the elevator banks, trapping them while he grabs a mop to clean up the mess. 

Sundance Review: Tangerine

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Tangerine Still Photo

Tangerine captures a seedy side of Los Angles rarely seen on film, in the bowels of a subculture that was not of personal interest until I watched this crudely engaging tale at Sundance Film Festival.

Transgender prostitute Sin-Dee (Kiki Kitana Rodriguez) has just been released from jail on Christmas Eve when her best friend and fellow sex worker Alexandra (Mya Taylor) reveals that Sin-Dee's pimp boyfriend Chester (James Ransone) has been sleeping with a meth addict "fish," Dina (Mickey O'Hagan), during Sin-Dee's incarceration. Sin-Dee strikes out with Alexandra in tow to find both Chester and Dina so she can settle matters.

"There is nothing out here but the hustle," states Alexandra, and that's what the pair do as they embark on a fast-paced journey through the streets of Los Angeles. Their stories are intertwined with that of Armenian cab driver Razmik (Karren Karagulian), who has a weakness for transgender prostitutes, and especially for Sin-Dee. Days spent dealing with difficult customers and nights with his overbearing mother-in-law have Razmik desperate for his own release through carnal pleasure.

Slamdance Review: Bloodsucking Bastards

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Bloodsucking Bastards Still PhotoThe 2015 Slamdance Festival opened on Friday night with a splash -- or rather copious amounts of blood -- in Bloodsucking Bastards, a horror comedy directed by Brian James O'Connell and penned by Ryan Mitts and the Dr. God comedy group. The well-attended opening-night party included the cast and crew in attendance, and plenty of complimentary libations for attendees.

Not since the Spierig brothers' 2009 vampire horror movie Daybreakers have I witnessed such a deluge of fake blood, but the action and humor keep the gag reflex at bay in this film that has been aptly described as "Office Space meets Shaun of the Dead," but with vampires instead of zombies.

Fran Kranz stars in Bloodsucking Bastards as Evan, the acting sales manager in a regional office of a big corporation. He is frustrated with his current work situation with his co-worker and ex-girlfriend Amanda (Emma Fitzpatrick), as well as his slacker buddy Tim (Joey Kern) and the rest of the underperforming sales team. When his boss (Joel Murray) brings in his old nemesis Max (Pedro Pascal) to take on the sales manager position, officemates begin acting strangely and some even go missing. It's up to Evan to convince everyone that an evil force is taking over the office and more than just their jobs are at stake.

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