by Philip Price
After watching Noah Baumbach's latest feature, “While We're Young,” a few weeks back I'm afraid of becoming terribly cynical when it comes to documentaries and the documentarians that seemingly have to manufacture certain parts of the truth so as to make their projects all the more engaging. With “Uncertain” though, it's hard to see where any embellishments or adjustments were made as directors Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands have approached a number of individuals taking refuge in a small part of the country no one else would bother to visit and picking out the more interesting stories that came to the surface. It is interesting to question whether or not McNicol and Sandilands knew what they were looking for before making their way to Uncertain, Texas or if they were simply gambling on stumbling upon something worth their investment. I have no doubt the initial draw here was the lake, the town’s only real source of income, that is being threatened by a substance obtained from a plant that's essentially polluting the water, clearing out the fish and ultimately making everyone's future in the small town, well, uncertain. In the midst of scientists working to eradicate the plant though McNicol and Sandilands have come across three varied men who spell out the repercussions and grim outlook the lake-infesting weed presents much more so than strictly fact-based presentations the scientist gives. The documentarians take it from here, guiding the audience through the lives of these three residents whose lives each share a kinship with the titular adjective and place they call home. Full of gorgeous cinematography and breathtaking beauty despite the camera capturing what are images of a time tainted town that has become draped in the harshness of reality and desperation of the times Uncertain paints an uncomfortable picture of modern, small-town America. It's a picture we typically care to turn a blind eye to, but can't help but be fascinated when this rock is lift up to reveal the ongoing life underneath it.
Making it all the more a mystery as to how McNicol and Sandilands stumbled upon it, Caddo Lake in Uncertain sits right on the Texas-Louisiana border with a population of only ninety-four. The film opens with an introduction to Henry Lewis who is a fishing guide with a thick, southern drawl and a dangerous past. He has lived and worked on the Caddo his entire life, fishing every single day of the week and the one with the most to lose from the incoming botanical issue that threatens the welfare of the entire town. Next, we are introduced to Wayne Smith, a former drug addict who's on a mission to kill a local wild boar that he's nicknamed Mr. Ed. Finally, there is Zach Warren, a young man who has been seemingly abandoned by everyone who initially had anything to do with him coming into this world and who is now determined to break out of his small, decaying town as he realizes the vicious circle of drinking he's become wrapped up in. While both Henry and Wayne are attempting to find a kind of absolution from their tainted pasts Zach is attempting to escape the only world he knows so that he doesn't end up in the same situation as his counter parts, but ultimately trapped by it. McNicol specifically edits the film so that we initially embrace these three quirky and funny individuals so that we are compassionate when it comes time to reveal the extent of their story and why their current livelihood is as important as ever. This works wonders for how we perceive the characters and the sympathy that is conjured up despite a very different reaction seeming possible were it not presented in the fashion it is.
Between the stories presented and the seeming correlation these individual lives have with the town itself that is barely holding on, the filmmakers are able to create a distinct kind of poetry that fits the haunting tone of the landscapes and the isolated existence these residents experience from day to day. Near the end of the film Lewis talks about being reunited with his family once again and being afforded the chance to see them all, but having to make it to heaven first to be able to do that. It's the making it to heaven part he seems concerned with, starting to go to church just after his wife passed away, so as to in some way make amends for his past and at least put himself on his Savior's radar so that he might have a shot at seeing his wife and his daughter along with other deceased relatives again one day. He talks of consistently praying to God over the years and hoping he understands why he did what he did and that he might see things from his point of view. It is a heartbreaking scene that brings into focus the scope of what McNicol and Sandilands have been attempting to paint the entire time. That humanity, nature and spirituality each go hand in hand, complimenting the existence of one another and their inherent need for each other whether it be for reassurance, for sustainability or simply to bask in the thought there must be a higher power to create such beauty given coincidence seems too far out of the realm of possibility when it comes to the landscapes and opportunity the directors have captured here.
by Philip Price
“Krisha” has a lot of interesting ideas going for it, but one begins to doubt its ability to bring them all together as it races towards its final minutes and seriously begs the question of what exactly everything is building to. Opening with a close-up on the epic face of the titular Krisha (Krisha Fairchild) writer/director/editor and actor Trey Edward Shults goes from here onto deconstructing the pain that is hidden beneath the cracks and crevices of Krisha's skin. The glaring first shot presents us with a composed if not slightly faltering facade surrounded by darkness. We are seconds in and we already have a million questions. Though the film only runs a mere eighty-three minutes Shults is careful to build dynamics and define relationships both in relation to our title character and throughout the supporting cast so as to make the impact of the final act all the more unnerving. Unnerving would be the key word given the audience is privy to only pieces of information in each scene. There are moments of frustration where you begin to wonder if Shults is holding back too much; keeping the plot details as restrained as his music, but as if he knows the fuse is running short the director will intermittently deliver montages of movement and sporadic sound that not only capture the chaos of a house on Thanksgiving day, but the swirling of thoughts, conflictions and turmoil that are rushing through Krisha’s mind. Despite the fact it taps into the tone of a psychological horror film, “Krisha” is in no way intended to be a scary movie. If anything, the film is a family drama steeped in the secrets we all keep from one another and the boiling point when they all come spilling out. It is a deconstruction of the idea of what happens when you don't like the people you're forced to love. You don't get to choose your family, but more importantly you don't get to choose who they become and Krisha can't stand the superficial kin she's related to. As the day the film documents goes on, histories are unraveled and truths are revealed to the point one knows they're experiencing something absorbing, but can't help but to shake the feeling more deserves to be said.
Arriving at her younger sister Robyn's (Robyn Fairchild) house for Thanksgiving weekend, Krisha is first introduced to a new nephew-in-law of sorts, Alex (Alex Dobrenko), as Robyn and Krisha's other sister, Vicky (Victoria Fairchild), have just recently acquired their first grandbaby through Alex and their daughter Olivia (Olivia Grace Applegate). There are the husbands in Dr. Becker (Chris Doubek) and the comic relief that is Doyle (Bill Wise) while a string of other children including Logan (Bryan Casserly), Chase (Chase Joliet) and Augustine (Augustine Frizzell) aid in populating the upscale suburban home on which they've all descended to celebrate the one weekend a year where being with family is an obligation. Coming in late to the proceedings is Trey (Shults) whom Krisha immediately flocks toward if not with a certain amount of hesitation. The attention and affection is not returned by Trey. One can sense the moment Krisha walks in the house that this is family she hasn't seen in some time and that beyond the initial exchanging of hugs and hellos there isn't much to say to one another. It is all slightly awkward despite the fact Shults returns to the friendly bickering of the younger generation as well as the family activities of arm wrestling, football watching and outdoor recreation necessary to make the day feel like a legitimate holiday. Instead of holing herself up in her room until dinner is served, Krisha makes a point to get involved and keep herself busy. Taking charge of the cooking duties, Krisha prepares the mammoth turkey her sister has purchased for the entire family. In light of this, both Robyn and Vicky leave to go get their mother (Billie Fairchild) so that she may be a part of the family tradition for as long as she has left. As the day continues on and we become privy both to Krisha's personal past and how it relates to the family at large we come to understand better the atmosphere that seemingly deflates every time she walks in a room.
As I said in my opening sentence, “Krisha” has a lot of interesting ideas, but more than this it has an interesting perspective on which to approach these ideas. The ideas themselves are that of family and the ties that bind, the continuing generations and how what was once so innocent can become corrupted or jaded by time. Krisha glides through her upstairs guest room to see the nightstands and coffee tables flooded with old photographs of her childhood. She sees herself, but as someone she no longer knows and certainly doesn't recognize. She sees her mother, her beautiful young mother who is now resigned to a wheelchair and must be questioned every time she sees her family to confirm if she remembers them or not. There are old VHS tapes, filled with birthday parties and childhood rooms filled with trophies and pictures that tell of a time missed out on by Krisha. We get little more than the explanation she stayed away to find the better person inside herself. Still, it's clear her family has always thought something less of her, something that inherently painted her as the black sheep, but oddly enough it is in this pampered suburban world that Krisha's clothes, affection for her dog and too hip to be square attitude are the few things that scream authenticity. There is something to be said for legacy as Shults is just as interested in delving into the history that has brought this family to where it is today as he is deconstructing the psychology of his titular character. Krisha seems to genuinely want to make things better between she and her family. She is clear on the fact she has burned them before and that some may not even care to welcome her back into the fold, but she is willing to give it a try no matter how anxious it makes her (as the long, uncut opening shot shows us). Krisha is not only present to make up for lost time, but she is hopeful for forgiveness and in spite of all that has come before, maybe even repair the thoughts that linger in the minds of the younger family members that will be the ones to tell stories of her after she is gone.
The conclusion is satisfactory enough and it of course makes perfect sense in relation to what has occurred throughout the film, but Shults teases his audience so incessantly that he makes his eighty-three minute feature feel much longer. The downside of staying with “Krisha” the entire film is that the audience is asked to put together pieces of the puzzle that are never explicitly explained and are neither just vague enough to suggest anything concrete. It would have been enlightening to see what Robyn and Vicky's discussions were on their way to pick up their mother or Olivia explaining to Alex why everyone is so cautious around her Aunt, but instead of taking up more time with dialogue or stand-alone development we observe things the way Krisha does, through what she sees. In this regard, Shults certainly has a flair for the visual. He enjoys his lengthy and uninterrupted Steadicam shots that glide through the house and out into the back yard constantly building the claustrophobic atmosphere that seems to ever be closing in around Krisha. The editing in itself is reason enough to see the film as it conveys not only Krisha's slowly deteriorating mental state, but creates a kind of non-linear timeline that plays better to the development and understanding of Krisha's mood than had the story simply been delivered chronologically. Paired with the budding score from Brian McOmber Shults takes Krisha, the character and the film, as well as his audience on an emotional rollercoaster that by minute eighty-two presents us with that unnerving feeling that first rushed over us when the blood red title card appeared hinting there would be more to perceive than directly receive. “Krisha” is an engaging, if not modest film that succeeds due to a filmmaker who knows so precisely what he wants, but might have been even more compelling had an outsider to this clearly personal project been allowed to implement a few questions.
by Philip Price
In “King Jack,” there is a bully, an older brother, a younger cousin and a world of adults that doesn't seem to exist. In what are the essentials for a coming of age story, our titular Jack is forced to deal with each of these things that could very well exist as nothing more than archetypes in a genre that has become flooded by an affinity for nostalgia over the past few summers. What allows these factors to be set apart, or at least find its own voice lies both in the ability of the actors on screen as well as the film’s knack for striking a perfect tone. There is a distinct aura around first time feature director Felix Thompson's film that gives it a quality of timelessness. Sans a few minor factors, “King Jack” could essentially take place at any point in time over the last few decades. The problems are the same, the struggle is identifiable and the predicaments are ones you grow accustomed to if you happen to live in a small rural town where the summers get long and often boring. Jack is on the brink. He is in transition from the boy he's always known to the man he will eventually become and because he doesn't know his way around his own mind, because the world is becoming a bigger place more unknown to him than he's ever felt prior it opens up a sliver of vulnerability in the kid who grew up forced to figure things out on his own. We are introduced to Jack (Charlie Plummer) as he tags a neighbor’s garage and come to know him all the more through the course of a weekend that sees him not only facing all the aforementioned opponents, but coming to terms with taking responsibility for his actions and ultimately looking out as much for himself as for the few people in his life that he truly cares about.
If “King Jack” were to have a single theme, besides the coming of age pattern, it would be what struck me as the nature aspect of the raising with which Jack and the majority of his cohorts are subject. Having already mentioned that this balloon of a world that is getting ready to pop is devoid of any real adult supervision, Thompson seems to be making a point to emphasize that Jack and his friends have become who they are by all they know. Again, as I said before, the first thing we see Jack do is tag a neighbor’s garage door only to next see him be caught with cigarettes by his mother (who is largely absent due to the fact she and her two boys are barely scraping by) only to be up followed by a quick exchange of insults with his older brother, Tom (Christian Madsen). In between these world and character building moments we see the honest virtues of Jack begin to build. The inherent kindness as he scoots a bowl of food just out of reach to a dog in a little further or how he innocently takes pictures of himself without his shirt on in an attempt to impress the girl he likes. Jack goes to summer school, no doubt as a result of more poor decisions he felt were necessary to prove his legitimacy, or maybe due to little more than a lack of motivation. The point is, as we follow Jack on his excursions and as he comes face to face with main antagonist Shane (Danny Flaherty), the angry son of the guy’s house Jack tagged in the opening, we see Jack make bad decision after bad decision. He can't help but to keep going down this road, because it's the only one he knows, the only one he thinks he's allowed on. Whether you blame it on an absent father, a struggling mother or the older brother who was clearly popular in high school and has resulted in nothing since there is nothing for Jack to look forward to and no (good) example for him to go by.
In attacking this kind of thought process head on Thompson realizes this is nothing more than a vicious circle, a state of mind that will continue its pattern until some offspring down the line decides to live their life a little differently. What is strangely beautiful about Jack's tale is that despite the fact he doesn't serve as the kind of "chosen one" that will come to break his family's string of complacency, there is still a sense of optimism to his plight. Naturally, whether it be Jack, Tom or even Shane-these guys all share a state of mind, a kind of cap on how far they can go in life and what opportunities are afforded them. They take this as a matter of fact and apply the mentality of not seeing past today to their actions. We never really learn why Shane hates Jack so much or why Jack feels the need to write insults on his property. There are things that allude to what the history between them might be, but Thompson keeps things vague from a plot perspective so that the focus remains on the characters and their outlook development. In reality, Jack doesn't have much of anyone to lean on. His mother is always working as is his brother who he doesn't feel particularly close anyway. The girl he likes at school seems suspicious while the rest of the kids tease him and refer to him as "scab" a nickname Tom implemented when they were younger that has stuck ever since. It is only when his younger cousin Ben (Cory Nichols) comes to stay with Jack's family for a few days that Jack learns to drop his guard and develop the ability to care about someone else rather than only looking out for himself. This is only one of the trials, processes and experiences Jack goes through in this single weekend that help him better find his adult identity. Littered throughout are scenes of other examples too good and naturalistic to spoil here, but only reiterate the ability of the film to build atmosphere and character to the point we root and relate to a guy we might not necessarily like,
It's hard to say you don't like Jack though, because from the outset you understand he's just a kid and one who hasn't had many advantages growing-up either. With the title character being one of transition we accept his faults as much as we celebrate his accomplishments. Thompson knows that everything he is saying has been said a million times before, but his goal is clearly to present a new way of looking at it with a few original aspects as far as story is concerned. While his stand-out elements are clearly the cast and tone, Thompson covers his devotion to the idea of documenting the formation of a young man through these elements and by making that representation as brutal and honest as possible. Brutality is a key word given King Jack includes a string of bullying scenes where the violence and the sound design make you both squirm and wince in a way that give you great anticipation for when the blows might stop. While it is tough to watch at certain points the film balances this well by making the moments in which Jack is tested emotionally just as tense. There were scenes, filled with only dialogue, where I could feel the anxiety creeping up on me. It was in these offset moments coupled with the authenticity Thompson strives to produce and the high-reaching theme zeroed in on a particular class and culture that make “King Jack” not only an enlightening coming of age tale, but one that really works. It is only the icing on the cake that star Plummer and his sidekick Nichols have equally charismatic turns that allow both an edge and an innocence necessary for us to believe these characters could survive in this world and that they develop the character they do despite their world.
by Philip Price
This offering of something of a delayed review concerning “Project Almanac” comes on the heels of giving it a look yesterday as it has become available on all home video viewing formats. I was interested in the film purely because it was delayed several times which was somewhat obvious given the "found footage" nature of the film. Made for $12 million (not counting marketing costs) the film ended up making $22m domestically and $32m internationally, but while the actual film is fine enough in itself if not completely mediocre as far as time travel flicks are concerned it is something of a mystery why the found footage aspect was necessary and if it makes it a better, more interesting film. The whole found footage gimmick can be utilized in interesting ways; I'm not saying it's a bad idea all the time, but it is a cheap option that was initiated by “The Blair Witch Project” that was seen as innovative in the wake of its release and gained big returns on a tiny budget. ‘Blair Witch,’ while the pioneer, was not the one to kick the trend into high gear though as even that film’s sequel was shot in a more traditional manner. No, it wasn't until a decade later that producers and other assumed studio drones realized they could capitalize on this method that produced cheap products to gain big returns when “Paranormal Activity,” through a remarkable viral campaign, made almost $200m on a measly $15,000 budget.
Inevitable sequels would see ridiculously good if not diminishing returns for the micro-budgets the Paranormal films were made on, but outside of this tent pole franchise studios began to pump out both more handheld horror flicks while exploring other genres. This became as strong a selling point as the story: see a found footage super hero movie/monster movie/comedy/kids movie! The horror films would still dominate this subgenre, but by the time last year’s offerings of this style came around with “Into The Storm,” “Earth to Echo” and the seeming swan song of ‘Paranormal’ in “The Marked Ones” each making less than $50m domestically it looked as if the time had come when audiences would no longer fall for cheaply made movies while still having to pay the ever rising theater ticket prices.
And so, despite expecting rather low quality offerings come January sans the Oscar bait that slowly trickles out in the first month of the year to smaller markets, I found it strange that we were still getting something in the vein of “Chronicle” this year never mind the next step in the evolution of the found footage film three months later with “Unfriended.” While I enjoyed “Unfriended” much more than I ever expected to (and my high recommendation of it may have indeed been more in light of expectations than actual quality, but that will be determined once it gets repeat viewings) it does indeed feel like something more along the lines of what “Paranormal Activity” attempted than that of the multiple carbon copies (“The Devil Inside,” “Devil's Due,” “Apollo 18”) that have come since. At the very least, “Unfriended” is one of the more solid spawns of the trend that include the likes of “The Last Exorcism” though I admit I haven't seen “Europa Report, “As Above, So Below” or “Quarantine” which all at least seemed competent in the goals they sought to attain. Given “Project Almanac” was filmed in 2013 at the height of the trend where development would have taken place as “Chronicle,” “End of Watch,” “Project X” and “Paranormal Activity 4” were all doing solid business it's not hard to see why the film was greenlit. You had a super hero, cop drama, high school comedy and scary movie each making money and, for the most part, each being well-received in the found footage genre so why not go for a science fiction action thriller with the added value of time travel (another trend in 2012 with “Safety Not Guaranteed,” “Looper,” “Sound of My Voice” and “Men In Black III” all using the device in some capacity)? It made sense, but when it was delayed from the somewhat cursed 2014 to the beginning of 2015 it felt more like the final breath in the life of the genre than anything close to a rejuvenation.
In all actuality, “Project Almanac” isn't horrible, but is more a completely average film that follows the beats of a more streamlined PG-13 action film than anything akin to the found footage genre to which it belongs. This brings me around to the chief question I had before watching the film and the sole reason I really had any interest to begin with: Would “Project Almanac” have been better, if any different at all, were it made more traditionally rather than through the lens of the found footage approach? As the found footage trend continued the films grew and grew becoming closer and closer to what we have become accustomed to in any average-budget thriller or action film. For reference, ‘Blair Witch’ was made for $60,000 while both “Chronicle” and ‘Almanac’ were granted $12m budgets, ‘Paranormal’ ballooning from its humble $15,000 beginnings to $5m by its third, fourth and fifth installments with last year’s “Into the Storm” taking the cake at $50m. Would it be so much more to make this film in the traditional sense and more importantly what does the found footage aspect add to how the narrative is conveyed? The horror genre is primed for the technique as it naturally limits the scope of your picture and what you can get away with showing the audience, inherently upping the tension, but with “Project Almanac” I couldn't help but feel having one of the characters consistently find a reason to film everything was pointless. There is fine enough reason given once our protagonists begin experimenting with their time machine, but prior to this that the film has the most popular member of the core group acting as the one who feels the need to document everything and it feels forced to say the least.
With a more, for lack of a better word, generic approach the film not only would have been able to better capture the dynamics between the friends and siblings that make up its core group, but it wouldn't be forced to waste time on unnecessary exposition dialogue and would be free to show rather than tell some of the character development that is shoe-horned in through big stretches because of limitations set upon it by its classification. Time travel is always an interesting hook that will naturally grab a fair amount of viewers and were ‘Almanac’ to be handled with a certain tone that complimented the heartfelt/teen mentality of the story it might have worked as a more substantial piece of "life's too short" homily that would have the potential to really hit home with its target audience, but that it is instead presented in such a way that the intended audience is meant more to relate than learn something the film doesn't earn the statement it is trying to make. In fact, the glaring clichés of the film that include the catalyst coming when the protagonist goes further than he said he would over his feelings for a girl feel so generic that no one, not even the vulnerable teen target audience, will take it seriously. This is the least of its worries though as the main problem with the film in general and what the found footage aspect hinders the most is the broad aspect of the story. We are introduced to David Raskin (Jonny Weston) as an intelligent, high school kid submitting scholarship applications to M.I.T. with the seeming conflict of the piece being how he will raise the money to go to school when things don't go as planned. Instead, the film switches its focus so often between the financial issues, to daddy issues, to girlfriend issues not to mention the whole time machine deal that there is no sense of throughline as to what we as an audience should really invest in.
These concerns all seem beside the point of what might have been better creatively for the fact it's cheaper to not show as many special effects moments in camera as well as being able to get away with casting no-name actors rather than (at the very least) semi-popular names so as to really sell the part of the gimmick that helps audiences believe what we're seeing is in some way authentic. Has the found footage genre really evolved then as a technique to be utilized to tell a specific story in a unique way or has it simply been exploited to take advantage of the little effort it takes to throw these things together while generally receiving a modest to handsome reward? The answer has to be a depressing "no" as the films continue to flounder in quality but, for now at least, the returns remain steady enough to continue justifying investments in such excursions.
Before we wrap things up though, we must talk about “Cloverfield” as I haven't mentioned it so far for a very specific reason. It is this J.J. Abrams (“Star Wars: the Force Awakens”) produced, Drew Goddard (head of the Netflix “Daredevil” series for Marvel) written and Matt Reeves (“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”) directed take on the monster movie that both utilized the found footage technique for the first time since ‘Blair Witch,’ seemingly recognizing the potential, while paving the way for ‘Paranormal’ with the kind of marketing campaign it conducted that pulled people in by keeping them largely in the dark. It is hard to imagine a current cinematic landscape without the subgenre that the ‘Paranormal Activity’ movies are seen as the standard for, but before them it was Abrams and his viral marketing strategy that pushed the found footage idea into the mainstream. Just before the premiere of Michael Bay's first “Transformers” in 2007 a teaser was released with no title, no actor names, no explanations with only a mention of the release date and the film's producer, J.J. Abrams. It was all we needed to be hooked. Barely three years after the creation of Facebook and arguably one year after it really began to take off Abrams used the Internet and viral marketing to take his mystery box to more and more people faster than any passive advertising campaign could have ever managed. Viral marketing is active advertising, persuading audience members to get involved and that is why when the title was released in November of 2007, barely two months before the film’s release, many people were already hooked without the over exposure or barrage of promotional material we see for most blockbusters today. Granted, this strategy wouldn't work for every film and would get old if it were indeed used to market everything, but some version of it could certainly be used to entice audience members to big budget original properties that tend to be drowning these days. Although “Tomorrowland” pretty much failed with this line of thought, so what do I know?
The thing with “Cloverfield” though was that it felt fresh. There were moments in the film, even after all the anticipation had built up and it seemed the actual movie would never be able to match those expectations, where I was wowed with the theater-going experience and the handheld approach had a lot to do with that effect. I remember thinking how real it felt, as if I were watching a newscast rolling footage that had been sent in. The mystery surrounding the events we watched unfold only added to the intensity with the best part being that it felt as if you really were in the middle of it all. There was no all-knowing omniscient perspective from which we were seeing things play out and so we were in the thick of it with these characters with no certainty that all would be okay. I won't pretend that “Cloverfield” is some groundbreaking piece of cinema, it's not, but it felt fresh at the time and the current crop of handheld features couldn't feel more disconnected from that word. All of that said, while we may see the frequency of these kinds of films lessen, I doubt the trend will ever completely die as there is always more footage to be found.
by Philip Price
Come what may, the initial experience one has with “Jurassic World” can certainly be seen as nothing short of impressive. Considering my leveraged expectations and my unease around any Jurassic Park sequel to be able to pick up on a solid enough story that validated continuing the series I went into the fourth film in the dino-series hoping for the best, but expecting the worst. Fortunately, director Colin Trevorrow (“Safety Not Guaranteed”) and his team have found a fine excuse to return to the "clouded island" as this new film is set in real time, twenty-two years after the events of Steven Spielberg's original. The events of that film are acknowledged and referenced in a way that proves, despite his continuing mishaps, that Dr. John Hammond (the late Richard Attenborough) was never able to give up on his dream of creating this tourist attraction featuring living biological dinosaurs cloned from prehistoric DNA. In light of this, Trevorrow and the three other credited screenwriters on this gig, present the audience with a vision of every possibility and beyond that Hammond could have ever imagined and that Dr.'s Grant and Sattler along with the pleasingly pessimistic Dr. Malcolm denied spectators so many years ago. While “The Lost World” and “Jurassic Park III” felt more like missed opportunities than anything else, the one thing “Jurassic World” indisputably gets right is that it takes advantage of the opportunity set up in the first film by delivering the audience to a fully functioning Jurassic Park and not only puts on display how it could actually work, but shows that it has been running smoothly for some time. It is somewhat refreshing that Trevorrow and his script don't focus as much on the aspects of man again attempting to play God despite the main conflict here being an extension of what Dr. Hammond was doing in the first film, but rather this movie has its sights set on something a little more current, slightly dumb when first hearing the pitch and yet ultimately rewarding in realizing there has been some serious thought into where to take such a strand. Without saying much more, “Jurassic World” is first and foremost a fun summer thrill ride that doesn't take itself too seriously and delivers on what it knows audiences want from it.
Trevorrow is also cautious of how much is too much when it comes to referencing the first film, but does so in restrained, thoughtful ways that are pleasing to those who found affection in the considered summer masterpiece (a blink-and-you-miss it shot of a car mirror showing a raptor running after it is a prime example). Our first shot after the opening credits is that of a large foot stomping down onto a snowy terrain. We naturally believe it to be that of a prehistoric creature, but it turns out to be nothing more than that of a bird’s foot, a nice nod to the theories of Jurassic Park's Dr. Grant as played by Sam Neill. It is in this snowy climate that we are introduced to an all-American family consisting of mom Karen (Judy Greer), dad Scott (Andy Buckley) and their two sons Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins). Karen and Scott have apparently hit a rough patch in their relationship and are attempting to deal with the ins and outs of a divorce and so, to get the boys away from all the negativity, they ship them off to “Jurassic World” where Karen's sister, their Aunt Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), runs the show. Having not seen her nephews in several years and being the typical workaholic, detached from any actual reality archetype that Claire is she is forced into awkward conversation with them upon arrival before pawning them off on her assistant (Katie McGrath) so she can attend to more pressing matters such as a meeting with park owner Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan) who has flown in to see his latest attraction. Attendance is somewhat down as Claire states that for kids today, seeing a Stegosaurus is akin to seeing an elephant. In lieu of simply creating some new, unique way to view the dinosaurs Masrani gives the go ahead to his scientists, including Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong returning from the first film), to engineer a new breed of dinosaur. Naturally, things go horribly wrong and so Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) a Velociraptor expert and trainer is brought in to help try and contain the situation while InGen head of security Vic Hoskins (Vincent D'Onofrio) wants to utilize the bond between Owen and his Raptors as a force in the field to be reckoned with; a new frontier in warfare if you will.
While it is this final plot strand that feels somewhat relegated to subplot territory in the actual movie it is clearly the one that will continue to push the series forward should Universal decide more sequels are necessary (and don't worry, they will). While this aspect and D'Onofrio's character in general may be one of the lower points of an otherwise straightforward "race against time" thriller what I enjoyed most about the movie’s mentality was its ability to feel about itself the way it anticipates a large portion of its audience will feel about it. Taking over the Sam Jackson role from the first film, Jake Johnson (“New Girl”) plays the park's tech-savvy operator who has something of an affinity for the original park that seems based on little more than nostalgia and not the actuality of the situation. This kind of feeling is what those who grew up with the film or have come to enjoy it over the last two decades might bring to this latest incarnation. They want to enjoy it, but there is caution and Trevorrow understands that as he allows small bits of self-referential material to seep into his movie. The moment Johnson's Lowery begins disparaging Howard's Claire for allowing companies to sponsor attractions and jokingly saying she might as well let them name the dinosaurs there is a singe of commentary on how much product placement is necessary and how it can go too far. As much as “Jurassic World” is littered with product placement (it is a theme park, after all, and each make sense within the context they're used) in the climax of the film many of these popular logos see themselves destroyed by the films own creation, the Indominus Rex, which only serves as further commentary on the trend not to mention the existence of the dinosaur itself being a statement on humanity's excess and need for more despite already being surrounded by the unbelievable. In many ways, while product placement is seen by many as a necessary evil, Trevorrow takes advantage of the opportunity he's been granted by allowing the sentiment of many of his characters to echo that of many audience members who will see “Jurassic World” as nothing more than a quest for more profit that will crush their childhood memories and lets them know he understands where they're coming from and in embracing this idea the film feels all the more earnest.
Beyond D'Onofrio's subplot and Johnson's pointed reason for existence, the overall concern of the film is hunting down this genetically engineered Indominus Rex with Owen and Claire teaming up to save Zach and Gray who have wandered off from their supervisor to explore the park further, subsequently placing themselves right in the path of the escaped Indominus Rex. Taking advantage of the genetically engineered portion of the story the film is able to do some really cool things with its big bad dinosaur while, for the most part, Pratt's Owen leads a cast of rather dumb people (unfortunately including Howard's Claire despite it seeming obvious she'd have to have some brains in order to get the job she has) to safety through a series of smart and visually stunning sequences. While Spielberg kept his dinosaur practice to a grade right above “Jaws” in the original with the sequel feeling even somewhat more restrained minus a handful of money shots and the disjointed ending it was the third film that went all out and lost the magic of what being able to see real dinosaurs actually meant. With ‘World,’ Trevorrow lathers on the park-friendly creatures such as baby triceratops in a petting zoo or a sequence including the 60-foot aquatic dinosaur called the Mosasaurus that is truly incredible. Concerning his central dinosaur though, the director hues very close to Spielberg's technique in only showing portions of the monster until the necessary timing comes in which they really go for it causing the reveal to hit home. Trevorrow is unafraid to show the wrath of these animals as a sequence involving a helicopter and a swarm of airborne dinosaurs including Pteranodons and Dimorphodons unfolds in particularly brutal fashion as is the cause of Owen's realization the Indominus Rex is not simply killing to eat, but for sport. This opens the film up to a genuinely moving scene that includes Owen, Claire and an animatronic Apatosaurus that in contrary to the "bigger, better, cooler" Indominus shines light on the real wonder of the park. To say all of this is to say that “Jurassic World” has a lot going on. While it could certainly be trimmed down, more of it works than doesn't and it's always presented in a fashion that, most importantly, keeps things fun which is all it really needed to be.
by Philip Price
Given the texture of the special effects and the scope of the aerial shots one would not be wrong in thinking Roland Emmerich was at the helm of this latest, big disaster flick. Emmerich, who has directed the likes of “Independence Day,” “The Day After Tomorrow” and “2012,” has somewhat monopolized the genre as of late, but “San Andreas” is not the unrelated sequel to “Day After Tomorrow” where Emmerich follows another group of people as they deal with another cataclysmic event. Instead, “San Andreas” is more the love child of something Emmerich would make and the pure, star-driven action adventures of the 80's and early 90's. While you might say those could easily be one in the same Emmerich's films are typically more of an ensemble whereas “San Andreas” is Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's film through and through. So, if not Emmerich, then who? Well, that honor would go to Brad Peyton who has previously only directed two features, one of which was “Journey 2” with Johnson who likely vouched for him here. Being compared to the likes of Emmerich certainly isn't a jab though and if Peyton was going to take notes from anyone when making a disaster flick on this scale he would be the obvious choice. To bring this little precursor of a thought full circle and segue into my overall impression of the film though would be to say that Emmerich would no doubt be proud. Now, what Peyton, his actors and his screenwriter (which, oddly enough, is power producer Carlton Cuse of “Lost” and “Bates Motel” fame) have done best with “San Andreas” is to have fun with the kind of movie it is. Naturally, you get what you expect from a movie like this and little more, but the movie is knowing without being completely self-aware as it seems to intentionally lay on the one-liners the audience already knows are coming and has a fair amount of fun with them. The fact I could hear the people behind me mouthing certain lines before they were even spoke speaks to how ingrained in our subconscious these types of films and their beats are. For “San Andreas” to be able to include and overcome the clichés and archetypes of the genre to deliver a genuinely fun thrill ride is not necessarily something to celebrate, but it's certainly nothing worth complaining about either.
“San Andreas” opens with one of the many standards of the genre in that we see an isolated incident threaten the life of a character we will never see again, but sets up what is to come and the fact no one else sees it coming. The more glaring archetypes are more in the forms of characters, but we'll get to that a little later. First, let me introduce you to our core line-up of humans we're intended to care about more than the rest of humanity. There is Ray (Johnson) who is a Los Angeles Fire & Rescue officer who is retired military and working with his same crew to save the day, every day in Hollywood. He is emotionally preparing himself to send his daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario) off to college, but at the same time is having to deal with a pending divorce from her mother, Emma (Carla Gugino), and her new boyfriend Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd) who, to make matters worse, is a wealthy architect. Meanwhile, there is Professor Lawrence (Paul Giamatti) of Caltech who is a seismologist and has been searching for a pattern in the earths seismic waves for some time. When he and partner Dr. Kim Park (Will Yun Lee) think they've finally stumbled upon something significant at the Hoover Dam it turns out to be more than they could have ever imagined and little more than a preview of the devastation to come. Once the quake at the Hoover hits, Ray and his team are immediately requested to assist in the rescue efforts dashing his plans to drive Blake up to San Francisco and drop her off at college. Much to Ray's dismay, Daniel steps in and sets up the separation that will define the course of the narrative. On her trip to San Francisco with Daniel, Blake meets brothers Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and Ollie (Art Parkinson) whom she teams-up with after Daniel bails on her in a parking garage. As the quakes begin to move up the fault line and continue to get bigger and more devastating Ray takes advantage of his occupation and turns around to make the dangerous journey across the state in order to rescue his soon to be ex-wife and daughter.
Like I said, this is Johnson's film and he pulls the necessary weight to make every scene count. While there are the factors including Professor Lawrence as well as Blake and the brothers we realize Lawrence mainly exists in this film so as to feed the audience information while, even without being in many scenes together, it still feels as if Johnson is leading Daddario's arc as well. As is to be expected, Giamatti brings a level of credibility to his portions and while he is largely relegated to the background after an opening scene that actually requires him to move there is a profundity to his words that strike the right chord between being downright sincere and absolutely ridiculous. I enjoyed that there was an earnest religious aspect to Lawrence as well despite him being a scientist that could have instead been hugely cynical about the whole situation. Speaking of absurd, in a movie about California essentially separating from the rest of the United States the most unrealistic thing in the film is that Gugino's Emma would leave Ray for Gruffudd's Daniel. Referring back to the more glaring archetypes the film capitalizes on and the characters that represent them, Daniel is certainly one in terms of how horrible the bad (potential) step-father can be. The film pretty much forgets about him after his cowardly exit, only to return to him at the end of the second act to give us (and him) an intentionally hilarious bit of closure meant to lift our spirits amidst the destruction. The other glaring cliché comes in the form of Ollie who consistently feels like the token child that also serves as the voice of reason. Daddario is more than capable in her role as the alpha of her group, taking the skills her father taught her over the years and applying them to ensure their survival, but it is this that also keeps Ray's presence looming strong. As Ray, Johnson plays things more the "normal guy" route than that of the indestructible and heroic presence his imposing physique would have you think he'd rely on. Sometimes this can be difficult to buy in to given his hulking exterior, but there is the obligatory heavy moment in the middle of the film that has the right insight and is handled well enough by Johnson that it lands and brings an unexpected poignancy to the proceedings.
Going into a film like “San Andreas” though, you pay for the ticket in order to see the spectacle on the big screen (this one is definitely worth catching on the IMAX at Chenal 9 if you're local) and in that regard the film delivers 10 times over. There were more than a few times where my fists couldn't have been clenched any tighter. Due to the fact the actual San Andreas fault line is splitting there are large-scale earthquakes, there are the aftershocks and then there are the numerous repercussions of the event, such as tsunami's, that present the film ample opportunity to depict large scale havoc that also moves the story forward. While it might have been more interesting to see Cuse's script deal in secondary complications of large natural events that aren't initially thought of such as what we might do were there harmful chemicals spilling out with the flooding or radioactive and nuclear power plants being destroyed, but such things are not taken into consideration here. More, they are lumped in with the large portions of pure structural damage that is shown, but that seems nitpicky considering Peyton is clearly attempting to deliver both a large-scale as well as intimate portrait of the devastation the earthquakes are causing. As structural damage is the leading cause of casualties in earthquakes it makes sense to focus on the impact these skyscrapers can have on our population while keeping the main narrative focus not on anything as extraneous as second-hand issues to be dealt with later, but more on preserving as much human life as possible. This is the throughline of “San Andreas” and while, in retrospect, that unexpected poignancy is present from the opening credit sequence we aren't just led to care about the main cast of characters the film focuses on. When Peyton goes to random shots of ruin, of people running down the streets and clouds of ash and rubble chasing them there is a sense of real care, of the loss that is occurring. The tsunami scene in particular is truly an insane and terribly brilliant spectacle to watch. It is this scene, accompanied by the overpowering and very 90's-esque score from Andrew Lockington, that shows that even the biggest man in the world is minuscule in the wake of Mother Nature.
by Philip Price
Ladies and gentleman, Melissa McCarthy has brought us her version of ‘Austin Powers’ and while it more or less diverts the James Bond tropes through a slew of supporting characters this is very much a breaking-the-mold kind of movie that not only puts a woman in the lead where a man typically reigns supreme, but a woman that looks like McCarthy. She, per usual, recognizes where she fits into the Hollywood lexicon and more or less takes a big ole dump on those expectations. Being unwilling to yield to anyone's pre-determined set of guidelines for what it takes to be an actress, a comedian or now, an action star, has made McCarthy one of the hottest properties around and with “Spy” she delivers a kind of definitive comedy that will seemingly launch her into the stratosphere of commanding her own franchise. Much like Mike Myers in 1997, McCarthy has used the same popular and well-known template of the spy thriller to lampoon any and all of the typical beats that Ian Fleming's most famous spy and his many imitators have acted out over the years. Opening with the more dashing version of Bond in Jude Law's Bradley Fine as he infiltrates a high class party to commandeer a nuclear bomb that has somehow managed to end up in the wrong persons hands, we are taken through the scenario as expected until Fine comes face to face with Tihomir Boyanov (Raad Rawi) and the first of those many expectations are turned on its head and given a certain freshness that not only makes an audience member excited to see what the film will do with each scenario to come, but keeps us consistently laughing as both the sight gags and the one-liners the film delivers are expertly set-up and executed to get the biggest payoff. Needless to say, both McCarthy and frequent collaborator Paul Feig (“Bridesmaids,” “The Heat”) know what they're doing at this point and they use their assumed short-hand to create not only a solid, credible comedy in a world of sub-par and sloppily put-together comedies, but they so clearly know how to draw on the strengths of each cast member’s talent as well as the archetypes of the genre so that it all seems to effortlessly pull together to create a hugely funny and entertaining time.
After Fine completes, or rather fudges, his mission around Boyanov he comes back to CIA headquarters to treat the trusty voice in his ear, Susan Cooper (McCarthy), to a nice dinner as a thank you for once again keeping him safe while in the field. As most films involving McCarthy do, they take advantage of her unconventional Hollywood looks and set Cooper up as an unassuming, deskbound analyst with a house full of cats, but who's essentially the unsung hero behind some of the Agency's most dangerous missions. She is in love with Fine, but he is of course blind to her affection and with only her fellow analyst, Nancy (“Call the Midwife” actress Miranda Hart), to confide in, it seems her true potential will never be given the chance to shine. It is when Fine goes back into the field to locate Boyanov's despicable daughter, Rayna (Rose Byrne), and find out the location of the aforementioned nuclear bomb that Cooper gets the opportunity she's been waiting for when Fine falls off the grid. Given all of the other top agents are compromised, including Jason Statham's Rick Ford, CIA director Elaine Crocker (Allison Janney) is forced to put Cooper into the field and have her go deep undercover so as to infiltrate the world of Rayna and her deadly arms dealer, Sergio De Luca (Bobby Cannavale), as the last hope of preventing a global crisis.
What Feig's script handles well are not simply the string of jokes, but a solid spoof of a rather standard story that highlights the more obvious aspects of spy thrillers and plays with them in interesting ways before fully embracing them. More or less he highlights the glaring opportunity for comedy in typically serious situations by having his lead character discover herself and her own potential throughout the course of her mission. And that's what comedies are really all about, right? The characters. This is key as we expect Susan Cooper to be a certain kind of person upon first impression, but McCarthy and Feig give this woman a real arc in coming to terms with the confidence she has in her own abilities. We see Cooper realize that what others have determined her as being incapable of is untrue and that as she puts forth what she always knew she had the skill to become forward it becomes more of a reality. McCarthy gives this set of ideas a personification we not only find somewhat inspiring, but one that pushes the film forward as well as setting it apart. All comedies are character-driven in essence. Sure, the broad comedies have a hook in whatever their plot might be, but it is the personality and comedic timing of the characters and the actors playing those characters that have to make both the story and the jokes work. “Spy” understands that its premise isn't as appealing as its characters and so it never intends or even tries to do anything out of the ordinary story-wise, but rather enjoys playing with the stereotypes by continually having people switch allegiances or never leaving anyone, not even a single henchman, alive. In this vein the film is solid fun for the first hour or so, but it is when this critical switch is made in Cooper's mentality halfway through the film that things really begin to take off and “Spy” sets itself up to in fact set itself apart.
Having already touched briefly on what makes McCarthy's performance so interesting and different from the types of characters that have made McCarthy a big screen presence she is in no shortage of solid supporting players either. As Rayna, Byrne is basically a godsend. Infusing anything she is a part of with energy and appeal she makes the dry and extremely critical Rayna one of the biggest riots in the whole feature. There were a limited number of people in my screening and yet my wife and I laughed out loud no less than six times, half of those in instances where Byrne was present and actively contributing. I also feel like not enough people will talk about Peter Serafinowicz as Aldo who, without saying too much, steals every scene he's in and is the character I can't wait to see again in the inevitable sequel. Statham is a real stand-out here as well. While Law takes on the dashing, debonair Bond persona as portrayed by Connery, Brosnan or even Dalton Statham is given the more outlandish and ludicrous tone that is in the same key of Roger Moore's outings. In his profanity-laced explosions of dialogue Statham is made as endearing as ever as he brings the ridiculousness of typical spy movie plotlines to real-world levels.
Beyond the consistency of the humor and the all-around solid performances from a great cast “Spy” is simply a satisfying comedy. We are naturally drawn to McCarthy's character and the challenges she faces and to see her overcome these odds, break these pre-existing labels she's been shackled with is nothing short of gratifying. It also doesn't hurt that Feig is becoming a better filmmaker with each of these major studio comedies either. Typically resigned to the small screen it wasn't until “Bridesmaids” that Feig was granted the opportunity to work on a much larger scale and with both “The Heat” and now “Spy” the guy has been finding more and more solid ground as to how to visually tell a funny story that begins, continues and wraps up all within the span of two hours. As much as Feig's script begins as something of a parody of this specific spy/thriller genre by the climax of the film we feel as if we are witnessing a solid example of the genre itself. It not only mocks the beats of a fight scene as one might see in the current crop of films operating in this genre, but it embraces those elements to the point that when McCarthy is given her moments to shine she is involved in action scenes that exercise a real tension despite the characters often exchanging comedic lines in the middle of them. Kudos to Feig for also seeming to capture many of the stunts here in wider, long takes and not cutting as often as we have become accustomed to. This technique at least implies that much of what we see here was accomplished from a more practical standpoint. All in all, “Spy” is a complete package that only falters every now and then in its pacing, but more than thrives on its sharp wit and plethora of diverse and interesting characters.
by Philip Price
Having never seen a single episode of HBO's hit series surrounding a group of friends that follow their up and coming movie star friend to the promise land of Hollywood I went into the feature film version with no expectation and no knowledge of what I was getting into. Four years after the series has ended, the film and its co-creator/co-writer/director Doug Ellin gives fans of the show a recap of what these guys have been up to while introducing newbies, such as myself, to the core characters and the molds from which they come. If you're as unaware as I then the only thing you'd probably heard about “Entourage” was the fact it was produced by Mark Wahlberg and was loosely based on his experiences as a naive kid from Boston learning to navigate this strange world of the wealthy that is all in the name of making movies and making a lot of money from those movies. Money is power in Hollywood and there is no greater power and yet in what is barely an hour and forty-five minute movie the glamour already began to wear thin. The pointless partying and finagling was understood to be the norm on any random Tuesday afternoon, but like most of these people’s lives, there is no substance to the going-ons of this movie that documents their exploits. What this says about the series, I'm not sure, but I know that it gives me no further interest in going back to see what all the fuss was about my junior year of high school. Instead, I'm more curious as to how much of a payoff this is for fans of the series that have been waiting for more closure or further adventures since the show wrapped in 2011. All of that said, given the premise and clear tone of what we're dealing with here, I don't know what more you could expect from a feature-length version of this kind of story. It is smarmy to the max, repulsive even in some aspects and slightly sickening depending on how much thought you care to give it. The execution unfortunately is unlike its characters in that it feels minimal and rather ordinary when, at the very least, it should be anything but that.
Given my knowledge of where the series ended is limited to an article recap from the day after it aired it seems that the film does little but retract some of the strides made for the characters over the course of at least the final season in order to deliver more of what fans want and then essentially ending things on the same note if not simply a little further down the road. That being said, the film does have a hook in that movie star Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier) has decided his next project will be different in that it will also mark his directorial debut. Of course, his buddies or rather, ahem, his "entourage" that includes childhood friends Eric or simply "E" (Kevin Connolly) and Turtle (Jerry Ferrara) as well as half-brother Johnny aka Drama (Kevin Dillon) are all for it as long as they seemingly get a piece of the pie. Vince's former agent, Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven), who supposedly retired in the series finale to spend more time with wife Melissa (Perrey Reeves) and their son has since gotten back in the game as the head of his own studio and will of course risk everything on producing Vince's directorial debut with only the pure, ultimately superfluous opinion that he doesn't think Vince can ever fail him. It's all rather convoluted given Ellin and his script attempt to give each member of the gang their own storyline while stuffing the development of these characters from the previous eight seasons of the show into the almost two-hour production for those unfamiliar to the material. The thing is, everyone knows this is a take-off of a show and if they don't they're not buying tickets, and so there is no need to develop these characters in any other way than pushing their narratives forward. If what I've read is any indication is seems this film is more an excuse to tread familiar ground and relive the good ole' days rather than introduce anything new or give those who once loved the show reason to love it more.
Granted, I've never felt more ill-equipped to write a review, but I like to at least attempt to see everything that gets a wide release couldn't keep me away and I'd be lying if I didn't say the trailers didn't look appealing. If nothing else, what the film has going for it is the inside look at what it might be like to learn the ropes of the business that is Hollywood and the ins and outs of what it takes to break through as well as figuring out that everyone has an angle. Given our core group of characters are well-established at this point though, E serving as Vince's manager/producer, Turtle as a constant organizer who has come into a fortune of his own with Johnny Drama continuing to be nothing short of a clinger. Johnny's arc is the most depressing given his reality will never meet his aspirations or expectations, but even this storyline is upended by giving every character a picture perfect ending. In short: much of this isn't believable and thus calls into question that single hook the film has for those not familiar with the show. The film is so avert to being subtle that the main conflict between Vince's movie and Johnny's plot is marked by the playing of The Rolling Stone's "Beast of Burden" indicating to any aware audience member that there is nothing more to take away here than what is being offered on the surface. The most interesting storyline goes to Connolly's Eric who is drawn into something of a love triangle after going out on a limb and doing something his character wouldn't typically do (as well as being partially under the influence of drugs thanks to Johnny). Eric's ex, Sloan (Emmanuelle Chriqui), is pregnant with his child and yet with only a few lines of dialogue an entire series worth of relationship drama seems to be undone. While the momentum for this sticky situation builds nicely and somewhat naturally Ellin pokes a hole in it so quickly so as to resolve all of the other character arcs in a timely fashion that there is little tension not to mention the absence of any impact in the final act that is supposed to be the catalyst to actually bring the gang back together and put their escapades into perspective.
The movie as a whole takes advantage of its setting by infusing as many celebrity cameos as possible and even making an entire plot point out of the presence of one, Emily Ratajkowski (“Gone Girl”), but it never returns to the story. Not only does Ratajkowski's appearance serve to simply set-up a plot point so as to, again, try to create some kind of tension later in the film, but also as a reason for Armie Hammer to show up in an amusing cameo (which isn't congruent with his real-life given he's been married since 2010 and not to Ratajkowski). Speaking of cameos (and I promise this isn't giving anything away) Turtle's entire reason for existence here is to try and score a date with Ronda Rousey playing herself. While I understand the appeal of Rousey as a strong female presence (something severely needed in a film where most of the women are little more than objects to look at and drool over) her acting is still atrocious. While I didn't mind her in last year’s “Expendables 3” what she has done in both this and “Furious 7” have been more than awful. More power to her for capitalizing on her popularity and making some extra cash, but I would have much rather seen the likes of Gina Carano in these roles.
I guess I should also mention the presence of Billy Bob Thornton and Haley Joel Osment in the film. Thornton's bit is little more than an extended cameo as Larsen McCredle, a wealthy Texan who finances all of Gold's films, but his perspective on the dealings of Hollywood would have been a more interesting film given Thornton's actual background. Osment does fine for the material he's given as well and seems willing to go to any length for a laugh these days, but again, his real-life experience in transitioning from a child star to the mature actor he's now attempting to be would have been a more interesting character than the spoiled rich kid he's tasked with. In the end, I have no real rock to stand on in justifying my critiques, but I've written 1,500 words on it so I implore you to read each of them knowing that this is a first impression of a movie based on a TV series that I've never seen and from that point of view found it to be nothing better than average. This may be due to my non-existent history with these characters, but I have a hunch it's probably just because this is nothing more than an average movie.
by Philip Price
There is something to be said for a scary movie that can make you legitimately feel chills in the dead of summer. Granted, summer doesn't actually begin until June 21st, but as the third chapter in the ‘Insidious’ saga somewhat oddly comes to us on the first weekend of June rather than in the midst of fall I was rather cautious as to if this release date was more a strategy to cover up the lack of quality with the excitement of summer or if it was simply time for ‘Insidious’ to play with the boys of summer. Due to the fact director James Wan, who guided the first two films in the series to great success before taking on “Furious 7,” exited and both the scripting and directing duties were handed over to Wan's longtime collaborator Leigh Whannell, there was reason to be hesitant. It certainly seems Whannell has at least been paying attention and taking notes since the two first collaborated on “Saw” over a decade ago as “Insidious: Chapter 3” is a sufficient if not significant piece of horror that does its job in terms of getting you to jump at the right time while adding depth to some of the more interesting characters in the previous two films. The downfalls aren't so much downfalls in that they don’t make the movie any worse than it might have been, but more in the fact they simply allow the film to be adequate and exactly what one would expect without striving to be anything more. This makes for a rather pleasant viewing experience that fulfills expectations and plays into predictions for how things may go, but unlike ‘Chapter 2’ it doesn't delve narratively into new territory, but more recreates the first film with a new set of characters that just so happens to take place prior to the events that occurred in the Lambert household. Lin Shaye is your connective strand as psychic Elise Rainer she is hardly the central character. What is more disappointing than anything is that this third film doesn't take on the story that was hinted at in the end of ‘Chapter 2’ that might again deal with the red-faced demon from the original, but instead seems to be saving that for the fourth film inevitably making ‘Chapter 3’ feel like little more than a footnote.
We are introduced to Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott) as she attempts to connect with her dead mother with the help of Rainier. At this point in time, the prequel point in time, Rainier refuses to help the young lady, but it seems Quinn is already beginning to notice paranormal events happening around her. Despite her hesitation, there are attempts made to contact Quinn's mother as Elise feels rather compassionate for her given the circumstances of her situation, but she digresses after coming into contact with the dead, and one man specifically, who occupy a realm in the further that isn't necessarily of the light. Despite this failed attempt, Quinn attempts to continue on with her everyday life, first and foremost thinking of what she might do after high school and taking it upon herself to audition for a theater company in New York. Her father, Sean (Dermot Mulroney), and brother, Alex (Tate Berney), seem to care little for what her future holds but instead hope to keep Quinn around as long as possible to keep things afloat in their lives in the wake of their wife and mother’s passing. It is at the audition where Quinn begins to not only feel the presence of something supernatural, but to see things out of the ordinary. This mirage of a figure causes an unsuspecting Quinn to be hospitalized in a fashion that will no doubt elicit a strong reaction from a large audience. It is no doubt an impressionable way to kick off the tone of the scares you want to include in your movie and Whannell is sure to leave a mark. With the injuries that Quinn sustains she is left unable to escape from this demonic presence that seems to be chasing her. After Sean finally witnesses one of these vicious attacks firsthand he returns to Elise, begging her to use her abilities to try and contact this parasite that has latched itself onto his daughter in hopes she might be able to stop these attacks.
Scary movies are all about atmosphere. I've talked about this before, but both where and when you see a scary movie combined with the kind of audience you see it with truly influences the kind of experience you have and even your perception of quality when the number of scares is integral in determining the overall quality or how well it achieved its main objective. I have no doubt that the enthusiastic crowd I saw “Insidious: Chapter 2” with aided my enjoyment, but upon re-watching the sequel with only my wife at home I felt justified in my take-away from a story perspective. With the third film I wasn't part of an auditorium that was nearly as excited as they were for the previous film and instead seemed to feature an older crowd rather than the largely teenage audience one that I shared ‘Chapter 2’ with. Still, while this may not create as much of a memory around ‘Chapter 3,’ I again feel confident in the perspective that this third film is more or less to form if not slightly above average. There is something to be said about the psychology of scary movies and why people enjoy subjecting themselves to horrors on their own free will and taking some kind of enjoyment away from it and “Insidious: Chapter 3” would be an ideal candidate to use in a study as to why this is true. There are moments of real terror, true jump scares that don't rely on the same tricks we've seen a thousand times before, but instead actually put us in the middle of the frightening scenario and make our skin crawl. At the same time, this is a wholly enjoyable thrill ride that plays to the aforementioned expectations in that Quinn is your standard horror movie heroine as Scott effortlessly gives her good character with whom we easily sympathize, but still falls into the typical trappings of these kinds of movies. We know when the scares are coming and even who they're coming from as Quinn looks out her window or under her bed and we know she listens to the crazy cat lady next door (Phyllis Applegate) when no one else gives her credence, but we are still willing to go on this journey with her because its more or less entertaining even if it doesn't push the bigger mythology of the franchise any further.
Whannell has been writing horror long enough now to understand the clichés of the genre and so he plays with our expectations here to a degree while the actors do well to balance the horror and the inherent humor of the situations. In all the practicality of movie making it is hard not to laugh when trying to create something outlandishly scary and even moreso when those scary elements include the kind of costumes in play here. Still, Whannell relegates both his and Angus Sampson's characters, intended for comic relief, to smaller than usual supporting characters that simply serve to provide an origin of their partnership with Elise and justify why her talents are indeed crucial. It is in Elise that Shaye still serves as the heart of the series and carries the third act of this film to a glorious defeat of the demonic spirits that haunt our protagonist while at the same time giving a more plausible sense of conclusion to the characters than the second film was able to do. The key here is that Shaye is so dedicated to the sincerity of Elise's gifts that she never comes off as ridiculous as it might easily be to take her. She, in many ways, allows the audience to buy more into the supernatural and spiritual aspects of the film and it's further than the guys and girls in all the make-up. When we see the further we see a metaphorical representation of hell, but when Shaye delivers her dialogue we can almost see the actuality of this netherworld more vividly. That Elise was killed in the first film has given this franchise more than a few obstacles in keeping her character in the loop, but Whannell did a superior job of explaining this in ‘Chapter 2.’ In making this a prequel though he more or less takes the easy way out. For me, ‘Chapter 2’ did more than justify the need for explanation as it delivered both plenty of new elements while cleverly revealing reasoning for some of the questions left over from the first film. While “Insidious: Chapter 3” is a fine enough film it is the worst in the series by default because it dares to do nothing different or give us anything new.
by Philip Price
“Slow West” is eager to create a film not of the place in time that has been crafted by nostalgia, but more in the vein of the intense harshness this location at this period in time actually represented. The West at the turn of the century was not for the faint of heart and director John Maclean is sure to hit this point hard. He is clearly messing with the aforementioned tropes that typically made up large portions of westerns made after the 1950's, but even further than this he brings a different aesthetic than what we typically expect from westerns which inadvertently throws ones expectations for a loop resulting in a film that is strangely engaging, darkly humorous and overall oddly fascinating. Everything about “Slow West” feels rather slight, as if any character or any scenario might fall apart or render insignificant at any point, but as the film continues to play out and Maclean's script allows each characters arc to naturally unfold it reveals a very specific set of goals. That is almost to say the film has something substantial to say when in reality it is more about making a statement or observation concerning a time that happened not so long ago with people we hardly recognize. Of course, I have no real idea of what Maclean's intentions were with the film or what drove him to write a Western, much less make it his first directorial effort, but what effectively comes from his story is the grand significance of our shifting humanity. At the tail end of the film, and this isn't to spoil anything, there is a montage or recap of every single life that has been taken throughout the course of the film. It isn't to drive home how fragile life is, but more to reinforce the nature and brutality of the time. Life wasn't worth as much back then, which is good for us who can now sit back and call this entertainment, but it's something worth noting in our current state. It's a rather extraneous concept when given the content of the film, but “Slow West” is just weird enough that it kind of makes sense.
Narrated by Michael Fassbender, the film immediately springs to your attention for his rather grave observations. What Fassbender presents is a rather simple premise. A young Scottish boy, Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), has come to America in pursuit of the woman he loves, Rose (Caren Pistorius). Travelling across the bear landscape of Colorado, Jay quickly learns that his journey will not be as easy nor as uneventful as he expected no matter how much he intended to keep to himself. Soon into his journey Jay attracts the attention of an outlaw named Silas Selleck (Fassbender) who is willing to serve as a guide for a price and is privy to information Jay is unaware of. The two set out on a trail that is littered with the likes of bounty hunters and Native Americans among other things. While the base of the film is Selleck and Cavendish journeying on, the core of the film deals with the world around them and what they not only have to deal with, but what they see and how they respond. There is one scene in particular that pierces the senses in an unexpected way. When a store where our protagonists have made a stop at is held up that results in an exchanging of bullets there is a result and a reaction from Selleck that establishes just how unforgiving of a time we are working with. It says something that these characters know no other way of life, no other mentality and so they don't necessarily long for anything more or better, but are simply conditioned to the anticlimactic ways of their day to day, but it is in this disconnect that the aforementioned theme comes glaring through. It's hard to recognize or relate to anyone because we don't exist in the same society as these characters even if some of the ruthlessness is of people is as present today as ever. Personally, I don't feel I've even seen as honest a representation of this time, but more only the romanticized and mythologized versions that have been brought about by the guise of the arts.
What keeps us from dying? It is one of the many questions pondered by Jay as he attempts to better acquaint himself with his guide. It is a pointed line, but one that is dismissed by Selleck so as to avoid the depths of any real conversation where he might have to consider things too hard. There is a bigger idea to be withdrawn from these characteristics that both Fassbender and Smit-McPhee exude, but the film itself makes its broad ideas about these contrasting mentalities. The genre of the western is meant to be simple, meant to be straightforward as the story is here while Jay's introspective inquiries are meant to delve into the societal norms of the time and why this type of existence was accepted as the norm and how those who lived outside of having to face tough daily deeds were able to live with themselves or how those on the front lines were able to lift such deeds from their conscious so as to not drive themselves mad. Both Smit-McPhee and Fassbender are adequate in what their roles require from them with each taking on their different end of the intellectual spectrum in strides. Supporting players in the form of Ben Mendelsohn as gang leader Payne, who once employed the skills of Selleck, is as cruel as ever in another villainous role he always revels in while Pistorius is quietly moving in her third act stand as is her right hand man, Kotori (Kalani Queypo). The film is also slight in its running time as it barely reaches and hour and twenty minutes, but in this time it nicely paces itself to set the audience up for a final showdown that is packed with tension and humor while effectively fulfilling a promise thought all too easy to ensure by the hunters of the film. Teaching that there is more to life than survival, “Slow West” is presented in a sublime fashion despite its content being anything but grand or beautiful. It is a slow burn of sorts, but one worth taking note of if not taking joy from.