Movie Review: ‘Prisoners’

In theaters

“Prisoners,” written by Aaron Guzikowski, directed by Denis Villeneuve, 153 minutes, rated R.

“Prisoners,” Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up to 2010’s standout Oscar-nominated film “Incendies,” is a lot like its predecessor in that it builds and meticulously unravels a mystery, slowly dropping the pieces of a tragedy into place to deliver something that is both small and personal, yet grand and powerful.

Instead of the chaotic, scorching clime of Villeneuve’s horrifying Middle Eastern drama, “Prisoners” finds Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) in a cold, quiet suburban neck of Pennsylvania on the back end of autumn. Keller’s a steadfast survivalist whose demeanor is as imposing as his stature, and he uses that influence to assert his convictions onto family and friends. His life takes a turn down a dangerous path while spending Thanksgiving with neighbors Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard, Viola Davis), when his daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) goes missing along with the Birch’s daughter, Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons).

Heading the investigation into the kidnapping is the solitary Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose only lead is a run-down, outdated camper parked down the street at the time of the abduction. The camper is driven by Alex Jones (Paul Dano) who, upon interrogation, is found to have the IQ of a 10-year-old, and completely incapable of conducting such a crime. The RV, meanwhile, contains not a shred of evidence, and after 48 hours Loki is forced to let Jones walk.

While the detective pursues other leads, Keller remains convinced that Jones has information about Anna’s whereabouts. He’s so certain and stricken with desperation that he sees no other option than to accost Alex, chain him up and torture him until he cracks.

Jackman is as explosive in “Prisoners” as he’s been in his entire career, taking his performance over the top to an intense and dispiriting place that feels right at home under Villeneuve’s direction. Jackman’s well supported in his efforts, surrounded by an ensemble of A-listers who are more than capable of bearing the weight of this material.

After all, “Prisoners” is a somber piece of cinema, and it requires precision in its delivery, something Villeneuve has demonstrated in the past. Gifted with the ability to reveal just the right information at just the right time, Villeneuve strings the audience along, unlocking one door as he almost closes another, leaving it slightly ajar just to keep certain points in the back of your mind. In that regard, “Prisoners” plays out a lot like “Incendies.”

Then there’s the final act, which is sadly a little too safe, contrived and convenient, mollifying the film’s emotional impact. Where “Incendies” violates your boundaries, saving its most gut-wrenching – and believable – punch for last, “Prisoners” builds tension, doubt and moral quandaries only to exit with a finale best described as complacent. It’s a disappointment for an otherwise powerhouse film. Villeneuve can do better, and the story deserves better. So does the audience.

Grade: B

Feel free to follow me on Twitter at @JoelCrabtree.

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Q&A with ‘Roommate Wanted’ director Stephen Parkhurst

Full disclosure: I grew up with Stephen Parkhurst. I’ve known him since junior high school, where he and I, along with my brother Tony, bonded over our love of the cinema. When it came time for college, it was no surprise when Stephen went off to Keene State to pursue his dream of becoming a filmmaker.

Last summer, Stephen continued his pursuit, marking a major milestone in his life and career by shooting his first feature-length film, “Roommate Wanted.” The movie is a light psychological thriller that is distinctly Stephen’s in its tone, storytelling and characters. In true Parkhurst fashion, the movie maintains the filmmaker’s strange sense of humor while its lead character’s life descends into madness.

The film stars Seth Holbrook as Sean, a traditional down-on-his-luck central character who’s hit bottom. Sean’s a recovering alcoholic whose compulsion has lost him everything, from his girlfriend and living space to his driver’s license and job. He comes upon a stroke of luck when finding a cheap apartment for rent while he attempts to get his life back on track.

The one downside is his new roommate, Matt (Matthew Nichols, also a friend from childhood), who is straight-up crazy. Not only is he socially inappropriate, but as Sean begins to do some digging, he begins to suspect that Matt may have killed his previous roommate. Living with a potential murderer adds to Sean’s surmounting stress of trying to land on his feet, while trying to unveil Matt’s hidden past.

With his first feature film, Stephen knows the boundaries that come with budget restraints, and he works with what he has to pull off something that, I have no doubt, he’s very proud of. As he should be.

It would be impossible for me to slap a letter grade on a film I’m so connected with, so instead, I asked Stephen a few questions about his experience making “Roommate Wanted.”

Q: When you were making “Roommate Wanted,” who were some of the filmmakers and/or writers who you found to be an influence?

A: I specifically wrote the movie as an ode to Roman Polanski, with a little Hitchcock thrown in there as well. Sort of “Rear Window” meets “The Tenant.” Polanski’s early movies are very dark and claustrophobic, and they’re also really grounded in character and tension. “Death and the Maiden” is a good example. That said, his films generally aren’t very funny, and when I first thought of the idea for “Roommate Wanted,” of a guy who thinks his roommate is a murderer, it seemed inherently funny. I mean, how would a normal person react to that revelation? I think if you put normal, everyday people in the situations portrayed in thriller films, you’d end up with some very absurd, funny results. There’s an old anecdote that when Kubrick went to adapt “Red Alert,” it was going to be a thriller, but the more he wrote, the more it naturally veered into comedy, until he eventually decided to just go with it. The result was “Dr. Strangelove.”

Q: When you set out to make this film, what sort of end-goal did you have in mind?

A: At the time, I’d been toiling away, like so many who have graduated with a BA, in customer service jobs and random gigs with very little to show for it. I wanted to make something that would showcase, at the very least, my abilities as a writer. I never expected the movie to be a money-maker, hence it being available for free on YouTube. I just want people to see it and hopefully enjoy it.

Q: What were some of the challenges on working with a shoestring budget? What were some of the advantages?

A: I’ve heard some filmmakers say that a lack of money encourages creativity. I’m not saying it doesn’t, but I don’t think there are any great advantages to working with a shoestring budget. It’s nice that I’m not really beholden to anyone. I don’t owe any loan sharks my firstborn, so I guess that’s an advantage. The challenges are all the ones you’d expect: you can’t afford a crew or equipment or to lock a location or have a proper shooting schedule. Any filmmaker who chooses the 10k budget over the 100k budget has probably suffered a head injury and should be rushed to the ER immediately.

Q: What projects are you working on right now, and do you think you’ll do another crowd-source funded indie film like this again?

A: Crowd-sourcing seems like it’s going through some growing pains at the moment. It’s an amazing innovation and has given a lot of people the opportunity to do projects they otherwise couldn’t have, myself included. That said, I think there’s a big risk of opportunists taking advantage of the platform, and of backer fatigue. I’m not going to rule out another crowd-funded project, but at the moment I don’t have any plans for one. I’m focusing more on writing screenplays and expanding my YouTube channel with more short videos. Obviously it’s hard to resist the allure of making a feature, but in terms of gaining exposure, it’s a lot easier for a 3 minute video to go viral versus a 90 minute feature. I’m actually shooting a short next weekend, so stay tuned for that.

Q: What do you have for advice to other young, independent filmmakers?

A: It’s crazy-cheap to shoot and edit a movie these days, but it’s still not free. If you really want to shoot something, there’s two things you absolutely should pay for: food for your actors and crew, and an on-set sound guy. I didn’t pay for the latter, and I spent 8 months of post-production regretting it. Get. Good. Sound. I found a great guy who helped fix up a lot of the sound issues in post, but it still isn’t as good as it should be, and it’s my own fault. Save yourself a lot of trouble and pay someone, ideally a professional with his own equipment, to record your sound. If you can’t afford a pro, get a Zoom h4n, a decent shotgun mic (they start retailing around $200), build your own boom pole (I used a paint roller extension pole) and a decent pair of headphones, and pay attention to how things sound. Get the mic as close to the actors as possible. Get room tone when you’re done at each location. If the dialogue doesn’t sound clean, re-do it. The time you spend to ensure it sounds right on the day will save you quadruple that time in post production.

Finally: Check your ambition. Ambition is important, just make sure it doesn’t overpower reality. I’ve been involved in a few productions that never saw the light of day because the filmmakers were attempting “The Avengers” on a “Clerks” budget. Work with what you have. I designed “Roommate Wanted” to utilize a few locations, a small cast, and a story that could be told without special effects. If you can afford an epic car chase, great! Totally do it! Car chases are awesome! If you can’t, focus instead on making your characters interesting, your dialogue engaging and your story unique. Get trained actors too. Not just your friends. It makes all the difference.

You can watch or buy “Roommate Wanted” at

I Tweet sometimes. Follow me on Twitter @JoelCrabtree.

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Movie Review: ‘The Lone Ranger’

In Theaters

“The Lone Ranger,” written by Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, directed by Gore Verbinski, 149 minutes, rated PG-13.

There’s something to be said for the art of old-fashioned storytelling, in passing down a spoken tale from one generation to the next, and preserving it in that way only. Like a game of telephone, the stories likely become distorted and slowly they take the form of lore. So a legend is born.

This is where Gore Verbinski’s “The Lone Ranger” begins, at a county fair in 1933 San Francisco, where a worn-out, elderly Tonto (Johnny Depp) recounts his adventures alongside the famous title character (Armie Hammer) to a young fair-goer donning a replica Lone Ranger mask.

In his tall tale, Tonto, a self-proclaimed Commanche Wendigo (demon) hunter, meets mild-mannered lawyer John Reid on a train heading to Colby, Texas, where Tonto is being held prisoner with notorious outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), who has a date with a noose in Colby. When Cavendish’s men storm the train to free their ringleader, Tonto and Reid find themselves on the same side of the law, only with competing points of view. While Tonto is out for vengeance on the Wendigo, an evil spirit whom he believes possesses every untrustworthy man, Reid is gullible, believing in a system of law that is broken.

While Cavendish and his men escape justice, Reid returns to Colby where his hard-nosed older brother (James Badge Dale) hands him a Texas Ranger badge, inviting him along on the hunt for the escaped outlaw. The Rangers are set up, however, and all of them are killed at the hands of Cavendish and his men.

Tonto discovers the bodies, and while giving them a proper burial, finds John Reid is still barely alive. Reid and Tonto find themselves an odd pairing united by one simple goal: To end corruption. Together, the masked crusaders undertake a journey to find Cavendish and bring him to justice.

Armie Hammer is steadfast and charming as the uncompromising, yet polite-to-a-fault John Reid, and Depp’s interpretation of Tonto is a lot of what you might expect, which for fans isn’t a bad thing at all. “The Lone Ranger” reunites Depp with much of the team that brought us “Pirates of the Caribbean,” including producer Jerry Bruckheimer, writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, and Verbinski.

Despite the change in era, the tone and themes Verbinski throws at the audience are pretty much in line with “Pirates of the Caribbean.” He manages to capture the same sense of adventure while still focusing on characters who are the last of a dying breed. The action isn’t as fluid as it was in “Pirates,” trading swashbuckling for gunfights, and ships for slow, steady locomotives. Because of this, “The Lone Ranger” misses the rhythm that Verbinski nailed in the first three “Pirates” films.

Though we may not have the elaborately choreographed fight scenes, there are ideas at work in “The Lone Ranger” that go beyond the traditional Hollywood summer fare. At the heart of “The Lone Ranger,” you’ll find concepts such as the aforementioned preservation of oral stories, as well as the corruption of men and the idealist’s antidote to that. Most importantly, the film not only recognizes the Native American genocide in an unsubtle manner, but presents it shamefully, something that other western blockbusters like “Cowboys and Aliens” ignored completely.

Though “The Lone Ranger” is a piece of cowboy nostalgia for many, its principles are perennial and admirable. The film also manages to be fun, even at nearly two and a half hours, and although it’s not quite as entertaining as “Pirates of the Caribbean,” it still has a lot to offer audiences.

Grade: B

Do you have questions or comments? Send me a message on Twitter @JoelCrabtree.

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Movie Review: ‘White House Down’

In Theaters

“White House Down,” written by James Vanderbilt, directed by Roland Emmerich, 137 minutes, rated PG-13.

Director Roland Emmerich, best known for his patented brainless big-budget disaster movies such as “Independence Day,” “2012,” “The Day After Tomorrow,” etc. etc., really only knows how to make one type of movie: Brainless big-budget disaster movies.

Take, for example, Emmerich’s latest film, “White House Down,” which by all accounts should be a straight-up action movie in the tradition of “Die Hard” or “Speed.” Yet, somehow the destruction of buildings and landmarks becomes Emmerich’s priority yet again.

“White House Down” stars Channing Tatum as John Cale, a veteran returning from Afghanistan, picking up jobs in D.C. while trying to beg, borrow and deal his way into the Secret Service. Landing an interview through a desperate combination of pleading and flirting, Cale takes advantage of his visit to The White House to reconnect with his estranged daughter, Emily (Joey King), who also happens to be a political and history junkie.

While Cale tours the presidential mansion with his daughter, domestic terrorists led by the Head of Presidential Detail (James Woods) lay siege to The White House, taking hostages including Emily, covering all exits and entry points, and tracking down President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx). Separated from his daughter, Cale finds Sawyer, and his mission becomes twofold: Protect the president and save his daughter.

While gun play and explosions are par for the course, the lifeblood of any good action movie is the chemistry among its cast. In “White House Down,” that mostly falls on the shoulders of Tatum and Foxx, who play up their interactions as if it were a buddy cop movie. As a nod to the action genre, it’s fairly effective, and the comic relief helps keep a light tone that is more in line with Emmerich’s previous films.

Also, much like his previous films, Roland Emmerich blows stuff up. Despite having a supporting cast featuring Jason Clarke, Richard Jenkins and Maggie Gyllenhaal, Emmerich’s objective is to create some big action scenes. As a filmmaker, it’s what he knows.

Sometimes going into self-mockery, but always out to entertain, “White House Down” understands what it is and does it as well as possible. With that said, the formula the film follows is a little bit tired.

Grade: C+

Follow me on Twitter @JoelCrabtree.

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Movie Review: ‘Man of Steel’

In Theaters

“Man of Steel,” written by David S. Goyer, Christopher Nolan (story), Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (Superman character), directed by Zack Snyder, 143 minutes, rated PG-13.

Unlike Batman or any number of Marvel Comic properties, I’m just not sure there’s room for a modern Superman franchise. From a financial standpoint, it may seem logical to bring back this cultural icon because of Hollywood’s new found love affair with capes, spandex and profits, but with “Smallville” and “Superman Returns” still fresh on audiences’ minds, perhaps a break would do the Man of Steel some good.

Of course, that’s not going to happen when there’s money to be made.

“Man of Steel,” directed by Zack Snyder (“300,” “Watchmen”), is the latest effort to revitalize Supes on film, with Henry Cavill (“Immortals”) donning the red and blue in an edgier attempt to match what Christopher Nolan created with his Batman franchise.

This time, the origin story begins on Krypton, where Kal El/Clark Kent’s biological father, Jor El (Russell Crowe), is pleading with Krypton’s ruling council for one last-ditch effort to save the fate of his people, as the planet faces certain destruction. Cue General Zod (Michael Shannon), who takes a different approach with the council and forcefully tries to overthrow the government for the betterment of his people, only to be captured and imprisoned just before the end of Krypton.

Kal El, as we all know, is shipped off to Earth, where, as Clark Kent, he grows up to find himself a drifter, a stranger and an outcast on his new home. He wanders from odd job to odd job, searching for his true identity while reluctantly using his powers to save lives, uncertain what the repercussions might be if his existence becomes known. His life as a nomad comes to an end when General Zod and a small group of surviving Kryoptonian rebels find Kal El, and threaten to demolish our world and end the human race unless he turns himself in to them, leaving Superman no choice but to out himself to all mankind and defend his adopted planet.

The final act isn’t much of an act at all, but a never-ending and somewhat boring series of action scenes that, at times, makes you feel as though you’re in some sort of weird cinematic vortex. Really, this final third gets to the heart of what’s wrong with “Man of Steel” in that it confuses the word “epic” with bloated, humorless, and emotionless, as it tries to go big with battle sequences that are nothing more than mass amounts of CGI destruction and bloodless deaths.

That’s not to say that “Man of Steel” is a total loss, as it creates some key elements that could become building blocks for future films. For example, Henry Cavill is well cast as Clark Kent/Superman, though the screenwriters could have thrown a little more dialogue his way. This interpretation of Superman as a wanderer on Earth in the first two-thirds is probably the film’s strongest element, trading in the story that we all know so well for something a little different. Something with some depth. For the most part, it works.

Sure, there may be disastrous moments here, but “Man of Steel” isn’t an utter disaster. It’s a starting point for rebuilding, and though it’s not very successful, there are some pieces here that do work. Though it’s a far cry from “Batman Begins,” we can only hope that the inevitable sequel is stronger.

Grade: C

Follow me on Twitter @JoelCrabtree.

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Movie Review: ‘This Is the End’

In Theaters

“This Is the End,” written by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg and Jason Stone (based on the short film ‘Jay and Seth vs. The Apocalypse’), directed by Rogen and Goldberg, 107 minutes, rated R.

Here’s one of the strangest and funniest end-of-the-world scenarios in film history: James Franco’s Hollywood housewarming party comes to a screeching halt when a series of earthquakes, wildfires, strange blue lights and a strategically placed sinkhole kill off all but six of Franco’s guests.

This is the basic setup for “This Is the End,” a self-referential comedy that often feels like one giant inside joke, only everyone’s invited. In fact, much of the humor relies on the movie’s somewhat esoteric nature, as the all-star cast, featuring Franco, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride and Craig Robinson, play variations on themselves. Some, such as Rogen and Baruchel, seem fairly true to life, while Franco borders on parody and Hill is just plain peculiar.

As the world falls apart around them, the six friends hole up in Franco’s art-filled home, boarding up the windows and waiting for help to arrive. As resources become scarce, tensions run high, but instead of the edge-of-your-seat uneasiness usually associated with this storyline, we get uncomfortable interactions that yield some of the best comedy in film this year.

As the six friends build and break relationships, “This Is the End” makes sure to milk every ounce of humor in every scene, often extending some of the stupidest moments until you find yourself doubled over laughing. Stemming from arguments over a single Milky Way or pornography, the actors find every excuse to somehow dredge up petty gripes from the past, taking out their frustrations on a confessional cam a la “The Real World.”

Though the premise isn’t all that original, and at times the direction feels a little like “Harold and Kumar,” the delivery of this material is tailored to my taste. It’s part slacker comedy, part bromance, and part James Franco experiment. Those are all good things.

There are very few comedies that can continually deliver throughout all three acts without losing momentum. “This Is the End” is one such film.

Grade: A-

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Movie Review: ‘The Purge’

In Theaters

“The Purge,” written and directed by James DeMonaco, 85 minutes, rated R.

In the year 2022, the United States is a nation reborn, where poverty and unemployment rates have taken a drastic dip, and crime is at an all-time low. The country owes all of this prosperity to The Purge, one night of the year when all crime – namely murder – is not only legal, but is a right for all American citizens.

So begins James DeMonaco’s “The Purge,” a horror-inspired home invasion film that is derivative, more often than not, yet manages to maintain its dignity through all that blood and violence with an unambiguous political statement.

Once establishing its out-there premise of a government-sponsored night of mass murder on U.S. soil, the film introduces James Sandin (Ethan Hawke), a wealthy salesman for a home security company who has made a fortune off of other well-off individuals looking to create a sanctuary for the annual Purge. James and his family (Lena Heady, Max Burkholder and Adelaid Kane) are safe for the night, because they can afford to be. Others, such as the homeless and poor, however, are not so lucky. These are the targets of the Purgers, and their deaths are the primary contribution to the country’s reduced poverty and unemployment rates.

When the clock strikes 7 p.m., the Sandins, as well as the rest of the gated neighborhood, lock down their houses with the latest home protection system. Things go wrong, however, when James’ sympathetic son Charlie (Burkholder) lets a wounded stranger into their home. Soon after, a group of affluent, privileged and educated masked Purgers show up on the Sandins’ doorstep looking for the “homeless filth,” so they can finish their Purge.

The creepy crew of eccentric preps leave the Sandins with a choice: Hand over their annual victim, who will undoubtedly suffer a prolonged and gruesome death, or the gang will enter the house and execute the entire family in the same manner.

There are a number of influences “The Purge” feeds off, ranging anywhere from “Assault on Precinct 13” (which DeMonaco remade in 2005) to “Last House on the Left,” and “Funny Games,” which is a much savvier piece of satire from the great Michael Haneke. As a horror movie, “The Purge” is pretty much sub-par. With spurts of high tension sprinkled throughout, the film serves up the same home invasion story that keeps re-emerging every so often in Hollywood. The only real twist here is that this time the intrusion and ensuing murder is legal.

But there’s more to “The Purge” than what is on the surface, or that can be highlighted in a 30-second TV spot. DeMonaco uses the tired-yet-popular premise as a platform to, hopefully, open up a dialogue about class warfare. Though it could have been explored more thoroughly, this unexpected element helps elevate the film well above similar outings such as 2008’s “The Strangers,” making it just bold enough to stand out from its subgenre.

Grade: B-

My Tweets are few and far between, but you can follow me @JoelCrabtree. I’m also on Facebook.

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Movie Review: ‘Iron Man 3’

In Theaters

“Iron Man 3,” written by Drew Pearce and Shane Black, directed by Black, 130 minutes, rated PG-13.

The release of “Iron Man 3” marks the official beginning of the summer movie season, and if it’s any indication, it’s going to be a good summer.

Robert Downey Jr. rounds out the trilogy as Marvel’s cash cow Tony Stark aka Iron Man, who, after the events from 2012’s “The Avengers,” is on the verge of a mental breakdown. After his experience with gods, other dimensions and worlds, Tony has become an insomniac, working nonstop to create new and sometimes improved Iron Man suits in an effort to protect the only thing he has left: Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).

Stark’s anxiety rises as a terrorist of unknown origin who calls himself The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) wreaks havoc on the United States in the form of random bombings. The reintroduction of Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a geeky scientist shunned by Stark 13 years ago who has a crush on Pepper, is now rich, handsome, suave and successful, leading to more concerns for Tony.

After Stark’s friend and trusty bodyguard Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) is hospitalized by one of the bombings, his worst fears hit home, and The Mandarin’s attacks become personal. So, in true Tony Stark fashion, he calls the terrorist out on national TV, and an all-out assault ensues on Stark. Presumed dead after the battle, Stark finds himself in a small town in Tennessee seeking answers about the bombings, which aren’t quite as they seem, while physically and mentally repairing himself.

In terms of comic book movies, “Iron Man 3” is one of the best. As with all good superhero movies, this film explores the duality of Tony Stark, a theme the series had previously only dabbled in. In this installment, much like the first, we get far more of Tony Stark out of his suit of armor than in it, giving us more of what we really came to see: Robert Downey Jr.

Here, Downey is challenged to play both the Stark we know, with all the swagger and ego he’s exhibited in the first two films, as well as the Stark he has kept hidden. Downey, of course, pulls it off, finding pockets of hilarity amid intense panic attacks and moments of crippling anxiety. Really, when it comes to Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr. is the franchise.

Shane Black, the writer of “Lethal Weapon,” puts his signature on this installment, replacing Favreau, who directed the first two films. Black knows the anatomy of a good action scene, and he puts the budget to good use here, creating exciting and elaborate moments that are reminiscent of his previous work. In fact, there are moments in “Iron Man 3” that could have been lifted right out of Black’s “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang,” which also featured a brilliant performance from Downey.

“Iron Man 3,” much like the first film, is the very model other superhero movies should strive to be like. It’s fast-paced, well constructed, and most of all, a lot of fun to watch. This is what the summer movie season is all about.

Grade: A-

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Guest Blog: Films from Abroad Vol. 1

Films from Abroad Vol. 1

By Anthony Crabtree, Guest Blogger

For those of you who don’t know my brother, Anthony, his taste in film can sometimes be a bit obscure. More often than not, that’s putting it lightly. With that said, here’s his latest guest blog, featuring reviews of titles by Dario Argento and Jackie Chan, as well as an off-beat Japanese movie about baseball.

Dracula (2012) (Italian Blu-ray review)
Director: Dario Argento
Writers: Dario Argento, Enrique Cerezo, Stefano Piani, and Antonio Tentori

Italian horror maestro Dario Argento’s latest film, “Dracula,” is an oddity that will have
many detractors. The film is loosely based on the classic story by Bram Stoker, with
Argento taking more than a few liberties to make it his own. For exmaple, in Argento’s version, Dracula (Thomas Kretschmann) can shape shift into any number of animals and bugs, most notably an owl and giant praying mantis in scenes that have become infamous within the horror community.

Along with these bizarre and poorly rendered moments, we are also treated to terrible dialogue and worse delivery from traditionally good actors, including Argento’s daughter, Asia. Granted, most of the actors are foreign and working in a second language, the dialogue is truly wooden, creating moments that are inexcusable.

Despite these negative aspects, there are still some parts that salvage the film from being a complete abomination. The setting and scenery are reminiscent of classic Hammer films with lonely wooded areas, dark castles, and of course, Dracula’s beautiful, large library. In addition, Claudio Simonetti’s score is overactive and entertaining, keeping you on your toes.

I love Dario Argento and remember being one of the sole supporters of his last film “Giallo.” Unfortunately, his version of “Dracula” falls short and will probably only be enjoyed as a campy, cult classic by those unfamiliar with this master of horror.

Grade: C-

CZ12 (2012) (Hong Kong DVD review)
Director: Jackie Chan
Writers: Frankie Chan, Jackie Chan, Edward Tang, Stanley Tong

Jackie Chan is a machine and “CZ12” proves that. Acting as writer, star, director, producer, art director, unit production manager, props master (?), and a list of probably about six or more credits on “CZ12,” Chan attempts to outdo his past films.

Focusing on creating a work that is similar in nature to his “Armour of God” films, Chan plays a character simply referred to as JC (get it?) who is tasked with retrieving and stealing the twelve bronze heads from the Chinese zodiac.

I generally focus on Jackie Chan films in two parts: The action set pieces and humor.
The action sequences in this film are not Chan’s best, but they are more entertaining than I had expected. The fight sequences bring harder hits than most 58-year-olds can deliver (save, maybe, “The Expendables”) and are well choreographed. The stunts are innovative and fresh.

In terms of humor, “CZ12” doesn’t quite bring the laughs like Chan’s older films. The comedy feels too obvious, lacking the quick, slapstick style of “Legend of Drunken Master” or “Meals on Wheels.” While I would have liked a funnier film, the delivery of some fine action sequences along with an attempt to put a message into his film, makes this the first Jackie Chan film worth seeing in quite a while.

Grade: B-

Deadball (2011) (Japanese film, US DVD) (WellGo USA)
Director: Yudai Yamaguchi
Writers: Keita Tokaji and Yudai Yamaguchi

With baseball season now underway, many will be looking for that perfect film that captures America’s favorite pastime like none other. “Deadball” is not that film. Director Yudai Yamaguchi (“Battlefield Baseball,” “The ABCs of Death”) aims to create an ultra-violent, offensive, and funny film and it works for a little while.

“Deadball” focuses on Jubeh Yakyu (Tak Sakaguchi) who accidentally kills his father while playing catch with him. After this moment in his life, Jubeh Yakyu goes on a murdering spree, apparently killing “bad” people, and gets sent to Pterodactyl Juvenile Reformatory, where he joins the correction center’s baseball team. Nazis enter the picture, as does an all-girl baseball team that has a tendency to kill people. Then, just when you think the film has gone entirely off the wall, a giant robot appears.

It’s crazy and chaotic, but after a while it feels like “Deadball” just serves up more of the
same. The film starts out so bizarre and off-beat that there’s no way it can keep up the pace the film sets for itself, and at 99 minutes, “Deadball” becomes a bore.

Grade: C

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Movie Review: ‘Evil Dead’ (2013)

In theaters

“Evil Dead,” written by Fede Alvarez, Rodo Sayagues and Sam Raimi (1981 screenplay), directed by Alvarez, 91 minutes, rated R.

There’s a thin line one must walk when remaking a film such as Sam Raimi’s cult classic “Evil Dead.” Of course, you have to remain true to fans of the original series, which has become known for its excessive and often comical gore, as well as plenty of one-liners from its self-proclaimed B-movie superstar Bruce Campbell. And then there’s an audience less acquainted with Raimi’s style, coming in expecting a straight modern horror film with cheap jumps and easy scares.

So what’s a filmmaker to do? Fede Alvarez does something a little unexpected, finding inspiration in Raimi’s more recent horror work, “Drag Me to Hell.”

Book-ended with its title and big, bold letters, Alvarez’s “Evil Dead” takes us into familiar territory — a cabin in the woods, where five old friends gather to show support and help keep their drug addict friend, Mia (Jane Levy), clean. Her rock is her brother, David (Shiloh Fernandez), who kept his distance while their mother died slowly in a mental institution.

David is back now, however, and along with his friends Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci), Olivia (Jessica Lucas) and Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore), he has vowed to keep his sister in the family’s abandoned cabin until she has kicked her habit cold turkey. Drugs and a fractured sibling relationship take a backseat when the five discover the cabin was used to “exorcise” a demon, and the Necronomicon, aka Book of the Dead, remains in the house.

Eric becomes fascinated with the book, bound in flesh and written in blood, and while the others are occupied with Mia’s rehabilitation, he summons a demon seeking to possess all of their bodies and steal their souls.

The first third of Alvarez’s remake lacks originality and energy — a rehash of a story we’ve seen again and again and again. Though there’s an immediate deviation to this cabin-in-the-woods horror with Mia’s addiction, it’s scant on scares and substance.

Then the Book of the Dead comes into play, and “Evil Dead” begins to feel a little more like “Evil Dead,” though Alvarez’s remake isn’t quite what I had expected. In many ways, that’s a good thing.

The original “Evil Dead” trilogy embodies something very specific. They’re the epitome of cult classics, and instead of trying to re-create something that simply can’t be recaptured, Alvarez cherry-picks story elements that work for his remake, while giving plenty of not-so-subtle nods to Raimi’s trilogy to keep the die-hard fans at bay.

Though it strays from the original in tone, “Evil Dead” is full of classic, often pulpy horror imagery similar to “Drag Me to Hell,” and enough blood to keep a fleet of ships afloat. It’s not a great horror movie, but it understands what it is. And, in an era where most horror films walk on eggshells to maintain a PG-13 rating, that’s certainly worth something.

Grade: B-

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