Monday, December 21, 2015

Under the Radar Films: Movies For the Heart

The holidays are upon us, and just like the youth of America, our favorite TV shows are on Winter Break. So what’s a person to do for some fresh viewing pleasure? We have Redbox, Netflix, and movie channels to keep us occupied, but what’s really new to watch? HBO and Starz continue playing the same hit movies over and over again. Redbox is chockfull of all the summer blockbusters that we already enjoyed on the silver screen. And Netflix keeps giving us the same recommendations, even if we’ve already watched them. We’ve all seen the classics and all the new releases, and it makes us question if there’s anything left to watch that’s worthwhile. With the convolution of the film industry, it’s a matter of mathematical certainty that good movies fall through the cracks, never getting the proper recognition they rightfully deserve. That’s why this month I’ll be unveiling some great under-the-radar films from every genre, to give you cinephiles some sweet gems to enjoy during your holidays. To kick things off, I’ll start with a few heart-warmers.

First up:

What If  (a.k.a The F-Word(2013)

Having discovered that his girlfriend cheated on him with his Anatomy teacher, Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) decides to drop out of medical school and inevitably moves into the attic of his single-mom sister’s house. Down on his luck and having lived the past year in social seclusion, he finally resurfaces after his best friend Allan (Adam Driver) forces him into attending a party where Wallace meets the utterly adorable Chantry (Zoe Kazan). He quickly becomes smitten by the animator as the pair shares a wisecracking evening, only then to learn at the end of the night that she already has a boyfriend. Wallace genuinely likes Chantry as a person, and he soon finds himself in the most miserable place known to mankind: the friend-zone.

With a delightfully witty script by Elan Mastai and a perfectly casted set of actors, What If is essentially the modern-day When Harry Met Sally, begging the age-old question: Can a man and woman REALLY be just friends? Radcliffe and Kazan share wonderful chemistry and the forever scene-stealing Adam Driver delivers the perfect balance of dry humor and slapstick as cleverly crafted dialogue flows effortlessly from start to finish. Director Michael Dowse gives us a sophisticated take on the romantic comedy, riffing perfectly between the lighthearted conventions of the genre as well as the deeper examination of real relationships. What If is an irresistible charmer for sure.

Perfect for fans of: When Harry Met Sally and Definitely Maybe.

Ruby Sparks (2012)

With a world-renown debut novel looming overhead, young author Calvin (Paul Dano) suffers from a severe case of writer’s block as he struggles to recreate his earlier success. Crippled by this fear, he turns to his therapist (Elliot Gould) who gives Calvin a one-page assignment to write in an attempt to get him out of his funk. To his complete and utter surprise, the project works, inspiring Calvin’s fictitious muse, Ruby Sparks. Situated at an old typewriter, Calvin begins writing his new story and subsequently falls in love with his character. He then wakes one morning to find Ruby (Zoe Kazan) actually in his apartment. Initially believing he’s hallucinating, he soon discovers that the feisty redhead is in fact REAL, and that his imagination somehow invented her. Everything that Calvin writes about Ruby comes true. And with great power comes great responsibility…

The idea of Ruby Sparks can easily turn into a by-the-books raunchy comedy, but screenwriter Zoe Kazan (who also plays the title character) elevates the premise into being something quite fantastical and heartfelt. On the surface, it’s a comedy-drama, but the exploration of real life relationships in the guise of fantasy makes Ruby Sparks a very unique viewing experience. And the film’s whimsy finds itself in perfect hands with co-directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (Little Miss Sunshine). Ruby Sparks is quirky, funny, insightful, and deeply satisfying, made all the more absolute by real life and on-screen couple Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan.

Perfect for fans of: Stranger Than Fiction and Midnight in Paris.

Kinky Boots (2006)

After the death of his father, reluctant young marketer Charlie (Joel Edgerton) desperately searches for a niche market to save his family’s failing shoe factory. A chance encounter crosses his paths with a sassy drag queen named Lola (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and the two strangers form an unlikely partnership. Despite the profound skepticism from the employees, Charlie and Lola reinvent the straitlaced company by custom designing sexy fetish heels for drag queens.

The concept of a business resorting to outside-of-the-box strategies to save itself isn’t exactly new, and it’s hardly a stranger to comedy either. Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story is a prime example. What makes Kinky Boots so watchable isn’t its groundbreaking formula. It rests solely in its touching message and superb cast. There’s a standard nowadays when drag queens are put to film. They’re either pre-surgery transgender or flamboyantly gay to the point of being an offensive parody, but almost never as actual human beings. They’re usually caricatures. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s portrayal of Lola though dives into this unobserved world by peeking behind the curtain and seeing the real person.

Lola isn’t just a sassy singer with a fierce strut and perfectly manicured nails. She’s a fighter. Being a drag queen is a great way to expression yourself, but it also opens the door for ridicule and harassment from the close-minded. The way Lola handles herself shows just how much heart she really has, while also presenting the vulnerability underneath. As Lola says in the film: “Put me in heels and I can sing ‘Stand By Your Man’ to a crowd of strangers. Put me in jeans and I can't even bloody well say hello.” Seeing the layers peel away is quite heartwarming, and so fantastically unique that you can’t help but fall for Lola. Major kudos goes out to Chiwetel Ejiofor for his performance. This role showcases just how versatile this incredible actor truly is, and that’s why it’s so disappointing that this film flew under the radar from the general public despite him snatching a Golden Globe nomination for the role. His Oscar-nominated performance as the lead in 12 Years a Slave thankfully gave him the recognition he so longly deserved, letting him finally become a household name. Kinky Boots follows in the step of plenty of other delightful British comedy-dramas, but Ejiofor’s take on this fish-out-of-water tale makes it a cut above the rest.  

Perfect for fans of: The Full Monty and Calendar Gils.

Stay tuned for some more great underrated films… 

"The F Word theatrical poster" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

"Ruby Sparks poster" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

"Kinky Boots (movie poster)". Via Wikipedia.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

REVIEW: "Crimson Peak"

At the turn of the 20th century in Buffalo, New York, young aspiring writer Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) meets the dashingly mysterious inventor Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who has come aboard to pitch a business proposal to Edith’s father (Jim Beaver). When tragedy strikes, the forward-thinking Ms. Cushing quickly finds herself married to Sharpe and gets whisked away to his home in England. The newlyweds arrive at Allerdale Hall, the Sharpe family’s beautiful, yet ramshackle estate. With red clay bubbling up from the foundation of the property and mixing with the snow, the outside grounds appear to run red with blood, hence the nickname “Crimson Peak.” The scenery isn’t the only thing foreboding here. Edith is met by Thomas’s unwelcoming sister, Lucille, who despite Edith’s kind efforts refuses to warm up to her brother’s new bride. Things take a turn for the worst as gruesome apparitions of former inhabitants appear to Edith at night. Desperate to discover the true history of the house, she soon uncovers something far more horrific—the buried truths that affect her very life.

Just as in Pan’s Labyrinth, director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro continues to weave paranormal elements into his stories that revolve around the very real evil of this world: the human condition. Upon reflection, it’s also impossible not to draw parallels between Crimson Peak and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village. Both were widely advertised as “horror” films, when in fact they were that of the romantic variety…albeit, Crimson being a much darker one. Trailers and TV spots would convince you that ghosts and chilling atmosphere reign supreme at the title manor, but as the protagonist herself states about her own work, “It’s more of a story with a ghost in it.”

You can argue that a movie shouldn’t be judged on the merit of its advertising, but when it’s misleading to moviegoers who fork out ten bucks a ticket, you can’t simply chalk it up as a trivial error. Universal Studios Hollywood even adapted the film into one of their mazes for their annual Halloween Horror Nights event this year, further marketing it as a blatant horror piece. This issue aside, the movie still falls short of expectations even when properly placed in the gothic romance category. At the height of the film, Crimson Peak delivers on all cylinders. The grandiose, gothic scope of the manor is one of the best sets put to film in recent history. Oscar worthy production design brings this dilapidated yet beautiful estate to life, and the cinematography captures its intricacy with flawless depth.

Del Toro proves himself as a visionary director, but the same cannot be said about his storytelling. Given the magnificence and originality of its set design, along with del Toro even stating during filming that he wanted to subvert the conventions of the gothic genre, the movie charms you into thinking that the entire production is just as innovative. What we get instead is a collection of recycled plots from various gothic renderings, ranging from Rebecca, Jane Eyre, and Flowers in the Attic. The script is relatively weak, and the plot “twists” can all be deduced within the first act of the film. The greatest pitfall rests with the Sharpe siblings’ interactions. Their motives are made perfectly clear right out of the gate, killing the supposed blossoming romance between Edith and Thomas, not to mention robbing the audience of a cleverly crafted cloak and dagger back story. And despite Del Toro professing his film to be a gothic romance, there is in fact little romance to be found.

The interpersonal relationship between the main threesome fails from a lack of character depth, and the chemistry between Hiddleston and Wasikowska isn’t all that convincing. Why might that be? Edith’s character suffers from the “Bella Swan” syndrome, as I like to call it. At the start of the film, everyone in Ms. Cushing’s life repeatedly makes mention of her forward thinking and profound sense of individuality. These qualities are supposedly what affect Thomas’s inner most being. 

“You’re different,” he says.
“From what?” questions Edith.

Yet, Edith herself doesn’t ever really display any of these inimitable traits. Calling a pigeon a “flamingo” doesn’t change the fact that it’s still simply a pigeon, no matter how many people say it. If anything, Edith is incredibly naïve, especially for a twenty-four year old. Plus, Mia Wasikowska has a rather enigmatic quality to her, showcased wonderfully in films like Jane Eyre and Stoker. Putting her in the shoes of a friendly heroine that the audience should be rooting for on the other hand…it’s apparent that she’s miscast. Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy) also seems out of place with his turn as Edith’s pining and polite childhood friend, Dr. Alan McMichael. Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain prove to be the true scene stealers here, despite them having to chew up the sometimes clumsy dialogue.

The untapped potential to this film is enough to make any gothic fan gnash their teeth with frustration. Despite the impressive sets, gorgeous costume design, and talented cast, Crimson Peak sadly proves to be magnificently mediocre.

3 out of 5 Stars    

"Crimson Peak theatrical poster" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

REVIEW - "American Horror Story: Hotel"

AHS’s TV teasers are always frighteningly weird and oddly wonderful. They’re essentially works of distressingly beautiful art. This time around with Hotel, it appears showrunners Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk aimed to produce a full 90-minute commercial and decided to slap the label of “episode one” on it. This anthology series is notorious for pushing the envelope, but it seems that the creators threw everything but the kitchen sink into the chaotically paced, aimless premiere.

The plot revolves around Homicide Detective John Lowe (Wes Bentley) who finds himself at the center of a series of grisly murders committed by an unknown assailant simply labeled as the Ten Commandments Killer. Asides from him, we’re introduced to a slew of societal misfits all suffering from a variety of addictions. Sarah Palson’s hypodermic Sally, Kathy Bates’ obsessive Iris, Matt Bomer and Lady Gaga’s blood lustful Donovan and the Countess, and so on. Is it an interesting set of characters? Definitely. Their purpose in relationship to the main storyline? Seemingly nothing. And therein lies the rub. The grandiose scenery of the Hotel Cortez is undeniably glorious, but it’s not enough to sustain viewers’ interest when there’s virtually no plot or purpose behind most of the characters.

Everything’s essentially all shot and no powder, in the most disturbing, self-indulgent fashion. American Horror Story is no stranger to disturbing content, and neither are its loyal viewers. Previous seasons gifted us with plenty of nightmare-inducing images, like Asylum’s murderous St. Nick, Freakshow’s killer clown Twisty, and Murder House’s school massacre. What made these scenarios so effectively terrifying was the realistic fear behind the individual stories. Hotel handles its horror factor a bit…differently, to say the absolute least, and it can leave even the most permissive viewers uncomfortable for a variety of reasons.

The erratic storytelling jumps nonsensically from one bloodcurdling scene to the next with no rhyme or reason. We see a woman being pushed out a window at high heights, two female tourists being held captive to be drained of their blood, a creepy guy climbing out a sewn up mattress…for whatever reason, children being abducted, a man’s eyes and tongue being removed, graphic crime scene images including men being strung up by their innards, and a sexual graphic foursome that ends with two participants having their throats slashed open as the other pair drinks their blood.

But AHS makes sure to scar its audience right out of the gate with its most painfully gratuitous display to date when a wildly foppish heroin addict comes strutting through the Hotel Cortez’s lobby. All the man wants is a quiet little place for him to ride out his high, but that plan goes to hell after he shoots up in his recently rented room. He’s attacked by the apparent brother of that eye monster from Pan's Labyrinth, who proceeds to rape the addict with a large drill-bit tipped metallic dildo. As they’d say in Battlestar Galactica, “What the frak?” I’m no prude when it comes to the horror genre, but honestly, the premiere feels like Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk accidentally aired their showcase of sexual fetish snuff film fantasies instead of an actual episode.

As far as the cast is concerned, with the exception of Wes Bentley’s John Lowe, not a single character is the least bit likeable. For anyone curious as to Lady Gaga’s acting chops, just check out her “Telephone” music video. That’s honestly the fullest extent. Her physicality works in her benefit, but whether she has any real emotional range remains to be seen. It’s not until episode two that we get someone truly captivating. Yes, as always, Evan Peters steals the show. This time, in the form of the charming, campy, and utterly psychotic James March, the hotel’s builder and original owner. Despite this bright beacon of hope, the rest of the episode falls flat. As Hotel’s premiere suffers from having virtually no plot, “Chutes And Ladders” fails from having almost nothing but pure exposition. Any creative storyteller knows that it’s always more effective to show rather than tell, so it’s a wonder why Murphy and Falchuk decided to have every plot point discussed verbally by means of literal guidelines and lengthy explanations.

What makes Hotel even more cringe worthy is its blatant lack of originality. You can argue that the show is simply paying homage to other horror projects, but in essence, that’s all the show is. Nothing is organic. The biblically inspired central crime is a rip-off of David Fincher’s Se7en where it’s the Ten Commandments instead of the seven deadly sins. James March’s back story comprises of H.H. Holmes and Sweeny Todd, with the body disposal system and the grisly throat slashing. Countless The Shining references can be spotted everywhere from the creepy children in the halls to a cryptic room number to the similarly shaped patterned carpets. Yes, it’s obvious. And there’s a transparent imitation to 1983’s The Hunger. It’s clear that this season favors style over substance, yet remains unclear as to whether it will ever have an identity of its own. If you dare to place a reservation for Hotel, don’t be surprised if you find yourself checking out prematurely.

American Horror Story: Hotel Rating: D+

"American Horror Story Hotel Teaser" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Enter Below to WIN $20 AMAZON GIFT CARD during the "DIVINE VICES" blog tour!

Title: Divine Vices
Series: Divine Vices #1
Author: Melissa Parkin
Genre: Paranormal Romance
 Release Date: September 29, 2015

The last thing sixteen-year-old Cassie Foster needs is trouble, but that doesn’t stop him from finding her.

Nine months after the tragic accident that killed her mother and sister, this high school junior just wants a fresh start. Settling down in the quiet town of New Haven, Maine, she’s found peace at last…until the new resident bad boy, Jackson Matthews, comes into the picture. Arrogant, sarcastic, and devastatingly sexy, he’s the very last thing Cassie wants to entertain. Romance was never part of the plan. But when terrifying circumstances drive these two together, she finds herself in over her head and drawn in by his allure. As local girls begin disappearing, Cassie can’t help but wonder if it’s just a coincidence that everything started when this blue-eyed Casanova strolled into town. Will falling into Jackson’s arms mean she’ll be falling victim to a real lady-killer…or worse? 

The answer will open the door to a world she never thought possible. 


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REVIEW: "Scream Queens"

The creators of Glee and American Horror Story bring us a twisted horror spoof of bitchy proportions. On the twentieth anniversary of a sorority sister’s death, Wallace University’s campus is plagued by a series of grisly murders by the masked Red Devil. From all the promotional trailers and TV spots, the show played up the tongue-in-cheek self-awareness of the horror genre that made Wes Craven’s Scream so brilliant. Co-creator Ryan Murphy even stated that the series would be Halloween meets Heathers. Given the showrunners’ credentials and the eclectic cast of characters, Scream Queens seemed to have all the ingredients to be something truly special. What we got though…can’t justly be summed up in a mere sentence.

Emma Roberts stars as Chanel Oberlin, the malicious president of everybody’s nightmarish idea of a sorority named Kappa Kappa Tau. She meets her match in Dean Munsch (the original Scream Queen herself, Jamie Lee Curtis). Determined to take down Chanel and her vile sorority, Munsch kills the prized exclusivity of Kappa by allowing anyone to pledge to the sorority. As you’d imagine, every ideal pledge bolts, leaving only the runts of the litter (including a nerdy blogger who enjoys eating candle wax) to endure Hell Week. Just as the hazing begins, so does a string of murders—like an outlandish lawnmower decapitation—by someone dressed as the school’s infamous mascot, the Red Devil.

Despite what its marketing claimed, Scream Queens is not a horror show, but more of a spoof of the genre. Everything is essentially played for laughs; some jokes hitting their marks while others…not so much. Strangely enough, the peculiar layouts of each murder are the funniest the show has to offer. The dialogue, on the other hand, is very hit or miss. It’s overly apparent in the sorority sisters’ pop-culturally fueled monologues that the writers are trying to be snappy and sarcastic, but let’s face it. Try describing sex as being, “Eiffel Towered by two hot morons who are brothers,” or “spit-roasted by hot golf frat twins,” and not feel like you’re trying way, waaaaay too hard. It’s impossible. The members of Kappa Kappa Tau in general aren’t likeable. Everything about the girls, especially Chanel, is mean-spirited, but not in the fabulously-evil Regina George kind of way. If anything, you’re rooting for the Red Devil to go Michael Myers on all of them from the moment they’re introduced.

This week’s episode “Chainsaw” thankfully takes some focus away from the Kappa girls, and it’s a riotous laugh. The brief introduction to the new school mascot, Coney, displays what true spoofs can accomplish. Imagine two school mascots literally fighting to the death as Wham’s “I’m Your Man” plays in the background and try not laughing. As for the main cast, notorious man-whore Chad Radwell and his fraternity brothers steal the show. The best moment of the entire series so far comes from the members of the Dickie Dollar Scholars fraternity.

This dimwitted pack of frat boys, whose combined IQ would be lucky to reach the triple digits, miraculously figures out that their recently deceased brother didn’t commit suicide, but was probably murdered. In an act of retribution, the DDS go “ghetto” by arming themselves with baseball bats as they prowl the streets, attacking anything and everything that’s red from fire hydrants to cars in an attempt to lure out the Red Devil. The absurdity of their plan to face a chainsaw wielding psychopath with nothing but wooden bats is made all the more hysterical by the fact that they’re all dressed in head-to-toe white country club apparel as the Backstreet Boys’ “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” plays in the background. That’s “ghetto code” for ya’. As the lyrics order you to “throw your hands up in the air,” one of the two masked Red Devils that confronts the DDS saws both arms off one of the frat members. In the very next time slot over on FX, The Bastard Executioner delivers the same brutal slaying, but it outright loses its effectiveness in comparison to the cartoonish take on SQ. This scene is easily going to be the best clip of any television series to air this week.

That very fact though is part of the problem. Despite that the show is called Scream Queens, the antics of Chad Radwell, the boys of DDS, and the killer are what makes each episode worth watching. The girls leading the sorority rarely ever deliver the goods. Roberts is essentially playing the same character she portrayed in American Horror Story: Coven and Abigail Breslin seems miscast in the role of a minion sorority sister. Niecy Nash, on the other hand, deserves proper kudos for her caricature role as Denise Hemphill, the world’s most ill-equipped security guard. The overall unevenness of the show makes for a rather jarring viewing experience. It has you itching to hit the fast-forward button during at least half the scenes, yet also provokes you to re-watch the few exceptionally orchestrated scenes that will stay with you long after viewing. It’s still too early to give a verdict on the overall series, but for potential watchers, you’ve been warned.

Scream Queens’ “Chainsaw” Rating: B-

Overall Series Rating: C-   

"Scream Queens, title art" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

REVIEW: "The Big Bang Theory" Season 9 Premiere

The wedding eight years in the making finally happens…and we don’t really get to see it. What?

Season 9 kicks off with “The Matrimonial Momentum” immediately following the events of last spring’s finale. Sheldon reels from Amy asking him for a timeout from their relationship while Leonard and Penny jet off to Vegas to get hitched. Everything goes downhill when Leonard confesses to Penny during their road trip to Sin City that he once drunkenly kissed one of his co-workers during his research venture in the North Sea.

Despite the upsetting revelation, Penny says she forgives Leonard for his transgression, and the pair heads to a random wedding chapel upon arrival. As they wait for their turn to exchange vows, Leonard receives a call from a bitter (and overly melodramatic) Sheldon who’s professing that all women are evil. Penny overhears the conversation, learning of the “Shamy” breakup, and calls Amy to find out if she’s okay. The talk doesn’t go particularly well when Amy asks if Penny can come over to her apartment to console her, forcing her bestie to tell her about the impending wedding. Considering current circumstances, Amy doesn’t take the news lightly, as she was not invited to the wedding.

Having only given Amy eleven hours, or as Sheldon puts it, “The length of the Lords of the Rings trilogy,” to make a decision over the state of their relationship, he corners her in the hallway as she tries to leave her apartment. Amy makes it clear that she still needs more time to think things over, and Sheldon becomes jealous over the fact that she was invited to the Wolowitz’s place to watch Leonard and Penny’s live streaming wedding, while he was not. Amy tells him that the decision wasn’t anything personal; the gang just wanted to avoid an awkward situation by having the two of them in the same room. Despite being blatantly shunned from the event, Sheldon turns up at the house anyway, deciding to watch the nuptials through the front window until someone decides to let him inside. Bernadette finally caves and opens the door as the ceremony commences.

Penny and Leonard share a sweet moment as the two exchange vows, but Sheldon’s bickering over Amy steals everyone’s focus back at the house. Cooper pushes his luck way too far with an insensitive remark, and Amy officially dumps him on the spot. By the time the argument concludes, the remaining people in the room look back at the screen only to realize that the wedding is already over.

The newlyweds head up to their hotel room to consummate their vows, but Penny spoils the mood by bringing up Leonard’s past indiscretion. Things only get worse when Leonard offhandedly mentions that the woman who he drunkenly kissed isn’t just a former colleague, but a present one with whom he sees every day. Penny and Leonard return to their apartment building that very night, parting ways into their own respective living places upon further arguing.

Though it has its fair share of chuckles, this season 9 premiere episode falls flat of viewers’ expectations. Fans waited eight years to see Penny and Leonard finally take that fateful walk down the aisle. ‘See’ being the operative word. And not only are we robbed of watching them say their “I do’s,” the entire runtime serves as nothing but melodrama that leaves us downcast. Given that this is a comedy above anything else, an episode showcasing the primary characters finally getting married shouldn’t make us frown more than smile.

Credit goes out to guest star Laurie Metcalf for her always hilarious appearance as Sheldon’s stanchly religious mother. As for the rest of the cast, everyone does their best with the material provided, but said material is that bland that not even Raj’s adorable accent can save it.

One’s wedding should be the happiest day of his/her life, and Penny makes it especially clear that this is not that day when Leonard and she are still in the car. Leonard has always been the loyal, honest boyfriend that Penny never had before, and that’s what she loves about him. Given this loss of trust in him that Penny unmistakably displays, what would possess her to go through with marrying him at this point? Time may heal all wounds, but getting married when your significant other just cut you is beyond ridiculous. And what is up with Penny’s hair? Anybody else notice that the front suddenly looks kind of gray? Who dyed it that color? Also, when did Stuart become a total creeper? Sure, he’s lonely, depressed, pessimistic, and completely down on his luck. He’s like the human equivalent of Eeyore. That’s why we love him, strangely enough. In “The Matrimonial Momentum” though, he suddenly tries embodying a younger Howard by making creepy advances on the newly single Amy. Yes, the level of discomfort is funny, but it’s completely out of character no less. Overall, The Big Bang Theory misses its mark, giving us a Big Thud instead.

Big Bang Theory: “The Matrimonial Momentum” Rating - C

Thursday, September 17, 2015

REVIEW: FX’s "The Bastard Executioner"

Right off the tail end of Sons of Anarchy’s series finale, showrunner Kurt Sutter wastes no time taking control of the conn in his next FX project where carnage, swordplay, nudity, and revenge rule the screen with 14th century Wales serving as the backdrop. Considering the man made murderous, gunrunning bikers likable–if not lovable, the tale of a wronged knight set out on a mission of rightful vengeance has all the ingredients to become an instant winner.

So why am I not impressed?

Though the late biker series gives Sutter undeniable clout to do as he pleases, Sons’  legacy casts a large shadow on anything the show’s creator would tackle thereafter–especially on his very next project. SOA can easily be called a 21st century classic, with its Shakespearean undertones, rich dialogue, dark storylines, an amazing, ensemble cast of character actors, and a magnetizing lead. Sutter seems to have abandoned this dynamite formula though for every cliché found in similarly toned projects. 

The Bastard Executioner centers on former knight Wilkin Brattle (played by newcomer Lee Jones) who has chosen to live quietly with his wife in the farmlands of Wales after being emotionally and physically scarred by the horrors of war. Forced into fighting in local rebellions against the hypersensitive Baron Ventris, Wilkin and his gang of bandits become public enemies. As a result, tragedy strikes, forcing Wilkin to assume the identity of a slain traveling executioner to exact his revenge against the men who wronged him.

That single paragraph sums up the entirety of the full two-hour pilot episode. Sound a bit padded for its runtime? That’s because it is. Not until the last fifteen minutes or so does the show finally grab your attention. The rest seems to be a test on our patience and ability to digest overused tropes. Giving the creative nature of Sons, it’s easy to get one’s hopes high before viewing Bastard. We expect those tropes to be twisted and turned over on their heads into something that we’ve never seen before. We expect brilliant characters that we immediately take a liking to, whether they be hero or villain. We expect the show’s execution to match the creator’s reputation.

And we get…none of that. 

For anyone remotely familiar to this genre, you’ll predict every single event at least two steps before it unfolds on screen. The story borrows all too by and large from Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood and Mel Gibson’s Braveheart. Newcomer Lee Jones has all the physical attributes to be a leading man, but his performance doesn’t evoke the same poignancy as Charlie Hunnam previously did. The rest of the cast isn’t particularly memorable either with the exception of Katey Sagal and Stephen Moyer who appear to be playing caricatures of their characters, and there’s virtually no levity in the script to uplift the constant grim atmosphere. Most disappointing of all is the key lack of character development. No matter how gritty and stylized the show may be, nothing substitutes character. Similar shows like Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth and Michael Hirst’s Vikings established themselves from the get-go with authenticity and well-crafted characters, making their stories worth devouring. Despite high hopes, Bastard’s premiere episode sadly reads as nothing more than an uninventive knockoff.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

"It Follows" Movie Review

As Jaime Kennedy pointed out so notoriously in Wes Craven’s Scream, you never have sex in a horror film…unless you have a death wish. It’s clear here in It Follows that some people didn’t get the memo.
"It Follows (poster)" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

The film opens with the panorama shot of a quiet suburban street at dusk before a young woman bursts outside the front door of her house in nothing but a nightie and high heels. Running frantically around the block from a threat unseen by the audience, she eventually races back inside her home to grab her car keys. The girl burns rubber as she floors the vehicle out of the subdivision, only stopping once she’s reached an isolated beach. With nothing but the lights from her car illuminating the nighttime scenery, the girl cries apologetically on the phone to her father, staring out at the unseen force. The scene cuts to black, opening back up to the following morning where the girl’s lifeless body lies in the sand. Considering the grisly state of her disjointed, mangled limbs, it’s made clear that this invisible entity isn’t a force to be taken lightly.

So what was after the girl? 19-year-old Jay (Maika Monroe) finds out all too well following a quickie in the backseat of her date’s car. Just when the pair’s date seems to be going well with their roll in the hay, heartthrob Hugh (Jake Weary) suddenly chloroforms Jay. She awakens bound to a wheelchair on top of an abandoned parking structure, where Hugh lays out the rules of the game.

Apparently, a demonic entity has been following him ever since he had a one-night stand with a random girl at a bar. The only way to rid yourself of the curse: pass it on to someone else by having consensual sex, leaving Jay in the starring role of the worst chain letter known to man. This shape-shifting monster only ever moves at a walking pace, but it’s unyielding. No one but those who have been tagged can see it. It never stops. It can’t be killed. And you are its sole target until it murders you in grisly fashion. To make matters worse, if you don’t pass it on and consequently die, then the previous victim is targeting again…and so on down the line back to the origin.

It Follows pays homage to classic horror films, à la John Carpenter’s Halloween. The time period to which the movie takes place is ambiguous. Everything from the fashion and vehicles to the use of corded landline phones gives the impression that we’re looking at the late-70s to early-80s, yet one of the characters is seen using a futuristic e-reader in the form of a make-up compact and another is using a cell. Director Robert David Mitchell’s use of wide-panned shots and continuous panorama views adds to the thriving fear wrought throughout the entire movie as audiences share in Jay’s constant state of paranoia as they, too, try to spot the unnamed wraith.

Since its screening at Cannes last year, It Follows has been hailed as the most terrifying movie in recent history. In all honesty, that’s not necessarily true. It’s really an unfortunate case of over-hyping, potentially leaving horror fans let down by the lack of blatant scares. Though some might be genuinely frightened by the movie while watching, the majority of viewers will find that it’s more about the impression the film leaves that makes it effective. It’s next to impossible not to become analytical over It Follows.

The premise of a demonic STD sounds hokey, and in the hands of typical horror filmmakers, the movie would be utterly ridiculous. Hollywood’s persona of young adults usually involves girls in provocative outfits, casual sex without consequence, infuriating jump scares, and torture-porn death scenes. What Robert David Mitchell does so beautifully with It Follows is present the audience with a contemporary film that just so happens to be a horror movie as well. The character of Jay never comes across as promiscuous, the supporting cast feels like a genuine group of teenage friends, there’s a surprising lack of gore, and there’s an interpretive message to take away from the feature.

Clever movies are far and few these days, and ones of the horror genre are almost nonexistent. The only point audiences takes away from most slashers and thrillers is to stay away from killers with bloody knives and to learn not to fall down while running away from someone chasing you. So when a film like It Follows comes along, it demands proper attention. Theories speculate that the movie is a metaphor for AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases while others think it’s a representation of coming to terms with growing into adulthood, and Mitchell’s lack of clarification on what it means only further drives our interest. Composer Rich Vreeland, a.k.a. Disasterpeace, also lends to the film with a masterfully crafted 80’s throwback-electro score. Its unique blend of shrill horns, pounding percussion, and an unsettling hive of buzzing catapults every scene with a new level of tension.

It Follows is undoubtedly smart, but at the same time flawed. That’s what makes the film even more intriguing. How could Hugh know the rules of the game if he didn’t even remember the name of the girl he slept with that cursed him? How did this STD even begin? These unanswered questions only demand more inquiry, and it’s quite the achievement that a film from the highly stigmatized horror genre provokes such a reaction.

It Follows Rating: A-

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Scream: The TV Series – Season Finale Recap & Review

And the killer is…

Wait for it…

Wait for it…

Lakewood’s bloodbath comes to an end but not before a few more residents bite the dust. Picking up right where we left off, Ghostface crashes the school’s Halloween party by hacking into the projection feed, showing the live video of Keiran’s father, Sheriff Hudson, bloody, beaten, and bound by the masked killer. To make matters worse, news hits that Seth Branson has escaped police custody and that a deputy was murdered during said breakout.

Emma’s mother demands that her daughter stay at the dance, given the heavy police presence there. She heads over to the precinct to examine the crime scene, where it’s clear that it’s been staged. Emma dials Keiran, but he ignores the calls as he oh-so suspiciously loads up his revolver inside his car. She tries reaching Brooke next with the same rotten luck as Noah attempts to trace the killer’s location via the hijacked video feed. Piper assures Emma that she’ll head over to Brooke’s place to make sure she’s okay. The podcaster warns Emma not to trust anyone as she heads out. Ghostface calls Emma, leaving her a trail of breadcrumbs to follow in regard to the Sheriff’s location. When she relays the message to her mother, the pair cracks the clue and races to Maggie’s old house where they find Sheriff Hudson bound and gagged against the tree where Brandon used to leave Daisy gifts. Maggie rejoices in the discovery that Hudson’s still alive, but the elation turns to horror as she cuts the binds holding him to the tree and all his intestines pour right out into her hands. Talk about spilling your guts…

Emma later receives word from Noah that malware is wreaking havoc on the local cell network, revealing why Brooke isn’t receiving any of Emma’s messages. Most unfortunate of all, Noah manages to triangulate the killer’s cell…to Brooke’s house in the midst of her party. Jake crashes the festivities, igniting a fight between him and Brooke. She storms off inside just before everyone outside at the pool flees the premises upon finding a fellow partier dead in the pool house. Audrey comes face-to-face with the killer, who slams her against the side of the house with a knife primed and ready to stab the teen.

Unbeknownst to the hysteria, Brooke eventually comes back out to the deserted poolside in disappointment, believing everyone simply bailed on her. She heads inside the house just as Seth Branson shows up, claiming that Ghostface broke into the precinct and killed the deputy in an attempt to frame him. Brooke doesn’t buy the story and locks him outside just before the lights go out around the pool. Brooke stares out at the darkness in confusion when the electricity returns and Ghostface appears in the place of Seth. She races away as the killer breaks down the door, and the girl hides inside her father’s unplugged chest freezer where he previously stored a dead drug addict’s body. Ghostface bests her by locking her inside and tossing the chest about before stabbing the freezer’s walls from every direction, cutting the girl. To make matters worse, the killer plugs in the freezer and leaves her to die.

Noah and Emma arrive on scene, coming across the abandoned property. To Emma’s utter horror, the pair finds Piper’s car parked outside with her phone and glasses on the ground and blood smeared across the driver side door. As they head up to the front porch, Kieran comes out from around the corner with his gun aimed at Emma. He lowers it immediately after realizing it’s her, but she doesn’t return the favor as she continues wielding a crowbar with intent to strike.

Confused, Kieran demands to know why Emma doesn’t trust him. She relays the message Piper gave her, claiming that he’s in fact the son of mass murderer Brandon James. He refutes the remark and claims ignorance to everything that’s happened tonight. Emma realizes that he hasn’t a clue about his father’s death and is forced tell him. He’s clearly distraught by the news and willingly surrenders his revolver to Emma as a sign of good faith. The three go inside Brooke’s house where they split up to find her. Emma and Kieran stumble upon a clueless Jake wandering back onto the property, unaware of the killer at large. The three hear banging coming from the garage where they find the locked freezer, freeing a shivering Brooke from the icy chamber.

Noah searches the poolside, coming across Audrey’s backpack and beloved camcorder. Assuming the worst, he screams in terror when Audrey suddenly startles him from behind after he comes across the dead partier. Seeing the knife wound on his friend’s arm, Noah asks what happened. Audrey claims she blacked out after running into the killer…who against all logic left her alive. Everyone safely gathers in the house, where Brooke informs Emma that there’s a working landline she can use to call for help. Kieran’s gun exchanges hands and eventually falls in Audrey’s possession as Emma receives a call from the killer on Brooke’s landline. Ghostface says he/she has Emma’s mom and leaves it up to the teen to figure out where. Given that the killer said earlier that this all ends tonight, she assumes it has to be at the dock where Brandon James was killed by the police back in the day.

Running through the woods, Emma surely discovers her mother bound and gagged on the pier. The killer corners her in by coming up from behind on the walkway, peeling off the mask at Emma’s demand. Surprise, surprise. It’s none other than Piper Shaw behind the Brandon James disguise. Apparently, she holds some grievances for Daisy being indirectly responsible for her father’s death and then later giving her up for adoption when half-sis, Emma, got “the perfect life.”

Piper’s plan is to set up Seth Branson, who she has tied up in the trunk of her car. Emma tries to attack Piper with the knife hiding behind her back, but Shaw’s wise to the plan and manages to slice Emma across the abdomen before she can strike. Maggie manages to free herself from her restraints and tackles Piper before she can kill Emma. The girls’ mother gets stabbed in the side though in the process, leaving the wounded Emma unguarded. The two share a struggle, but Piper ultimately gets the upper hand over Emma. The psychotic podcaster coos victoriously as she prepares to reveal a “big twist.” Suddenly, a gunshot blast sends Piper hurtling into the water. Audrey emerges from the woods with Kieran’s gun in hand, taking out Piper for good with a clean shot to the head when she emerges from the water.

All’s well that ends well…

Except it’s not the end. Not really.

Following the happy morning-after scene showing the survivors rejoicing in their victory, the character arcs come to a close. Emma and Kieran finally become an official couple, Seth Branson gets freed from police custody, Jake erases the spyware from his computer, and Noah wraps up Piper’s “Autopsy of a Crime” podcast for her listeners. Despite the case coming to a close, he expresses his suspicions as to the night when Will and Piper were both attacked. Did she make it all up? The audience knows better, having seen the incident firsthand. As Noah’s voiceover combs through the scene, Audrey’s shown to be burning a bunch of letters sent to her by…you guessed it, Piper Shaw, along with stolen police notes from the original Brandon James case.

This television adaptation of the famed franchise definitely delivers in its season finale, but there is some criticism that can’t go ignored. For those familiar with CBS’s 2009 mini-series Harper’s Island, the big reveal shouldn’t come as much of a shock. As previously stated, the similarities between Scream and executive producer and writer Jill Blotevogel’s previous work, Harper’s Island, are staggering. So when it came down to predicting Scream’s killer, it only seemed logical to think that it mirrored the other series. And that logic didn’t disappoint, because they share the exact same reveal in terms of Piper. As for Audrey’s unspoken compliance in the killings, it really just came down to commonsense. Was it really a twist? Not really. Are the unanswered questions really indecipherable? Not likely.

Given that Scream: The TV Series was originally planned to be a mini-series, not a full-length television show, there’s obvious concerns that extending this 10-episode plot will ruin the intrigue of what made it popular. If one was to predict future “twists,” it’s inescapable to think that Brandon James isn’t really dead and that Emma’s father was the original killer. Plus, considering Scream is a notorious slasher franchise, it seems hard to imagine how they can rack up the same body count from season to season if the show’s keeping the same cast, making the series redundant. If Scream adapted into an anthology like American Horror Story, giving audiences a new mystery with completely new characters each season, it would be easy to keep the pace and story in check. Sadly, that’s not the case here. The same case and characters will return each season. It’s in the series’ best interest to keep the show running for as long as possible, leaving us all to fear that the series will become an eventual, convoluted mess à la Pretty Little Liars. Be afraid, people. Be very, very afraid. Nevertheless, season one wrapped up with bloody satisfaction.

Scream: The TV Series - “Revelations” Rating: A -

"Scream TV logo" by MTV/Dimension - Own screenshot. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Fear the Walking Dead: “Pilot” Recap & Review

Unable to resist the homage to its big brother’s iconic opening, this series kicks off with 19-year-old junkie, Nick Clark awakening from a stupor inside the dwellings of an old, abandoned church-turned-drug-den. Groggily ambling about in search of his friend, Gloria, Nick calls out to her with no response. Making his way downstairs to the sanctuary, he immediately realizes there’s something wrong. Distant screams echo through the corridors and masses of blood soak the stairway railings. Fear seizes the youth as he comes across more and more mutilated bodies splayed throughout the downstairs before finally finding Gloria enjoying a fleshy snack behind one of the church pews. Donning the iconic Walker Eyes, the girl rises to greet Nick in the most horrifying way. The boy races from the scene, and we get a glimpse of downtown Los Angeles as Nick hysterically runs out into traffic, only to get hit by a car.

Following this white-knuckle opener, things come to a crashing halt as we’re introduced to the other main characters across town. Nick’s dysfunctional family greets the morning with plenty of melodrama to go around. Smarty-arty sister, Alicia, exhibits a perpetual scowl as her high school guidance counselor of a mother (Kim Dickens) flirtatiously canoodles with live-in boyfriend, Travis (Cliff Curtis) before the family gets the news of Nick’s accident.

Believing to be out of his mind, Nick refuses to cooperate with the police as they interrogate him from his hospital bed over the ravings he made earlier about all the blood and viscera he’d seen. Given Nick’s long history of substance abuse, everyone assumes the young man hallucinated the whole thing, including his family as they arrive at the hospital.

Later at school, more evidence of the impending apocalypse comes forth as Nick and Alicia’s mom, Maddie, makes mention to the low number of children attending. Apparently, a mysterious “flu” runs rampant throughout the U.S., but everyone seems to turn a blind eye to the potential threat. Maddie confiscates a knife from a paranoid teen, demanding to know why he felt the need to bring it. Instead of taking solace in the counselor with who he seems to have a good rapport, the teen simply makes an ominous mention of everyone’s imminent doom, leaving the conversation completely void of any useful details. Gee, thanks a pantload, kid.

Travis decides to check out the ramshackle church Nick ran from earlier, seeing the same blood and viscera…minus the bodies. Instead of calling the police (like a smart person would), Travis tells Maddie about his discovery. In all absurdity, Maddie brushes off the murderous rampage as nothing more than typical druggie behavior. When Nick’s roommate at the hospital dies, he uses the distraction to escape, forcing Travis and Maddie to go out and find him.

Chaos around the city continues to rise as more and more people go missing, including Alicia’s boyfriend. A police shootout is captured on film of 5-O trying to take down a Walker, which gets leaked over the internet. Again, everyone assumes the video is just a hoax. Meanwhile, Nick meets up with an old friend, Calvin, at a local coffee shop. This supposed clean-and-sober pal has actually been selling Nick and others drugs for quite some time, and Nick begs him for some dope so that he can forget about what happened at the church. Afraid that Nick ratted to the police about him, Calvin promises to supply Nick with the drugs and drives him out to the L.A. River with the intent to kill him. The plan backfires though when Nick becomes wise to the plan. The two struggle to gain possession of Calvin’s gun before Nick shoots in self-defense. Maddie and Travis meet up with Nick, coming across Calvin’s re-animated corpse. When Maddie and Travis refuse to believe that he’s actually a zombie, but merely hurt, they confront Calvin. The Walker attacks the pair before Nick repeatedly plows over Calvin with Travis’s truck.   

When weighing this spin-off series to the visceral nature of its predecessor, the pilot episode of “Fear the Walking Dead” is undoubtedly underwhelming. Does that make it bad? Not exactly. It’s simply rocking a different tempo, more akin to True Detective’s slow-burn approach. The downside to this style change might deter some TWD fans though who are looking for a more exhilarating ride from start to finish. Let’s face it, the series premiere to The Walking Dead was far more memorable and compelling. And with viewers’ knowledge of what this future world of Walkers will look like and the rules necessary to survive in it, Fear runs the potentially fatal risk of being repetitive. Plus, the “everyman” status of all the main players who are clearly not connected to the initial cause of the Walkers will make it harder for fans to get the true origin story. Plenty of television series and films gloss over the beginning stages of contagion for a reason. Audiences generally hunger for nail biting intensity woven into the infection plot, and it’s hard to balance that entertainingly with the contemporary setting and characters still living seemingly normal, mundane lives. 

One show that nailed this patient zero-outbreak plot with brilliant execution would be FX’s The Strain. Mixing the stories of everyday civilians with the group of doctors who are up close and personal to the vampiric infection running rampant, the series shows the slow unraveling of society along with the brilliant mystery behind the epidemic with continuously solid, scary, well-paced episodes. Though it’s too early to judge Fear the Walking Dead on its overall value, the pilot clearly lacks this desired effect. Plus, several red flags already wave even with just one episode aired. If Walkers are already out and about, then why hasn’t anyone really seen them with the exception of one video? Did they all just run…or, um, walk into hiding? It’s pretty safe to say that the Walkers don’t really care about displaying showmanship to scare folks at the opportune moment, so the fact that the general population hasn’t seen any of them in this age of technology is clearly just convenience for the writers. Plus, everyone seems abundantly dimwitted as to what’s happening around them with the exception of Nick, the freaking drug addict! In times of survival, if the junkie seems like the most capable out the bunch, it’s about time you find yourself a new group to roll with.

 Fear the Walking Dead: “Pilot” Rating - C

"Fear The Walking Dead title card" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.