St. Vincent: Well Worth the Watch

Posted in 7, Comedy, Drama, New Releases, Ratings, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , on October 20, 2014 by mducoing

St VincentWriter/director Theodore Melfi has delivered a fun, often heart-felt film that is at its very least an entertaining time. But the film’s ability to channel the truth about certain characters and engage audiences will truly be its lasting achievement.

Premise: A recently latch-keyed child finds an unlikely friend and with a strange misanthrope next door. Result: A bit clichéd in terms of general story but some great performances, a fun script and a memorable resolution will keep this film afloat.

Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) and his mother Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) are down on their luck. Fleeing a cheating husband, Maggie has taken her adoptive son, plopped him in a local Catholic School with Brother Geraghty (Chris O’Dowd) and on a hapless route to latch-key neglect.

Next door, wallowing in booze and cynicism is Vincent (Bill Murray), a dime-store curmudgeon supposedly focused on nothing more than his gambling, boozing, whoring and complaining.

In a world where things go well, these two creatures, the precocious Oliver and the horrid Vincent, would never meet. But the world isn’t perfect, and in what can only be described as a desperate, catastrophic lack of judgment, Maggie allows Vincent to become Oliver’s babysitter. A paid babysitter.

But desperation is a real alibi in today’s world and so when Vincent takes the boy to bars, race tracks and interacts with a pregnant hooker named Daka (Naomi Watts), it is easy to overlook these massive, almost criminal faults and instead focus on the friendship that these two begin to forge.

Vincent teaches Oliver to defend himself (a tactic that works well against local bully Rob Ocinski -Dario Barosso) and appears, not just on the surface, to actually care for the boy. But Vincent is a cranky blotto, so the world doesn’t always see past the crass comments and the salty sensibilities.

This happened.

This happened.

And so the power of the film is the ability to see a man for what is more than the surface, to realize that we are more than the sum of our sins; we are the culmination of those right choices, those voices out of humanity and kindness that are forever overlooked.

The acting in the film helps us move past some clichéd moments. Murray is perfect as always, channeling his industry-leading curmudgeon like with Phil (Groundhog Day) and Frank Cross (Scrooged) and delivering someone we love to hate but hope to love.

McCarthy is also quite strong, allowing herself to play understated on the big screen, a role that is as precious as unicorns and just as delicious. Watts is actually quite funny in her role as preggers McHooker and certainly adds some sentimental value as the scenes march on. And even O’Dowd, whose comedy sometimes resembles the trajectory of a one-trick pony, is wonderful, hilarious in every scene and a remarkable spot-on addition.

But, of course, the film would not have been the same without Lieberher, whose performance is stunning. This is not an Oscar-winning performance, by any means, but more because of the material than the performance. Lieberher is hilarious, precocious, and perfect in every scene. By the end there should be a line to be this kid’s babysitter.

In the end, St. Vincent has a few unique twists and a heartfelt, tear-jerker resolution that is well-earned. It is not necessarily one for the ages like many of Murray or McCarthy’s other films, but it is well worth the attention. Funny from beginning to end, and poignant when it needs to be, St. Vincent is a devilish good time…it’s a great time -_-

Rating: 7- A refreshing Champagne that a cute bartender comp’d you!

Grand Budapest Hotel: A Fun, quirky Caper. Yes, Caper. Why Are You Looking at Me Like That?

Posted in 7, Comedy, Drama, Independent, New Releases, Ratings, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , on October 20, 2014 by mducoing

Grand BudapestGrand Budapest Hotel, like most of director Wes Anderson’s (Moonrise Kingdom, The Royal Tenenbaums) other films, is quirky almost to a fault. It focuses on a semi-autistic perception of reality and a quirky aesthetic that are uniquely his. And so, for whatever reason, this caper works quite well.

Premise: A legendary concierge at a famous hotel and his hapless but loyal lobby boy become trusted friend through adversity. Result: A fun, strange mystery that rises to one of Anderson’s better films; whatever that means.

Those who are not typically fans of Anderson films should steer clear. His films are uniquely his own, almost painfully so. And so this film is perhaps even more so than most; there is a genuine sense that Anderson has placed his heart and soul into this film, that his point-of-view is inherently present in every frame.

The film is a caper, in every sense of that word, even its bizarre, amusing sound as it trips off the tongue. This comical murder mystery is the story of M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and his loyal-to-a-fault lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori). It appears that Gustave has been having his way with Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), an older, wealthy patron to his hotel and her son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) wishes to see him destroyed for his supposed role in her demise.

There is the love interest role of Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) and Zero, of course, to complicate matters and the strange Deputy Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum) who ventures too far, and whose undertakings help give the film the maudlin gravity it needs to march onward through all the peculiar.

Ultimately, the film is a fun and the visuals and comic quirks are better than expected. There are far fewer lulls than some of his previous works and the story itself is less about the story and more about the characters, the awkwardness, and the humor that drives it all forward. And this is both expected and pleasing.

The acting overall is spot on for this type of film and there is an all-star cast that cannot be overlooked (Anderson’s cunning use of Most Favored Nations gets him the best casts possible with the tightest budgets.)

Specifically, Fiennes demonstrates why he is a master actor, capable of incredible range and nuance as his odd character requires. Revolori is strong in his role, allowing audiences to get behind him and champion his various causes. Ronan, as always, is a splendor on screen, delivering a strength and melancholy that is unmistakable and deeply powerful.

In the end, Grand Budapest Hotel is a fun time. Anderson is a master of a sub-genre he has ostensibly created and he continues toe excel. It is also the most accessible of all his quirky films since and will feel so. Is it the best film of the year, no? But admittedly at certain moments it may feel like it.

Rating: 7 – A refreshing Champagne that a cute bartender comp’d you!

Annabelle: More Hype Than Horror

Posted in 5, Horror, New Releases, Ratings, Reviews, Thriller with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 19, 2014 by mducoing

AnnabelleDirector John R. Leonetti (Mortal Kombat: Annhilation) and writer Gary Dauberman have delivered a sort of prequel to James Wan’s acclaimed The Conjuring. Yet despite Wan’s production credit, Annabelle delivers little of the terror and intrigue to which we are accustomed.

Premise: A doll, possessed by a demon, terrifies a young couple. Result: This felt scarier when it was anything else.

When the conjuring introduced a story of a malicious demonic doll, it gave audiences the taste of terror and then adroitly introduced the true concept of that film. But with Annabelle, a cardinal rule in horror was broken: never over-promise. In this case, Annabelle was far more terrifying as a brief vignette than as a feature length film.

We have Mia (Annabelle Wallis) and husband John Gordon (Ward Horton). He is a doctor and she is pregnant; yet she also suffers from a terrible disability: the inexplicable desire to collect grotesque antique dolls. Really, it all stems from this one misstep, an error we would think would be easy to avoid.

But not Mia. She wants that horrifying doll. So when her neighbors Sharon (Kerry O’Malley) and Pete Higgins (Brian Howe) are slaughtered at the hands of her own daughter and boyfriend – members of a Satanic cult (of course!) – they find no better place to possess than a hideous, terrifying doll-beast that already looked possessed long before any demons went near.

And so we have the rest of this film, the struggle between Mia and an abomination as it tries to steal her soul. The doll becomes somewhat incidental throughout the film and often is more a prop than central character (despite it being the name on the title). The struggle stems across many months and multiple LA locations. A priest -Father Perez (Tony Amendola), a kindly neighbor – Evelyn (Alfre Woodard), and a zealous, intrigued detective Detective Clarkin (Eric Ladin), all pile on to round out a cast that delivers a plot, somewhere.

It would be unfair to say the film is without scares; there are many. Most notable is the scene in the basement of apartment that is likely to leave many observers with some sleepless nights. And the stairwell scene depicting ever more horrifying scenes of truck-laden catastrophe should not be overlooked.

But the problem with this film is that it lacks uniqueness and worse, “feels” derivative. Déjà vu would be a kind as a description; Annabelle is a vacant cinematic event, dressed up with a few chills and some strong cinematography.

The acting, thankfully, manages to nullify some of the hackneyed dialogue. Wallis is strong in her constant, tormented state and Horton certainly helps to deliver the supportive, confused husband.

The supporting cast is far more interesting in this film, however, if only incidentally. Amendola is great as the ever watchful priest, although he is disappointing once things get tough. And Woodard, well, she just needs better material. She is just better than this.

In the end, Annabelle is a horror fan’s fool’s errand. It lacks the punch and shock we would expect and its plot and resolution feel incomplete and, frankly, lazy. In the end, Annabelle is something better left out with the recycling.

Rating: 5 – A luke-warm Pinot Grigio

Dracula Untold: Surprisingly Watchable

Posted in 7, Action, Horror, New Releases, Ratings, Reviews, Sci Fi/ Fantasy, Thriller with tags , , , , , , on October 13, 2014 by mducoing

Dracula UntoldNew director Gary Shore was faced with a frightening uphill battle from moment one: making a vampire movie long after vampire movies had once again gone dormant (honestly people, between Twilight and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, it is a wonder this film wasn’t outlawed). But despite this, Dracula Untold is actually, well, not bad.

Premise: Facing threats to his kingdom and his family, Vlad deals with the Dark Master Vampire. Result: A fairly fun, well-paced thriller that is far better than expected.

Long ago, when the Turks ruled much of Eastern Europe, the Sultan required one thousand Transylvanian boys to be trained as Turkish soldiers as a sign of loyalty. Viciously molded into monstrous fighters, the most prominent among them was “Vlad the Impaler”. This intro is delivered to us with rather poor, ponderous narrative exposition and threatened to derail the film even before it started.

Fortunately, we fast forward to a grown Vlad (Luke Evans), now husband to Mirena (Sarah Gadon), father to Ingeras (Art Parkinson) and Prince to Transylvania. He rules in peace now but after searching for some lost Turkish scouts near Broken Tooth Mountain, Vlad and some soldiers discover a horror in the caves that threatens the delicate balance in his lands.

Although it is evident that the lost Turkish scouts are the doing of this creature, the new Sultan Mehmed (Dominic Cooper) is angered and suspicious and demands the invocation of the ancient tribute of one thousand boys, including young Ingeras. A hopeless war appears the only option, yet this would surely end in death and destruction.

And so desperate and disconsolate, Vlad takes the test of the monster, a Master Vampire (Charles Dance) cursed to the shadows; he has three days to use the creature’s power to destroy the Turkish armies, save his family as well as to resist blood, or else fall victim to the curse himself.

Despite some slippery scenes and a healthy helping of cliché, the film is actually fairly enjoyable. The story focuses on the nuances of the Dracula tale, of a good man turned evil not by his desires for darkness, but his wish to save others from it. Audiences should be well engaged throughout, eager to see how each battle will end and how the nightmare will resolve.

MasterVampireThe mood and thrilling pace Shore delivers are delightful. He manages to give us a fairly complete story in a relatively short time, keeping us watching without vast chasms of boredom.

Realistically, the film is more a supernatural action than a true horror film, but for the most part, although limited, the terrifying parts are precisely that, terrifying. The monster Vlad becomes has a certain inescapable eeriness and the Master Vampire itself, looming in the cave, is quite frightening.

The acting is also good, helping the characters avoid catastrophe, a fate so many of these films find inevitable. Evans’ performance his exhilarating and heartfelt, and it is truly remarkable that he is able to stick to chomping blood rather than the scenery. Gadon and Parkinson are both emotionally strong as well; and Cooper, the one closest to falling into complete melodrama, survives it adeptly in the end.

Dance, of course, is the crown jewel of it all, a terrifying, and mesmerizing horror on screen. He is both elegant and monstrous, heightening the tension with each moment.

In the end, Dracula Untold is a fun, sometimes frightening romp with a familiar story delivered differently. While the final moments of the film may be cringe inducing, the battles are exhilarating, the story interesting, and overall a time well spent.

Rating: 7- A refreshing Champagne that a cute bartender comp’d you!

A Walk Among the Tombstones: No Better Than the C-Block on the Ten O’Clock News

Posted in 6, Action, Horror, New Releases, Ratings, Reviews, Thriller with tags , , , , , , , on October 12, 2014 by mducoing

A Walk Amomg the TombstonesWriter/director Scott Frank adapts the Lawrence Block novel delivering a fairly mediocre time. Filled with low-impact “shocks” and storylines that seems like store bought clichés at best, Walk never really delivers on its intended promise..

Premise: Ex-cop Matthew Scudder is hired by a drug dealer to find out who kidnapped and murdered his wife. Result: A lot pf built up anxiety never quite pays off.

Matt Scudder (Liam Neeson), retired after an incident at work, is now in the “favors for money” business. Skulking about New York with a five-o’clock shadow, an AA-halo, and a hard-earned melancholy, Scudder knows the darkness of the streets and won’t let anyone forget it. So when fellow recovering addict, Peter Kristo (Boyd Holbrook), encounters him, it is not long before that shadowy persona comes to haunt him.

Peter’s brother, Kenny (Dan Stevens), it turns out, has recently lost his wife at the hands of some monstrous abductors. And so, despite his best efforts, Scudder is drawn into a web of mystery and horror, festering in the New York underbelly

At least, that is what it is meant to feel like. Realistically, we are confronted by the isolated tale of two lunatics, Ray (David Harbour) and Albert (Adam David Thompson) who abduct, violate and murder women for a particular, bizarre purpose. The grapplings between them and these make-shift, reluctant vigilantes – Scudder, the hapless Kristos and some weird but intriguing support from precocious young sleuth TJ (Astro)- seems far more like something that could happen on screen, rather than happen in real life.

Of course, it has all the typically trappings of a color-by-number thriller: first, the woeful ex-cop backstory, the reason our anti-hero turned out so maudlin; this plotline is at best, superfluous. Second, the creepy thriller plotline itself, that does a wonderful job of setting audiences up for a payoff that never comes; at every turn we are built up to expect horror beyond horror, and instead are provided with death and motives that would shock the Amish.

Honestly, not scary even when they actually walk among the tombstones

Honestly, not scary even when they actually walk among the tombstones

True, it is a testament to our collective cynicism that murder just doesn’t have its edge anymore, but it is impossible to watch this film without feeling like for weeks a surprise has been built up only to get socks and your Dad’s used copy of Hustler, the one with the centerfold torn out (watch 8MM if you want the same feel with more payoff).

A third plotline manifests, the buddy cop template, where Scudder befriends an orphan, or some type of street urchin, with all the making of a Sherlock Picasso. Why that plotline is there, who knows, but sadly, in a film about horror, it may be the only thing worth watching.

Fortunately, the acting in the film is pretty good. We all know Neeson can raspy-voice-bully any enemy and we will still watch enraptured. Stevens is strong in his role as vengeful husband; Holbrook in his role as recovering crack-whore (honestly, what is with this stretch of roles recently? Does he just not want to shave or shower? Is he even acting anymore??)

Thompson and Harbor are spooky and their creepy on screen musings do make for an eerie time. Astro may be the most intriguing, unique part of the film, however. While it is not clear why this character is in the movie at all really, we are glad he is, considering how nuanced, powerful, and memorable Astro’s performance is. But really, maybe a spin-off where TJ finds out who stole Suzie’s cheerleader outfit might be more appropriate.

Big picture, Walk is a miss. Not a big miss, mind you, but a miss nonetheless. It is uninspired and bogged down trying desperately to be more than it is. The mood is well cultivated, the story fair, and the acting good so all in all a fair time, but sadly Walk just doesn’t live up to the shock of what we can see for free on the news.

Rating: 6 – A mediocre Prosecco that a cute bartender served you

The Fault in Our Stars: Worthy Waterworks

Posted in 8, Drama, Ratings, Reviews, Romance with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 11, 2014 by mducoing

Fault in Our StarsDirector Josh Boone works with writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber to adapt the touching and impactful John Green novel and have delivered a genuine emotional whirlwind worthy of the buzz. The film celebrates those moments most of us take criminally for granted and delivers happiness as experienced by the relatively few.

Premise: Hazel and Gus are two teenagers who share a journey through life on the brink of death, making their bond stronger than imagined. Result: A beautiful must-see experience with all the emotional impact and none of the cliché.

True Love, for those few to whom it ever reveals itself, appears uninterested in timing. No greater example of this is that of our darling, ever-ill young Hazel (Shailene Woodley), who literally lazurused her way into Love’s arms without the slightest realization.

Of course, her path wasn’t clear at first; coming back from Death’s door is depressing when you constantly loom on its porch and front yard, never quite knowing when you’ll be beckoned within. And the maudlin support groups and depressing social interactions (as limited as they are) sometimes make one wonder about staying alive at all.

Fault3That is until Gus (Ansel Elgort) comes along in that way only the wonderfully irrational can and manages to be charming and obsessive at the same time. Forcing Hazel from her shell by showering her with friendship, affection, unwanted advice and insisting that she be called “Hazel Grace” (even though that name just somehow doesn’t work at all), the two begin that long journey into forbidden love. And juxtaposed with their friend Isaac (Nat Wolff), who incidentally is goes blind and loses his girlfriend due to that, things suddenly seem a little less awful, even for a moment.

And so Fault in Our Stars is far more than just a story about teenagers who find Love for that fleeting moment before they are taken too young. The film, like the story, transcends cliché and painful melodrama. Instead, it is ripe with real reactions, outcomes, horrors, agony and true heartfelt joy. The relationships they build are fragile yet genuine and somehow more powerful than anything most people would encounter in a lifetime.

Their love, their pain, the pain of Hazel’s parents – Frannie (Laura Dern) and Michael (Sam Trammell)- , the cruelty of a ruined Van Houten (Willem Dafoe) and support of an inadvertent advocate in Lidewij (Lotte Verbeek) help keep the emotional roller coaster as grounded as it is emotionally overwhelming. Their struggle, lifted through fantastic direction from Boone and an excellent script from Neustadter and Weber, is alive on screen. The story manages to feel real and somehow perfect at every step of the way, drawing audiences into a complicated relationship with the characters that leave each of us deeply vulnerable.

The acting is superb. Woodley is elegant and powerful in her brooding manner and generates an undeniable authenticity. She is moody and exhausFault2ted and everything you expect from her character and much more. Elgort delivers a performance of stunning variety and complexity, powering through his scenes with veteran management of nuance and poise.

Wolff leads a secondary cast of characters that help keep the film afloat and he does so with remarkable aplomb, making us care about him, not just his situation. Dern and Trammel are excellent and Dern, in particularly, reaches down deep to give us those few moments of stunning vulnerability that sock us in the collective gut. And DaFoe is just as powerful as someone we will ultimately despise and even pity.

The resolution of Fault in Our Stars alone is worth the watch. It brilliantly encapsulates the Love these two young creatures have for one another in the face of a terrifying darkness. It will give us all courage, and Hope, a feat that itself is uncommon.

Rating: 8 – An expensive red wine and juicy steak

Gone Girl: Psycho Has Never Been So Thrilling

Posted in 9, Drama, New Releases, Ratings, Reviews, Thriller with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2014 by mducoing

Gone GirlDirector David Fincher (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Social Network) has done it again. Working with Gillian Flynn to adapt her acclaimed novel, the two have made on- screen magic by delivering a mesmerizing thriller that stays true to the book.

Premise: With his wife Amy’s disappearance, Nick Dunne is the center of a media firestorm, worsened only when it is suspected, he may have been responsible. Result: A chilling view of Love, from the Twilight Zone.

At the heart of every true love story, lies a terrifying evil. This, at its most basic, is the notion of Gone Girl, a story as much about true Horror as it is about true Love. What works so well in the film, is its genuine proximity to the book, and thus to the brilliant psychological analysis that infuses each moment.

The film begins with a furtive, ethereal plant about not knowing what a spouse is thinking juxtaposed with not-so-coincidental talk of murder: this as Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) muses over his wife Amy’s (Rosamund Pike) head, and what method would be most desirable to find out what is inside. Those few moments, the languid lines, the carefully chosen words, the unreadable glance all represent the gray area, the ambiguity, the human complexity that works so well throughout.

The next few scenes clumsily shift between the present and a diary account of the past; there is something initially strange in the jarring back-and-forth. Yet, soon after, the film lulls us into a false sense of confidence, a soothing pattern of straight-forward murder mystery.

Where Everybody Knows Her Name

Where Everybody Knows Her Name

But it is not long before we find we know nothing at all, as Nick’s true character is splashed upon the screen for all to see; for his twin Margo (Carrie Coon) to lament; for his in-laws, Rand (David Clennon) and Marybeth (Lisa Banes), to reproach; for the police – led by Detective Bones (Kim Dickens) and Officer Gilpin (Patrick Fugit)- and the media led by witch-hunter Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle) to scrutinize; for opportunists like Andie Hardy (Emily Ratajkowski) and Noelle Hawthorne (Casey Wilson) to obsess over.

The film is a brilliant depiction of humanity at its worst, yet shrouded in the ordinary. It will be this roller coaster ride of emotional mayhem that will last far longer than the film itself, the very trauma of watching madness at its most logical, most normal, and most decadent.

The acting in the film is spot on: Pike is perfect as Amy with every shade of madness and reason billowing on screen; there is no moment that we do not sense her rage, her cunning, her struggle, and her power. Affleck, for his part, is a wondrous fool on screen, managing to hypnotize audiences with his charisma and his cruelty; he effectively comes across as monster, victim, and “he who gets what he deserves”.

Coon and Dickens are wonderful as the sensible women on screen, acting on behalf of the audience who will either be desperate for some normalcy, or to deny how like the Awful they are. In that vein, they will love to hate Neil Patrick Harris as Desi Collings, the perfectly understated manipulator he is.

Oh and Tyler Perry in the movie as Tanner Bolt. I suppose they had to screw something up.

In the end, the Gone Girl story beautifully morphs into cinematic form, channeling all the essential nature of the book while giving a thrilling pace to the events. The twists and turns are as horrifying on screen as they are on the page, yet despite the nightmare om screen, audiences won’t want it to end.

Rating: 9 –  An expensive red wine and juicy steak that someone else is paying for and where you don’t have to put out

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