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Cheap Thrills (2013/I)
A great examination on how far people are willing to go for money!, 17 April 2014

'CHEAP THRILLS': Four and a Half Stars (Out of Five)

Dark comedy/horror film about two down on their luck friends who are lured into participating in a rich couple's twisted games. It was directed by first time film director E.L. Katz and written by David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga; all three have previous experience in the horror genre (Katz has written and co-written multiple fright flicks for directors like Adam Wingard). One of the highlights of this movie is it's cast; which includes Pat Healy, Ethan Embry, David Koechner and Sara Paxton. I found it to be a cut above most of it's kind (especially coming from a rookie filmmaker).

Healy stars as Craig, a husband and father who recently lost his job and was served with an eviction notice for his apartment. He now desperately needs $4,500 to keep a roof over his family's head. Embry plays an ex-con\old friend of Craig's, named Vince, who he hasn't seen in five years. The two run into each other at a bar and catch up on old times while Craig also shares his recent bad news. They're approached by an extremely rich couple, named Colin (Koechner) and Violet (Paxton), who invite them to party with them for Violet's birthday. The couple find entertainment in asking others to do degrading things for them (for money); so they're easily able to talk Craig and Vince into doing disgusting things for their amusement. Their demented games lead the four back to Colin and Violet's place where things become more and more sick and violent.

The movie is a great character study and examination on how far people are willing to go for money (especially those in need). It's also an impressive analyzation on how money and power (having it all) desensitizes and corrupts those that have it. What I liked most about the film is that Colin and Violet never seem mean or forceful; they're always polite and friendly and only let Craig and Vince fall into darkness of their own free will. In that way there is no villain in this movie (except society and human nature itself) and that's why it's one of the most impressive comedy/thrillers in it's genre. The cast (like I said) is all exceptional, the script is brilliant and the first time director shows a lot of promise. Definitely not for the squeamish but those who like black comedies and disturbing horror flicks will love it!

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Brittany Murphy deserved a better swan song!, 16 April 2014

'SOMETHING WICKED': Two and a Half Stars (Out of Five)

This ultra-low budget horror flick will probably be most well known as being Brittany Murphy's last film. It was also shot entirely in Eugene, OR (in April of 2009 through June of that same year; just months before Murphy's death in December), and made on a budget of just $3 million! It's finally being released (five years later) and it wasn't worth the wait. I had no idea that Murphy's career had hit such a low; that she was resorting to doing supporting roles in really bad B slasher flicks (and she, like the rest of the cast, is pretty terrible in the movie). Like almost all fright flicks it does have it's pluses too though and the ending is killer (even if the rest of the movie is painful to watch).

Shantel VanSanten stars as Christine, a young college student who was just admitted to 'Oregon University' in Eugene (I'm assuming they mean University of Oregon). John Robinson costars as her fiancé James, who makes a living working at a local sawmill. As the film opens James asks Christine's parents (Betty Moyer and Lance Rosen) for their blessing to wed their daughter (over dinner). They say the young couple must wait until Christine is done with school (which really upsets James and Christine). Then, while James (being the designated driver) is driving them all home, their car is struck by a train and Christine's mother and father are killed. The story then flashes forward multiple months when Christine is now attending school (as planned) and being stalked and terrorized by someone. Could it be another student, her obsessive police officer brother Bill (James Patrick Stuart) or Christine's parents back from the grave (making sure she follows their wishes). Murphy plays Bill's wife and Christine is now living with the couple as well.

The flick was directed by Darin Scott (who's directed a few other micro budget slasher films, like 'DARK HOUSE' and 'CAUGHT UP') and written by Joe Colleran and Joseph Mungra (the two also collaborated on the film 'THE American GANDHI'). It does seem like it was made by people with little to no experience (in making movies) and felt awfully amateurish (almost like a Syfy Network flick). I did really dig the ending though and although VanSanten sucks most of the movie she is memorable in the film's climax (and sexy throughout, especially the ending). I have to give the movie some credit since it was accomplished on such a low budget and filmed in my home state of Oregon (it also features a cameo by a friend of mine, Broderick Boyd, as a valet). It is a bad film but it's not horrible. Brittany Murphy was a much better actress than this though and deserved a better swan song.

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Oculus (2013/I)
1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Horror films are the best investment!, 16 April 2014

'OCULUS': Three and a Half Stars (Out of Five)

Another successful low-budget horror film; this one was directed and co-written (with Jeff Howard) by Mike Flanagan and based on his 2006 short film 'OCULUS: CHAPTER 3 - THE MAN WITH THE PLAN'. It tells the story of a brother and sister who witness supernatural occurrences in their home (as kids), which cause the death of their parents, and later try to prove it all wasn't just in their heads (as one was sent to a mental institute for the crimes). The film stars Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane. Like a lot of low-budget scary movies the flick is creative and packs a decent amount of 'gotcha' moments but it is rather slow paced, though.

The film revolves around Kaylie (Gillan) and Tim Russell (Thwaites). As children, eleven years earlier, (played by Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan) they witnessed their father, Alan Russell (Cochrane), kill their mother, Marie Russell (Sackhoff), and Tim was forced to kill their dad in self defense. They believed their dad was under the influence of a demonically possessed antique mirror and they told authorities this. Tim was sent to a mental institute and grew up believing they had created the whole supernatural story in their heads. Then when he's released from the institute his sister Kaylie is determined to prove their story is true.

The movie is pretty dark and disturbing; not a ton of actual violence or gore but it is gruesome when it does hit the screen. It's pretty frightening at times as well and for a $5 million production it's extremely impressive; the film made nearly it's entire filming budget back on the first day of it's theatrical release. That's why I always say horror films are the best investment. This movie definitely isn't one of the best low budget thrillers I've ever seen but it's decent and I think Flanagan has a lot of talent and a decent future ahead of him. The performances aren't all that great but the characters and story are intriguing. It's also slow paced (like I said) but it should deliver what most fans of the genre are expecting to see.

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I don't have much of an interest in cars; still I enjoyed the movie., 10 April 2014

'NEED FOR SPEED': Three and a Half Stars (Out of Five)

Another car chase/race movie that's also a video game adaptation! This one is loosely based on the 'Need for Speed' game series (specifically 'Need for Speed: The Run' and 'Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit'). It stars Aaron Paul as a street racer, who was just released from prison, out to avenge his friend's death (which was caused by a rival racer). The movie was directed by Scott Waugh, who also directed the 2012 war film 'ACT OF VALOR' (and there's even a shot of the DVD in this movie). It was written by George and John Gatins (John has also written or co-written such hit films as 'FLIGHT' and 'REAL STEEL'). I found the movie to be flawed but more entertaining than a lot of car and video game flicks.

Paul plays Tobey Marshall, an ex-race car driver who now owns a garage (in New York) where he and his four best friends fix up performance cars. Business is slow though and Tobey and his crew must also street race at night (to make enough money to get by). While times are especially rough Tobey also takes a job from a rival racer, named Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), to finish building a rare Ford Shelby Mustang (that they sell for $2.7 million). Tobey and Dino then make a racing bet, for the other's share of the profits, in which Tobey's friend Pete (Harrison Gilbertson) also competes. Pete is killed during the race when Dino taps his car (trying to get by). Dino then flees the scene and creates an alibi; letting Tobey take all the blame for his friend's death (and go to prison for two years). When Tobey is released he vows revenge, which includes a plan of competing in an underground cross-country race called the De Leon. The movie also costars Imogen Poots, Rami Malek, Ramón Rodríguez, Scott Mescudi and Michael Keaton.

The film was a bomb domestically (making just over $40 million) but a hit worldwide (grossing nearly $185 million, so far). It cost $66 million to make and it shows; the effects are great (it was also released in 3D) and the race scenes are spectacular. I think any automobile enthusiast should be thrilled with it. I'm not sure how faithful the flick is to the video games it's based on but I don't think that probably really matters (to most fans). None of the performances are that good, except for maybe Keaton (who has some bad lines but also some great delivery). I thought it was pretty fun overall (especially compared to others in it's genre). My big problem with movies like this is they glamorize reckless driving though; they make heroes out of characters that jeopardize many other lives in order to fulfill their 'need for speed'. It's the equivalent of a movie that makes drunk drivers heroes (on a moral level). I also don't have much of an interest in cars; still I enjoyed the movie though.

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Renny Harlin used to be a decent action flick director!, 9 April 2014

'THE LEGEND OF HERCULES': Two and a Half Stars (Out of Five)

Director Renny Harlin's big screen adaptation of the classic Hercules story (one of two theatrical films this year based on the mythical character; the next is directed by Brett Ratner and stars The Rock). This $70 million production stars Kellan Lutz in the title role and costars Scott Adkins, Gaia Weiss, Roxanne McKee, Liam Garrigan, Liam McIntyre and Johnathon Schaech. It was written by Harlin, Sean Hood, Daniel Giat and Giulio Steve. The movie was a bomb at the box office (making just over $44 million worldwide) and I can see why. It's extremely dry and mostly boring; with a few decent action scenes throughout though.

The story begins in 1200 B.C. ancient Greece when Queen Alcmene (McKee) makes love to the God Zeus; in order to give birth to a demigod that's promised to overthrow the evil rule of her husband, King Amphitryon (Adkins). The baby is named Alcides by his father (who despises him, knowing he's not his son) and Hercules by his mother (in secret). Herules (Lutz) grows up to be a strong and kind prince who does not know his true origins. He loves Hebe (Weiss) but she's betrothed to his older brother, Iphicles (Garrigan), and Hercules is sent off to do battle in Egypt (prior to their wedding). Once there Hercules and the other soldiers, led by Captain Sotiris (McIntyre), are ambushed and Hercules is believed to have been killed (back home). He then must do battle as a gladiator type slave (in several arena fights) before earning his freedom and finding his way back to Greece. Once home Hercules must decide whether to follow his destiny or not.

For a $70 million film it looks pretty ugly; the effects aren't that great and the performances are pretty weak. I do like Scott Adkins and he makes a great villain but Lutz and most of the rest of the cast are horrible. Lutz does look the part but he doesn't possess one-tenth of the charisma and character that The Rock does (I'm really looking forward to seeing that version of this story). Harlin used to be a decent action flick director (back when he did movies like 'DIE HARD 2' and 'CLIFFHANGER') but lately he definitely appears to be just a hack. None of the characters are likable in this film and the action scenes aren't at all exciting or fun to watch. The film is mostly just a bore; it's not horrible but it is pretty dull.

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Bad Words (2013)
Jason Bateman is a very talented director and I'm glad he's able to finally follow his dreams!, 8 April 2014

'BAD WORDS': Four and a Half Stars (Out of Five)

Jason Bateman makes his feature film directorial debut with this dark comedy about a 40-year-old, that never finished the eighth-grade, who sets out to win a spelling bee (due to a loophole in the admittance guidelines). Bateman also stars in the movie; which co-stars Kathryn Hahn, Rohan Chand, Philip Baker Hall and Allison Janney. It was written by first time film writer Andrew Dodge and produced by Bateman as well (with three others). I found the movie to be surprisingly distasteful at times but ultimately hilarious and a good character study (with a positive message, in the end). It's highlighted by Bateman's performance and impressive directing skills though.

Bateman plays Guy Trilby, a 40-year-old who is able to enter a National Quill Spelling Bee due to the fact that he never finished the eighth-grade (and the entry rules only require that participants haven't finished the eighth-grade before a certain date). Hahn plays Jenny Widgeon, an online news reporter who sponsors Trilby's spelling bee run (in order to secure an interview with him on why he's doing it). Chand plays a fellow spelling bee contestant who befriends Trilby (and Trilby introduces him to his carefree lifestyle). We don't find out Guy's true motives for entering the spelling bee until the end of the film but it is inspired by something from his past.

The movie reminded me a lot of the film 'BAD SANTA' (in style and humor) and both flicks are about a morally questionable adult befriending and influencing a young child with his wild way of life. It's not quite as nasty as the classic Billy Bob Thornton Christmas movie but it is full of inappropriate and crude jokes (often involving minors). Like 'BAD SANTA' the film does have a lot of heart though (in the end) and it's an inspiring story because of it (while also remaining hilarious). I really enjoyed it mostly because of Jason Bateman, he's one of my favorite actors and I absolutely love his comedic delivery. He also shows he's a great director (with this movie) and just an all around talented guy. I just read a quote from him in which he said "I'm only acting to create the kind of relevance or capital necessary to get a directing job...It's really the only reason I've been acting for the last 20 years of this career." I hope he doesn't ever quit acting (at least not anytime soon), because he's amazing at it, but he's also a very talented director and I'm glad he's able to finally follow his dreams.

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On a pure action movie level it is the best of the Marvel superhero films!, 7 April 2014

'CAPTAIN America: THE WINTER SOLDIER': Five Stars (Out of Five)

Sequel to the 2011 hit Marvel Comics superhero flick 'CAPTAIN America: THE FIRST AVENGER' and the ninth installment in 'THE AVENGERS' film franchise. It picks up two years after the end of 'THE AVENGERS' movie with Steve Rogers still working for S.H.I.E.L.D. (and living in Washington D.C.) when he discovers a terrorist plot inside the agency. He has to team up with Black Widow, and a new ally called Falcon, in order to stop the threat. The movie was directed by Anthony and Joe Russo (who are best known for directing TV shows like 'COMMUNITY' and films like 'YOU, ME AND DUPREE' and 'WELCOME TO COLLINWOOD'). It was written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who also co-wrote the first one). I found it to be immensely entertaining and well made; on a pure action movie level it is the best of the Marvel superhero films!

The action begins when a S.H.I.E.L.D. ship is hijacked by Algerian pirates. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a.k.a. Captain America, leads a team into rescue the hostages while agent Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), a.k.a. Black Widow, retrieves important data from the ship's computers. Rogers was unaware of Romanoff's plan and is angered by her jeopardizing the mission. He later learns, from Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), that the data has to do with something called 'Project Insight', in which three Helicarriers are to be used to eliminate potential threats to S.H.I.E.L.D. (using spy satellite intel that they're linked to). After Fury is targeted by crooked S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, led by an assassin known as 'Winter Soldier' (Sebastian Stan), he informs the Captain that the agency has been compromised and gives him the thumbnail drive (with top secret information on it). Rogers then finds his own life in danger as well and has no one to trust (or turn to), except his 'Avengers' ally Black Widow and a new friend named Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), a.k.a. Falcon.

The cast also includes Robert Redford, Frank Grillo, Cobie Smulders and the stunningly beautiful Emily VanCamp. It's action packed and full of intense suspense driven drama. The stakes feel much higher in this movie than the prior film (or 'THE AVENGERS') and the whole thing is totally engaging and involving (with enough humor thrown in here and there to make it really amusing as well). The CGI is surprisingly light for a Marvel superhero film and the Russo brothers did a great job of giving it that classic action movie/political thriller feel. I like that it has a completely different style than the first one (and any other 'Avengers' movies) and really think it's arguably the best in the franchise (at least as far as action flicks go). I like the real world political commentary (it's obviously a critique on using drone strikes for targeted killing) and it does seem a lot more believable and reality based than most other films in it's genre. It's always funny (though) that none of the other superheroes are around when the world is in great danger (in these individual superhero movies); you'd think the other Avengers would want to be there when something very serious happens to a mutual friend and everyone's lives and well being are placed in harm's. It is a comic book movie though and that's to be expected I guess.

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Noah (2014)
12 out of 33 people found the following review useful:
Usually nonbelievers are the best choices for doing God's work., 4 April 2014

'NOAH': Four and a Half Stars (Out of Five)

Darren Aronofsky's big budget epic fantasy film based on the classic biblical story of 'Noah's Ark'. It stars Russell Crowe as the title character and co-stars Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, Ray Winstone, Douglas Booth, Leo McHugh Carroll and Anthony Hopkins. Aronofsky directed and co-wrote the flick with Ari Handel; who has served as a producer on four of Aronofsky's films (including this one) and also co-wrote another extremely ambitious epic fantasy film (with Aronofsky) called 'THE FOUNTAIN' (which also dealt with similar themes, including faith and spirituality). I found this movie to be a very interesting and visually spectacular take on the beloved religious tale.

Aronofsky of course takes a lot of artistic liberties with the rather short bible passage and expands it into a 2 hour and 18 minute ($125 million budgeted) film! It centers around Noah (Crowe) having a vision of life on Earth's destruction (through a coming flood) and feeling he's been called on, by God, to save all it's innocent creatures (the animals, excluding humans). He builds an ark, with his family, to save two of every animal from extinction (a male and a female, so they can procreate). He finds opposition from humans, lead by King Tubal-Cain (Winstone), who want his vessel for themselves. Noah acquires support from angels though, trapped on Earth as rock people, punished by God for disobedience long ago. His faith and love (for his family) are put to the ultimate test when he must decide whether to follow all of God's wishes or not.

The movie has been heavily criticized (by some religious groups) for the creative liberties it takes with it's source material (while being praised by other church goers) but the only changes the film actually makes to the original bible story are expansions of details and things no one could possibly know the accuracy to or not. It's possible that Aronofsky was called on, by God, to tell this story (just like Noah was called on to do his bidding in the tale he's trying to tell); no one can honestly claim to know how truthful the film actually is (to history). It's true that Aronofsky is not a Christian (or a jew) but usually nonbelievers are the best choices for doing God's work (as they're usually less corrupted and more pure of heart). Regardless of whether you believe this story to be true or not (or a complete work of fiction) it's still a great film and an inspiring, thought provoking, story. It's perhaps a little too ambitious and not as involving or beautifully touching as Aronofsky's best work but that's the nature of the project he's chosen to undertake. The performances are great (especially Crowe) and the flick is a very memorable near masterpiece at any rate.

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Enemy (2013)
6 out of 9 people found the following review useful:
Directed with great Hitchcockian style!, 3 April 2014

'ENEMY': Four and a Half Stars (Out of Five)

Jake Gyllenhaal stars in this Hitchcock style thriller directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Javier Gullón. It's based on the 2002 book ('The Double') by José Saramago. The story revolves around a school teacher who becomes obsessed with finding his doppelganger, after seeing him in a movie. Gyllenhaal plays both characters and it's his second time working with Villeneuve; after last year's critically acclaimed 'PRISONERS'. The movie also costars Mélanie Laurent and Sarah Gadon (who are both beautiful and good in the film). I found the movie to be very compelling and extremely involving; highlighted by another stellar performance from Jake Gyllenhaal (one of my favorite actors).

Gyllenhaal plays Adam Bell and Anthony St. Claire in the film. Adam is a college history teacher and Anthony is an aspiring actor and the two are physical doppelgangers of each other (looking and sounding exactly alike). Adam discovers Anthony as an extra in a film he rents one night (due to a recommendation from another professor). After internet searching his apparent double Adam becomes obsessed with Anthony and begins stalking him. He calls him several times, causing Anthony to threaten to call the police, but eventually he persuades him to meet. When the two do meet their lives are suddenly forever changed and so are their loved ones (Laurent and Gadon).

The film doesn't have a lot of action or any conventional suspense but it always seems gloomy and dramatically intense. It's directed with great Hitchcockian style and the performances are all good (especially Gyllenhaal). I can't say the story is really that interesting but the way it's presented is totally intriguing (thanks largely to the fact that I cared so much about the characters). That's what truly makes it memorable; how much you become obsessed with the people in the movie (just like they become obsessed with each other). There are some truly classic images as well and it's a film I can't wait to see again. It leaves you with a lot to think about and figure out, and you'll probably never quite do it, but you'll love trying to!

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Sabotage (2014)
3 out of 22 people found the following review useful:
Arnold should start doing roles more like the ones that Clint Eastwood did at his age!, 3 April 2014

'SABOTAGE': Five Stars (Out of Five)

Arguably Arnold Schwarzenegger's best movie in twenty years is this gritty crime thriller directed by David Ayer and written by Ayer and Skip Woods. Ayer has made a career out of writing, co-writing and or directing gritty and dark cop movies like 'TRAINING DAY', 'END OF WATCH', 'HARSH TIMES' 'DARK BLUE', 'S.W.A.T.' and 'STREET KINGS'. Woods has written or co-written such popular action flicks as 'A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD', 'THE A-TEAM', 'X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE' and 'SWORDFISH'. The two together have made a soon to be beloved Schwarzenegger cult classic (one of the best movies of his career). He has a lot of support though; from co-stars like Sam Worthington (Arnold's upcoming 'AVATAR 2' co-star, written and directed by his long time buddy James Cameron), Terrence Howard, Olivia Williams, Joe Manganiello, Max Martini, Mireille Enos, Josh Holloway and Harold Perrineau (Holloway and Perrineau are both well known from the TV show 'LOST'). The film has Schwarzenegger heading a badass DEA task force that finds themselves being killed off, one at a time, after a drug cartel robbery goes wrong. Arnold heading up an elite macho team reminded me a lot of 'PREDATOR' and the flick has a strong Tarantinoesque feel to it as well. I just absolutely love this movie!

The story begins with veteran DEA agent John 'Breacher' Wharton (Schwarzenegger) leading his team into a drug bust on a cartel warehouse. They steal $10 million off the top of a stash of drug money (they secure inside) and hide it in sewer pipes beneath the warehouse. The money they stole goes missing, when they go back to collect it, and Breacher and his task force are suspended (while they're investigated for the crime). After several months of being followed (and questioned) the case is dropped and the DEA agents go back to work. That's when they start getting killed off, one by one, most likely by someone who knows what they did (or even one of their own team). Special investigators, Caroline Brentwood (Williams) and Darius Jackson (Perrineau), are assigned to find their killer.

I've been saying for years that Arnold should start doing roles more like the ones that Clint Eastwood did at his age (nearly 20 years ago); he is a good actor and an iconic movie star (like Eastwood) and his film career could take a similar path now. I think this is the perfect vehicle for him to start doing that (I could totally see Eastwood in this same role) and he's got a lot of great help to do it with! You couldn't ask for a better supporting cast than Worthington, Howard, Holloway, Manganiello, Williams and the others (they're all perfectly cast in the movie) and their characters are all memorable. The film is gritty, extremely dark, and full of clever and witty dialogue (everything Arnold needs in a comeback movie right now). The flick is more of a suspense driven character study and crime mystery (with plenty of twists) than an action film but it's a highly entertaining and well made one. It also has plenty of gruesome violence and gore (for action lovers) it's just not action packed; the action scenes are really well done though. It of course hasn't done well at the American box office, so far (like all of Schwarzenegger's recent films), but I think it will become a popular cult movie in coming years and it is a great comeback for Schwarzenegger (and exactly what he needs in his career right now)!

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