Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
The Guest is insanely inventive and gleefully manic, a madly energetic psychological thriller with pizazz and spunk. The film is built on a simple premise: a man arrives as a guest in someone’s home but doesn’t seem to be who he says he is. The story turns out to be much more grandiose and funny than that set-up insinuates, however, allowing the characters to appropriately embrace the absurdity and humor that would derive from such a tense, hostile situation. The titular visitor is David (Dan Stevens), a recently discharged soldier returning from Iraw to his hometown. He doesn’t have a place to stay so he hopes that going to the Peterson family’s house won’t be too much trouble. Their son passed away during the war months ago, and David served with him. Maybe he’ll be able to bridge that mourning period for the family and help them through their suffering. 
The Peterson family has an interesting group of members that all take kindly to David: the mother (Sheila Kelley) likes David because he’s telling her all about her son and she can live through his experiences; the father (Leland Orser) is struggling to move up in his workplace and likes to have a buddy with whom he can drink and talk sports; the daughter, Anna (Maika Monroe), begins to crush on him after he joins her for a party and seems to be the coolest cat in the room; and the son, Luke (Brendan Meyer), likes him because David kicks the asses of his bullies and gives him sound advice for future situations. The problem with all of them growing high on David? He’s not who he seems to be. That’s the central struggle at the heart of the film, with something clearly wrong with David through his lies and vicious anger issues. When the military gets involved and a unit led by Carver (Lance Reddick) begins to enter their town to investigate, things escalate quickly. 
Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett have now paired for two excellently subversive romps on well-worn genres. Their previous effort, You’re Next, is a hilarious and viciously told horror entry, proving that the genre can indeed be sparked with new life when taken differently down a familiar path. The Guest plays on many of the same strings: the story is straight out of ’80s B-movie heaven, with the mysterious man with a particular set of skills creating a hostile force in a family unit. But David is seemingly superhuman for much of the film, able to withstand excessive amounts of alcohol, drugs, and violence with pretty rapid recovery. It’s funny to see how calmly he handles situations since it resembles a charming, handsome robot destroying everything in his path. Dan Stevens sells the role perfectly and commits wholly, giving David a likable edge that goes crazy in the final half hour. 
The story grows too nonsensical during its conclusion, tying together loose ends with seemingly bigger questions. Yet it remains engaging because of the performances and the self-aware nature of its narrative. One of the best scenes in the film involves an ode to a scene earlier, when the patriarch of the Peterson family complains that his boss is going to give a higher-up position to someone else when he deserves it more. Later, he comes home with a somber face and tells the family that his boss apparently committed suicide. It’s all somber until he tacks on at the end that the bright side is that he’s going to get promoted. The film plays these horrible actions for laughs because a self-conscious story needs a bit of humor to feel original. The Guest is sporadically comparable to efforts like The Stepfather and Jacob’s Ladder, two serious films from vastly different genres that get at the idea of an unwelcome invader and military experiments, respectively. Yet instead of paying homage, the story sticks up a big middle finger to those stories and tells its own twisted narrative. 
Grade: ★★★★ (out of 5)

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.

The Guest is insanely inventive and gleefully manic, a madly energetic psychological thriller with pizazz and spunk. The film is built on a simple premise: a man arrives as a guest in someone’s home but doesn’t seem to be who he says he is. The story turns out to be much more grandiose and funny than that set-up insinuates, however, allowing the characters to appropriately embrace the absurdity and humor that would derive from such a tense, hostile situation. The titular visitor is David (Dan Stevens), a recently discharged soldier returning from Iraw to his hometown. He doesn’t have a place to stay so he hopes that going to the Peterson family’s house won’t be too much trouble. Their son passed away during the war months ago, and David served with him. Maybe he’ll be able to bridge that mourning period for the family and help them through their suffering. 

The Peterson family has an interesting group of members that all take kindly to David: the mother (Sheila Kelley) likes David because he’s telling her all about her son and she can live through his experiences; the father (Leland Orser) is struggling to move up in his workplace and likes to have a buddy with whom he can drink and talk sports; the daughter, Anna (Maika Monroe), begins to crush on him after he joins her for a party and seems to be the coolest cat in the room; and the son, Luke (Brendan Meyer), likes him because David kicks the asses of his bullies and gives him sound advice for future situations. The problem with all of them growing high on David? He’s not who he seems to be. That’s the central struggle at the heart of the film, with something clearly wrong with David through his lies and vicious anger issues. When the military gets involved and a unit led by Carver (Lance Reddick) begins to enter their town to investigate, things escalate quickly. 

Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett have now paired for two excellently subversive romps on well-worn genres. Their previous effort, You’re Next, is a hilarious and viciously told horror entry, proving that the genre can indeed be sparked with new life when taken differently down a familiar path. The Guest plays on many of the same strings: the story is straight out of ’80s B-movie heaven, with the mysterious man with a particular set of skills creating a hostile force in a family unit. But David is seemingly superhuman for much of the film, able to withstand excessive amounts of alcohol, drugs, and violence with pretty rapid recovery. It’s funny to see how calmly he handles situations since it resembles a charming, handsome robot destroying everything in his path. Dan Stevens sells the role perfectly and commits wholly, giving David a likable edge that goes crazy in the final half hour. 

The story grows too nonsensical during its conclusion, tying together loose ends with seemingly bigger questions. Yet it remains engaging because of the performances and the self-aware nature of its narrative. One of the best scenes in the film involves an ode to a scene earlier, when the patriarch of the Peterson family complains that his boss is going to give a higher-up position to someone else when he deserves it more. Later, he comes home with a somber face and tells the family that his boss apparently committed suicide. It’s all somber until he tacks on at the end that the bright side is that he’s going to get promoted. The film plays these horrible actions for laughs because a self-conscious story needs a bit of humor to feel original. The Guest is sporadically comparable to efforts like The Stepfather and Jacob’s Ladder, two serious films from vastly different genres that get at the idea of an unwelcome invader and military experiments, respectively. Yet instead of paying homage, the story sticks up a big middle finger to those stories and tells its own twisted narrative. 

Grade: ★ (out of 5)

Anonymous: Hi, Eric. I was wondering, are you going to TIFF ? I really want to know you opinion on the movie The Theory Of Everything, the Stephen Hawing biopic starring Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones.

I unfortunately am not. I live in Arizona and attend school year-round so I don’t have time/money to make it to Toronto. I wish I could! I’ve heard nothing but great things about The Theory of Everything. 

I am hoping to attend Sundance in January, though, so that would be a tremendous experience if I can make it happen. Here’s hoping!

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
When Dolphin Tale was released back in 2011, the based-on-a-true-story film got generally favorable reviews that led to a moderate box office success. It was a modestly budgeted film that made almost $100 million worldwide, triggering immediate production on a sequel. I wasn’t a particular fan of the first entry, since I thought it was exploitative and simplistic in its approach to wounded animals and made the audience feel bad rather than care about the people at the heart of the story. More of the same ensues in Dolphin Tale 2, only that it feels cheaper, more rudimentary, and aggressively dumber than its predecessor. As a children’s film, it delivers occasional chuckles from the silly actions of the animals, but for parents it’s a mind-numbingly repetitive and basic children’s story without a semblance of how narrative momentum works. The made-for-television feel only accents how thin and cardboard-like the story and characters are. 
The film tells the story of Sawyer (Nathan Gamble), a boy who works at the aquarium that features Winter, the dolphin from the first film. Sawyer works with Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.) and his daughter, Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), both of whom want the best for the animals and hope to make Winter happy. But when her longtime companion in sanctuary dies, she becomes depressed and aggressive, retaliating against the trainers and appearing unhinged. Because dolphins must have a companion and they seemingly cannot find another to go along with Winter, the USDA (not the one that monitors meat products, mind you) threatens to move Winter to another aquarium in 30 days if a replacement is not found. Sawyer’s also been offered a position to go on a Boston whale program for 12 weeks through the city’s university, an opportunity for him to advance his education. But that would mean leaving his post, which further complicates matters. 
Having a kid as the protagonist and heart of the film makes for a woefully underdeveloped emotional core. Gamble isn’t a terrible actor, but when he’s given cheesy lines to deliver during every exchange, it feels forced and insincere. If anyone has an allergy to milk products, they might want to avoid the film due to all of the cheese coming from the story and characters. Nonetheless, the narrative does have some merits: the advocation of releasing animals back into the wild if they are self-sufficient is a strong message, and the address of animals in captivity still being wild represents a cautionary, important declaration. Yet the film never takes chances and plays the story safe, particularly during laborious montages that should sum up a scene in thirty seconds but last four to five minutes. The editing for the film wants to bring together every character reaction and leave nothing to the imagination. It’s exhausting. 
Director Charles Martin Smith gives the film a woefully melodramatic feel, creating hyper-drama from scenes that should be underplayed. A musical score dominates every dramatic moment in the film, telling the audience to FEEL rather than feel. There’s also a dreadfully induced product placement scene in the middle of the film, with a MUG Root Beer can in every shot that a character speaks, only for them to end the scene by saying, “Thanks for the root beer.” Shots of Pepsi products later in the film only accent the amount of money the company must have spent to obviously advertise. It’s frustrating that there’s probably a strong story somewhere within all of this mess; maybe a tale of companionship and loneliness for animals in captivity and the way we, as humans, must protect them only when necessary. Dolphin Tale 2 doesn’t concern itself with that, only reminding audiences that some children’s films have the feel of ABC Family or Disney Channel rather than Disney or Pixar. 
Grade: ★½ (out of 5)

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.

When Dolphin Tale was released back in 2011, the based-on-a-true-story film got generally favorable reviews that led to a moderate box office success. It was a modestly budgeted film that made almost $100 million worldwide, triggering immediate production on a sequel. I wasn’t a particular fan of the first entry, since I thought it was exploitative and simplistic in its approach to wounded animals and made the audience feel bad rather than care about the people at the heart of the story. More of the same ensues in Dolphin Tale 2, only that it feels cheaper, more rudimentary, and aggressively dumber than its predecessor. As a children’s film, it delivers occasional chuckles from the silly actions of the animals, but for parents it’s a mind-numbingly repetitive and basic children’s story without a semblance of how narrative momentum works. The made-for-television feel only accents how thin and cardboard-like the story and characters are. 

The film tells the story of Sawyer (Nathan Gamble), a boy who works at the aquarium that features Winter, the dolphin from the first film. Sawyer works with Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.) and his daughter, Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), both of whom want the best for the animals and hope to make Winter happy. But when her longtime companion in sanctuary dies, she becomes depressed and aggressive, retaliating against the trainers and appearing unhinged. Because dolphins must have a companion and they seemingly cannot find another to go along with Winter, the USDA (not the one that monitors meat products, mind you) threatens to move Winter to another aquarium in 30 days if a replacement is not found. Sawyer’s also been offered a position to go on a Boston whale program for 12 weeks through the city’s university, an opportunity for him to advance his education. But that would mean leaving his post, which further complicates matters. 

Having a kid as the protagonist and heart of the film makes for a woefully underdeveloped emotional core. Gamble isn’t a terrible actor, but when he’s given cheesy lines to deliver during every exchange, it feels forced and insincere. If anyone has an allergy to milk products, they might want to avoid the film due to all of the cheese coming from the story and characters. Nonetheless, the narrative does have some merits: the advocation of releasing animals back into the wild if they are self-sufficient is a strong message, and the address of animals in captivity still being wild represents a cautionary, important declaration. Yet the film never takes chances and plays the story safe, particularly during laborious montages that should sum up a scene in thirty seconds but last four to five minutes. The editing for the film wants to bring together every character reaction and leave nothing to the imagination. It’s exhausting. 

Director Charles Martin Smith gives the film a woefully melodramatic feel, creating hyper-drama from scenes that should be underplayed. A musical score dominates every dramatic moment in the film, telling the audience to FEEL rather than feel. There’s also a dreadfully induced product placement scene in the middle of the film, with a MUG Root Beer can in every shot that a character speaks, only for them to end the scene by saying, “Thanks for the root beer.” Shots of Pepsi products later in the film only accent the amount of money the company must have spent to obviously advertise. It’s frustrating that there’s probably a strong story somewhere within all of this mess; maybe a tale of companionship and loneliness for animals in captivity and the way we, as humans, must protect them only when necessary. Dolphin Tale 2 doesn’t concern itself with that, only reminding audiences that some children’s films have the feel of ABC Family or Disney Channel rather than Disney or Pixar. 

Grade: ½ (out of 5)

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Tom Hardy and the late James Gandolfini deliver excellent performances in The Drop, a cutthroat thriller that feels like a narrative unsure of its tone and how to handle its supporting characters. The film shines when it allows those two actors to occupy the screen at once. They are dynamic, versatile forces, the latter of which is sorely missed, particularly when he plays ruthless men connected with the mob. Unfortunately, much of the film’s underlying elements never mesh with the appropriately compact narrative: the underutilized female character (yes, the entire film has a single one) and the ethnic villains feel like tacked-on additions that don’t work with the layered male leads. It’s unfortunate considering the enigmas that Hardy and Gandolfini play, both given room to breathe and create life in their roles. Enough of the film is suspenseful and compelling to work through those kinks, yet it prevents The Drop from achieving loftier goals. 
The story centers on Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy), a Brooklyn native that works at Cousin Marv’s Bar. The Marv (James Gandolfini) from which the bar gets its name made a mistake down the line and no longer owns his establishment, but still runs the day-to-day operations alongside Bob, who acts as a bartender and responsible manager of the joint. Their bar occasionally functions as a place for “drops,” where mob members drop off money to be put in a safe located underneath the hardwood until the end of the night, when it is then delivered directly to the mob and business moves along as usual. One night, a robbery goes awry that leads to the loss of $5,000, sparking an investigation that ultimately becomes cumbersome for everyone involved. Detective Torres (John Ortiz) involves himself with the criminal study and notices something is wrong but cannot pinpoint what exactly. 
Then there is concern surrounding an abused puppy that Bob discovers when walking home from work. The puppy was placed in a garbage can outside of Nadia’s (Noomi Rapace) home; she treats Bob as an unwelcome visitor but ultimately they start a friendship vicariously through the dog. The original owner of the little pit bull, Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts), is a psychopath ex-boyfriend of Nadia’s that torments Bob in his pursuit of his animal. The film remains consistently busy with its plot but never feels bloated, primarily because all of the problems stem from a select few characters. Bob stands within almost all of the film’s conflict, and Hardy puts on a magnetic performance that towers over the film and its effectiveness. He provides Bob with a kindness and a secret looming underneath his calm demeanor; he attends church everyday and cares for the dog passionately, signs that point to a good man, but nothing is as it seems. 
The Drop gels masterfully, particularly when Hardy and Gandolfini occupy a scene together. Gandolfini brings his traditionally strong persona to a man working with the mob but allows Marv to become his own maniacal creation. Director Michaël R. Roskam works well in getting strong performances from his male characters, with Schoenaerts also delivering an impressive supporting turn. The film is often framed appropriately but utilizes awkward camera tricks in close-ups and blurry effects. The film’s biggest offense, however, comes from delegating Rapace to such a graceless, bland role as Nadia, creating a cardboard character with no distinct characteristics outside of how the men define her. It’s frustrating considering her known talents. Tonally the film becomes wonky in its conclusion since it employs comedy that creates an awkward dynamic. Regardless of those missteps, The Drop remains an enjoyable, surprising character study with impressive performances. 
Grade: ★★★ (out of 5)

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.

Tom Hardy and the late James Gandolfini deliver excellent performances in The Drop, a cutthroat thriller that feels like a narrative unsure of its tone and how to handle its supporting characters. The film shines when it allows those two actors to occupy the screen at once. They are dynamic, versatile forces, the latter of which is sorely missed, particularly when he plays ruthless men connected with the mob. Unfortunately, much of the film’s underlying elements never mesh with the appropriately compact narrative: the underutilized female character (yes, the entire film has a single one) and the ethnic villains feel like tacked-on additions that don’t work with the layered male leads. It’s unfortunate considering the enigmas that Hardy and Gandolfini play, both given room to breathe and create life in their roles. Enough of the film is suspenseful and compelling to work through those kinks, yet it prevents The Drop from achieving loftier goals. 

The story centers on Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy), a Brooklyn native that works at Cousin Marv’s Bar. The Marv (James Gandolfini) from which the bar gets its name made a mistake down the line and no longer owns his establishment, but still runs the day-to-day operations alongside Bob, who acts as a bartender and responsible manager of the joint. Their bar occasionally functions as a place for “drops,” where mob members drop off money to be put in a safe located underneath the hardwood until the end of the night, when it is then delivered directly to the mob and business moves along as usual. One night, a robbery goes awry that leads to the loss of $5,000, sparking an investigation that ultimately becomes cumbersome for everyone involved. Detective Torres (John Ortiz) involves himself with the criminal study and notices something is wrong but cannot pinpoint what exactly. 

Then there is concern surrounding an abused puppy that Bob discovers when walking home from work. The puppy was placed in a garbage can outside of Nadia’s (Noomi Rapace) home; she treats Bob as an unwelcome visitor but ultimately they start a friendship vicariously through the dog. The original owner of the little pit bull, Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts), is a psychopath ex-boyfriend of Nadia’s that torments Bob in his pursuit of his animal. The film remains consistently busy with its plot but never feels bloated, primarily because all of the problems stem from a select few characters. Bob stands within almost all of the film’s conflict, and Hardy puts on a magnetic performance that towers over the film and its effectiveness. He provides Bob with a kindness and a secret looming underneath his calm demeanor; he attends church everyday and cares for the dog passionately, signs that point to a good man, but nothing is as it seems. 

The Drop gels masterfully, particularly when Hardy and Gandolfini occupy a scene together. Gandolfini brings his traditionally strong persona to a man working with the mob but allows Marv to become his own maniacal creation. Director Michaël R. Roskam works well in getting strong performances from his male characters, with Schoenaerts also delivering an impressive supporting turn. The film is often framed appropriately but utilizes awkward camera tricks in close-ups and blurry effects. The film’s biggest offense, however, comes from delegating Rapace to such a graceless, bland role as Nadia, creating a cardboard character with no distinct characteristics outside of how the men define her. It’s frustrating considering her known talents. Tonally the film becomes wonky in its conclusion since it employs comedy that creates an awkward dynamic. Regardless of those missteps, The Drop remains an enjoyable, surprising character study with impressive performances. 

Grade: ★★ (out of 5)

technojournee: Do you have any thoughts on TIFF's premiere policy changes? I've read many sides citing possible effects on the sale and distribution of films during the festival, economic implications, and Oscar buzz being split between Telluride and TIFF, etc. Because I'm purely a film spectator, I feel that premiere status doesn't matter, but I sense that the policy change means fewer buzzworthy films will play at TIFF :/

The whole Telluride/Toronto battle for supremacy has been going for the past few years, but it got crazy last year when Telluride started showing films that were supposed to have their world premieres at Toronto the next week. That made the festivals hostile toward one another, but they mutually made some changes this year that I think benefit the both of them. This Variety article sums it up well: http://variety.com/2014/film/news/new-toronto-fest-strategy-puts-telluride-on-the-defensive-in-awards-buzz-films-battle-1201286444/

Personally, I think the festivals will find ways to maximize their premieres and studios will choose different festivals depending on their type of film. Telluride usually has more populist choices and Toronto is full of plenty of press to cover the smaller, awards buzz-heavy films. The policy changes are so confusing but I’m sure each festival is going to make the most of what they can do. 

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
When did films with teenage leads become so woefully simplistic and nonsensical? Innocence falls into the excessive batch of supernatural young adult films that doesn’t develop characters, fails to tell a consistent narrative, and underutilizes talented actors in supporting roles. The film opens with a tragedy as most of these stories do, with Beckett Warner (Sophie Curtis) spending time with her mother and father on the beach. While surfing, her mother goes underneath a wave and never comes back. A family gathering quickly turns into a mournful afternoon. To escape the tragedy, her father, Miles (Linus Roache), and Beckett move to Riverdale and she becomes enrolled in the exclusive Hamilton Preparatory School. Here, the colors of the film shift to dark, ominous blacks and grays, signifying that something is wrong with Beckett’s developing education. 
When moving, she runs into Tobey Crawford (Graham Phillips), a young man with the face of a lost puppy and the emotional range of a brick wall. Tobey and Beckett fall in love because…well, that kind of thing doesn’t need an explanation, does it? The characters just need to meet cute, which in this case involves Beckett encountering some strange ghost in a closet before turning around to see Tobey. Outside of that romance, though, Beckett begins to feel exhausted and sickly in the school, leading to a meeting with the nurse, Pamela (Kelly Reilly). She wants to help and prescribes Beckett some pills, and also decides to start dating Beckett’s father because he’s lonely and the story needs conflict. Characters join in loving embraces as if they are robotic beings with no semblance of emotion. The story demands that since it underlies the whole “something is really wrong with this place” vibe. Explanations are pushed to the side in the wake of shock value and completely incidental discoveries. 
My favorite discovery probably lies in Beckett entering a house that was seemingly left unlocked, only to trip over a vacuum and hit against a mirror. In doing so, a picture falls out from behind the mirror that explains everything. Whenever I have a secret and I want to hide it from people, I usually tuck it away behind a tangible object that needs a simple nudge to expose the whole plan. Innocence uses many of these devices to tell the story as quickly and inanely as possible. Another grating element that the film employs is random jump scares; horror needs to be built on atmosphere, tension, characters, and post-production content like editing and sound design. What the audience sees here, however, are jarring, aggressive cuts to grayed-out girls that seem to be haunting the school grounds. How is it scary when it’s just meant to jolt the viewer? 
The acting from the two young leads is woefully bad, with Curtis and Phillips attempting to make material out of their characters when there’s simply nothing within the film. These characters have no single defining characteristics. That’s not an exaggeration, either. Beckett’s mom died and she’s seeing ghosts. Tobey is supposed to look cute to please teenage girls that may see the film. It’s also striking how primitive the storytelling becomes in the final half hour, relying on ridiculous supernatural lore that never makes sense with the main narrative. Kelly Reilly, a terrific supporting actress that has shined in films like Flight and Calvary, is wasted here as a mysterious woman that has secrets but never feels like a tangible creation on screen. I suppose that’s my biggest problem with the film. Director Hilary Brougher shows promise in the film’s opening moments with utilizing screen space, but her film falls apart under the emptiness of its content. There’s nothing behind the characters, their actions, the plot, or the setting. Innocence cannot draw the audience in because it doesn’t have a story to tell. 
Grade: ★ (out of 5)

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.

When did films with teenage leads become so woefully simplistic and nonsensical? Innocence falls into the excessive batch of supernatural young adult films that doesn’t develop characters, fails to tell a consistent narrative, and underutilizes talented actors in supporting roles. The film opens with a tragedy as most of these stories do, with Beckett Warner (Sophie Curtis) spending time with her mother and father on the beach. While surfing, her mother goes underneath a wave and never comes back. A family gathering quickly turns into a mournful afternoon. To escape the tragedy, her father, Miles (Linus Roache), and Beckett move to Riverdale and she becomes enrolled in the exclusive Hamilton Preparatory School. Here, the colors of the film shift to dark, ominous blacks and grays, signifying that something is wrong with Beckett’s developing education. 

When moving, she runs into Tobey Crawford (Graham Phillips), a young man with the face of a lost puppy and the emotional range of a brick wall. Tobey and Beckett fall in love because…well, that kind of thing doesn’t need an explanation, does it? The characters just need to meet cute, which in this case involves Beckett encountering some strange ghost in a closet before turning around to see Tobey. Outside of that romance, though, Beckett begins to feel exhausted and sickly in the school, leading to a meeting with the nurse, Pamela (Kelly Reilly). She wants to help and prescribes Beckett some pills, and also decides to start dating Beckett’s father because he’s lonely and the story needs conflict. Characters join in loving embraces as if they are robotic beings with no semblance of emotion. The story demands that since it underlies the whole “something is really wrong with this place” vibe. Explanations are pushed to the side in the wake of shock value and completely incidental discoveries. 

My favorite discovery probably lies in Beckett entering a house that was seemingly left unlocked, only to trip over a vacuum and hit against a mirror. In doing so, a picture falls out from behind the mirror that explains everything. Whenever I have a secret and I want to hide it from people, I usually tuck it away behind a tangible object that needs a simple nudge to expose the whole plan. Innocence uses many of these devices to tell the story as quickly and inanely as possible. Another grating element that the film employs is random jump scares; horror needs to be built on atmosphere, tension, characters, and post-production content like editing and sound design. What the audience sees here, however, are jarring, aggressive cuts to grayed-out girls that seem to be haunting the school grounds. How is it scary when it’s just meant to jolt the viewer? 

The acting from the two young leads is woefully bad, with Curtis and Phillips attempting to make material out of their characters when there’s simply nothing within the film. These characters have no single defining characteristics. That’s not an exaggeration, either. Beckett’s mom died and she’s seeing ghosts. Tobey is supposed to look cute to please teenage girls that may see the film. It’s also striking how primitive the storytelling becomes in the final half hour, relying on ridiculous supernatural lore that never makes sense with the main narrative. Kelly Reilly, a terrific supporting actress that has shined in films like Flight and Calvary, is wasted here as a mysterious woman that has secrets but never feels like a tangible creation on screen. I suppose that’s my biggest problem with the film. Director Hilary Brougher shows promise in the film’s opening moments with utilizing screen space, but her film falls apart under the emptiness of its content. There’s nothing behind the characters, their actions, the plot, or the setting. Innocence cannot draw the audience in because it doesn’t have a story to tell. 

Grade: ★ (out of 5)

Rich Hill is a must-see documentary that shines a light on a harrowing way of living in rural America. The titular city is located in Missouri and ravaged by widespread poverty. Families move from home to home in search of jobs while others are trapped economically and socially. It’s one of the more harrowing, depressing features in 2014 due to the likability of only one character on screen. The poster child, Andrew, is the kindest kid of the bunch, while Appachey is a smoking, angry 12-year old kid that lives in a fractured home with no father figure and a horrible upbringing. Harley is the oldest, in high school living with his grandmother after his mother went to jail for attempting to kill a man that ruined their life. Directors Palermo and Tragos attempt to employ cinematic techniques behind their filmmaking and distance the storytelling from documentary realism. Only as we realize the situation on screen does the film create a long-lasting, brilliant impact. 
Grade: ★★★★½ (out of 5)

Rich Hill is a must-see documentary that shines a light on a harrowing way of living in rural America. The titular city is located in Missouri and ravaged by widespread poverty. Families move from home to home in search of jobs while others are trapped economically and socially. It’s one of the more harrowing, depressing features in 2014 due to the likability of only one character on screen. The poster child, Andrew, is the kindest kid of the bunch, while Appachey is a smoking, angry 12-year old kid that lives in a fractured home with no father figure and a horrible upbringing. Harley is the oldest, in high school living with his grandmother after his mother went to jail for attempting to kill a man that ruined their life. Directors Palermo and Tragos attempt to employ cinematic techniques behind their filmmaking and distance the storytelling from documentary realism. Only as we realize the situation on screen does the film create a long-lasting, brilliant impact. 

Grade: ★★★½ (out of 5)

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
I often insist that found footage horror films serve no justifiable purpose in the cinematic landscape. They are generic, plodding, dull, jump scare-heavy features that have derivative characters doing nonsensical things. As Above, So Below follows that familiar formula but delivers on atmosphere and balls-to-the-wall craziness that so few horror films aim for nowadays. The characters even serve a purpose within the convolutedly plotted story as it aims to be more than base-level scares! The horror. But a far too packed conclusion with too many loose ends alongside a soft message for its protagonists leaves the film with a sour taste in the viewer’s mouth. The story opens with Scarlett (Perdita Weeks), an adventurous, intelligent girl sneaking into Iran to navigate caves that are about to be collapsed underneath the city’s infrastructure. There, she discovers a supposedly lost language map that can lead her to a magical stone that will act as a supreme source of power through alchemy and medical wonder. 
Her journey needs some guidance, though, so she draws upon her old friend, George (Ben Feldman), to decipher where exactly these maps lead. Sure enough, they belong to a place in the Paris catacombs, a 200-mile stretch that holds over six million deceased citizens underneath the city itself. Various parts of the catacombs have collapsed and some areas have secret tunnels that no one has ever discovered. Until now, since they know exactly where to look. A young local, Papillon (François Civil), guides these rambunctious fellows through the catacombs and leads them through various rough spots, only for things to go south quickly. Inner demons emerge as characters begin to battle claustrophobia, the troubles of their past, and the growing unrest as they continue to go lower and lower. They see what has haunted them all of these years as they sift through caverns and ever-increasing holes. It’s as if they are descending into Hell. 
The film deserves credit where credit is due. The story, however convoluted and contrived it becomes in the final act, remains engaging and entertainingly confusing during its course. Loose ends feel like they are constantly being addressed and the lore is dense and sprawling. The problem remains within the premise of the filmmaking itself: why, oh why, does the film need to be in found footage format? What does it possibly add? The first thirty minutes are hackneyed, awful filmmaking in terms of its direction and look. The film is inappropriately framed and doesn’t rely on any cinematic stylings, nor does it feel more personal due to its connection with the characters. Instead, it feels like the shoddy, cheap way to go when making a horror film in today’s age. While films like The Descent have handled this kind of narrative more thrillingly and not relied on the gimmicks of the filmmaking style, here the presentation feels insincere to the audience and like a knock-off rather than an original idea. 
Claustrophobia does play an important part in the film’s effectiveness. Most characters have cameras pinned to their headlights except for Benji (Edwin Hodge), who carries a handheld that he usually places in front of him when navigating through spaces. A brilliantly staged scene has him being the last of the pack going through a tight spot and getting stuck; instead of shifting the camera, director John Erick Dowdle lingers and lets the uncomfortable sense of hopelessness grow. The film truly creates an unnerving feeling with an emphasis on closed walls and other visually demonstrative cues of unrest. Yet the story itself becomes incomprehensible and overblown in its explanations. The narrative doesn’t make much sense with too much mixed Egyptian/Parisian/personal mythology to prevent thematic coherence or narrative sense from occurring. As Above, So Below is exciting when it avoids horror conventions, but more often than not it falls on those crutches and never walks on its own. 
Grade: ★★½ (out of 5)

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.

I often insist that found footage horror films serve no justifiable purpose in the cinematic landscape. They are generic, plodding, dull, jump scare-heavy features that have derivative characters doing nonsensical things. As Above, So Below follows that familiar formula but delivers on atmosphere and balls-to-the-wall craziness that so few horror films aim for nowadays. The characters even serve a purpose within the convolutedly plotted story as it aims to be more than base-level scares! The horror. But a far too packed conclusion with too many loose ends alongside a soft message for its protagonists leaves the film with a sour taste in the viewer’s mouth. The story opens with Scarlett (Perdita Weeks), an adventurous, intelligent girl sneaking into Iran to navigate caves that are about to be collapsed underneath the city’s infrastructure. There, she discovers a supposedly lost language map that can lead her to a magical stone that will act as a supreme source of power through alchemy and medical wonder. 

Her journey needs some guidance, though, so she draws upon her old friend, George (Ben Feldman), to decipher where exactly these maps lead. Sure enough, they belong to a place in the Paris catacombs, a 200-mile stretch that holds over six million deceased citizens underneath the city itself. Various parts of the catacombs have collapsed and some areas have secret tunnels that no one has ever discovered. Until now, since they know exactly where to look. A young local, Papillon (François Civil), guides these rambunctious fellows through the catacombs and leads them through various rough spots, only for things to go south quickly. Inner demons emerge as characters begin to battle claustrophobia, the troubles of their past, and the growing unrest as they continue to go lower and lower. They see what has haunted them all of these years as they sift through caverns and ever-increasing holes. It’s as if they are descending into Hell. 

The film deserves credit where credit is due. The story, however convoluted and contrived it becomes in the final act, remains engaging and entertainingly confusing during its course. Loose ends feel like they are constantly being addressed and the lore is dense and sprawling. The problem remains within the premise of the filmmaking itself: why, oh why, does the film need to be in found footage format? What does it possibly add? The first thirty minutes are hackneyed, awful filmmaking in terms of its direction and look. The film is inappropriately framed and doesn’t rely on any cinematic stylings, nor does it feel more personal due to its connection with the characters. Instead, it feels like the shoddy, cheap way to go when making a horror film in today’s age. While films like The Descent have handled this kind of narrative more thrillingly and not relied on the gimmicks of the filmmaking style, here the presentation feels insincere to the audience and like a knock-off rather than an original idea. 

Claustrophobia does play an important part in the film’s effectiveness. Most characters have cameras pinned to their headlights except for Benji (Edwin Hodge), who carries a handheld that he usually places in front of him when navigating through spaces. A brilliantly staged scene has him being the last of the pack going through a tight spot and getting stuck; instead of shifting the camera, director John Erick Dowdle lingers and lets the uncomfortable sense of hopelessness grow. The film truly creates an unnerving feeling with an emphasis on closed walls and other visually demonstrative cues of unrest. Yet the story itself becomes incomprehensible and overblown in its explanations. The narrative doesn’t make much sense with too much mixed Egyptian/Parisian/personal mythology to prevent thematic coherence or narrative sense from occurring. As Above, So Below is exciting when it avoids horror conventions, but more often than not it falls on those crutches and never walks on its own. 

Grade: ★½ (out of 5)

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
The Trip to Italy is a more incisive, spontaneous film than the first entry from 2011. Much like its predecessor, the film was cut from a series of episodes from the British television show into a feature-length theatrical release. Both films feel episodic and highly improvised due to the nature of the filmmaking itself and the terrific comedic actors on screen, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. They elevate this sequel to more sweeping, personal heights. The comedy feels more ripe since it is less reliant on immature conversations but rather allegories about the characters’ lives and the acceptance of growing up past their sophomoric, babbling comedy. The comedy doesn’t always work, as is inherent with improvisational humor in a structured setting, but the final half hour adds a level of poignancy and artistry to the storytelling that makes the comedy tragically insightful. These are flawed characters who use their comedy to escape their depressing personal struggles. 
The story is simple: two men, Steve and Rob (playing versions of themselves), travel to Italy for six meals in six different places. They visit restaurants in Liguria, Tuscany, Rome, Amalfi, and Capri, along with side adventures to the ruins of Pompeii and the Roman catacombs. What’s striking about the film is that the premise should rely heavily on the food itself, yet the characters always put that on the back burner. The structure is similar to the first in that the scenes show the chefs preparing the food while cutting between the conversation in the dining room, and there’s a a certain twist on those elements from the first time around. The Trip established Steve as a promiscuous, rambunctious sort that didn’t have the level of success and recognition as Rob, making him a more bitter and inherently more lonely man. This narrative, however, focuses on Rob’s utter inability to sustain his marriage and using his impressions to escape the sad state of his own reality. The story allows harkens back to his personal turmoil and uses that to fuel conversations at lunch. 
Buddy comedies don’t usually frame themselves as character studies but rather narratives filled with eccentric characters butting heads with one another. The Trip to Italy shatters that with its independent storytelling leanings, opening and closing with shots of the same character each capturing a transformation. Steve feels like the center of the story due to those bookends despite his career not progressing as rapidly as Rob’s. The latter gets the opportunity to audition for a role in a Michael Mann film over in the States; he constantly describes it as the lead despite knowing that he dies halfway through and acts as the mob’s accountant. But hey, he can brag about it if he wants. Nonetheless, this fuels Steve’s jealousy alongside Rob’s supposedly successful, happy marriage. My, how things have changed from the first film, with Rob now struggling to maintain a connection with his wife long-distance while she is busy taking care of the kids. He also cheats on her with a young woman that finds him hilarious, so naturally things are a little rough. 
Impressions remain the focal point of the comedy and both actors bring their best voices. The dueling Michael Caines return, where the characters now talk about his work in The Dark Knight Rises and constantly argue that the other simply isn’t doing it right. There are also little glimpses of Dustin Hoffman, Woody Allen, Christian Bale, and Tom Hardy (as Bane, of course). While those are the main attractions for laughs, the film shines when it allows the characters to make observational humor, like a genius interaction at Pompeii discussing a man trapped in a glass box. In those tiny moments the film feels like a strangely brilliant beast. Coogan and Brydon bring a conversational nature to the film with their natural exchanges, reacting wholeheartedly to the other’s offbeat, unwritten jokes. These characters are sad and lonely for most of the film’s duration even if that never emerges at the surface. The final ten minutes are quietly, methodically biting, proving that The Trip to Italy is a comedy that feels light until it delivers a gut-punch of a conclusion. 
Grade: ★★★★ (out of 5)

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.

The Trip to Italy is a more incisive, spontaneous film than the first entry from 2011. Much like its predecessor, the film was cut from a series of episodes from the British television show into a feature-length theatrical release. Both films feel episodic and highly improvised due to the nature of the filmmaking itself and the terrific comedic actors on screen, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. They elevate this sequel to more sweeping, personal heights. The comedy feels more ripe since it is less reliant on immature conversations but rather allegories about the characters’ lives and the acceptance of growing up past their sophomoric, babbling comedy. The comedy doesn’t always work, as is inherent with improvisational humor in a structured setting, but the final half hour adds a level of poignancy and artistry to the storytelling that makes the comedy tragically insightful. These are flawed characters who use their comedy to escape their depressing personal struggles. 

The story is simple: two men, Steve and Rob (playing versions of themselves), travel to Italy for six meals in six different places. They visit restaurants in Liguria, Tuscany, Rome, Amalfi, and Capri, along with side adventures to the ruins of Pompeii and the Roman catacombs. What’s striking about the film is that the premise should rely heavily on the food itself, yet the characters always put that on the back burner. The structure is similar to the first in that the scenes show the chefs preparing the food while cutting between the conversation in the dining room, and there’s a a certain twist on those elements from the first time around. The Trip established Steve as a promiscuous, rambunctious sort that didn’t have the level of success and recognition as Rob, making him a more bitter and inherently more lonely man. This narrative, however, focuses on Rob’s utter inability to sustain his marriage and using his impressions to escape the sad state of his own reality. The story allows harkens back to his personal turmoil and uses that to fuel conversations at lunch. 

Buddy comedies don’t usually frame themselves as character studies but rather narratives filled with eccentric characters butting heads with one another. The Trip to Italy shatters that with its independent storytelling leanings, opening and closing with shots of the same character each capturing a transformation. Steve feels like the center of the story due to those bookends despite his career not progressing as rapidly as Rob’s. The latter gets the opportunity to audition for a role in a Michael Mann film over in the States; he constantly describes it as the lead despite knowing that he dies halfway through and acts as the mob’s accountant. But hey, he can brag about it if he wants. Nonetheless, this fuels Steve’s jealousy alongside Rob’s supposedly successful, happy marriage. My, how things have changed from the first film, with Rob now struggling to maintain a connection with his wife long-distance while she is busy taking care of the kids. He also cheats on her with a young woman that finds him hilarious, so naturally things are a little rough. 

Impressions remain the focal point of the comedy and both actors bring their best voices. The dueling Michael Caines return, where the characters now talk about his work in The Dark Knight Rises and constantly argue that the other simply isn’t doing it right. There are also little glimpses of Dustin Hoffman, Woody Allen, Christian Bale, and Tom Hardy (as Bane, of course). While those are the main attractions for laughs, the film shines when it allows the characters to make observational humor, like a genius interaction at Pompeii discussing a man trapped in a glass box. In those tiny moments the film feels like a strangely brilliant beast. Coogan and Brydon bring a conversational nature to the film with their natural exchanges, reacting wholeheartedly to the other’s offbeat, unwritten jokes. These characters are sad and lonely for most of the film’s duration even if that never emerges at the surface. The final ten minutes are quietly, methodically biting, proving that The Trip to Italy is a comedy that feels light until it delivers a gut-punch of a conclusion. 

Grade: ★★★ (out of 5)

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
If I Stay is based on the best-selling novel by Gayle Forman, centering on a teenager that has an out-of-body experience after her family gets in a car accident and she enters a coma. The story feels ripe for cinematic storytelling and strong visualizations, but it ends up demonstrating that too many young adult romances nowadays have to look, feel, and sound exactly the same to appease fans. The story must focus on a romance defined by an inconvenient but far too powerful love and continuously demonstrate that the characters are deeply infatuated with each other but also concerned about what the future has in store. The performances are strong when the narrative lets them get into the quieter, more intimate moments of the story; Chloe Grace Moretz is always a pleasant force on screen, and when her character’s love of music shines through, the story feels like something more grand. More often than not, however, it wallows in the amped-up melodrama that defines a young-adult romance in the modern age. 
The film focuses on Mia Hall (Chloe Grace Moretz), a talented cello player in high school that’s surrounded by a loving family heaped in music. Her father, Denny (Joshua Leonard), was in a punk band in the ’90s and played around the Portland area to local success. Her mother, Kat (Mireille Enos), was a bonafide groupie that exposed her daughter to music early. A scene where Kat, with a pierced nose and dyed hair, holds Mia as a toddler at a concert with huge, construction-like headphones demonstrates the way music has influenced the family. Mia aims to get a full-ride scholarship backed by her talents, but those dreams are a bit complicated by Adam (Jamie Blackley), a talented guitarist/vocalist in an up-and-coming band. They quickly fall in love and soon realize that their future plans may not cross. This complicates things, and their relationship is on the rocks when Mia’s life is changed forever by that horrific accident. 
Most of the love story is told through flashbacks as Mia wanders around the hospital where she’s comatose. As their story becomes defined, however, the scenes mix together like a dreamy haze and feel interchangeable. Most are meet-cute expressions of young love that grow tired. There’s also inexplicably another example of a teenager losing her virginity in a place that the story deems symbolic but ends up feeling woefully unromantic and off-putting. But I am not the core audience of the film, particularly their niche demographic of cello-playing high schoolers that fall madly in love with young rockers. The story also creates an uncomfortably needy male interest in Blackley’s Adam, making him a self-centered character that gets angry at Mia not for hiding that she applied to a school out of state, but that it ruins their plans of being together. His parents neglected him as a child so he doesn’t want to lose her, but it feels like far more of a guilt trip on his part rather than an emotionally backed decision. 
The performances from Moretz and Enos elevate the film to a middle-of-the-road affair. Enos has acting talent, as evidenced by her excellent work on The Killing, and she brings life to some trite dialogue in important scenes. She calls true love a bitch and says that life is full of difficult decisions; the scene should be unwatchably cliché, but it remains tolerable because of her empathy. Moretz mostly acts concerned in the hospital scenes, but Mia’s love for music substantially drives her performance. Stacy Keach is also wonderful in the small role he’s allotted. But there’s a scene that defines the blandness of the film: as the characters walk out of their first date, a long tracking shot begins that follows them down a path after an establishing shot shows the scope of the scene. As the long take starts to make the scene feel naturalistic and poignant, the camera jumps to the pre-existing establishing shot and then to another angle that doesn’t add to the scene itself. If I Stay takes the easy road for much of its journey, becoming emotionally indistinguishable from the glut of young-adult romances in the marketplace. 
Grade: ★★½ (out of 5)
See my full video review right HERE.

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.

If I Stay is based on the best-selling novel by Gayle Forman, centering on a teenager that has an out-of-body experience after her family gets in a car accident and she enters a coma. The story feels ripe for cinematic storytelling and strong visualizations, but it ends up demonstrating that too many young adult romances nowadays have to look, feel, and sound exactly the same to appease fans. The story must focus on a romance defined by an inconvenient but far too powerful love and continuously demonstrate that the characters are deeply infatuated with each other but also concerned about what the future has in store. The performances are strong when the narrative lets them get into the quieter, more intimate moments of the story; Chloe Grace Moretz is always a pleasant force on screen, and when her character’s love of music shines through, the story feels like something more grand. More often than not, however, it wallows in the amped-up melodrama that defines a young-adult romance in the modern age. 

The film focuses on Mia Hall (Chloe Grace Moretz), a talented cello player in high school that’s surrounded by a loving family heaped in music. Her father, Denny (Joshua Leonard), was in a punk band in the ’90s and played around the Portland area to local success. Her mother, Kat (Mireille Enos), was a bonafide groupie that exposed her daughter to music early. A scene where Kat, with a pierced nose and dyed hair, holds Mia as a toddler at a concert with huge, construction-like headphones demonstrates the way music has influenced the family. Mia aims to get a full-ride scholarship backed by her talents, but those dreams are a bit complicated by Adam (Jamie Blackley), a talented guitarist/vocalist in an up-and-coming band. They quickly fall in love and soon realize that their future plans may not cross. This complicates things, and their relationship is on the rocks when Mia’s life is changed forever by that horrific accident. 

Most of the love story is told through flashbacks as Mia wanders around the hospital where she’s comatose. As their story becomes defined, however, the scenes mix together like a dreamy haze and feel interchangeable. Most are meet-cute expressions of young love that grow tired. There’s also inexplicably another example of a teenager losing her virginity in a place that the story deems symbolic but ends up feeling woefully unromantic and off-putting. But I am not the core audience of the film, particularly their niche demographic of cello-playing high schoolers that fall madly in love with young rockers. The story also creates an uncomfortably needy male interest in Blackley’s Adam, making him a self-centered character that gets angry at Mia not for hiding that she applied to a school out of state, but that it ruins their plans of being together. His parents neglected him as a child so he doesn’t want to lose her, but it feels like far more of a guilt trip on his part rather than an emotionally backed decision. 

The performances from Moretz and Enos elevate the film to a middle-of-the-road affair. Enos has acting talent, as evidenced by her excellent work on The Killing, and she brings life to some trite dialogue in important scenes. She calls true love a bitch and says that life is full of difficult decisions; the scene should be unwatchably cliché, but it remains tolerable because of her empathy. Moretz mostly acts concerned in the hospital scenes, but Mia’s love for music substantially drives her performance. Stacy Keach is also wonderful in the small role he’s allotted. But there’s a scene that defines the blandness of the film: as the characters walk out of their first date, a long tracking shot begins that follows them down a path after an establishing shot shows the scope of the scene. As the long take starts to make the scene feel naturalistic and poignant, the camera jumps to the pre-existing establishing shot and then to another angle that doesn’t add to the scene itself. If I Stay takes the easy road for much of its journey, becoming emotionally indistinguishable from the glut of young-adult romances in the marketplace. 

Grade: ★½ (out of 5)

See my full video review right HERE.

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Life After Beth attempts to breath life into the zombie genre but falls flat due to an inconsistent tone and sporadically affecting humor. The film often feels like a piece of sketch comedy that doesn’t have much substance past its initially amusing premise: a young man’s recently deceased girlfriend is mysteriously brought back from the dead, and she doesn’t seem like the same person. It’s admittedly compelling, but the film never takes advantage of providing commentary on the state of mourning or reflecting upon the nature of zombie storytelling. Instead, the story relies on being amusing and occasionally funny rather than delivering a full-fledged story. The performances are committed and engaging, particularly those by Aubrey Plaza and John C. Reilly, but too many open ends and strange musings leave the film feeling empty and lifeless like its title character. 
The story centers on Zach Orfman (Dane DeHaan), a teenager that at the start of the film is seen mourning the death of his girlfriend, Beth Slocum (Aubrey Plaza). Zach is close to Beth’s parents, Maury (John C. Reilly) and Geenie (Molly Shannon), and he connects with their feeling of loss and hopelessness. They all wish they could have told Beth things before she died, and not have had their last conversation be so bad, but that’s always how mourners will feel after the loss of a loved one. Zach is depressed, his brother treats him terribly, and he needs to find a way to get past Beth. Then, one day when over at the Slocums’ house, he sees his ex-girlfriend through the window walking down the hallways. It can’t be. She’s dead. He saw the body buried, so he visits the graveyard and finds a hole right in front of her tombstone that points to her rising from the dead. Sure enough, after nagging the Slocums to let him see what’s happening, Beth comes back into Zach’s life and seems good as new. 
Of course everything is not what it seems. Jeff Baena is a first-time director here, having previously co-written I Heart Huckabees with David O. Russell. He has a knack for deriving comedy out of the characters themselves rather than the actions, which lends itself well to an offbeat zombie comedy. The first half hour is ripe for material to come from a strange father-in-law figure and an aggressively personal brother, but the story can only carry that momentum so far. Most of the film’s second act uses suspense as a means of driving narrative; there’s no surprise in the fact that Beth is a zombie because, obviously, she rose from the dead and we know that a snakebite killed her. Now if the story meanders and the comedy remains, that would mean something else entirely. But much of the middle is defined by Zach falling back in love with Beth and falling right back out of it as she goes crazy and wants to eat his brains. 
There’s commitment to the premise itself and from the actors, which keeps the film from being a bore. Plaza is solid in providing her character with an emotional tie, allowing the heart to shine through her strong desire for consuming human flesh. DeHaan is serviceable in the lead but doesn’t do much with the material due to his character being a thin protagonist. Reilly and Shannon are both terrific comedy actors who propel themselves wonderfully toward the absurdity of the concept. Yet despite all of this energy from the actors, they can’t make the material less trite or commonplace than it is. The story attempts to infuse heart into the final ten minutes but feels strangely distanced and off-putting. The lack of explanation for the dead rising, as they increasingly do throughout the film, leaves the audience with a supernatural take that never meshes with the narrative. Life After Beth is tonally odd and poorly executed, a solid idea stretched out far too much for comfort. 
Grade: ★★ (out of 5)

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.

Life After Beth attempts to breath life into the zombie genre but falls flat due to an inconsistent tone and sporadically affecting humor. The film often feels like a piece of sketch comedy that doesn’t have much substance past its initially amusing premise: a young man’s recently deceased girlfriend is mysteriously brought back from the dead, and she doesn’t seem like the same person. It’s admittedly compelling, but the film never takes advantage of providing commentary on the state of mourning or reflecting upon the nature of zombie storytelling. Instead, the story relies on being amusing and occasionally funny rather than delivering a full-fledged story. The performances are committed and engaging, particularly those by Aubrey Plaza and John C. Reilly, but too many open ends and strange musings leave the film feeling empty and lifeless like its title character. 

The story centers on Zach Orfman (Dane DeHaan), a teenager that at the start of the film is seen mourning the death of his girlfriend, Beth Slocum (Aubrey Plaza). Zach is close to Beth’s parents, Maury (John C. Reilly) and Geenie (Molly Shannon), and he connects with their feeling of loss and hopelessness. They all wish they could have told Beth things before she died, and not have had their last conversation be so bad, but that’s always how mourners will feel after the loss of a loved one. Zach is depressed, his brother treats him terribly, and he needs to find a way to get past Beth. Then, one day when over at the Slocums’ house, he sees his ex-girlfriend through the window walking down the hallways. It can’t be. She’s dead. He saw the body buried, so he visits the graveyard and finds a hole right in front of her tombstone that points to her rising from the dead. Sure enough, after nagging the Slocums to let him see what’s happening, Beth comes back into Zach’s life and seems good as new. 

Of course everything is not what it seems. Jeff Baena is a first-time director here, having previously co-written I Heart Huckabees with David O. Russell. He has a knack for deriving comedy out of the characters themselves rather than the actions, which lends itself well to an offbeat zombie comedy. The first half hour is ripe for material to come from a strange father-in-law figure and an aggressively personal brother, but the story can only carry that momentum so far. Most of the film’s second act uses suspense as a means of driving narrative; there’s no surprise in the fact that Beth is a zombie because, obviously, she rose from the dead and we know that a snakebite killed her. Now if the story meanders and the comedy remains, that would mean something else entirely. But much of the middle is defined by Zach falling back in love with Beth and falling right back out of it as she goes crazy and wants to eat his brains. 

There’s commitment to the premise itself and from the actors, which keeps the film from being a bore. Plaza is solid in providing her character with an emotional tie, allowing the heart to shine through her strong desire for consuming human flesh. DeHaan is serviceable in the lead but doesn’t do much with the material due to his character being a thin protagonist. Reilly and Shannon are both terrific comedy actors who propel themselves wonderfully toward the absurdity of the concept. Yet despite all of this energy from the actors, they can’t make the material less trite or commonplace than it is. The story attempts to infuse heart into the final ten minutes but feels strangely distanced and off-putting. The lack of explanation for the dead rising, as they increasingly do throughout the film, leaves the audience with a supernatural take that never meshes with the narrative. Life After Beth is tonally odd and poorly executed, a solid idea stretched out far too much for comfort. 

Grade: ★ (out of 5)

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
The original Sin City was a defining mark of modern film noir, combining comic book stylings with a genre heaped in black-and-white cinematography and seedy individuals. The elements meshed perfectly and created one of the most visually stunning films of the past decade. Now, after a nine-year hiatus, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For enters the cinematic landscape as one of the most unnecessary sequels ever made, a convoluted, immature spoof of the original. Frank Miller picks up partial directing credit and writing credit for this entry, having written the graphic novels but also creating two new narratives for this feature: “The Long Bad Night” and “Nancy’s Last Dance.” Due to these additions, the film features multiple storylines that are set in different time periods without warning the viewer, creating an off-putting sense of thematic inconsistency. The stories feel held together by expired glue and remind us that when an anticipated sequel arrives, it needs to deliver what it promises. 
The story has four central episodes, cut together to form a single narrative: “Just Another Saturday Night” follows Marv (Mickey Rourke) regaining consciousness on the side of the highway surrounded by dead bodies, wondering how he got there; “The Long Bad Night” focuses on Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a lucky gambler who beats Senator Roark (Powers Boothe) in a game of poker that changes his life forever; “A Dame to Kill For” looks at Dwight (Josh Brolin), a man struggling with keeping himself in order especially when his former lover, the titular Ava (Eva Green), returns; and “Nancy’s Last Dance” centers on Nancy (Jessica Alba) dealing with Hartigan’s (Bruce Willis) suicide and turning herself into an alcoholic, vengeful dame aiming to take out Roark once and for all. Returning characters include Gail (Rosario Dawson) on a visit to Old Town along with newcomer detectives Mort (Christopher Meloni) and Bob (Jeremy Piven). 
Sin City is full of jealousy, revenge, lust, love, and a whole lotta sex and violence. Ava is the dame the title refers to, acting as one of the most sexually charged characters I’ve seen on the big screen. She’s a character that never falls in love and manipulates men with her sex, whether that be Dwight or a married detective like Mort. She’s venomous and purely evil. When the camera moves over her naked body, it’s not signifying a lust for her so much as her raw sexuality acting as such a hypnotic force over the male characters. Most females in Sin City seem to embrace their sexuality and use it as a means of power. Men, on the other hand, use their brute force and occasional cunning to outmaneuver brutes, which creates an uncomfortably simple dichotomy. Everyone knows that Nancy strips and Marv will kill anyone with his bare hands, so does there have to be countless scenes that show those particulars happening over and over again? At a certain point, the storytelling grows lazy and monotonous rather than inventive and revelatory. 
Much like the first film, Robert Rodriguez not only directs but also edits and cinematographs this adventure. It makes for a rapid-fire, blazing whirlwind of comic frenzy. The first ten minutes are belligerently paced and never let up, confusing the audience by re-introducing a character thought dead (in Marv, who was seen executed in the first film). The problem with this idea is that the narrative never comes together cohesively; by having multiple stories that do not cross time-wise, many of them lose meaning and don’t provide context for the first film. Rather, they feel wholly unnecessary. The 3D is well framed and deliberately used, perfectly captured for a world as visually arresting as Sin City. The performances are committed all-around, but Eva Green proves that if a long-awaited sequel needs a powerful, sexualized woman (after her work earlier this year on 300: Rise of an Empire), she’s the one. Yet Sin City: A Dame to Kill For fails to make much sense in its relevance to the overall story, feeling like mish-mashed vignettes that aim to capture the spirit of the original but fall flat. 
Grade: ★★½ (out of 5)
See my full video review right HERE.

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.

The original Sin City was a defining mark of modern film noir, combining comic book stylings with a genre heaped in black-and-white cinematography and seedy individuals. The elements meshed perfectly and created one of the most visually stunning films of the past decade. Now, after a nine-year hiatus, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For enters the cinematic landscape as one of the most unnecessary sequels ever made, a convoluted, immature spoof of the original. Frank Miller picks up partial directing credit and writing credit for this entry, having written the graphic novels but also creating two new narratives for this feature: “The Long Bad Night” and “Nancy’s Last Dance.” Due to these additions, the film features multiple storylines that are set in different time periods without warning the viewer, creating an off-putting sense of thematic inconsistency. The stories feel held together by expired glue and remind us that when an anticipated sequel arrives, it needs to deliver what it promises. 

The story has four central episodes, cut together to form a single narrative: “Just Another Saturday Night” follows Marv (Mickey Rourke) regaining consciousness on the side of the highway surrounded by dead bodies, wondering how he got there; “The Long Bad Night” focuses on Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a lucky gambler who beats Senator Roark (Powers Boothe) in a game of poker that changes his life forever; “A Dame to Kill For” looks at Dwight (Josh Brolin), a man struggling with keeping himself in order especially when his former lover, the titular Ava (Eva Green), returns; and “Nancy’s Last Dance” centers on Nancy (Jessica Alba) dealing with Hartigan’s (Bruce Willis) suicide and turning herself into an alcoholic, vengeful dame aiming to take out Roark once and for all. Returning characters include Gail (Rosario Dawson) on a visit to Old Town along with newcomer detectives Mort (Christopher Meloni) and Bob (Jeremy Piven). 

Sin City is full of jealousy, revenge, lust, love, and a whole lotta sex and violence. Ava is the dame the title refers to, acting as one of the most sexually charged characters I’ve seen on the big screen. She’s a character that never falls in love and manipulates men with her sex, whether that be Dwight or a married detective like Mort. She’s venomous and purely evil. When the camera moves over her naked body, it’s not signifying a lust for her so much as her raw sexuality acting as such a hypnotic force over the male characters. Most females in Sin City seem to embrace their sexuality and use it as a means of power. Men, on the other hand, use their brute force and occasional cunning to outmaneuver brutes, which creates an uncomfortably simple dichotomy. Everyone knows that Nancy strips and Marv will kill anyone with his bare hands, so does there have to be countless scenes that show those particulars happening over and over again? At a certain point, the storytelling grows lazy and monotonous rather than inventive and revelatory. 

Much like the first film, Robert Rodriguez not only directs but also edits and cinematographs this adventure. It makes for a rapid-fire, blazing whirlwind of comic frenzy. The first ten minutes are belligerently paced and never let up, confusing the audience by re-introducing a character thought dead (in Marv, who was seen executed in the first film). The problem with this idea is that the narrative never comes together cohesively; by having multiple stories that do not cross time-wise, many of them lose meaning and don’t provide context for the first film. Rather, they feel wholly unnecessary. The 3D is well framed and deliberately used, perfectly captured for a world as visually arresting as Sin City. The performances are committed all-around, but Eva Green proves that if a long-awaited sequel needs a powerful, sexualized woman (after her work earlier this year on 300: Rise of an Empire), she’s the one. Yet Sin City: A Dame to Kill For fails to make much sense in its relevance to the overall story, feeling like mish-mashed vignettes that aim to capture the spirit of the original but fall flat. 

Grade: ★½ (out of 5)

See my full video review right HERE.

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
I’m a sucker for sports films. Seeing the way that a particular game can bring individuals together and create a sense of unity and pride is thrillingly unique, particularly on the big screen. Not all sports films are created equal, and that’s apparent in When the Game Stands Tall. It’s inconsistently moving fare, but also an impassioned cry for togetherness and maturity with sports as the defining catalyst. There’s something strange about how it’s presented on screen, surrounded by death, heartbreak, doubt, happiness, abuse, laughter, and pretty much any other cinematic element you can draw up in your mind. There are many loud moments, telling the audience that something big and emotional is happening! But the film works when it embraces the quietness of its endeavors, looking into the characters and letting them foster on screen. When the characters talk about ideas, the film strays; when they get into who they are as people, we care. 
The film tells the story of the De La Salle High School football team, who rose from obscurity due to an 151-game winning streak that stands as the longest winning streak in American sports history. Their coach, Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel), has received offers from many prestigious colleges to coach their teams, but he always refuses. He says that students in college don’t give him as much to teach them; he likes the idea of fostering these students into good, moral citizens. There’s something honorable about a man profoundly embracing his profession in education. He teaches discipline and family for the team, which a lot of time emphasizes religion and the importance of God upon their lives. Whatever he’s doing, it’s working. After the team wins yet another state championship, they must prepare their juniors to lead the squad next year. That includes his son, Danny (Matthew Daddario), and star running back Chris Ryan (Alexander Ludwig).
Danny feels disassociated from his father due to a strained coaching relationship and his father’s stern nature. Chris has to deal with a verbally and mentally abusive father, Mickey (Clancy Brown), who insists that his son break the state’s touchdown record and never lets him lose sight of the goal. The film focuses on many other subplots, including one involving the seniors that are heading off to college and getting accepted to great programs like Oregon. But there are endless hardships for everyone involved, particularly after their winning streak snaps with the new set of juniors. The story addresses that element early on, setting up the streak as an embattled part of their high school careers. Can they overcome such a heartbreaking, devastating loss? Or will they let this streak and its end define them? Thomas Carter’s film weaves all of these stories around the idea that their team is a family, one that must stick together and support one another through anything and everything. 
When the Game Stands Tall doesn’t just wear its heart on its sleeve; it’s all over the front and back of the jersey like large white numbers. The film is rocky tonally and conceptually, often falling flat on developing supporting characters and instead having them talk a lot about concepts and beliefs. There’s an abundance of stories with heavy moral values, an accepted truth of a film with religion as the underlying factor that ties together all of these narratives. Carter doesn’t just allow his film to preach religion, though, but allows it to act as a means of understanding these characters. The film shows doubt as a psychological struggle that some of the players face when one of their most talented players is murdered. Why would a just world let such an unjust act happen? There are too many exaggerated scenes that beg these kinds of questions for the film to coherently flow, but luckily the narrative depends on the game of football itself in the second half to infuse excitement and needed drama into the characters’ lives. It’s a faulty journey, but it’s a well-made sports drama that has a strong payoff.  
Grade: ★★★ (out of 5)
See my full video review right HERE.

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.

I’m a sucker for sports films. Seeing the way that a particular game can bring individuals together and create a sense of unity and pride is thrillingly unique, particularly on the big screen. Not all sports films are created equal, and that’s apparent in When the Game Stands Tall. It’s inconsistently moving fare, but also an impassioned cry for togetherness and maturity with sports as the defining catalyst. There’s something strange about how it’s presented on screen, surrounded by death, heartbreak, doubt, happiness, abuse, laughter, and pretty much any other cinematic element you can draw up in your mind. There are many loud moments, telling the audience that something big and emotional is happening! But the film works when it embraces the quietness of its endeavors, looking into the characters and letting them foster on screen. When the characters talk about ideas, the film strays; when they get into who they are as people, we care. 

The film tells the story of the De La Salle High School football team, who rose from obscurity due to an 151-game winning streak that stands as the longest winning streak in American sports history. Their coach, Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel), has received offers from many prestigious colleges to coach their teams, but he always refuses. He says that students in college don’t give him as much to teach them; he likes the idea of fostering these students into good, moral citizens. There’s something honorable about a man profoundly embracing his profession in education. He teaches discipline and family for the team, which a lot of time emphasizes religion and the importance of God upon their lives. Whatever he’s doing, it’s working. After the team wins yet another state championship, they must prepare their juniors to lead the squad next year. That includes his son, Danny (Matthew Daddario), and star running back Chris Ryan (Alexander Ludwig).

Danny feels disassociated from his father due to a strained coaching relationship and his father’s stern nature. Chris has to deal with a verbally and mentally abusive father, Mickey (Clancy Brown), who insists that his son break the state’s touchdown record and never lets him lose sight of the goal. The film focuses on many other subplots, including one involving the seniors that are heading off to college and getting accepted to great programs like Oregon. But there are endless hardships for everyone involved, particularly after their winning streak snaps with the new set of juniors. The story addresses that element early on, setting up the streak as an embattled part of their high school careers. Can they overcome such a heartbreaking, devastating loss? Or will they let this streak and its end define them? Thomas Carter’s film weaves all of these stories around the idea that their team is a family, one that must stick together and support one another through anything and everything. 

When the Game Stands Tall doesn’t just wear its heart on its sleeve; it’s all over the front and back of the jersey like large white numbers. The film is rocky tonally and conceptually, often falling flat on developing supporting characters and instead having them talk a lot about concepts and beliefs. There’s an abundance of stories with heavy moral values, an accepted truth of a film with religion as the underlying factor that ties together all of these narratives. Carter doesn’t just allow his film to preach religion, though, but allows it to act as a means of understanding these characters. The film shows doubt as a psychological struggle that some of the players face when one of their most talented players is murdered. Why would a just world let such an unjust act happen? There are too many exaggerated scenes that beg these kinds of questions for the film to coherently flow, but luckily the narrative depends on the game of football itself in the second half to infuse excitement and needed drama into the characters’ lives. It’s a faulty journey, but it’s a well-made sports drama that has a strong payoff.  

Grade: ★ (out of 5)

See my full video review right HERE.

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
The Giver is an ambitious adaptation of Lois Lowry’s award-winning novel, but it’s rushed, muddled, and bogged down by its intentions of making a dystopia that appeases young viewers. The novel was celebrated upon its release in 1993, read in schools around the country but also surrounded by controversy about its message. The film, on the other hand, plays the story safe and uses many dystopia trappings that feel all too familiar in the wake of recent efforts like The Hunger Games and Divergent. Here, the rules are seemingly simple: the community formed is idyllic and tranquil, with all of the citizens healthy, self-sufficient, and productive. People are happy and there is no war, pain, or suffering. Yet in attempting to create a utopia, they ultimately produce a dystopia because the citizens do not know of any kind of art or wildlife, nor do they have any memories of the past world and what used to be on Earth. 
The story follows Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), a young man who fails to be chosen at an annual ceremony that determines a citizen’s place in their society. The Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) believes that Jonas has the potential to see beyond their reality, assigning him the position of “Receiver of Memory.” He will be learning from the Giver (Jeff Bridges), an old man who holds memories of the past that have gone from generation to generation. The Giver is a man who doesn’t have a filter and also doesn’t have to obey the laws of society, which include using precision of language (i.e., avoiding fluffy words like “love”), telling the truth, taking daily medication, and forgiving and apologizing for everything. Jonas has grown up with all of these rules and must learn that with these memories will come an understanding of their society. He is taught the ways of the past, both good and evil, but cannot understand how they can live in such a simple, empty way when denied life’s most precious gifts. 
The premise is compelling and crazily ambitious. Like most films of the sort, though, with great ambition comes great responsibility. The film grows increasingly faulty over its running time and seems to leave out important elements that would help illuminate the nature of the world. How exactly did this society form? That’s a nagging question that gets a roundabout response: well, the world was a bad, evil place, so this society had to be created in order to preserve humanity. But how did they come to exist on top of a rock formation above the clouds? Phillip Noyce’s film cares more about ideas than particulars, which I cannot necessarily fault. The ideas are lofty and epic in scope, with the society itself acting as a strange form of socialism that numbs the brain and eradicates all sense of emotion from the equation. The society must sustain itself and prosper; the will of the people does not matter as long as the society grows stronger. 
Color is an important element of the film, too, with much of the beginning taking place in black-and-white to signify the simplicity and emptiness of the citizens’ lives. Color only emerges when Jonas opens himself up to the past and sees what the world has to offer; his brain can be free and feel as much as it desires. Thwaites is a solid choice for the lead, providing some heft to the role by allowing subtleties to emerge when the script allows. The love story surrounding him and Fiona (Odeya Rush) is muddled and lifeless, with Rush proving unable to make the most of a mild, inconsequential character. Bridges and Streep are remarkable when on screen, particularly when they share the frame; they are dynamic and versatile, giving the story even more gravitas and meaning. Yet the film becomes muddled and far too absurd in its last half hour, using vague symbolism and an open-ended conclusion that asks more than elaborates. The Giver is a film with a heavy message but an unsure voice. 
Grade: ★★★ (out of 5)
See my full video review right HERE.

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.

The Giver is an ambitious adaptation of Lois Lowry’s award-winning novel, but it’s rushed, muddled, and bogged down by its intentions of making a dystopia that appeases young viewers. The novel was celebrated upon its release in 1993, read in schools around the country but also surrounded by controversy about its message. The film, on the other hand, plays the story safe and uses many dystopia trappings that feel all too familiar in the wake of recent efforts like The Hunger Games and Divergent. Here, the rules are seemingly simple: the community formed is idyllic and tranquil, with all of the citizens healthy, self-sufficient, and productive. People are happy and there is no war, pain, or suffering. Yet in attempting to create a utopia, they ultimately produce a dystopia because the citizens do not know of any kind of art or wildlife, nor do they have any memories of the past world and what used to be on Earth. 

The story follows Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), a young man who fails to be chosen at an annual ceremony that determines a citizen’s place in their society. The Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) believes that Jonas has the potential to see beyond their reality, assigning him the position of “Receiver of Memory.” He will be learning from the Giver (Jeff Bridges), an old man who holds memories of the past that have gone from generation to generation. The Giver is a man who doesn’t have a filter and also doesn’t have to obey the laws of society, which include using precision of language (i.e., avoiding fluffy words like “love”), telling the truth, taking daily medication, and forgiving and apologizing for everything. Jonas has grown up with all of these rules and must learn that with these memories will come an understanding of their society. He is taught the ways of the past, both good and evil, but cannot understand how they can live in such a simple, empty way when denied life’s most precious gifts. 

The premise is compelling and crazily ambitious. Like most films of the sort, though, with great ambition comes great responsibility. The film grows increasingly faulty over its running time and seems to leave out important elements that would help illuminate the nature of the world. How exactly did this society form? That’s a nagging question that gets a roundabout response: well, the world was a bad, evil place, so this society had to be created in order to preserve humanity. But how did they come to exist on top of a rock formation above the clouds? Phillip Noyce’s film cares more about ideas than particulars, which I cannot necessarily fault. The ideas are lofty and epic in scope, with the society itself acting as a strange form of socialism that numbs the brain and eradicates all sense of emotion from the equation. The society must sustain itself and prosper; the will of the people does not matter as long as the society grows stronger. 

Color is an important element of the film, too, with much of the beginning taking place in black-and-white to signify the simplicity and emptiness of the citizens’ lives. Color only emerges when Jonas opens himself up to the past and sees what the world has to offer; his brain can be free and feel as much as it desires. Thwaites is a solid choice for the lead, providing some heft to the role by allowing subtleties to emerge when the script allows. The love story surrounding him and Fiona (Odeya Rush) is muddled and lifeless, with Rush proving unable to make the most of a mild, inconsequential character. Bridges and Streep are remarkable when on screen, particularly when they share the frame; they are dynamic and versatile, giving the story even more gravitas and meaning. Yet the film becomes muddled and far too absurd in its last half hour, using vague symbolism and an open-ended conclusion that asks more than elaborates. The Giver is a film with a heavy message but an unsure voice. 

Grade: ★ (out of 5)

See my full video review right HERE.

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
The Expendables franchise is defined by the self-aware nature of the title action actors, knowing that they are far too old for the work they are doing on screen. That allows for Sylvester Stallone to bring together all of his favorite stars to celebrate the old way of doing things and how grand it can be. His ultimate goal with these films seems to be the celebration of 80s actioners that showed characters kicking ass and fighting bad guys that wanted to destroy the world. Yet like his stars, these films have grown tired and worn out. The peak was the second film, an entertaining romp that capitalized on the absurdity of the franchise by amping up the action and supporting characters to a ridiculous level. Yet the latest entry undermines the excitement inherent with the series: the PG-13 rating makes the bloodless action feel inconsequential and the story involves young characters to make the older gentlemen feel outdated. Sure, the dialogue will always be awful and the acting atrocious, but at least there was some spontaneity in the others. 
The story this time around follows the usual suspects as they attempt to rescue an old pal and stop another one. Barney (Sylvester Stallone), Christmas (Jason Statham), Gunner (Dolph Lundgren), and others break their friend Doc (Wesley Snipes) out of an armored train prison. Could you honestly say that your friends would do the same? As they head to Somalia to track down a nuclear weapons dealer, they run into an old member of their group: Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), a ruthless madman that wanted to become the leader of his own pack. He broke off from the group and basically wanted to become evil. At least that’s what the film says. He’s also masterfully defined by his desire to buy works of art worth millions of dollars that he doesn’t really like. The Expendables hunt down Stonebanks with the guidance of Drummer (Harrison Ford), a character that effectively replaces Church because Bruce Willis wanted to be paid too much. Oh yeah, and Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is back, mostly appearing in Hawaiian shirts and looking like he’s confused about why he’s a recurring character. 
The Expendables 3 is defined by many of the same traits that dominate the previous entries in the franchise. Characters talk about things as if they are always cracking painfully obvious jokes or delivering one-liners. I’m not sure there’s ever a moment in the film when there isn’t a reminder that these are all actors from famous franchises, and hey, listen to Ah-nuld reference getting to the choppa! The addition of a female character named Luna, played by MMA fighter Ronda Rousey, is ambitious and a bridge being established for the planned Expendabelles film (a spin-off of females doing the same thing the men in these films do). Luna acts as a strong female force that wants to stand her own ground amidst all of the testosterone. She can kick some serious ass. She’s also one of many new additions that bog down the latest entry and add on an extra half hour to the running time; even Antonio Banderas, a wonderfully talented and charismatic actor, feels woefully out of place, being demoted to an annoying sidekick rather than becoming an actual character.
Yet the action is the shining star of these films, the beacon of hope that guides the viewer toward a satisfying viewing. It’s a disappointment, then, that the film undermines all of the action by taking away every element that made it distinguishable in the previous efforts. Here, the teen-friendly rating demonstrates a desire to appease younger viewers, but in doing so the action becomes woefully bland and lifeless. Outside of an exciting car chase in one of the film’s opening moments, every fighting sequence feels choreographed and mechanical. Characters never get wounded and nothing important happens to any of them when they are facing danger. As they are attacked by hundreds of men and have multiple tanks and helicopters shooting at them nonstop, you would think one character would get hit by a single bullet. Even Gibson’s character remarks that it shouldn’t be that difficult. But alas. These films meet the standard they have set: there’s high octane action, cheesy jokes, and too many characters to care about any particular one. In that regard, The Expendables 3 delivers. 
Grade: ★★ (out of 5)
See my full video review right HERE.

Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.

The Expendables franchise is defined by the self-aware nature of the title action actors, knowing that they are far too old for the work they are doing on screen. That allows for Sylvester Stallone to bring together all of his favorite stars to celebrate the old way of doing things and how grand it can be. His ultimate goal with these films seems to be the celebration of 80s actioners that showed characters kicking ass and fighting bad guys that wanted to destroy the world. Yet like his stars, these films have grown tired and worn out. The peak was the second film, an entertaining romp that capitalized on the absurdity of the franchise by amping up the action and supporting characters to a ridiculous level. Yet the latest entry undermines the excitement inherent with the series: the PG-13 rating makes the bloodless action feel inconsequential and the story involves young characters to make the older gentlemen feel outdated. Sure, the dialogue will always be awful and the acting atrocious, but at least there was some spontaneity in the others. 

The story this time around follows the usual suspects as they attempt to rescue an old pal and stop another one. Barney (Sylvester Stallone), Christmas (Jason Statham), Gunner (Dolph Lundgren), and others break their friend Doc (Wesley Snipes) out of an armored train prison. Could you honestly say that your friends would do the same? As they head to Somalia to track down a nuclear weapons dealer, they run into an old member of their group: Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), a ruthless madman that wanted to become the leader of his own pack. He broke off from the group and basically wanted to become evil. At least that’s what the film says. He’s also masterfully defined by his desire to buy works of art worth millions of dollars that he doesn’t really like. The Expendables hunt down Stonebanks with the guidance of Drummer (Harrison Ford), a character that effectively replaces Church because Bruce Willis wanted to be paid too much. Oh yeah, and Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is back, mostly appearing in Hawaiian shirts and looking like he’s confused about why he’s a recurring character. 

The Expendables 3 is defined by many of the same traits that dominate the previous entries in the franchise. Characters talk about things as if they are always cracking painfully obvious jokes or delivering one-liners. I’m not sure there’s ever a moment in the film when there isn’t a reminder that these are all actors from famous franchises, and hey, listen to Ah-nuld reference getting to the choppa! The addition of a female character named Luna, played by MMA fighter Ronda Rousey, is ambitious and a bridge being established for the planned Expendabelles film (a spin-off of females doing the same thing the men in these films do). Luna acts as a strong female force that wants to stand her own ground amidst all of the testosterone. She can kick some serious ass. She’s also one of many new additions that bog down the latest entry and add on an extra half hour to the running time; even Antonio Banderas, a wonderfully talented and charismatic actor, feels woefully out of place, being demoted to an annoying sidekick rather than becoming an actual character.

Yet the action is the shining star of these films, the beacon of hope that guides the viewer toward a satisfying viewing. It’s a disappointment, then, that the film undermines all of the action by taking away every element that made it distinguishable in the previous efforts. Here, the teen-friendly rating demonstrates a desire to appease younger viewers, but in doing so the action becomes woefully bland and lifeless. Outside of an exciting car chase in one of the film’s opening moments, every fighting sequence feels choreographed and mechanical. Characters never get wounded and nothing important happens to any of them when they are facing danger. As they are attacked by hundreds of men and have multiple tanks and helicopters shooting at them nonstop, you would think one character would get hit by a single bullet. Even Gibson’s character remarks that it shouldn’t be that difficult. But alas. These films meet the standard they have set: there’s high octane action, cheesy jokes, and too many characters to care about any particular one. In that regard, The Expendables 3 delivers. 

Grade: ★ (out of 5)

See my full video review right HERE.