Mini Reviews (March 2015)
About a Boy, The Ouija Experiment, The Lazarus Effect, Identity Thief, Harmontown, White Rabbit, You're Not You, Animal, The Monkey's Paw
About a Boy (March 2/15)
Based on the book by Nick Hornby, About a Boy follows Hugh Grant's Will Freeman as he begrudgingly befriends an odd young boy (Nicholas Hoult's Marcus) and his mentally-unstable mother (Toni Collette's Fiona). Filmmakers Chris and Paul Weitz offer up a faithful adaptation that remains pitched at a level of watchable mediocrity virtually from start to finish, with the movie, though exceedingly well made and acted, unable to wholeheartedly capture the viewer's attention over the course of its deliberately-paced running time. It's clear, too, that the heartfelt revelations that crop up over the course of the narrative are unable to pack the punch that the Weitz siblings strive for, which is a shame, certainly, given that there are plenty of moments here that could (and should) have provoked an emotional reaction from the viewer. Grant's typically charming turn as the affable central character goes a long way towards keeping things interesting, while the talented supporting cast, which includes Rachel Weisz and Natalia Tena, adds welcome (and often much-needed) color to the proceedings. By the time the expectedly sentimental finale rolls around, About a Boy has confirmed its place as a thoroughly average piece of work that fares about as well as its passable literary forebear.
The Ouija Experiment (March 5/15)
A typically underwhelming low-budget, found-footage horror effort, The Ouija Experiment follows several friends as they decide to record their sessions with a ouija board and are subsequently/predictably pursued by sinister figures. It's perhaps not surprising to note that The Ouija Experiment is, for the most part, entirely lacking in creepy elements, with the majority of the film's overlong running time devoted to the characters' drawn-out and hopelessly uninvolving exploits - which, to be fair, is undoubtedly a consequence of the movie's shockingly low budget ($1200, if the Internet Movie Database is to be believed). And while writer/director Israel Luna eventually does offer up a handful of decent jolts, The Ouija Experiment's absence of bona fide scares does ensure that one's interest wanes considerably as time progresses. Luna's attempts at fleshing things out with mounds and mounds of tedious backstory only exacerbates the movie's less-than-engrossing vibe, and it certainly doesn't help, either, that the cast is comprised almost completely of incompetent amateurs. The end result is a fairly terrible endeavor that could've been worse, admittedly, but there's just got to be a better way to spend 92 minutes.
The Lazarus Effect (March 6/15)
The Lazarus Effect follows several researchers, including Olivia Wilde's Zoe and Mark Duplass' Frank, as they attempt to perfect a technique designed to resurrect deceased patients, with bloodshed ensuing after the researchers employ this technique to bring one of their own back from the dead. There is, to an increasingly prominent degree, little within The Lazarus Effect that wholeheartedly works, with the relatively promising nature of the movie's opening stretch paving the way for an erratic narrative that misses far more than it hits. The effective performances and smattering of creepy moments are rendered moot as the film progresses into its increasingly silly second half, with the decidedly implausible nature of the movie's central twist compounded by a certain character's almost incomprehensible behavior in its aftermath. It doesn't help, either, that filmmaker David Gelb has infused The Lazarus Effect with a distinctly generic feel, with the run-of-the-mill vibe especially pronounced during the movie's everyone-runs-and-hides-in-the-dark third act. And although scripters Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater briefly touch upon intriguing ideas involving the afterlife - of which, to be certain, the movie could've used much more - The Lazarus Effect ultimately comes off as a thoroughly unmemorable and disappointingly lazy horror endeavor.
Identity Thief (March 12/15)
Saddled with an almost astonishingly overlong running time (111 minutes!), Identity Thief suffers from an often unwatchable first half that admittedly does give way to a passable final stretch - which does confirm that the movie could've used some judicious editing prior to its release. The narrative follows Jason Bateman's Sandy Patterson as he's forced to track down the woman (Melissa McCarthy's Diana) who's stolen his identity, with the film consequently detailing Sandy's ongoing efforts at bringing Diana to justice. It's ultimately clear that Identity Thief fares especially poorly in its utterly wrongheaded opening half hour, with the ludicrous nature of the movie's premise compounded by a prototypically irritating performance from McCarthy - as the actress indulges in virtually all of the ticks and mannerisms with which she has come to be associated (ie she won't be winning over her detractors with this incredibly broad turn). There's little doubt, then, that the film improves to a fairly noticeable degree once Bateman and McCarthy's respective characters are forced to work together, with the movie adopting a buddy-comedy vibe that is, undoubtedly intentionally, strongly reminiscent of John Hughes' far superior Planes, Trains & Automobiles. The passable vibe is all-too-often thwarted by scripter Craig Mazin's emphasis on thoroughly questionable set pieces, including a seriously misguided scene in which Sandy is attacked by an almost comically fake-looking computer-generated snake. By the time the oddly dramatic climax rolls around, Identity Thief has confirmed its place as an utterly uneven comedy that could (and should) have been so much better.
Harmontown (March 12/15)
Harmontown certainly succeeds as a profile of Dan Harmon's Harmontown podcast, and yet it's just as clear that the movie, which runs a palpably overlong 101 minutes, boasts few attributes designed to appeal to newcomers of Harmon's offbeat world - with filmmaker Neil Berkeley either unable or unwilling to wholeheartedly crawl under the skin of his prickly subject. (The most obvious example of this involves Harmon's firing by boss Sarah Silverman, with Berkeley exploring the dismissal from every angle except that of Harmon's.) Berkeley's surface-level approach - eg there's plenty of talk about a disastrous Phoenix show, but where's the accompanying footage? - ensures that Harmontown, for the most part, feels like a promotional video commissioned by Harmon himself, as the film's repetitive atmosphere grows more and more exasperating as time slowly progresses. It's clear, then, that the film is at its best when focuses on the happenings in between the many, many podcast recordings, with the ongoing emphasis on Harmon's relationship with his longtime girlfriend, Erin McGathy, certainly standing as a highlight in the proceedings (ie such moments add much-needed bursts of emotion to a film that's otherwise rather stale). And while the movie does improve somewhat as it passes the one-hour mark - Berkeley finally begins exploring Harmon's inner psyche - Harmontown far too often comes off as a self-congratulatory puff piece geared towards Harmon's apparent multitude of followers.
White Rabbit (March 14/15)
Though swathed in good intentions, White Rabbit comes off as a generic and often painfully slow drama whose problems are compounded by a bland and thoroughly forgettable protagonist. The familiar narrative follows put-upon teenager Harlon (Nick Krause) as he attempts to survive an abusive household and a bully-filled high-school experience, with the character's only respite a tentative friendship with a fellow outsider named Julie (Britt Robertson). Filmmaker Tim McCann, working from Anthony Di Pietro's screenplay, proves unable to draw the viewer into the deliberately-paced proceedings to a decidedly disastrous extent, as there's simply nothing contained within the thin storyline for one to wholeheartedly latch onto - with Krause's terminally lackluster ensuring that one's continuing efforts to sympathize with his increasingly unstable character fall completely flat. It's consequently clear that Harlon's transformation from a nice, normal teen to a seriously unhinged figure isn't able to pack the punch McCann has aimed for, with the perpetually uninvolving atmosphere preventing the emotional final stretch from even partially justifying all that precedes it. White Rabbit is, in the end, a wholly misguided endeavor that fails on most of the levels it attempts, with Krause's distractingly amateurish performance merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of the film's many faults.
You're Not You (March 23/15)
The degree to which You're Not You improves as it progresses is nothing short of astonishing, as the movie, which initially comes off as a conventional and overly familiar drama, slowly-but-surely establishes itself as an effective tearjerker that's rife with palpably emotional moments. The narrative follows well-to-do musician Kate (Hilary Swank) as she's forced to make radical changes to her life after she's diagnosed with ALS days after her 35th birthday, with the movie primarily exploring the bond that forms between Kate and her angry yet sympathetic caregiver (Emmy Rossum's Bec). It's clear right from the get-go that filmmaker George C. Wolfe's handling of Rossum's less-than-fresh character contributes heavily to You're Not You's first-act problems, as Bec initially comes off as a generically rebellious young adult whose personal problems are simply too hackneyed to really generate much interest among viewers. There's little doubt, however, that the movie improves considerably as it progresses, with the decision to shift the focus to the burgeoning relationship/friendship between Kate and Bec playing a key role in the film's transformation into an unexpectedly engrossing (and periodically wrenching) piece of work. And although scripters Shana Feste and Jordan Roberts wreak havoc on the film's momentum by including an entirely needless third-act fake break-up between Swank and Rossum's respective characters, You're Not You, anchored by Swank's often breathtaking performance, ultimately lives up to its place as a seriously affecting (if unabashedly manipulative) disease-of-the-week-type weeper.
Animal (March 23/15)
Though it opens with a tremendous amount of promise, Animal ultimately devolves into just another forgettable straight-to-video horror flick that predominantly features characters hiding and running within all-too-dark environs. The thin storyline follows several friends as they head out into the woods for an afternoon of harmless hiking, with problems inevitably cropping up as it becomes clear that a vicious creature is stalking the characters - with the movie eventually detailing the survivors' attempts to keep said creature at bay while hiding out in a nearby cabin. Filmmaker Brett Simmons kicks Animal off with an engrossing first act that's engaging enough to compensate for the pervasively familiar narrative, with, especially, the strong performances and John Carpenter-like opening credits sequence setting the stage for a potentially above-average creature feature. It's only as the film progresses into its increasingly stagnant midsection that one's interest begins to seriously flag, as Simmons offers up a second half that seems to transpire entirely within the claustrophobic confines of the aforementioned cabin - with the movie, for much of its third act, following the dwindling survivors as they bicker and hide and attempt to evade the creature. The sporadic presence of brutal kill sequences notwithstanding, Animal's lack of compelling elements in its final stretch renders its few positive attributes moot and confirms its place as a thoroughly disappointing horror effort.
The Monkey's Paw (March 27/15)
Based on a short novel by W.W. Jacobs, The Monkey's Paw details the bloody mayhem that ensues after C.J. Thomson's Jake Tilton gets his hands on the title artifact - with the item promising three wishes to its possessor. (It's no surprise to learn that Jake's wishes go horribly awry.) The setup seems to promise a fun, fast-paced horror flick somewhere along the lines of the Leprechaun and Wishmaster series, and yet scripter Macon Blair instead opts for an almost astonishingly generic approach that rarely (if ever) exploits the larger-than-life premise to satisfactory effect. It's disappointing, surely, given the strength of the movie's early scenes and the initial appearance of the supernatural paw, as filmmaker Brett Simmons does a nice job, in the film's opening stretch, of establishing the story's plot and array of quirky of supporting characters (which includes Stephen Lang's Tony Cobb and an unrecognizable Corbin Bleu as Catfish). The narrative starts its downward spiral, then, once Jake uses a wish to bring close friend Tony back from the dead, with The Monkey's Paw, past that point, devolving into an increasingly tedious (and frustratingly repetitive) thriller detailing both Tony's transformation into a murderous, zombie-like figure and a local cop's ensuing investigation into the killings. It goes without saying, ultimately, that one's interest in all this dwindles considerably as the anticlimactic conclusion approaches, with the end result a disappointingly half-baked horror endeavor that could (and should) have been much, much better.