Mini Reviews (May 2015)
Starry Eyes, Ex Machina, True Story, Foodies: The Culinary Jetset, Area 51, The Tie That Binds, The Mirror
Starry Eyes (May 14/15)
Starry Eyes follows an aspiring actress (Alex Essoe's Sarah) as she finds herself drawing closer and closer to a role that could change her life, with problems commencing as Sarah begins to suspect that there's something just a little off about the film's producers. There's little doubt that Starry Eyes benefits substantially from its overtly stylish execution, as filmmakers Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer have infused the proceedings with a striking sensibility that immediately grabs the viewer's attention - with star Essoe's fearless, frequently jaw-dropping performance certainly perpetuating the movie's initial promise. It's just as clear, however, that Starry Eyes' almost unreasonably deliberate pace prevents the viewer from connecting to either the narrative or the characters, and although the mystery of the aforementioned sinister production does keep things intriguing for a while, there eventually reaches a point at which it becomes impossible to wholeheartedly care about the central character's plight. The impressively (and jaw-droppingly) brutal nature of the film's final stretch briefly buoys the viewer's evaporated interest, and yet it's ultimately impossible to label Starry Eyes as anything more than an ambitious (and sporadically engaging) misfire.
Ex Machina (May 15/15)
Alex Garland's directorial debut, Ex Machina follows computer programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) as he wins an invitation to his mysterious boss' (Oscar Isaac's Nathan) remote estate - where Caleb is eventually introduced to a beautiful, intelligent artificial lifeform (Alicia Vikander's Ava). Garland, working from his own screenplay, has infused Ex Machina with a pace best described as deliberate, with Garland's willingness to let the story breathe having both positive and negative ramifications on the movie as a whole (ie certain sections are far more enthralling and entertaining than others). The inherently compelling premise, coupled with stellar performances from the three stars, goes a long way towards keeping things interesting throughout the (admittedly overlong) running time, with the expanded-from-a-short-film feel generally allayed by the sinister escalation that's been hardwired into the proceedings (ie it's obvious this is all heading in a decidedly less-than-savory direction). By the time the violent (yet oddly difficult-to-swallow) ending rolls around, Ex Machina has confirmed its place as a strong first effort from Garland that bodes well for his future endeavors behind the camera.
True Story (May 19/15)
A completely forgettable and misguided piece of work, True Story follows disgraced journalist Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill) as he attempts to redeem himself by interviewing an accused killer (James Franco's Christian Longo). It's an admittedly promising setup that's employed to nothing but bland effect by first-time director Rupert Goold, with the movie generally suffering from a total absence of passion or necessity for the duration of its 99 minutes. There's a palpable feeling of ambivalence here that proves impossible to overlook, as Goold, working from his own screenplay, employs a frustratingly sedate filmmaking style that holds the viewer at arms length on an ongoing basis - with Goold's perfunctory direction reflected in the less-than-impressive performances by both Hill and Franco. (The latter's passable turn is at least preferable to the former's hopelessly unconvincing work here.) It's worth noting, however, that True Story does improve slightly as it passes the one-hour mark, with the growing emphasis on Longo's trial finally injecting the narrative with a modicum of actual tension. The last-minute improvement comes far too late to make any real difference here, however, and it is, in the end, impossible not to wonder why any of the participants even bothered (ie this is on the level of an uninspired movie-of-the-week, mostly).
Foodies: The Culinary Jetset (May 19/15)
Foodies: The Culinary Jetset follows a handful of influential food bloggers as they discuss their craft and visit some of the world's most exclusive (and expensive) restaurants. There's little doubt that Foodies: The Culinary Jetset fares best in its first half, as filmmakers Thomas Jackson, Charlotte Landelius, and Henrik Stockare have infused the proceedings with a brisk, compulsively watchable feel that proves impossible to resist - with the film's early success due in no small part to the decidedly eclectic nature of its various subjects. (In the movie's fantastic opening, for example, Andy Hayler complains of the subpar champagne he's been served.) And although the directors including a number of interesting tidbits and talking points - eg one of the subjects complains about the disdain foodies receive from others, noting that other expensive hobbies are easily accepted - Foodies: The Culinary Jetset runs out of steam to an increasingly palpable (and distressing) degree as it progresses. There reaches a point at which the three filmmakers have clearly said all they have to say on the topic and yet the movie, past a certain point, becomes an interminable, repetitive slog suffused with one sequence of a foodie eating and taking pictures of food after another. The movie admittedly does contain a handful of intriguing moments in its final stretch - eg Steven Plotnicki is confronted by a chef whose work he has panned, Aiste Miseviciute eats a solo sushi meal in a Japanese restaurant located in a parking garage, etc - but it's finally clear that Foodies: The Culinary Jetset simply doesn't have enough material to warrant the feature-length treatment.
Area 51 (May 22/15)
Oren Peli's long-delayed followup to 2007's Paranormal Activity, Area 51 follows several friends as they foolishly attempt to uncover the secrets held within the title government facility. It's perhaps not surprising to note that Area 51 possesses the feel and structure of a typical found-footage horror movie, with the characters' initial heist-like preparations inevitably followed by their incursion into the infamous alien-landing site. Peli, along with coscreenwriter Christopher Denham, does a nice job of peppering Area 51's first half with engaging (and occasionally tense) sequences, although, perhaps predictably, the film does hit something of a lull as it progresses into its wheel-spinning, uneventful midsection (eg there's a long interlude in which the characters arrive at and scope out the central locale). It's just as clear, however, that Area 51 improves considerably once the protagonists make their way into the (poorly fortified) compound, with the tense atmosphere heightened by the inclusion of several impressively entertaining, science-fiction-oriented stretches (ie some of this stuff is pretty fun, particularly for UFO buffs). And although the narrative takes an expectedly grim turn in its final minutes, Area 51 ends on a palpably abrupt note that is, to say the least, rather disappointing - with the film ending at a spot where it could (and should) continued for at least another half hour. (As far as the mediocre found-footage genre goes, however, this is probably one of the more creative attempts to emerge in recent years.)
The Tie That Binds (May 26/15)
Screenwriter Wesley Strick's directorial debut, The Tie That Binds follows Vincent Spano's Russell and Moira Kelly's Dana as they begin the process of adopting a troubled young girl (Julia Devin's Janie) - with problems ensuing as said young girl's murderous parents (Keith Carradine's John and Daryl Hannah's Leann) arrive on the scene to claim their daughter. The potential for an engaging "blank"-from-hell thriller is certainly omnipresent within The Tie That Binds, as the film's note-perfect premise is complemented by Hannah and Carradine's terrifically menacing work here - with Carradine especially delivering an always-entertaining, scenery-chewing performance that tends to elevate every scene in which he appears. Scripter Michael Auerbach's run-of-the-mill sensibilities are, at the outset, allayed by an emphasis on pulpy elements (eg John and Leann murder their way through those standing between them and their daughter), and although Strick's sporadic emphasis on unexpectedly stylish visuals (eg Scorsese's Cape Fear is clearly an influence) helps keep things interesting, The Tie That Binds suffers from a second half that feels as though it's emerged directly from a template for movies of this ilk - with the over-the-top finale ensuring that the movie ends on an anticlimactic (and thoroughly underwhelming) note.
The Mirror (May 26/15)
This found-footage horror flick follows a trio of friends (Joshua Dickinson's Matt, Jemma Dallender's Jemma, and Nate Fallows' Steve) as they purchase a supposedly haunted mirror and film their interactions with it over the next several days, with the movie, not surprisingly, detailing the progressively sinister happenings that occur among the three characters. Filmmaker Ed Boase has infused The Mirror with virtually all of the attributes one has come to associate with this genre, with the movie's lack of innovation, generally speaking, allayed by a trio of strong performances and an increasingly dark (and creepy) atmosphere. It's just as clear, however, that Boase doesn't quite seem to have enough material to warrant a feature-length running time, with the film suffering from a palpably uneventful midsection that does, more and more, test the viewer's patience. The Mirror undoubtedly improves in its final stretch, though, as Boase offers up a number of undeniably tense moments and appreciatively brutal kill sequences - and yet, on the other hand, it becomes increasingly difficult to swallow the protagonists' idiotic behavior (ie after a certain point, one would imagine they'd either leave the loft or call the authorities). It's finally clear that The Mirror would've fared a whole lot better had it been shortened and included as an installment within the V/H/S series, as the film runs out of steam long before it arrives at its typically abrupt conclusion.