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Mini Reviews (July 2015)

Murder at 1600, Preservation, Slow West, As Above So Below, Rapture-Palooza, The Den, The Gift

Murder at 1600 (July 5/15)

Murder at 1600 casts Wesley Snipes as Harlan Regis, an almost comically cocky D.C. cop who's recruited to look into the murder of a staffer at the White House - with Regis' investigation eventually teaming him up with an eager young agent named Nina Chance (Diane Lane). Screenwriters Wayne Beach and David Hodgin seem to have culled the script for Murder at 1600 directly from a template for dumbed-down political thrillers, as the movie, which generally remains watchable (at the very least), unfolds in precisely the manner one might've anticipated and boasts the various touchstones associated with films of this ilk. It is, as such, not surprising to discover that the narrative possesses few successful elements, with Snipes' often obnoxiously arrogant turn as the central character ensuring that Regis remains rather unsympathetic from start to finish. The mystery at the center of the proceedings doesn't fare much better, unfortunately, as there's little here that doesn't come off as hopelessly familiar and utterly by the numbers. (It's worth noting, however, that the identity of the conspiracy's mastermind is somewhat surprising.) The typically action-packed (yet uninvolving) climactic stretch really doesn't do the movie any favors, and it's ultimately impossible to label Murder at 1600 as anything more than a forgettable '90s thriller.

out of

Preservation (July 7/15)

Though rife with impressive visuals and strong performances, Preservation ultimately falls prey to a narrative that grows more and more idiotic as time progresses. It's a shame, certainly, given that the movie opens with a tremendous amount of promise, as writer/director Christopher Denham offers up a premise that's just about as foolproof as one could imagine - with the narrative following three friends (Wrenn Schmidt's Wit, Pablo Schreiber's Sean, and Aaron Staton's Mike) as they're forced to fend for their lives while on a routine camping trip. Denham does an admittedly superb job of cultivating an atmosphere of increasing dread, with the filmmaker's exceedingly stylish sensibilities complemented by Sam and Alexis' haunting, memorable score. And although Denham has peppered the movie's first half with several effectively chilling moments - eg a character heads into the dark woods armed with only the light from his phone - Preservation is, past a certain point, suffused with elements of a progressively (and lamentably) dumbed-down variety. The most obvious example would be the behavior of the movie's protagonists, as they begin doing things that no rational person would do in a similar situation. (The most obvious example of this is a certain character's decision to turn his back on one of his assailants.) It does, as a result, become virtually impossible to work up any real sympathy for the surviving protagonists' efforts, and there's little doubt, too, that the table-turning shenanigans of the movie's final stretch fall hopelessly flat. It's ultimately difficult to recall a horror flick that squanders its above-average setup quite as firmly as Preservation, with Denham's obvious talent behind the camera apparently not extending to his abilities as a screenwriter.

out of

Slow West (July 7/15)

John Maclean's directorial debut, Slow West follows Kodi Smit-McPhee's Jay Cavendish as he embarks on a quest to reunite with the woman he loves (Caren Pistorius) and reluctantly accepts assistance from a grizzled outlaw named Silas (Michael Fassbender). Slow West, true to its title, does progress at a decidedly deliberate pace that requires patience from the viewer, with the hands-off atmosphere perpetuated by an initial lack of compelling, sympathetic characters. (Smit-McPhee, though quite good here, doesn't entirely have the charisma to carry the movie on his slender back.) It's only as Maclean begins developing Fassbender's taciturn Silas that Slow West becomes more and more engrossing, with the growing inclusion of compelling sequences - eg Jay and Silas find themselves caught up in a robbery - perpetuating the movie's increasingly involving vibe. (It's worth noting, however, that there are a few interludes here that fall relatively flat, with the most cogent example of this Jay's encounter with a shifty clergyman.) The burgeoning bond between Smit-McPhee and Fassbender's respective characters ensures that one can't help but root for their success, and it's clear, too, that the action-packed finale packs quite a visceral punch due to the protagonists' tremendous appeal - which finally confirms Slow West's place as a well-crafted debut from an exceedingly promising filmmaker.

out of

As Above So Below (July 9/15)

A typically underwhelming found-footage horror flick, As Above So Below follows Perdita Weeks' Scarlett as she and a few associates venture into the infamous catacombs beneath Paris to recover a precious (and powerful) gem. There's a fair bit of promise contained within As Above So Below's opening stretch, as the movie's first half is devoted primarily to the central characters' Robert Langdon-esque adventures in Paris and (eventually) the aforementioned catacombs. It's worth noting, too, that the characters' initial foray into the notorious tombs fares relatively well, with filmmaker John Erick Dowdle nicely capturing the Descent-like claustrophobia that's part-and-parcel with stories of this sort. (There's a terrific early sequence in which Edwin Hodge's Benji panics after getting stuck in a very small crawlspace.) As Above So Below's descent into mediocrity, then, is triggered by a wholly ineffective midsection that seems, for the most part, to be spinning its wheels, with long stretches of time devoted to the surviving protagonists' efforts at both figuring out what's going on and how to escape from their increasingly hostile environs. The hopelessly incoherent climax - ie there's just so much running and screaming - ensures that As Above So Below ends on a decidedly negative note, although it ultimately goes without saying that the film fares much, much better than that other Paris-catacombs thriller (2007's Catacombs).

out of

Rapture-Palooza (July 10/15)

Rapture-Palooza follows young couple Ben (John Francis Daley) and Lindsey (Anna Kendrick) as they're forced to adapt to a post-rapture existence, with problems ensuing as no less than the Antichrist (Craig Robinson's The Beast) decides to make Lindsey his bride. Despite its similarities to 2013's lackluster This is the End - complete with a starring turn from Robinson - Rapture-Palooza initially establishes itself as a very different (and far more promising) monster than its big-budget companion. Filmmaker Paul Middleditch, along with scripter Chris Matheson, does an effective job of establishing the parameters of the movie's unusual universe as well as the oddball characters that reside inside it, with, in terms of the latter, the frequently hilarious depiction of Lindsey's parents (John Michael Higgins' Mr. Lewis and Ana Gasteyer's Mrs. Lewis) certainly ranking as an early highlight within the proceedings. The decidedly one-note bent of Matheson's screenplay does, however, become more and more problematic as time progresses, as Rapture-palooza, past a certain point, becomes entirely focused on Robinson's obnoxious character and his continuing (and far-from-funny) efforts at bedding Lindsey. Robinson's grating performance becomes increasingly difficult to stomach and ensures that one's interest slowly-but-surely begins to diminish, with the wholly ineffective third act, which is devoted entirely to the protagonists' attempts at vanquishing The Beast, suffering from a palpably interminable feel that cements Rapture-palooza's status as a thoroughly misguided comedy.

out of

The Den (July 27/15)

Running a brisk 81 minutes, The Den is a found-footage horror flick revolving around a college student (Melanie Papalia's Elizabeth) who begins studying the habits of webcam users - with creepiness ensuing after Elizabeth finds herself drawn deeper and deeper into the exploits of a mysterious online figure. The Den unfolds entirely from the perspective of Elizabeth's laptop computer and cellphone (and, occasionally, other characters' personal electronic devices) and it's clear immediately that the movie benefits from Papalia's personable turn as the protagonist, as the actress, working from a script by Zachary Donohue and Lauren Thompson, does a nice job of transforming her character into a three-dimensional figure that effectively elicits the viewer's ongoing interest and sympathy. Filmmaker Donohue does a nice job of incorporating the various onscreen apps and programs, and it's clear, too, that the atmosphere of mounting dread is heightened by the ongoing inclusion of distinctly creepy elements. And while the movie does suffer from a few lulls here and there, The Den ultimately comes off as a superior found-footage endeavor that's often as unnerving as it is timely. (The ending, though far from plausible, ensures that the picture ends on an exceedingly high note, as well.)

out of

The Gift (July 28/15)

Joel Edgerton's directorial debut, The Gift follows Jason Bateman's Simon and Rebecca Hall's Robyn as they're embroiled in a game of psychological warfare after an old schoolmate of Simon's (Joel Edgerton's Gordo) arrives on the scene. It's the kind of setup that's typically employed in the context of an entertaining yet far-from-fresh "blank from hell" thriller (eg The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, The Temp, Unlawful Entry, etc, etc) and yet writer/director Edgerton does a superb job of ultimately subverting one's expectations, as The Gift, though saddled with a rather familiar opening hour, eventually moves into a third act that's riddled with impossible-to-predict surprises and plot twists. Edgerton's slow-burn sensibilities ensure that the film, in its early stages, benefits substantially from the mystery surrounding Gordo's true intentions (ie the character doesn't do anything truly menacing until around the halfway mark), while the sporadic inclusion of impressively tense sequences (eg Robyn becomes convinced that someone is in the house with her) slowly-but-surely ratchets up the movie's vibe of high tension. It's clear, too, that The Gift receives plenty of mileage from the central actors' stellar work within their respective roles, with, especially, Hall bringing far more depth to the proceedings than one has come to expect from such a storyline. (It doesn't hurt, either, that Bateman, Hall, and Edgerton are backed up by an impressively stellar supporting cast that includes Wendell Pierce, Allison Tolman, and P.J. Byrne.) And although Edgerton is occasionally just a little too lackadaisical in his execution (ie the movie's third act could've easily been tightened), The Gift nevertheless comes off as an engaging, innovative thriller that bodes well for Edgerton's future endeavors behind the camera.

out of

© David Nusair