Mini Reviews (July 2016)
The Pineville Heist, Truth or Consequences, N.M., Out of Print, Swiss Army Man, The Presence, Blackout, Queen of Spades: The Dark Rite, Holidays, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, Lights Out, Star Trek Beyond, Indignation
The Pineville Heist (July 4/16)
The Pineville Heist follows teenager Aaron Stevens (Presley Massara) as he's forced to fend for his life after stumbling upon the aftermath of an armed robbery, with the bulk of the storyline detailing Aaron's subsequent attempts at evading a vicious criminal within the confines of a local high school. Shot on an obvious shoestring, The Pineville Heist is a well-intentioned thriller that is, to an increasingly distressing extent, rife with less-than-engrossing elements that render its few positive attributes moot. Ranking high on the film's list of insurmountable deficiencies is an atmosphere of almost extreme amateurishness, as director Lee Chambers, working from a script cowritten with Todd Gordon, proves unable to elicit anything resembling a professional performance out of virtually all of his actors. (Carl Bailey delivers a scenery-chewing turn as the movie's moustache-twirling villain that stands as a rare highlight within the proceedings.) The pervasively lackluster vibe ensures that The Pineville Heist is almost entirely devoid of thrills or suspense, which is a problem, certainly, given that virtually the entire second half plays like a low-rent riff on Die Hard. It's ultimately clear that cinematography is the one area in which The Pineville Heist mildly succeeds, as D.P. David Le May infuses the proceedings with an impressively cinematic feel that often compensates for the otherwise lifeless narrative - and yet this isn't quite enough to elevate the movie above its consistently underwhelming atmosphere.
Truth or Consequences, N.M. (July 5/16)
Kiefer Sutherland's directorial debut, Truth or Consequences, N.M. follows three criminals (Vincent Gallo's Raymond, Mykelti Williamson's Marcus, and Sutherland's Curtis) as they're forced to go on the run after a drug heist goes sideways - with the narrative detailing the trio's efforts, along with Raymond's girlfriend (Kim Dickens' Addy) and two hostages (Kevin Pollak's Gordon and Grace Phillips' Donna), at escaping from the law and unloading their lucrative loot. There's not a whole lot contained within Truth or Consequences, N.M. that one hasn't seen many, many times before, with the film, especially, coming off as a fairly blatant riff on Quentin Tarantino's early films in terms of its characters and dialogue. (It's a vibe that's confirmed virtually from the get-go, as, for example, a character delivers a quirky speech about a lucky quarter.) Sutherland's less-than-vibrant direction doesn't exactly alleviate the been-there-done-that atmosphere, and the film, in its early stages, suffers from a filmed-play feel that's compounded by a needlessly deliberate pace. And although the movie boasts a handful of compelling interludes in its first half (eg Sutherland's Curtis explains the difference between good guys and bad guys to Gordon), Truth or Consequences, N.M. doesn't really achieve anything resembling momentum until somewhere around the halfway mark - after which point the film morphs into a relatively entertaining caper that's been infused with a number of unexpectedly compelling sequences. (Rod Steiger and Martin Sheen deliver strong, engrossing late-in-the-game work as a hot-tempered mob boss and quietly sinister hitman, respectively.) The generic shoot-out that closes the picture is indicative of scripter Brad Mirman's less-than-innovative approach to the material, and it's ultimately not terribly difficult to discern why Truth or Consequences, N.M. has all but been forgotten in the years since its 1997 release.
Out of Print (July 7/16)
An affable yet thoroughly one-sided documentary, Out of Print tells the story of Los Angeles' famed New Beverly Cinema and its rise from obscurity to become one of the country's most well-regarded repertory movie houses - with the film boasting laudatory comments from a wide variety of familiar faces (including Edgar Wright, Kevin Smith, Rian Johnson, and Patton Oswalt). It's certainly not surprising to discover that director Julia Marchese was a long-time employee at the New Beverly, as the movie, for the most part, feels like a love letter to the cinema itself and its various employees and regular customers. (That's at best; at worst, the film resembles a promotional video designed to court potential advertisers and customers.) There's little doubt, then, that Out of Print is at its best when focused on topics relating to cinema in general, as Marchese does a relatively nice job of exploring issues revolving around the title concept - with, for example, the movie boasting a recurring emphasis on the need for actual 35mm prints to remain in circulation (ie there are many, many obscure films that will likely never receive the digital treatment). Likewise, Out of Print benefits from the ongoing input from its myriad of celebrity talking heads - as it's difficult not to get a kick out of some of their comments and stories (eg Wright discussing his encounter with David Lynch, Joe Carnahan lamenting folks who text during movies, etc). The end result is a passable documentary that'll have a much greater impact on those familiar with the New Beverly than to newbies, which is a shame, really, given the potential afforded by the movie's celluloid-oriented title.
Swiss Army Man (July 9/16)
Swiss Army Man tells the rather inexplicable story of a shipwrecked man (Paul Dano's Hank) who stumbles upon a dead body (Daniel Radcliffe's Manny) and discovers that it's somehow sentient, with the narrative, past that point, detailing the oddball friendship that ensues between the extremely mismatched pair. It goes without saying that Swiss Army Man is one of the most overtly oddball films to emerge in quite some time, with, especially, the picture's opening half hour requiring a tremendous amount of patience and leeway from the viewer. (It's during this portion of the proceedings that one is forced to wonder if filmmakers Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert have anything more up their sleeves than one-note weirdness.) There's little doubt, then, that the movie improves considerably as it progresses, as Kwan and Scheinert slowly-but-surely begin infusing the narrative with unexpectedly potent bursts of emotion - with the increasingly compelling bond between the two protagonists heightened by an emphasis on impressively cinematic set-pieces and sequences. (The movie's high point, for example, is a dazzling interlude in which Hank attempts to jog Manny's memory by replicating a pivotal bus ride.) From there, Swiss Army Man, anchored by its incredible lead performances, entertainingly makes its way through a second half that's erratic yet often captivating - with the hilariously off-the-wall conclusion cementing the movie's place as a singularly conceived and executed piece of work.
The Presence (July 13/16)
One of the worst found-footage horror flicks of all time, The Presence follows three friends (Liv Lisa Fries' Rebecca, Matthias Dietrich's Markus, and Henning Nöhren's Lukas) as they make the spectacularly ill-conceived decision to visit and stay at an old, supposedly haunted castle - with the movie detailing the protagonists' subsequent efforts at coping with the spooky shenanigans that predictably begin to ensue. It's an almost shamefully by-the-numbers premise that's employed to less-than-entertaining effect by writer/director Daniele Grieco, as the filmmaker, making his fiction debut here, has infused the proceedings with an oppressively slow pace that highlights the movie's many, many deficiencies - with the uneventful narrative and aggressively low-rent visuals and production values ranking high on the film's list of amateurish and flat-out incompetent elements. The unwatchable vibe is perpetuated by Grieco's inability to establish a creepy atmosphere, and it's fairly disheartening to note just how many conventions of the genre the director relies on to jolt the viewer (eg loud noises, sudden movement, etc, etc). And as interminable as the movie's first half is, The Presence really begins to go off the rails as it lumbers into its progressively incoherent third act - with the story's Blair Witch Project-like detour proving absolutely disastrous and ensuring that the final half hour is nothing short of unwatchable. The laughably underwhelming finale, which is downright nonsensical, cements The Presence's place as a uniquely awful piece of work, and it seems apparent that the notoriously mediocre found-footage genre has reached its nadir.
no stars out of
Blackout (July 14/16)
Blackout follows a trio of strangers (Aidan Gillen's Karl, Amber Tamblyn's Claudia, and Armie Hammer's Tommy) as they find themselves trapped within the confines of a stalled elevator, with the movie detailing the mistrust that ensues as it becomes more and more obvious that one of these people isn't as innocuous as he (or she) seems. It's a solid premise that's employed to persistently middling effect by filmmaker Rigoberto Castañeda, as the movie suffers from a distinct lack of elements designed to capture and sustain the viewer's interest (ie there's nothing here that wholeheartedly draws one into the spare narrative). Castañeda's overly ambitious and consistently over-the-top directorial choices prove effective at perpetuating Blackout's far-from-engrossing atmosphere, with the movie's proliferation of distracting visual (and aural) touches wreaking havoc on its momentum and obliterating any hope of tension or suspense. There's little doubt, too, that the one-dimensional protagonists contribute heavily to the movie's downfall, as the actors find themselves trapped within the confines of scarcely-developed characters that remain unsympathetic from beginning to end. (Castañeda offers up a series of distracting flashbacks that flesh out their respective backstories but also perpetuates the often eye-rollingly familiar bent of their personalities.) By the time the unreasonably over-the-top final stretch rolls around, Blackout's squandered a decent setup to become an overtly obnoxious thriller that boasts few positive attributes (if any).
Queen of Spades: The Dark Rite (July 15/16)
Though it opens with a fair degree of promise, Queen of Spades: The Dark Rite eventually devolves into a mess of hackneyed clichés and ineffective scares - with the movie's downward spiral compounded by an unreasonably, almost astonishingly deliberate pace. The narrative details the consequences of a group of friends' ill-conceived decision to summon a murderous demon, with the emphasis placed on the efforts of a father (Igor Khripunov) at keeping his daughter (Alina Babak's Anya) out of the aforementioned demon's clutches. Filmmaker Svyatoslav Podgayevskiy kicks Queen of Spades: The Dark Rite off with a strong pre-credits interlude detailing the friends' initial contact with the malevolent presence, with the sequence's effectiveness heightened by Podgayevskiy's cinematic visuals and a handful of better-than-anticipated performances. From there, however, the movie quickly segues into a slow-moving and all-too-typical ghost story that's rife with tedious elements - with, especially, the decision to stress Khripunov's character's investigation into the apparition's horrifying past nothing short of disastrous (ie it's just not interesting in the slightest). It's clear, too, that Queen of Spades: The Dark Rite's reliance on overly polished special effects hampers its fright factor, while the third-act left-turn into possession territory smacks of desperation and easily exacerbates the already-interminable vibe. The end result is a fairly annoying horror endeavor that looks quite handsome, admittedly, and yet the movie's overall lack of engaging elements, in the end, renders its positive attributes moot.
Holidays (July 19/16)
A typically erratic horror anthology, Holidays tells eight stories revolving entirely around specific days - including Easter (a young girl has a less-than-cheerful encounter with the Easter Bunny), Halloween (three webcam models take revenge against their sleazy boss), and Christmas (a meek father pays the price after he steals a coveted gift from a dying man). It's clear that Holidays takes an awfully long time to get going, as the movie's first half is littered with uninvolving, aggressively meandering entries that test the viewer's patience - with the very first tale certainly setting a low bar for everything that follows. The ineffectiveness of that opener, Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer's Valentine's Day, paves the way for a series of equally disappointing stories, with, especially, Sarah Adina Smith's Mother's Day squandering what could (and should) have been a chilling entry by emphasizing silly, inexplicable elements. Holidays remains stagnant, then, until it reaches Anthony Scott Burns' Father's Day, as this segment boasts a slow, creepy build that's heightened by atmospheric visuals and a strong performance by Jocelin Donahue. (The ending is a little too ambiguous for its own good, admittedly.) The remainder of the stories past that point are, generally speaking, entertaining and engaging, although Kevin Smith's Halloween is disappointingly lacking in the memorable dialogue for which he's known. (It's impressively gory, at least.) Holidays closes with a generic yet entertaining New Year's Eve tale from Adam Egypt Mortimer, and yet it's ultimately clear that the film's proliferation of poorly-conceived segments drains the viewer's enthusiasm for those that fare better.
Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (July 19/16)
Inspired by true events, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates follows title characters Mike (Adam Devine) and Dave (Zac Efron) as they place an online ad to find acceptable escorts for their sister's (Sugar Lyn Beard's Jeanie) tropical wedding - with the siblings' plan taking a nosedive after two incredibly questionable girls (Anna Kendrick's Alice and Aubrey Plaza's Tatiana) answer the posting. The degree to which Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates ultimately alienates the viewer is nothing short of shocking, to be sure, given that the movie opens with a fair amount of promise and boasts a talented roster of charismatic actors. (The supporting cast includes, in terms of the latter, Stephen Root, Jake Johnson, and Kumail Nanjiani.) It doesn't take long, unfortunately, for the film to establish its less-than-competent, painfully over-the-top sensibilities, as director Jake Szymanski, working from Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O'Brien's screenplay, elicits aggressively exaggerated performances that are compounded by an ongoing emphasis on broad (yet completely unfunny) situations and sequences. (Where, for example, are the laughs in a punishingly long interlude in which Jeanie receives an overtly sexual massage from Nanjiani's Keanu?) There's little doubt, then, that Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates grows more and more insufferable as it progresses, with the predictably (and ludicrously) saccharine bent of the film's third act ensuring that the whole thing fizzles out to a disastrous extent - which, naturally, confirms the movie's place as a misguided, misbegotten misfire of epic proportions.
Lights Out (July 26/16)
Based on a legitimately creepy 2013 short film, Lights Out follows Teresa Palmer's Rebecca as she must put aside her differences with her mom (Maria Bello's Sophie) to save her little brother (Gabriel Bateman's Martin) from a demonic menace. Director David F. Sandberg, making his feature-length debut here, does an excellent job of immediately capturing the viewer's interest, as Lights Out kicks off with a pre-title sequence that's as creepy and engrossing as the aforementioned short. It's fairly disappointing to note, then, that the movie segues into a slow-moving and progressively uneventful thriller, with Eric Heisserer's screenplay detailing the central character's less-than-engrossing exploits and her efforts at both keeping her brother safe and figuring out just what the pursuing demon wants. The script's emphasis on the latter is especially tedious, to be sure, as great swaths of the midsection are devoted to Rebecca's Ring-like investigation into the demon's tragic past - with the growing explanation for what happened to him/her/it draining the proceedings of tension on an increasingly regular basis (ie the monster essentially stops being frightening once the viewer is asked to sympathize with it). It doesn't help, either, that Sandberg dials down the violence to an almost absurd degree, with the movie's far-from-captivating atmosphere exacerbated by a low body count and proliferation of somewhat ineffective jump scares. And although the picture does liven up a little in its comparatively energetic third act, Lights Out ultimately can't quite justify its full-length running time and is, for the most part, unable to live up to the high bar set by its preceding short (and its own opening stretch, certainly).
Star Trek Beyond (July 26/16)
Though riddled with problems, Star Trek Beyond nevertheless stands as a very mild improvement over its immediate predecessor, 2013's Star Trek Into Darkness - as the movie tells a relatively interesting (and wholly original) story that feels as though it could've emerged from the original series. The film follows the Enterprise crew as they answer a distress call and are almost immediately attacked by a vicious race of aliens, with the remainder of the proceedings revolving around the heroes' subsequent efforts at recovering from that deadly incursion and, eventually, fighting back. Before it gets to its typically action-packed narrative, however, Star Trek Beyond kicks off with a low-key and unexpectedly engrossing stretch detailing the crew's activities since Into Darkness. The initial emphasis on character development over spectacle is refreshing, to be sure, although it's inevitably not long before director Justin Lin bombards the viewer with the first of many action sequences. (It doesn't help, certainly, that Lin and cinematographer Stephen F. Windon have infused the picture with muddy and needlessly dim visuals that render such moments all but indecipherable.) And while the movie does flounder in the aftermath of that big first-act set-piece, Star Trek Beyond eventually recovers and settles to become a fairly engaging Trek tale that benefits from solid chemistry between the lead actors. (The growing bond between Zachary Quinto's Spock and Karl Urban's Bones, for example, is impossible to resist.) It's just a shame, then, that the film's villain, Idris Elba's Krall, fares so poorly, as the character comes off as a garden-variety psycho whose motives are murky (at best!) - which ultimately ensures that the climactic battle doesn't quite pack the punch that Lin has surely intended. There is, in the end, little doubt that Star Trek Beyond's success is due mostly to the effectiveness of the cast, and it's impossible not to wish that future installments would dial down the special-effects excess and focus instead on the justifiably iconic protagonists.
Indignation (July 27/16)
Based on the book by Philip Roth and set in the 1950s, Indignation follows Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) as he undergoes a series of trials and tribulations after arriving at a small college in Ohio - with, for example, the character butting heads with Tracy Letts' inquisitive Dean Caudwell and embarking on a tumultuous relationship with Sarah Gadon's unbalanced Olivia. Director James Schamus, making his debut here, has infused Indignation with a lush and almost stately feel that is, at the outset, more distracting than anything else, as the movie's Oscar-bait-type vibe initially holds the viewer at arms length and prevents one from connecting with the central character. It's not long, however, before the inherently engrossing nature of Roth's story renders such issues moot, and there's little doubt, too, that Schamus does an absolutely spellbinding job of establishing the movie's protagonists and very specific locale - with, in terms of the former, Lerman stepping into the shoes of his touchy character to a degree that often proves hypnotic. (It's clear, too, that both Gadon and Letts deliver flawless performances that elevate the proceedings on a regular basis.) Indignation's compulsively watchable atmosphere is taken to an entirely different level around halfway through, as it's at that point that Schamus proffers a captivating 16-minute scene detailing a conversation between Marcus and Dean Caudwell - with the increasingly confrontational nature of this sequence (ie it just builds and builds) confirming its place as the movie's centerpiece and high point. And although the movie is perhaps longer than necessary (ie Roth's slim novel can't quite sustain a 110 minute running time), Indignation is an engaging and often haunting drama that benefits substantially from the career-best work of its three central actors.