Friday, September 25, 2015

Hotel Transylvania 2 (2015) Review:

For cartoons, Genndy Tartakovsky has had his hands in and on a lot of peoples' favorite shows. There's something about Tartakovsky's vision of cartoons that breathes life into every movement that is made by them. Tartakovsky made his directorial debut with Hotel Transylvania (2012) and although it was not universally renowned, made people found it to be a fun family movie with a well-developed story, energetic animation and colorful characters. Plus even though it dealt with Halloween related characters, the idea wasn't to scare but make light of the characters and the lore of which they originated from. Here we are with its sequel and although it does keep several elements from the original the same, some things have changed and other parts should have changed. Thankfully, this sequel isn't brought down a whole lot, but it is enough to notice the differences in what should've been focused on more.

Drac & Family
The story to this installment revolves around Dracula (Adam Sandler) trying to bring out the inner vampire of his hybrid grandson Dennis (Asher Blinkoff) brought upon by newly wedded couple/parents Mavis (Selena Gomez) and Jonathan (Andy Samberg). The reason for this is fearing that if their son has no vampire blood flowing in him anywhere, Mavis would end up leaving the hotel for good. Although the premise isn't as obvious, unfortunately the execution ends up feeling very similar to that of the first (plot wise). Dracula claims he is more open minded now but still clings to his past and tries to hide his true ambitions. In some respects, this particular play out moots the point of the first film altogether. Once Drac accepted Jonathan into his world, he should've been prepared for what came after. It just makes it feel like he didn't learn from before. The writing group for this entry shrunk in size. For the first film, five writers were involved. Here only two were, of which only one of them were from the original five.

The one from the original five was Robert Smigel, a writer for multiple Saturday Night Live episodes. The other writer credited for this film was Adam Sandler and unfortunately it shows too. How? Two words, potty humor. Yes, and it sticks out like a soar thumb. Hotel Transylvania (2012) did have some silly moments but none of the comedy required potty humor. That's not to say all of the scenes don't work, but there are scenes where experienced viewers will be able to point out the scenes that Adam Sandler had wrote in. It's just not necessary. Of all problems with this and a familiar plot, that's it. For the moments that don't included immature humor, the rest of the comedy bits are new and contemporary, which is having the characters play off of their own flaws and personalities or trying to have them figure out social media. Drac can't seem to understand that to use a touch screen, you can't have long fingernails. He'll get it I'm sure.

There's also new character additions to the cast, which is great although sometimes it can sink a film if it becomes over saturated. All the original characters voiced by Adam Sandler, Selena Gomez, Andy Samberg, Kevin James, David Spade and Steve Buscemi all sound exactly as they should and still play off one another well. Even Keegan-Michael Key who replaces CeeLo Green as Murray from the first film practically sounds the same too. Some of the new voice actors to jump on board or receive more attention are Sadie Sandler as Winnie (one of Wayne's children), Jon Lovitz as a "phantom of the opera" type character and the comedy guru himself, Mel Brooks playing Vlad, Dracula's father. It really is nice to see a bunch of new and old voice actors work together though. Plus, a star talent like Brooks isn't wasted either. His appearance isn't as long as everyone else's roles but he comes in at the best time.

Mel Brooks does not say "Blah Blablah"
Again since this production was headed by Tartakovsky, the animation and character designs are nothing but great. The character designs are all unique and have intricate texture detailing. Alan Hawkins who worked as an animator for the first film serves a senior animation supervisor for this entry. Considering his past work being on projects like Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (2009) and Arthur Christmas (2011), Hawkins feels like a great collaborator for Tartakovsky's vision. The film score produced by Devo member Mark Mothersbaugh continues his usual work but again fails to provide his listeners with an actual soundtrack for download. The score itself matches the scenes well and portrays the right emotion but it's weird that Mothersbaugh can provide a score for Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (2009) or The Lego Movie (2014) but can't for these films. Why so selective in distribution?

It's not a huge step down from the original but it is noticeable. The sequel does maintain all the character relations and chemistry while adding in new ones like Drac's father voiced by Mel Brooks. It also keeps the same great animation and music. Unfortunately although the premise feels new, the execution is very much parallel to the first film in some ways. Plus with Adam Sandler now active in writing the script, some his childish annoying potty humor got in the recipe as well and it's obvious as all get out.

Points Earned --> 7:10

Black Mass (2015) Review:

Johnny Depp is a well known and praised actor for his work by portraying colorful various characters. However in recent years, many began to think Depp was running out of ideas on how to make his roles unique. A role many loved from his early 2000s was the lead role in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl as Captain Jack Sparrow. Audiences and fans a like began to notice that as time went on, Depp began taking liberties with his acting choices and translating many of Sparrow's mannerisms into his other roles. Although hardcore Depp fans do not mind this, objective critics were not impressed with all the doppelgangers. Then there's this film which completely flips the Depp perception of his usual odd and quirky roles into something that will truly showcase that Depp has more to add. There really isn't much to pull out on the spot for this project. Several of the elements in this production blend so well that it's very difficult to go back and think about what needed work or stood out as bad.

That's not a smile that should make you feel comfortable
Johnny Depp plays the Irish fist-throwing/trash-talking Jimmy "Whitey" Bulger, a real life small town gangster during the mid 1970s who ended up soaring to the F.B.I.'s most wanted list after the early 1990s. Competently directed by Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace (2013)) and written by Mark Mallouk (his first credit) and Jez Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow (2014)), this group of people and the cast tacked on make this story quite the watcher. The writing covers the material as if it were a documentary but does it in such a way that demonstrates to the audience what actually happened other than the people being interviewed giving it all away. It's not incredibly ingenious but it is smart because it gives the viewers a better idea of the people involved and how they dealt with the situation that was erupting during that current time period other than hearing from them decades later. The only thing that is worth mentioning that should've been brought up is how Bulger got his mentality that he was so infamously known for? There is no backstory for Bulger's motivations. Why was he the way he was?

Other than this, everything else works great. Casting wise, Johnny Depp as Jimmy Bulger is jarringly different from recent acting choices and it is a delight to see him as the fouled-mouthed Irishman. Depp's voice is grainy sounding, his receding blonde hairline and cloudy blue eyes really make this something to remember. Even though the background to Bulger's eventual trademark characteristics are not expanded upon, Depp's performance is dumbfoundingly captivating. For such an antagonistic character, the writing and Depp combined are able to give even Bulger small tidbits of humanity that don't even seem possible. The reason why this is almost shocking is because most audiences are not supposed to feel sympathy for such a character. What's weird is that there are times where it seemed as if Bulger did have his soft moments. For example, when Bulger makes a promise about a certain topic, he honestly sounds like he's giving a scout's honor. Then again, it was hard to tell because of how deceitful his personality was. That alone is demonstrated quite early on. This is how devious the writing and the character is.

Along side Depp is Joel Edgerton as John Connolly, an old friend of Bulger who feels he owes him a favor. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Bulger's brother Billy who also knows Connolly and frequently associates with him. Actors Jesse Plemons and Rory Cochrane play Bulger's henchmen who show they are just as loyal to Bulger as is Connolly and Billy. There's also scenes with Peter Sarsgaard, Kevin Bacon, David Harbour and Adam Scott who work along side Connolly in the F.B.I. agency. The majority of these characters get a good dose of character development and each actor performs exceptionally well. The violence although not gruesome, is certainly brutal no doubt. The killings are mostly direct and to the point about what the job is and there are some that will make the viewer hope they don't ever have a run in with a character like Bulger. Not even a can of spinach would save somebody against Bulger; contempt is what he lives on.

Listening in on Bulger rumors
The cinematography shot by Masanobu Takayanagi has a skilled visual flare to it as well. Since this film has two methods of story telling, there are also two methods of camerawork. For the documentary style part of the narrative, Takayanagi films those scenes completely still and close up like an interview would. As for the rest of the execution, Takayanagi films the rest of the scenes like other films. Thankfully there are no shaky cam shots, or disorienting continuous rotating 360 shots. Every scene is well lit and is steady no matter where the camera goes. The film score composed by Tom Holkenborg, better known as Junkie XL also brings in some nice cues to the table. It was a little questionable at first because of how Holkenborg likes to mimic several of Hans Zimmer contemporary synthetic type cues but here Holkenborg actually provided a enjoyable listening experience that includes strings and piano that emotionally capture the trouble that goes on throughout this crime thriller. It's tragic and sounds great.

The only thing that sticks out as of needs for improvement was explaining how Jimmy Bulger got his motivations to become what he's known for. That's not much to say though with a talented supporting cast, gritty violence, effective camerawork, tragic sounding music and a defining performance from Johnny Depp that is quite opposite from the majority of his previous roles.

Points Earned --> 8:10

Friday, September 11, 2015

Saturday Night Fever (1977) Review:

As infrequently as some oldies tunes happen to pop up on the radio, there was a time when that's all it was believe it or not. During the 1970s, the wave of disco joints multiplied by the day. Besides the 1960s and 1970s promoting peace and love, it also became a time where dancing was the "in" thing to do. Everybody was doing it. It was a craze that took a nation by storm where all people wanted to do was party and dance. For movies, the 1970s were also a time of many successes that have created quite an impact on today's culture and society. One of the most widely popular films to be remembered from that era was Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977). However for movies that capitalized on the dance wave at the time, the best known and respected film to represent such a time was this film. It does have some components that could've been left out or fixed but mostly it is an entertaining film of its time.

Hard to believe that's John Travolta
Written by Norman Wexler (Serpico (1973)) and directed by John Badham (in his first feature film), the story is about a late teen named Tony Manero (John Travolta) who lives in a world where the only thing that matters to him is the weekend. He's a nice kid at heart and works hard but just wants live his life in the present. During the day he works at a paint shop, later he hangs with his immature goof ball friends, gets badgered by an old flame named Annette (Donna Pescow) and then has the same dinner every night with his family of high expectations. What Manero looks forward to on the weekend are the disco dances. While attending a party one night he comes across a dancer who catches his eye named Stefanie (Karen Lynn Gorney). It's at that moment Manero wants her to be his dance partner for a competition. For all the prior subplots going on around Manero, they do serve the purpose of character development but they also fall to the wayside over time.

The reoccurring moral of the script is the power of choice. Everyone has a choice to be or do what he or she wants in life. Manero's family wants him to become a priest like his brother Frank (Martin Shakar). Annette gets told numerous times by Tony that she has to decide on whether she's going to act like a woman or a prostitute. Tony is also challenged on his beliefs by Stefanie and when his boss tells him to stop spending his money frivolously on the weekend. Stefanie even gets some of her own medicine thrown back at her. Tony friends are a gradual eye opener as well. Every single supporting/main character has a specific role to play when it comes to character development and it is handled properly. The problem is once the change in character occurs, the supporting threads and their respective characters disappear and aren't concluded in the most direct of ways. The only other component to the writing is some of the slang dialog used. Yes, the 1970s were a much different time. However, this still does not excuse the fact of using various racial slurs.

Other than this every other aspect to the film is enjoyable. The acting is competently performed. It is a bit jarring to see the difference in years when it comes to how much John Travolta changed. Also voice-actor Paul Pape has a role as one of Tony's goof ball friends. The acting and writing also effectively capture the mood and attitude of the era. As stated before, disco was a craze at the time and many people hopped on the bandwagon just because everybody was doing it. Plus with all the issues surrounding Tony, going to the disco was also a good representation of how disco was an escapist activity for a lot of people. For the people who took part, it was a moment in time where people would forget about their troubles and just enjoy the night. The cinematography shot by Ralf D. Bode fit well with the scenes too. Bode was able to acquire a number of odd angles and establishing shots that in some ways felt like the camera was prepping the audience just as much as the scene was.

"Everybody dance!"
The choreography handled by Lester Wilson was crafted nicely as well. A year before, Wilson worked on Sparkle (1976) which proved to be a success and it didn't change here. Wilson's ability to get the entire cast to work in synchronized motion is impressive. That and all the dance moves that Travolta and Gorney perform are well staged. It's unimaginable how much practice went into making sure those dance numbers were done the right way in one shot. That takes patience. The music for this film is practically scoreless with only a few tunes composed by David Shire. The rest was handled by English pop group The Bee Gees (Barry, Maurice & Robin Gibb). The movie itself would probably not be as memorable or popular if it weren't for the numerous songs heard throughout the background. Songs like "Stayin' Alive", "Night Fever", "How Deep Is Your Love" and "More Than a Woman" are just some of the songs that'll stick in the viewers mind. It's also interesting to watch the dancing with these songs because of the viewers’ knowledge of music, how sensual the emotions are in the performances.

Unfortunately for its time it suffers from racial slurs that are still not excusable and its subplots are well written until they aren't needed anymore leading to indirect conclusions. These flaws are thankfully made up for with the abundance of character development, appropriate acting, memorable music tunes and well-staged dance choreography. It is a time capsule that defined the 1970s.

Points Earned --> 7:10

Friday, September 4, 2015

Dark Water (2005) Review:

Ghost stories are a very common occurrence throughout history. Whether the actual phenomenon was portrayed in a good light or not, most people who believe they saw one get weirded out. Seeing something that looks like the image of a long gone person or animal is kind of strange. In literature, a ghost exists because of not being laid to rest appropriately, a curse or something along those lines. For director Hideo Nakata who has made several Japanese horror films, many producers seem to like remaking his films. In 1998, Nakata released Ringu (1998), which would later become The Ring (2002). During that year, Nakata released another original film of his called Honogurai mizu no soko kara (2002); this would eventually become this film. For what is presented here, it is moderately entertaining but it is nowhere near as being a great ghost feature. However even with that said, it does provide a brief enjoyable deviation from the usual horror tropes.

Jennifer Connelly
The story is about Dahlia (Jennifer Connelly), a mother going through a divorce with her husband Kyle (Dougray Scott) who are both trying to figure out who will have custody over their daughter Ceci (Ariel Gade). After a counseling session goes wrong between the parents, Dahlia moves with Ceci to a city further away from Kyle. There they settle in old apartment building owned by Mr. Murray (John C. Reilly) and managed handyman Mr. Veeck (Pete Postlethwaite). Upon picking their suite, Dahlia notices the ceiling to her bedroom is leaking water. Within a couple of days the leak becomes worse and Dahlia takes it upon herself to figure out what the problem is on the floor above. Unexpectedly, Dahlia comes into contact with a ghost that not only will make her situation more tense but also jeopardize her daughter's life. The overall narrative penned by Rafael Yglesias (which was most likely just lifted from Nakata's work) feels solid. However, looking deeper into the cracks reveals various continuity errors.

The acting and characters work effectively in their designated roles. Both Jennifer Connelly and Dougray Scott are convincing as a troubled couple but also show their love for their daughter as well. Seriously though, poor Dahlia - she goes through so much throughout the running time. On top of that after Dahlia moves to the new city, she's hit with a lawsuit by Kyle so she hires Jeff Platzer (Tim Roth) as her lawyer. Platzer probably shows her the most respect (other than Ceci). The duo of John C. Reilly and Pete Postlethwaite as the apartment managers demonstrates what happens when people don't take care of the property. The best actor of the bunch goes to Ariel Gade. She's the highlight of the feature just because how strong her character is at such an early age. How does one even deal with the events put onto them so well without cracking? It is also because of her innocent nature that she feels like the only one who doesn't have such a dim outlook on life. The ghost is played by Perla Haney-Jardine and although she's doesn't shine as much as Gade, she is creepy.

The continuity errors to the script belong to Haney-Jardine's ghost role. Whenever the ghost is around, water begins to get pitch black and gross. However at first, it seems it's only the water in the apartment. Yet when Ceci's at school, the ghost can make the water dark there too – how? This brings in the other question. Most ghosts are bound by which the place they thrived as a human being. So why is it that she can move to the school but yet is bound only by the apartment? Not making sense here. Another good question that isn't answered (non-continuity related) is where are all the tenants at Mr. Murray's complex? Practically nobody shows his or her face. Does anyone live there and if they do where are they? The creep factor is definitely alive in this film though. Besides the fact that the rating is PG-13, there are a number of good scenes that just involve establishing shots of various places in Dahlia's apartment suite. Plus with the fact that the whole apartment owned by Mr. Murray doesn't look the best, it just adds to the uneasiness of what is being portrayed. Thankfully, there are not a lot of jump scares to this feature.

That leakage....
The cinematography shot by Affonso Beato compliments a lot of the scenes dealing with the apartment and rain itself. Throughout the movie, it rains almost the whole time. It is rare that weather sets a tone for a movie but that's what occurs here. The rain immediately does that with its consistency and gloomy grey atmosphere. Another thing to take note of is the lighting used per scene. Much of the colors in each scene have a drained yellowish look to them as if they lack actual life. It's a nice touch. The film score composed by Angelo Badalamenti does its job too. Unlike his first effort in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987), which consisted of a pure cheap sounding synth performance, this effort is far superior. Badalamenti has a much more organic sound and it uses minimal synth in the back for atmosphere. Actual piano, strings, harps and horns play the rest of the sound. There's also a main theme for the film and it is beautifully tragic highlighted by solo piano keys. A much better listening experience.

Its writing has some big plot holes that don't make sense but it doesn't drag the film down entirely. The characters are believable, the creepiness is there (without a ton a of jump scares), the camerawork matches the mood of the story and the music is hauntingly memorable.

Points Earned --> 6:10