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The Shallows (2016)
The Shallows (2016)
It's been a pretty dismal summer movie season with more unwanted sequels than one could imagine (who really wanted Now You See Me 2?), so it's a bit of a breath of fresh air when a fun and simple shark thriller rolls into theaters, and a surprisingly decent one at that. The Shallows is about Nancy, played by Blake Lively, a med school student and recreational surfer who travels to a secluded beach in Mexico where her late mother once surfed when she was a baby. Her alone time is ruined when she gets too far from the shore and a shark attacks her, forcing her to take refuge on a rock. Stranded two hundred yards from the shore, Nancy has to outwit the shark and try to get back to her dad and sister before becoming shark bait. In a year filled with pretentious sequels coming 15 years too late, watching a good old-fashioned non-pretentious thriller will come to a relief to many. It never takes itself too seriously, although never venturing into camp territory, and it stays suspenseful for its brief 87 minute running time. There's even a little bit of good gore thrown in there too. The Shallows is more of a survival thriller than Blake Lively vs. The Shark, so it's more suspenseful than brutal and intense. Luckily, Blake Lively gives a great performance as Nancy, a resourceful and insanely likable heroine. She's the only face on screen for about 80 minutes of the film, so it's good that she made her presence likable. The Shallows is a pure popcorn thriller: suspenseful, taut and fun.
The Neon Demon (2016)
The Neon Demon (2016)
Director Nicolas Winding Refn returns to the big screen with his lesbian cannibal necrophiliac thriller The Neon Demon that got one of Cannes infamous "boos" (which realistically means nothing). There's also this whole thing about the modeling industry too. Elle Fanning plays Jesse, a 16 year old aspiring model in LA, gets signed by an agency for her natural beauty and youth. However, as she quickly rises through the ranks, other models start to become jealous and will stop at nothing to steal her beauty and youth in a world that's literally eat or be eaten. Refn can certainly stage some elaborate visuals because the entire movie is eye candy. There's a color scheme reminiscent of Suspiria, some hypnotically beautiful visual set pieces all put alongside an awesome 80's-style synth score. Refn makes a clear distinction from the high society of the modeling industry and Jesse's real life living in a run-down motel with a sleazy owner. While the modeling world has all the fantastic visuals, the real world is portrayed in a gritty way that shows that living the high life in LA might not really be as great as one might think. The actual plot is difficult to follow at points since the story sometimes takes a backseat to the visuals, but it's interesting enough and even pretty disturbing at times that it'll keep you engaged. There's a slew of crazy scenes involving cannibalism and necrophilia that more hardcore viewers might enjoy, just don't go in expecting another Cannibal Holocaust. The disturbing parts are more subtle and slow than your usual gorefest. The ending especially will either shock you or infuriate you. The Neon Demon is going to divide its audience based on if they're willing to stomach the more difficult scenes, but it's a visually stunning, often disturbing and poignant satire of the modeling industry in Los Angeles.
The Conjuring 2 (2016)
The Conjuring 2 (2016)
Three years after he blew the doors off cinemas across the country with one of the biggest modern horror movies, The Conjuring, James Wan comes back with a true sequel to The Conjuring, aptly titled The Conjuring 2. Often, horror sequels try to get too big or too flashy and end up being far inferior to their predecessors. The Conjuring 2 is certainly bigger and flashier, but James Wan has some gift for taking a generic storyline and making it scary as hell. The Conjuring 2 takes place six years after the original film in Enfield, London. It's based on the Enfield Haunting, one of the most well-documented paranormal cases of all time and was labeled "England's Amityville." In this haunting the Hodgson family, a single mother and her four children, are being tormented by a spirit and call on several paranormal investigators to help them, including Ed and Lorraine Warren. The case quickly turns into a media circus with allegations that the haunting may be a hoax, and the Warrens have to decide if the kids are playing an elaborate prank or if the Hodgsons are living in a very real nightmare. Being a horror sequel, or really just a movie sequel in general, it's expected that this movie is going to up the stakes and flashy imagery compared to the original film. The Conjuring 2 is no different. There really isn't a scene that's as brilliant as the hide-and-clap game with Lili Taylor from the first Conjuring. However, at a staggering 134 minutes, James Wan packs in a ton of surprisingly durable scares. After a great opening sequence, Wan gives us about 5 minutes to get acquainted with the Hodgsons before already scaring us silly with the first night at the Enfield house. There's tons of agonizingly long tracking shots that ratchet up the tension for an incredibly long time. What's great is that not all of these shots end with a jump scare. Be warned though because if there is a jump scare, it's perfect. There's not a single cheap jump in this movie. The "scare scenes" themselves are very long; once one of those great tracking shots is done, you'll go to another person for an equally scary scene. Because there's so much suspense and so many scares in the movie, the 134 minute running time never feels too long. It feels just right, although the scares might be exhausting by the end of the movie. Wan also has a knack for making an old scare new again. He can somehow make a tired jump scare scary again, but at the same time, it's not quite as fresh as it was the first time. That's what holds back The Conjuring 2 from surpassing the original film. The Conjuring 2 does have some heart though. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are great as the married ghostbusters, and the Hodgson family is a likable group of people to hang out with for two and half hours. Madison Wolfe steals the show as Janet, who gets put through the wringer throughout the whole movie. Even if it doesn't reach the heights of its predecessor, The Conjuring 2 is an incredibly scary thrill ride that'll be hard to top this summer. I do have to admit that I did scream very loudly once.
X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
This seems to be the year of superheroes vs superheroes with DC and Marvel releasing their tentpoles, Batman v Superman and Civil War, and now Fox has released one for the X-Men with the lackluster X- Men: Apocalypse. In Apocalypse, the world's first and most powerful mutant, aptly named Apocalypse, has woken up from a slumber after thousands of years to find that society is not revering him as a god as they used to. Apocalypse throws a tantrum and assembles a team of four mutants to destroy modern civilization and create a new world order. As the fate of the world hangs in the balance, Mystique and Professor X assemble a new team of young mutants to save mankind. It seemed like having God and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse be the villains would make the movie at least somewhat interesting, but, really they don't do anything for a majority of the 144 minute running time. For most of Apocalypse's story, he's just assembling his team while the Horsemen he's already recruited just sit around while he convinces another mutant to join the group. That's not only an issue with the Horsemen, unfortunately. Almost all of the other mutants, Mystique, Professor X, Nightcrawler, Jean Grey, etc, wait around until something bad happens. There's a ton of interesting characters in this film that aren't given anything interesting to do. Almost all of the mutants spend the entire movie feeling sorry for themselves, and there's really no good action until the very end. Even the final fight scene gets underwhelming at certain points. At times, I felt like I was watching a bad Roland Emmerich disaster flick. One positive is that Evan Peters steals every scene as Quicksilver, giving a great personality to the character. He was the one thing I wholeheartedly enjoyed about the movie. X-Men: Apocalypse has a couple moments of visual flair, some decent action and clear ambition, but its muddled plot and bland characterizations make it a disappointing misstep.
Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016)
I might have been the only one in the world that wanted a sequel to 2010's criminally underrated Alice in Wonderland, but whether you wanted it or not, here's the sequel. Alice Through the Looking Glass takes place a few years after the first movie after Alice has finished her voyage around the world. When she returns, an old friend from Underland leads Alice through a mirror which leads her back to Underland. She learns that her best friend, the Mad Hatter, has lost his "muchness." The Hatter found the first hat he ever made where his family was killed by the Jabberwocky, and he thinks that his family is still alive, but no one believes him, including Alice. The White Queen devises a plan for Alice to steal a device called the Chronosphere which will allow her to travel back in time and save the Hatter's family. All the characters come back from the first movie, although a lot of them are in smaller roles, but the real standout is newcomer Sacha Baron Cohen as Time. He and Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen were surprisingly funny throughout the film and made for some memorable villains. Mia Wasikowska also had a reliably good performance as Alice. Through the Looking Glass doesn't have the thorough world-building that Alice in Wonderland had, but the plot is easier to follow in this one. Along with some breathtaking visuals, Alice Through the Looking Glass should please fans of first film with a fun and exciting return to Underland.
The Taking (2014)
The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014)
Alzheimer's is a terrifying and devastating disease that would put any horror movie to shame by itself, unless, of course, it also causes someone to be possessed by a demon. The Taking of Deborah Logan is a sort of cross between the mockumentary "lost in the woods" style of The Blair Witch Project and the haunted house security cameras of Paranormal Activity to make a frequently scary and engrossing little gem. The Taking of Deborah Logan follows, you guessed it, three filmmakers who are making a documentary, but this time it's about Alzheimer's. They got to the home of the proper and elderly Deborah Logan to film her life with the disease while her daughter, Sarah Logan, also gives commentary on how Deborah's condition has affected her. As weeks pass and Deborah's mental state deteriorates, the four believe that something else might have latched onto her dwindling mind. The film starts out giving some backstory to both Deborah and Sarah with small explanations of the disease along the way. It does make the dynamic between the two more compelling especially towards the end of the movie when Deborah is completely possessed. Although, this movie does fall victim to one little pet peeve of mine. Something that comes up in a couple of found footage movies that makes no logical sense to me is that, why would the footage be edited to include music or any extra effects that aren't on camera? In The Taking, they added little animations illustrating the disease or parts of a documentary they were watching. Why would they take the time to edit all of that in there when, by the time the movie is over, it's obviously not going to be a documentary anymore? There's also the fact that there are obvious sound effects whenever there's a jump scare. Speaking of jump scares, something I enjoyed immensely about The Taking were several scenes in which you'd expect an obvious jump scare and instead the scene just relied on its atmosphere. Those scenes are far scarier than any of the jump scenes, and although I like a good jump scare, they need to be earned. Jill Larson is incredible as Deborah Logan and is definitely one of the better "spooky old ladies" I've seen in a horror movie. The absorbing plot also distinguishes this from being just another possession flick. The Taking of Deborah Logan is a fun and creepy Netflix gem and a must-watch for found footage fans.
The Huntsman: Winter's War (2016)
The Huntsman: Winter's War (2016)
I typically don't see a movie solely for its cast, but I couldn't pass up a movie with Jessica Chastain, Charlize Theron, Emily Blunt and Chris Hemsworth. Winter's War certainly isn't the best thing these actors have done in their careers, but it's still a fairly entertaining twist on the Snow White tale. The Huntsman acts as a prequel and sequel to 2012's Snow White and the Huntsman, which I regrettably hadn't seen before I watched this, and it follows an escalating battle between the Ice Queen, Freya, and her sister, Ravenna. Freya's former Huntsman, Eric and, fellow warrior, Sara, who were raised to protect Freya, have to conceal their forbidden love while combat Ravenna's intentions to take back Snow White's kingdom. Despite the campy writing and plot inconsistencies, I still found quite a bit to enjoy about Winter's War. Watching Charlize Theron be a badass as the Evil Queen was ridiculously entertaining. There's also the beautiful cinematography, costumes, visual effects and *ahem* Chris Hemsworth that made the movie visually stunning. The campy writing also isn't so bad that it goes into cheese territory. It's fairly self aware and fun while not taking itself overly seriously. The plot is a bit more of a fantasy romance with some action in it, but Jessica Chastain and Chris Hemsworth give their characters some life so that you do want to see them succeed by the time the movie is over. The Huntsman: Winter's War is fairly slight entertainment, but it's got a great cast, characters, stunning visuals and a lot of fun.
The Darkness (2016)
The Darkness (2016)
Sometimes, a bad horror movie can have some redeeming quality to make it at least watchable for its runtime even if you'll forget about it the next day. Then, about once a year, the stars align, Wes Craven rolls in his grave, and a movie like The Darkness limps into theaters, a horror flick that's so inept at everything it tries to accomplish that it only triggers catcalls from the audience. In The Darkness, the whitest family I've ever seen goes on a family trip to the Grand Canyon, and by some ridiculous series of events, the son brings back five rocks that have Native American demons inside them. The family is now haunted by some incredibly convoluted curse, and demon stuff happens. I can't even say anything specific because nothing really scary happens to this family. Every single scare is just a door opening, the faucet turning on, a dog nonchalantly walking down a hallway, or handprints appearing on the wall. There aren't any scares because every time something that resembles a shock comes along that thing isn't scary! It's a faucet! The only thing that came out of the faucet was a little bit of water, they didn't even try to put blood or black crap coming out of it or anything! And then in an effort to save this god forsaken atrocity, they try to put some stupid family drama in the plot that's referenced once and never mentioned again. The daughter has bullimia? Who cares, put black handprints on her! Mom has a drinking problem? Might as well have the faucet turn back on! Not to mention there are several characters that enter the plot for two scenes and then mysteriously disappear. I've never seen a horror movie so incompetent at every single basic aspect of filmmaking. I can't pinpoint one exact reason why I hate this movie so much other than the sole reason that it exists. I could name about fifty other movies that I've given bad reviews that I would rather watch than this train wreck. I think I can now give every other horror movie the benefit that it's not as bad as The Darkness.
Money Monster (2016)
Money Monster (2016)
Last year's The Big Short told the real-life story of the people that profited from the stock market crash in the late 2000's. It was funny, biting and just a little infuriating. Money Monster, on the other hand, goes for a simpler approach with a real-time hostage thriller. Money Monster stars George Clooney as financial TV host Lee Gates (an obvious riff on Jim Cramer from Mad Money) who is airing his latest edition of his show, you guessed it, Money Monster. Just 24 hours before, IBIS Global Capital's stock inexplicably crashed due to a glitch in a trading algorithm. A viewer of Gates' show, Kyle Budwell, loses all of his money due to a bad tip from Gates saying that IBIS' stock is "safer than your bank account." Halfway through Gates' show, Kyle gets onto the set and threatens Gates at gunpoint, forcing him to put on a bomb vest. Kyle wants answers, and if he doesn't get them, he'll blow up Gates before killing himself. Julia Roberts also stars as the show's director who attempts to get everyone out of the bomb threat from behind the scenes. Money Monster conjures up some great thrills from a reliably game cast, especially Jack O'Connell who plays 99%'er Kyle. There's also quite a bit of dark humor to give the more intense parts some edge while still not detracting from the movie's tone. It's a simple, timely and contained thriller that should give adults some respite from the myriad of PG-13 fare that is in the theaters so often.
Uma Thurman pre-Bride and Ethan Hawke pre-stuck doing every Blumhouse movie star in a high-concept thriller about the human eugenics controversy. Gattaca takes place in the near future where "designer babies" are a social norm where parents can choose the most desirable traits of their unborn babies (athletic, tall, intelligent, etc.), and people with undesirable genetics are discriminated against. One man, Vincent, has dreams of space travel, but because of his inferior genetics, he is relegated to being the janitor at the Gattaca Aerospace Corporation. A chance of a lifetime comes his way when an employee at Gattaca offers to allow Vincent to assume his identity for a trip Titan. However, the murder of the mission director and a blooming romance with another employee threaten to reveal Vincent's true identity. Gattaca deftly blends its more dramatic moments with unique sci-fi thrills to give a smart little thriller. Although, because of its lofty ambitions and concept, the plot has to force some things to just work out so that it can keep moving forward. A couple of these instances could have been more thoroughly explained in a short scene since the running time isn't terribly long anyway. Another tiny issue is that the reveal of the murderer is pretty anticlimactic. With all the buildup, you'd expect a big surprise, but when it's revealed, it's quickly acknowledged and then forgotten about. The best thing about Gattaca, though, is its incredible writing. There's a lot of quotable lines that I'm sure have led to its status as a cult flick. Along with its ambitious ideas and engrossing plot, Gattaca is a taut, memorable cult sci-fi thriller.