Dark Skies Review (Robert Harding)

Dark Skies Poster

Dark Skies (2013)

Starring Keri Russell, Jake Brennan, Josh Hamilton

Directed by Scott Stewart

It is often said that what you can’t see is scarier than that which you can.  That thinking something might be lurking in the shadows brings about more fear than actually seeing the monster itself. Dark Skies takes this concept in hand and much like a ghost story attempts to craft a sci-fi film with horror elements.

The film revolves around the Barret family. They seem like your everyday normal suburban family. They aren’t without their problems but like most families, they’re dealing with them.  Unfortunately, as life becomes more and more stressful a series of disturbing events begins to escalate the tension. Are they the brunt of some juvenile pranks and a few  coincidental events or is there something more to what’s going on?

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Because the film concentrates on creating fear in order to entertain it’s unfortunate that it doesn’t do the best of jobs. Either the filmmakers weren’t skilled in creating tension and delivering scares or they were trying to make a film for a younger audience and toned down the horror on purpose.  Unfortunately I don’t think the later is the case as all the advertisements seem to point to a genuinely scary movie (which Dark Skies truly isn’t). Between the editing, music, directing, writing and camera work, the film has the right ideas but constantly fails to deliver. Sometimes the shot is ended too early or lasts too long. Other times it is framed improperly so as to fail to create the necessary tension. And it’s clear that they didn’t know how to create false scares or use them properly. Luckily the look of the aliens themselves is rather spooky so the CG work managed to succeed where the regular tricks of the trade failed.

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On the plus side, the film excels in creating a sense of lack of control. Thanks to some great performances from the actors you truly get a sense that they’ve lost all control of the situation. In fact, it is so well portrayed that the audience can easily emphasize and feel a little antsy themselves. There was more than a few times that I wanted to lash out at someone on screen for one reason or another.  At first, the characters are at a loss to explain what is happening to them and will latch on to any plausible explanation possible. When the plausibles don’t add up, they can’t bring themselves to believe in the unthinkable. Then, when they’ve finally come to terms with the implausible, they realise they are practically helpless. It is this constant sense of the unknown combined with the regular mysterious events and the film’s use of sound that help drive home this unnerving sense of helplessness.

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Dark Skies puts a lot of effort into building a frightening tale of alien abduction but doesn’t quite manage to create the scares necessary to elevate it beyond a mere encounter of the dull kind. Younger audiences might find that they manage to get something from the film as a good portion of the horror tropes used and the alien back stories might seem fresh and new to them. Hardcore horror fans would be better off steering clear as not only will they not likely get anything new from the film’s story but they’ll likely find the attempts at creating fear ineffective and possibly even boring.

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A Good Day to Die Hard Review (Robert Harding)

A Good Day to Die Hard Poster

A Good Day to Die Hard (2013)

Starring Bruce Willis, Jai Courtney, Sebastian Koch, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead

Directed by John Moore

A Good Day to Die Hard marks the 5th installment, yes I said 5th, in the Die Hard franchise. Bruce Willis reprises his role as John McClane with Mary Elizabeth Winstead coming back in a small role as his daughter Lucy. Then there’s new cast member Jai Courtney who is playing the role of Jack McClane ie. John McClane’s son.

Having reconciled his relationship with his daughter in Die Hard 4, John McClane has apparently been searching for his son.  He manages to find him in Russia and quickly boards a flight from New York. He eventually finds out that Jack is an undercover CIA operative working to prevent a nuclear-weapons heist. Of course now the two McClanes must team-up against underworld forces.

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Much like Live Free or Die Hard, this film deals with reconciliation between John McClane and one of his children. While his relationship with his daughter was saved because she simply “needed her daddy”, this film tends to do a better job of portraying the father and son relationship and its bond. Sure it’s cliche and predictable but at least it makes sense and you can see the progression throughout the film.

Unfortunately, fans of the Die Hard franchise looking for classic John McClane might be a little disappointed. In previous films it has always been John McClane, guy in the wrong place and the wrong time, against a mad man (and his team). There is a back and forth almost comedic relationship between our hero and his new found enemy. This is severely missing from this new film. Not only is John not the only good guy but there are several bad guys.  Missing is the typical cat and mouse game with witty banter only to be replaced by a certain foreign hybrid. And the classic lines you come to expect from a Die Hard film seem forced and out of place.

Those out there who are just looking for a good action film should be warned. Die Hard has many many flaws that don’t take a vast knowledge of film to notice. The most obvious would be the absolutely terrible dialogue.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this film generated some fun drinking games. How many times does McClane say he’s on vacation again? Less obvious is some really bad editing.  This is the kind of editing that has people saying stuff but you never find out to whom or why. Seems the film is more concerned with creating hectic jump cuts and less with letting the viewer know what’s going on.

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A Good Day to Die Hard does have some good big budget action sequences.  There is a fantastic car chase sequence and plenty of gun play but unless that’s all you care about, the film will seem quite hollow in comparison to the rest of the franchise. In fact, with all the poor pieces of filmmaking, the film might not only feel hollow but might leave you with a bad taste in your mouth.  I’m not saying you should avoid the film but I do think you should know what your getting into before you decide to shill out your hard earned money.

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Side Effects Review (Dustin SanVido)

Side Effects Poster

Side Effects (2013)

Starring Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Channing Tatum

Written by Scott Burns

Music by Tomas Newman

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Steven Soderbergh has been one of the most, if not the most prolific director of the last two decades. Although I’m not a particularly big fan of his work there is no debate as to the fact he is one of the most driven filmmakers in Hollywood. He’s successfully walked a fine line between appeasing general audiences with such mainstream fare as the Ocean’s trilogy, Magic Mike and Contagion while also pushing his independent artistic envelope with experimental works such as Bubble, Full Frontal and The Girlfriend Experience. Soderbergh recently stated his intention to retire from filmmaking after his latest works, his Liberace biopic for HBO “Behind the Candelabra” and the pharmaceutical thriller Side Effects.  With Side Effects being Soderbergh’s supposed swansong, he has crafted an engaging dramatic mystery that wears its Hitchcockian-inspired visuals and narrative proudly on its sleeve while also reminding the audience that few filmmakers today can make psychological thrillers as effective as he can.

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It’s difficult to talk about the narrative in Side Effects without spoiling the many twists and turns found within so I will attempt to be brief. The film begins as Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) is awaiting the release of her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) from prison after serving a four year sentence for insider trading. Upon his release, Emily begins suffering from depression and begins treatment from Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a psychiatrist who introduces Emily to a series of prescription drugs to cope with her illness. As Emily’s world begins to unravel from within, Dr. Banks prescribes a new drug after consulting with Emily’s prior doctor (Catherine Zeta-Jones) which leads to unexpected side effects that will change the lives of all involved.

Side Effects never reveals what film it’s trying to be until the last act. Is it a medical/crime drama, a moody character piece, or weighty message drama that screams Pharma-companies are bad? The answer is none of the above, which may lead some viewers to wrongly interpret Side Effects as a muddled who-dun-it that doesn’t really know what it wants to be. I believe this was Soderbergh’s intention as he didn’t want to make a simple mystery film, but one that lets the viewer experience the narrative as his protagonist does. Disguising the film thematically allowed him to surprise the audience with many shocking moments that seemingly come out of left field but ultimately link up to create a taut and effective mystery thriller.

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As with his previous works, Soderbergh gets every ounce of talent out of the actors involved, with Jude Law being the most effective. His Dr. Banks is a character that you would find in the kind of films Soderbergh is emulating. At first he is merely a supporting character who eventually discovers things are not entirely as they seem. Law is convincing and has no trouble changing gears between accentuating the performances of his co-stars to outright grabbing the focus of the film in the second act as his professional and personal life begin to crumble. Rooney Mara once again demonstrates why she was chosen to Americanize the character of Lizbeth Salendar in the remake of The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo. Her ability to transition seamlessly from emotion to emotion in the same scene is a rare talent that is used effectively in her dramatic moments with Tatum and Law. That being said, Tatum and Zeta-Jones are fine in their respective roles and make the most of what is called for, but since Side Effects is centrally focused on Emily and Dr. Banks, the secondary roles are by nature forgettable.

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Like his previous works, there is an intentional plainness to the look of Side Effects with the exception of a few visual cues that harken back to the old noir films of the 50’s and 60’s. This is ever present in the beginning as a slow moving pan through a condo instantly establishes atmospheric tension that remains for nearly the film’s entire running time. Unbeknownst to most casual viewers is the fact that Steven Soderbergh shoots and edits his own films under a pair of pseudonyms, which is of course why his features all have a distinct feel. Also, the minimalist approach taken by Thomas Newman’s score effectively maintains the visual rhythm without taking attention away from the narrative or performances.

Side Effects is an effective mystery that slowly pulls its viewer in and rewards their patience and should be a delight for Hitchcock fans and lovers of old crime/noir stories. It’s fair to say that Soderbergh has made superior films, but should not be a deterrent to seeing Side Effects. If anything, you may be watching a masterful filmmaker engage your cinematic intelligence for one last time.

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Netflix: The Imposter Review (Matt Hodgson)


The Imposter (2012)

Starring Adam O’Brian, Frédéric Bourdin, and Carey Gibson

Directed by Bart Layton

In between unsolicited screenwriting and job hunting (some of the hardest and yet most rewarding work I’ve ever done vs. the Maslovian requirements of food and shelter and the currency exchanged for them) I’ve been spending a lot of time with the slowly improving Canadian Netflix. While I still hear tales about the oasis that is American Netflix, the great white north version now boasts dozens of films and no less than ten different TV shows that I have earmarked for my own personal consumption. Today, based on a recommendation that my partner Heather received from a co-worker, we decided to check out The Imposter: a documentary that was promised to leave our heads spinning.

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While not necessarily a true documentary (more on this later) The Imposter is about real-life events, specifically, the disappearance of a 13-year old boy named Nicholas Barclay and the person who tried to take his place. After Nicholas had been missing for over three years, his family received a phone call saying that he had been found in Spain. Spain! Minds reeling, they followed the necessary steps to return Nicholas to Texas and reunite with the now 16-year old boy. Almost immediately we learn that this wasn’t Nicholas, but rather an adult male posing as a child. This immediately made me think of a recent horror movie that starts with ‘Or’ and ends with ‘phan’. However this unsettling revelation is only the first of many that will leave the viewer shaking their heads, for better or worse.

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While the subject matter of The Imposter is very real, the filmmakers chose a style that is somewhere between documentary and theatrical crime thriller. I understand the choice as it makes the movie a much more entertaining experience with the high-quality re-enactments, but I can’t help but feel that it was a decision that was unjust to both the viewers and the people in the film alike given the terrifyingly real story of Nicholas and the man who tried to take his place. I have always found true crime stories off-putting as they are essentially the misfortunes of some turned into entertainment for others. Also frustrating is the information temporarily withheld by the filmmakers and only used when it provides the ultimate shock value. These revelations would immediately flip how I felt about specific characters and caused be to groan as I realized I was being strung along like a puppet throughout the narrative.

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Criticisms aside, The Imposter is a remarkable experience for the absurdity of the events that took place after the disappearance of Nicholas, and as a piece of entertainment the film is incredible. However, it was impossible to forget that at the heart of this two-hour thrill was one of the most unfortunate accidents or horrendous crimes: the disappearance of a child. I’ll never feel comfortable with this subject matter as entertainment.

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Beautiful Creatures Review (Robert Harding)

Beautiful Creatures Banner

Directed by Richard LaGravenese

Starring Alice Englert, Viola Davis, Emma Thompson

Move over Sabrina, there’s a new teenage witch in the house.  But is she on the side of the dark or light? To find out, you’ll have to watch the movie. Beautiful Creatures is based on the novel of the same name written by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl which is the first book in the Caster Chronicles series.

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Ethan is much too intelligent for his small town and is looking forward to the day where he can leave its sheltered borders for something bigger. When a mysterious new girl named Lena moves to town he is immediately drawn to her despite her families sordid past. Together, they uncover dark secrets about their families, themselves and their town.

Beautiful Creatures is geared towards the young adult crowd with a heavy leaning towards the female gender so it’s very easily compared to Twilight.  Both films involve a supernatural love story but Beautiful Creatures does a much better job of selling the relationship. While still feeling a little rushed, Beautiful Creatures establishes a previous attraction between the two main characters. This allows them to be drawn to each other above and beyond the normal sense and when you add the fact that both are outsiders of a sort, it just makes the relationship all that more plausible.

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Where the story weakens is in the films “breakup.” When a movie devotes time to  bringing two characters together so that the audience believes in the relationship you would expect that when something tears them apart  there would be a big emotional reaction. But the most expected and recognised responses are not what we’re given. In fact, there isn’t much of a reaction at all. This eventually results in a climax that lacks the potential impact it could have otherwise had.

Aside from the breakup, the film does a decent job of telling the story. It could have been a little longer in length and fleshed out the subplots a little better but they weren’t exactly necessary to tell the overall story. The lack of explanation with regards to the various subplots meant that the film feels a little rushed and it tends to jump from one point to the next without a smooth transition.

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I did enjoy the casting in this film. Filled with mostly unknowns and giving almost everyone a down to earth look instead of trying to use sex to sell the film meant that it had a more realistic tone (at least for a supernatural witch movie). Of course this might seem odd for a film called Beautiful Creatures but all is not lost for those looking for a little sex appeal. Emmy Rossum playing the role of Ridley Duchannes not only looks fantastic but does her fair share of adding a little eroticism to an otherwise “Christian” film.

Beautiful Creatures isn’t perfect and is likely missing a great deal of detail from the novel but it was much better than expected. Learning from previous films aimed at the same audience, it has a more believable love story all while tossing some FX heavy scenes into the mix to add some thrills to the drama.  The film may not fulfill all expectations but it does justice to enough of them to entertain. And like all good films of this nature, Beautiful Creatures leaves a little something come the end. Just enough to tease the audience. Sequel? There are more novels to pull from aren’t there?

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