BLAIR WITCH movie review

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At the very least, The Blair Witch Project was a movie released at the right time and place. At most, it was a cultural phenomena.

I can still remember all the word of mouth going around after the 1999 sleeper hit landed — this all coming from school kids, mind you.

Was the footage real? Is this still going on? Are the woods safe?!?!

Blair Witch Project was so exciting because it did something different. With the exceptions of a few films like Cannibal Holocaust, found footage films weren’t around much and added an element of mystery to what would otherwise just be low-budget filmmaking.

That was 1999. Today, studios have mined the idea for all it’s worth, putting out handful of mostly terrible found footage endurance tests on the cheap to pad their income.

Thus, I really wish I could report that Blair Witch — Adam Wingard’s “true” follow-up to the original cult classic — is the movie that brings the genre to the next level.

I really wish I could say that it’s genuinely scary. That it doesn’t fall into the tedium of basically all the other films of its ilk. That it doesn’t feel like a waste.

Again, that’s how I wish it was.

Wingard, director of the probably-not-as-good-as-you-were-thinking You’re Next and the genuinely fun The Guest, seems like a solid choice to try something fun and new for the Blair Witch story.

To a point, the “updatequel” makes a few intriguing choices in how to bring this story into modern times.

One of our main characters here is directly tied to the original story and joins up with a team of friends as part of a film to go discover what happened 17 years ago.

The team utilizes some handy technology in their outing, with earpiece bluetooth cameras explaining why they don’t just drop the camera when things get hairy and an aerial drone giving us the occasional wide shot showing the sinister ocean of trees.

For a while, Blair Witch gives us the impression that could be one of the first effective films shot in the first-person — maybe even film’s answer to PT. The characters are decently established minus some forced comic relief, we have a good reason to revisit the story, and there’s a respectable amount of recap of the chilling folklore surrounding the Blair Witch (as well as some added wrinkles near the end).

That works for about half an hour. Then it all goes to hell.

Contrasting all the new technology incorporated, Blair Witch‘s scares are old and stale. It’s beyond disappointing to see the movie slide so quickly into cheap jump scares and false suspense.

In the realm of “show, don’t tell,” this film doesn’t really do either. Besides the basic mythology, there’s no real explanation as to what’s going on or why when the terror begins. That’s ok because horror so often comes from the unknown.

But at the same time, the film does itself no favors with its typical blurred found footage camerawork. The picture may be much more crisp than your average handheld, but there’s almost no point where the visuals aren’t choppy and muddled so as to absorb what’s happening.

The rare points where we get enough visual information to draw some conclusions aren’t enough to fix the tedious set up we’ve already gone through. The same repetitive shot of the forest just gets old fast.

Maybe if we had stellar characters throughout, this might not have been such a death blow to Blair Witch.

But then this also becomes the kind of movie where a character inures their foot, spends 20 minutes vocalizing the growing pain of the wound, then decides to climb a tree to recover the crashed drone. Yeah, not inspiring.

Shoutsma Says:

Blair Witch had all the potential to be a shock to the system for found footage horror films. The most surprising thing it did was revealing its true title weeks before release. A good setup quickly wanders off the path into the type of terrain that’s all too common — namely, a film that’s tedious, intentionally obscured and tragically bland. The stuff of legend, this is not.

4/10

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SAUSAGE PARTY movie review

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I realized 15 minutes into Sausage Party that I was not ready for what was about to happen.

I had to up my level of intoxication and fast.

It was no secret going in that this was going to be another lewd and crude example from the minds that brought us This is the End and The Interview.

So rather than drink to escape the oncoming barrage of indecency, I made a large dent in my beer to better appreciate the film by occupying the similarly altered head space the makers of Sausage Party were likely in when they wrote the film.

For the most part, it worked. Sausage Party has some notable gags that hit thanks to a few clever gems and its visual commitment to appall — and in spite of the filmmakers’ returning bad habit of reverting to profane tirades on bodily functions as the film’s go-to attempt at humor.

It’s important to note how rare it is that Sausage Party was even made. An adult-oriented story of sentient food learning about the horrors that await them after leaving the grocery store is … unique … and it’s awesome that Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures continues to back films that other studios would shy away from.

Not that Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have much trouble getting projects approved these days. It’s to the point where they can just have their friends show up for some thin reason, ad lib some nasty stuff, make sure there’s the requisite drug use and, BAM, someone will release it for them (see This is the End).

That’s exactly what Sausage Party is, but with the added bonus that it stars animated food, giving it the freedom to go much raunchier.

The major weaknesses of Rogen/Goldberg’s humor are still there — witless profanity, extended exchanges about sexual fluids, commentary on world issues that usually comes off as half-baked (pun very much intended) and maybe a little racist.

It’s blunt, easy gross-out shtick and not very effective.

But being an animated feature is what makes Sausage Party more digestible and therefore able to get away with some of the more outlandish aspects and slip in a helping of spontaneous gags that work.

Food puns, a cameo from a certain food-named musician, references to other movies that come out of nowhere — these are the parts that bring some needed wit and unpredictability to the heavy slathering of raunch that is the majority of the film.

The other thing that makes Sausage Party mostly fun, in spite of itself, is the dedication of its voice cast. Kristen Wiig as a dedicated bun, Bill Hader as a Native American bottle of liquor and Nick Kroll as a feminine hygiene product who acts true to his name — hearing these actors go to town is fun because they are allowed to milk the most silliness out of the picture.

Shoutsma Says:

It’s pretty amazing that a movie like Sausage Party can be made in the studio system these days (and be a hit). That doesn’t necessarily mean the final film is going to end up great, as this one still carries a lot of the shrug-worthy crudeness that is part of the filmmakers’ brand.

Regardless, Sausage Party is fresh enough in many regards to pepper its brief runtime with moments that cause either hearty chuckles or a deep sense of personal shame for laughing. Pre-game accordingly.

6/10

SUICIDE SQUAD movie review

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Credit where credit is due: Suicide Squad had hands down the best marketing campaign of the summer.

The marketing team over at Warner Bros. did an excellent job of whetting appetites with a constant stream of hype. Every week we were treated to a new mashup of footage highlighting the film’s flashy, chaotic vibe and colorful characters, set to a growing collection of wild pop songs. It no doubt helped earn the film its massive opening weekend.

It should soften the blow then to know that Suicide Squad the film is more marketing than movie (“twisted and evil …”).

Director/writer David Ayer’s take on DC’s supervillain team of expendables is uncomfortably similar to its trailers in that it also often acts as a handful of disjointed scenes stitched together, hinting at meaning and connectivity.

It’s flashy and chaotic without the substance to back it up, characters are introduced more often then they are developed and sweet Reekris the onslaught of obvious pop songs …

And like a product of good marketing, Suicide Squad has one bright spot in its tangled, neon web in that you want to see these characters again, albeit in a better movie. A much better movie.

The DC Extended Universe’s third feature is written with all the wit of a middle school bro party and the plotting of a script put together at breakneck speed (six weeks, reportedly).

Whatever gets it out there in time for the release date.

There are plenty of opportunities to go for the harder edge that the material screams out for, but the film is a complete casualty of the studio’s shell shock from the criticism Batman v Superman got for being “too dark.”

The violence is plentiful but bloodless and material deemed too thematically dark seems to have been skipped completely. Yet somehow the filmmakers kept a handful of scenes of women being brutalized and played them up for laughs in an offhanded way. Very cute.

Whatever lets the kids see the movie (and possibly get the message that it’s funny when women get hit).

Ayer has Steven Price at his beck and call to make the music of Suicide Squad. The “won an Oscar for Gravity” Steven Price. Instead, he’s pushed aside (while delivering a mostly routine score) in favor of a horde of no less than 20 on-the-nose pop songs, sometimes one after the other, in the beginning half. At best, it’s excessive; at worst, it keeps the movie nice and fragmented, never finding a good rhythm.

Whatever sells more albums.

Characters saunter about with street-wise ‘tude and are given ham-fisted badass moments but rarely say or do anything that resonates outside of their overdone costumes.

Whatever floods the Halloween market.

The script may fail them time and time again but the cast is the most redeemable part of the movie.

Will Smith as Deadshot is serviceable. You expect him to shoot people and crack wise; he shoots people and cracks wise. Viola Davis stays true to the ruthlessness of Amanda Waller.  Jay Hernandez has a borderline good arc as the repentant pyro Diablo. Jai Courtney is amusing as Boomerang and Lost’s Adewale Akkinuoye-Agbaje looks terrific as a practical Killer Croc.

The shining star of the film is Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. There are several questionable aspects in how the character is approached storywise but Robbie’s take is rock solid, expressing the humor and unpredictability HQ is known for in a fresh way for her big screen debut.

I also hear The Joker is in the film. I’ll let you know if I remember seeing him because, despite a committed and unhinged performance from Jared Leto, The Joker is given so little to do he may as well be any random eccentric gang member. He serves no purpose in this film and is in it so briefly there’s no point where it’s established what exactly this new Joker is.

And this is a far too common problem with most of the film’s characters. It’s cool to see Killer Croc, Boomerang and Katana on the big screen but we gloss right over their backstories and reasons they are on the team for the sake of action.

Rick Flagg is at his most interesting when he’s interacting with the team and not when we’re focusing on his tacked-on love story with the Enchantress, one of the most cliche and undefined villains in a genre where the bar is already set low for weak villains.

In a movie full of bad guys, it feels like the story probably would have gone smoother without the main antagonist there at all.

The botching of the villains is disappointing if not a bit expected. The mishandling of the Harley/Joker romance is what’s borderline insulting. Ayer and his team do a great disservice to the characters by cutting out every bit of material between the two that might be seen as abusive.

Here, it’s all smiles and roses and consensual acid baths.

It’s a choice that’s more agreeable on paper but it takes away The Joker’s menace and makes Harley less complicated and more dependent. The core of that relationship hinges on Harley being stuck with The Joker, in spite of how awfully he treats her, because she’s wild about him. To ignore that middle part is to ignore a terrific opportunity for Harley to empower herself by getting away from her tormentor and being her own person.

Whatever offends the least and sells more.

Shoutsma Says:

As someone who has gone to bat several times for Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, even I find no real way to defend Suicide Squad. Its dialogue is awful, it underutilizes its characters, its music choices reek of desperation and it has no flow or excitement left after seemingly being edited by a garbage disposal.

It’s a testament to the actors that you still want to see them revisit these characters. Knock on wood, it will be in a film that’s more interested in telling a satisfying story than selling us stuff. One that won’t be the most disappointing film of the season.

3/10

BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE movie review

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There’s no arguing that Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke is one of the defining graphic novels in the history of Batman in how it has shaped our modern perception of the Dark Knight’s ultimate enemy, The Joker. (I know there are some of you out there who would argue this. Don’t.)

Guided by Moore’s sophisticated writing, The Killing Joke first tried to establish a definitive backstory for the Clown Prince of Crime and took readers on a deeply upsetting journey through the dichotomy of good and evil, and the fragility of sanity after “one bad day.”

But for all the story’s wonderful things, parts of The Killing Joke have not aged gracefully since its 1988 debut. In particular, the treatment of Barbara Gordon/Batgirl is still highly controversial and has become a prime example of how not to utilize women in a then mostly male-oriented medium (translation: It’s kind of insulting to have them show up just to be crippled and violated).

28 years after it was released, Warner Bros Animation finally gave the green light for an adaptation they promised would stay true to the mature content of the original.

If this adaptation teaches us anything, it’s that maybe the classics should be left alone and that trying to fix the mistakes of the past can somehow make them seem worse.

First, the good. Batman: The Killing Joke comes to us from the producers of Batman: The Animated Series, aka still probably the greatest Batman thing ever. That means that not only do we have legends like Bruce Timm and Alan Burnett behind the camera, but we also are treated to return performances from voice veterans Kevin Conroy, Tara Strong and, of course, Mark Hamill.

In some ways this film version is a treat enough just to hear the likes of Hamill and Conroy recite Moore’s classic lines. As this is the definitive Joker story, it’s no surprise the Hamill turns in one of his best performances as The Joker. It’s a different, darker reflection of the character but it’s one that can still illicit goosebumps in several moments.

It’s clear every actor involved wanted to be part of this classic story and they all deliver.

On paper, a BTAS-backed Killing Joke adaptation would be an instant win. What makes it anything but is how the material is handled.

Batman: The Killing Joke isn’t one movie, it’s two. There is the classic Joker story that everyone has been pumped to see — which is interesting enough in its own right — and the extended prologue the filmmakers put in before it.

One drags down the other.

No doubt aware of the controversy surrounding the story, the filmmakers have added an additional 30-some minutes of new material to the film that chronicles the adventures of Batgirl prior to her horrible tragedy.

It’s admirable to try and make Barbara more of an element in a story known for minimizing her but the decisions here are completely misguided.

The opening half of this movie in no way blends with the main story, is not captivating and, contrary to what was intended, only highlights how unessential her involvement in the story truly is.

At its dark heart, this is the Joker’s story and had the opening tied in on that in some way, it would have been understandable. It doesn’t and instead plays like an extended apology for a touchy subject rather than a timely update.

Was it necessary? Maybe in some other place but not in this movie, especially when you’re still intent on keeping the source material’s gross ending where Batman and The Joker share a hearty laugh while Barbara lies paralyzed in a hospital bed.

 Shoutsma Says:

The original Killing Joke graphic novel is great, flaws and all. This adaptation, when it works, captures some of that same demented spirit. But it made the major mistake of adding material that was not even comparable (or complimentary) to the original, which makes for a forgettable companion piece that often falls flat.

4/10

GHOSTBUSTERS movie review

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A Ghostbusters film needs certain key things in order to work. Ghosts, for instance.

An all-male Ghostbusters team, or any kind of mandated team demographic, is not one of those things.

This is hard to keep that in mind with all the fuss surrounding the 2016 reboot of Ghostbusters, however. Movies don’t exist in a vacuum and most will have gone into this film with some exposure to the vile online campaign to bring this movie down, before anyone had even seen it, simply due to its choice of women in the lead roles.

In spite of this early ugliness, Bridesmaids and Spy director Paul Feig has pushed forward in making a modern-day Ghostbusters film starring four talented comediennes that is both energetic and amazingly colorful.

But there is one thing missing that this new Ghostbusters needed to fully work: to be funny.

Comedy is subjective but it just doesn’t feel like anyone involved shot for A-grade laughs with this film. Normally, that would be something to shrug off but this is a remake of what’s widely considered to be one of the definitive comedies of the ’80s. There are higher expectations in calling yourself a Ghostbusters movie and anything less than being solidly funny will not do.

This latest iteration solicits more soft chuckles and acknowledging smiles than belly laughs. And it’s no real fault of the cast. Wiig, McCarthey, McKinnon and Jones do what they can with the material and sometimes even feel like a cohesive unit (McKinnon clearly has a lot of fun channeling some Jim Carrey-level mugging).

More so, it comes down to some select bad ideas from the filmmakers. Paul Feig’s previous works usually take the Judd Apatow approach of driving otherwise just-okay jokes into the dirt with repetition. He has not shaken this habit with Ghostbusters, nor has he done away with the basic trick of having characters comment on situations in “funny” ways instead of letting the humor speak for itself.

This Ghostbusters is seen as a big step forward for women taking leading roles in blockbusters/franchises. What does it say, then, when Chris Hemsworth is given the best, most consistently funny material in the film? It’s normal to have a buffoonish side character be comic relief, but it’s a problem when he’s THE comedic element in a movie that’s meant to highlight the strength of the leads.

Where Ghostbusters fails as a comedy, however, it does all right as a summer blockbuster. There are more than a few set pieces that really pop off screen with some fresh, well-designed spooks at the center.

The spectacle is silly, easy to follow and, best of all, amazingly colorful. I’m what you might call an apologist for the recent string of franchise films that adopt a drained color palette but it’s still awesome to see a film make such vibrant use of its visuals, especially in utilizing the 3D appropriately.

All this came together for an impressive finale that can stand among some of the more interesting final acts this season.

Yet for all the good blockbuster pieces Ghostbusters delivers on, it’s still plagued by genre demons, such as painful levels of product placement, a bloated runtime (thanks to all those repetitive observa-jokes) and perhaps the most cringe-worthy screen villain in recent memory.

Shoutsma Says:

There are a lot of heated emotions surrounding Ghostbusters, a film that doesn’t do much to inspire strong feelings in one direction or the other. It’s silly, great to look at and a harmless way to spend two hours, but it’s not likely to leave any big impact given how little the humor sticks.

5/10

LIGHTS OUT movie review

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Eerie setting. Faulty lighting. Character walks uncommonly slow. Don’t look behind that door. Music cuts out. Tension at its peak. Relief.

LOUD NOISE AND SCARY THING APPEARS.

When all else fails, the classic jumpscare is always there for horror films to fall back on.

As such, it’s become a completely predictable tactic for the genre. But every once in a while a film comes along that can subvert the trope and use it in a way that feels fresh and new.

Lights Out isn’t that film. By a long shot.

Instead, Warner Bros.’ next horror hit hopeful is reliant on nothing but the same basic scare repeated over and over.

It may be a refreshingly lean picture in a season of bloat, but with its flat characters, limited range of frights and abscess of atmosphere, Lights Out feels like a shadow of what it could be.

Produced by The Conjuring‘s James Wan, Lights Out is the story of a family (Teresa Palmer as older sister Rebecca and Gabriel Bateman as younger brother Martin) terrorized by a dangerous phantasm that lurks in the shadows and has a mysterious connection to the pair’s mother (Maria Bello).

That idea alone shows so much potential. Add in that the film is only 81 minutes and it’s not unreasonable to expect an efficient experience in terror.

But even with a treasure trove of possibilities at its disposal, Lights Out is made with no more ambition than as to repeat the same tired jolt throughout.

Rather than a smart, developed horror film befitting of Wan’s name (the film is directed by relative newcomer David F. Sandberg, adapted from his 2013 short film of the same name), the filmmakers shoot low, going for the broadest appeal possible with the least possible tone.

It’s cheap thrills and the type of popcorn flick where audiences interact with it rather than watch it — they won’t miss anything of importance, after all.

Which becomes even more frustrating because Lights Out does show flashes of some legitimately good things the movie needed more of.

The backstory of the spectre, Diana, might as well have been made by another team, considering how creepy it was in comparison to the rest of the movie.

Some real creativity was shown in the finale in various ways to produce light when it was needed to save someone’s backside.

Props as well to the filmmakers for at least attempting to craft serious drama surrounding mental illness and the hardships it causes families. Again, attempted.

But all too often it’s redeeming parts are lost by going back to that same plain jumpscare we’ve seen in countless other movies (in more creative and effecting ways) and so many times in this one.

Putting Wan’s name in all the promotional materials may seem like a good idea on paper but it also reveals the most glaring difference between the filmmakers: Wan’s scares work because he puts effort into the characters.

The characters in Lights Out invoke only apathy, as the movie is way too preoccupied with cheap scares to worry about interesting personalities.

Hanging around with these people at the end of the second act, a dramatic and pacing dead-zone before the finale, somehow killed the momentum in an already short film.

Less crucial but also less consistent are the supposed “rules” of the film. Lights Out establishes early on that Diana will getcha in the shadows but you’re safe in the light. However, she also has the ability to turn the lights out … except when she doesn’t (or won’t). Candle light also isn’t strong enough to repel her … except when it is.

But who has time for attention to detail like that when it’s been 10 minutes since the scary thing last jumped out?

This is a movie that plays to general audiences and it succeeds as just that. It’s short, you don’t have to get too invested and there are plenty of shocks that will cause your girlfriend/boyfriend to scream and grab your arm.

If that’s enough for you, there’s enjoyment to be had.

If you crave a robust horror film that’s more than just a one-trick pony, Lights Out is not for you. Don’t be left in the dark.

5/10

THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR movie review

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It’s a crazy political landscape we’re living in.

Talk of building walls and banning certain races and religions has become a depressingly normal rhetoric of hate. The wealthy and politically elite have further insulated themselves from common law and repercussions, while the poor and vulnerable are increasingly disenfranchised, left at the mercy of whatever brutality comes next — be it financially based or from law enforcement.

Our country feels like it’s at a tipping point and The Purge: Election Year pulls out all the stops to tap into that growing social unrest, to surprisingly effective results.

The Purge series has never been what you would call “masterful cinema.” The original film, while still boasting the most enticing cast, squandered a great premise on a routine home invasion thriller.

The Purge: Anarchy — still very much a workmanlike experience of lite horror — apparently listen to audience recommendations and opened up the world of The Purge to have the chaos unfold on the streets.

The Purge: Election Year still only skirts the edge of acceptable filmmaking but takes a complete dive into trying to mirror the madness to our current environment. As such, Election Year is a grotesque, over-the-top satire of America’s increasingly dark politics.

It may be rough but it’s a film that has things it wants to say and the gusto to put it all out there.

Subtlety is not even remotely a factor with Election Year. If you might have missed that the purge is a systematic tool against poor people and minorities, this movie certainly proclaims it enough to drive the point home.

Likewise, the craggly old conservative villains of the film repeat their talking point that the Purge makes America great enough times for even the most politically out of touch audience member to draw some connections.

In most cases, this would be a bad thing but The Purge series has largely earned the benefit of the doubt. We know by now these movies are allegories meant for the masses, and thus it’s not surprising that they make their message as obvious as possible.

There’s still a fun sense that both Election Year and Anarchy are modern-day answers to Escape from New York that works in the movie’s favor, as does Frank Grillo’s natural action star presence.

One thing that gives the film a bit of grisly intrigue is stumbling upon smaller purge vignettes unfolding on the street. A man gets killed by a guillotine, crazy teen schoolgirls attack a convenience store as payback, an older woman calmly keeps warm next to a flaming corpse — it’s little moments like these that give the film more of its character.

And it certainly needs these flashes of interest because while the message and select parts of the film are strong, a lot of the basic elements of The Purge: Election Year are still lacking.

Most of the footage is dim and monotonous, the action sequences are too unfocused or chopped up in the edit room to be as effective as they can be, characters are mostly flat and sometimes stereotypes, attempts at humor can be downright painful and the movie sags going into the third act.

Those looking for scares and gruesome kills should be aware by now that this isn’t really the series for that. While there are a number of weak jump scares, the tension in Election Year comes more from the feeling that this crazy world is closing in around you.

Likewise, one of the more questionable aspects of these movies is the violence. Barring a few bloody kills, most of the carnage of the film is gunplay and is largely tamed down or glossed over. There’s certainly a lot of it going on but to treat it in such an offhanded, tame manner takes away from how horrible it should be.

Instead, it comes off as just another thing that happens, which, ironically, is something pro-purge advocates might argue.

It’s easy to think what might have been if the Purge series had been made by a different group with much more finesse than it ultimately was, now that it would appear the story is coming to a close.

But finesse was never really a factor for this series at all. Honestly, it started out as a grungy, cheap way to milk out another basic thriller and ended up two movies later as a much grungier, still-cheap thriller that decided it had something to say about the way things are headed.

The difference in the long run was that it finally found a way to apply itself.

6/10