Monday, January 27, 2014

Michael J. Tresca gave 5 stars to: Rare Exports

Michael J. Tresca reviewed:

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale DVD ~ Jorma Tommila

5.0 out of 5 stars The definitive Krampus, January 27, 2014

You'll see a lot of reviews about this film that talk about how wildly innovative it all is -- and "Rare Exports" is certainly that. But what's missing is that "Rare Exports" is actually about Krampus.

Krampus hasn't really received the appropriate treatment up to this point in films, although he keeps getting a little more exposure each year (American Dad even had a Krampus episode). Thing is, we don't need a definitive Krampus film because "Rare Exports" is it.

Reindeer herder Rauno (Jorma Tommila) is a lonely man who raises his precocious son Pietari (Onni Tommila) alone in Finland. On the night before Christmas, what starts out as a slaughter of an entire reindeer herd (and the financial ruin of the herders who rely on them), turns into an escalating series of increasingly disturbing encounters with Santa's helpers.

To say more than that is too give away too much, but suffice it to say that naked old men have never been so disturbing. Indeed, "Rare Exports" takes great glee in juxtaposing naked old men menacing young boys, and it really does put the legend of Santa in stark relief for the absurdity that it is.

The title only makes sense at the end. Fans of Krampus will not be disappointed.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Michael J. Tresca gave 4 stars to: Grabbers

Michael J. Tresca reviewed:

Grabbers DVD ~ Richard Coyle

4.0 out of 5 stars drunk guys fight off an alien invasion, January 21, 2014

This review is from: Grabbers (DVD)

"Grabbers" is one of those movies that's succinctly summed up in just one sentence: drunk guys fight off an alien invasion. So of course it takes place in Ireland.

Garda Ciarán O'Shea (Richard Coyle) is an alcoholic with a sad past; he's teamed up with an attractive new partner, Garda Lisa Nolan (Ruth Bradley). It seems Nolan has taken the assignment to prove herself and climb the ranks. It doesn't take long before they discover something strange going on at the island in the form of mutilated whale corpses. And that strange thing is aliens.

Some thought went into creating these aliens. They're starfish-like creatures who have a brachiolaria stage of larval development -- they're cute little worms who make squeaky sounds and will chew your face off. But as adults they're massive hulks that roll along like a floppy wheel on their many legs, akin to the wheeler spider. And oh yeah, they can't stand the taste of alcohol. Which is quite the plus when you own a bar.

O'Shea and Nolan assemble a crack team of experts to fight the so-called "grabbers," including town drunk Paddy (Lalor Roddy), marine ecologist Dr. Smith (Russel Tovey), and pub owner Tadhg Murphy (Louis Dempsey) to execute a madcap plan: they invite all the residents of the town to celebrate an oncoming storm in Murphy's pub. O'Shea stays sober to defend the pub while the villagers get plastered. What could possibly go wrong?

The biggest challenge for the rest of the humans is not the grabbers but their extreme intoxication. They do stupid things -- things that everybody does in horror movies, but at least now they have an excuse -- that leads them right into the grabbers. It's hilariously stupid.

If the film has a flaw, it's the very awkward, not very believable romance between O'Shea and Nolan. O'Shea's a drunk because of a tragic past, you see, which makes the uptight Nolan -- who just needs to get drunk to loosen up -- see the light. Grabbers escalates as its monsters get more bold until it ends up with a clichéd standoff that involves explosions. But if "Grabbers" biggest problem is that it concludes with a satisfying's hard to fault it too much.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Michael J. Tresca gave 4 stars to: Devil

Michael J. Tresca reviewed:

Devil DVD ~ Chris Messina

4.0 out of 5 stars the details, January 20, 2014

This review is from: Devil (DVD)

"Devil" takes almost entirely in an elevator. There are a few scenes that are filmed outside of the elevator as the modern world tries to understand what is going on inside that metal coffin, but the majority of "Devil" is very much a stage play where all the characters are suspects and it's up to the audience to figure it out.

There's the sleazeball salesman (Geoffrey Arend), the jilted rich wife (Bojana Novakovic), the security guard with a history of violence (Bokeem Woodbine), the elderly thief (Jenny O'Hara), and the cypher (Logan Marshall-Green).

The witnesses are just as important to this story as the victims. Witnessing his morality play in the elevator are two security guards and a cop: narrator Ramirez (Jacob Vargas), his boss Lustig (Matt Craven), and Detective Bowden (Chris Messina, from The Mindy Project). Ramirez sets the plot up: The Devil seeks out sinners, traps them, turns them against each other, and then kills them off one by one, with the last victim to die in front of his loved ones to make the world a more cynical place.

What ensues is a relentless escalation of tension as one by one the victims die in the elevator. Outside, all rescue attempts end in gruesome accidents. In parallel with the events in the elevator, Bowden tests out an evolving hypothesis as to who the murderer is, revealing new twists with each piece of evidence he uncovers.

What's interesting about "Devil" is how it juxtaposes a ridiculous situation (The Devil is real! People can be murdered within five feet of each other without knowing who did it!) contrasted with direct surveillance by trained observers (CCTV in the elevator recorded and monitored by police). "Devil" slowly strips away everything we know about modern technology until we're left embracing the supernatural solution.

"Devil"'s creepy mood and cat-and-mouse game evokes predecessors like "Ten Little Indians" and "Cube." But its plot twist will seem hauntingly familiar and for good reason. "Devil" was produced by M. Night Shyamalan.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Michael J. Tresca gave 5 stars to: SERIES 7-CONTENDERS

Michael J. Tresca reviewed:


5.0 out of 5 stars The Hunger Games meets The Lottery, January 19, 2014

This review is from: SERIES 7-CONTENDERS (DVD)

"Series 7: The Contenders" is a blistering take on America's obsession with violence, guns, reality shows -- it's basically "The Hunger Games" meets Shirley Jackson's short story, The Lottery.

In a national television broadcast, five reality contestants are randomly determined by lottery and then given one goal: to kill each other. They get a pistol, but they can use whatever method necessary to execute each other. They have no choice in the matter, their only hope being that if they win three tours they go free.

In an uncomfortably prescient parallel to reality, the contest takes place in Newbury CT, just an hour away from Newtown, CT. It takes place there for a reason: it is Dawn Lagarto's (Brooke Smith) hometown, the current reigning champion who also happens to be eight-months pregnant and is on her third tour. The contenders include emergency room nurse Connie Trabucco (Marylouise Burke), ex-boyfriend of Lagarto Jeffrey Norman (Glenn Fitzgerald) who is dying of cancer, unemployed father Anthony Reilly (Michael Kaycheck), retired crank Franklin James (Richard Venture), and 18-year-old student Lindsay Berns (Merritt Wever).

There are no Hollywood deaths in "The Contenders." The violence is sloppy and ugly, with Reilly using his daughter as a shield, Norman trying to kill himself, Trabucco abusing her access as a nurse to hospitalized contestants, and Berns pumped up by her parents as an overachiever with a gun. On the one hand, all of the contestants are tabloid headlines: the coward who puts a child at risk in a gun fight, the suicidal shooter, the angel of death nurse, the student who snaps. But each actor brings a poignancy to their roles as they shamelessly delude themselves into thinking their chosen tactic will work. In "The Contenders," not even suicide is a guarantee.

But there's one more character in the film that must be mentioned, and that's the reality show production itself. Throughout we get a nagging sense that something isn't right, and that meta-narrative grows as different characters suffer mysterious wounds (one contestant manages to somehow stab himself in the back) and others scream that the entire show is fixed. Reality, it seems, isn't all that real.

The conclusion reaches a climactic battle between the final two contestants who do their best to reveal the truth -- and are then co-opted by the show, who uses a reenactment to show what "actually happened." "The Contenders" asks you what's worse: a reality show about killing people to survive, or a stage series of executions. That's what makes it so brilliant and, in our 24/7 news culture, so terrifying.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Michael J. Tresca gave 4 stars to: Robot and Frank

Michael J. Tresca reviewed:

Robot and Frank DVD ~ Frank Langella

4.0 out of 5 stars Not another hilarious caper, January 17, 2014

This review is from: Robot and Frank (DVD)

In the hands of another director, "Robot and Frank" might be a hilarious caper about a retired crook looking for one last score and his unwitting robot accomplice. But the reality is that this tidy little film has much more important things to worry about: aging, death, and the little indignities that happen with each lost memory.

Frank Weld (Frank Langella) is slowly losing his mind. He also happens to be an ex-con with a criminal past and a propensity for breaking and entering -- the film begins with him breaking into a home, only to realize that it's his own. That one scene perfectly sums up Frank's dilemma as a man whose only hobby is a crime that he can no longer remember.

Frank's son and daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) have taken this road with him many times and are now so tired of the routine that they have little time for him anymore. His son Hunter (James Marsden) gives him a robot companion (Peter Sarsgaard). It is never given a name. It walks like the Honda ASIMO, but -- as fitting its near-future setting -- is more advanced, capable of everything from gardening to picking locks. It's the latter skill that finally charms Frank and gets him to accept the robot, an artificial intelligence that amorally sees any activity Frank enjoys as critical to his rehabilitation.

Back to that comic caper. Frank discovers his favorite local library is being replaced by yuppie jerk Jake (Jeremy Strong) more interested in converting documents to digital than reading books, and the symbolic struggle between the physical and the electronic centers on an antique copy of Don Quixote. There's even a maiden in the tale, pretty librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon). And so, accompanied by his dutiful companion, our errant knight jousts at windmills for his fair lady.

But the truth is much more prosaic. Frank's reality unravels slowly at first, and then snowballs into a series of lies he's told himself and his children, betrayed by his own faulty memory of who he was and who he hoped he would be.

This is a deceptively complex film that offers no easy answers, even if its ending is a little trite.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Michael J. Tresca gave 4 stars to: American Mary

Michael J. Tresca reviewed:

American Mary DVD ~ Katharine Isabelle

4.0 out of 5 stars Revenge with a painful twist, January 16, 2014

This review is from: American Mary (DVD)

"American Mary" is one of those films that's meant to be disturbing to mainstream audiences because it features a taboo subject, in this case extreme body modification. It's a dark noir that's as much about turning you on as it is about squicking you out.

Mary Mason (Katharine Isabelle) is a struggling medical student hoping to become a surgeon. Desperate, she decides to turn to stripping. While she's there to strip, her services are put to better use saving a tortured man for $5,000. And just like that, Mary discovers that she can make more money sewing flesh up rather than showing it off.

Word gets out and it's not long before a Betty Boop-style mostly-plastic doll named Beatress (Tristan risk)shows up to offer a new job: turning Ruby Realgirl (Paula Lindberg) into a real doll -- as in, smooth all over. And so Mary moves from the underworld of criminal surgery to the seedy underworld of body modification.

So far, so good. Mary unwisely accepts invitation to attend a party hosted by her professor, Dr. Grant (David Lovgren). Dr. Grant drugs her up and rapes her. He's so egotistical that he leaves her, dazed and wandering, at his own place as if she were just a tipsy date.

This does not go over well with Mary. Her disillusionment with the medical establishment fuels her new career, cutting and slashing her way to success through her enemies and clients. That choice will ultimately be her downfall.

"American Mary" is an original film with a twist on the typical revenge fantasy, but it's unfortunately marred by dream sequences and an occasionally scattershot plot that loses its focus. It's also not quite as horrifying as it thinks -- the extreme body modification doesn't really go far enough to impress horror fans. But for moviegoers looking for revenge with a twist, "American Mary" keeps twisting, and twisting, and twisting.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Michael J. Tresca gave 5 stars to: Open Water (Widescreen Edition)

Michael J. Tresca reviewed:

Open Water (Widescreen Edition) DVD ~ Blanchard Ryan

5.0 out of 5 stars 'Open Water': The most terrifying movie you will ever see, January 14, 2014

"Open Water" plays like somebody's bad vacation video from the eighties, but it's no joke: Tom and Eileen Lonergan were a real life couple left behind in 1998 by the Outer Edge Dive Company during a scuba dive on the Great Barrier Reef. If you're not a fan of diving, sharks, or water, "Open Water" isn't going to change your mind.

Daniel Kintner (Daniel Travis) and Susan Watkins (Blanchard Ryan) have decided to take a vacation to get away from their highly stressful day jobs. When out on their dive, they separate and the crew fails to accurately take a headcount due to one diver who forgot his equipment. When Daniel and Susan surface, they belatedly realize that nobody is coming back for them.

That's it. That's the whole film. Two people, with footage taken by a grainy camera, who can do nothing but float in the wide ocean. Occasionally they dive below to see more. But other than those desperate forays, this is a stage play that takes place between two people on open water. They go through the five stages of grief: Denying they've been forgotten, angry at each other for going on the trip, reconciling, giving up hope, and then finally accepting their fate. Helping them along the way are fish, jellyfish, and sharks. Lots and lots of sharks.

Because "Open Water" is based on true events, there's no happy ending and barely a plot. It's just two people in a beautiful vacation destination in open sight of ship that can't see them, abandoned by a support structure they took for granted.

There's one point the film left out. Fishermen found a diver's slate that read:

"[Mo]nday Jan 26; 1998 08am. To anyone [who] can help us: We have been abandoned on A[gin]court Reef by MV Outer Edge 25 Jan 98 3pm. Please help us [come] to rescue us before we die. Help!!!"

This film will haunt your most beautiful beachside fantasies.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Michael J. Tresca gave 3 stars to: Paranormal Activity 4

Michael J. Tresca reviewed:

Paranormal Activity 4: Unrated Edition DVD ~ Stephen Dunham

3.0 out of 5 stars Teenage angst, January 13, 2014

"Paranormal Activity 4" is a return to the franchise's continuity after flashing back to the sisters' origins in the third installment, who were the subject of "Paranormal Activity" one and two. We're back in the timeline to determine what happened to Hunter and Katie from the second film.

But before we get that far, we see the terror of demonic possession through fresh eyes: attractive teenager Alex (Kathryn Newton) lives in Henderson, Nevada with mother Holly (Alexondra Lee), father Doug (Stephen Dunham), and little brother Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp). Alex is fond of video chatting with her "only a friend" Ben (Matt Shively) who is smart enough to keep his mouth shut when Alex frequently shares video of herself in her underwear.

When strange kid Robbie (Brady Allen) befriends next door neighbor Wyatt, things take a turn for the weird. Mysterious noises, telekinesis, and signs of witchcraft abound. Or to put it another way, they don't call this "Paranormal Activity" for nothing.

The strangers across the street are up to no good, of course. Alex tries to get everyone to believe her, but since she's a teenager with an awful mom, this is a difficult thing to do. One after another the people in her limited circle of family fail her, which eventually leads to a much broader conspiracy of witches. It's a lot like the evolution of the "Halloween" series in which Michael Myers goes from lone psycho killer to a demonic sacrificing machine operating at the behest of a cult.

The big twist in this film is technology, the use of Xbox 360's Kinect motion sensor to show ghosts (or not show them as the case may be). Much of the video recording is from a laptop's point of view, which would be later used successfully in the "V/H/S" series.

Although not as thrilling as the first three installments, "Paranormal Activity 4" knows the right buttons to push to terrify parents of young children. Everyone else will likely be less impressed.

Michael J. Tresca gave 3 stars to: Paranormal Activity

Michael J. Tresca reviewed:

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (Unrated) (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD)

3.0 out of 5 stars Cleaning up after the other films, January 13, 2014

It's hard not to get cynical about the teenage-oriented reboot of these sorts of films, and the changes are perhaps a side effect of getting older -- I couldn't help but notice that "Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones" is pandering to a younger, urban audience. Where the first few entries in the "Paranormal Activity" franchise played on the fears of a young couple and then on new parents, this fifth installment is all about the dangers of coming of age.

"Paranormal Activity" began with a mysterious demon haunting a woman for no reason; "Paranormal Activity 2" extended that to a demonic cult dedicated to binding a demon to a first born child; the third installment was a flashback, but the fourth extended the conspiracy to a witch cult. As you can see from the progression of the franchise, "Paranormal Activity" keeps upping the ante, and by "The Marked Ones" we now have evidence of a global conspiracy to raise an army of demonically-possessed children.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Suffice it to say that Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) hangs out with his buddy Hector (Jorge Diaz) after graduating, and in between smoking pot, hanging out with the hot "only a friend" Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh) and filming really stupid stunts, they stumble upon a witch conspiracy that involves a murder and their valedictorian classmate, Oscar (Carlos Pratts). Whereas the earlier films used innovative, creepy techniques that played to the found-footage genre, "The Marked Ones" is content just to use a single camera. THE SPOILER ONES: The Ouija board of the first film is replaced with a malfunctioning electronic Simon game, and tension is created through staring at curtains (not once, but twice) and bodies falling from the ceiling (not once, but twice). Mostly, "The Marked Ones" comes up with a few tricks that are a pale imitation of the original, and then uses them over and over and hopes you don't notice.

What fans will notice is that "The Marked Ones" also wants to fill in the blanks of the other films. The way it goes about this is heavy-handed, but then there are several plot holes that the script bulldozes right over, the most egregious being a magical door that lets you pop into any of the previous films. This manages to rob the first film of some of its urgency when you see how it plays out, but if you're a fan of the franchise (and can remember what happened), there's ties to all of the films that have gone before.

And that's the thing. "The Marked Ones" isn't bad, it's just not nearly as scary as all those that have gone before. The "Paranormal Activity" franchise has set the bar so high that "The Marked Ones" can merely imitate them. It cleans up after the other films by filling in their blanks, but the blanks are what made them scary in the first place.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Michael J. Tresca gave 4 stars to: Europa Report [Blu-ray]

Michael J. Tresca reviewed:

Europa Report [Blu-ray] Blu-ray ~ Christian Camargo

4.0 out of 5 stars Gravity meets Apollo 18, January 8, 2014

This review is from: Europa Report [Blu-ray] (Blu-ray)

About the same time that "Gravity" came out, another movie came out the same year with a similar premise: a space mission's crew and their struggles to survive in a hostile environment. It's a bit like "Apollo 18," in its found-footage format, only much less goofy.

The story is told by the CEO of Europa Ventures, Dr. Unger (Embeth Davidtz), who sent the six astronauts on a twenty-month mission to Jupiter's moon. What unspools is a variety of footage -- plausibly recorded, given that it's a space mission -- in which one mistake compounds another. A solar storm requires a repair, and when an EVA goes horribly awry, someone is left behind. SPOILER REPORT: You know, like Clooney's character in "Gravity."

To be fair, there's only so many ways to die in space, so it's perhaps no surprise that the two films have that in common. There's also concerns about radiation, air, and the psychological erosion of the crew's sanity.

Things really heat up (or cool off) when the crew lands on Europa and the search for life turns into a battle for survival. As the crew loses its cohesion, as the ice cracks, and options dwindle, "Europa Report" takes a decidedly noble turn. There is no turning back, no calling for help. The crew is nakedly alone on a hostile planet and it brings out the worst and best in the scientists who have to consider the good of the mission above their petty concerns.

"Europa Report's" greatest strength is also its flaw: it is slow, leisurely, and occasionally plodding as silent, grainy images show the claustrophobic conditions of the crew. Some of the actors' accents are impenetrable, and at least one actual rocket scientist realizes that going on a 40 month mission is probably not a good idea for relationships back on Earth.

But while "Gravity" offered the thrills and chills of a woman against the odds, "Europa Report" is content to let its events march to their inevitable conclusion. A serious sci-fi film that treats its horror tropes with the appropriate weight.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Michael J. Tresca gave 4 stars to: The Hobbit

Michael J. Tresca reviewed:

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug [Blu-ray] Blu-ray ~ Ian McKellen

4.0 out of 5 stars Not about hobbits and that's okay, January 7, 2014

You might have heard of a little book titled The Hobbit. I've been reading it to my kids lately, so the book is fresh in my mind, and the second installment of Peter Jackson's trilogy is a good reminder that 1) The Hobbit is actually about a hobbit, and 2) the "Desolation of Smaug" is not about hobbits.

So what is the "Desolation of Smaug" about? Legolas.

Now that's not being entirely fair. It's about dwarves fighting giant spiders, an elf/dwarf romance, and a egotistical maniac who just happens to be a dragon.

There's a lengthy scene in first installment of "The Lord of the Rings" in which we see Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) as his jocular, pipe-smoking self. This was back when Jackson wanted to film "The Hobbit" series but got "The Lord of the Rings" instead, and it's clear that he slipped in much of the charm of the early chapters of "The Hobbit" into the other movie. So now the parent has become the child, and "The Hobbit" is fully in service to "The Lord of the Rings." At every turn we're reminded that this is not about Bilbo (Martin Freeman), but about the coming of Sauron. In essence, this is the Middle-Earth equivalent of George Lucas' "Star Wars" prequels, with one critical difference: they're rollicking fun.

While "An Unexpected Journey" was off to a slow start, "The Desolation of Smaug" starts off running and then breaks into a sprint. Moments that were leisurely in the book are cranked up to 11 in the film; dwarves don't just show up in pairs at werebear Beorn's (Mikael Persbrandt) house, they run there when the skinchanger rampages around in his massive bear form; Gandalf doesn't just investigate the Necromancer, he has a battle royale with the dark lord himself; and the dwarves don't just bump along in sealed barrels down the river to escape, it's a wild water ride filled with elves, orcs, and dwarves in the middle. And Legolas (Orlando Bloom) kicking ass.

Remember that scene when Legolas did that crazy move atop the Mumak in "Lord of the Rings?" A good half of "The Desolation of Smaug" is that over and over -- Legolas at his most awesome, potentially to impress his love interest and hot elf chick Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly, who is part elf anyway) who easily keeps up with him. And yet she's torn by her growing affection for the relatively tall (for a dwarf) Kili (Aidan Turner). None of this is in the books of course -- not Legolas, not Tauriel, and not the relationship -- but it provides some interesting dynamics in the interplay between dwarves and elves.

Eventually some of the dwarves and Bilbo make it to Smaug's lair, and he's every bit impressive as we imagined, embodied by Benedict Cumberbatch's silky snarl. The conflict between he and Bilbo is greatly expanded and goes beyond a mere cup; indeed, Smaug is both more vicious and calculating than his book version, constructing an escalating series of grudges against his real and imagined enemies.

But you know what? It works. Reading The Hobbit reveals Tolkien's genius in how it delights children -- my kids are still laughing at the talking troll purpose -- and watching the film reveals Jackson's genius in keeping adults entertained for two hours. No one will confuse the two and that's okay.