Review: ‘It Follows’ (a throwback with a clever take on corrupting the innocent)

Pat Benetar was right, but what ELSE are you going to use as a weapon?

Jay (Maika Monroe) is a pretty young woman residing in Detroit dating a mysterious new local guy named Hugh (Jake Weary). On the night after they have sex for the first time, Hugh knocks her out, binds her to a chair, and says he’s “helping her.” Something is coming for Jay because she had sex with Hugh, and it will kill her if it can reach her – unless she has sex with someone else to pass the curse along. Here’s the kicker: if she fails to do this before it succeeds, the thing comes back to stalk and kill the one who passed it on. It can look like anyone dead or alive, presumably something disturbing, but it never runs…and it never stops.

Stop worrying about what will happen if you watch forbidden video tapes or play with witch boards; this film is all about doing it and paying for it…forever. With a surprisingly competent cast of young actors, It Follows manages an incredible amount of creep on a small budget with a high concept. This isn’t to say it’s all perfect, but for all its flaws, it’s both memorable and controversial, inspiring the kind of water cooler horror-fan talk that the The Ring managed to generate before it was diluted with all the sequels. Like all good first films, no explanation is given for how this thing got started, but that doesn’t stop our cast of potential victims from trying and failing spectacularly to survive.
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Review: ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ (the action-packed sci-fi blockbuster you didn’t watch)

Smug Cruise, stupid Cruise, needy Cruise, awesome Cruise.

Cage (Tom Cruise) is a military media liaison covering an alien invasion of Earth and helping to recruit soldiers to the cause…mostly to avoid being shipped off to battle himself. On the eve of a desperate push against enemy forces in central Europe, Cage is told he’s going to be covering the battle – not where he wants to be – and attempts to influence a British General to get out of it. Faster than can you say “Yes, Drill Sargent,” Cage awakens stripped of rank, inducted into a frontline squad, and quickly on a beachhead alongside allied forces getting slaughtered. An instant before she’s killed, he spies a hero of the war named Rita (Emily Blunt) before dying himself in a shower of alien blood…before waking up again stripped of rank and inducted into a frontline squad. Did he dream the future, or is something else going on?

It would be easy to call this Groundhog Day meets Independence Day, and that’s a very apt description. What sets this story apart is the attention to detail and the actors themselves. In a film where the same characters die many times over while learning new things each time it happens, this would be an editor’s nightmare – or the coolest thing ever. It must have been amazing to see this film come together with so much information and plot poured in. There are rules, of course; like many of the best time travel films, hard limits like causality, time of travel, and keep these stories tight. Edge of Tomorrow is exactly the kick-ass, intellectual, science-fiction story everyone says they wish was made more often…and yet it was panned.
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Review: ‘Divergent’ (dystopia-ish faction-y grrl power)

It feels like The Hunger Games light, but it’s better than the screen-version of The Mortal Instruments.

In a futuristic, post-something-or-another world that looks like Chicago-After-People, skyscrapers that are two-centuries old inexplicably don’t fall down to crush the Five Factions: Abnegation, the selfless; Amity, the peaceful; Candor, the honest; Dauntless, the brave; and Erudite, the intellectual. Citizens are given an aptitude test at the age of sixteen in the form of a dreamlike simulation to help them determine where they belong. They may choose to stay where they were born or move to another faction, but if they fail to measure up, they become “factionless,” vagrants condemned to the city ruins (nice, huh?) Beatrice “Tris” Prior’s (Shailene Woodley) aptitude test flags her as “divergent,” capable of being in several factions – a frowned-upon condition that jeopardizes the entire system. When she chooses Dauntless over her birthplace of Abnegation, she’s launched on a journey that puts herself, her family, and the entire 23rd century in danger before Buck Rogers can get back to save it.

The Walled City formerly known as Chicago has some issues, mostly the future-tech and weird secrecy. Sorry; this world couldn’t survive even a decade like this (let alone two-hundred years), but it does make for an interesting backdrop for our heroine to be brave and such. Of course, there’s a conspiracy afoot, and Tris is right in the middle of it trying to survive, excel, and find her place in Neo-Chicago. What’s weird is that Tris always seems to be in danger of something, but everyone outside of her little circle (read: the extras in the background) all seem kind of oblivious to what’s going on in a way that undermines suspension of disbelief. Pay attention, guys; the caterers will still be there after the scene.
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Review: ‘Project Almanac’ (decent found-footage time travel flick)

Pretty good, but a little tweaking here and there might have made it great.

David (Jonny Weston) is a high school senior science nerd who dreams of getting into MIT. With the help of his sister and two best buds, he gets admitted – but with a scholarship too small to cover his expenses. Having little choice other than to change his life plans or his mother selling their house, David and his sibling raid the attic for ideas before finding an old video camera. The ten-year old footage of the day his dad passed away also shows his eighth birthday party…and his eighteen year old self walking through the frame.

A late-January film like this has a lot going against it: found footage, time travel, produced by Michael Bay – and don’t get me started on product placement (mobile cameras, game consoles, concert venues – oh, it’s MTV Films, too). To the film’s credit, it’s a self-aware time travel flick, citing everything from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure to Looper, even a “Doctor Who” reference. The science of the time travel technology is certainly part of the story, including the rules. Apparently, your past self cannot observe your in-the-flesh future self for too long in close proximity (this bit of rules-lawyering is shaky) or else you may wink out of existence (yep, even a Time Cop reference). The entire story attaches itself to the idea that observation of future events changes it, yet it conveniently sorts that out when it benefits the plot. Still, for a self-aware time travel flick, it does hit all the right pop-culture tropes and has fun with the idea.
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Review: ‘Chappie’ (should have hired WALL-E’s agent)

RoboCop fused with Short Circuit reimagined as a prequel to The Road Warrior.

In the near future, violent crime in Johannesburg, South Africa has skyrocketed. With law enforcement overwhelmed, the city turns to a robotics company, deploying “scouts” to turn the tide. Scout designer Deon (Dev Patel) is the star of the robotics company but dreams of something other than programming: a true artificial intelligence to determine right from wrong. Rival designer and ex-soldier Vincent (Hugh Jackman) oozes with jealousy over Deon’s success, watching his neural-controlled overkill “moose” robot wasting away from a lack of funds. When Deon cracks the A.I. code and steals a busted scout robot to test his new program, he runs afoul of petty criminals Ninja and Yolandi (as themselves) and activates the robot for them. While “Chappie” (Sharlto Copley) begins to learn at an incredible rate, Vincent figures out what Deon is up to and decides to escalate the situation to his advantage…poorly.

Neill Blomkamp loves the human condition, but his stories often appear hopelessly bleak. Chappie is an R-rated fairy tale with technology instead of magic – strike that: technology AS magic. It’s like a kids movie for adults, perhaps additionally inspired from Robocop (and WOW, does “the moose” look way too much like ED-209 with a VTOL upgrade!) The humor feels just as derived from the Short Circuit franchise with all the gangsta/thuggie spray-painted trappings you can cringe at. At its core, there is an interesting story about a new-born robot finding out what it’s like to come into a bleak world, but with all the other distractions, it just becomes buried beneath everything else. While the film looks big, you can feel the budget constraints; in a city full of crime, no one ever seems to be watching these monitors or guarding anything, even at the place where they make the robot guards!
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Review: ‘Birdman: or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance’ (and why many won’t identify with this)

The mid-life crisis of an actor using a fantasy element that confuses the heck out of people.

Reggin (Michael Keaton) is taking his shot on Broadway with a play he’s adapted, directed, and produced. All the money he has left in the world is tied up in realizing his dream, a personal goal that had to do with why he became an actor. From fussing actors to cutthroat critics, everyone seems to be against him, even his estranged daughter (Emma Stone). But his biggest hurdle to overcome may be the man he once pretended to be, now a delusional personification of the pop culture movie franchise icon the world identifies Reggin with: Birdman.

This is the story of what many career actors fear, that this will happen to them or it’s who they’ll become. For the performance artist with big dreams – the same person who takes money to survive and accidentally gains the prestige that comes with so-called “overnight” success – this could be called “real life.” Anyone in television, film, or theater has met people like the characters in this story: the once-was who fears becoming the has-been, the professional non-professional that can’t be trusted whom you have to trust, the actor who measures success by everyone else’s perception, and so on. With all this award-bait story going on, it’s the addition of a Walter Mitty element of the fantastic that allows the main character’s imagination to be seen as reality or insanity…something that may be step too far for some moviegoers.
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Review: ‘The Lazarus Effect’ (one actress’s valiant attempt to save a thriller)

Flatliners plus (choose ONE) A: Hollow Man, B: Lawnmower Man, C: Lucy.

After a scientist named Zoe (Olivia Wilde) theorizes a serum to regenerate disconnected brain tissue when stimulated electrically, her fiance Frank (Mark Duplass) puts their marriage on hold to secure a grant and complete the project with her. Three years later, a breakthrough restores a canine to life…but (of course) something isn’t quite right with it. The research team is forced to recreate the experiment when a loophole allows their research to be stolen away, but a lab accident pushes them to attempt a human trial; cue the special effects, horror makeup, and existential mumbo-jumbo.

Taking a cue from the “horror in a box” formula (lock your characters in, shake the box, see what falls out), The Lazarus Effect does a fair job of setup – pretty much everything we know from the trailer. At a glance, the story promises tying physics to metaphysics in a way that could might have been Event Horizon cool…until they do nothing with it. The story owes its existence to pretty much any story where science induces instant brain evolution to push a person off the rails, but with too many one-note characters and a severe lack of any explanation, every drop of potential is pissed away. Instead, Ms. Wilde inexplicably terrorizes the team until the film mercifully ends, only then hinting on something that might have made sense if there had been anything prior to support it.
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