Review: ‘Dracula Untold’ (vampires that choose)

If Dracula became a monster for a noble cause, could his dark power be used in the name of the light?

Raised by the Turks as a royal hostage, Vlad Tepes (Luke Evans) returns to his homeland years afterward to rule. With a wife and child of his own, the peace of his kingdom is threatened when the Turks demand not only their regular tribute of coin but also a thousand children to fight in the Sultan’s army…including Vlad’s own son. With no standing army, Vlad makes a Devil’s deal with a cursed monster (Charles Dance), but can the prince defeat his enemies with borrowed power without falling victim to the curse himself?

Attempts to make Dracula merely a monster at the box office the last two decades have gloriously failed, so why not restore his nobility as a man of hope rather than yet another villain obsessed with a Scooby-Doo plot to do evil? Enter Dracula Untold, a low to middle-budget monster movie with high aspirations. True, the idea isn’t without precedent: the killer with a conscious, the gun with a soul, and the monster more noble than a man. In the name of Hollywood, of course, power must be demonstrated, and what better way than with special effects? Fortunately, a tight plot that plays to its running time weaves a tale of people who choose to become monsters, even if it does lean heavily on computer-generated imagery to tell it.

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Review: ‘Annabelle’ (stock plot but still damnably creepy)

Annabelle rides on the coattails of The Conjuring but distinguishes itself only as well-executed jump-scare flick.

In the late 1960s, young couple Mia (Annabelle Wallis) and her husband John (Ward Horton) are expecting their first child. Annabelle is a rare doll presented to Mia as a gift to complete her collection, but the sanctity of the object is desecrated when a pair of Satanists enter the couple’s home and makes an attempt on Mia’s life. A series of incidents begin to occur in the presence of the doll, the only connection being that one of Satanists took her life while holding the object. Before long, it becomes clear that something is very wrong and that Annabelle is inexplicably at the center of it.

From the paranormal case files of the Warrens (kind of) comes the (possible) story of a doll manipulated by an evil force. Was this film as good as The Conjuring? No, and the worst thing about that movie was the unfortunate title. For folks seeking an above-average Halloween flick, however, it’s fun and effective, even for a period piece. For those interested in the true account of the actual doll, you can read it online at Warrens.net, but this also reveals that the film is pure speculation since Ed and Lorraine Warren only came into contact with the doll after another couple acquired it. That said, the filmmakers manage to take a stock plot and infuse it with enough atmosphere and original scares to satisfy your Halloween craving.

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Review: ‘Ghostbusters’ (an ever-quotable paranormal comedy that refuses to die)

“Shorten your stream, Venkman…I don’t want my face burned off.”

After being tossed out of university for bilking funds with unproductive paranormal investigations, two nerds and a slacker (Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, and Bill Murray) leverage a third mortgage to set up an actual ghost-busting business in New York City. Meanwhile, a decades-old plan to open a door into a dark dimension and invite a demigod into the Big Apple is just coming to fruition, and the Ghostbusters’ first client (Sigourney Weaver) is living in the corner penthouse of spook central. Can the boys-in-gray save the girl and stop the end of the world with their unlicensed nuclear accelerators, or are we all doomed to die beneath the feet of a demon-dog-loving hundred-foot marshmallow man?

What can you say about a paranormal action comedy that endures as one of the funniest and most entertaining films ever…even thirty years later? New fans are still discovering it every day, conventions are swarming with local Ghostbuster chapters of home-built costumes complete with lights and effects, and even Mattel toys has full-size exact-replica props straight from the film. The movie endures – the surest sign of a classic – and it’s impossible to utter even a single line of dialogue in a crowd without random strangers piling on the quotes. Thirty years later, there are still rumblings of making another sequel, but no one would dare suggest a reboot or re-imagining; Ghostbusters is perfect exactly as it is.

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Review: ‘If I Stay’ (a life or death decision story)

The best tissue-ready feel-good family film about dying you’ll see all August.

While waiting for a decision that will affect the rest of her life, high school student Mia (ChloĆ« Grace Moretz) spends a snow day with her family cut short by a random traffic accident. As ambulances arrive to take victims to the hospital, Mia discovers she’s become a disembodied spirit caught between life and death. Family and friends grieving over the event prompt a recollection of Mia’s life leading up to the tragedy, but the ultimate decision belongs to her: will she go on living or move on?

Why put a film like this out in August? Counterprogramming maybe? The production has all the quirks of an awards contender: good acting, interesting characters, and a practical storytelling device mostly clear of obvious special effects. Yes, there’s a romantic angle here – young musicians in love – but it’s really about family: the one you’re born into and the close friends you collect along away. As a soul caught between worlds, characters interact via talk and the occasional touch, but only Mia seems aware. Never having read the Gayle Forman novel upon which the film is based, the director does an exemplary job of orchestrating the story’s highs and lows, culminating in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it ending; everything that could happen afterward is clearly a different story, a bold choice for a final scene that works perfectly.

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Review: ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ 2014 (it’s actually good?)

Not despising Megan Fox’s character should be the minimum criteria for ANY positive film review.

New York City journalist April O’Neil (Megan Fox) dreams of something bigger than fluff reports – just like every other reporter. While trying to catch a break investigating a gang calling themselves “The Foot Clan,” April discovers four vigilantes who are fighting back…and they prefer not to be seen doing it. After she finally catches up to them, she realizes who they are (a big departure from previous incarnations of this tale), a revelation that not only puts her in the line of fire but also gives the existence of the vigilantes away to their greatest enemy (say it with me now): the Shredder!

First off, Michael Bay didn’t direct this movie; he just produced it along with Nickelodeon – maybe all Bay films should be made this way! The real question herein seems to be “Who is the new Turtles movie for?” With a PG-13 rating, the film pushes the violence while still remaining family friendly, but it does manage to straddle the divide between newer, younger fans and those who grew up with the original Turtles. Remember the black and white comic? It wasn’t for kids; in fact, one of the best Turtles movies was the recent mashup of four of the best-known incarnations, from the colorless original to the kiddiest-friendly version. After seeing the newest finished film, the best answer is: everyone. Old fans get the familiar tropes, new fans get a fresh introduction, and everyone meets in the middle for a fun action comedy.

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Review: ‘Into the Storm’ (It’s ‘Twister’…fortified with danger and plot!)

After a freak overnight tornado is reported, a team of stormchasers (Matt Walsh and Sarah Wayne Callies) arrive in a small town hoping to take a tornado-proof vehicle with two dozen video cameras into the eye of a twister. At the same time, a local high school is filming a virtual time capsule for their vice principal (Richard Armitage) on graduation day – just before the sirens start going off. Over the course of only a few hours, nerves and mettle will be tested as the unprecedented destruction of a small town begins…

It seems likely that one or more individuals were sitting around one day and said, “Hey, can you imagine how cool Twister would look if it was done with today’s special effects?” While Twister did have something of a plot between the characters and how important stormchasing was, it really never delved into the devastation or human cost: it was an effects film, plot be damned. Kudos to revitalizing the found-footage concept by simultaneously showing a high school making a video time capsule while the stormchasers have manual and automatic cameras of their own; it creates the idea that, after everything that happens, there’s enough footage to tell a complete story while providing that all-essential excuse why people are filming this instead of running for their lives. To the credit of the filmmakers, it’s entertaining, it works, and it doesn’t pull any punches.

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Review: ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ (fun promised, awesome delivered)

“Make Mine Marvel.” It’s not just for comics anymore.

After losing his mother as a child and being kidnapped by aliens on the same day, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) knows a little something about loss. He also knows a little something about gain, too, being an intergalactic thief who calls himself “Star-Lord.” When a particular caper goes south, he runs afoul of an assassin (Zoe Saldana) trying to make off with his score. She might have gotten away with it, too, if not for a couple of meddling bounty hunters in the form of a gentically-enhanced raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and a humanoid tree (voiced by Vin Diesel) who also manage to get everyone nabbed by the Nova Corps space police force. With the help of an inmate named Drax (Dave Bautista), they band together to escape prison, but our less-than-merry misfits quickly discover that someone far worse is coming after them…several someones, actually.

While set in the Marvel universe of comicdom, Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t the biggest untapped property in the stable, but as they did launching Iron Man, it was ready-made to fill a niche; it feels like equal parts “Farscape,” “Firefly,” and the few family-friendly parts of Pitch Black (Vin Diesel much?) while putting an original spin on it. No matter how much this film stacked the deck, however, there was still a chance that Guardians wouldn’t fly, and that would have been the first real chink in Marvel’s box office armor (as of this date, this doesn’t appear to be an issue). Like all of the previous Marvel films, this franchise launch introduces as many hooks as it does links with its existing properties, and it all just keeps getting better.

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