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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Valentine’s Day Will Soon Be Upon Us! (edited)

Some things just beg to be made fun of. This is one of them, and I’m just getting started.

Edited: improved render; you can more clearly see the Andy Warhol-inspired pop art montage reflected behind the counter.


Ultimate Occult Showdown 2014 Highlights!

As promised, you lucky mortals: highlights from the 2014 Ultimate Occult Showdown shot at Ancient City Con. If you don’t yet know what we do, this is a good example.

A game show with no prizes and audience participation is mandatory! Vote up your favorites in a contest of characters, movies, and TV programs but be ready to tell us why. Rules are made up as we go along by your opinionated a**hole hosts Kevin A. Ranson and Brett J. Link. Presented by and Grim D. Reaper!

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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Review: ‘Her’ (the purest scifi)

In the near future – when all of our silly human struggles for need have come to an end – only want remains. Enter Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely man who takes a chance on upgrading his mobile computer to a new operating system: a thinking program that can anticipate his desires (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). What he gets, however, is much more than that, but can a living person and an artificial intelligence have a meaningful relationship when the program evolves past the mere human who purchased it?

Her is an interesting premise for a drama: a man who falls in love with a computer program (let’s exclude the fact that she sounds like the perfect loving version of Scarlett Johanssen for a moment). The story makes sense; anyone whose ever been alone or just lonely can relate, and it doesn’t seem all that weird or implausible due to the lead actors delivering spot-on performances. Where Her missteps is in concluding the plot, conveniently getting all metaphysical (or cyberphysical, if you will) in order to end the film; there were only so many ways this was going to end, so it was this or Skynet, right? While intimacy and exclusivity are the core ideas being explored, very little is taboo, and the film does and exemplary job dealing with each idea respectfully even when – or especially when – it’s the most uncomfortable.

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