Blair Witch Review (2016): I’m a Witch, I’m a Witch Oh, the Witch is Back

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Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett want to party like it’s 1999 but as we were all taught, parties weren’t meant to last. Their sorta-sequel, sorta-reboot Blair Witch is a dismal retread of the 1999 surprise hit that created a now-tired sub-genre. They decided to replicate the original idea and we are all left scratching our heads and wondering why. Wingard and Barrett seem to think, why the hell not?

The Blair Witch Project was made on a $60,000 budget and made just under $250 million worldwide, creating a phenomenon by rubbing two nickels together. The latest, made for $5 million, doesn’t do much to advance the concept technically or narratively, except giving the characters a drone and a few digital cameras.

Set 20 years after the events of the original, James (James Allen McCune) discovers a video that could have belonged to his sister Heather, who disappeared in the woods while looking for the Blair Witch. Desperate to know if she’s alive – again, 20 years later – he gathers a group of friends (Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid and Brandon Scott) to go spend a night in the woods and see if she’s out there.

Outlandish premise aside, Blair Witch has nothing to offer and commits a movie cardinal sin: What is the justification of this film’s existence? Who is it for and why is it here? It’s a movie that leans heavily on nostalgia for the first, which gained a strong fan base at the time of its release and subsequent years after, and doesn’t attempt to do anything new or exciting. The friends spend the night in the woods with a pair of sketchy people (Wes Robinson and Valorie Curry), who found the original video footage. Things creak and crack throughout the night, trust is challenged and somehow absolutely no tension is created.

I’m mostly saddened by the attempted cash-in (as of Sunday night the film opened to only $9.6 million) nature of Blair Witch. It’s a regressive step in Wingard and Barrett’s respective careers, who gave us the fun horror film You’re Next and the slick, retro, bloody action-thriller The Guest, which I absolutely adore (if you haven’t seen The Guest, it’s available on Netflix – stay home and watch that instead of Blair Witch.) These are guys, who in such a short period of time, have become masters of creating palpable tension and atmosphere and now they’ve succumbed to the lazy found footage conceit.

While I appreciate the relevance of The Blair Witch project, I was never a fan of the original, which was a long journey to an inevitable ending. It was all concept and no execution. Maybe that put me at a grave disadvantage going into Blair Witch, because it’s so heavily steeped in the lore of the first. Either way, we didn’t need to see it again.

2 out of 10

Equity Review: This Time, Anna Gunn is the One Who Knocks

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Anna Gunn, who played Skyler White for five season on Breaking Bad, gets her first big lead role in Equity, an engrossing new financial-set drama.

There has been a lot of chatter about the fact that the film was directed, written, produced and primarily stars women. Big whoop – this shouldn’t be the lede of everyone’s review or coverage of the film. Maybe Hollywood will one day catch up and realize that Gunn can play more than the embattled wife of a meth dealer because here she proves herself a formidable leading lady.

Gunn is mesmerizing as Naomi Bishop, a senior investment banker, who is in the aftermath of an IPO gone awry. Her name is plastered all over the financial sector after her efforts to take a company public didn’t go her way but Naomi has no time to dwell; she’s ready for her next project.

Naomi has sunk her teeth into a company called Cachet, a social networking site that boasts unshakable privacy above all else. Naomi is a no-nonsense kind of banker, who seems to only pitch her ideas to the company’s CEO Ed (Samuel Roukin) as a formality. She wants to do things her way and have everyone else stay out of it.

After what happened with her last IPO efforts, there is a lot of pressure on Naomi. She has an old college friend, Samantha (Alysia Reiner), who investigates securities frauds and a hungry VP, Erin (Sarah Megan Thomas), looking for a promotion for all the work she does for Naomi, all distracting her from her work. Once Naomi sets her focus, you better not get in her way.

Under the direction of Meera Menon, Equity unfolds rather straightforwardly in its web of Wall Street happenings. The central story is consistently engaging but Equity has a problem with its tangents, detouring on some side plots that never feel fully fleshed out. The script has such a strong and engaging central story but the background noise proves to be more distracting than anything else.

Gunn, who won two Emmys for her role on Breaking Bad, is the addictive constant of Equity. Her performance is so wonderfully layered and she creates a balance of razor sharp precision and vulnerability in Naomi. It’s a calling card for continuous leading roles for Gunn.

In the dog days of summer, Equity is a strongly acted drama for the adult crowd, brimming with great performances and moments of true tension. Too bad it took us this long to find something engaging to watch this summer.

7 out of 10

Tickled Capsule Review (2016): New Documentary is No Laughing Matter

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I can’t say too much about the new documentary Tickled, which has been slowly expanding in theaters throughout the summer. My words wouldn’t do the film justice.

Journalist David Farrier directed the film with Dyaln Reeve. Farrier has spent most of his career drawn to reporting about weird stories. So naturally, when he came across a Youtube video about “competitive endurance tickling,” he had to know more.  He began to investigate and was not prepared for the story that awaited him.

Tickled is a movie that you have to continually remind yourself is a documentary and the events that occur throughout truly happened. Moments of Tickled played like a tense Hollywood thriller, which had my friend and I at the edge of our seat – literally.

I’m not concerned with trying to meet any kind of word count with this review. I don’t want to tell you anything that happens because this is a movie you have to see to believe. Tickled is one of the strangest movies I have ever experienced.

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Indignation Review (2016): Someone Comes of Age but What’s the Point?

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I have never read a book by Philip Roth. Sometimes I’m inspired to read the book before I see a movie to critique if the film adaptation is a successful transition to the screen. Indignation is not one of those cases, so I went in cold.

I have, however, seen a few of Roth’s film adaptations, which have never been fully successful movies. The Human Stain was a mess – but an intriguing one – mainly because Nicole Kidman and Anthony Hopkins made an interesting pairing. Indignation is a problematic film but, strangely enough, makes me want to read the book to see what is missing from the film.

Indignation is the directorial debut of former studio head James Schamus, who oversaw the production of most of Ang Lee’s films, and garnered an Oscar nomination as a producer of Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. He has since left Focus Features and now is trying his hand at directing features. His first attempt behind the camera is a milquetoast effort at a would-be Oscar bait drama.

In Indignation, Logan Lerman stars as Marcus, a college-bound student, who grew up in a working-class Jewish family. His parents (played by Danny Burnstein and Linda Emond) want him to stay close to home – dad, particularly – but Marcus is desperate to get away from the family meat market business. There is a whole world Marcus hasn’t seen outside of Jersey and he is ready to explore.

He attends college in Ohio, where he goes to class, studies and makes $18 a week working in the library. Unexpectedly, Marcus’ focus is derailed when he meets Olivia (Sarah Gadon), who is a girl with an interesting past. Marcus knows she is not right for him but he is drawn to her wild spirit.

Indignation explores coming-of-age themes and sexual repression, which we have seen time-and-time again, but it situates itself in the foreground of the Korean War. There are plenty of opportunities to make the film a layered exploration of social life in the midst of war but Indignation often feels lost, struggling to find its footing. There is no discernable plot trajectory, which makes for a flat viewing experience. What’s this film’s thesis? I haven’t a clue.

As for helming a straightforward drama, Schamus demonstrates an apt vision behind the camera but the problems are within the story. This is was makes me interested to read Roth’s novel – what was cut from his original vision? Schamus’ script doesn’t have much of an emotional pull, as we should expect from watching someone discover who they are outside of their family

Lerman continues to prove himself a promising young actor, who has previously delivered strong performances in The Perks of Being a Wallflower and his MVP role in Fury. His interpretation of Marcus is both naïve and confident – a young person who thinks he has it figured out but really doesn’t have a clue. He and Gadon have an interesting, if never compelling, chemistry.

Some of the best moments in Indignation are when Marcus faces off with the prickly Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts). Letts delivers a fine supporting performance but there isn’t enough of him to salvage Indignation into being something worthwhile.

5 out of 10

Pete’s Dragon Review (2016): Disney Remake Soars High

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Something happened to me during my showing of Pete’s Dragon. I wasn’t sure what it was at first but then it became clear: I was moved. Disney’s latest confirmed that I am still a human being, who is completely capable by being won over by an endearing film.

Pete’s Dragon isn’t groundbreaking material; it isn’t even all that original. It follows well-worn Disney tropes and takes us through a familiar trajectory for almost two hours- but none of that matters. Pete’s Dragon is a fun and thrilling adventure film, which has more heart and soul than most movies dare to have today. Especially with the dismal slog of a summer that we have been through at the movies, Pete’s Dragon rises above all the spectacles that try to win you over with their flashy trickery.

Director David Lowery (whose calling card film was the snoozy Terrence Malick-esque Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) helms the latest Disney remake. His source material is the 1977 Disney film – a rare one that I don’t have much of a connection with – where animation and live action were used together. In the 2016 version, Pete (Oakes Fegley) has been living in the forest for six years, without another human being in sight. His friend, Elliot, has taken care of him all this time – Elliot happens to be a dragon.

Much like The Jungle Book, which we saw remade earlier this year, Pete is a boy who has only known his life in the forest and has no desire to leave it. One day when Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), a devoted forest ranger, her boyfriend, Jack (We Bently), and his daughter, Natalie (Oona Laurence) are in the forest, they see Pete. He is brought back to their home while they try to figure out where he came from and how long he has been living out there.

Watching Pete adapt to the real world is such an interesting aspect of Pete’s Dragon and Fegley does a wonderful job conveying Pete’s confusion about simple things, words or actions. He tells Grace and Natalie about his friend Elliot and is asked if that is his imaginary friend. “What does imaginary mean?” he asks Natalie.

It’s hard for people to believe Pete’s stories of Elliot because dragons are just mystical creatures. Only one person in town, Grace’s father (Robert Redford), has ever claimed to have seen or heard the dragon. In a town filled with skeptics, Elliot needs to be seen to be believed.

Pete’s Dragon is a good example of a film that takes familiar material and works wonders with it. Movies are usually knocked because nothing seems new or fresh anymore but that doesn’t always make a movie bad. Lowery is able to effectively blend the drama, action, thrills and comedy into one even movie and creates a fresh film experience.

Your kids may want you to take them to see that fun looking hot dog movie – but don’t! – over this. There are moments of peril and genuine danger but this is one of the best family films in some time. Let your imagination take flight because Pete’s Dragon is worth a trip to the movies.

9 out of 10

Florence Foster Jenkins Review (2016): Meryl Streep is Even Good at Being Bad

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Director Stephen Frears’ latest biopic, Florence Foster Jenkins, centers on the title character, a bon vivant of the 20th century New York City arts scene. She had fortune and notoriety and a great passion for opera music and the desire to be an opera singer, herself.

Just one problem – Florence couldn’t sing to save her life. She would have never known that about herself because she was surrounded by people who encouraged her to follow her dreams.

In another transformative role, Meryl Streep stars as the titular character. There’s a great joy at watching the greatest living actress take on the role of someone who was so bad at performing because, as you could imagine, Streep is even perfect at being bad.

Florence’s husband, St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), may not always be the best husband but is her biggest supporter. He cares greatly for Florence and champions any dreams, no matter how ridiculous they can be. He helps Florence interview piano players to help her with her vocal lessons.

They agree upon Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg, in what is hopefully an intentionally awkward performance), who is excited about landing such a good gig playing piano. His first session with Florence is shocking because the sounds coming out of her sound like anything but opera music. He’s stunned when her vocal coach and husband praise her but hesitantly continues to play the piano.

The film follows Florence all the way to Carnegie Hall, where she plays for a sold out crowd. What makes Frears’ film work so well is it never passes judgment on Florence and her delusions of grandeur. She is not a crazy person but an unshakably passionate one. St Clair doesn’t indulge simply to spare her feelings – though that’s certainly part of it – but he doesn’t want her to lose her love of music.

Streep delivers a performance infused with enthusiasm and a striking balance of confidence and vulnerability. Deftly balancing heart and humor – much like her Julie and Julia performance – she delivers her best performance since her icy nun in 2008’s Doubt.

But we know Streep is great – she always is, even in movies that aren’t good. The real surprise here is Grant, who gives the performance of his career. While Florence Foster Jenkins has the heft of a Sunday matinee film, should it be remembered come awards season, Grant is deserving of a Best Supporting Actor nomination. (Streep will more than likely continue to break her own record and garner her 20th career nomination.)

Despite lagging a bit, Florence Foster Jenkins is an easy watch and one that comes packaged in a good message. You don’t always have to be great to do the thing you love.

7 out of 10

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates Review: And Maybe a Better Script?

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In February 2013, Mike and Dave Stangle were told they were not allowed to show up to their cousin’s wedding without dates. To fulfill their cousin’s wishes, they put a lengthy ad on Craigslist, which sought the perfect dates that would impress their entire family. “You should be attractive or our aunts will judge you, but not TOO attractive or one of our uncles might grope you,” were some of the stipulations in their original self-aggrandizing post. Accompanied by a picture of their heads Photoshopped onto centaurs, their ad went viral.

The Stangle brothers’ ad became so popular that a book was written and a movie was made about their quest for the perfect wedding date. Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates stars Zac Efron as Dave and Adam Devine as Mike. The two brothers live together, work together and party together. They walk into their apartment one day and find their entire family sitting there, intervention-style. Their dad (Stephen Root) insists they bring someone to their younger sister Jeanie’s (Sugar Lyn Beard) wedding. (The cousin has been exchanged for a younger sister in the film version.) They protest their father but Jeanie insists that it was her idea for them to bring dates. No one wants to risk Mike and Dave getting out of control and hitting on all of the bridesmaids.

Anything for Jeanie, the brothers say. So the Craigslist ad is created. They interview an onslaught of weird ladies, who are mostly looking for a trip to Hawaii. Discouraged that they have not met any viable candidates, Mike and Dave meet Tatiana (Aubrey Plaza) and Alice (Anna Kendrick). After seeing Mike and Dave on TV, the two best friends have concocted a scheme to get the Stangle brothers to take them on a trip.

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates takes us on a sunny trip to Hawaii, where wedding comedy hijinks inevitably ensue. Tatiana and Alice have a hard time keeping up with their backstories because they don’t really care about impressing anyone; they just want a vacation.

Plaza and Kendrick, while dishonest and scheming, offer the majority of the sharp one-liners in the film. Efron doesn’t deliver anything that we are not used to seeing from his comedies – it’s just another variation of his Peter Pan Syndrome persona. Devine – known mostly for TV’s Workaholics or the Pitch Perfect movies – gets his first real big role. He’s loud and grating, usually operating at a 20, when we would settle for a 10. There are echoes of Jack Black in Devine’s persona, which is over-the-top and rarely funny.

Writers Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O’Brien carry scenes on for far too long and the jokes don’t often land. Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates does have a handful of funny moments but most are killed by the repetitious nature of individual scenes. Director Jake Szymanski holds shots for far too long, hoping to give the audience time to catch-up and laugh. This movie is not that smart; we are already mentally on the next scene before the writers or directors leave the previous.

In the real Stangle brothers’ ad, they included the dates would get royalties once their night’s story is developed into a romantic comedy. Unabashedly confident, they gave themselves an 85-percent chance of that happening. Turns out they were right, for better or for worse.

5 out of 10