Wednesday, February 22, 2017

'Blu-ray or Bust' - ARRIVAL

'Blu-ray or Bust'

Science fiction can be a tough sell sometimes—mostly because when most people consider the genre, they immediately think STAR WARS, STAR TREK, INDEPENDENCE DAY—you know; lasers, action, invading or angry aliens.

In recent years, a few directors have tried to not redefine the genre, but honestly show you the true meaning of it. From Duncan Jones’s brilliant MOON, to Christopher Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR, smart sci-fi isn’t something that is released all that often. (Mainly due to the lack of laser blasters and evil aliens.) Even Neill Blomkamp’s DISTRICT 9, while heavy with wonderful effects, told an effective and detailed scientific tale.

But the best science fiction wants you to consider the human element, and not some kick ass effects and booming soundtrack. ARRIVAL ups the ante a bit by focusing on a smart, well-developed story. It twists you, changes your expectations, and tries to make you re-evaluate what it means to really live, and not just exist.

Amy Adams stars as linguist Louise Banks, a woman recruited by the military (namely the brooding Forest Whitaker) to help interpret the language the inhabitants of a newly arrived alien ship. Joining her is Jeremy Renner as physicist Ian Donnelly, another scientist who winds up grappling with the whole “holy crap—we ain’t alone—and how do we keep them from turning us into dinner?!?” premise. What could have been a boring story about language becomes a struggle in understanding and communication, and not just with the visiting aliens; there are enough human threats all over the world, and director Denis Villeneuve (SICARIO, BLADE RUNNER 2049) knows how and when to amp up the tension.

He also understands the genre to a tee; a great science fiction movie uses the sum of all of its parts to create a convincing world and a truly human tale. From sound designer Sylvain Bellemare’s audio effects, to the camerawork by Bradford Young (SELMA), and the touching and affective score by Jóhann Jóhannsson (SICARIO, THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING), every single aspect of this film must gel perfectly to present the best telling of this story. And almost all of it works.

Except for the parts Hollywood expects to see. There are a few of your typical Hollywood sci-fi elements: the mobilization of armed forces, untrustworthy government officials (whom are always outfitted with the most predictable of dialogue), and a few unanswered scientific questions. These occasionally bog down the story, and the CIA guy may garner some eye rolls, but you sometimes expect these things to show up. C’mon, it’s Hollywood—they love regurgitating themes and plot points on a regular basis.

Overall, however, the film works. For me to outline any more of the plot would be doing you a disservice (as always, I’m spoiler free). And just in case you missed anything, the abundant special features are more than happy to spell everything out for you. No gag reels here; if anything, the featurettes lend more to the story itself, and how important it was to get all of those visual and audible elements to help tell a cohesive and believable tale of fictional science.

While ARRIVAL marks Villeneuve’s first foray into science fiction, his vision for Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER should prove an interesting transition to a more visual style of storytelling. If his efforts here are any indication, we may be in for an interesting ride later this year.

Grade: B+
Special Features: A
Blu-ray Necessary: Most Definitely

-- T.S. Kummelman

Thursday, February 16, 2017

"SKumm's Thoughts" - JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2

"SKumm's Thoughts"
JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 (2017, R, 122 minutes, 87ELEVEN)

If Keanu Reeves was hoping to provide the world with a character more memorable than “Neo” from THE MATRIX films, he might have just done so with the titular character in what could be one big, bad, bloody franchise of a universe.

His portrayal of Wick in the sequel is one rife with the violent side of the first, but we see more uncertainty and hesitation in his eyes this time. This makes him a bit more human, more relatable, but at the same time almost takes away from the “Boogeyman” reputation that precedes him. Originally, he was a badass with a heart, and in JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2, he sometimes more closely resembles a badass deer caught in the headlights. But put a gun in his hands, and that confidence comes swarming in. You know he is going to win the day—you just don’t appreciate the seriousness of it as much as he does.

Writer Derek Kolstad and stuntman-turned-director Chad Stahelski are back and in control, meaning you get the same visual style as the first film, and bigger (see: longer) action scenes that try to up the ante on the violent world they initially created. It works—for the most part. The biggest thing holding the film back is that we delve much deeper into that world. The beauty of the original film was that it wasn’t complicated; it was basically the story of an assassin seeking revenge on the Russian mobsters that killed his dog, a final gift from his dead wife. This time around, there’s a bit more to it, and a whole lot more to explain about The Continental, the grand hotel that acts as a non-violent hostel for the gold-paying, killer guests. It isn’t so much the world-building that starts to slow things up, but rather the TMI effect; I know this is to help set up the sequel, but there are more things introduced in this film than in the original, which complicates matters and takes away from the subtleties of the first.

That does not make this a bad film. On the contrary, in keeping with the same writer/director/stars, we know what to expect going in, and the ensuing bloodbath(s) do not disappoint. In this sequel, Wick is called out on a marker he provided to an Italian mobster years ago. The mobster wants his sister dead, and Wick is the man for the job—he doesn’t want it, of course, but he gets sucked right back into the role of assassin easily enough. The set pieces are even more magnificent than the first, if not almost over-the-top. If any movie was going to ever be accused of having sets and scenery which over-acted, this would be it. From the warehouse car chase that opens the film, to the best use of a House of Mirrors in the finale, these are places you will remember.

The only other drawback is seeing Wick use the same moves over and over. I get it—he is using what works best. But seeing the exact same disarming move a dozen times in a row makes the action get a wee bit stale, regardless of how high he brings the body count to. As far as gunplay is concerned, I found myself grinning at the familiarity of his signature move: a shot to the body, followed by one to the head. Efficient, quick, and, judging by the rate of dead bad guys that keep piling up, more than effective.

While it may not be as smooth of an experience as the first, it is still worth the time to see it in theatres. Bulky storytelling or not, it’s John Freaking Wick, fer cryin’ out loud—pay your respects to the King of the Double Tap.

Grade: B

-- T.S.  Kummelman

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

'Blu-ray or Bust' - MASTERMINDS

'Blu-ray or Bust'

Some actors get sucked into playing a certain stereotype, and they linger there for years. At times, this works (Will Ferrell in ELF, STEP BROTHERS, and OLD SCHOOL, and Adam Sandler in BILLY MADISON and HAPPY GILMORE), but it eventually gets a bit stale (Ferrell in everything since STEP BROTHERS and Sandler in everything since GILMORE).

Then there is Zach Galifianakis. His breakout role in THE HANGOVER nearly pigeonholed him into playing oddball dimwits. His characters all seem to think they were smarter than everyone else in the room, despite their constant failures and fumblings. Then he did BIRDMAN, and you realized how good of an actor he really is. And while his role as disgruntled armored car employer David Ghantt could have been a setback in his strive for dramatic recognition, the comedic actor really does shine here.

In fact, the entire cast of this film should be commended for the job they do in convincing us that the south is populated with the typical stupid Southern cracker stereotype (see: sarcasm). And that is, honestly, the worst thing about the film. I wasn’t terribly offended by the Southern stereotype, so much as I was irritated that there are absolutely no smart characters AT ALL in the film. Which adds to the humor of it all, but, come on, Hollywood! Not all of us south of the Mason-Dixon Line are complete idiots!

Based on actual events, Ghantt is “befriended” by Kelly (Kristen Wiig), his co-worker at Loomis Fargo. She, with the help of Steve (Owen Wilson), convinces Ghantt to steal over seventeen million in cash from the company. What follows is a comedy of errors that you might think is way off base from the truth, but you’d be surprised. And while Galifianakis might be the star of the show, the title of ‘scene stealer’ belongs to Jason Sudeikis as hired killer “Mike”—and to Kate McKinnon as “Jandice”, Ghantt’s fiancé. Her ever-present fake smile, not to mention her timing, is spot-on funny, and Sudeikis plays ‘creepy killer’ with the right amount of snark and ineptitude.

The only special feature you get is kinda the only one you need. In a fifteen-minute documentary-type segment, you hear from FBI agents and the real-life Ghantt, with scenes from the film cut in to add to the actual events being described by the people that lived it all. It is instructional in showing you where Hollywood takes a story and does its thang to make for better entertainment, and seeing Ghantt is fun unto itself—it will give you a better appreciation for what Zach does with the role.

But I kinda left the biggest “stop playing against stereotype” surprise for last: this film is directed by Jared Hess. Hess was also the director of two movies I found to be quite horrible: NAPOLEON DYNAMITE and NACHO LIBRE. Glad you broke the mold, Mr. Hess.

Grade: B
Special Features: B
Blu-ray Necessary: Recommended
-- T.S. Kummelman

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

“Netflix and No Chill: The Original Programming That You Might Be Missing on NETFLIX”

“Netflix and No Chill: The Original Programming That You Might Be Missing on NETFLIX”

Happy Valentine’s Day to all of my single homies out there! This review is all for you; while certain members of the population (see: those in a relationship) will be all about “Netflix and chilling” this week, I got your backs! (Just, probably not in the way you want me to…)(wait…did that just get weird?...) A lot of “original programming” has been released by Netflix in the last few months, and this review is all about the ones you should not be distracted from viewing. So enjoy your alone time with these gems!



This lyrically poignant film about a reformed gangster/single father trying to do right by his son is like a slow boil that nearly explodes. Which is one of the wonders of this rise-above-your-environment tale; it promises you violence, dictates how you will experience this film, and then gives you a dose of reality at the end instead. John Boyega (ATTACK THE BLOCK, STAR WARS) plays aspiring writer “Bambi”, a young man who just wants better for his son. While there are a couple of actors here that do not seem up to the task, the relationship between Bambi and his boy (played by twins Ethan and Justin Coach) is what will keep you enthralled. That, and the soundtrack, and the cinematographic eye of Monika Lenczewska, lift this film above your standard “escape the hood” fare in which it’s all about looking cool and sounding cooler. The writing adds a certain artistry to this already compelling drama. And keep an eye on veteran actor Glenn Plummer’s role of “Uncle Shrimp”—intensely unpredictable, he is the embodiment of everything Bambi needs to escape from, and at times has a message that is all too clear: “there’s a reason we are what we are” never sounded so damning.

Science Fiction/Action


Being a teenage boy sucks; there’s the girl you can never work up the nerve to ask out, the bullies and gangs running the school hallways and the streets, the bits of phone stuck in your head that give you the ability to control every electronic device around you… What could have been a campy super-hero origin story is given a huge boost by every actor in this production that takes the material seriously—which is all of them. Yes, there are a few stereotypes (the bullies, the wannabe gangsters, geeky high school kid getting super powers), but the film rolls out smoothly enough. One of the upsides is the smart writing of Joe Barton, who has our hero Tom (played by the quietly effective Bill Milner—LOCKE and SON OF RAMBOW) does what every teenager with the ability to control electronics would do: screw with people. “Game of Thrones” star Maisie Williams plays Tom’s love interest, and she is just as confident and strong here as she ever was as “Arya Stark”. This one is a quick hour and a half, and will keep you entertained, if not wanting more.


(2017, TV-MA, 300 minutes—ten episodes, approx. 30 min. each, NETFLIX ORIGINALS/KAPITAL ENTERTAINMENT)

Drew Barrymore is a California mom turned functioning zombie, and Timothy Olyphant plays her husband, who does his best to be her meat pimp. At first, this may seem like your typical sitcom with added swearing and a whole lotta blood. But as you continue watching, you’ll see that there is a (still beating) heart to this nasty little slice of suburbia. The varied situations this family finds itself in may tend to get a tad predictable, but it is how this once normal unit reacts to every disastrous turn that will keep you watching. I would be remiss for not also mentioning the performance of Liv Hewson, who plays daughter to the panicking parents; she has a genuine honesty that plays well against the life-changing events occurring around her. And guest-starring turns by Nathan Fillion, Patton Oswalt, and Portia de Rossi don’t hurt, either. Probably not binge worthy, as some of the gags (PUN ALERT!) can get a bit redundant, but there is a biting (really, I’m not even going to apologize for that one) humor here that your regular sitcoms just don’t have.

Drama/International TV

(2015, TV-MA, Approx. 6 hrs—6 episodes, 55 min. each, NETFLIX ORIGINALS/AUSTRALIAN BROADCASTING COMPANY)

Damn those Australians and their awesome accents! This compelling and horribly engrossing Aussie TV show has been given the Netflix green-light for a second season, thank the Sweet Baby Hey-Zeus. Patrick Brammall stars as small town sheriff James Hayes, a widower who stumbles upon six people crawling from their graves late one night. Sounds like a zombie fest, eh? WRONG. There is a deep, dark mystery here, and if these are zombies, they aren’t your typical “hungry for brains” variety. The acting is superb, the writing smart, and the cast gets on well together. The second season will be available later in the year, and this series is totally binge worthy, so dig in! Or, dig out, as some of the main characters had to do…

(2011-, TV-MA, Approx. 60 minutes per episode, NETFLIX ORIGINALS/CHANNEL FOUR)

This modern “Twilight Zone” meets The Virtual World is in its third season, and there is good reason for that: each episode is a stand-alone jab at our dependence on the electronic devices that help us through our daily lives. Each season has gotten longer, but with writing as good as this, that’s a plus. Some of the tales are rife with a biting, satirical view of our reluctance to give up our phones, our Internet, and our swipe left or right mentality. The third season kicks off with an obvious kick to the mummy & daddy bits of Tinder, and turns into a strong case against cyber bullying and just plain setting yourself free. The strongest episode could have been the third, but the ninety-minute final episode that plays like a wide release film has some of the strongest acting and tightest writing. Really not a bad episode in the lot, and totally worth bingeing. Although you may never look at your cell phone the same way again…

Previously reviewed and not to be missed:
THE FALL (3 Seasons)

Everything with Adam Sandler. Seriously.

--T.S. Kummelman

Wednesday, February 8, 2017


‘Blu-ray or Bust’

I used to enjoy hating Tom Cruise. This is mainly due to the fact that my first girlfriend (we’re talking waaaay back in high school, when we still writing on stone tablets and eating brontosaurus burgers) was infatuated with that damnable pretty face of his.

Recently, though, I’ve found it difficult to not like him. EDGE OF TOMORROW (released on video as LIVE DIE REPEAT), the last few MISSION IMPOSSIBLE flicks—hell, I loved him in TROPIC THUNDER—all seem to have been made with Tom’s tongue firmly planted in his cheek. Like he suddenly became self-aware, and is letting you in on some private joke.

I dare say that the second installment in the JACK REACHER series is better than the first (I gave the first film a “B-“, and bashed him a bit in my initial review). There are a couple of scenes that stuck with me from the first film.  Surely they were meant as tent-pole action sequences:  the diner fight and the end piece in a gravel pit. Here, we get a little of the same (including an unstoppable/badass henchman, which seems to be the earmark of the series), but less of Cruise trying to be Cruise.

It pays off.

Since the first film, Reacher (Cruise, of course) has been wandering the U.S. with a toothbrush and loose change. He soon gets wrapped up in what has become quite the over-used plot device when it comes to the ‘Used To Be A Government Employee Genre’ (see: every stinkin’ Bourne film) - someone from within the government doing something illegal. This time around, he gets paired up with another tough-as-nails female (and this seems to be a recurring theme in Cruise films as of late—no one did it better than Emily Blunt in TOMORROW), played with convincing tenacity and a military edge by Cobie Smulders (every AVENGERS film) (and yes, she smolders…). Major Turner (Smulders) is being framed, and Reacher, whose code is “help those who cannot help themselves”, steps in to prove her innocence. Along the way, they pick up a girl that may or may not be Reacher’s daughter (Danika Yarosh of “Shameless”).

There are several things here that you have seen before: a loner’s inability to connect with a surprise teenage daughter, the stereotypical bad guy, the usual government cover-up, tough-guy dialogue, the predictable “show someone one defensive move that you know is going to come up later” bit… however, the film is entertaining enough for you to look past these shortcomings. This is not a morality tale or an indie film set upon changing your life views—it is an action film, which is what Cruise has become best at.

There are several special features, the first of which deals mostly with adapting the original book by Lee Child, and how they picked which one to do, and another dealing with Cruise’s characterization of Reacher, and how he progresses here from the way he played him the first time around. There are a few others, but the first two are the most informative.

Cruise’s next foray into the action genre is a re-make of THE MUMMY, and then another MISSION IMPOSSIBLE film. Nothing has been announced concerning another Reacher installment, but based on the success of this one (roughly 162 million worldwide), I (and Sweet Baby Hey-Zeus, I hate admitting this) am looking forward to the next one.

Film Grade: B
Special Features: A
Blu-ray Necessary: Most Definitely

-- T.S. Kummelman

Thursday, February 2, 2017


The 'Not-So-Critical' Critic: 
on RESIDENT EVIL: THE FINAL CHAPTER (2017, 106 minutes, R)

The Quick of It -
This one will be quick… for sure.  Packed with SPOILERS*** (sorta)…

*** And, here we go…

If you walked in wanting a Resident Evil movie, you get one.  That simple.  High paced action, great visual displays of a post apocalyptic world with mounds of gore, and the corniest dialogue you will ever find.  Was it the best of the franchise… no.

You’ve got the same returning characters facing off against bad guys and crazy t-Virus monsters… blah… blah… blah…  But, the ‘monster fun’ doesn’t help much on the entertainment front other than add to the typical Res Evil franchise… sorry for the spoiler, but you should know. 

The movie plays out like a video game, going from stage to stage.  Go figure.  Like I said, quick and simple, unlike the plot… a convoluted, meandering, hole-ridden plot.

THE FINAL CHAPTER was only survivable for me thanks in part to watching it in a theater in 3D (which it didn’t really need to be) and having the sound system full blast.  The best takeaway from this film was from one particular incident that happened in the film and seemed a plot device at the time, which is then later brought up by Alice in conversation.  The rub is that you never actually see it addressed by the end, when credits are rolling.  I either totally missed it or they made a horrible editing choice… and I’m not going back to check.

Grade: C-

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

‘Blu-ray or Bust’ - THE MONSTER

‘Blu-ray or Bust’
THE MONSTER (2016, R, 91 minutes, ATLAS INDEPENDENT/A24)

Sometimes, certain films slip past you.  They either do not even show up on your peripheral or it could be something you hear about and then suddenly realize it was released in theatres a few months ago, and you totally missed it.

Not to fret—it is not your fault. Don’t schedule an appointment with your doctor to have your noodle examined, it’s okay. You are not developing a case of Whatthehells—as in, “Whatthehell just happened?!?” or “Whatthehell—how did I miss that?!?” or maybe even the, “Whatthe hell’s going on with my brain?!?”  And certainly not the dreaded, “Whatthehell—is that a freaking rash?!?”.

The blame lies entirely with the studio. They do this on occasion, and it is perhaps the absolute DUMBEST THING known to man. It happened with MOON, one of the best science fiction films of the last decade.  It happened with FILTH, a James McAvoy led smorgasbord of decidedly bad choices. It happens so often that you wonder why, if a studio doesn’t believe in a film enough to advertise it, did they release the dang thing in the first place?

THE MONSTER is yet another example of a lovely—if not harrowing—film that I do not even recall seeing a trailer for on IMDB. No, it is not the Greatest Horror Film EVER Made—although it does deserve a decent ranking. The story centers around young Lizzy (Ella Ballentine), whose alcoholic mother (Zoe Kazan) is driving to her estranged father’s house to live. While on a two lane, wooded road, there is an accident that leaves them stranded, and at the mercy of the titular beastie.

However, boys and ghouls, this ain’t your typical monster flick. What writer/director Bryan Bertino (THE STRANGERS) creates isn’t the standard Hollywood ‘eat-em-up’. The dynamic of the mother/daughter relationship is played out in flashbacks, and the most frightening and traumatic part of this film is the heartbreaking way in which these characters attempt to survive not just the monster, but each other. While Lizzie is clearly the one in control—you are given several examples of just how this girl is trying to raise her irresponsible mother—it is the struggle of Kazan’s “Kathy” that, as a parent, had me cringing and hanging to the edge of my seat. The performances by both actresses are far better than a film about a poorly constructed creature deserves, and is ultimately what lifts this far above your typical gore-fest. (Seriously, “The Monster” is kind of stupid looking—at one point, you could swear it was partially made out of a blanket, which normally distracts. But the acting nearly makes up for this.)

There is only one special feature to speak of, and it is your basic behind-the-scenes doc—about seven minutes long, although you do get some better glimpses of the odd-looking monster. For a movie that is more about characterization than it is about the actual beastie, I would expect more out of the special features.

It is a shame this film did not hit on all cylinders, and it is a particular shame that the studio could not figure out how to market it. While it may be an independent film, the intensity of the acting, not to mention the technical aspects of the film, is a subtle challenge to all other indie genre filmmakers to raise the bar a tad.

Film Grade: B+
Special Features: D
Blu-ray Necessary: Most definitely

-- T.S. Kummelman