DVD Round-Up: 7/8/2014

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (4/25/2014)

The Paranormal Activity stopped being interesting as a work of horror almost immediately after the release of the first installment.  Its “moment of quite followed by jump scare” format was nothing to special to begin with and once it was ripped off by a hundred imitators it started to become even more tedious.  Instead what’s kept this series alive is the way that it’s slowly begun to establish a mythos about a secret cult of witches who are in service to the demon that was first established in the first film.  This proved moderately interesting for the most part, but Paranormal Activity 4 was a pretty big misfire, in part because it didn’t really add much of anything new.  The latest entry in the series is by no means a reinvention of what we’ve seen before, but it does add enough new ideas to punch things up enough to deep the franchise going.  For one thing, it was smart to place the film in the Oxnard, California Latino community rather than the usual suburban households, as that change of scenery makes the film a bit more distinct.  Its decision to focus on what happens to one of the possessed first-borns was also a good way to expand the mythos slightly.  So, if you’re a fan of the series don’t be put off by the fact that this is billed as a spin-off of sorts because this is definitely good enough to have been a numbered sequel.  All that said, the actual scares here are still more or less the same old thing, so if you’re already sick to death of these movies this probably isn’t going to change your mind.  Also, the film’s final moments are rather bizarre and don’t make a whole lot of sense within the internal logic of the series and seems to have been thrown in as an ill-conceived stunt.

*** out of Four

Ride Along (5/19/2014)

When I first saw the trailer to the movie Ride Along I thought it had some potential.  It had a serviceable enough high concept and it seemed to have cast the right people to make that concept come to life… but then I learned it was rated PG-13 and immediately lost any and all interest.  Truthfully, there were other warning signs I should have heeded, especially the fact that it was being directed by the hack du jour that is Tim Story.  Indeed the reviews for this movie were toxic even if the (mid-January) box office was quite strong.  Having seen the movie, I probably don’t think it deserves the 18% rating it has on Rotten Tomatoes, but it certainly has its share of problems.  For one thing, I think Kevin Hart’s comedic persona sort of backfires here and makes the character really unlikable.  The guy acts like grating hyperactive child for much of the movie and just does a whole lot of dumb stuff that makes him unlikable to the point where you agree with Ice Cube for hating the guy.  Everything else is just really by the book.  It reminded me a lot of movies like Rush Hour and Blue Streak, two movies that I really loved when I was eleven years old.  In retrospect, I’m pretty sure I only really liked those movies because I was too young to have seen the many other buddy cop movies that both films were ripping off.  Maybe there’s a 10 year old out there who would feel the same way about this movie, but I know better now.

** out of Four

The Monuments Men (5/22/2014)

I spent most of 2013 dreading this movie because I was afraid it was going to swoop in and dominate award season with its unchallenging mix of comedy, movie star charm, self-congratulations, and World War II pathos.  Fortunately the movie got delayed to early 2014 and once it was finally released the reviews were pretty harsh, so I’m not too worried about it showing up at the 2014 Oscars.  In spite of those setbacks, the movie did manage to quietly make a respectable amount of money at the box office, so somebody must like it.  The thing about the movie is that there isn’t anything particularly wrong with it, but there also isn’t anything particularly right about it.  It’s mostly watchable in an “I’ll watch this on HBO and have it on in the background while I do my taxes” kind of way, and there are sections in its episodic narrative that seem perfectly good on their own, but it never really gels into a real cinematic arc at all.

More irritating than its lack of narrative thrust is its generally self-righteous attitude.  It’s the kind of movie that’s based less on an actual story and more on a vague notion to trying to bring attention to a historical period which isn’t as obscure as the writers seem to think it is.  I’ve known about Natzi art theft since it was used as the basis for a level in the 1999 Playstation game Medal of Honor, and I’ve heard of it since then from seeing movies like John Frankenheimer’s The Train and the documentary The Rape of Europa.  It’s a movie that treats the audience to one on-the-nose speech after the next about “the importance of preserving art,” and yet does very little outside of these speeches in order to actually convey that message.  There are worse movies out there but if you’re interested in this topic I’d steer you towards the aforementioned documentary and if you want to see George Clooney and Matt Damon up to some hijinks you’re better off just sticking to Ocean’s Eleven.

** out of Four

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (6/30/2014)

As a moderate fan of the previous Jack Ryan movies I was curious to see Hollywood taking another whack at Tom Clancy’s most famous character, and I kind of feel like I’m still waiting because this does not feel like a Jack Ryan film at all. If anything it feels like the producers just found the script to a generic SaltThe Bourne Identity wannabe spy thriller and just did a find and replace on the main character’s name in order to make it into a Jack Ryan film. The Jack Ryan here does not feel at all like the grizzled agent that Harrison Ford played and instead seems a lot more like the young agent played by Ben Affleck in the much maligned 2002 film The Sum of All Fears. In fact this movie makes a lot of the same mistakes that that film made all over again like adding a superfluous sub-plot about Jack Ryan being supposedly unable to tell his fiancé about his job. In fact, that ben Affleck movie actually felt more authentic in a number of ways and at least managed to make Jack Ryan consistently “green” throughout, unlike this one where he suddenly becomes a super-spy action hero whenever it is convenient to the script. Ignore the baggage of the Clancy brand, and this starts to look like a serviceable but largely uninspired mid-budget Hollywood movie. Kenneth Branagh doesn’t add much behind the camera to elevate the film, but he does give the film’s best performance as the villainous Viktor Cherevin. In many ways this is a film that doesn’t know what it wants to be. It has too much action to feel authentic but not enough action to really compete with the likes of James Bond or Mission: Impossible franchises. It didn’t do great business, so I doubt we’ll be seeing a direct sequel anytime soon, but I have some free advice for Hollywood if they ever try to resurrect Jack Ryan again: take your job more seriously. Actually try to adapt one of the Clancy novels, do it in a period setting and give it the sophisticated/realistic Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy treatment. That might be a little risky, but you just tried playing it super-safe twice in a row and there’s a reason why that hasn’t worked out for you.

**1/2 out of Four

Non-Stop (7/8/2014)

The phrase “turn your brain off at the door” is usually applied to CGI extravaganzas that barter in massive explosions ever thirty seconds, but it could just as easily apply to super twisty thrillers like the recent Liam Neeson vehicle Non-Stop.  This high concept thriller about an air-marshal trying to stop a concealed assassin from destroying a plane is largely quite enjoyable as long as you don’t trouble yourself too much with concepts like “logic” or “plausibility.”  The villainous scheme that sets this whole thing off does not hold up to scrutiny and the characters occasionally react to the situation in ways that do not really make a ton of sense, but the movie does a pretty good job of distracting the audience from these shortcomings.  Liam Neeson is a big part of this, he really lends the movie a lot of gravitas and while director Jaume Collet-Serra provides solid, if somewhat anonymous filmmaking that make the film pretty watchable throughout.  This is the kind of movie that greatly benefits from being watched in the home and away from the scrutiny that comes with shelling out hard currency for a ticket.  Catch it on HBO or something and it will provide decent entertainment on a rainy day.

*** out of Four 

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