“Phoenix Forgotten” – (Capsule Movie Review)

By Andrew Buckner

Rating: *** out of *****.

Co-writer and director Justin Barber’s full-length feature debut, Phoenix Forgotten (2017), does an admirable job of blending fact, the mass U.F.O. sighting that occurred in Arizona on March 13th, 1997 that became known as “The Phoenix Lights”, with fiction. This creative component is the search for three teens who vanish after encountering the afore-mentioned incident firsthand. Co-produced by Ridley Scott (1982’s Blade Runner), Barber’s exhibition also beautifully mirrors a classically styled documentary, at least until about the one hour mark, far better than most found footage films. This is with an ever-inventive use of interviews and news reports cleverly providing the exposition. There is also a constantly smirk-inducing sense of 1990’s nostalgia present. This is as Barber, who penned the formulaically structured script with T.S. Nowlin, frequently references The X-Files (1993-2002, 2016-). Moreover, the first half constantly called to mind an extended segment of the popular cold case based television show Unsolved Mysteries (1987-2010).

Additionally, the lead performances are all credibly and charismatically etched. This is especially in line with Luke Spencer Roberts’ portrayal of our relatable, and alien obsessed, hero, Josh. Such can also be said of the high-quality depiction of his secret crush, Ashley (Chelsea Lopez), and fellow journeyer Mark (Justin Matthews). The narrative also meritoriously includes a lot of circumstances, such as sudden nosebleeds, which are much in line with what those involved in real life encounters with otherworldly entities undergo. The sparsely used effects are also undeniably effective. Jay Keitel’s cinematography is superb. Congruently, Barber and Nowlin’s dialogue comes off as natural. This is a courtesy of the fine authorship of the piece. It is also a testament to the authentic fashion in which these lines are delivered.

But, this does little to mask the underwhelming sensation which sprang forth with the rolling of the end credits. This is most likely a result of the concluding sequence. Such a configuration blatantly rips off the climax of The Blair Witch Project (1999). The story, which is involving as a horror and science-fiction fusion but transparent as a mystery, is also incomplete. This is as the exertion gives us a definitive answer to what fate befell those who were lost. Yet, it fails to include a satisfactory resolve for the individual conducting the search, Sophie (Florence Hartigan). Not to mention, the affair never tops the harrowing, grainy VHS enactment of the true event, which arises during a birthday party, that it is based upon. Such is melancholy considering that this transpires within the first ten minutes of the picture.

Correspondingly, even at eighty-seven minutes in length the runtime seems overlong. This is as the first two acts, which develop characters and pace in a satisfactory, if sluggish, manner, give way to an ultimate reveal which is obvious from the start. What is just as evident is the lack of any real suspense, surprises or scares. The result is a middle of the road effort. It is one whose mileage will vary between an enjoyable, if unmemorable, experience and a hair-pulling test of patience. This is based solely on your overall fascination in the subject matter. Given that extra-terrestrial tales have always garnered my attention, I, luckily, fall into the latter category.

(PG-13). Contains language and some intense sequences.

Released exclusively in theaters on April 21st, 2017.

A Brief Word on New Film Releases: “The Blackcoat’s Daughter”, “The Bye Bye Man”, “Hidden Figures” and “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”

By Andrew Buckner

THE BLACKCOAT’S DAUGHTER
**** out of *****.

The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2017) is this year’s answer to The Witch (2016). Quietly chill-inducing, deliberately paced and unsettling, writer-director Oz Perkins crafts every shot in a manner that is meant to hypnotize and evoke fear with maximum impact. This is elevated by the continuously brilliant use of Elvis Perkins’ masterful score. Some may find this tale of two girls battling evil in a boarding school an empty case of style over substance. I, for one, found it riveting. Recommended! 94 minutes. (Unrated).

THE BYE BYE MAN
**1/2
 out of *****.

The Bye Bye Man (2017) is generic in narrative and conception and never tops its opening five minutes. It also implements nearly every supernatural slasher cliche imaginable into its practically bloodless, 96 minute runtime. The finale is especially underwhelming. But, this variation on features like Candyman (1992) and Urban Legend (1998) is still a fair amount of fun. Though the performances are merely adequate, the decidedly retro vibe that vaguely courses throughout, viewed most readily in James Kniest’s well-fashioned cinematography, is also beneficial. (PG-13).

HIDDEN FIGURES
****1/2
 out of *****.

Hidden Figures (2016), a Best Picture nominee at The 88th Academy Awards, is wonderful; endlessly entertaining, quietly moving and terrifically paced. This is even if the feature refuses to waver from the standard structure of similar big-budget, A-list Hollywood biographies. Still, director Theodore Melfi, who co- scripted with Allison Schroeder, keeps this adaptation of Mary Lee Shetterfly’s same titled historical tome crackling. This is with a charmingly successful blend of the upbeat, the emotive and the humorous. Correspondingly, Taraji P. Henson is exceptional as our heroine, Katherine G. Johnson. The same can be said for Kevin Costner’s representation of Al Harrison. In turn, this true story of a group of barrier-breaking female Mathematicians in Nasa soars. Definitely recommended. (PG). 127 minutes.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

****1/2 out of *****.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) is truly exhilarating escapist entertainment. Likewise, the myriad comparisons to director Irvin Kershner’s The Empire Strikes Back (1980) are certainly validated. This is evident in both the largely no nonsense tone and striking overall quality of the film. Additionally, Gareth Edwards’ direction and Michael Giacchino’s music match one another in pulse-pounding grandiosity. The result is epic in every sense of the word. This prequel to the original Star Wars (1977), which sports astonishing effects as well as a superb lead performance from Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso, could well be one of the best entries in this wildly popular series to date. (PG-13). 133 minutes and 55 seconds.

Hidden Figures, The Bye Bye Man and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story are available now on DVD, Blu-ray and digital.

The Blackcoat’s Daughter can be seen in select theaters and on digital.

“Mom and Me” – (Capsule Movie Review)

By Andrew Buckner
Rating: ***** out of *****.

Irish writer-director Ken Wardrop’s seventy-seven-minute documentary, Mom and Me (2015), is a sweet, poignant and frequently amusing love letter to the unbreakable mother-son bond. Told in a deceptively simple manner, which benefits the general demeanor of the production splendidly, Wardrop centers his action around a local radio broadcast in Oklahoma. The host of said program is the charming and earnest Joe Cristiano. As the photoplay commences, we soon learn he is doing a Mother’s Day special. Cristiano takes this as a chance to invite listeners to call and discuss their relationships with those who are celebrated on this holiday. From herein, Wardrop fashions a varied, complex, gripping and undoubtedly impactful portrait of the subject matter. This is as we meet the callers and hear their tales. Wardrop also opens the door to see even more intimately into the lives of these individuals. He does this by allowing viewers a chance to personally witness scenes between these aforesaid familial counterparts unfold.

Though every narrative is strikingly different, they are all uniquely effective. In turn, Wardrop takes us through the emotional ringer with gentle, quiet sincerity. This is especially evident as this efficient, tightly paced and beautifully fashioned chronicle alternates between themes of regret, drug addiction, imprisonment and Alzheimer’s Disease. These more wrenching episodes match the generally upbeat air of the effort masterfully. The concluding sequences are especially harrowing. They balance all the prior beats of the endeavor spectacularly well. Consequently, they bring every individual yarn to a satisfying conclusion. John E.R. Hardy and Benjamin Talbott make this arrangement all the more immersive with their phenomenal musical contributions. This can also be said of the editing from Mark Bankhead.

The result is consistently ardent and brilliant; one of the best films of the year. This is a testament to true masculinity. It is one which will undoubtedly prove relatable to  audiences of all ages and backgrounds. I whole-heartedly recommend you check out Wardrop’s latest, which is being distributed through Uncork’d Entertainment and Visit Films, when it is released theatrically and on video on demand May 5th, 2017.

Production Companies: Boom Pictures and Venom Films.

(Unrated). Contains adult themes.

 

“Life”- (Capsule Movie Review)

By Andrew Buckner

Rating: *** out of *****.

Life (2017) is, for better and for worse, exactly what I expected it to be. The photoplay, predictably, takes its every move from the Alien (1979) playbook. Correspondingly, the plot, which involves a space crew being systematically slaughtered by an ever-evolving extraterrestrial creature, is where this is most evident. Yet, it forgets many of the things that made Ridley Scott’s movie so legendary. This is its constant balance of the awe-inspiring and the ominous. But, what is most noticeably lacking is Scott’s well-developed, relatable characterizations. Moreover, Life is in too much of a rush to unveil its monstrous threat. The consequence of this is, besides ignoring the gradual and meticulous build-up of Scott’s classic, merely a forced attempt. This is at getting the audience to know its broadly etched leads in a wholly secondary and unoriginal fashion. Albeit, in the scant twenty-minutes of screen time allotted before the martian organism, Calvin, takes over. Such makes the endeavor ultimately feel heedless and generic. In turn, this science-fiction/ horror entry never gives its proven capable cast, helmed by Jake Gyllenhaal as David Jordan and Rebecca Ferguson as Miranda North (both of whom deliver satisfactory, serviceable performances), a chance to really make their characters a stand-out. Additionally, Ryan Reynolds again enacts another cloying, and unnecessarily comic, variation of his usual on-screen persona. This is in his one-note representation of Rory Adams. What also hurts matters is that the sets, though detailed, and low-tech effects are mediocre at best.

Yet, there is a dogged B-movie charm to the whole endeavor. This is heightened by the competent writing from Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick and Daniel Espinosa’s same-said direction. Such qualities make these flaws easy to forgive. Seamus McGarvey’s eye-popping cinematography, Jon Ekstrand’s score and Jenny Beavan’s costumes are also impressive. The same can be said of the sharply rendered sound department work as well as Mary Jo Markey and Frances Parker’s seamless editing.

Espinosa’s endeavor is never terrifying. It also fails to sufficiently erect and maintain a genuine atmosphere of suspense. This is despite its numerous attempts. Furthermore, the majority of the scares are of a garden-variety ilk.  Yet, this Skydance Media, Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE) and Columbia Pictures release is certainly an enjoyable, if ultimately minor, distraction.

The project undoubtedly benefits from concluding on one of the most intriguing and smirk-inducing bits in the whole production. Such is a nice send-off to a third act that is, like the movie itself, alternately amusing and absurd. A prime example of this is found in a near-climactic segment which involves Gyllenhaal tearfully reading Margaret Wise’s timeless children’s book Goodnight Moon (1947). It is clearly designed to evoke an emotive resonance with its audience. Instead it conjures laughter. As this sequence goes on, it also proves to be extraneous. Still, the overall result of this severely flawed affair is familiar, but fair, entertainment. Espinosa has constructed the type of clunky, imitative picture that is best described as “a guilty pleasure”. It is one perfectly suited for viewing on a rainy day.

103 minutes. Rated (R) for violence and language. Opened on March 24th, 2017.