The Forest (2016)

Released: January 8, 2016. Directed by: Jason Zada. Starring: Natalie Dormer (times deux), Taylor Kinney, Yukiyoshi Ozawa. Runtime: 1 hr 33 min.

The first wide release of 2016 came in horror film The Forest, also the first top billing role for Natalie Dormer (TV’s Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I).

The Brit is tasked with playing the roles of identical twin sisters. Sara stays home in America, while the other, edgier Dormer (Jess) goes to teach in Japan. When word travels to Sara that Jess went venturing into Japan’s infamous Suicide Forest, she travels to Japan to look for her.

The forest at hand is a real place – Aokigahara is its official name – which lies at the base of Mount Fuji. It’s been depicted a couple of times in film, like in SyFy Channel horror flick Grave Halloween and Gus Van Sant drama The Sea of Trees.

Dormer carries the film mildly well, but her range doesn’t make it feel like she’s convincingly creating two different, twin characters. There’s nothing that really seems to separate them – but that could also just be because of poor character development.

When Dormer’s Sara gets to Japan, she meets Aiden — portrayed by Taylor Kinney – a travel journalist who is going into the Suicide Forest for research. When he realizes he can make a good human interest story out of Sara searching for her sister, he invites her along. Guide Michi (Yukiyoshi Owaza) brings them into the forest, as he’s usually the one to go in during daylight to retrieve any deceased people.

The suicide forest might be the only interesting aspect about the film. The story itself is just wandering around the woods, deliriously searching for a point. When it seems like the story is straightening itself out and actually getting towards a satisfying climax, it turns in a new direction and just loses all sense it might have found.

Dormer’s Sara really isn’t all that interesting, either. Her dedication for her sister is nice but also blind and stupid in ways, insistent on staying in the woods overnight in case Jess returns to her tent. I mean, if she wanted to see her sister again, all she has to do is slap on some eyeliner and look at herself in the mirror. And if Jess would have stayed on the path, all might have been peachy.

The thought of the forest and its frightening intent should instil dread, but it doesn’t. There’s more a sense of psychological torment here and it’s an honest snooze. The premise really should work, but it just doesn’t. This might lie in its complete reliance on jump scares. It’s like the film broke a leg at the beginning and needed that as its crutch.

It really should have used its supernatural spin in a more convincing way. In folklore, no spirit truly dies in the forest and their spirits live on in the forest – and that’s why it’s creepy – but this concept wasn’t terrifying enough in the story.

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Natalie Dormer in The Forest (Source).

And supernatural horror is the Japanese horror specialty – so maybe this would be better in their hands. Maybe a remake will be in our good fortunes.

This American take is just drowned by a dreadful screenplay. It brings an intriguing story to a mainstream audience, but its execution fails it. It’s very well-filmed because of the lush landscapes, but really, even a snuff film is going to look beautiful if it’s shot in a forest like this.

It’s convincing that we’re watching them navigate through the Suicide Forest — though we’re just watching them go through a forest near Tara Mountain in Western Serbia.

It’s still very pretty, even when they had to film some of it in a former warehouse. That’s the magic of cinema, folks.

Score: 40/100

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Race (2016)

Released: February 19, 2016. Directed by Stephen Hopkins. Starring Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Eli Goree. Runtime: 2 hr 14 min.

Taking on a dual meaning title, Race follows the awe-inspiring story of Jesse Owens gearing up towards his stint at the 1936 Olympics in a Germany under the start of the Hitler regime.

Stephan James (Selma) stars as the pride and joy of Ohio State, Jesse Owens, bringing charm to a legendary figure who wasn’t given enough credit for his achievements at the Olympics because of the time it happened.

Heck, it took him long enough to get the first theatrical film about Owens – about 80 years. Owens did have his own film back in 1984, however, in the form of a made-for-television production called The Jesse Owens Story. But are TV productions real movies? That’s debatable.

Anyway, James captures emotion of the time for a person of colour not having the rights of any white people. He’s great depicting the athleticism and astounding agility of the character. I enjoyed seeing the chemistry between him and Shanice Banton’s Ruth Solomon, as well.

He can take a stand by going to the Olympics in Germany and making a stand for the African American folks, as well as the severely repressed Jewish people, during a time that was just the start of Hitler’s regime.

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Stephan James as Jesse Owens doing the long jump. (Source

With all of its other focuses, this is still very much a sports film, as we’re brought through Owens’ training by star Larry Snyder, portrayed with utmost kindness by Jason Sudeikis.

The feature is also at its best when we go with Owens to the Olympics. This isn’t a spoiler if you know of Owens’ prestige. It’s rousing and inspiring cheering him on.

But the line between sport and politics blur so much that it takes away from Owens’ story at times. It’s like Owens’ story is just used as a frame for a story that is largely about the United States Olympic Committee and how they were able to convince the Germans to allow African Americans and Jews to compete.

Jeremy Irons’ Avery Brundage represents the interest to have Americans compete at the Olympic Games. William Hurt’s Jeremiah Mahoney represented the opposing opinion of boycotting the Olympics for the year – because of the intense segregation.

Joseph Goebbels is portrayed by Barnaby Metschurat. The character is just rather mean, but that’s expected for Goebbels. He’s the political heart on the side of the Germans, as the Minister of Propaganda at the time.

While promoting the Aryan race, he also suppresses documentary filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (portrayed by Carice van Houten). He wishes her to make a film which reflects the views of the German government – while she has to stick it to the man and wants to focus on the success of Owens.

It’s frustrating, but that’s what the filmmakers go for – to frustrate the audience. And later in the film show that, even through so much glory, there will always be discrimination.

The story is almost drowned completely by the politics, and is often in danger of being a political drama.

But the scenes at the Olympics and the inspiring road there make up for it and while the film isn’t as great as Owens’ achievements, it would still deserve a bronze medal. That’s still a winner, right?

Stephen Hopkins (Lost in Space, A Nightmare on Elm Street: Dream Warrior) directs the races with precision and it makes the film entertaining in that respect. The cinematography is stellar in these scenes, the director of photography is Peter Levy who often works with Hopkins, and is still interesting during the more chatty sequences.

The best part of the film is especially James’ performance. He’s inspiring how he captures optimism through a dark time. Hopefully this kick-starts James’ career the same way 42, a sports biography about fellow race pioneer Jackie Robinson, did for Chadwick Boseman.

James depicts the athlete’s dedication to his coach realistically. The chemistry there really works – and captures how lovely the relationship between a coach and a mentor can be.

Score: 65/100

 

Risen (2016)

 

Released: February 19, 2016. Directed by Kevin Reynolds. Starring Joseph Fiennes, Tom Felton, Peter Firth. Runtime: 1hr 47 min.

Risen is a Biblical tale that, if you can forgive the wordplay, rarely rises to the occasion.

We all know the story of Christ in some shape or form. Appreciatively, the writers understand that and immediately start the storyline on the day of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion. It saves the runtime considerably and is because this version of the tale is told from the side of the Romans. It breathes a bit of fresh air into an ancient narrative.

The Roman is Clavius, played by Joseph Fiennes, who is a Tribune and the right-hand man to Peter Firth’s Pontius Pilate. He is tasked with finding out what happened to the body of the missing Jew that was just crucified three days ago. He is skeptical that the Jew simply rose from the dead, even though that’s what disciples tell him on the way to find the missing corpse.

It’s a bit of a journey of self-discovery for the Roman. But the character has little depth and the plot isn’t handled in an interesting manner. It is all about the manhunt and less about the miracles that Jesus performs.

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Joseph Fiennes as Clavius in Risen. (Source)

Heck, when he’s supposed to walk on water and give his disciples fish, he just shouts from the shore, “Check the right side!” and voila! There are fish. It’s like an uninspired budget cut or something. The other miracles aren’t special, either.

It feels as if Jesus takes a backseat to the film about His tale. This is mostly because we are delivered right into the narrative at the time of His crucifixion. He’s on a cross at the beginning, and then He comes back to life three days later. The bulk of the film is spent trying to find the dude and he disappears a lot, so his screen time is limited. But Cliff Curtis (TV’s Fear the Walking Dead) is effective as Him, all the same.

And in this version of the film he is not called Jesus, but Yeshua, apparently the name that He was called by friends. It doesn’t feel like they’re stripping at the identity, but it might be a bit of a change for those who aren’t familiar with the name.

On a side note, if I was crucified and then came back to life three days later, I’d take advantage and get revenge. Picture it: Jesus could be a man on a road to vengeance, looking to smite those who wronged Him. Instead of taking away leprosy, He can give it to those who crucified him. The Biblical thriller could be called Crossed. I’d watch it…

I am so going to Hell.

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Joseph Fiennes and Tom Felton in Risen. (Source)

There are a few good scenes throughout, especially one where the Disciples give the enemies the old slip-a-roo. That was an entrancing scene, well-directed by Kevin Reynolds, that was good enough to work as the climax.

But that, in itself, poses a problem of pacing and how the film felt like it could have ended at any point.

There are scenes that are supposed to be brimming with action, but really it isn’t written well enough to be great. The score is used as a crutch to breathe action into those scenes through music.

Performances redeem the film, even if a boring screenplay cannot. Fiennes offers a good performance as Clavius, even though the character is nothing special.

Tom Felton (Harry Potter) is strong as Clavius’ right-hand man, Lucius. Alas – Felton doesn’t seem able to shake the connection to his Malfoy roots, as the patriarchal Malfoy was named Lucius. And now he’s basically acting alongside Lord Voldemort’s brother.

What really works against Risen is its impassionate filmmaking. Nothing inspires awe and it all feels like it goes through the motions. It’s as if telling it from a non-believer’s perspective was its limited ceiling, omitting any relative emotion from the picture, save the last 20 minutes. There are stints that feel as flat as a pancake. Still: It’s better than Son of God, which has to count for something.

3 outta 5

How to Be Single (2016)

 

Released: February 12, 2016. Directed by: Christian Ditter. Starring: Dakota Johnson, Rebel Wilson, Leslie Mann. Runtime: 1hr 50 min.

Based on Liz Tuccilo’s book of the same name, How to Be Single is a totally mixed bag on tips of living the single life and an occasionally hilarious story.

It concerns Dakota Johnson’s Claire, who right out of college jumped into a relationship with Josh (Nicholas Braun) and being a woman of New York, she wants to try out the single life for a brief spin to know if she truly wants to be with Josh the rest of her life.

When she’s done with her flings with a bartender named Tom (Anders Holm, The Intern), she tries to go back to Josh but he’s found someone else. So now she has to navigate through life with her trusty party hardy sidekick Robin, portrayed by Rebel Wilson, on an adventure in learning that she doesn’t need a man to define who she is as an independent woman.

By no means a terrible film, How to be Single simply suffers from a plaguing lack of comedic momentum, or gaining any, for that matter.

The seriously big laughs only come on occasion without succession, but the sentiment of the picture is still in the right place.

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Rebel Wilson and Dakota Johnson in How to Be Single (Source)

Dakota Johnson is an awkward delight as Alice, where she often charms and rarely bores. Rebel Wilson is a good addition, as well – even though a late storyline feels random. The screenwriters also leave her character out for long periods of time when I was just begging for her comic relief.

A big problem of the film is just how many characters the film thinks it needs to tell its story.

Throughout the film Alice is sexually involved with three men, and we don’t really need that many characters to make her realize she doesn’t need someone to make her happy.

At certain points, when a story-line gets introduced and then continued later, it ends more abruptly than feels at all natural. It just wraps a tiny bow on it and then boom, we’re done with that character.

Alice’s sister, Meg (Leslie Mann) represents the single woman who wants a relationship but is terrified of it. Because… Reasons. She’s a bit frantic and nutty, and forgettable. She seems to be shocked that a young buck, Jake Lacy’s Ken, is attracted to her and she assumes it’s a joke or he just likes the novelty of being with an older woman.

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Rebel Wilson, Leslie Mann and Dakota Johnson in How to Be Single. (Source)

She’s frankly more annoying than anything. Her significant other, in turn, is rendered annoying and expendable by association – but admirable for putting up with her insanity.

Alison Brie also makes a frequent appearance, representing the online dating addict. She doesn’t fit into the narrative quite as smoothly as the others, not sharing any dialogue with the three other primary actresses, but she’s fine for her role.

The plot is muddled because of how many characters there are. The cast is attractive and fine as the characters, but the scope of it makes a simplistic premise into something that is needlessly complex. Because of this, it squanders a lot of potential.

It definitely has the laughs intact because of the original novel’s clever humour, but it should retain the simplicity of something like 2014’s That Awkward Moment, but that one forgot the laughs. At least that film knew not to have a huge character list like Valentine’s Day, and kept it simple, stupid.

Instead, we are left with an occasionally funny, run of the mill comedy that says it’s okay to be single.

It can be the best times of your life. The laughs are all there, but it trips over itself too much in an overlong anti-romantic comedy.

2.5 out of 4

Dirty Grandpa (2016)

 

Released: January 22, 2016. Directed by: Dan Mazer. Starring: Robert De Niro, Zac Efron, Zoey Deutch. Runtime: 1hr 42 min.

This comedy feels like screenwriter John Phillips lost a bet and since he lost, he had to write a screenplay with filthy joke after filthy joke. Dirty Grandpa is the result.

This follows Jason Kelly (Zac Efron), a boring corporate lawyer who’s about to get married to the most basic, control freak fiancé to come on film this year, named Meredith (a forgettable Julianne Hough).

Jason’s grandma just died and he now has to drive his ex-Special Forces grandfather, an appropriately named Dick (Robert De Niro), down to Florida, hoping to prolong the tradition of going down to Florida this time of year. While Jason has to be home for the rehearsal dinner, Dick begins to show his true colours and tricks Jason to Daytona Beach for spring break.

Raunchy and offensive, and just about as crude as it can get at every turn, Dirty Grandpa fails in just about every respect. It shouldn’t be confused with Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, because that’s actually funny in its own mischievous way.

I hope me not liking the film makes me sound like every old white critic out there that didn’t like the film because it’s offensive. I’m only 21, damn it!

But I’m the target audience, and I found this to be a pointless experiment in shocking the audience at every turn.

DeNiro’s Dick Kelly is an unlikable, racist, homophobic, perverted old fart who also has an obsession with poking Efron’s Jason in the butt and twisting his nipples. This grandpa is so awful, he makes me want to call my own grandfathers and thank them for not being perverted old freaks.

The film was super uneven in its tone, which was frustrating. It wanted to be balls to the wall crude, but also shoved dramatic pieces in there. They’re heartwarming when they come – but only a minute later, it’s interrupted by a De Niro stunt penis on Zac Efron’s pillow or De Niro arbitrarily commenting on Andre the Giant’s massive fingers and what he can do with them in the bedroom.

The bizarre crudeness undermines any sentiment the film has to offer – like a bizarrely heartwarming karaoke duet with Zoey Deutch that almost brings Efron back to his High School Musical days. Take a look at him now, Disney.

Plaza has a filthy turn as Lenore, who’s trying to get with Dick because she thinks he is a professor and that’s on her slutty bucket list.

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Zac Efron and Robert De Niro in Dirty Grandpa (Source

Along the way, they meet Shadia (Zoey Deutch, Vampire Academy), who attended photography school with Jason. She’s the only one who doesn’t get raunchy dialogue – and should feel the least embarrassed to be in this smut.

I love crude humour. But only when it’s funny. This just felt like it took a shrapnel accuracy approach to comedy — writing filthy jokes and seeing what sticks. Plot twist: Nothing does stick.

It’s a predictable farce that results in an early contender for the year’s worst film. Dan Mazer (producer on Brüno) directs the actors on what looks like their first take. They say dialogue that’s supposed to be funny, but rarely is. The cast tries their very best and the film isn’t their fault.

It’s bad writing and dreadful jokes, which only made me laugh once. At this point, I’m trying to forget Efron and De Niro were ever in something so damn desperate.

The epitome of desperation in the film is a scene with Efron waking up the beach nude after a night of partying, only a stuffed bee covering his nether regions.

A young child then comes over, using vocabulary like “He let me kiss it” and “I stroked it” when his petrified father comes over. It looks like he molested the poor kid – and for Dirty Grandpa, this is their below the rock bottom of desperate comedy.

In certain scenes I was truly debating walking out, which is something I haven’t considered since 2013’s Grown Ups 2. So in a way, the filmmakers won. They nearly shocked me out of the movie. Congratulations?

1 star

The Witch (2016)

 

Released: February 19, 2016. Director: Robert Eggers. Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Inseson, Kate Dickie. Runtime: 1hr 33 min.

Filmed in the small Ontario town of Mattawa, The Witch is an astounding venture into psychological horror from feature debut director Robert Eggers.

The film’s 1630’s New England setting is a perfect fit for the compelling narrative, inspired by America’s first witch hysteria – where dialogue is taken from diaries and folk tales of the time, which capture the time’s essence.

Also capturing the realistic portrayal is the set and production design. Writer-director Eggers seemed to be an asset to the film because he has had experience with art direction, production and costume design. I assume his experience with that complemented his vision.

The time period was perfect for the artistic tale which I saw as an experiment of how fear of something new – witchcraft – can provoke situations to a boiling point.

The feature concerns a Puritan family whose beliefs clash with their plantation. They’re then banished and they move to a farmhouse bordering the eerie wilderness, which is said to be the home of a witch and other strange forces, like creepy hares and ravens.

After the family’s baby Samuel is taken, they suspect their daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) of being impure and practicing the occult, leading the mother to believe they’re plainly cursed.

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Anya Taylor-Joy in the woods in The Witch. (Source)

The matriarch Katherine (Kate Dickie) exemplifies the family’s grief and is a main source of poignancy – adding a family drama aspect. The patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) performs well, attempting to keep his family intact through hectic occurrences.

Besides strong performances, there are also compelling, realistic characters. Eggers uses them to express impurity and insanity and always real, raw emotions.

Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin shows promise, showing great range when facing extreme accusations from her family. She has a chilling moment when her face drops at her baby brother disappearing in a scary game of Peek-a-Boo. Harvey Scrimshaw also shines as Caleb in a defining scene.

The cast carry it well through horror and wicked family drama. It’s like a derailment into insanity, with threats of black magic. The Woods itself is a notable aspect.

To me, it’s a character in itself – like the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. There’s a dread when characters enter the forest. The Witch is not frightening the way modern horror films are.

There’s no reliance on jump scares and it utilizes atmosphere and concept to terrorize audiences. My eyes widened so much, I thought my face would freeze that way.

The score is wholly unnerving. It effectively utilizes music and sound to instill fear into audiences. As the score heightens, some might wait for a jump scare – but it’s all about the discomfort it brings to the viewer, and the fear of the unknown it invites. Mark Korven’s score makes the film what it is – showing that a horror film requires great music to make it stand out.

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Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch. (Source

Eggers brings a unique vision to the witchcraft genre. His sense of storytelling and his direction of raw horror is refreshing. While this never made me cover my eyes, I’ve rarely felt so consistently unsettled through something this intense. I think I didn’t cover my eyes was because I didn’t want to miss a frame of the beautiful film.

The way cinematographer Jarin Blaschke shoots the feature stuns. Creative angles also make certain images look chilling – even if they would look simplistic in another’s hands. With Blaschke, there’s malevolence in every shot. The nighttime shots frighten, especially when we’re placed in the woods. The way the camera panned into the Woods’ belly was unnerving.

The feature’s main flaw was the way the characters talked – where their dialogue’s meaning was sometimes confusing. I’d likely have to read the screenplay to get the full essence of the themes.

This isn’t for everyone. It’s slow and rewards patient viewers. It’s a treat for genre fans. Though, it isn’t for those who define a film’s scariness through amount of jump scares.

For me, it was an astounding feature debut that immerses, and Eggers’ superbly crafted tale makes it look like he has been scaring audiences for years.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Because of Winn-Dixie (2005)

Released: February 18, 2005. Directed by: Wayne Wang. Starring: AnnaSophia Robb, Jeff Daniels, Dave Matthews. Runtime: 1hr 46 min.

One of my childhood favourites, Because of Winn-Dixie depicts the positive effect a dog can have on one’s life. In particular, it’s about India Opal (AnnaSophia Robb), a 10-year-old girl who meets a smiling, stray Picardy Shepherd in her local supermarket – the Winn-Dixie.

She names the dog Winn-Dixie in the heat of the moment – claiming the dog to be hers to save him from the pound.

Opal just moved to a small-town Naomi, Florida – a town so small, the main Church is in a convenience store. She’s struggling to fit in and also struggling to communicate with her preacher father, simply called Preacher (Jeff Daniels), who has been depressed since his wife left him when Opal was three years old.

With her trusty pooch Winn-Dixie, they meet a cast of eccentric characters across town where together, they bring joy back to Naomi.

I think the film works best because of its charm. The plot isn’t the most original, it’s basically Opal going around to the town’s characters, trying to make friends and learning lessons. It’s kind-of like a throwback to the fantasy genre of going from an amusing encounter to the next, without all the fantasy.

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Winn-Dixie and AnnaSophia Robb in Because of Winn-Dixie (Source)

The film’s frame is the aspect of the narrative of Opal coping with her mom leaving. Even after seven years, we’re catching up with her at a time where she thinks of her mom a lot because she’s so lonely. It enables poignant exchanges between Opal and the preacher – which are often heartwarming or heartbreaking, and sometimes simultaneous. The sentiment is always in the right spot, regardless.

The character also calls for AnnaSophia Robb to have a lot of maturity as a performer in her first film role on the big screen (before this she was on an episode of Nickelodeon’s Drake & Josh and the titular role in TV movie Samantha: An American Girl Holiday). Robb is completely up to the task, where she’s moving when she has to be, naturally funny and she has a good narration, to boot.

Antagonists include Mr. Alfred (B.J. Hooper), the trailer park owner of where Opal is living, who doesn’t allow pets and wants Winn-Dixie gone. He also doesn’t allow kids, but made an exception because Preacher is the… well, the preacher. I guess they couldn’t think of a better name for him.

But since it’s a family flick, there’s not much conflict – besides just coping with life. There’s also not much conflict because everyone opens up to Winn-Dixie. How can you resist that dog’s smile?

But since it’s a relatively weak-plotted family flick, there’s not a lot of conflict and everyone eventually opens up to Winn-Dixie, because how could you resist that smile?

The characters that author Kate DiCamillo created are well-sculpted, and that’s what really sets the film apart. From Dave Matthews’ singing pet shop caretaker Otis, to Eve Marie Saint’s librarian Miss Franny and Cicely Thomson’s Gloria Dump, they all have entertaining stories and are portrayed well by a talented cast.

Winn-Dixie is just a funny and enjoyable family film, notable as AnnaSophia Robb’s first film and for its emotional range, even though many of the lessons in the film are literary in scope. They just don’t feel like something that would happen naturally in real life.

This is particularly notable with the ‘littmus lozenge’ plotline and the story about its creator – a Civil War soldier who came home to his entire family dead, and made the flavour of his candy kind-of like his life: sweet and sad.

When Opal goes around giving her friends this candy, it’s cheesy but sweet. It makes people think of their sadness, like the amusing reaction of Elle Fanning’s Sweetie Pie Thomas, where she spits the lozenge out and says, “That tastes bad. That tastes like not having a dog.”

It enables moments that got a few tears out of me because a good, emotional screenplay – and it helps characters make a bit more sense.

It’s a creative, occasionally feel-good family film, especially after getting past any melodrama it might have. Most importantly: The film entertains.

3 outta 4