Island of Lemurs: Madagascar

Island of Lemurs is a hard movie to review. It's only 40 minutes long and it's mostly superficial. This movie tells the story of how the only natural habitat for these lemurs, the island of Madagascar, is being slowly destroyed and their habitats being ruined. It doesn't offer anything special beyond simple platitudes.

It's not anything extraordinary, but it involves animals. If you've never seen a lemur or don't know much about them...well, suffice it to say that they're adorable and come in all shapes and sizes.

The film is narrated by Morgan Freeman, who does a good job. But there are occasional interludes by the film's main subject, Patricia Wright, a biologist working to protect the lemurs. Her narration is stilted and it seems as if she is reading unrehearsed. There are fits and starts almost every time she gives a voiceover.

But here's the thing...those lemurs are damn cute.

Viewed in real IMAX

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones

It's better than the twenty minutes of the fourth one that I made it through before turning it off. Besides the first film, I haven't seen any other films in the series in their entirety...only bits and pieces here and there.

I wasn't the biggest fan of the first film, but I had heard good things about Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, so I decided to give it a shot. It wasn't good...it wasn't bad.

The film is well shot and I'd like to see Christopher Landon, the director make another horror movie, since he seems to have the basics down. He also wrote the 2007 film Disturbia, which wasn't bad.

This seems like an attempt to diversify the Paranormal Activity franchise and spread it out from the family that has previously dominated the series.

As with most low-budget found footage movies, the first hour of the movie is mostly character development with one or two jump scares thrown in to keep the viewer interested. The last twenty minutes are when things get interesting, and the last two minutes make almost no sense.

A throwaway line at the beginning of the movie seemingly justifies the the use of time travel and teleportation. The main character from this movie, marked for death by an evil old woman who lives in the apartment below him, is transported to the house where the first film took place. There, he ends up in the middle of the first movie.

Does that mean that the main character from this movie is the spirit inhabiting the house from the first movie? Who the fuck knows. It doesn't make much sense, but it plays out well in a sort of "what's happening?" kind of way.

Capturing the Friedmans

After watching Capturing the Friedmans, I don't have that much to say. The whole point of the documentary is to be objective, but the structure, the reveal at the end of the movie and even the positioning of interview subjects gives off a nasty taste in my mouth.

Arthur Friedman, who along with his son Jessie was accused of molesting a number of young boys in their quiet New York town in the mid-1980s. The movie, using interviews and home movies, follows the family through the trial and it's aftermath.

The fact that they reveal at the end of the movie that Arthur's brother may have been abused by him as well and the fact that he is gay smacks of bias. It's almost as if the movie is trying to make the audience gasp and give us a "twist" ending.

The fact that Arthur Friedman was most likely guilty also skews the portrayal of the Friedman family. The director also interviews the family members in a much more formal setting than the victims, one of whom is interviewed while he lays on his couch, face blacked out. It feels as if the director doesn't want us to view them as credible.

There's just something about the whole thing that just feels disingenuous.

Viewed on Netflix

Fritt Vilt II (Cold Prey 2)

Cold Prey was is one of the better And Then There Were None-style slasher movies I'd seen in a while when I watched it last year. It's a solid, well made movie about a group of skiers who end up at an abandoned hotel for the night after one of them breaks his leg. The hotel is actually inhabited by a crazed psychopath (listed in the credits of the second movie as "The Mountain Man") whose parents used to own the hotel. Obviously people get killed until there is only one left standing. The final girl then kills the Mountain Man and lives. Wrong Turn 4: Bloody Beginnings follows the plot almost exactly.

Cold Prey 2 picks up exactly where the first one left off, much like Halloween II. Actually, this movie is a lot like Halloween II.  Jannicke, the final girl from the first film, and The Mountain Man are both brought to the same hospital. He miraculously survives being pickaxed in the chest and left for dead in the freezing snow for hours. Once he awakens, he kills everyone in his quest to finish the job. Like Michael Myers, the Mountain Man goes from being just a regular person to a super human who can withstand seemingly anything.

There are some genuinely scary moments in the movie, but I don't want to spoil those for you. Suffice it to say that there are some good scenes set in the hospital's morgue. But those moments are far outweighed by the fact that the characters act in such stupid ways that you want to scream at them.

There are multiple occasions on which the killer could have been easily stopped by shooting him just one more time in the head, but the characters consistently don't do that, even though it's the rational thing that anyone would do. I can accept going into a dark hallway or room even though every logical person would high tail it out of there, but the fact that the characters act so often in ways that are against their own interest takes me out of the movie quite a bit.

The kills in the movie are few and far between and many of them are surprisingly bloodless, but they are visceral and satisfying in an odd way. The main character carries a pickaxe as his weapon, so there are plenty of people being axed to death.

I wasn't blown away by Cold Prey 2, but it was better than most horror sequels. It was good enough that I'm still interested in seeing the third movie, which is apparently a prequel. But then again, I sat through all of the Wrong Turn and Leprechaun movies, so what the hell do I know...

Viewed on Amazon Prime

Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage

If you're anything more than a casual fan of the band Rush, this documentary probably won't teach you anything new, or reveal and amazing and long kept secrets. But it will entertain you. Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage is a look at the long, prolific and sometimes divisive career of the band, told through extensive interviews from the band and those around them.

The documentary might seem like a "let's only show the good side" affair, but it truly does seem as if Rush has never really made any enemies. There are plenty of people who either don't like their music or think them too far outside the mainstream to matter, but no one seems to dislike Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson or Neil Peart as people. A few of the musicians they interview talk about not being fans of a lot of Rush's work, but enjoying the members as people.

That focus on not just the music, but the people behind it is what makes the documentary so effective. It's not surprising, since the directors, Sam Dunn and Scott McFadyen, made their names by directing Metal: A Headbanger's Journey a few years ago. That film followed Dunn as he explored the world of metal and it's origins. While Dunn remains off camera in Beyond the Lighted Stage, unlike Metal, this movie keeps  that sense of closeness that Metal cultivated.

One of the things that struck me was how frank all three band members were about the fact that they disliked some of their own work. Lifeson talks about how he disliked the push toward synths in the 1980s and how he was relieved when Geddy Lee began to pull back on them. It's refreshing to see such blunt and straightforward talk from a band. Maybe that's why Rush is still going strong after almost 50 years.

If you enjoy Rush's music, there is plenty of it to be had here. The documentary is peppered with performances by the band at all stages of their career, going all the way back to the John Rutsey days, The music keeps the film humming along in between interviews.

Even casual Rush fans will at least be entertained, even if they don't learn any shocking new facts.

Viewed on Netflix

Bones Brigade: An Autobiography

Bones Brigade: An Autobiography has more heart than any documentary in recent memory. You can see it in the way that Rodney Mullen talks about his days in the Bones Brigade, or the way that Tony Hawk talks about the early competitions and even in the way that Stacey Peralta talks about the kids under his care.

The Bones Brigade was a collective team of skateboarders in the 1980s that was managed by Peralta, who's early life was depicted in the documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys and the film Lords of Dogtown. The collective included most of the biggest names in skateboarding, including Tony Hawk and Steve Caballero.

The documentary is both a history of the Bones Brigade itself, but also a history of the second generation of professional skateboarding. Most of the boys on the team were only 14 or 15 when they joined. It's funny to see them growing up as the movie progresses.

he bulk of the movie is told through interviews with the principals, including Stacey Peralta. The rest of the story is told through extensive home movies that Peralta look. It seems as if he documented everything with his camera.

It makes a certain amount of sense since Peralta has become an award winning director in his own right (he directed this documentary) and he's not afraid to laugh at himself. He asks "What the hell was I thinking?!" when reviewing some old footage from The Search for Animal Chin.

As I mentioned before, this movie has heart. You can feel the love these people have looking back on their past adventures. That's a hard thing to capture on film, but Peralta has managed to do just that.

Viewed on Netflix

American Reunion

American Reunion is pretty much all in the title. The gang from American Pie goes to their high school reunion and gets into some shit (both figuratively and literally). Everyone is back this time, unlike the last mainline American Pie movie, which left out all of the female leads (except Michelle) and Oz.

There are some genuinely funny moments, such as Stiffler getting revenge on a group of kids who disrespected them by shitting in their beer cooler and a fight scene on the front lawn of Stiffler's house where a bunch of high school kids make fun of him for calling himself "the Stiffmiester". A good portion of the movie's humor comes from this old vs young mentality and while it does get a bit tired and trite, there are some genuinely funny moments.

Some of the film's humor comes from "remember that time" type jokes, such as Finch asking about Stiffler's mom (although Stiffler gets the last laugh in this entry). Thankfully, these jokes aren't too pervasive and are mostly fleeting references that don't make the movie less enjoyable.

The standout moment of the film is a scene in which Oz, Jim, Stiffler and Finch try to sneak Jim's newly 18 year old neighbor Kara back into her house after a night of partying to celebrate her birthday. Stiffler tries to distract her parents by knocking on the front door and saying their car broke down, while Jim sneaks Kara upstairs. When asked why he doesn't have a cell phone, he just stares at  them blankly. "Last time I did this cell phones didn't exist..." he tells Oz and Finch.

Another great subplot involves MILF Guy #1 and MILF Guy #2 reconciling after some in-between movie drama by watching Stiffler nail Finch's mom. "MILF?" asks one. "MILF!" replies the other. It becomes a chant and it's a callback to the earlier movies that actually works.

American Reunion is certainly better than American Wedding but I don't think it stands up to the first two movies in terms of gross out, ridiculous comedy. It's still an entertaining film.

Viewed on DVD

 

Jesus Camp

Jesus Camp is an extremely scary movie at first glance. But the more I think about it, the more I see how it could be over sensationalized to stir up controversy. The movie feels somehow dishonest and one-sided. It masquerades as a fair movie by including a "rational" and moderate radio host who functions as the voice of reason.

With all that said, there are plenty of genuinely scary characters in this documentary about a summer camp for Christian children. It's an extremely fundamentalist camp where children are indoctrinated into the hardcore Christian movement. They are taught that evolution is a lie and that they are essentially "warriors" for god.

To me, the most frightening thing is that almost everything the adults spout about other religions and the world at large is false in an easily checked sort of way.

There really isn't any deeper meaning to the documentary. The main message seems to be "fundamentalists are bad". It doesn't offer much more insight than that.

Viewed on Netflix

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Marvel is building the largest franchise in movie history. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a multi-decade, multi-billion dollar investment for the company.

And you know what, it's been pretty good so far. Even the most mediocre Marvel movies have something to like.

There have been a few outright stinkers like Iron Man 2 and Thor but for the most part, it's been a solid run.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is one of the best Marvel movies, able to stand up with X2 and Spider-Man 2.

The plot is a bit contrived and when the Winter Soldier's identity is finally revealed, it isn't dramatic at all. My reaction was "Well, glad Cap finally caught up to everyone else." It just doesn't quite come together in the ways it should, but the plot is just a backbone on which to hang a whole lot of really well shot and staged action sequences.

For the most part, the action sequences are solid, but there are a few parts that felt a bit too much like a video game. The opening sequence, set aboard a giant SHIELD research ship, is reminiscent of the opening to a Call of Duty game.

It's kind of sad that one of the movie's selling points is that you can actually tell what's happening in the action sequences. There are plenty of long takes...well, relatively long since even a two second shot during a fight scene counts as long these days.

The action sequences have a geography about them that many movies don't bother establishing. Most movies will simply have three different fights seemingly happening within the same larger battle, but they have no connection. The directors of The Winter Solider, however, take the time to establish how everything fits together. It just gives that movie an extra touch that is rarely seen these days.

One of the things I enjoyed most about the movie is that Nick Fury is finally given something to do. Instead of barking orders at people and standing back to watch his plans unfurl, we finally get to see him kick some ass. Samuel L. Jackson has quite a few good, dramatic scenes in the movie, but when he and Black Widow are beating people up, that's when things are really entertaining.

Thankfully, blissfully, the movie tones down the smug, annoying and completely over the top Marvel Sarcasmâ„¢ that plagues so many of their movies. We get it, Tony Stark and the other Marvel heroes are a bunch of smug assholes who can spout of cheesy lines while nonchalantly fighting villains. Since The Avengers, Marvel has been steadily upping the amount of sarcastic lines in their movies because the fans seem to love it. With Iron Man 3, it was annoying and made it harder to enjoy the movie. With Thor: The Dark World, it was too much and was enough to make me dislike the movie quite a bit. The Winter Soldier seems to have finally found the right balance and the movie is that much better because of it.

Now we just have to wait and see how awesome Guardians of the Galaxy will be. Hopefully Marvel can keep up the quality output.

Viewed in theaters

Double Feature: Spider-Man 2 & Spider-Man 3

This past week I've been feeling extremely ill, so I decided to fill part of my day by doing a double feature of Spider-Man 2 and 3. The last time I saw either film was when the third film was released in 2007.

I decided to skip the first film since I've seen it more than enough times and it isn't an amazing movie. It's a solid retelling of Spider-Man's backstory but it didn't really break new ground.

The second movie, however, might just be the best comic book adaptation out there. It's a close tie with Hellboy II: The Golden Army.

With the second movie, everything comes together perfectly. Peter's relationship with MJ, Spider-Man's dealing with the Green Goblin and Harry and even Aunt May dealing with Uncle Ben's death, it all connects in a way that very few action movies can manage. The movie just strikes all the right chords. Even the villain of the piece, Doc Ock, is a tragic figure.

Alfred Molina's portrayal of Otto Octavius is much more nuanced and restrained than Willem Dafoe's Green Goblin. It gives the movie a sense of realism and grounds it in a way that both the first and third movies in the series are missing.

The action sequences are some of the best put on film. Unlike the first movie, the special effects still hold up today (although there are a few shots where the movie shows it's age). The action sequences have weight to them. It feels like something is at stake when Peter and Doc Ock square off in the streets of Manhattan.

That stands in stark contrast to Spider-Man 3, where it feels as if things are rushed. Sam Raimi tried to cram three villains into the movie (Sandman, Green Goblin Jr., and Venom). But here's the thing, I still loved the movie. The tone is much darker than the second movie, which was darker than the first. Sam Raimi shows off some of his trademark weirdness and throws in a dance number in a jazz club and even a goofy romantic cooking scene.

But even through all that, it's still a fun movie. The characters are strong and the acting is amazing. While Topher Grace might seem miscast as Eddie Brock, he does a good job of playing the selfish asshole who's really insecure character to a T. The biggest problem with his character arc is that he doesn't even turn into Venom until the hour and forty five minute mark, giving him little time to flex his wings and have fun with the character.

The end fight scene between Spider-Man and the villains, set in the middle of a downtown construction site is one of the better climaxes to a super hero movie.

When I saw Spider-Man 3 in theaters, I disliked it quite a bit. I thought it was boring and melodramatic. Rewatching for the first time all these years later, I can appreciate the movie a bit more for what it tried to accomplish: bring something new to the franchise.

I can see why people dislike the movie. It is much campier than both the previous entries and that campiness can sometimes clash with the darker tone of the movie, but overall, I still think it's a solid movie.

Viewed on Blu-ray