Playing Catch-Up With 6 Mini-Reviews: Amy, Gloria, Pitch Perfect 2, Sisters, Spy, Trainwreck


Amy (dir by Asif Kapadia)

Amy opens with brilliant and, in its way, heartbreaking footage of a 14 year-old Amy Winehouse and a friend singing Happy Birthday at a party.  Even though she’s singing deliberately off-key and going over-the-top (as we all tend to do when we sing Happy Birthday), you can tell that Amy was a star from the beginning.  She’s obviously enjoying performing and being the center of attention and, try as you might, it’s impossible not to contrast the joy of her Happy Birthday with the sadness of her later life.

A star whose music touched millions (including me), Amy Winehouse was ultimately betrayed by a world that both wanted to take advantage of her talent and to revel in her subsequent notoriety.  It’s often said the Amy was self-destructive but, if anything, the world conspired to destroy her.  By focusing on footage of Amy both in public and private and eschewing the usual “talking head” format of most documentaries, Amy pays tribute to both Amy Winehouse and reminds us of what a great talent we all lost in 2011.


Gloria (dir by Christian Keller)

The Mexican film Gloria is a musical biopic of Gloria Trevi (played by Sofia Espinosa), a singer whose subversive songs and sexual image made her a superstar in Latin America and challenged the conventional morality of Catholic-dominated establishment.  Her manager and lover was the controversial Sergio Andrade (Marco Perez).  The movie follows Gloria from her first audition for the manipulative Sergio to her arrest (along with Sergio) on charges of corrupting minors.  It’s an interesting and still controversial story and Gloria tells it well, with Espinosa and Perez both giving excellent performances.


Pitch Perfect 2 (dir by Elizabeth Banks)

The Bellas are back!  As I think I’ve mentioned a few times on this site, I really loved the first Pitch Perfect.  In fact, I loved it so much that I was a bit concerned about the sequel.  After all, sequels are never as good as the original and I was dreading the idea of the legacy of the first film being tarnished.

But the sequel actually works pretty well.  It’s a bit more cartoonish than the first film.  After three years at reigning ICCA champions, the Bellas are expelled from competition after Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) accidentally flashes the President.  The only way for the Bellas to get the suspension lifted is to win the World Championship of A Capella.  The plot, to be honest, really isn’t that important.  You’re watching the film for the music and the interplay of the Bellas and, on those two counts, the film totally delivers.

It should be noted that Elizabeth Banks had a great 2015.  Not only did she give a great performance in Love & Mercy but she also made a respectable feature directing debut with Pitch Perfect 2.


Sisters (dir by Jason Moore)

It’s interesting how opinions can change.  For the longest time, I really liked Tina Fey and I thought that Amy Poehler was kind of overrated.  But, over the past two years, I’ve changed my opinion.  Now, I like Amy Poehler and Tina Fey kind of gets on my nerves.  The best way that I can explain it is to say that Tina Fey just seems like the type who would judge me for wearing a short skirt and that would get old quickly, seeing as how I happen to like showing off my legs.

Anyway, in Sisters, Tina and Amy play sisters!  (Shocking, I know.)  Amy is the responsible one who has just gotten a divorce and who wants to make everyone’s life better.  Tina is the irresponsible one who refuses to accept that she’s no longer a teenager.  When their parents announce that they’re selling the house where they grew up, Amy and Tina decide to throw one last party.  Complications ensue.

I actually had two very different reactions to Sisters.  On the one hand, as a self-declared film critic, it was easy for me to spot the obvious flaw with Sisters.  Tina and Amy should have switched roles because Tina Fey is simply not believable as someone who lives to have fun.  Sometimes, it’s smart to cast against type but it really doesn’t work here.

However, as the youngest of four sisters, there was a lot of Sisters that I related to.  I saw Sisters with my sister, the Dazzling Erin, and even if the film did not work overall, there were still a lot of little scenes that made us smile and go, “That’s just like us.”  In fact, I think they should remake Sisters and they should let me and Erin star in it.


Spy (dir by Paul Feig)

There were a lot of very good spy films released in 2015 and SPECTRE was not one of them.  In fact, the more I think about it, the more disappointed I am with the latest Bond film.  It’s not so much that SPECTRE was terrible as there just wasn’t anything particular memorable about it.  When we watch a film about secret agents saving the world, we expect at least a few memorable lines and performances.

Now, if you want to see a memorable spy movie, I suggest seeing Spy.  Not only is Spy one of the funniest movies of the year, it’s also a pretty good espionage film.  Director Paul Feig manages to strike the perfect balance between humor and action.  One of the joys of seeing CIA employee Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) finally get to enter the field and do spy stuff is the fact that there are real stakes involved.  Susan is not only saving the world but, in the film’s best scenes, she’s having a lot of fun doing it and, for that matter, McCarthy is obviously having a lot of fun playing Susan and those of us in the audience are having a lot of fun watching as well.

Spy also features Jason Statham as a more traditional action hero.  Statham is hilarious as he sends up his own macho image.  Seriously, who would have guessed that he could such a funny actor?  Here’s hoping that he, McCarthy, and Feig will all return for the inevitable sequel.


Trainwreck (dir by Judd Apatow)

There’s a lot of great things that can be said about Trainwreck.  Not only was it the funniest film of 2015 but it also announced to the world that Amy Schumer’s a star.  It was a romantic comedy for the 21st Century, one that defied all of the conventional BS about what has to happen in a romcom.  This a film for all of us because, let’s just be honest here, we’ve all been a trainwreck at some point in our life.

But for me, the heart of the film was truly to be found in the relationship between Amy and her younger sister, Kim (Brie Larson).  Whether fighting over what to do with their irresponsible father (Colin Quinn) or insulting each other’s life choices, their relationship is the strongest part of the film.  If Brie Larson wasn’t already guaranteed an Oscar nomination for Room, I’d demand that she get one for Trainwreck.  For that matter, Amy Schumer deserves one as well.

Seriously, it’s about time the trainwrecks of the world had a film that we could truly call our own.

Review: The Hills Have Eyes (dir. by Alexandre Aja)

Many people have issues about remakes and reboots. They see it as unnecessary and a proof that the film industry has run out of ideas. I can’t say that either points have no validity to them, but I disagree with both.While all genres of film have had it’s share of remakes and reboots its the horror section of the film aisle which has seen the most. This shouldn’t come as a shock since horror has always been ripe for remakes. The stories in horror films have always been quite simple and producers take advantage of this by remaking them for a new generation. Take the simple set-up, change the time and setting with a new cast of cheap, unknown actors and you got yourself a horror flick which should make back its budget and make its filmmakers a profit.

While most horror remakes usually range from average to truly dreadful there comes a time when one comes out of the horror remake heap to actually show promise and quality not seen in its remake brethren. One such film is in the Alexandre Aja directed and Wes Craven produced The Hills Have Eyes. Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes is the rare horror remake in that its more than a match to Wes Craven’s original and, at times, surpasses it.

Alexandre Aja first burst onto the horror-cinema scene with his ambitious and grisly homage to grindhouse horror: Haute Tension. Haute Tension was one nasty piece of horror filmmaking which brought to mind 70’s and early 80’s horror exploitation and grindhouse mentality. Aja’s directorial debut was a no-hold-s-barred punch and kick to the stomach that was overtly violent and sublimely painful for the audience to watch. Aja was soon tapped by Wes Craven to lead the remake project of his own The Hills Have Eyes and to Aja’s growing reputation as a rising star of horror, he grew as a filmmaker and more than earned this reputation.

Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes follows pretty much the very same story and characters as the original. This remake has abit more of a political sense to its storytelling in that it doesn’t just pit the basic premise of civilized humans versus the primal inbred, mutant hill dweller, but also the different demographics of red state versus blue state. This theme was hammered through to the audience through the subsurface conflict between Big Bob Carter’s (well-played by industry veteran Ted Levine) red state gung-ho ex-detective and his son-in-law Doug’s (X2‘s Aaron Stafford) pacifist mentality. I think this new wrinkle in the original’s sparse and tight story was unnecessary and unsubtly done. I really didn’t want to know what political leanings and motivations the Carter family members followed. What I did care about was how they would react to the outside forces that was soon to menace and attack them.

The first half of the film was very deliberate in its set-up as it slowly built up the tension and dread as the Carter family’s journey through a supposedly short-cut through the desert put them closer and closer to the dangerous people who dwelt amongst the hills bordering the desert road. Once the family becomes stranded in the middle of nowhere the fun begins for horror-aficionados. For those who have seen the original this remake doesn’t deviate from the main story. The hill people who, up until now have only been glimpsed through quick shadowy movements across the screen, were the true cause of the family’s predicament attack in a brutal and grisly fashion. None of the Carter family members were spared from this attack. From Big Bob Carter, his wife Ethel, their three children, son-in-law and young granddaughter they all suffer in one form or another. The night attack on the camper is the main highlight of the film and shows that Aja hasn’t lost his touch for creating a horror setpiece that doesn’t hold back. From the brutal rape of the Carter’s youngest daughter Brenda to the sudden deaths of several Carter family members. This sequence was both fast-paced and chaotic in nature. It also helped push the definition of what constitute a very hard R-rating. Just like Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects and Roth’s Hostel, The Hills Have Eyes pushed the limits and boundaries of what the MPAA has allowed so far in terms of on-screen violence when it was first released in 2006. I’m very surprised that some of the violence and deaths in this film made the final cut. This film definitely brings back the 70’s style horror.

The cast for this remake was one high point that the original didn’t have. Where Craven had a very inexperienced cast for the original film. Aja had the luxury of a bigger budget to hire a more competent and able group of actors. A cast that was led by Ted Levine who shined in his role as the patriarch of the civilized Carters. Kathleen Quinlan as the mother of the bunch soldiers on even though its almost predestined in films such as this that she would be one of the doomed. The two daughters as played by Vinessa Shaw and Lost’s Emilie De Ravin were quite good in roles that involved some very graphic rape sequences. Much kudos must go to De Ravin for having to perform through her scene during the trailer-camper attack. But the two actors who excelled in the film has to be pacifist turned avenging angel Doug as played by Aaron Stafford. We see in his character Doug the lengths a civilized human being would go through to survive and protect those he cares for. Even if this means resorting to becoming more brutal and primal than the inbred, mutant hill dwellers. It’s in Doug’s character where the basic premise of the clash of the modern with the primitive comes close to matching the same theme in the original. To a smaller degree this was also echoed in the Carter’s teenage son Bobby. Dan Byrd of Entourage plays Bobby Carter and its in him we see the level-headedness of the family. Despite all the horror and carnage he has seen the hill dwellers have inflicted on his family, Bobby remains somewhat calm and even-keeled to protect what is left of his family. The only drawback as to the cast itself was that the opposing family seemed to have been shortchanged. In the original we actually got to understand some of the motivations that drove the hill dwellers to prey on unsuspecting travelers through their area. In this remake the hill dwellers seem more like superhuman monsters and boogeymen. It didn’t bother me as much, but then it also lessened the impact of the story’s basic premise of civilization versus primitives.

Lastly, the look of the film helps add to the grindhouse nature of Aja’s remake. The film has an oversaturated look and feel that took advantage of the desert location and the high-sun overhead. This oversaturation of the film’s look also lends some credence to its grindhouse sensibilities. It looked, felt and acted like something made during the late 70’s and early 80’s. For most fans of horror it would really come down to the special-effects used to show the death and violence’s impact on the audience. Once again, Greg Nicotero and his crew at KNB EFX house show that they’re the premiere effects house. The make-up used to show the mutant effects on the survivors of the original inhabitants of the hills was excellently done. The same goes for the gags used to show the many brutal and messy deaths of both families.

There’s no denying that The Hills Have Eyes was all about pain when boiled down to its most basic denominator. This film is all about pushing the boundaries and piling on violence upon violence. The Hills Have Eyes is not a film that tells us violence solves nothing. Here it does solve the problem for the Carter clan and is also the only avenue of survival of the remaining Carters. The same goes for the nuclear survivors and their offspring who stayed in the irradiated zones that was their home. This film is all about survival and the levels and heights individuals would take to achieve it.

The Hills Have Eyes might not be the original second helping some have expected from Aja after his brilliant, if somewhat flawed first major film with Haute Tension, but it does show his growth as a filmmaker and his clean grasp of what makes horror cinema truly terrifying and uncomfortable. Two ingredients that makes for making a genre exploitation fare into something of a classic. I’m sure that outside of the horror-aficionado circles this film will either be met with indifference or disgust, but for those who revel in this type of filmmaking then it’s a glorious continuation of the grindhouse horror revival that began with Aja’s own Haute Tension, continued by Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects, Roth’s Hostel  and continues to live each and every year with the many direct-to-video releases of cheap, but very good horror films. It truly is a great time to be a fan of horror and Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes more than holds its own against Craven’s original.