Project Almanac


Now let's see Criss Angel do THAT!!!

Now let’s see Criss Angel do THAT!!!

(2014) Science Fiction (Paramount/Insurge) Jonny Weston, Sofia Black-D’Elia, Sam Lerner, Allen Evangelista, Virginia Gardner, Amy Landecker, Gary Weeks, Macsen Lintz, Gary Grubbs, Michelle DeFraites, Curry Stone, Jamila Thompson, Katie Garfield, Hillary Harley, Courtney Bowers, Patrick Johnson, Joshua Brady, Danielle Rizzo, Onira Tares. Directed by Dean Israelite

Most scientists with any sort of background in physics will tell you that time travel is not possible, but the concept has certainly excited the imagination of cinemaphiles the world over, as well as filmmakers. It does make for some interesting “what if” discussions, no doubt about it.

Teenager David Raskin (Weston) is in his senior year in high school and has a brilliant scientific mind. He yearns to matriculate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology but has some stiff competition and even if he’s selected to go, will need a good deal of financial help to get there. He sends the selection committee a video of a new gadget that allows him to control drones remotely without the need of a joystick but through sensors in a glove he wears. This gets him accepted to the prestigious university; unfortunately, it doesn’t get him the scholarship money that is crucial to him actually attending.

With his mother (Landecker) willing to sell the house to raise the funds for his schooling, David feels obligated to try and get scholarship money with some other project, but it needs to be fast. He goes through the papers of his late father (Weeks) in order to find something that he might be able to work off of but nothing jumps out at him. What he does find is a camcorder which recorded scenes from his seventh birthday party, which sadly was the day his father died in a car crash.

He and his sister Christina (Gardner) – who incessantly video records everything – see on the tape something they don’t expect to – the reflection of the 17-year-old David at his party ten years earlier. This should be impossible, but clearly David has traveled in time, or is about to. Grammar can take a beating in a time travel movie, particularly where tenses are concerned.

As it turns out, his daddy was working on a time travel device for the military when he died and was close to getting it to work. David decides to build this just to see if it works. As you can guess, it does. This leads to David and his nerdy science class friends Quinn Goldberg (Lerner) and Adam Le (Evangelista) hanging out and getting involved in the construction of the device. Eventually popular girl Jessie Pierce (Black-D’Elia) discovers what they’re up to and joins the Scooby Gang. As it turns out, David has always had a huge crush on Jessie but has never had the gumption to talk to her. Now, she’s talking to him.

At first they start doing things that you would expect teenagers to do; going back in time so that Quinn can ace a chemistry test he needs to pass in order to graduate. Of course, it takes more than a few attempts before he gets it right (one of the more amusing ideas in the film). They also use the winning Lotto numbers to get rich; except they write the numbers down wrong so instead of getting a huge jackpot to set them up for life, they win not quite two million bucks to split among the five of them.

It’s all fun and games until David decides to break the rules that the group agreed upon. It seems like a harmless change at first but like the Butterfly Effect, it has enormous consequences and the teens begin to notice that each time they come back from a time travel trip, something horrible is happening in the world. And then horrible things begin to happen to them.

This is a movie that is very aware of other time travel movies, ranging from Back to the Future to the Bill and Ted movies to more recent films like Looper. Israelite, who has written a number of genre films, takes the director chair out for a spin and doesn’t do too bad a job, particularly in the very difficult time travel genre which tends to get confusing and overly involved.

Israelite, who also wrote this, doesn’t go into too many specifics of how it works (other than it takes an enormous amount of power). He does allow us to see the actual transition which involves a lot of magnetism, a vortex and bodies and debris being thrown about like rag dolls. Time travel is, in Israelite’s imagination, painful.

The young mostly unknown cast neither distinguishes themselves nor disgraces themselves. They play teens adequately, which means us grown-ups will be banging our heads in frustration as what are supposed to be super intelligent kids do incredibly dumb and dangerous things, but you have to remember – teens. To a teen, dealing with those emotions that are so incredibly intense and painful at that age take precedence over things like safety and sanity.

This is a found footage film, although it has a soundtrack and uses some camera tricks like slow motion, but it is still here in all of its shaky cam splendor. Those who are sensitive to such things – as I am – should be warned that the visuals can be fairly vertigo-inducing and I was very thankful that the screening I attended was less than a five minute drive from my home. Also, I think the whole subgenre of found footage has been overdone and needs to be given a rest for awhile as it seems to be more gimmicky than anything else these days. But that’s just me.

Still this is stylishly done and should appeal to your inner high school senior. Given its history of having been delayed a year (see below) and then dropped into the doldrums of late January most of us didn’t really expect much out of this, but quite frankly considering the limitations it turns out to be a pretty good diversion for this time of year.

REASONS TO GO: Some nifty visuals. Well-paced.
REASONS TO STAY: Predictable teen idiocy. Found footage has kind of had its day.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of foul language and some light sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was originally to be released in February 2014 under the title Welcome to Yesterday but was re-titled and re-branded with MTV Films helping with marketing, and the release was delayed nearly a full year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/17/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 37% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chronicle
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Mr. Turner

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21


When Jim Sturgess says "Hit me," some might misinterpret the request.

When Jim Sturgess says “Hit me,” some might misinterpret the request.

(2008) Drama (Columbia) Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, Laurence Fishburne, Aaron Yoo, Liza Lapira, Jacob Pitts, Jack McGee, Josh Gad, Sam Golzari, Helen Carey, Jack Gilpin, Jeffrey Ma, Christopher Holley, Scott Beringer, Teresa Livingstone, Jeff Dashnaw, Frank Patton, Colin Angle, Bradley Thoennes, Spencer Garrett, Sally Livingstone. Directed by Robert Luketic

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Getting an education is expensive but it is necessary these days if you want an express pass to success. Students go into outrageous amounts of debt just to make it through four years of college, let alone graduate school. Some students have had to think outside of the box in order to pay off what they owe.

Ben Campbell (Sturgess) has a brilliant mind, but that and a dollar will buy you a cup of coffee, and not even a very good one. He has achieved a great deal – he’s got nearly a perfect academic record at MIT and with his MCAT scores near the top of the scale, has been eagerly accepted into Harvard Medical School. The trouble is, he can’t afford the more than $300K that a Harvard Medical School will cost him and apparently he’s already maxed out on student loans. He takes solace in his misery with fellow nerds Miles (Gad) and Cam (Golzari), his two best friends.

One day, he catches the eye of Mickey Rosa (Spacey), one of his professors, for his ability to think calmly and rationally under pressure. When Rosa investigates further, he finds that Campbell has a keen mind for numbers a talent which is clearly being wasted as the assistant manager for a men’s clothing store.  Rosa decides to invite Ben to join a project he has underway, which involves having his genius students count cards at blackjack in Las Vegas casinos. While perfectly legal, it is frowned upon by the casinos because it is a way of beating the odds, which casinos are not known for tolerating.

Although reluctant to join at first, Campbell is finally persuaded to join by Jill Taylor (Bosworth), a girl he has had a crush on for some time. Spacey introduces him to fellow card counters Choi (Yoo), Kianna (Lapira) and the current big dog in the yard, Fisher (Pitts). Rosa trains Campbell in the nearly foolproof system which is designed to fly under the radar. After a training session, Rosa flies the team to Vegas to give Campbell his trial by fire. At first nervous and unsure, Campbell is able to focus on the task at hand while playing and becomes the team’s best card counter. This gives Rosa the warm fuzzies for his new prodigy, even as it brings envy and anger from Fisher and a certain amount of chemistry with Jill.

As the team grows more and more successful, they begin to attract the notice of security consultant Cole Williams (Fishburne), whose livelihood is being threatened by security software. Ever the old dog sniffing out wrongdoing (at least as far as the casinos are concerned), he begins to keep a wary eye out on the young man who seems to be winning an unusually high percentage of the time.

In the meantime, the thrill of the game and the fruits of success begin to take their toll on Ben. Initially in only until he earned his tuition for medical school, greed and arrogance are getting the better of him as he begins to alienate those who are closest to him, while initiating a growing conflict with Mickey, who has hidden depths of vindictiveness. Will Ben be able to win back what he’s lost while staying out of the clutches of the stone-fisted enforcers of Vegas?

Sturgess who turned some heads in Across the Universe is a charming lead. It’s a shame he hasn’t yet gotten the script to put him over the top, although this movie was successful enough that it looked like it just might but as of yet it hasn’t happened. Spacey is absolutely delicious as the villainous Mickey Rosa, smooth as a snake and twice as lethal. Fishburne is one of those actors that I wish would be cast in films more often; he is always interesting. I take some solace in that he has been very present on television recently with lead roles in CSI and Hannibal.  Most of the rest of the young cast manages to look good but for the most part, their characters aren’t particularly well-drawn.

The visual effects can be a bit much, but at least they manage to capture the excitement of big-time gambling, Vegas style. The interminable chip effects that often scream “I’m a pretentious film school graduate directing this movie – watch how clever I am!” appear so often they finally induce vertigo more than move the story along. A truly nifty soundtrack and some flashy camera work make this clearly a work of the MTV generation (the preceding statement should at least give readers a clue to my age).

Sturgess and Spacey do some very nice work, particularly Spacey. The young cast is attractive. Of course, any movie that spends as much time on the Vegas strip as this one does is near and dear to Da Queen’s heart. The blackjack sequences, which could have conceivably been unutterably boring, have some snap and pop to them which will allow even non-gamblers to get into the movie.

Unnecessary (and unforgivable) geography errors take you out of the movie in a jarring kind of way. Also, the shots of the ultracool and hip card counters walking in slow mo were cliché when it was made; it is twice that now.

There’s far more style than substance here if you ask me. The fact that this is based on actual events (the real person that the Ben Campbell character was based on makes a cameo as a dealer) makes you wonder whether the truth might not have made a better movie than the fiction based on it. While it can be visually stunning at times, there are too many clichés spoiling this pot. Not bad, but not great either.

WHY RENT THIS: Fascinating subject matter and nifty presentation. Blackjack sequences well-staged. Some good work by Sturgess and particularly, Spacey.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unnecessary and foolish errors in geography and logic. Overuse of “chip effects” and “badass slo-mo.” More style than substance.

FAMILY MATTERS: The language is salty throughout. There’s some sensuality and violence as well as some brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The real Ben Campbell makes a cameo appearance as a blackjack dealer at the Hard Rock.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a featurette on the history and game play of Blackjack. There’s also an interview with one of the actual MIT students involved in the incident. The Blu-Ray adds a video blackjack game through the BD-Live option.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $157.9M on a $35M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Clockers

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT; Levitated Mass

Take Me Home Tonight


Take Me Home Tonight

Topher Grace is disconcerted that Teresa Palmer has never heard of "That 70s Show."

(2011) Comedy (Rogue) Topher Grace, Teresa Palmer, Dan Fogler, Anna Faris, Chris Pratt, Michelle Trachtenberg, Lucy Punch, Michael Ian Black, Demitri Martin, Michael Biehn, Bob Odenkirk, Angie Everhart, Jay Jablonski, Edwin Hodge. Directed by Michael Dowse 

Honesty is the best policy; it has been said time and time again but few of us really regard it as true. Most of us will lie about how successful we are, how old we are, what we did during the day – even who we are – to impress someone else. In an age where lies are commonplace and Internet identities are meaningless, we sometimes forget we used to have to tell our lies face-to-face.

In a sense, Matt Franklin has been lying to himself. He is an MIT grad who doesn’t really want to be an engineer, but kinda does. He’s not sure. He’s really not sure about anything. So he lives at home with his policeman dad (Biehn) and housewife mom and twin sister Wendy (Faris) and works at Suncoast Video (are there any of those left?) in the local Mall. Oh, did I mention its 1988?

Into his mall walks Tori Frederking (Palmer), the high school crush he never had the guts to ask out because he never had an “in” and about whom he was just coincidentally talking about with his best friend Barry Nathan (Fogler), a Mercedes salesman who’s about to get fired, although he doesn’t really know it (but he kinda does). Matt nervously strikes up a conversation with his unrequited love, trying to act nonchalant but getting flustered when she mentions her successes – graduation (with honors) from Duke, a job at a high-end investment banking firm.

That’s why Matt blurts out that he’s working at Goldman Sachs, which is a bit weird because apparently they don’t have an L.A. office (which is really weird because of course they do – even in the 80s, all of the big financial firms had L.A. offices). She asks if he’s going to a party that evening, and even though he wasn’t planning to; it’s at the home of Kyle Masterson (Pratt), the smarmy preppy boyfriend of Wendy who doesn’t even know that she applied to Cambridge (which I suppose is supposed to be Oxford but who am I kidding?) or that she would move to England if she was accepted.  The letter detailing whether she got in or not sits unopened in her purse.

So yes, this is one of those “life changing party” movies that had their genesis in the ‘80s and there are plenty of nods here to the era from a decidedly John Hughes-like tone to the big hair to the cocaine use. As someone who lived in Los Angeles in the 80s, I can tell you that they did get the mall culture right, and if the movie is a bit smug in its nod to the wealthy – both of the parties depicted here are in the homes of rich people, even if Matt and Wendy live in the burbs as the children of a cop who put most of his retirement money into Matt’s education, only to see him take a job at the mall. Money well spent, eh dad?

There are a few laughs here although not nearly as many as in the similarly-themed Hot Tub Time Machine which was a much better movie than this one. Then again it’s something of a miracle we’re seeing this movie at all; it was actually filmed four years ago, but Universal, which then owned the distribution rights through their Rogue imprint didn’t feel confident about releasing it and it sat on the shelf until the Starz-owned Overture distributors bought Rogue. Overture was in turn purchased by new distributors Relativity who then added it to the release schedule.

Grace can be truly charming (as he showed in “That 70s Show”) but he looks a bit lost here. His character is so wishy-washy that it’s difficult to get behind him fully and it gets frustrating to watch him flounder, which he does for much of the movie. Fogler, who hasn’t always been impressive in his film roles, does actually manage some of his best work here – a scene where he is lured into a threesome (of sorts) in a Beverly Hills bathroom with a Cougar who turns out to be “Law & Order” hottie Angie Everhart (shockingly unrecognizable here) is one of the movie’s highlights.

Unfortunately much of the movie relies on unfunny gags and uninspired bits. The movie relies far too much on the ‘80s gimmick and poking fun at a decade which is too much like shooting fish in a barrel. I liked the Goldman Sachs reference until I realized that it was inserted in well before the financial meltdown that Goldman Sachs had such a hand in so the reference was kind of accidental.

This is one of those movies that has enough good moments so that it’s not an utter waste of time, but is frustrating because it does waste its potential. I liked the tone of the movie; it just could have used a few more laughs to keep the pace moving along.

REASONS TO GO: There are a few funny moments, particularly between Grace and Fogler. Palmer is awfully pretty and Faris has a role that is completely out of her comfort zone but she still nails it anyway.

REASONS TO STAY: Not enough laughs to sustain the movie. There is a little bit of heart and warmth and while the film nails the “look” of the era, doesn’t really capture its essence, preferring to focus on the excesses of the time.

FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of bad words, lots of drug use, plenty of sex and nudity but hey, it’s the 80s!

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: It took four years for the movie to see the light of day, mainly over studio reluctance to show all the drug use; during the down time the title changed from “Young Americans” to “Kids in America” to the present one, taken from an Eddie Money song that while played in the trailer never appears in the film.

HOME OR THEATER: Chances are this will be gone from theaters before you can get out to see it anyway, so I’d make this a rental.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Looking for Eric