Film Review - Pacific Rim Uprising


I had a few issues with 2013’s “Pacific Rim,” which offered a bloated run time and an unfortunate muting of writer/director Guillermo del Toro’s stranger ways. Still, the picture retained some oddness in its bigness, with the helmer aiming to rework the Kaiju movie as a big-budget blockbuster, finally receiving his chance to make a proper multiplex mess with an elaborate fantasy battle royal between robots and invading monsters. “Pacific Rim” periodically struggled to remain alert as it worked to establish a mythology, but “Pacific Rim Uprising” doesn’t have the drive to follow through on what del Toro started. Instead of expanding on the central clash between giants, the sequel dials back dramatic ambition, becoming a more simplistic and cartoonish creation, often playing like a television pilot for a “Pacific Rim” series. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Unsane


Steven Soderbergh is a mischievous director. Throughout his career, he’s always played with image and sound, even actors and release gimmicks, forever on the hunt for askew ways to make and market movies while retaining his idiosyncratic style, which is, more often than not, audience unfriendly. The gimmick driving “Unsane” is the use of an iPhone to shoot the picture, and while Soderbergh isn’t the first person to attempt a compact way of capturing drama, he’s one of the few attempting to bring such a digital aesthetic to the masses. To make the best use out of his smartphone, Soderbergh finds a blueprint for claustrophobia from screenwriters Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, playing with close-ups and interpersonal intensity to best extract some level of suspense out of a classic psychological thriller set-up, only to lose interest in the payoff, visually and dramatically, giving “Unsane” a limp instead of nurturing an unstoppable stride.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Manhunt


It’s been a long time since John Woo took command of a modern action extravaganza. After losing interest in Hollywood after 2003’s “Paycheck,” Woo returned to his Asian cinema roots, handling period epics such as “Red Cliff” and “The Crossing.” “Manhunt” brings Woo back to the basics of outrageous stunt work and melodramatic interactions, guiding the second screen adaptation of a Juko Nishimura book, which was previously turned into a 1976 film starring Ken Takakura. Woo sticks to the basics with this densely populated thriller, combining the interests of several supporting characters with high-octane chase sequences and shoot-outs, doing a fine job replicating the formula that served him well in the 1980s and ‘90s. It’s far from perfect, but “Manhunt,” when it really lets loose, is a fine reminder of Woo’s style and intensity. And yes, there are flying doves.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Furlough


“Furlough” is a simple picture. While it takes on some complicated feelings involving betrayal and frustration, the feature itself has relatively small dramatic goals for itself, forgoing a big push of conflict for smaller, quirkier asides to keep the main characters in a state of unrest for 80 minutes. Director Laurie Collyer and Barry Strugatz manage the essentials in characterization well, and while they don’t reach for an expansive overview of crime and punishment, they secure important areas of personality and humor. They also have thespian talents in Melissa Leo and Tessa Thompson to lead the charge, finding edges to the personalities they’re portraying, helping to deepen seemingly shallow plotting. “Furlough” is funny and active, remaining compelling while it details small acts of connection and evasion.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Benji


“Benji” hasn’t been a brand name for a very long time, with the last sequel, “Benji: Off the Leash,” released in 2004. Creator Joe Camp accomplished quite a bit with his original 1974 canine saga, finding a sizable independent hit with the misadventures of a loveable dog, which spawned multiple follow-ups and made the titular star the most famous movie pooch around for a great number of years. Perhaps feeling that the world needed a new version of a 44-year-old tale, Joe Camp returns with “Benji,” a semi-remake trying to tap into nostalgia that’s no longer there, with a script that doesn’t stray very far from franchise formula. Brandon Camp (Joe’s son) takes over the family business for the latest endeavor, with his creative mission limited to making a mild enough family film, and one passable enough to revive “Benji” for a new generation of fans.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Madame


Last year there was “Beatriz at Dinner,” a tale of a domestic service outsider asked to join a dinner party for the elite, resulting in an evening of conversation, growing hostilities and, eventually, imagined violence. “Madame” features a similar plot of class warfare, only here the results are mostly played for laughs. Writer/director Amanda Sthers teases a grand farce with the working parts of “Madame,” but the effort doesn’t maintain those initial aspirations. Instead of a snowballing comedy concerning the collision of the rich and those who serve them, Sthers throttles the insanity, crafting a film that goes broad with certain aspects of ego and jealousy, but eventually pulls away from full-out absurdity. Still, Sthers has some fun while she’s here, landing several laughs and guiding fine performances in a picture that slowly but surely loses interest in making fun of personality extremes.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Dear Dictator


In 2016, writer/directors Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse issued “Amateur Night,” their attempt to ride the trend of raunchy R-rated comedies, forgoing thought when it comes to the manufacturing of jokes, using cheap gross-out material instead. The movie was borderline intolerable. “Dear Dictator” represents the duo’s second shot at a strained impishness, only for this round, Addario and Syracuse dream up an encouraging premise to go along with their snoozy antics, imagining the mischief that’s churned up when a troubled teenage girl is paired with a Castro-like despot. “Dear Dictator” might sound like a bad sitcom, and more often than not, it is. However, there is Michael Caine and his practiced screen charisma to help Addario and Syracuse out when they need it the most, offering a clear read of wackiness while the helming duo figures out ways for their protagonist to whip around used tampons, which represents the extent of their sense of humor.  Read the rest at

Film Review - I Kill Giants


“I Kill Giants” suffers from a case of bad timing, with the fantasy drama coming roughly a year after the release of “A Monster Calls,” which offered a similar tale of imagination trying to overcome grief. The latter also happens to be the better film, but “I Kill Giants” goes a bit further with its immersion in denial, using inspiration from a graphic novel (by J.M. Ken Niimura and Joe Kelly, who also scripts) to fuel its descent into possible madness involving a teen girl and her grand fear of a giant revolution near her Long Island home. The picture certainly has pure intentions to understand the depths of a broken heart and the defiance of a kid facing unimaginable struggles at home and school, but there’s not enough to the story to keep the effort engrossing, finding the tale overflowing with sincerity, but lacking content, often scrambling to fill a feature-length run time. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Night Angel


Horror doesn't come easy to 1990's "Night Angel," which is more of an erotic thriller with periodic dips into gore zone activities than a straight nightmare machine. The picture couldn't be more late-1980s if it tried, combining the ways of yuppiedom with freewheeling bedroom antics involving a bloodthirsty demon and her quest to rise in the ranks of the modeling business. Screenwriters Joe Augustyn and Walter Josten are after something awfully specific with the material, which is ambitious in the way it pulls from biblical mythology and Skinemax, but it's clear director Dominique Othenin-Gerard ("Halloween 5," "Omen IV: The Awkening") doesn't quite have a handle on the proceedings, dutifully trying to visualize a haunting of the mind and genitals while keeping the effort soaked in blood. "Night Angel" charms with its interest in make-up effects and period style, but it doesn't have the inspiration to emerge as a formidable genre endeavor, and its titillation factor is debatable.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Salamander


1981's "The Salamander" is meant to be a hard-charging conspiracy thriller, adapted from a novel by Morris L. West. The final cut keeps the general outline of chills and spills, but lacks a considerable amount of energy and clarity, asking the audience to play the name game with a host of Italian characters and their cloudy motivations. The production has all the advantages a movie could ask for, leading with an all-star cast, a rousing score by Jerry Goldsmith, and Italy itself, which provides a memorable backdrop for all kinds of political and personal manipulations. And yet, while stuffed with threats and troublemaking, "The Salamander" is a frustratingly flat effort.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Burning Bed


After becoming a sex symbol, or perhaps THEE sex symbol of the late 1970s, Farrah Fawcett struggled to be taken seriously as an actress. After rising to the top of pop culture awareness with "Charlie's Angels," Fawcett turned to television movies to make a different impression. While trying to find a sense of creative satisfaction, Fawcett struck gold with 1984's "The Burning Bed," which offered the actress a chance to put away demands of glamour and portray a woman subjected to horrific abuse in her toxic marriage. "The Burning Bed" takes inspiration from the true-life tale of Francine Hughes (who passed away earlier this year), and director Robert Greenwald ("Xanadu") treats the severity of the story with some care, trying to keep melodramatics at arm's length for as long as possible. But this is truly Fawcett's big showcase, delivering a haunted performance that's impressive in its dramatic commitment and physical display, helping the endeavor remain grounded as its television interests fight for attention. Read the rest at 

Blu-ray Review - Nightkill


Here's one problem with "Nightkill": the first character to die in the film is murdered during the day. It's a small detail, for sure, but an important one that identifies the general lethargy of the event, which isn't even titled correctly. It's meant to be a sinister thriller, a Hitchcockian endeavor with Euro chiller interests, also presenting Jaclyn Smith with a starring role that begins to inch the actress away from her "Charlie's Angels" television success. And yet, while the story details murder, betrayal, and deception, large chunks of the movie are simply devoted to Smith acting agitated and teary, groaning as her character struggles to figure out an impossible situation of guilt and homicide. "Nightkill" is quite dull and somewhat unsatisfying, with director Ted Post fumbling a growing sense of suspense, content to portion out shocks in brief reveals, which does nothing to build the effort's fright factor. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Tomb Raider


Hollywood really wants to make something out of “Tomb Raider,” the famous video game saga that’s been brought to the big screen on two previous occasions, in 2001 and 2003. Both efforts emphasized tech and sex appeal, bringing in Angelina Jolie to deliver curves and power to the character of Lara Croft, and while the movies made some money, it wasn’t enough to keep the series going. There’s a newer Croft on the market (a popular 2013 game), and producers now turn their attention to a fresh take on old business, hiring Alicia Vikander to portray a greener, leaner Croft to a fit a narrative that concerns the character’s introduction into a world of near-misses and survival. And yet, despite a welcome change of direction, the new “Tomb Raider” only intermittently succeeds as a widescreen event, with too much down time taking a bite out of the endeavor’s pace and thrills. Read the rest at

Film Review - Loveless


“Loveless” is a Russian production, and has some very specific commentary on how the country treats its citizens, which might not register as strongly with foreign audiences. What’s more precise is its understanding of a toxic relationship and how such hatred seeps into the system of others. It’s a film that touches on resentment and human nature, but it’s a tale about the loss of a child, with such a traumatic experience nearly regarded as everyday business by the lead characters. Co-writer/director Andrey Zvyagintsev explores the selfishness of a broken marriage in “Loveless,” but pays closer attention to collateral damage, balancing the procedural aspects of a missing child case with the defined narcissism of parents who barely seem to notice their child is gone. It’s a lengthy, slow-burn dip into an emotional abyss, but Zvyagintsev has something to share with viewers, offering a compelling study of denial. Read the rest at

Film Review - Keep the Change


Writer/director Rachel Israel has made a film about autism that’s unlike many pictures about the subject. Instead of creating a mournful endeavor or a shallow quirkfest, she finds the heart and soul of everyday people trying to find their way in the big city. “Keep the Change” has its serious side, but it’s mostly a comedy about building confidence and communication, featuring a cast of autistic people to secure authenticity and celebrate a unique perspective on traditionally neurotic characters. “Keep the Change” is also hilarious and warm, finding its own voice as Israel creates a special space for her cast to shine, preserving idiosyncrasies and timing to best reinforce the unusual atmosphere of pure personality on display.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Hell's Kitty


I’m sure the behind-the-scenes story on “Hell’s Kitty” is far more interesting than tale presented onscreen. Writer/director/star Nicholas Tana is hunting for a paycheck, looking for money he couldn’t find on the internet with his web series, “Hell’s Kitty,” turning his attention to the glory of feature-length filmmaking, only he doesn’t actually have new ideas to share. The movie is stitched together from episodes of the show, displaying little regard for continuity or coherence, with Tana struggling to cover the seams. The gimmick here is the hiring of horror stars to basically recreate some of their most famous roles, and that’s where expectation levels should remain, as Tana does manage to coax a few recognizable faces back in front of a camera. What he forgets to secure are technical achievements and a narrative direction, making the endeavor more valuable as a nostalgia trip than a genre event.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Infinity Baby


I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that “Infinity Baby” was shot over a matter of days. It also wouldn’t be a shock to learn that the movie was created for some type of academic requirement or perhaps an art installation. It’s not a conventional picture by any means, but it’s barely a picture to begin with, unfolding without much care for storytelling support or character arcs. Director Bob Byington and screenwriter Onur Tukel seemingly set out to celebrate the art of acting with the feature, and they’re quite successful, as sharp, committed performances are all over “Infinity Baby,” helping to sell the vague fantasy on display. It’s an odd film, intentionally so, and your mileage may vary when it comes to the lasting impact of an ephemeral effort, but there are interesting attitudes and neuroses here that save the viewing experience, or at least make it tolerable for 67 minutes of screen time.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Love, Simon


“Love, Simon” has a message of compassion and empowerment it wants to share with its target demographic. It’s a story of personal acceptance featuring gay characters, but it’s presented as an average teen movie with quirky personalities, glossy emotions, and a celebratory finale, keeping tight to formula as a way to remain relatable. Intentions are pure and, thankfully, there’s plenty of sincerity to keep the feature afloat, with director Greg Berlanti making sure the emotions that count the most are projected as accurately as possible. The rest of “Love, Simon” isn’t nearly as neatly executed, with some rather severe screenwriting issues making trouble for the picture’s overall effectiveness. There’s plenty to admire here, and any sort of gentleness at the multiplex is something to be treasured, but it’s hard to ignore the film’s general unwillingness to confront cruelty. Read the rest at

Film Review - Bent


While paychecks make the world go round, there must have been something greater about “Bent” at one point during its development to attract actors such as Karl Urban, Sofia Vergara, and Andy Garcia. It’s a dim thriller that strives to emulate detective noir from the 1940s, transferring hard-boiled antics to the current playground of DTV productions: Louisiana. It’s unremarkable in almost every way, but it does have the actors, with Urban showing interest in co-writer/director Bobby Moresco’s crude way with corruption, sex, double-crosses, and standoffs. Perhaps “Bent” was something major in the script stage, but the final cut is a defanged, slightly bewildering collection of motivations and last names, while the overall production is missing a great deal of energy to fuel even its most modest ideas for mystery.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Leaning Into the Wind: Andy Goldsworthy


In 2001, director Thomas Riedelsheimer made an art-house hit with “Rivers and Tides,” his study of the work of Andy Goldsworthy, a British sculptor and photographer whose specialty is the wonders of the natural world. The artist’s work is a proper fit for big screen exploration, and Riedelsheimer was eager to share Goldsworthy’s unique perspective on the living life force that surrounds us, highlighting his interest in the manipulation of found objects, symmetry, and tactile zen. Nearly 20 years later, the helmer has returned to the company of Goldsworthy for “Leaning Into the Wind,” which doesn’t explore the subject’s life as he lives it today, but reunites with his specialized vision, joining Goldsworthy as he travels around the world to refine his influences and continue developing his art, with the movie detailing several installations and private tours that contribute to the creator’s personal view. Read the rest at