Film Review - Transformers: The Last Knight


There are always going to be ardent fans of director Michael Bay. People who not only respond to the helmer’s pictures, but wear their fandom like a badge of honor, proud to celebrate a man whose chief pursuit during his career has been the creation of utter screen chaos. Bay has always been a populist filmmaker, and his “Transformers” movies have been welcomed with open arms, even when they suffer through severe storytelling issues, wretched performances, and aggressive visual effects. Audiences just love this stuff, all over the globe too, making him bulletproof when it comes to criticism, but not immune to shortcomings. “Transformers: The Last Knight” isn’t the worst chapter of the eye-crossing saga (the one that showcased Decepticon testicles, that’s the worst), but it’s close, watching Bay say sayonara to this blockbuster cash machine with a “Transformers” retirement party that’s deafening, bewildering, and painfully clichéd, showing little interest in anything besides the Bay basics when it comes to yet another round of metal-crunching madness. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Exception


Are audiences ready for a sympathetic portrait of German authority during the dawn of WWII? “The Exception” believes so, striving to mix sex and contemplation during a hostile time in European history, searching for the nuanced psychology of those participating in, or at least confronted by, a horrific change in wartime atrocities. Director David Leveaux leans toward sensuality to help ease the audience into a challenging plot, finding some success with raw feelings and urges. But the overall feel of “The Exception” isn’t defined to satisfaction, stuck between the demands of its literary origins (based on the book “The Kaiser’s Last Kiss,” by Alan Judd) and its slightly veiled desire to become a wartime melodrama, with hunky Nazis, conflicted women, and a raving old man. It’s a passably engaging film, but anyone expecting a serious deconstruction of Third Reich policies and complications of animal-like attraction aren’t likely to be enlightened by anything presented here. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Hero


“The Hero” doesn’t exactly tell a story. It’s more of a valentine to lead actor Sam Elliot, supplying him with a role that makes full use of his thespian gifts, offering enough contemplative screentime to watch him explore the frame in ways he’s rarely even enjoyed before. Of course, such adulation is entirely deserved, with the leathery, thickly mustachioed actor capable of amazing things when paired with the right material, with co-writer/director Brett Haley (“I’ll See You in My Dreams”) making sure all of Elliot’s needs are tended to. “The Hero” floats along without much focus, but it’s not meant to be sharp, electing a dreamy journey through the trials and tribulations of a man forced to confront his own mortality and mistakes, suddenly faced with finality after decades gliding along, self-medicating and denying. And Elliot plays it all just perfectly. Read the rest at

Film Review - Ripped


I suppose a stoner comedy should be easygoing, but it’s often difficult to tell if “Ripped” is even awake. The picture doesn’t exude much energy, putting its faith in the entertainment value of F-words and pot smoke, but it’s not a mean-spirited effort, which should be a blessing, as gentleness is one of the few appealing aspects of “Ripped,” which doesn’t lunge for the throat when depicting low-brow funny business. A mild attempt to replicate the “Hot Tub Time Machine” viewing experience, writer/director Brad Epstein doesn’t have the inner drive to do something insane with the material, putting stars Faizon Love and Russell Peters in charge of screen charisma and one-liners. The men certainly look like they’re having a good time, but seldom does that ease translate into laughs. Read the rest at

Film Review - Letters from Baghdad


Timing is everything, and “Letters from Baghdad” hits theaters right after “Queen of the Desert” breezed through a few U.S. art houses this past spring. Both pictures endeavor to tell the story of Gertrude Bell, but “Queen of the Desert” had the advantage of Werner Herzog as a director, and a notable cast, featuring Damian Lewis, Robert Pattinson, James Franco, and Nicole Kidman as Bell. It was far from a triumph, but it offered a sufficiently dramatic take on the woman’s experiences in life and love, laboring to turn her adventures in the Middle East into sweeping big screen entertainment. “Letters from Baghdad” emerges as the more successful production, armed with the basics in evidence. Directors Sabine Krayenbuhl and Zeva Oelbaum pore through diaries, letters, and observations to generate a portrait of Bell, making a feature that’s more in tune with her achievements in archaeology, filling in necessary gaps with Bell’s own intimate thoughts. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - A Game of Death


The 1924 short story, "The Most Dangerous Game" (by Richard Connell), has been adapted on multiple occasions over the last 90 years, but in 1945, it was still fresh creative ground, arriving on the big screen as "A Game of Death." Changes were made to accommodate a new creative perspective, but director Robert Wise sticks to the essentials of the macabre horror story, pitting strangers against a madman on a remote island, where the sport of hunting takes on a whole new level of intensity once man is made the target. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Electric Chair


1976's "The Electric Chair" offers a haunting title and an initial scene of corpse discovery that promises something macabre to come. However, it's unwise to trust drive-in cinema, which often uses every trick in the book to sucker audiences in to see something they'd otherwise avoid like the plague. Instead of a chiller, "The Electric Chair" is a particularly terrible episode of "Law & Order," taking the action to North Carolina, where lawyers and cops attempt to figure out the motive behind a double murder and bring someone to justice for the crime. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Daughter


"The Daughter" is an adaptation of "The Wild Duck," an 1884 play written by Henrik Ibsen. The Norwegian playwright is not known for his cheery study of character, instead working to find behavioral and emotional authenticity in everyday interactions, building tensions from within. Writer/director Simon Stone (making his directorial debut) is determined to protect Ibsen's solemnity in "The Daughter" while modernizing the story to fit more relatable concerns of heart and home. It's a penetrating family saga, which braids together dysfunction and secrets to create a series of hidden betrayals uncovered as the film unfolds, and Stone confidently manages each horrific unveiling. He also sustains Ibsen's uncompromising plotting, which ranges from cracks in the concrete to all out war, generating a wild ride of anger that brings the material to full attention. It's dark work, but satisfying in the way it values these personalities and their individual approaches to strife. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - A Great Wall


Co-writer/director Peter Wang makes a very unassuming picture with 1986's "A Great Wall." While its claim to fame is the distinction of being the first U.S. production permitted to film a Chinese story in China, Wang doesn't wear the impressive access with arrogance. Instead, he creates a family dramedy that explores disparate cultures with sensitivity and remarkable insight, making a movie about characters, not just previously forbidden locations. While it has elements of humor, "A Great Wall" is best in meditative mode, simply taking in the sights and sounds of a newly welcoming country. Read the rest at

Film Review - All Eyez on Me


If you’re not a scholar on all things Tupac Shakur, there’s no reason to see “All Eyez on Me.” Those new to the slain rapper’s world aren’t going to learn anything of value about the man or the myth, with screenwriters Jeremy Haft, Eddie Gonzalez, and Steven Bagatourian simply rehashing a greatest hits package of hot tempers and bad decisions, barely making an effort to dig below the surface. It’s a tongue bath meant to celebrate Tupac’s questionable legacy instead of challenging it, playing to the devoted with disjointed storytelling that liberally leaps through the years, creating a loose portrait of a music artist who never did wrong, constantly suffered through persecution, and always led with a heroic attitude. Much like 2015’s “Straight Outta Compton,” it’s a hagiography, but one that never rises above the quality of a basic cable movie. Read the rest at

Film Review - Cars 3

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“Cars 3” is the apology for “Cars 2” we all deserve. Not that 2006’s “Cars” was an amazing achievement in animated entertainment, but “Cars 2” was built almost entirely out of bad ideas, with Pixar so concerned with taking the franchise in a fresh direction, it forgot what was modestly appealing about the material to begin with. Recognizing a swing and a miss, Pixar rebounds with “Cars 3,” which eliminates the gratuitous violence and slapstick antics of bumbling tow truck Mater to return to the essentials of Lightning McQueen race world anxiety. Director Brian Fee (taking over for John Lasseter) knows exactly what he want from the second sequel, keeping the picture stuffed with likable characters, mild tests of integrity, and a sustained examination of aging, preserving a circular arc of maturity that picks up where “Cars” left off. Read the rest at

Film Review - Rough Night


As the title suggests, things do not go well for the characters in “Rough Night.” Keeping up with Hollywood trends, the feature is a hard R-rated comedy that enjoys shock value and the limited reach of improvisational comedy, providing its five leads with ample opportunity to riff their way around scenes, searching for the funny instead of bringing a completed script to life. There are limits to this type of entertainment, and co-writer/director Lucia Aniello finds them all, but not before landing enough decent scenes and ace one-liners to make one wonder what happened to “Rough Night” in the editing room. The finished product has an appealing first half, but dies horribly in the second, overstaying its welcome as the screenplay is only partially paid attention to, keeping the picture either screwball or weirdly serious, never particularly successful at either end of the spectrum. Read the rest at

Film Review - 47 Meters Down


Last summer, there was “The Shallows.” A relatively low-budget effort, the feature promoted the heck out of its shark attack angle, hoping to rope in ticket-buyers for what was actually more a survival film with a pronounced emotional hook. “The Shallows” turned out to be a surprise hit, inspiring the competition to cook up a shark tale of their own for the summer of 2017. Surprisingly, there was already one completed, awaiting a DVD release, even making it into a few stores before it was acquired for a major theatrical release. “47 Meters Down” was yanked from the precipice of DTV obscurity, offered a shot to prove itself with a shark-hungry audience, with hopes that its painfully limited budget and lack of polish won’t matter to those who simply crave a deep water frenzy, and nothing more. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Book of Henry


“The Book of Henry” wants to be loved, and it won’t allow its audience to consider any other reaction to the work besides pure, teary joy. It’s a return to smaller-budgeted filmmaking for director Colin Trevorrow, who gained industry attention with 2012’s “Safety Not Guaranteed,” quickly accepting an opportunity to try blockbuster helming on for size, guiding 2015’s “Jurassic World.” Perhaps searching for a palate cleanser before taking the reins on “Star Wars: Episode IX,” Trevorrow gives the impression he’s returning to a human story after orchestrating dinosaur rampages, but “The Book of Henry” just as fantastical as “Jurassic World,” with screenwriter Gregg Hurwitz lost in preciousness with what should be a devastating drama, while Trevarrow welcomes any chance for manipulation, making as candy-coated a feature as possible, avoiding realism and characterization to focus almost solely on cloying storytelling. Read the rest at

Film Review - Lost in Paris


“Lost in Paris” is a latest effort from Fiona Gordon and Dominique Abel, a married couple who’ve built their career on numerous collaborations, holding a shared love of silly business, mastered by the likes of Chaplin, Keaton, and Tati. Co-directing pictures such as “Rumba” and “The Fairy,” Gordon and Abel maintain the family business with “Lost in Paris,” which plays to their strengths of slapstick, whimsy, and the absurd. It’s a fairly strange feature, but that’s exactly how the couple likes it, organizing a special series of physical and psychological challenges for the characters they portray, with the endeavor riding waves of pure comedic bliss and slower oddity. While the film never snowballs into an outright farce, moments of composition and timing are fantastic, showcasing just how sharp Gordon and Abel are with adorable lunacy. Read the rest at

Film Review - Kill Switch


While certain movies have experimented with the first-person perspective, last year’s “Hardcore Henry” elected to utilize the unique POV throughout the entire picture. It was a hyper-violent, cheeky romp, with its experimental ambition its only real success, daring to give video game fans the cinematic experience nobody in particular asked for. “Kill Switch” is the next production up to bat, also employing a first-person perspective to detail the experience of a corporate mercenary lost in a strange land, with only his computer display in front of his eyes to keep him steady. Based on a short, “Kill Switch” doesn’t have much to do the stretch itself to the 90 minute mark, but it certainly embraces the technical challenge, with director Tim Smit aiming to please with an in-your-face viewing experience that’s just fine with violence, but less confident with dramatics, which struggle to provide life to an otherwise cold, digital production. Read the rest at

Film Review - Once Upon a Time in Venice


Bruce Willis hasn’t been the most invested actor in recent years, taking roles in a string of B-movies where his paycheck likely ate up half the production budget. As he enters his twilight years, Willis has stopped caring, which has been difficult to watch, finding the man who once dazzled with intensity in “Die Hard” now sleepwalking through his career, making awful choices to keep himself busy. “Once Upon a Time in Venice” isn’t a satisfying feature, but it requires Willis to be more active, accepting a lead role that asks the veteran actor to skateboard in the nude, dress as a woman, and tolerate improvisational efforts from Thomas Middleditch. For that alone, Willis deserves every penny he commands. “Once Upon a Time in Venice” is flat and unfunny but, at the very least, it requires Willis to break a sweat, which he does with a slight boost in thespian commitment. Read the rest at

Film Review - Band Aid


Zoe Lister-Jones has been a problematic presence in film, often stuck portraying best friends and cold individuals, while her screenwriting career delivered “Lola Versus,” one of the worst movies of 2012. With “Band Aid,” Lister-Jones graduates to the director’s chair, helming an unusual ode to the pressures, trials, and weird balance of married life. Storytelling-wise, the picture is slow-pitch softball, basically creating a domestic gladiatorial arena for Lister-Jones and co-star Adam Pally to work on their improvisational skills, weaving through light and dark moments that are meant to represent the flow of codependency. “Band Aid” is a much better feature when it’s not trying so hard to be profound, coming alive in the rare moments when Lister-Jones isn’t taking a sledgehammer to drive home themes. There’s definitely something here that’s worth a viewing, but it takes some patience to get through Lister-Jones and her reliance on cliché to connect the dots. Read the rest at

Film Review - Pray for Rain


“Pray for Rain” offers a compelling setting, traveling to rural California where farmland is being destroyed by drought, and those most in need of water have little control over the management of resources. Screenwriters Christina Moore and Gloria Musca have all the opportunity in the world to focus on this conflict, which doesn’t show up in many movies, keeping political and combustible with the fight for water. Moore and Musca only get halfway there with “Pray for Rain,” which seems terrified of attempting to hang an entire film on headline news, instead hiding their passion in the middle of a formulaic mystery that repeatedly blocks the view of a stronger feature struggling to be seen. As much as I enjoy the image of Jane Seymour blasting away with a shotgun that’s probably bigger than she is, the melodrama of the effort only manages to cripple the production. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Dakota


1945's "Dakota" isn't remembered as a particular bright spot in the massive filmography of screen legend John Wayne, but for a man who rarely turned down anything, it's a surprisingly buoyant western that gives the actor a chance to be more playful than his average steely ways. Director Joseph Kane (a seasoned genre helmer) provides a journeyman touch to the picture, but his professionalism serves it well, creating an amusing romp with Wayne and co-star Vera Ralston. While it doesn't offer anything new to the western tradition, its meat-and-potatoes approach is agreeable, keeping the chases, clashes, and banter rolling along. Read the rest at