Film Review - Escape Plan 2 - Hades


When it was released in America in 2013, “Escape Plan” was sold as a major reteaming of action heroes Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, pairing up for a prison break feature that was a bit more dramatic in execution, failing to live up to standards set by modern adventure pictures and the burning presence of nostalgia. “Escape Plan” didn’t do big business in the states, but it performed better than expected in China, which claimed a sizable slice of the film’s international gross. Never one to leave a paycheck on the table, Stallone returns for “Escape Plan 2: Hades,” which transforms a one-shot concept into a franchise, and one that’s now produced for the Chinese marketplace. Stallone’s here, kind of, but “Escape Plan 2” doesn’t have much interest in his participation, going the easy-peasy B-movie route to cough up an inexpensive, easily marketable sequel that’s led by actor Xiaoming Huang, not Stallone. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom


2015’s “Jurassic World” didn’t come from out of nowhere, but its box office success took most by surprise. It became a phenomenon during the summer moviegoing season, hitting screens at precisely the moment the public wanted to see large-scale dinosaur action at the multiplex. “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” is the sequel, actually the fifth installment of the “Jurassic Park” franchise, which has kept chugging along for 25 years despite limited directions for the story to take. This time, however, the dinos are in great danger, and while screenwriters Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow (who helmed “Jurassic World”) have some difficultly squeezing originality out of the picture, they have a fertile imagination for creature feature mayhem, giving “Fallen Kingdom” plenty of things to stomp and chomp as director J.A. Bayona (“A Monster Calls,” “The Impossible”) crafts perhaps the most stylish and tonally daring chapter of the enduring series.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Summer 1993

SUMMER 1993 2

“Summer 1993” participates in the longstanding filmmaking tradition where the trauma of life is investigated through the eyes of a child, watching little ones deal with new challenges and adult issues while still getting used to the ways of the world. Writer/director Carla Simon shares an autobiographical tale of isolation and confusion, and she creates a riveting study of emotional evolution without pushing unnecessary weight against the dramatic needs of the feature. It’s a loosely defined movie, but its emotions are honest and its observance of child behavior remarkably accurate, giving the effort an appealing verite feel while still making sure a character arc is being worked into place throughout the picture. “Summer 1993” is delicate work, but Simon isn’t distracted by artifice, striving to keep the endeavor realistic from all perspectives.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Never Steady, Never Still


Critical to the viewing experience of “Never Steady, Never Still” is belief in the lead performance from Shirley Henderson. It’s not an easy role, as Henderson is tasked with portraying a woman dealing with the daily challenges of living with Parkinson’s Disease, and she’s not an actress who’s normally thought of with these types of grueling parts, having built her career portraying best friends and unhinged types, blessed with an unusual voice to help tap into weirdness. However, in “Never Steady, Never Still,” Henderson completely immerses herself in the character, emerging with a striking performance that gives writer/director Kathleen Hepburn support to create an unusual examination of frustration in the wilds of Canada. It’s not an easy sit, but the chance to watch Henderson go deep into the part is worth the time invested. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Catcher Was a Spy


“The Catcher Was a Spy” tells the story of Moe Berg, a highly educated, observant catcher for the Boston Red Sox who, as trouble was brewing in Europe during the 1930s, wanted to participate in the war. It sounds like a comedy, a mild one, and the film’s prologue actually goes for a laugh. However, screenwriter Robert Rodat (adapting Nicholas Dawidoff’s book) and director Ben Lewin aren’t interesting in keeping things light. Tonality is one of many elements of the picture that remain unsteady throughout, but “The Catcher Was a Spy” certainly puts in an incredible effort to keep audiences engaged, boasting an impressively varied cast of familiar faces and a plot that really should result in one of the more engrossing endeavors of the year. Instead, Lewin and Rodat slow their pace and lose their focus, squeezing any sense of surprise out of the movie.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Brain on Fire


Writer/director Gerard Barrett most likely commenced production on “Brain on Fire” with a sincere effort to shed light on the medical emergency that consumed Susannah Cahalan, a twentysomething woman suddenly faced with a darkened world of psychological breakdown, with doctors unable to understand just what was happening to her. It’s a true story, chronicled in Cahalan’s book, and there’s some evidence in the feature that it was, at one point, aiming to condemn the diagnosis process, suggesting that medical professionals are too quick to dispatch a patient when the going gets tough. It’s a little reckless, but Barrett doesn’t have much of a film without it. “Brain on Fire” isn’t hardcore journalism or even effective melodrama, remaining in a tedious T.V. movie holding pattern where crisis is everything and character is simplified to help connect the dots.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Set It Up


There’s a definite lived-in quality to “Set It Up,” which details the lives of two corporate assistants as they endeavor to decrease the level of insanity they endure every day from their bosses. Screenwriter Katie Silberman seems to funnel plenty of personal experience with demanding superiors into the work, which is always at its best when exploring the hectic pace of the day when its filled with inane tasks and frustrations. However, the story for “Set It Up” isn’t nearly as inspired, with Silberman using romantic comedy formula as a way into warmth, desperate to make the picture appealing via young people in love when its most engaging exploring terrible behavior. Little here is inspired, finding Silberman often resorting to dumb gags when she seems capable of delivering sharper focus on the painful particulars of life as an overworked underling.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Beach House


Co-written and directed by Jason Saltiel, “Beach House” plays a perfectly fine short story that’s been stretched unnaturally into feature-length movie. There’s compelling sinister business contained within, but the production gets addicted to the art of delay, introducing the effort as a slow-burn descent into suspicion and seduction, but it never kicks into high gear. Saltiel certainly has bright ideas for suspense, and “Beach House” has its highlights, especially when seemingly casual encounters begin to contort into more menacing interactions. However, as intermittently successful as it is, the picture doesn’t fully reward investment in character and sludgy pacing, struggling to come up with things to do to fill up 90 minutes of screen time, which gives Saltiel a sellable film.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Way West


If the famous computer game "The Oregon Trail" was based on the events depicted in 1967's "The Way West," there would be an entire generation forever scarred by the stark realities on life on the migratory trip west. A lot more than dysentery rises up to challenge the settlers gathered in Andrew V. McLaglen's picture, which takes a hard look at the mistakes made and sacrifices required to find a fresh start in Oregon. It certainly helps to have a talented cast along to boost the dramatic potential of the material, but the basics of betrayal and loss are communicated vividly in the movie, which maintains an epic widescreen posture but stays amazingly pitiless when to comes to the fates of many of the characters. Read the rest at 

Blu-ray Review - Blade of the Immortal


The celebratory aspect of the "Blade of the Immortal" release is the picture's status as the 100th film from director Takeshi Miike, which is no small feat when considering the man began his career ascent in 1991. He's an extremely prolific creator of violent entertainment, hitting some potent cult movie highs over the years ("Ichi the Killer," "13 Assassins"), but he's always swinging at the first pitch, keeping himself busy behind the camera dreaming up new ways to brutalize human beings. "Blade of the Immortal" is not a significant creative departure for Miike, but it does utilize his gifts for blunt aggression and screen style well, adding touches of the unreal to a samurai extravaganza adapted from a popular manga, which permits the story to generally disregard Japanese history and charge ahead as a lengthy, funky bloodbath.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Boys


1996's "Boys" was probably never destined to be a quality movie. Writer/director Stacy Cochran takes on the impossible task of filling 87 minutes of screen time with her adaptation of a James Salter short story that was only eight pages long. In terms of screenwriting endeavors, that's a Hail Mary pass, and one Cochran is unable to complete despite her best intentions to taffy-pull anything from Salter's work to help beef up the dramatic potential of the project. "Boys" is the rare feature where nothing really happens during the run time, watching Cochran quickly lose interest in character arcs and mysteries, leaving the film to gradually fall asleep. There's a cast of young talent who seem eager to make something interesting out of all this filler, and while the effort is appreciated, the viewing experience is a complete drag. Read the rest at 

Blu-ray Review - Crossing the Bridge


1992's "Crossing the Bridge" is a personal film for writer/director Mike Binder, collecting tales from his youth in Michigan to make a coming-of-age movie about the painful years that arrive post-high school, where the world opens up to some and swallows the rest. It's a nostalgia piece, but the helmer adds a suspense element to the screenplay to keep it focused, finding tension between moments of reflection. Binder's fingerprints are evident throughout the feature (he even narrates), and that special touch keeps "Crossing the Bridge" together when editorial slackness rises to ruin the effort, which suffers from a nasty case of repetition. It's not an especially warm endeavor, but Binder has an eye for emotional and period details, capturing uncertainty with care.  Read the rest at 

Film Review - Gotti


It’s easy to see why John Travolta wanted to play John Gotti. It’s a chance to portray a unique figure in criminal history, with the real Gotti a tough guy who thrived on dominance, developing from a man of presence to one of power. “Gotti” the movie merely cherry picks the most Scorsese-esque parts of the mob boss’s life to create a greatest hits viewing experience that’s often randomly photographed and glued together with pop music. Travolta has all the enthusiasm in the world, but there’s no place to put it in “Gotti,” which is a sloppily directed, poorly scripted endeavor that stumbles where other productions have strutted. There are 44 credited producers on the picture (good. lord.), and not one person had the nerve to question just what kind of derivative, borderline nonsensical film was being made. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Tag


“Tag” doesn’t have to do much to be a passably enjoyable good time. All it needs are a collection of dim-witted characters and the titular game, permitted a feature-length run time to go wild with chases and crashes, allowing the cast to unleash themselves with slapstick merriment. Cruelly, the movie isn’t as carefree as it seems, as it’s very determined to remind audiences that the screenplay (credited to Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen) is based on true story, chronicled in a Wall Street Journal article by Russell Adams. Real life has a way of carrying on too long, and so does “Tag,” which launches with all the mischief it can carry, but ends up winded by the final act, unsure if it should take the tale seriously or turn it into an R-rated cartoon. Read the rest at

Film Review - Nancy


It’s not entirely clear where writer/director Christina Choe received her inspiration to make “Nancy,” but the story of a con artist taking advantage of longstanding grief is similar to the one found in 2012’s “The Imposter.” Mercifully, Choe’s take on essentially the same material is just as vital as the documentary, dramatizing a case of pathological behavior with subtle emotion and deeply considered performances. In keeping with the general presence of the titular character, “Nancy” is distant and observational, but Choe finds a way into the strangeness of the situation, finding unexpected empathy in the midst of potentially off-putting predatory conduct.  Read the rest at

Film Review - The Fabulous Allan Carr


Confronted with a documentary subject who refused to live a life of structure, it’s interesting to watch director Jeffrey Schwarz work especially hard to figure out a storytelling arc for his feature, “The Fabulous Allan Carr.” The picture opens with the famous producer’s lowest moment, orchestrating a flashy revival of glamour and spectacle for the infamous 1989 Academy Awards, where Rob Lowe sang a parody version of “Proud Mary” with Snow White, horrifying viewers everywhere. It’s the very bottom for Carr, but it’s hardly the only borderline insane moment of his colorful career, with Schwarz quickly leaping back in time to identify a path of dreams, dominance, and pure ego, celebrating Carr’s life and influence on the movie business and gay culture.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Hearts Beat Loud


No matter what type of business “Hearts Beat Loud” does at the box office, the film is guaranteed to find its audience one way or another. It’s a sensitive endeavor about the communicative aspects of musicianship and songwriting, and it’s similar to smaller movies like “Once” and “Sing Street,” which also mixed troubled souls with the power of performance. The bonus here is that while constructed out of familiar working parts, “Hearts Beat Loud” is a lovely picture unafraid to touch on real emotions, using music to explore the fears of people on the precipice of enormous life changes. Co-writer/director Brett Haley has a terrific cast to help him achieve such tricky vulnerabilities, and for those who crave the musical arts, the feature delivers a rich sense of craftsmanship and passion behind the creation of songs.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Superfly


It doesn’t take much to remake a Blaxploitation classic, but there should be something involved the mix that demands a resurrection of a brand name that’s been dormant for decades. “Superfly” is a new version of 1972’s “Super Fly,” which, at the time, contributed to the expanding exploitation market and gave actor Ron O’Neal a career, portraying a conflicted but authoritative drug dealer at a crossroads with his underworld interests. It wasn’t gold, but it had attitude and a steely sense of conflict. The remake smooths down rough material to give audiences a more stylish ride with bad dudes, with the movie marking the feature-length helming debut for a man billed simply as Director X, who’s enjoyed longtime service as a music video maker. His practice with short bursts of style and floss certainly influence his take on “Superfly,” which is a lengthy rap video made up of shorter rap videos, offering little excitement as it stumbles through predictable criminal events.  Read the rest at

Film Review - China Salesman


The big draw for “China Salesman” is the pairing of stars Mike Tyson and Steven Seagal, who do battle with each other and the very art of acting in the Chinese production. Their names will bring attention to the movie, which saves a fight sequence for the duo, giving the effort its lone moment of excitement, and even that’s open for debate. The rest of “China Salesman” covers the experience of the titular character, who’s not a gladiator ready to pound opponents alongside Seagal and Tyson, but a meet telecom lackey trying to bring a 3G wireless network to the far reaches of Africa. While the material is apparently based on a true story, vague authenticity is no excuse for this hilariously miscalculated slog, with co-writer/director Tan Bing gifted a chance to put on a series of physical challenges, but is more interested in the particulars of business bids and long travel to remote cell towers. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Yellow Birds


Stages of the Iraq War and ensuing conflicts have been covered extensively in American cinema. Filmmakers tend to follow a template when isolating areas of domestic disruption and combat shock, but the more interesting movies figure out ways to attack common issues from a more personal perspective, waving away melodrama. Unfortunately, “The Yellow Birds” doesn’t think outside the box when it comes to the depiction of trauma, as director Alexandre Moors (“Blue Caprice”) plays it all very bluntly, trying to remain respectful to the military experience while still tending to the painful realities of service. “The Yellow Birds” aims to be poetic and insular, but it’s not a particularly compelling feature, slogging through the same old sights and sounds without inspiration to be anything more than disappointingly predictable.  Read the rest at