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April 2015

Film Review - Avengers: Age of Ultron


2012’s “The Avengers” was an experiment of sorts. With audiences around the globe responding positively to comic book heroes in individual adventures, how would they react to a group effort? Fears of overkill were put to rest immediately, with “The Avengers” received rapturously by fans and critics, quickly becoming one of the top grossing movies of all time. After a three year break to tend to the specifics of these costumed men and women, the A-Team has reunited for “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” a darker, more internalized follow-up that still retains all the expected bang and boom. Writer/director Joss Whedon has pulled off an impressive feat here, sustaining the intensity of a ripping adventure yarn while digging into a few of the characters a little more deeply, finding fresh ground to cover in a more satisfying epic. Read the rest at

Film Review - Cobain: Montage of Heck


There is no shortage of information concerning the life and times of music icon Kurt Cobain. Through countless magazine articles, books, and films, a fairly accurate portrait of the man has been created, but a mystery surrounding his troubled existence somehow remains. Director Brett Morgan (“The Kid Stays in the Picture”) appears to understand this impasse, going after the one thing so many journalistic endeavors fail to achieve: access. With permission to pore through diaries, recordings, home movies, and art, Morgan crafts “Cobain: Montage of Heck,” which isn’t an A to Z exploration of the Nirvana frontman’s history, but a full submersion into the viscous fluids of his life force, trying to locate the spirit that existed before the empty shell became famous on a global scale. Read the rest at

Film Review - Dior and I


We’ve reached a point where fashion documentaries have created their own Marvel Cinematic Universe-style of interconnection. Art-house cinemas have been flooded with titles in recent years, with filmmakers setting out to dissect the faces and style that fuels fashion’s most popular brands. Think “Valentino: The Last Emperor” and “The September Issue,” with this push (arguably fueled by the popularity of the cable show “Project Runaway”) to discover how haute couture is created and presented to the world offering a fascinating look at the priority of superiority. “Dior and I” joins the line-up with conviction, managing a portrait of creative and physical effort, while tilting the presentation by including images and recollections from Christian Dior (who passed away in 1957), who appears as a ghostly presence. Read the rest at

Film Review - Ride


Building her career as an actress, working for most of her life, Helen Hunt’s screen appearances have been few and far between over the last decade. She’s been concentrating on a directorial career, with “Ride” her second feature after 2008’s “Then She Found Me”-- a warm, amusing effort that showcased Hunt’s skill with managing actors and maintaining an itchy atmosphere conducive to comedy. “Ride” isn’t quite as secure with tone, but it does have a visual personality, and emotional moments are genuine, inspiring some satisfyingly haunted work. Sitcom touches to make the movie malleable are unwelcome, but when Hunt works up the courage to avoid the obvious, she delivers welcome pathos. Read the rest at

Film Review - Any Day


As a faith-based movie out to create a tale that celebrates repentance and emotional connection, “Any Day” stumbles every step of the way. A stunningly amateurish effort, the feature strives to create a tragedy out of stupidity, hitting every cliché imaginable as it lumbers from scene to scene. The actors gathered here are left with nothing to work with, trying to make the best out of a bad situation, yet only they manage to make the picture worse. Abysmal, manipulative, and often caught with its shoelaces tied together, “Any Day” is either one of the most poorly edited features I’ve seen this year, or director Rustam Branaman is trying to pull off a colossal cinematic prank. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Last Days in Vietnam


As viewed throughout a multitude of charged filmmaking efforts from the 1970s and '80s (providing an evolution to the classic war movie), most cinematic dissections of the Vietnam War concentrated on the either the early years of the conflict, when morale was high and troops were alert and plentiful, or the thick of the fight, highlighting a drain of innocence and military interest as the reality of the conflict and its hunger for human lives was finally being identified and criticized. Remaining true to its title, "Last Days in Vietnam" avoids a grander scope of military activity, instead paying specific attention to the final, bitter moments of the American presence in Southeast Asia, endeavoring to understand numerous events of pure chaos that erupted once evacuation procedures lost their ability to manage hordes of desperate refugees. A vital piece in the ongoing puzzle of the conflict, "Last Days in Vietnam" is an eye-opening documentary that captures the charged emotions and troubled leadership that fed into an overall sense of panic across the land -- a surge of helplessness felt by all sides. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The White Buffalo


After the blockbuster release of 1975's "Jaws," the global film industry was eager to cash in on its success, scrambling to find material that played with haunted characters and monster animal attacks. In 1977, producer Dino De Laurentiis developed a few of his own entries in the sudden subgenre, with "Orca" and "The White Buffalo" emerging with stories of bloodshed and revenge, pitting man against an unstoppable enemy. While "The White Buffalo" teases exploitation elements, especially with Charles Bronson in the lead role, the western, directed by J. Lee Thompson, is actually more of a meditation on wild west reputation and aging obsession, more interested in exploring personalities and fragmented communication between recognized foes than dealing with visceral horror. Of course, a gigantic white buffalo does appear in the picture, using its strength and size to mow down and harpoon seemingly innocent humans, but at the feature's core is a quest to capture the ragged edges of Wild Bill Hickok and Crazy Horse, working to understand clouded headspaces as their vivid and violent legends work to stunt their growth as men. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night


"A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" isn't really a narrative-driven picture, it's a collection of influences filtered through writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour. Collecting everything she loves about horror, surrealism, and westerns, the helmer attempts to mold a genre tale that doesn't bother to drop anchor. It's dreamlike and stylized, but "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" isn't cohesive, frequently caught up in cinematic references when it should be concentrated on characters. Mix Tape filmmaking is undeniably appealing, but only when there's a sense of leadership behind the production. This is Amirpour's debut feature, and it feels like the work of somebody who's excited to make a movie, but doesn't have the discipline to unify her love of the arts. More Robert Rodriguez than Quentin Tarantino, Amirpour's effort has select moments of striking beauty and originality, but as a whole, the endeavor is more obsessed with obsession than building a steady nightmare. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Aquamarine


When praising a film like "Aquamarine," it's never about creative innovation or shocking turns of fate. Here's a picture that's clichéd up the wazoo, playing directly to a target demographic of young teen girls with its fantasy of mermaid contact and BFF separation. It's not the details that make the movie an engaging sit, it's the way director Elizabeth Allen manages to keep the endeavor spirited and kind, allowing "Aquamarine" to be an offering of wish-fulfillment with restraint, refusing to corrode the effort with unnecessary behavior. It's warmly acted and brightly made, and while it doesn't exactly providing a challenging sit, it comes together quite nicely, managing to tell a bubbly story in a clear way. For this level of PG-intense sleepover entertainment, to remain appealing is no small feat. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Age of Adaline


It’s important to remember that “The Age of Adaline” is a fantasy that plays by its own rules, avoiding hard science to depict a singular event in history that’s primarily played for all its romantic possibilities. It’s “Highlander” with a heart, and while the premise is fairly bizarre, director Lee Toland Krieger does a fine job keeping the picture grounded with true emotion and an enticing mournful quality that rightfully shadows a character who cannot age. Warmly crafted, with a satisfactory sense of mystery, “The Age of Adaline” resembles a Harlequin novel, but offers more spirit than simple forbidden love escapism. Read the rest at

Film Review - Ex Machina


Alex Garland is an accomplished screenwriter, creating such works as “Dredd” and “Never Let Me Go.” He makes his directorial debut with “Ex Machina,” and the premise continues his fascination with isolation and doomsday events, only here the threat, or perhaps the cure-all, emerges in the form of artificial intelligence. A.I. is certainly familiar terrain for cinematic exploration, but Garland constructs something fascinating and unnerving with “Ex Machina,” feeling out numerous acts of manipulation with full attention to mood. While slowly paced, the feature isn’t dull, emerging as a potent study of power and corruption, setting a sinister, tech-heavy atmosphere that almost seems achievable in our day and age. Read the rest at

Film Review - After the Ball


“After the Ball” is constantly threatening to be undone by a case of the cutes. A blend of “Twelfth Night,” “The Devil Wears Prada,” and “Cinderella,” there’s no shortage of preciousness about the work. Mercifully, there’s a significant amount of charm too, helping the movie dilute its sitcom tendencies and come together a perfectly pleasant play on fashion world insecurities. Retaining a handful of laughs and guiding a winning lead performance from Portia Doubleday, director Sean Garrity (“My Awkward Sexual Adventure”) keeps “After the Ball” on target, preserving mischief and romance, providing a charming viewing experience. Read the rest at

Film Review - Adult Beginners


A basic cable stalwart and occasional supporting player in studio comedies, Nick Kroll aims for the big leagues with “Adult Beginners,” cooking up starring role for himself that demands a full display of his dramatic range. It’s a test Kroll doesn’t necessarily pass, but he’s smart enough to surround himself with more capable actors who can transform the screenplay’s addiction to cliché into convincing emotion. “Adult Beginners” has a lot of laughs and sharp understanding of the demands of parenthood, but every time it steps outside of its comfort zone to address more sophisticated feelings concerning maturation and grief, it loses its personality, resembling any other effort that takes on the pressures of man-child development. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Forger


“The Forger” has every invitation to become a run-of-the-mill heist picture. It’s set in Boston, features a cast of tough guys and interested cops, and details the art of duplicating art, and necessitates a museum break-in to secure the con. Giving these hoary elements a spin is screenwriter Richard D’Ovidio (“Thirteen Ghosts,” “The Call”), who delves more into shattered lives than double crosses, trying to keep the effort grounded, even while it indulges a few bloody-knuckled pursuits. While it doesn’t register as a remarkable example of writing, “The Forger” is mostly successful when it comes to articulating character pain and pressure, finding ways to sneak away from outright cliché and discover human needs and curiosities. Read the rest at

Film Review - 5 to 7

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“5 to 7” seems perfectly comfortable as a light romantic comedy. Toying with culture clash particulars and age differences, the feature maintains a relaxed air of dating anxiety and individual awakening, delivering passable character beats as it explores an unusual situation of infidelity. Writer/director Victor Levin openly flashes his influences throughout the effort, but true balance between the light and dark side of the affair presented here is elusive. Opening with a case of the cutes and concluding with unnervingly oppressive obsession, “5 to 7” is all over the map in terms of tonality and screenwriting, with Levin trying to stuff his favorite elements from French cinema into a movie that can’t handle the weight. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Water Diviner


Russell Crowe has enjoyed an acting career filled with varied dramatic demands, yet “The Water Diviner” marks the first time the star has stepped behind the camera. While retaining leading actor duties, Crowe finds the inspiration to create a heartfelt historical drama that investigates a crisis of anonymity when it comes to the slain soldiers of World War I. It’s powerful work when locked in investigative mode, showcasing Crowe’s strengths as a performer and helmer, selecting an unusual but evocative mystery of fatherly desperation, and one that’s especially aware of the sensitivity surrounding its subject matter. “The Water Diviner” can’t help itself with unnecessarily romantic pursuits, but fringe interests fail to implode this sturdily constructed film. Read the rest at

Film Review - While We're Young


Noah Baumbach is known for making polarizing films, but his last effort, 2013’s “Frances Ha” offered the writer/director a chance to play it safe, eschewing combative moviemaking to focus on pure neuroses. Baumbach has frequently been compared to Woody Allen, but never has the accusation fit as snugly as now, with his latest, “While We’re Young” a Allen-esque riff on the challenges of aging and the perfume of youth, captured with all forms of fussy behavior and unspoken resentments. And much like Baumbauch’s output, it’s frustratingly uneven, razor sharp at times, but mostly scattered and unclear, out to comment on a generational divide without much of a game plan to guide the feature. Read the rest at

Film Review - Laugh Killer Laugh


Kamal Ahmed is best known to the public as one half of The Jerky Boys, a telephone prank comedy team that achieved fame in the early 1990s, even taking their act to Hollywood in a 1995 feature film. After leaving the brand name, Ahmed graduated to making movies, crafting horror pictures and gangster sagas, with “Laugh Killer Laugh” perhaps his most personal project. An uneasy mix of childhood trauma, creative expression, and mob enforcer clichés, “Laugh Killer Laugh” wins points for ambition, but doesn’t survive Ahmed’s stiff execution. It’s dark but never profound, while the rest of the effort struggles to achieve consistency, leaving laughs and emotion in short supply. Read the rest at

Film Review - Helicopter Mom


To enjoy the new comedy “Helicopter Mom,” one must get used to its broadness. It’s not an easy task, with star Nia Vardalos attempting to power the picture’s funny business all by herself, delivering intensely obvious work in the lead role. Her goofiness quickly overwhelms the feature, which fights to introduce its theme of sexual identity and land a few Vardalos-less laughs. Director Salome Breziner (“Fast Sofa,” “The Secret Lives of Dorks”) is too permissive with her star, but “Helicopter Mom” retains some heart and meaning as it struggles to breathe. Perhaps it’s not the most cohesive statement on manipulative parenting, but select moments do shine. Read the rest at