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July 2015

Film Review - I Am Chris Farley


“I Am Chris Farley” doesn’t approach the late comedian’s legacy with journalistic intentions. Instead, directors Brent Hodge and Derik Murray prepare a valentine for their subject, warmly recalling his professional triumphs and personal intentions. It’s a sentimental documentary that raises more questions than it answers, but “I Am Chris Farley” isn’t built to inspect the man’s darkness and final days. It’s a mournful remembrance piece that’s teeming with famous faces and provides a swell of appreciation for Farley’s explosive sense of humor, physical gifts, and a sensitive side few were permitted to see as he burned through his career at top speed. Read the rest at

Film Review - Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation


Created as a sort of Hail Mary pass, a let’s-see-if-anybody-still-wants-these-movies production, 2011’s “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” ended up becoming the highest grossing installment of the “Mission: Impossible” film franchise, revitalizing the brand name and infusing the ongoing narrative with renewed outlaw vigor. “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” is the payoff punch, and while it doesn’t reach the thrills of “Ghost Protocol,” the latest chapter in the Ethan Hunt saga remains secure with enormous stunts, blazing chases, and needlessly convoluted villainy. Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie isn’t known for spectacle, but he manages an impressive fireworks display here, delivering a first half that frequently bests previous sequels. It’s the second half of “Rogue Nation” that’s worrisome. Read the rest at

Film Review - Vacation


1983’s “Vacation” wasn’t exactly a family friendly movie, but its pursuit of R-rated humor was always balanced with smart screenwriting (credited to John Hughes) and marvelous direction (from the late, great Harold Ramis). It’s a bona fide classic that’s stood the test of time, displaying Chevy Chase in top form as lovable lump Clark Griswold, who simply craves a family experience, dragging his wife and children across America to see the sights and visit theme park Walley World. There were sequels, two of them not exactly living up to the brand name, but they remained in step with a sense of humor that was never mean-spirited, just silly. 2015’s sequel/reheat “Vacation” doesn’t bother with taste or spirit, embarking on a long ride of poo-poo, pee-pee humor that’s pure punishment to sit through. It’s a new dawn for the Griswolds, and this time they’re making the journey to family bonding covered in human waste. Read the rest at

Film Review - Irrational Man


While it could easily read as career repetition, “Irrational Man” returns writer/director Woody Allen to a moral void he once investigated to great success in 1986’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” His aim isn’t quite a sharp the second time around, and his timing is a little slack, but Allen has a special perspective when it comes to acts of violence and pangs of guilt. Coming after last year’s dispiritingly shapeless “Magic in the Moonlight,” it’s encouraging to see Allen bare his teeth again, and the picture, while deeply flawed and periodically meandering, does a successful job grasping the art of justification, turning superiority into an aphrodisiac, which creates an interesting air of discomfort. Read the rest at

Film Review - Boulevard


“Boulevard” represents the final onscreen appearance for Robin Williams, who passed away last August. While the role doesn’t provide a moment of comedy for Williams to work his customary charms, it does display his range as an actor, portraying a tortured man mummified by his own life. It’s a low-key turn from Williams, who barely raises his voice here, but his command of introspection, isolating a specialized pain that’s muffled by social obligations, is precisely what “Boulevard” requires to find meaning. Director Dito Montiel almost ruins the somber ambiance with hysterics, but it’s Williams (and co-star Kathy Baker) who hold interest, portraying a complex study of self with exceptional humanity. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Stanford Prison Experiment


The actual Stanford Prison Experiment has inspired a few post-mortem documentaries and dramatic endeavors over the last four decades, most notably the 2001 German production, “Das Experiment.” It’s a scenario that’s built for screen exploration, offering actors juicy parts to play as average men are lured into extraordinary responses to a pressurized situation. For a director, the premise is thematically rich and wide open for suspenseful extremes, also challenging visual skill with its claustrophobic setting. “The Stanford Prison Experiment” is handled well by helmer Kyle Patrick Alvarez (“Easier with Practice”), who extracts enough tension and bizarre behavior to keep hostilities and cruelties compelling, though the inherent limitations and repetition of the Experiment retains its unsatisfying influence over the entire movie. Read the rest at

Film Review - A LEGO Brickumentary


Last year’s “The Lego Movie” was a glorified commercial for the globally beloved toy line, but it was handled with care, emphasizing the magic of the plastic bricks and their broad, multi-generational appeal. “A Lego Brickumentary” has the unfortunate position of being the follow-up to a story already told, though filmmakers Kief Davidson and Daniel Junge appear to understand the redundancy of their documentary, trying to find fresh avenues to explore when it comes to a toy that’s been around for over 60 years. “A Lego Brickumentary” isn’t stunning stuff, but for those in the mood for heartwarming stories of achievement and concentration, the effort isn’t hard on the senses, working overtime to be accessible to viewers of all ages, which successfully covers the Lego demographic. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet


Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet doesn’t work very often, but when he ultimately winds himself up into production mode, his output is usually filled with substantial cinematic artistry, dark comedy, and flashes of tart whimsy. Responsible for “Amelie,” “The City of Lost Children,” and “A Very Long Engagement” (his lone dip into poisoned Hollywood waters, 1997’s “Alien: Resurrection,” remains woefully underappreciated), Jeunet doesn’t make lazy movies, but he doesn’t always make precise ones either. “The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet” is a head rush of big screen detail and beauty, but as a story, it’s something of a mess, trying to focus on profound pain while the production arranges all types of widescreen minutiae. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Crimson Cult


1968's "The Crimson Cult" invests in a psychedelic atmosphere to help its rather routine story achieve a cinematic identity. Venturing into dreamscape encounters and kaleidoscopic visuals, the feature gets by on oddity and a striking use of color. "The Crimson Cult" also boasts a cast capable to attracting any horror fan's attention, with Christopher Lee sharing the screen with genre legend Boris Karloff, in one of the final screen appearances. While the overall effort doesn't exactly thrill, there's enough artistry and personality collected here to make it worth a look. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Report to the Commissioner


The hard, unforgiving streets of New York City receive frightening attention in 1975's "Report to the Commissioner," which plays like a hybrid of "Law & Order" and "Training Day." Procedural in tone, but prone to chaotic bursts of emotion and action, the feature manages dysfunction and paranoia satisfactorily, with director Milton Katselas ("Butterflies Are Free") developing an atmosphere of hostility that's pinched by police duty. Adapted from a novel, "Report to the Commissioner" plays like one, investigating unhinged people embarking on dangerous missions that push them to the limit and blur the lines of duty. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Cops and Robbers


Released 42 years ago, "Cops and Robbers" is just as relevant today as was back then. A tale of class envy wrapped up in a heist film, the feature has a hunger to explore the disparity between the haves and have-nots, setting out to address the drudgery of middle-class stasis with a mildly humorous script that emphasizes the thrill of robbery as it absorbs the sting of need. Leads Joseph Bologna and Cliff Gorman are pitch-perfect in their roles as exasperated cops looking for easy money on the wrong side of the law, but the true star of "Cops and Robbers" is director Aram Avakian, who displays a gift for timing and streetwise intensity that conjures a perfect motivation for the lead characters. It's funny work, but the movie is more persuasive as an examination of desperation tied to limited incomes, big dreams, and observation of an unfair world. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Harry in Your Pocket


In February, there was "Focus." Starring Will Smith and Margot Robbie, "Focus" endeavored to tell the story of a team of pickpockets coming up against the law, one another, and sexual temptation. Turns out, the picture was a little late to the party, with 1973's "Harry in Your Pocket" essentially covering the same dramatic terrain. Interestingly, both efforts are similarly flattened in the characterization department, trying to find sympathy with sincerely unpleasant people. "Harry in Your Pocket" is the stranger of the two features, attempting a melodramatic approach to the art of the steal, working to build a framework of personal tensions while still indulging a jaunty look at the methods of thievery, scored spiritedly by Lalo Schifrin. What should be lively fun is instead something of a drag, finding the screenplay cutting corners with personalities and the direction more invested in quick hands than lasting impressions. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Life on the Reef


Located off the coast of Australia, The Great Barrier Reef has been referred to as one of the natural wonders of the world, with its enormous size and fragility home to an array of creatures that help support a colossal tourism industry. The Reef is also a place to study man's impact on the Earth, with teams of scientists and nature workers laboring to discover inhabitants great and small, with hopes to understand migration and mating patterns. "Life on the Reef" is a three-part series that showcases daily activity around the Reef, and how such a place of beauty has changed over the years. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Hard to Be a God


Co-writer/director Aleksey German passed away in 2013, just as he was putting the finishing touches on "Hard to Be a God." Illness shadowed his life in later years, with the filmmaker funneling what was left of his energy into an adaptation of a complex Russian novel, which took six years to shoot and another six to finish. A herculean effort has been put into the creation of "Hard to Be a God," and artful passion shines throughout this bewildering, intoxicating picture, which provides a unique test of viewer endurance for those interested in a challenge. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Vatican Tapes


Exorcism movies have been all the rage in recent years, with titles like “The Devil Inside,” “Deliver Us from Evil,” and “The Last Exorcism” scratching the itch some ticket-buyers have to see young women possessed by Satan, with clueless, powerless priests unable to draw evil out. “The Vatican Tapes” is yet another installment of embedded demon cinema, and it arrives without a gimmick, basically telling a blah exorcism story with some vague found-footage elements, laboring to summon the end of the world without anything memorable to work with. Dull and somewhat amateurish, “The Vatican Tapes” goes through the motions, working on vomiting and eeriness, but ends up nowhere in particular, with director Mark Neveldine unnervingly comfortable making something everyone has seen before. Read the rest at

Film Review - Pixels


“Pixels” began life as a 2010 short film from Patrick Jean, which detailed an alien invasion carried out by classic video game enemies, giving the director a chance to show off his skill with visual effects and love for arcade gaming. “Pixels” concludes its journey as a big-budget Adam Sandler comedy, which probably isn’t what Jean had in mind when he set out on this journey years ago. Sluggish comedy and tired Sandler-isms aside, the picture definitely has its moments of visual might, successfully translating Jean’s idea, just not his universe. Without Sandler, perhaps “Pixels” would’ve been spectacular. With the comedian slumped over in the starring role, the best the production can do is pay close attention to CGI nuances and gaming references, leaving the jokes to a guy who looks like he needs a nap these days. Read the rest at

Film Review - Southpaw


“Southpaw” is demanding to be experienced squarely in the gut. It’s not an intellectually stimulating picture, only an emotionally charged one, with everything the production has to offer poured into scenes where blood and tears flow, and dialogue pushed out of grinding teeth. Unfortunately, while such simplicity triggers visceral reactions, “Southpaw” can’t eye-bulge its way past a disappointing script that’s mostly about recycling moments from boxing cinema classics instead of inventing its own hero’s journey. The feature has a big heart and a tiny brain, and while I wouldn’t deny anyone the opportunity to lose themselves in juicy manipulation, it’s clear the production could’ve tried a little harder to make something significant instead helping itself to the towering pile of “Rocky” clichés. Read the rest at

Film Review - Unexpected


“Unexpected” initially presents itself as your average pregnancy dramedy, focusing on a 30-year-old woman confronted with the possibly of motherhood, refusing to let reality sink in. It doesn’t take long for co-writer/director Kris Swanberg to reveal her impatience with clichés, quickly moving past shock to mine the emotional depths of potential parenthood. “Unexpected” soon finds a plot, but it’s rather remarkable with silences, with Swanberg permitting the movie a chance to observe the lead character’s whirring mind without pausing for formula, depicting the enormity of the challenge ahead in a natural, honest manner, delivering encouraging depth and emotional nuance to the picture. Read the rest at

Film Review - Paper Towns


Last summer, “The Fault in Our Stars” managed to break out of the blockbuster stranglehold and become a sizable hit. Adapted from the novel by John Green, the feature had heart and youth on its side, with a largely teenage audience driving ticket sales. Hoping to continue this profitable union, Hollywood reaches back into Green’s career to find “Paper Towns,” a novel published in 2008. While not even remotely close to the emotional volatility of “Stars,” “Paper Towns” does proudly wear Green’s fingerprints, playing directly to a younger audience while maintaining the perspective of its thirtysomething author, emerging with a certain degree of honesty about the teen experience that’s largely cloaked in quirk and thematic indecision. Read the rest at