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December 2015

Film Review - Chi-Raq


“Chi-Raq” represents a return to form for co-writer/director Spike Lee. The last decade has been tough for the once mighty helmer, with recent releases (“Da Sweet Blood of Jesus,” “Red Hook Summer”) forgotten soon after their initial release, while his last studio effort, the wretched “Oldboy,” almost killed his career. “Chi-Raq” revives Lee’s distinctive interests in social commentary and satire, taking on gun and thug culture with a blistering overview of Chicago as it slowly succumbs to brutality. Submitting his finest work since the 1990s, Lee is inspired and alert for a change, displaying renewed interest in the world around him. The mischief and outrage presented here is outstanding. Read the rest at

Film Review - Yosemite


It’s important to note that “Yosemite” is based on a few short stories conceived by James Franco and writer/director Gabrielle Demeestrere. The picture doesn’t have shape, it has ideas and moments, with only a vague tethering of characters to help acclimate audiences to the experiences at hand. Demanding a more fluid moviegoing mind, “Yosemite” is ideal for those who enjoy atmosphere and a distant sense of conflict, with Demeestrere handling the material as test of exploration, not necessarily drama. It’s an interesting effort with a clear portrait of pre-adolescent curiosity, but it’s not something to be viewed casually, as the feature’s patience with tone takes some getting used to. Read the rest at

Film Review - Absolutely Anything


“Absolutely Anything” is dripping with promise. Its main source of curiosity is a Monty Python mini-reunion, with the comedy troupe members contributing voice work to portray a race of malevolent aliens. It’s also the first feature film directed by Python vet Terry Jones in nearly two decades (1996’s “The Wind in the Willows” being his last effort). And the movie marks the final screen work of icon Robin Williams, who participates as the voice of a dog. “Absolutely Anything” has a lot going for it, including an enthusiastic lead performance from Simon Pegg, yet Jones doesn’t quite know how to manage all the quirk and slapstick of the picture, which never comes together as completely as it could, disappointing on multiple levels. Read the rest at

Film Review - Anomalisa


Charlie Kaufman is an acquired taste. He’s a filmmaker who loves to build puzzles out of human misery, and he’s collected a cult following with screenplays for “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation,” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” It’s been awhile since Kaufman made a movie, with 2008’s “Synecdoche, New York” (his directorial debut) his last endeavor, failing to attract much attention from understandably fatigued audiences. Kaufman returns with “Anomalisa,” but he’s moved over to the animated realm, co-helming (with Duke Johnson) a stop-motion feature that doesn’t stray far from his dramatic interests, once again boarding a downward spiral into depression and delusion, only here the characters participate in a more defined universe of unreality while Kaufman strives to keep the tale achingly authentic. Read the rest at

Film Review - James White


“James White” is an endurance test for any filmgoer, tasked with watching irrational characters slowly but completely lose control while experiencing medical and caretaking ordeals. It’s a not a picture that encourages a recommendation, but it’s not devoid of artistry and dramatic firepower. However, to find an observational position with the feature requires exceptional patience with writer/director Josh Mond, who embraces a peeled-skin atmosphere of despair and antagonism, making any appreciation of the effort’s accomplishments difficult. “James White” provides a viewing experience that’s unlike many movies, and it’s reserved only for those choosing to be submerged in darkness alongside the titular character. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Gunfight at Dodge City


1959's "The Gunfight at Dodge City" arrived two years after the Burt Lancaster/Kirk Douglas production, "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral," perhaps attempting to cash in on a trend by following a fringe character into a new realm of western hostilities. The saga of Bat Masterson (played by Joel McCrea) is explored in "The Gunfight at Dodge City," with the production aiming to revive the same sense of cowboy justice in a civilized area, largely succeeding when it comes to the display of cheap thrills. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Crooked Way


Film noir receives extensive bruising with 1949's "The Crooked Way," which marries criminal activity with an amnesia story, putting star John Payne through an obstacle course of bad guys, belligerent cops, and troubled women as his character works to piece together a shattered life. It's bold entertainment, with big thrills and a nice smashmouth quality as threats escalate into action, with director Robert Florey maintaining a sure pace to discoveries and intimidation, resulting in a surprisingly eventful movie. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Joysticks


Teen horndog cinema of the 1980s visits the arcade in 1983's "Joysticks," with writer/director Greydon Clark aiming to mastermind his own "Porky's" with this ode to token-fingering juvenile pursuits, bare breasts, and the underdog spirit. It's supremely goofy work, featuring a supporting turn from Joe Don Baker (joining Jon Gries, John Diehl, and Corinne Bohrer), merely out to service its intended demographic of sedated adolescent boys, never rising above sophomoric humor and screamed performances. It's junk, but there's one element of the movie that consistently holds attention: video games. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Wild Eye


1967's "The Wild Eye" is a response to the Italian "mondo" subgenre, where filmmakers ventured around the globe to find the horrible and the odd to photograph, blurring the line between reality and irresponsibility. This type of shock value plays a key role in director Paolo Cavara's picture, which finds actor Philippe Leroy portraying a thinly disguised version of the helmer, obsessed with finding the perfect collection of misery to help transform his latest epic. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Grizzly


"Grizzly" is often described as a rip-off of "Jaws," and it turns out, the accusation is correct. The 1976 animal attack movie isn't shy about its influences, reworking elements from Peter Benchley's novel and Steven Spielberg's cinematic adaptation to fit its own design of forest-bound horror. However, this pilfering isn't exactly a crime, as "Grizzly" finds its own footing after introductions are made, doing a fine job transitioning the shark role to an enormous bear, while star Christopher George does his best to keep panic in the air as director William Girdler figures out ways to keep the titular star an enticing menace. Read the rest at

Film Review - Point Break


When it was released in the summer of 1991, “Point Break” was only a modest hit for 20th Century Fox, failing to catch fire during a crowded moviegoing season. Its reputation developed on home video, where appreciation grew for Kathryn Bigelow’s spirited directorial approach and expert management of the promised “100% pure adrenaline.” These days, some people (like me) consider the feature to be one of the best actioners of the 1990s, with stars Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze turning in amazingly vibrant work in a picture that celebrates the impossible with a special Southern California glow. And now there’s a remake, trying to cash in on a title that’s more of a secret code for film nerds and “Hot Fuzz” fans. Predictably, it falls short of the original’s magic, but what’s most disconcerting about the new “Point Break” is how little it understands what made the first pass work so well. Character names are the same and the mission is familiar, but the lights are off in this do-over, glumly trying to capture the same electricity with roughly 90% less adrenaline. Read the rest at

Film Review - Carol


Writer/director Todd Haynes has an affinity for period pieces. He’s been consistently remarkable building cinematic time machines, but “Carol” is his most convincing depiction of the past, overseeing an exceptional production team that turns every moment into cinematic poetry, with touchable textures and screen artistry that makes the feature hypnotic. But there’s more to “Carol” than exquisite craftsmanship, finding a crushing tale of longing and repression rippling underneath guarded exteriors, with Haynes reviving Cate Blanchett’s thespian authority, while guiding Rooney Mara to the best performance of her career. Juggling tone and drama with outstanding precision, Haynes emerges with his best work since 1998’s “Velvet Goldmine.” Read the rest at

Film Review - The Revenant


One year ago, writer/director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu emerged from a bout with career repetition to debut “Birdman.” The one-take drama went on to capture art-house imaginations and grab Oscar gold, winning the Best Picture prize last winter. Instead of soaking up enormous success, the helmer plunges back into a nightmarish professional challenge with “The Revenant,” taking on the enormity of the man vs. nature conflict by making nature, and all its fury, the star of the effort. Blistering, raging, and ideally mind-boggling, this is a feature that wears its production hardship like a badge of honor, sending Leonardo DiCaprio through the spanking machine of the great outdoors to portray a man shredded by the elements and inhabitants. Unlike many productions that gift themselves importance, “The Revenant” simply becomes a viewing event. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Hateful Eight


Continuing his obsession with westerns and ways to pervert their traditions, writer/director Quentin Tarantino goes from the expanse of “Django Unchained” to the stasis of “The Hateful Eight,” his latest offering of cinematic indulgence. While tarted up with a grandiose presentation that celebrates theatrical releases of old, the feature doesn’t exactly live up to its technical hype, finding Tarantino breathlessly inflating “The Hateful Eight” instead of massaging its simmering hostilities, basically turning the movie into a novel that, at certain points, doesn’t seem like it’s ever going to end. And yet, it’s impossible to walk away disappointed by Tarantino’s 8th film, which is lovingly crafted and brilliantly acted by a large portion of the ensemble, who give their all to this strange, bloody mystery that carries on for three long hours. Read the rest at

Film Review - Daddy's Home


In recent years, it’s been tough to be a Will Ferrell fan. Undeniably talented, Ferrell has shown weird taste in movie projects, with “The Campaign,” “Casa de Mi Padre,” “Anchorman 2,” and last spring’s “Get Hard” delivering inconsistent levels of Ferrell-ocity, with the actor content to be random, caring more about concepts than quality screenwriting. “Daddy’s Home” is another disappointment, though one that hopes to hedge its bets by reuniting Ferrell with his “The Other Guys” co-star, Mark Wahlberg. The pairing has promise, but air is almost completely out of the production’s tires, with director Sean Anders showing little energy and no imagination as the picture lumbers from one scene to the next. Read the rest at

Film Review - Concussion


“Concussion” has the opportunity to be a provocative, stinging indictment of the National Football League, challenging the very essence of contact sports. There are moments in the film where it feels like the material is living up to its potential, inspecting the dangers of the titular brain event. The rest of “Concussion” plays it disappointingly safe, offering more defined focus on the lead character’s private life than his battle with professional football. There’s a better movie to be made about the subject, and while writer/director Peter Landesman (“Parkland”) handles a few disturbing encounters just right, the rest of the feature is much too conventional, hesitant to confront a venerable institution. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Big Short


Writer/director Adam McKay teased frustration with the American banking system in 2010’s “The Other Guys,” but now he’s fully outraged. Adapting a book by Michael Lewis, McKay (who co-scripts with Charles Randolph) attempts to provide a broad education on corruption with “The Big Short,” which intricately details the events leading up to the 2008 Financial Crisis. Calling up an army of star power and attacking the sobering material with a fleeting sense of humor, McKay aims for the impossible, taking on the most “eat your veggies” story of the film year. He almost pulls it off too, as “The Big Short” has a funny way of being completely illuminating between suffocating stretches of exposition and overacting. Read the rest at

Film Review - Joy


On a hot streak of pictures that celebrate damaged lives with underdog stories, writer/director David O. Russell cools his manic approach with “Joy.” Dramatizing the true story of Joy Mangano, the inventor of the Miracle Mop, Russell appears baffled by the task at hand, unsure if he’s making a bio-pic or an inspirational story, leaving the feature confused at times, with an unsatisfying amount of detail trickling in. But this is why Jennifer Lawrence is around, delivering a mature and deeply felt performance as Joy, helping Russell achieve a grander sense of life in motion the rest of the movie surprisingly lacks. Missing the punch of “The Fighter,” the sugar rush of “Silver Linings Playbook,” and the strut of “American Hustle,” “Joy” comes across undercooked and unfocused, exposing a fatigued Russell. Read the rest at

Film Review - Mustang


“Mustang” is a movie that’s designed to be uncomfortable. It’s not an easy sit, but it’s a remarkably realized picture from co-writer/director Deniz Gamze Erguven, who delivers a fully emotional experience with a story that reaches for a grader condemnation of Turkish culture. Mixing domestic horrors with pained reflection, “Mustang” does a terrific job getting inside character headspace, finding an exhausting but informative psychological viewpoint that develops throughout the story, amplified by exceptional performances from the largely untested cast. It may seem like medicine, but the feature has important ideas to share about the ways of the world, winding its way through surprises and heartbreak with fresh energy. Read the rest at