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September 2017

Blu-ray Review - Heli


Cartel violence in Mexico is vividly rendered in 2013's "Heli," which takes elements of violence fairly far to make a point about the brutality of gangs and corrupt law enforcement. Co-writer/director Amat Escalante has a vision for his feature, playing it spare to emphasize unease, working to understand the plight of the impoverished and emasculated in Mexico, under siege from all sides, but when does example become excess? It's a fine line "Heli" has trouble walking, often caught enjoying its horrors instead of using them to make a larger point about menace in the middle of nowhere. Read the rest at

Film Review - Flatliners (2017)


Say what you will about the career of director Joel Schumacher, but in the midst of creating overcooked garbage over the years, he managed to manufacture a few gems as well. 1990’s “Flatliners” is one of them, yanking viewers into the pulse-racing fantasy of medical students testing the boundaries of death to discover life’s secrets, only to be confronted with their own vast reservoirs of guilt and shame. Drenched in color, twitchily performed, and committed to a special spooky mood, Schumacher was firing on all cylinders 27 years ago, crafting a mighty offering of youth-market entertainment. Why the need to remake the feature in 2017 isn’t completely understood, but one wonders if screenwriter Ben Ripley (“Species III”) even watched the original picture, as his reworking of the story rudely sheds the ethical and moral urgency of the 1990 movie, more interested in drafting a simplistic horror endeavor with paper-thin characterizations and deadly dialogue.  Read the rest at

Film Review - American Made


There have been many movies like “American Made,” which details the life and times of a simple man who stumbled into a criminal empire, amassing a fortune he can’t handle during a politically turbulent period of time. Ted Demme’s “Blow” employed a similar formula of wish-fulfillment screenwriting while exploring addictive, destructive behavior. However, other productions aren’t directed by Doug Liman and star Tom Cruise, who reunite after their creative success with “Edge of Tomorrow,” focusing on a much more human tale of bad ideas lubricated by greed and hubris. “American Made” is rendered loose and funky by Liman, who offers his signature hustle to a familiar story, directing the heck out of the picture, which provides irresistible energy and a strange saga of corruption, while Cruise is simply a force of nature, delivering one of the best performances of his career.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Battle of the Sexes


Directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton don’t work very often, but when they do decide to make a movie, it’s always been something worth paying attention to. The “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Ruby Sparks” helmers return with “Battle of the Sexes,” which dramatizes the famous 1973 tennis match between 29-year-old Billie Jean King and 55-year-old Bobby Riggs, with both sides playing for the glory and dignity of their gender on national television. It was a publicity circus meant to playfully poke at period resentments during the era of the Women’s Liberation Movement, but Dayton and Faris aren’t interested in manufacturing a straight recreation of the match. They, along with screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, cut deeper, studying the tentative lives of the players as they struggle with domestic issues and, for King, burgeoning sexuality during a rocket ride to nationwide fame. True to form, the pair treat the subject with care, and make a stirring, colorful, and amusing effort, finding different ways to approach an oft-told tale.   Read the rest at

Film Review - Different Flowers


The bond of sisterhood is examined in “Different Flowers,” which begins as a runaway bride tale and evolves into a pleasant understanding of personal freedom. Making her feature-length directing debut is Morgan Dameron (also scripting), who graduates to a larger canvas after working in shorts and television (also credited as J.J. Abrams’s assistant on multiple movies), using what feels like an autobiographical take on sibling interaction, putting more emphasis on interplay than plot, giving the effort a loose, conversational mood with dabs of quirk. “Different Flowers” isn’t a radical creation out to redefine the screen potential of sibling rivalry, but as a quieter, kinder, and more emotionally knotted odyssey of clarity in the face of marital submission, there are a few ideas here on personal worth I’m sure a lot of viewers will relate to.   Read the rest at

Film Review - Realive


Writer/director Mateo Gil (“Blackthorn”) doesn’t make it easy for himself, creating a movie that asks the universal question: what does it mean to live? It’s not a topic that can be contained to a single feature, but Gil handles himself artistically with “Realive,” which endeavors to examine a living experience interrupted, introducing thoughts on existence that weave into a compelling sci-fi story about cryogenic stasis. Gil is curious about the subject, putting thought into his story of resurrection, finding interesting, emotional ways to inspect a fantasy topic, electing a mournful filmmaking approach to a tale that threatens to crumble at any moment. That “Realive” manages to sustain its fascinating ethical and existential questions throughout is impressive, never sacrificing the central mystery of a man out of time trying to make sense of everything he left behind.   Read the rest at

Film Review - Dolores


In the montage that opens “Dolores,” there are shots of triumph featuring the documentary’s subject, Dolores Huerta, and a few shots of media types and other folk wondering just who Huerta is. Director Peter Bratt understands her lack of fame, at least in this day and age, creating a cinematic inspection of the labor leader and civil rights activist that’s meant to be a celebration and something of an introduction. It’s a smart way to approach Huerta’s arc of defiance and organization, transforming “Dolores” into a valuable educational tool and an engrossing feature, supported by impressively varied footage of Huerta in action and a slew of interviewees who’ve come together to recount amazing resilience and focus during turbulent decades of injustice and prejudice for Mexican laborers.   Read the rest at

Film Review - The Sound


“The Sound” marks the directorial debut of actress Jenna Mattison, and she’s scripted for herself a small-scale haunting to best try out her helming abilities. Save for a few introductory sequences, the picture largely takes place in the dark, with traditional dialogue replaced by Twitter postings and texting. It’s a modern ghost story, but “The Sound,” while fighting to be relevant to a younger generation of moviegoer, doesn’t offer much in the way of suspense. It’s static work, intentionally so, leaving Mattison to figure out ways to keep the protagonist compelling while she’s sitting on the floor, banging away on her laptop. It’s not a completely ineffective effort, but Mattison’s attempting a different route to chills, and it doesn’t work, especially when there’s 90 minutes of screen time to fill.   Read the rest at

Film Review - Woodshock


Fashion has always been part of filmmaking, but now were seeing a rise of fashion designers making movies instead of simply dressing them. Tom Ford has found success behind the camera, hitting emotional highs with “A Single Man” and oddness with last year’s “Nocturnal Animals.” “Woodshock” isn’t as defined as Ford’s efforts, but it does introduce sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy to the helming ranks, taking a brief leave from their day job as the masterminds behind Rodarte to assemble this floating journey into altered states and bottomless pain. Imagine if “Up in Smoke” was played as seriously as possible and starred Kirsten Dunst, and there’s “Woodshock” in a way. The Mulleavys have a vision for their debut, but pretty pictures and thousand yard stares do not make for a satisfying or profound viewing experience, even as artfully presented as the endeavor is.   Read the rest at

Film Review - Literally, Right Before Aaron


Ryan Eggold is an actor who’s been hacking away at a career for a long time. “Literally, Right Before Aaron” is his directorial debut, taking control of a big screen endeavor to scratch some artistic itches, pouring his energy into the creation of a relationship drama featuring a single character. “Literally, Right Before Aaron” feels like deeply personal work, with Eggold peppering the dramedy with life experience and knowledge of broken-hearted ambition. The movie isn’t confident with humor, putting a little too much pressure on star Justin Long to spin gold in most scenes. Eggold’s better with the darker, more emotional areas of the plot, capturing the intensity of bad decisions when they’re motivated by desperation, and the sting of love that’s no longer returned.   Read the rest at

Film Review - Don't Sleep


The altered consciousness of sleep is a common playground for horror cinema. Dreamlike states offer pliable logic and room for outrageous visuals, and it also preys on a universal fear of vulnerability, with a snoozing body no match for whatever ghouls and goblins are in position to attack. “Don’t Sleep” is another addition to the ongoing exploration of bedroom exposure, though it initially takes a more psychological look at the dangers of nightmares, eventually transforming into a weirdly elaborate fantasy for a feature that opens with the visual of a decomposing woman snacking on a dead rat. Simplicity doesn’t interest writer/director Rick Bieber, who endeavors to muddy the waters of his genre effort, hoping to provide more of an intellectual ride before launching the film into space. Parts of “Don’t Sleep” are satisfying, but the majority of the picture struggles to land frights and character insight, shedding appeal as it lumbers towards its bizarre conclusion.   Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Nurse Sherri


1978's "Nurse Sherri" was marketed as the next horror sensation, following "Carrie" and "Ruby" in the ongoing saga of meek women coming into contact with unusual, destructive powers. It's a bit of a stretch to position the effort next to more respected genre offerings, but when it stands up straight and goes for chills, "Nurse Sherri" can be entertaining, working to generate a level of dread and horror as evil erupts from unexpected sources. Director Al Adamson isn't known for quality work ("Carnival Magic," "Dracula vs. Frankenstein"), and his streak continues here, but with lowered expectations, the weird highlights of the feature provide a reasonably successful distraction. Read the rest at 

Blu-ray Review - A Touch of Genie


Perhaps there are a few people out there who secretly would like to see Woody Allen in his prime make an adult movie. 1974's "A Touch of Genie" is as close to granting that wish as possible, finding director Joseph W. Sarno mounting a sex comedy that favors Jewish stereotypes and New York City anxiety, playing up nebbish behavior and domineering mothers, all the while slipping into hardcore entertainment now and again, to remind viewers they're not watching an Allen-style production.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - 8 Million Ways to Die


The 1970s were a creatively fertile period for writer/director Hal Ashby, who commanded such classics as "The Last Detail," "Harold and Maude," "Shampoo," and "Being There." The 1980s weren't as kind, finding Ashby unable to sustain past inspiration for films such as "The Slugger's Wife" and "Second-Hand Hearts." 1986's "8 Million Ways to Die" represents Ashby's final effort before his death two years later, and it's arguably his worst picture, though not for traditional reasons of bad choices and misplaced ambition, but for legal issues, with the helmer badgered during production and eventually removed from the project altogether after a dispute with the suits. Someone else cut "8 Million Ways to Die" together, and lord almighty, they did a terrible job.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Son of Joseph


The director of "La Sapienza," Eugene Green creates highly specific films for certain, more adventurous audiences. He's cheeky but dry, taking on the enormity of emotion through stillness, keeping his framing tight and symmetrical, while performances are deceptively robotic, retaining distance as a way to articulate urgency. Green is an eccentric, but he's capable of constructing motivations and escalations, with his latest, "The Son of Joseph," pulling inspiration from art and biblical studies to inspire a tale of paternity. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - A Midsummer Night's Dream


Julie Taymor is a highly respected director who gained a reputation for imaginative, challenging work with triumphs such as the stage version of "The Lion King," also rattling movie theaters with effort such as "Titus" and "Across the Universe." Joining this list of accomplishments is 2014's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which finds Taymor returning to Shakespeare for inspiration, transforming a relatively small space on the stage into a dreamscape free fall starring known characters and host of artistic surprises.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Kingsman: The Golden Circle


2015’s “Kingsman: The Secret Service” was a surprise hit. It wasn’t a particularly strong effort from director Matthew Vaughn, but it found an audience willing to overlook pacing and scripting issues, along with iffy action sequences. With success comes a sequel, with “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” hoping to sustain the multiplex celebration that started just over two years ago. It’s a return to the world of 007 satire masterminded by enfant terrible Mark Millar (partnering with Dave Gibbons), and Vaughn certainly continues to be respectful of the formula and foul sense of humor that delighted audiences the last time around. However, “The Golden Circle,” while still stuffed with bad taste and dim comedy, is a more mature offering from the helmer, who periodically stops trying to be irreverent and allows himself to have fun with this admittedly derivative world of spies and near-misses. It’s definitely a better film, but most importantly, it shows growth and a cleaner appreciation for escapism.  Read the rest at

Film Review - The LEGO Ninjago Movie


When “The LEGO Movie” debuted in 2014, it was a genuine surprise, offering humor and heart where most audiences likely anticipated a simple animation cash-grab from the LEGO Corporation. It was a treat, sharp and wonderfully animated. Last Spring’s “The LEGO Batman Movie” wasn’t nearly as successful, showing more interest in mayhem, comedic and otherwise, than epic storytelling with a beloved superhero. It was a one-liner machine that grew tiresome quickly, though, once again, it looked gorgeous. And now there’s “The LEGO Ninjago Movie,” the second LEGO endeavor of 2017, with Warner Brothers Animation trying to make up for lost time by doubling down on the brand name. Once again, the studio doesn’t quite get why “The LEGO Movie” connected with audiences, and in their attempt to bring a popular toy line to the big screen, they overwhelm with franchise information and lean too heavily on mediocre voice work. There’s no doubt that “The LEGO Ninjago Movie” will delight eight year olds everywhere, but guardians, parents, and older siblings may find themselves mentally checking out of the picture before the first act is over.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Brad's Status


“Brad’s Status” offers a deep dive into the neuroses of a seemingly happy, healthy man. It’s sure to be a polarizing picture, tapping into “first-class problems” and the ever growing presence of entitlement in American culture, but in the hands of writer/director Mike White, the feature mostly avoids cliché. Instead of mockery, White offers sincerity, examining the titular character’s turbulent headspace during a time of celebration and concentration, embracing the dramatic possibilities of a man who’s being ridiculous and knows it, but carries on anyway. “Brad’s Status” isn’t as hilarious as it initially appears, with White searching for a contemplative vibe, landing a few jokes, but more interested in the itchiness of the journey, finding some painful truths and behaviors along the way. Read the rest at

Film Review - Shot


Making a movie about gun violence seems like career suicide. Putting such an effort into a world of ravenous website commentators and cable news contributors, all working from the same political script, takes guts, and “Shot” plays it relatively smart, at least for its first two acts. Instead of standing on a soapbox when it comes to the gun control, the feature lies flat on the ground, taking a procedural approach to the study of pain caused by an errant bullet fired from an illegal gun in the possession of a teenager. Co-writer/director Jeremy Kagan (“The Journey of Natty Gann”) tries to avoid preachiness to spotlight the horrors of a bullet wound, keeping “Shot” tense and terrifying as viewers are exposed to the aftermath of a deadly mistake, shaping the experience of a victim fighting for his life in a brutally vivid manner.  Read the rest at