Film Review

Film Review - Atomic Blonde


2014’s “John Wick” was a dream come true for action movie fans who wanted something more than edits to define big screen mayhem. It was helmed by two people, Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, and they did an incredible job turning what should’ve been a forgettable bottom shelf title into a powerhouse of bodily harm and chilly temperaments, sold with color, style, and sound. Stahelski remained with the brand name for last February’s “John Wick: Chapter 2,” making an equally enthralling sequel that managed to do something interesting with the raw materials delivered in the first feature. Leitch veers off into a slightly different direction with “Atomic Blonde,” which is cut from the same cloth as “John Wick,” using furious brutality and stunning visuals to bring another genre battle royal to life, this time concentrating on Cold War paranoia, German locations, and star Charlize Theron, who’s committed in full to the controlled chaos Leitch masterminds with palpable glee. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Incredible Jessica James


In 2015, writer/director James C. Strouse made a wonderful impression with “People Places Things,” a sweet and smartly observed dramedy that superbly utilized star Jemaine Clement and brought Jessica Williams to greater awareness with the general public. Sensing something about the young actress and former “Daily Show” contributor, Strouse ups his dosage of Williams, gifting her a starring vehicle in “The Incredible Jessica James,” which makes full use of her many thespian talents. They’re a fine pair, with Strouse understanding what Williams can bring to the screen, while the actress offers her own vibrant personality, permitting the director to locate many emotional subtleties otherwise unachievable with another performer. “The Incredible Jessica James” is small in scale but big in spirit and laughs, and it would be a shame if Strouse and Williams stopped their wildly effective collaboration here.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Landline


“Landline” isn’t the first film to feed on memories of the 1990s, but it’s one of the best, capturing a time and place with subtle reminders of the way things were before technology took over. It’s the latest release from co-writer/director Gillian Robespierre, who made a sizable impression a few years ago with “Obvious Child,” and she continues her exploration of arrested development here, expanding her vision with the addition of a family saga and her choice of setting, taking viewers back to New York City in 1995, which permits settled dramatic entanglements that avoid modern connectivity, and it offers Robespierre a chance to work in a few autobiographical touches, strengthening a viewing experience that often feels most comfortable in wander mode, vacuuming up odd behaviors and heartfelt ache while tending to darkly comedic and dramatic encounters.  Read the rest at

Film Review - The Last Face


If there has to be a movie about the experiences of humanitarian workers, it should come from Sean Penn. The actor, activist, and aid organizer returns to direction after nearly a decade away (last helming 2007’s “Into the Wild”) with “The Last Face,” working with writer Erin Dignam to explore the struggles of those who choose to help in areas of the world the rest of humanity works very hard to ignore. It’s debatable to suggest there’s some type of audience for the feature, with the tanking of 2003’s “Beyond Borders” identifying audience indifference to tales of sacrifice and unspeakable violence. Weirdly, while the picture is horrific at times, Penn remains in a romantic mood, trying to make “The Last Face” about two people in love, with the bloody disarray of Western Africa background decoration to the saga of doctors who are so moved by the call of philanthropy, they spend more time on their doomed relationship than they do on the ills of the region.  Read the rest at

Film Review - It Stains the Sands Red


Considering the pop culture-dominating success of “The Walking Dead,” it’s amazing that any filmmaker out there would choose to make a zombie movie these days. The market is saturated, requiring a production with a little more smarts and invention than the average horror experience. Enter co-writer/director Colin Minihan (“Extraterrestrial”), who attempts a classic merging of genres, slowly but surely creating a relationship drama about a lonely woman and her undead partner. “It Stains the Sands Red” is a little bit funny, a teensy bit scary, but it’s primarily introspective, with the production searching for ways to maintain interests outside of flesh-munching zombie antics. He’s mostly successful, following a bizarre plot that’s more of a relationship drama than an end of the world nightmare come to life.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Lady Macbeth


“Lady Macbeth” has no connection to the possibly cursed William Shakespeare play, but it does carry a special Shakespearean energy of its own. It’s actually an adaptation of a 1865 novella from Russian author Nikolai Leskov, taking a periodically harrowing look at one woman’s experience with isolation, domination, and, eventually, revenge. Director William Oldroyd is on familiar ground with this period piece, but “Lady Macbeth” bares its teeth early and often, rising above the tea-and-dismissal scene to showcase pure illness from its characters, who seemingly enjoy destroying one another. It’s a grim picture with a deliberate pace, but attention to behavioral detail is extraordinary, led by a thunderous performance from Florence Pugh, who makes a mighty leap to industry visibility with her brave, dark, and thrillingly commanding work.  Read the rest at

Film Review - The Midwife


Even if there was nothing of interest in “The Midwife,” the picture provides a chance to spend time with actresses Catherine Deneuve and Catherine Frot, paring two legends of French cinema in a drama that shows particular patience with layers of characterization and offers space for extended dialogue exchanges. Thankfully, there’s plenty of story to feast on in the feature, which takes a closer look at the power (and obsolescence) of personal support, the never-ending process of grief, and soulful revitalization that comes with intimacy, especially the unexpected kind. Writer/director Martin Provost takes special care of his dramatic mission, using Deneuve and Frot in full, relying on their highly seasoned ways to bring life and depth to the screenplay, which offers a sensitive understanding of human behavior, especially the chain-tugging sensation of addiction and the need to connect with another human just to make it through the day. Read the rest at

Film Review - The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography


When legendary documentarian Errol Morris isn’t taking on grander topics of history (“Standard Operating Procedure”), true crime (“The Thin Blue Line”), and the cosmos (“A Brief History of Time”), he makes time for little slices of humanity, showcasing odd corners of life and art that identify character and passion in unexpected ways. “The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography” isn’t the first film to tackle the detail of photography, but it offers focus on what’s become a lost art for a seasoned artist in Massachusetts, visiting the Elsa Dorfman archives to grasp her achievements with large-format photography using a Polaroid camera. Perhaps the subject isn’t for every taste, but Morris appears to understand inherent exclusivity, keeping “The B-Side” biographical but also visual, allowing time for the audience to grasp the specificity and serenity of Dorfman’s work.  Read the rest at

Film Review - A Family Man


It’s been a rough couple of years for actor Gerard Butler. Perhaps even longer. His filmography has been erratic at best, picking projects that end up becoming absolutely ridiculous (“Gods of Egypt”) or positively toxic (“London Has Fallen,” “Olympus Has Fallen”), leaving him stuck in typecasting purgatory, forever playing brutes with wretched American accents. “A Family Man” is a rare shot at change for Butler, who sets brawn on the shelf to play a desperate father, albeit a workaholic one that makes use of his alpha male persona. The accent remains and “A Family Man” isn’t very good, but the effort is appreciated, providing a slightly different side to Butler he’s not allowed to share very often. That’s not to suggest he’s ideally cast, but he’s trying.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Girls Trip


The summer of 2017 already endured one female-centric party-gone-wrong movie in June’s “Rough Night,” which offered plenty of riffing and nightmarish scenarios, but brought very little funny, eventually taking itself far too seriously. The festivities continue with “Girls Trip,” which also features R-rated shenanigans in a party city and a cast of exceedingly eager actresses looking to feast on the potential for naughty behavior. The difference here is that “Girls Trip” is actually very funny, and its eventual slide into dramatic sobriety is far less painful. Director Malcolm D. Lee doesn’t have the strongest filmography (helming “The Best Man,” but also “Scary Movie 5”), but he catches the vibe here, taking advantage of the restrictive rating to mastermind some effective crude humor, sisterly love, and mild conflict. And it’s hard to dislike a picture about four zany women that includes a reference to “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.”  Read the rest at

Film Review - Dunkirk


It’s strange to consider that after two decades of making feature films, “Dunkirk” the first production from writer/director Christopher Nolan where he’s the marketable star of the picture. His latest employs famous faces, but no single stratospherically famous person to create buzz and fill seats. It’s all about him, and this is exactly what he’s been looking to achieve throughout the years. “Dunkirk” is a war story but it’s also a disaster film, putting everything it has into a bruising audio and visual experience that’s meant to represent pure cinema from a helmer who’s addicted to the stuff, shooting up with 65mm equipment and guzzling 12-track theater sound. It’s not a movie that requests a passive viewing experience, putting the audience into the thick of combat, taking to land, sea, and air to fully inhale an historical event goosed considerably by Nolan’s love of spectacle. He’s made an intimidating endeavor, but those hoping for an exhaustively emotional event should seek their wartime blues elsewhere. Read the rest at

Film Review - Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets


In 1997, writer/director Luc Besson unleashed “The Fifth Element,” a fantasy epic that rippled with idiosyncratic comedy and was shellacked with style, merging American-branded blockbustering with French-scented oddity, making for a delicious mix of the bold and the bizarre. It was a minor hit, growing into a cult jewel in later years, but Besson never revisited it, preferring to stick with minor concoctions and more Earthbound projects in the ensuing years. Two decades later, Besson finally works up the nerve to reenter space and beyond with “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” an adaptation of a French comic series that debuted in 1967. Now armed with every CGI tool imaginable, and a budget to feel out every inch of his imagination, Besson goes for…something with the feature, which is dutifully colorful, populated with weird creatures, and appropriately European when it comes to humor. And yet, with all this work up on the screen, “City of a Thousand Planets” rarely conjures excitement, with the production working to suffocate the audience with artifice, while the lead actors fight an unwinnable war against miscasting.  Read the rest at

Film Review - 13 Minutes


It’s fascinating to watch filmmakers attempt to wring suspense out of movies that explore assassination attempts on Adolph Hitler. Unless it’s a Quentin Tarantino production, there are few surprises waiting for viewers who know how the real story ends when it comes to Hitler’s final hours. For “13 Minutes,” director Oliver Hirschbiegel opens with a failed plot to kill the emerging leader of the Nazis, working backward to explore the life of the mousy man who attempted to pull off the impossible at the dawn of World War II. “13 Minutes” wisely avoids a history lesson to examine the true grit of an unlikely assassin, going in a more character-oriented route with its often harrowing account of Georg Elser’s rise in radicalism and his problematic plan to save Germany.  Read the rest at

Film Review - First Kill


Steven C. Miller is a name that’s come up often in recent years. He’s a B-movie director specializing in VOD entertainment, which has become the new VHS gold rush for distributors looking to make a quick buck. He’s been supported by producers with deep pockets, willing to pony up for fading A-listers looking for easy paychecks, helming features with short, nondescript titles like “Extraction,” “Submerged,” “Marauders,” and the recent “Arsenal” (titles that easily fit in on-demand directory listings). None of them have worked, but Miller keeps chopping away, recently graduating to bigger fish with “Escape Plan 2: Hades,” a Sylvester Stallone-starring sequel due for release next year. Before his launch to the big time, Miller has one more scrappy actioner to share, guiding “First Kill,” a kidnapping/heist-gone-wrong thriller that reteams him with his favorite actor, Bruce Willis (in their third collaboration), joining forces once again for a simplistic adventure that details blue collar blues, small-town woes, and a battle over a bag of stolen cash.  Read the rest at

Film Review - The Gracefield Incident


Found footage returns to duty in “The Gracefield Incident,” which is the second film this year (after the spring flop, “Phoenix Lights”) to use the aesthetic to explore an alien visitation in the middle of nowhere. Writer/director/producer/editor/star Mathieu Ratthe isn’t about to let the exhausted antics of shaky cam chaos slow him down, mounting a clichéd, deafening adventure about a group of strangers in the woods armed with cameras. There’s nothing innovative here to help Ratthe separate himself from the crowd, leaving “The Gracefield Incident” tired, somewhat predictable, and, at times, far too silly. Found footage usually results in creative dead ends, and this production just isn’t strong enough to conquer the myriad of shortcomings it encounters. Read the rest at

Film Review - Killing Ground


There’s going to be a great number of people drawn to the darkness of “Killing Ground.” It’s an Australian production that delves into displays of barbarity and isolation, using extreme violence as a tool to unnerve its audience, showing no remorse when detailing character suffering and death. And it would all be far more interesting if there was a single sliver of invention to it. Another chapter in the “Wolf Creek”-ening of Australian horror films, writer/director Damien Power (making his feature-length helming debut) plays a tedious game of slow-pitch softball with this clichéd effort, which always turns to cheap shock value to make its impact. It’s vile stuff, and “Killing Ground” would much more compelling if there was a scene contained within it that wasn’t featured in dozens of similar endeavors. Power has a desire to disturb, but his cheat sheet shows throughout this dismal offering of backwoods survival.  Read the rest at

Film Review - War for the Planet of the Apes


It’s a rare event when a movie franchise actually improves as it develops. Granted, the “Planet of the Apes” saga has carried on in one form or another for the last 50 years, but its recent incarnation, the Caesar Trilogy, has offered a radical reinvention of the source material, using hindsight and cutting-edge technology to craft a strikingly realistic version of a fantasy premise. And it just keeps getting better and better. Following 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and 2014’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is “War for the Planet of the Apes,” which doesn’t promise series finality, but if it all ended here, the production goes out with its finest achievement. An unsettlingly emotional viewing experience, “War for the Planet of the Apes” manages to achieve what so many blockbusters fail to do: it makes the unreal live and breathe. Director Matt Reeves completely moves beyond demands for extravaganza to create a strikingly intimate second sequel that fully delivers on the empathy “Rise” introduced and “Dawn” developed, making viewers feel just about everything for these damn dirty apes.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Wish Upon


“Wish Upon” isn’t based on an original idea, but it has the opportunity to do something fresh with known horror elements. It’s the umpteenth take on “The Monkey’s Paw,” a 1902 short story that’s spawned countless adaptations and rip-offs, but rarely does the saga of wishes and rashness hit the high school scene. Sadly, in the hands of director John R. Leonetti and screenwriter Barbara Marshall, “Wish Upon” becomes an unbearable mess in a hurry, displaying a level of production confusion and botched editing one doesn’t encounter very often. It’s nonsensical work, poorly constructed and considered, also torpedoed by obnoxious performances and a general disregard for its audience, assuming all they care to see are occasional scenes of murder and social humiliations, as clearly defined personalities, relationships, and even deaths are jettisoned from frame one.  Read the rest at

Film Review - To the Bone


Anorexia is an extremely difficult disorder to dramatically communicate. It certainly can be very visual, challenging actors to drop significant amounts of weight to physically portray the refusal of food, but there’s a heavy psychological component that demands a depth of understanding to fully absorb, as the impulses of anorexia are tough to understand. “To the Bone” feels as lived-in as possible, with writer/director Marti Noxon doing an excellent job slipping into the skin of the lead character, grasping her urges, habits, and reluctance to help herself out of a dangerous medical situation. As with any tale of torture, it’s difficult to watch at times, but Noxon is able to warm up the viewing experience through her study of character, trying to communicate headspaces in flux rather than linger on torment. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Moka


The agony of personal loss inspires unique reactions to revenge in “Moka,” the latest from director Frederic Mermoud (“Accomplices”). While other productions generally head in a “Taken” direction, using the inner fire of a parent in the throes of grief to burn the screen, “Moka” plays a different kind of game. It’s a largely psychological study of a restless mother who needs to feel vengeance to feel anything at all, and Mermoud treats the material (an adaptation of a novel by Tatiana De Rosnay) with care, tending to intimate emotions and subtle shocks to the system. The feature is suspenseful, outstandingly so at times, but it doesn’t indulge bloodlust, taking a far more disorientating route to a sense of satisfaction, and doing so with terrific performances from stars Emmanuelle Devos and Nathalie Baye.  Read the rest at