Film Review

Film Review - Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween


2015’s “Goosebumps” didn’t exactly light up the box office, but it did the right kind of business for the spooky season, managing to entice families into the multiplex during October, which is a month normally reserved for more adult escapism. The film brought the world of author R.L. Stine to the screen, cheekily inserting the writer into his own adventure, delivering a self-referential romp with horror elements that took its time to get going, but once it did, highlights arrived, primarily due to the acting effort from Jack Black, who played Stine. Black is absent (at least in physical form) for much of “Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween,” which remains in the YA chiller universe, but moves on to new characters and a challenge of monster-busting that isn’t anything special, but it’s not difficult to digest either. Read the rest at

Film Review - First Man


It’s a credit to director Damien Chazelle’s creative drive that he decided to tackle “First Man” as his follow-up to 2016’s “La La Land,” which not only did excellent business, it brought him Oscar gold, reaching career heights with only his third movie. Instead of trying to milk the success with a knock-off, Chazelle heads the moon and back with this Neil Armstrong bio-pic, forcing the helmer to turn away from syrupy sentimentality and cinematic wonders and focus on the steely procedure that sent Neil into space. It’s an epic story told with as much breath-on-glass intimacy as possible, with Chazelle and star Ryan Gosling striving to respect the accomplishment, but also detail the ferocious inner drive of the astronaut. “First Man” is intense, with visceral highs and emotional lows, and it pushes the helmer out of his comfort zone, resulting the best feature he’s made to date. Read the rest at 

Film Review - The Old Man & the Gun


As it has been often reported over the last year, “The Old Man & the Gun” has been marked as the final acting gig for star Robert Redford, who’s trying to find an elegant way out of his incredible career, at least for now. There’s really not a better role to retire on than this, with Redford required to use most of his charm to bring the picture to life, doing so with remarkable effortlessness. It helps that Redford has a fan in writer/director David Lowery, who does his best to make sure the actor is backed up with a quality feature, and one that shows off a lighter side to the helmer, who was last seen plumbing the depths of ennui with 2017’s “A Ghost Story.” “The Old Man & the Gun” stays with a slower rhythm of mischief, but it handles well, with Lowery paying homage to the cinema of his youth with the star of many of those movies. Read the rest at

Film Review - Private Life


Tamara Jenkins is a filmmaker, but she doesn’t work with any sort of regularity. I’m sure there’s a story there that either details industry ugliness or personal detachment, but when she finally does manage to put a project together, it’s usually quality work. In the last two decades, she’s made three movies, including 1998’s “The Slums of Beverly Hills” and 2007’s “Savages,” and now she returns with “Private Life,” providing another reminder that she’s a thoughtful helmer who should really be out there more often. Embarking on another story of startling intimacy, Jenkins turns her attention to the trials of conception, examining the process of fertilization as its endured by an older couple struggling to have a baby of their own. It feels autobiographical but it plays solidly dramatic, with Jenkins keeping her sense of humor and honesty when taking on a medical journey that has the capacity to decimate the human spirit.  Read the rest at

Film Review - 22 July

22 JULY 1

12 years ago, director Paul Greengrass made a potentially disastrous creative decision by trying to dramatize the events of United Airlines Flight 93, only five years after the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Dealing with wounds that will never heal, Greengrass put his faith in the power of cinema, using evidence and interviews to deliver a searing understanding of fear and courage, remaining very careful with the experience of lives lost. “United 93” was one of the best films of 2006, and its creative concentration supports the very existence of “22 July,” which recreates the 2011 Norway terrorist attacks that took 77 lives. It’s not that this story needed to be brought to the screen, but Greengrass is the right helmer for the job, showing caution with the thin-ice viewing event, hoping to shed light on issues in Europe by transforming headline news into an achingly personal story of grief and survival.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Sadie


Writer/director Megan Griffiths has made a handful of movies during her career, with a few of them failing to inspire much confidence in her helming abilities. Stumbling through “Eden” and “Lucky Them,” Griffiths tried to make intimate films about personal issues, but phoniness was difficult to shake, coupled with a few troubling casting choices. The planets align for Griffith in “Sadie,” which has the benefit of a disturbing premise sold without much distracting exploitation, keeping to a low rumble of dysfunction and manipulation, permitting some behavioral authenticity to come through as intended. There’s a “Bad Seed” element to the tale that’s enticing, but Griffiths doesn’t go wild with thriller interests, electing to preserve a natural development of disillusionment to entice emotional involvement before strangeness starts to creep in.  Read the rest at

Film Review - All Square


From marketing efforts to screenplay nods, there’s a lot in “All Square” that’s meant to evoke the vibe of the 1976 classic, “The Bad News Bears.” Screenwriter Timothy Brady isn’t shy about his fandom, working to update the concept for a modern age, merging the innocence of Little League and the corruption of the adults in charge of raising the players. Despite some similarities, Brady generally pushes to do his own thing with the material, going darker with guardian motivations, while the kids are mostly pawns in a dangerous game of sports betting. “All Square” doesn’t succeed on the humor front, it’s a bit too oppressive to trigger laughs, but Brady offers a character study that’s textured, giving viewers a feel for life lived beneath a hardened exterior.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Stella's Last Weekend


The big draw of “Stella’s Last Weekend” is the reunion of siblings Nat and Alex Wolff, who’ve come together to act for their mother, Polly Draper, who wrote the picture for her children. Eleven years ago, they were a family on the uncomfortably titled Nickelodeon program, “The Naked Brothers Band,” and now the Wolff boys have gone their separate ways, with Nat making his way through independent productions, while Alex scored a hit with last summer’s “Hereditary.” Draper doesn’t have much for her stars to do in “Stella’s Last Weekend,” which provides only a loose narrative to keep itself on course, while most of the feature is filled with brotherly riffing and wishy-washy behavior. It’s not a sharpened drama, though it may appeal to those simply here to enjoy the view, watching Nat and Alex manage a meandering story as Draper tries to conjure a reflective mood, putting her faith in the moment, not an entire story.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Better Start Running


“Better Start Running” is trying to be a road movie, and one that’s populated with damaged people hoping to escape their lives for various reasons. It carries the illusion of a mild ride of shenanigans, with characters on a mission to cross the country, stopping at roadside attractions and getting to know one another. The screenplay by Chad Faust and Annie Burgstede gives off the impression that it was really supposed to be about something, with bits and pieces of real-world trauma detected in the fog of formula that blocks out the sun in this surprisingly joyless dramedy. Director Brett Simon visibly struggles throughout “Better Start Running,” always hesitant to give the feature a defined arc of emotional enlightenment, preferring to make a meandering, almost incomplete picture instead.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Venom


Just over a decade ago, Sony attempted to do something with the character of Venom, adding the wily symbiote to an already overstuffed “Spider-Man 3,” assigning Topher Grace the challenge of bringing a vicious alien organism to life. It didn’t work, but there’s a distinct never say die attitude in the world of comic book movies, and Venom is much too bizarre a creation to pass up for good. The hulking black beast with Cadbury Creme Egg eyes and a Gene Simmons tongue has returned in “Venom,” finding a much more committed actor in Tom Hardy to portray the duality of man and symbiote. The picture is not without its problems, offering one of the weaker third acts in recent memory, but director Reuben Fleischer captures a particular spirit with “Venom,” which is violent and silly, juvenile and demented, summoning a compelling mess of personalities and property destruction. It doesn’t have the epic stance of its superhero competition, but the feature does just fine existing in its own world of impish behavior and premiere Hardy freak-outs. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Heavy Trip


The guys in the Scandinavian comedy “Heavy Trip” aren’t just a heavy metal band, they play “symphonic, post-apocalyptic, reindeer-grinding, Christ-abusing, extreme war pagan, Fennoscandian metal.” It’s the level of specificity that that makes the feature a complete blast, with screenwriters Jukka Vidgren, Jari Olavi Rantala, Aleksi Puranen, and Juuso Laatio (who co-directs with Vidgren) making it a point to pick up on idiosyncrasy whenever they can, braiding oddity and cartoony antics effortlessly. “Heavy Trip” is hilarious and a valentine to the primal release of black metal, but the filmmaking presented here takes special care of character and situation, keeping to classic comedy rhythms while going very particular with musical interests and cultural immersion, ending up with a wonderfully unique endeavor.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Hal


When one considers the kings of cinema from the 1970s, there’s plenty of information out there to explore their creative viewpoints, personality disorders, and career ups and downs. We’re talking Scorsese, Friedkin, Coppola, and Altman, and even more mainstream masters like Lucas and Spielberg. But Hal Ashby? The man’s an enigma, even with books about his life on store shelves. He’s the one with perhaps the greatest run of iconic features, and there’s really no sense of the man who pushed those pictures through production. Director Amy Scott is hoping to change that perception with “Hal,” her cinematic journey through the life and times of Ashby. Scott comes armed with interview audio and correspondences, ready to deliver a portrait of the helmer that’s never really been seen, especially in recent years. With “Hal,” Scott captures the essence of the artist, creating an active, enlightening documentary in the process.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Bad Times at the El Royale


Writer/director Drew Goddard made a big splash with 2012’s “The Cabin in the Woods,” his helming debut. It was a production plagued with problems and missed released dates, yet, when it finally hit screens, it offered a knockout mixture of frights and funny, with Goddard one of the few able to balance the tricky tonality of a horror comedy, especially one that’s glazed up with self-referential humor. Weirdly, it took Goddard six years to get another project up and running, with “Bad Times at the El Royale” his long-awaited follow-up to the genre hit, which takes his career in a slightly different direction, trading mischief for pulp, assembling a crime thriller that returns him to the concept of hellacious doings within a single setting. Unfortunately, Goddard appears less interested in economical, ferocious filmmaking this time around, keeping “Bad Times at the El Royale” long-winded and intermittently exciting, often favoring production polish over storytelling urgency.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Hold the Dark


With his last efforts, “Blue Ruin” and “Green Room,” director Jeremy Saulnier has managed to become one of the more compelling helmers working today. He’s interested in violence, the ugly, gruesome kind so many movies avoid depicting, and he’s committed to character, always pushing for deeper psychological inspections with his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Macon Blair. He’s made masterful, low-budget pictures, and now he’s moving into more permissive areas of production, with his latest, “Hold the Dark,” a more epic undertaking that submits a manhunt scenario, but show more interest in primal behaviors and dark awakenings. Previous creative successes highlighted Saulnier’s skill with monetary and dramatic boundaries. “Hold the Dark” doesn’t offer the same discipline, and the farther it reaches into the unknown, the less essential the film becomes.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Cruise


Nearly a decade ago, Robert D. Siegel was in an incredible creative position. He wrote the screenplay for Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler,” crafting an outstanding character study of a broken man from a pain-filled world trying to make things right for himself and what remains of his family. Siegel also directed “Big Fan,” his look at the ways of mental illness filtered through the world of sports star worship. Both pictures delivered original visions in well-worn genres, cementing Siegel’s position as a creative force to pay attention to. Siegel finally returned to screens with the screenplay for 2016’s “The Founder,” and now directs again with “Cruise,” his ode to the masculine pleasures of the cruising scene in Queens, circa 1987. It’s a feature that tries to get by on period atmosphere and thespian heat, but, coming after “Big Fan,” it’s a disappointment, finding the helmer getting caught in cliché he managed to avoid before.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Ride


The automobile is an intimate space, and one that’s not inherently cinematic. There’s not much one can do with a few seats, riders, and a destination, requiring some supreme filmmaking sorcery to find something interesting with a setting that doesn’t allow for much bodily movement. “Ride” endeavors to be a thriller, pitting a rideshare driver against the growing menace of one customer who has his own plans for the evening, creating a scenario that should result in a sustained nightmare. What writer/director Jeremy Ungar actually comes up with is about 25 minutes of serviceable threats and charged banter before he runs out of inspiration. “Ride” is a one-act play trying to be a big screen pulse-pounder, but there’s not enough here to fill what’s already a scant run time of 76 minutes. Read the rest at

Film Review - Hell Fest


We just did this a month ago. Rooster Teeth’s “Blood Fest” brought the concept of a real slaughterama found at a Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights-style event to the screen, doing so with a good amount of gore and a defined sense of humor, trying to sillier than sinister. “Hell Fest” has virtually the same plot, following a group of young people into a remote theme park set up to celebrate the wonders of being scared, only to be targeted by a real threat inside the property. The main difference between the two movies is that “Hell Fest” has unintentional laughs. Director Gregory Plotkin doesn’t have the budget to do much of anything with the setting, going the repetitive route with this slasher effort, struggling to give the tired routine of kills and paranoia some necessary energy, which doesn’t come as easy as it should. Read the rest at 

Film Review - A Star Is Born


“A Star Is Born” isn’t crossing fresh cinematic terrain. It’s been done before, three times in fact, with versions produced in 1937 (starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March), 1954 (with Judy Garland and James Mason), and in 1976 (with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson), giving co-writer/director Bradley Cooper plenty of guide rail to work with as he mounts what’s ultimately a mixture of the films, but mostly favors the greasy despair of the bicentennial rock musical. It’s a Teflon plot, delivering romance, stage performance, and tragedy, and Cooper understands what the audience is looking for. His “A Star Is Born” is handsomely mounted and profoundly felt at times, becoming an “Actors Studio: The Movie” take on music world misery. It’s also an overlong and somewhat confusing endeavor that always favors emotion over editing. Read the rest at

Film Review - Little Women


Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel, “Little Women,” has inspired many adaptations, as recently as this very year, with the BBC trying their hand at creating a mini-series version of the story. Such repetition makes sense, and so much of this tale of the March Sisters and their struggle to find themselves is irresistible, giving co-writer/director Clare Niederpruem a head-start when it comes to delivering compelling dramatics. While it’s a popular book to bring to all forms of media, it’s not an easy translation to make. While the production tries to streamline some subplots and disconnect from a few characters, this new “Little Women” has ideal charm and, most important of all, sincerity, offering the faithful a heartfelt update that respects Alcott’s prime message of familial love while inoffensively trying to modernize the saga for a more contemporary teen audience.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Night School


Nobody involved in “Night School” needs to put in any effort. Director Malcolm D. Lee had a massive hit last summer with “Girls Trip,” so he’ll be making variations on the film for the next five years. All star Kevin Hart has to do is show up for close-ups and scream and he’s good. And Tiffany Haddish is still working on her sudden rise to national consciousness after a supporting turn in “Girls Trip,” sticking with the sense of humor that broke her into the big time. It’s hard to condemn the professionals for not trying to make something special with “Night School.” It’s there, it’s raunchy, and it’s programmed to have some heart. However, laziness is a big problem with this dispiriting comedy, which could’ve been so much more than the feeble collection of gross-out jokes and wayward riffs it currently offers. Nobody particularly cares about the final product, and such apathy keeps the feature anchored to the ground for nearly two hours.  Read the rest at