Film Review

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

Film Review - Happy Hunting


I’m sure this comparison will make the creators of “Happy Hunting” bristle, but what might be a loose take on “The Most Dangerous Game” actually has more of a “Purge” influence, following a hunt for human flesh that’s been transformed into a sinister contest, with targets and their hunters entering a vast Mexican region to deal with sicko gamesmanship. Writer/directors Joe Dietsch and Lucian Gibson certainly toy with class warfare and grim events, making it hard to wipe off the “Purge” fingerprints, but the duo is after something even darker than the murder night scenario, adding a unique pressure point in alcoholism to keep the feature in a heavy fog, creating a fascinating lead character who confidently marches around a mundane chiller. “Happy Hunting” is slow, painfully so at times, but there are moments of clarity in the writing to make it passably special and inventive, breaking up the routine of a humans-as-prey thriller.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Stronger


It’s hard to believe there are two films about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, and even stranger, they’ve both come out within the same calendar year. This type of dueling production situation is typically reserved for animated pictures, not R-rated dramas. Thankfully, “Stronger” is quite different than January’s “Patriots Day,” which took a procedural look at the terrorist attack, achieve an outstanding level of suspense as it turned a manhunt into a proper thriller, teeming with Boston attitude and blessed with editorial speed. “Stronger” doesn’t pay much attention to the facts of the bombing, preferring to focus on a victim whose life was turned upside down by the blast. It’s a more intimate, passionate effort from director David Gordon Green, who carefully avoids the television movie route to depict a brutal rehabilitation period for a man caught in a dire situation, brought back to life by community and various forms of love.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Last Rampage


As a true crime tale, “Last Rampage” doesn’t do very well with a modest budget. It’s a dramatization of the Tison Gang Crime Rampage of 1978, but director Dwight H. Little (“Anaconda: Hunt for the Blood Orchid,” “Marked for Death,” “Tekken”) doesn’t have a monetary advantage here, challenged to pull off a period tale that requires top-tier wigs, cinematography, and a sense of history. “Last Rampage” isn’t a time machine, but it does deliver necessary horror and pained reflection, permitting it more emotional elbow room to take in the enormity of the event, which shocked Arizona nearly 40 years ago. The Tison experience makes for compelling cinema, with its brutality vividly recreated in the picture, carrying enough shock value to patch visual and dramatic potholes.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Big Bear


“Big Bear” represents a career evolution for Joey Kern. A working actor who appeared in “Cabin Fever” and “Grind,” Kern attempts to take command of his professional fate with this ode to mental instability, assuming writing and directing duties for the first time. It’s a big step up for Kern, who scripts himself the juiciest part, surrounding himself with longtime pals and an appealing location, while the story promises to raise hell with outrageous characters and a plot that involves a botched kidnapping. Kern lines up the elements but doesn’t launch the picture with enough invention, offering a tired broheim movie that’s occasionally interrupted by strange behavior. “Big Bear” isn’t a dud helming debut for Kern, who shows promise with some visual authority, but it plays a little too casual at times, in need of a darker sense of humor. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Mother!


In 2010, writer/director Darren Aronofsky created “Black Swan,” which became the biggest hit of his career. It was a slow-burn psychological freak-out that found the right audience at the right time, and bountiful box office permitted the helmer to make any movie he wanted. He chose 2014’s “Noah,” a lumbering, CGI-laden study of faith and survival that represented a passion project for Aronofsky, finally permitted time to play with a major studio and a monster budget. It didn’t click with audiences, forcing the filmmaker to retreat to the wilds of his low-budget imagination. And now he’s come up with “Mother,” a companion piece of sorts to “Black Swan,” once again tempting the audience with a display of insanity, only here the results are far more esoteric and protracted, unable to escalate as a study of cracked minds, as Aronofsky is so busy polishing the grotesqueries of “Mother,” he neglects to actually tell a story worth paying attention to.  Read the rest at

Film Review - American Assassin


Director Michael Cuesta used to tell human stories. He was once interested in the pains of adolescence (“L.I.E.”), maturity (“Roadie”), and professionalism (“Kill the Messenger”), but that style of filmmaking doesn’t pay the bills. Cuesta now graduates to nondescript studio work with “American Assassin,” which intends to adapt a 2010 Vince Flynn novel for the big screen (the first Mitch Rapp adventure in a 16 book series), but doesn’t offer much literary substance, charging ahead as graphic revenge thriller that’s certainly visceral, but also brain dead. Cuesta discards nuance and tries to keep up with the B-movie technicians who normally helm this type of junk food entertainment, and the change doesn’t suit him. He doesn’t know what he’s doing with “American Assassin,” staging unappealing action and encouraging one-dimensional performances, tasked with establishing a new spy game franchise, only to come up short in almost every possible way.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Rebel in the Rye


Author, recluse, and legend J.D. Salinger has been mythologized to a point of no return. There’s no room for the real man anymore, with the “Catcher in the Rye” writer’s life subjected to countless literary offerings, news investigations, and simple fan adulation, with many hoping to achieve a glimpse of a man who, in 1951, created one of the most influential books of all time, and then, in 1959, stopped publishing for the rest of his life (he passed away in 2010). That nut is never going to be cracked, as evidenced in the supremely underwhelming 2013 documentary, “Salinger,” but such evidence isn’t about to stop writer/director Danny Strong, who makes his helming debut with “Rebel in the Rye,” endeavoring to explore Salinger’s life and times in a way that creates order to imagined chaos, finding guidance in clichéd bio-pic tonality, making the feature play like a constipated television movie.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Polina


Dance films are common, and they generally share a common goal of choreographed movement, trying to nail elaborate big screen routines with precise timing. “Polina” is the rare picture to challenge the boundaries of traditional dance, viewing the rigidity of the art form as a necessary for training, but hard on the heart. It’s not a radical rejection of established dance education requirements, but “Polina” has bigger ideas than simply becoming an overtired ballet effort, locking in on creative yearn and the sheer ecstasy of bodily release. It’s a terrific feature, but not for expected reasons, teasing cliché while achieving a deeper understanding of dancer headspace, which is dominated by a need to please and a searing frustration with any repression of artistic expression.   Read the rest at

Film Review - Vengeance


“Vengeance” is the latest B-movie endeavor for actor Nicolas Cage, who’s turned his career into a video store stocked with only bottom shelf titles, with gems once plentiful now few and far between. However, none of these latter-year bombs can claim inspiration from a Joyce Carol Oates novella, while Cage steps back into a producer role, giving the effort a shot at actual interest from the star. While a personality doesn’t emerge, Cage does the one-man-army routine rather well, turning himself into a statue while the rest of the cast is tasked with providing emotional performances. “Vengeance” is missing pieces of its puzzle, but accepted on its level of blunt hostility, and it works with one eye closed, becoming a vigilante thriller that’s straight to the point.   Read the rest at

Film Review - The Wilde Wedding


John Malkovich and Glenn Close famously teamed up almost 30 years ago, playing troubling games of seduction in “Dangerous Liaisons,” which presented two wonderful actors in their prime a chance to play challenging period roles, inhabiting unhealthy characters. The same idea applies to “The Wilde Wedding,” which reteams Close and Malkovich in a contemporary tale of seemingly pleasant people up to no good while in the midst of a celebration. Writer/director Damian Harris isn’t remaking “Dangerous Liaisons,” but he’s offering the ensemble a chance to play in wide open spaces, going for more of a mid-career Woody Allen vibe as personalities collide and predatory behaviors are exposed during the titular event, with a jazzy score keeping the pace as the helmer simply unleashes his cast on the script, making a casual disaster movie with exceedingly talented leads.   Read the rest at

Film Review - Wetlands


Following current crime story trends, “Wetlands” is a heavy viewing experience, offering a level of bleakness that’s difficult to endure, especially when it loses concentration on its most promising elements. Writer/director Emanuele Della Valle aims to achieve a sort of mediation on the scars of sin and the struggles of redemption, and he’s chosen an interesting location to summon the ghosts of the past, with the outskirts of Atlantic City setting the scene for an odyssey that turns the lead character inside out. However, while effective in certain areas, boosted by a fine cast and a knockout turn from Jennifer Ehle, “Wetlands” tends to revel in mood instead of using it to create grim momentum, with the tale’s shock value far too numbed to make its intended impact.   Read the rest at

Film Review - 9/11

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It took some time after the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, for the movie industry to feel comfortable dramatizing the horrors that occurred on that dreadful, emotionally crippling day. Eventually, producers worked up the nerve to try and visualize something most Americans are loathe to remember, and intriguing cinema emerged, including Paul Greengrass’s “United 93,” Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center,” and a host of smaller pictures and television efforts. Most of these endeavors were trying to understand incredible behaviors of the day and mourn unimaginable sacrifices, hoping to make some sense out of a heinous, cowardly act. Now comes “9/11,” which is a little late to the party, but labors to live up to the “never forget” mantra surrounding the disaster, offering a micro-budget story of survival inside the crumbling North Tower of the World Trade Center. And when one considers the depth of sorrow, the pain of loss, and the boiling rage of frustration surrounding the 9/11 experience, it makes perfect sense for director Martin Guigui to hire Charlie Sheen to star -- a man who’s gone on record questioning the reality of the attacks. It’s the first of many cringe-inducing goofs “9/11” makes on its quick journey to obscurity. Read the rest at 

Film Review - It

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While adaptations of Stephen King novels are common, the big screen has enjoyed a recent revival of the author’s work, making it feel like the 1980s all over again. Unfortunately, August’s “The Dark Tower” was a mess and perhaps a poor choice for a cinematic experience to begin with, finding its labyrinthine story too complex for a 90 minute run time, leaving behind more questions than answers. Far more successful is “It,” which brings King’s 1986 book to life in extraordinary ways, with director Andy Muschietti capably handling the curves and history of King’s source material, doing an excellent job of focus when dealing with a massive book (over 1,000 pages). “It” is frightening, as to be expected with a demonic clown for an antagonist, but it’s also richly realized (supported by an epic sense of childhood fears and desires), evocative, and outstandingly acted. While it liberally cuts material from the original book, Muschietti still fashions a complete and irresistible experience of fear, easily topping “The Dark Tower” as the premiere King joint of the year, but it’s also one of his finest translations overall, with the production getting the author’s macabre imagination just right. Read the rest at

Film Review - Little Evil


“Little Evil” is a comedic version of “The Omen,” not to be confused with “The Omen” remake from 2006, which, let’s face it, had more laughs. It’s the long-awaited new film from writer/director Eli Craig, who’s last movie, 2010’s “Tucker and Dale vs. Evil,” was a genuine surprise, competently blending slapstick comedy and blood-spattered horror. It was a lively picture, and while Craig’s been away attacking television productions in the intervening years, his sense of humor hasn’t been diluted. “Little Evil” is highly amusing, but more importantly, it offers enjoyable speed and dips into wackiness, never losing its rhythm as the story gets weirder and more wicked. Craig is backed by a game cast of comedians and a love of the genre, which is evident through inside jokes and an overall push into demonic events, keeping the effort fun while it teases a taste for the frightening.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Home Again


When your parents are filmmakers Nancy Meyers and Charles Shyer, I supposed getting into the family business is unavoidable. Making her directorial debut with “Home Again” is Hallie Meyers-Shyer, and instead of serving up a piping hot slice of offspring rebellion, the helmer basically makes the same movie her parents have been offering multiplexes for the last 30 years. Making a decidedly underwhelming first impression, Meyers-Shyer is barely trying with “Home Again,” which offers a slow-pitch softball game of love with weirdly emphatic and unlikable characters, and maintains the family formula of upper class opulence and first-world problems, which the production means to present as escapism. Instead, it’s deathly dull and haphazardly scripted, making for a long viewing experience as Meyers-Shyer slowly traces over previous screenplays.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Year by the Sea


I don’t think it’s controversial to suggest that “Year by the Sea” is made with a specific demographic in mind. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as it’s a demographic habitually ignored by Hollywood, forcing this indie production to reach out and find an audience that’s in step with its depiction of life as a woman of a certain age. “Year by the Sea” deserves some credit for committing entirely to the inner workings of a sixtysomething character, and there’s necessary texture in the unsettled life presented here. Writer/director Alexander Janko often goes out of his way to cater to an older audience, but his most important choice is the casting of Karen Allen, a wonderful actress who builds on her work in last year’s “Bad Hurt,” offering another layered view of domestic containment, albeit in a cheerier effort, but one that’s wise to the ways of aging, choices, and personal need.  Read the rest at