Film Review

Film Review - Phoenix Forgotten


The found footage subgenre has been nothing but problematic over the years, inspiring iffy filmmakers to craft their own suspense or horror experiences using amateur actors and quaking camerawork. It seldom works, and even success stories are plagued with nagging issues of logic and creative aspiration. The latest contestant to try for a multiplex miracle is “Phoenix Forgotten,” which boasts producing participation from Ridley Scott, but the rest of the effort is strictly a no-budget lump that does nothing to reinvent found footage or is able to jazz it up with real tension. It’s a “Blair Witch Project” knockoff from co-writer/director Justin Barber, who goes through the motions with limited actors and bruising cinematography, aiming for a blend of investigation and chills from the sci-fi realm. Cruelly, “Phoenix Forgotten” doesn’t inspire awe, but a need to bury deep the whole found footage career plan for inexperienced moviemakers. Read the rest at

Film Review - Free Fire


At this point in his career, it’s pretty safe to label writer/director Ben Wheatley as an acquired taste. The helmer of “A Field in England,” “High-Rise,” and “Kill List,” Wheatley marches to the beat of own drummer when it comes to committing his cinematic interests to film. A firm believer in dark comedy and ultraviolence, he doesn’t make things easy for his audience, showing a level of independent spirit that’s rare to find these days. And yet, few of his features truly become something special, often lost in their own idiosyncrasies and nightmares, with Wheatley more invested in oddity than storytelling. His streak continues with “Free Fire,” which somehow manages to make an hour-long shootout feel endless and empty, despite the valiant efforts of an itchy ensemble that’s ready to play with bullets and taunts. Read the rest at

Film Review - Unforgettable


It’s not going to be easy for “Unforgettable” to find an audience. Decades ago, a sinister jealousy thriller wasn’t a weekly event, but cable channels such as Lifetime have diluted the market, making it nearly impossible for women to go crazy on the big screen and expect ticket-buyers to show up. While it’s not a radical reinvention of the subgenre, “Unforgettable” certainly isn’t a wipe-out, putting in a little hustle when it comes to scripted motivations and technical achievements, while stars Rosario Dawson and Katherine Heigl commit to the slow-burn madness with engaging performances. Director Denise Di Novi attempts to class up the warring wives routine, and while she doesn’t knock the effort out of the park, she certainly makes a positive impression with a fatigued premise. Read the rest at

Film Review - Born in China


After sitting out last year, Disneynature returns to screens with “Born in China,” which could be viewed as another chapter of Earth’s wonders opened for inspection, or perhaps the Disney Corporation is trying to extend the box office reach of their nature documentary series by setting the story in a red-hot moviegoing market. Interpretation of production motivation is up to the individual viewer, but the essentials of “Born in China” remain free of cynicism, with director Chuan Lu achieving impressive results with his mission to photograph wildlife in motion, keeping the picture steeped in the natural beauty of China while he works out various subplots that touch on life, death, and adorableness. Read the rest at

Film Review - Sandy Wexler


When Adam Sandler signed a deal to make movies for Netflix, giving up the theatrical distribution business, he was offered financial freedom to make pictures studios would normally refuse. With “The Ridiculous 6,” Sandler starred in an expensive western, becoming a hero who rides horses and saves the day. In “The Do-Over,” Sandler was offered an opportunity to make an R-rated comedy -- a rare event in his career. And now there’s “Sandy Wexler,” a personal project where the comedian pays tribute to the failures and idiosyncrasies of his manager, Sandy Wernick. It’s also the longest endeavor in Sandler’s career, clocking in at a whopping 131 minutes, which is a level of Netflix permissiveness studios would never allow, and for good reason. There’s no reason why an Adam Sandler feature should run over two hours, especially one like “Sandy Wexler,” where nothing actually happens outside of an extended impression of Wernick only a small group of Hollywood insiders are going to get. Read the rest at

Film Review - Sand Castle


It’s difficult to avoid a sense of familiarity with “Sand Castle,” which examines the fried headspaces of soldiers fighting in the Iraq War. It’s a setting and a story that’s been told many times before, through films and documentaries, with each production searching for authenticity, following the same path of procedural inspection and personal breakdown. “Sand Castle” manages to define itself through its depiction of hesitation, watching the lead character attempt to delay the inevitable for as long as possible, receiving a distinct education on the price of war. Screenwriter Chris Roessner (a war vet making his feature-length debut) has all the details down perfectly, but his true challenge is one of focus, with “Sand Castle” tasked with taking in the enormity of combat and articulating the subtle ways it shatters individual participants.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Gifted


There’s always talk concerning Hollywood’s inability to make smaller movies about people that’s not after Oscar gold. Multiplexes are usually light on such dramatic storytelling, making something like “Gifted” a rarity, forced to compete against supercharged sequels and brand names. It should be a home run, especially considering the lack of competition, but “Gifted” doesn’t make a difference, laboring through clichés and botched editing as it searches for a way to reach the hearts and minds of its intended audience. Director Marc Webb and screenwriter Tom Flynn try to retain softness and intimacy, but they don’t know when to quit, making the endeavor feel overly fluffy with its study of a kid genius, her troubled guardian, and a custody battle. Read the rest at

Film Review - Cezanne et moi


“Cezanne et moi” is a tale of friendship, but one where the participants just happen to be giants of art working through various struggles in their separate lives. It’s not a bio-pic of Emile Zola and Paul Cezanne, but an imagining of their longstanding connection, which weathered all kinds of domestic turmoil and insecurities, helping the pair generate an unlikely bond as they grew into their creative legacies. Writer/director Daniele Thompson shares his appreciation for the combustible union, trading a clinical listing of accomplishments for something far more talkative and episodic, keeping the conversation moving as he jumps around in time, working to shape a portrait of two wildly different men connecting through talent and spirit, trying to remain in each other’s lives as time and temper attempt to divide them. Read the rest at

Film Review - Colossal


Writer/director Nacho Vigalondo has been known to make some very strange films. The helmer of “Timecrimes,” “Open Windows,” and “Extraterrestrial,” Vigalondo is drawn toward material that allows him to experiment with form and approach psychological issues from unusual perspectives. While previously exploring intimate spaces of thought, the Vigalondo goes building-sized big for “Colossal,” which offers a deep emotional dive in the guise of a kaiju movie, tinkering with wrath of massive monsters and robots as it pertains to the frazzled mental state of a single woman who can’t seem to get her act together, even when she’s turned into a formidable enemy. “Colossal” isn’t what it initially appears to be, delivering a Chinese box viewing experience that mostly connects as intended, eased along by Anne Hathaway’s exceptional lead performance, which mercifully grounds many of the lofty therapeutic ideas Vigalondo dreams up. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Fate of the Furious


2015’s “Furious 7” brought the aged “Fast and the Furious” franchise to a new peak of box office success, fueled in large part by the death of co-star Paul Walker, with many curious ticket-buyers turning out to see how the successful series would handle such a blow to the brand name’s appeal. Now without Walker, producers are left to reinvent the story, reworking the team dynamic to feed a new trilogy of movies. Kicking things off with a winded howl is “The Fate of the Furious,” which attempts to comb a little Just for Men through the graying temples of the saga by going even bigger and bolder with its car stunts and displays of brawn than ever before. If you’re a fan of everything “Fast and Furious,” why are you even looking at film reviews? But for the rest of the public that’s aware of thespian limitations and directorial mayhem, “The Fate of the Furious” simply serves up more noise and jaw pumping, doing surprisingly little to rewire the narrative, protecting the core appeal of the now billion-dollar-grossing extravaganzas. Read the rest at

Film Review - After the Storm


Hirokazu Kore-eda has crafted a series of mournful, compelling Japanese dramas over the last few years, hitting creative highs with “Our Little Sister,” “I Wish,” and “Like Father, Like Son.” He’s filling a career already stocked with impressive efforts, forming something of a hot streak with achingly human pictures that touch on universal realities and showcase unusual sides to Japanese culture and fatherhood. “After the Storm” is his latest endeavor, and it sustains the helmer’s concentration on the subtle challenges of life, again returning to an emphasis on character, watching these personalities work on their behavioral and psychological issues. It’s a tender and wise feature, sustaining Kore-eda’s inspection of family and the bittersweet experience of aging. Read the rest at

Film Review - Tommy's Honour


As the golf season arrives with spring, bringing hordes of players to the links for that first sampling of outdoor splendor, the producers of “Tommy’s Honour” have decided to celebrate the yearly awakening with a golf story of the their own. A bio-pic of Young Tom Morris, a professional golfer from Scotland, the picture desires to return viewers to the early days of the sport, where attendee aggression was more of a powder keg situation, and wagering was the real test of skill, making or losing a fortune over a single putt. Movies about golf are few and far between, making “Tommy’s Honour” a bit of a novelty, but one that takes the sport seriously, attempting to shine a spotlight on one of its greatest players, while his father, Old Tom Morris, was one of golf’s first visionaries. Read the rest at

Film Review - 1 Mile to You


While it isn’t used as a gimmick, “1 Mile to You” does reunite actor Billy Crudup with the sport of distance running, where he once portrayed legend Steve Prefontaine in 1998’s “Without Limits.” Crudup’s comfort on his feet and two decades worth of acting experience certainly provides much needed help to “1 Mile to You,” which mixes sport film formula with a personal drama about grief. It’s based on a book and feels it, with director Leif Tilden fighting to preserve narrative expanse, but only cherry picking moments that covey the movement of a life. It’s somewhat ironic that a picture about endurance is exhausted long before it’s over, but the production has trouble prioritizing characters and confrontations, making the movie more of a chore to watch after a decent, heartfelt first half. Read the rest at

Film Review - All This Panic


In 2008, there was “American Teen,” a buzzy documentary about adolescents in the Midwest struggling with life, love, and a year of high school. Director Nanette Burstein aimed for verite, but she couldn’t hide the fiction, caught creating instead of observing, which rendered the film useless. “All This Panic” shares a similar vibe, submitting itself as a documentary on New York City teenagers trying to find their way in the great big world, with director Jenny Gage surveying their battles at home and with one another, trying to fashion a depiction of maturation over a three-year-long shooting period. And yet, large sections of “All This Panic” feel cooked to make a movie, with the stars spending as much time posing for the camera as they do dealing with one another. There are moments when the effort looks more like an acting reel than a non-fiction odyssey into juvenile decision-making. Read the rest at

Film Review - Little Boxes


Everyone has their own personal experiences to inform their life journey, and I respect that. However, I’d like to know what the heck suburbia personally did to screenwriter Annie J. Howell and director Rob Meyer to make them so mad at it. “Little Boxes” is the umpteenth picture to explore the poisonous reach of casual living, only here the focus is less on the temptation of boredom and more on racial issues, playing into the zeitgeist. “Little Boxes” isn’t robust enough as a drama and routinely unfunny, but one can spot what the filmmakers were aiming to achieve with this collision of skin color, teenage rebellion, and social awkwardness. Howell and Meyer shoot for a dramedy, but they end up with a feature that’s tonally confused and frequently meandering. Read the rest at

Film Review - Smurfs: The Lost Village


For almost 60 years, “The Smurfs” has developed into a brand name for children’s entertainment, beginning life as a Belgian comic book series, but perhaps best known as a cartoon from the 1980s that launched the little blue creatures to worldwide fame. Hollywood took its time devising a big screen blockbuster for the source material, and 2011’s “The Smurfs” was a massive hit, conquering the box office with unexpected speed, making the possibility of a sequel a certainty. Unfortunately, 2013’s “The Smurfs 2” wasn’t able to match the success of the original film, with audiences likely turned off by the CG-animated/live action approach, making two efforts more about dopey humans than the titular characters. Sony Pictures Animation is looking to return the franchise to its roots, ditching Neil Patrick Harris for a fully animated endeavor, positioning “Smurfs: The Lost Village” as a back-to-basics production, keeping focus on the Smurf community. However, not all problems are solved by the new creative direction. Read the rest at

Film Review - Aftermath


Returning to acting after his stint as the governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger has endured some difficulty getting his big screen mojo back. His post-political career has fired a few blanks (including “Terminator: Genisys” and “The Last Stand”), but his acting has improved, and Schwarzenegger is finally at a place where he’s willing to take some creative chances with difficult material. In 2015, there was “Maggie,” a grim zombie saga that was more about the pains of parenthood than brain consumption. Now there’s “Aftermath,” a stark drama that examines the tunnel vision of grief and initial instincts for revenge. However, it’s not an action picture pitting Schwarzenegger against a formidable foe. Instead, director Elliot Lester (“Blitz”) and screenwriter Javier Gullon deliver a waking nightmare of guilt and confusion, cutting deep into complex emotions without the safety net of ultraviolence. It’s an engrossing study of despair. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Void


“The Void” has plenty of invention to share with hungry horror fans, but it also plays like a mix-tape of genre highlights, and that’s a compliment. Sampling beats from “The Thing,” “Hellraiser,” and “Martyrs,” the feature makes a wonderful mess of blood and guts as it achieves a rare level of suspense, with directors Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski creating a descent into Hell that’s genuinely mysterious and frightening. “The Void” is rough stuff, but for those who have an appetite for vividly staged screen violence and unsettling tales of evil exposure, this is practically a sure thing. Members of the cinema satirists guild, Astron-6 (creators of pure B-movie gold like “Father’s Day,” “Manborg,” and “The Editor”), Gillespie and Kostanski follow their influences and utilize their talents, transforming a spare, low-budget endeavor into something quite special and haunting. Read the rest at

Film Review - Speech & Debate


I suppose the knee-jerk reaction to “Speech & Debate” is to compare it to the “Glee,” the television phenomenon that brought music, drama, and diversity into American homes, identifying teen liberation through the performing arts. The material is actually an adaptation of a play by Stephen Karam, who assumes screenwriting duties for his big screen debut. While it has the potential to be snarky, dim, and thin, “Speech & Debate” is downright wonderful at times, eschewing the plastic teen routine to create dimensional characters facing interesting personal and educational challenges, while comedic efforts are shockingly effective, keeping the laughs and mild amounts of absurdity coming as director Dan Harris (who hasn’t helmed a movie since 2004’s “Imaginary Heroes”) creates a bright take on adolescent insecurities and rebellion.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Win It All


Building an impressive filmography of modest, improvised dramedies (including “Happy Christmas,” “Digging for Fire,” and “Drinking Buddies”), writer/director Joe Swanberg adds to his fortunes with “Win It All.” Joined by co-writer/star Jake Johnson, Swanberg constructs an itchy, funky depiction of a gambling addict on the path to a bruised redemption, navigating impulses and an unlikely romance along the way. Like everything Swanberg does, it’s unassuming work, but this time he’s dealing with a special disease, which offers the normally sedate helmer a chance to experiment with more defined tension. Hilarious and horrifying, “Win It All” gives Johnson the best role of his career, reuniting with Swanberg to portray a dimensional human being who can’t quite work up the interest to pull out of his personal tailspin, gifting the actor a psychological challenge he completes with impressive skill. Read the rest at