Film Review

Film Review - Small Crimes


A few years ago, writer/director Evan Katz made a strong first impression with “Cheap Thrills.” A macabre chiller that toyed magnificently with dark comedy and gruesome events, “Cheap Thrills” provided a vivid introduction to Katz’s particular sense of humor and his preference for screen violence, packaged into a sneaky, alarming indie effort. For his follow-up, Katz remains in the company of awful behavior, joining co-writer Macon Blair for “Small Crimes,” which also seeks to expose awful people engaged in troubling business, but instead of mounting another game of dares, the helmer tries a traditional buffet of corrupt characters and small town murder. Considering the surprises Katz was previously capable of landing, “Small Crimes” is a disappointment, lumbering through a series of uneventful encounters with ill-defined characters, with only periodic bursts of aggression acting as the glue that fails to keep the picture together. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Circle


“The Circle” had a shot at greatness. An adaptation of a 2013 novel by Dave Eggers, the story inspects a modern age of online permission and surveillance, imagining a Google/Facebook-style company as an evil empire trying to take over the world under the guise of honest exposure, gifting users the chance to live an idyllic life free of secrets and solitude. It’s a sinister plot, perhaps already a reflection of the world we live in, but the film version of the Eggers book runs into serious trouble with tone and editorial finesse, almost reaching cartoon extremes with incidents and disasters that should be horrifying, cutting too close to home. Co-writer/director James Ponsoldt (“The Spectacular Now,” “The End of the Tour”) graduates to large-scale storytelling with “The Circle,” but the effort slides right out of his hands almost as soon as it begins, with the picture often too clumsy and overcooked to frighten viewers. Read the rest at

Film Review - Sleight


“Sleight” is a movie about a magician, but it’s not a movie about magic. Much like the “Now You See Me” films, “Sleight” isn’t dedicated to the craftsmanship of the profession, instead using magic as a means to explore sci-fi ideas while keeping the whole endeavor tethered to the ground with an urban survival story. Co-writer/director J.D. Dillard presents a peculiar blend of the fantastic and the real, but he’s not particularly prepared to do something astonishing with the adventure. The picture bites off more than it can chew as it tries to make sense of its unreality, often turning to cliché and repetition just to fill 90 minutes with limp dramatics and the periodic pop of B-movie invention. Read the rest at

Film Review - Their Finest


“Their Finest” would make a lovely double feature companion for the recent smash hit, “Hidden Figures.” Both movies explore a journey of empowerment, albeit in wildly different eras and settings, but the pictures touch on a primal struggle to be seen and heard in both work and love, showing amazing respect for its leading characters. Where “Hidden Figures” was a decidedly American production, “Their Finest” couldn’t be more British, with director Lone Scherfig managing the sights and sounds of wartime London, with all its sacrifices, destruction, and frustrated citizens. Scherfig is also challenged to balance the needs to comedy with intimate emotional exploration, handling a story that’s wide open for pure silliness, sly wit, and stressed hearts and minds. It’s a blend of pathos and industry satire that works quite well. Read the rest at

Film Review - Graduation


“Graduation” captures the turmoil of parenthood with startling accuracy. While it’s a drama with a few convenient turns of plot, writer/director Cristian Mungiu remains committed to a realistic portrayal of a father and husband slowly losing what little control he has left over his dismal life, sent on a torturous journey of desperation to a secure something resembling a future for his daughter. Mungiu pinpoints behavioral leaps and emotional strain, highlighting the process of parental sacrifice, which is never as cleanly defined as hoped. “Graduation” doesn’t tear itself apart as it depicts this particular fall from grace. Instead, it chips away at integrity, real and imagined, finding the exact moment when a child recognizes their parent as the human they are, which is devastating for both parties. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Lost City of Z


James Gray is a very patient filmmaker, and he doesn’t work often. The helmer of “The Yards,” “The Immigrant,” and “We Own the Night,” Gray is a deliberate craftsman who takes the challenge of dramatic recreation seriously, filling his pictures with a remarkable amount of texture and depth, offering those who choose to take a cinematic journey a chance to get lost in screen particulars. Even when Gray slips up, he does it with style, always sincere and confident in the work. “The Lost City of Z” presents a true test of directorial courage, as it covers adventures into punishing locations, deals with tightly-wound characters not prone to emotional outbursts, and takes on a story that doesn’t exactly have an ending. At least a tidy one. Taking his chance to make a David Lean-style epic, Gray gives everything he has to “The Lost City of Z,” which isn’t an easy sit, but rewards with its attention to detail and fondness for the unknown.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Black Rose


“Black Rose” was originally released in Russia in 2014. For reasons not entirely understood, the picture is finally making its way to America in 2017, creating a Netflix-series-worthy mystery of film acquisition and delayed deal-making. Without stars and a pronounced genre hook, “Black Rose” is simply a generic cop thriller in need of something interesting to define itself, coming close with director/star Alexander Nevsky, who positions himself in the Seagal/Van Damme mode of tough guy justice. Sadly, Nevsky is a big guy but doesn’t possess anything more than a scowl, making him a weirdly inert hero for the endeavor, which could use a dose of physical prowess. Someone, somewhere thought it was a good idea to bring the feature west, but there are few clues in the movie as to why this decision was made. Read the rest at

Film Review - Rupture


Steven Shainberg doesn’t direct very often, but when he does, he specializes in fetishes, using the screen to explore interests in restraint and discipline. His last picture was 2006’s “Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus,” which explored abnormal body hair growth and artistic curiosity, but Shainberg is best known for 2002’s “Secretary,” which brought the private world of BDSM to art house audiences and Blockbuster Video renters, detailing an intense relationship between a dominant and a submissive in an office environment. Now there’s “Rupture,” which adds to Shainberg’s celebration of kink, but this round is more macabre, highlighting one bound woman’s experience with the limits of fear. “Rupture” is a bizarre effort and not at all satisfying, and as the feature begins to unravel while pursuing impossible visual and storytelling goals, one begins to wonder if the basic atmosphere of suffering isn’t feeding Shainberg’s personal appetites.  Read the rest at

Film Review - The Black Room


Director Rolfe Kanefsky has specialized in adult entertainment before, helming bluntly tiled pictures like “Sex Files: Alien Erotica” and “Adventures Into the Woods: A Sexy Musical.” He’s no stranger to the world of low-budget filmmaking, especially one that relies on salacious content to attract attention. With “The Black Room,” Kanefsky manages homage to Italian horror of the 1970s, which was never shy about the merging of gore and toplessness, amplifying his celebration of the decade’s delights throughout the feature, working to bend technical limitations into replication. To be fair to Kanefsky, “The Black Room” contains a few surprises, and the female stars of the movie deserve a medal for surviving what looks to be rather unpleasant special effects. However, a few decently raunchy moments don’t support an entire effort, which tends to miss more than hits as Kanefsky piles on the demonic mischief.  Read the rest at

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