Film Review

Film Review - Kickboxer: Retaliation


1989’s “Kickboxer” was reimagined for 2016’s “Kickboxer: Vengeance,” keeping star Jean-Claude Van Damme, but jettisoning the B-movie escapism that made the original picture so much fun, especially for underdog action cinema fans. “Vengeance” was oppressive and disappointing, unfortunately helmed by John Stockwell, who’s not known for his directorial triumphs. While nobody asked for a sequel, Van Damme returns with “Kickboxer: Retaliation,” joining star Alain Moussi for another round of Muay Thai combat, only for the follow-up, certain tonal and creative changes have been made, making for a more engaging, intermittently rousing bruiser, scratching that “Kickboxer” itch with a broader continuation. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Maze Runner: The Death Cure


2015’s “Maze Runner: Scorch Trials” was released only a year after its predecessor, “The Maze Runner.” The producers were wisely trying to work through this adaptation of the James Dashner YA book series as quickly as possible, hoping to keep the attention of the target demographic, which almost worked, finding part two costing twice as much as part one to make and pulling in a slightly lower box office gross. It’s been a two and a half year wait for “Maze Runner: The Death Cure,” an eternity for this type of entertainment, presenting a creative challenge for director Wes Ball, who not only has to mastermind a franchise closer, but also provide a reason for anyone to return to this anemic brand name in the first place. His solution is to blow everything up, which works in fits for “The Death Cure,” but doesn’t magically make this 145-minute-long slog enjoyable. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Light of the Moon


“The Light of the Moon” adds an important perspective to the ongoing examination of sexual assault in film. Writer/director Jessica M. Thompson doesn’t create a melodrama to soften the blow of violence, generating a fascinating reality for the effort, which doesn’t pretend to have easy answers to complex questions of identity and aftermath. It’s an intelligent, emotional feature that’s interested in atypical feelings and reactions associated with the crime of rape, giving itself room to consider the bigger picture of relationships, inspecting how intimacies are challenged when the unthinkable occurs. There are no hysterics, just rawness and the deception of denial, making “The Light of the Moon” different, more in tune with the authenticity of the crime and its lingering hold on victims and their loved ones. Read the rest at

Film Review - Small Town Crime


“Small Town Crime” works hard to remain elusive. It’s not a comedy, but there are some big laughs. It’s not a thriller, but chases and shootouts ensue. It’s not a drama, but heaviness remains. It’s a whodunit without emphasis, with writer/directors Eshom and Ian Nelms keeping their cool while they construct a detective tale that’s defined by its idiosyncrasy and guided by a strong lead performance from John Hawkes. “Small Town Crime” doesn’t add up to much, but the journey is better than the destination, with the Nelms offering a mild ride with interesting characters and modest tensions, creating a special space for their cinematic interests. Read the rest at

Film Review - Like Me


With the release of “Ingrid Goes West” last summer, there’s already been a fairly accurate summary of social media and its capacity to distort lives, exposing dangerous levels of need and delusion. “Like Me” has the same interest in the potency of stranger celebration and condemnation, but writer/director Robert Mockler isn’t interested in playing straight with what little drama he offers here. “Like Me” is more of a modern art installation, going the abstract route with wild visuals and anxious editing, keeping Mockler busy orchestrating a 79-minute-long freak out. Your mileage may vary with the picture, as those particularly interested in an artful summary of personal ruin while find something to embrace here. It’s not for everyone, but what’s disappointing about the movie is that, at times, it’s only really for Mockler. Read the rest at

Film Review - American Folk


In a time of divisiveness, writer/director David Heinz makes a curious choice to return to a national nightmare to help identify the last time Americans share a common vision for anything. The event was 9/11, and while “American Folk” isn’t a story of terrorism, it utilizes the aftermath of the tragedy to inspire a sense of harmony, both literally through music and spiritually through a road trip, with the main characters experiencing a changed land that’s received a chilling reminder that unity is vital to the state of the union. “American Folk” is soft work, gentle on the senses and peppered with musical performances, and while Heinz gets a little too meandering at times, he’s after something kind and soulful with the feature, fighting current political and cultural divides with a reminder that civility and hope is still possible. Read the rest at

Film Review - Hostiles


Writer/director Scott Cooper doesn’t take it easy on his characters. He’s sustained a fascination with guilt and punishment with efforts such as “Crazy Heart,” “Out of the Furnace,” and his last endeavor, the middling “Black Mass,” exploring violence in all its forms, saving some specialized aggression for his climaxes. While he’s flirted with western motifs before, he goes all in on the genre for “Hostiles,” which doesn’t take the challenge of mounting a western expansion drama in 2018 lightly. It’s a graphic feature, with a few exchanges of brutality that will likely turn off some viewers, but Cooper doesn’t lose sight of his narrative and atmospheric goals, handling “Hostiles” with the muscularity it needs to power through its inspection of personal corruption and seeds of salvation in the still-wild west. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Polka King


His career choices have been a little unsteady in recent years, but “The Polka King” is a great reminder that with the right material, Jack Black is capable of wonderful things. The feature is an adaptation of a 2009 documentary (“The Man Who Would Be Polka King”), delivering a glossy overview of Jan Lewan, a Polish polka musician and odd-job guy who elected to set a musical empire on a foundation of fraud, dancing, singing, and hustling his way to financial freedom while believing in the power of the American Dream. Black is unleashed on the man and the material, filling the frame with such undeniable energy, giving co-writer/director Maya Forbes (“Infinitely Polar Bear”) much to work with as she details the unbelievable experience of a polka-slinging crook who couldn’t help himself.  Read the rest at

Film Review - The Road Movie


I’ve seen some pretty flimsy film concepts in my day, but “The Road Movie” should win some type of award for simplicity. In an age where everything is available online, director Dmitrii Kalashnikov has elected to curate only the finest in Russian dash cam footage, weaving together a fantasia of accidents, speed, and surprises that highlight the pure insanity casually recorded during seemingly average rides across the country. Of course, one can find this stuff anywhere at any time, but the beauty of “The Road Movie” is how it generates a thrill ride atmosphere of horror and humor, with Kalashnikov delivering a vivid viewing experience with his highlight reel of disasters and near-misses. It’s 3D without the glasses.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Den of Thieves


It’s been about 22 years since the release of Michael Mann’s “Heat,” and the producers of “Den of Thieves” have decided it’s time for a remake. However, it’s not easy to create another “Heat,” a feature beloved in cineaste circles, often hailed as one of the best of the 1990s. Instead of outdoing Mann’s movie, screenwriters Paul Scheuring and Christian Gudegast (who also directs) go the inferior route, trying to toughen up their sprawling L.A. crime saga with enough testosterone and violence to make the audience forget they’ve already seen the picture. “Den of Thieves” isn’t the first film to sneak a few bites off the 1995 endeavor, but it’s definitely chewing the loudest, with Gudegast perhaps aiming for reverence, but comes up with mimicry instead, making for a particularly long 140-minute-long sit, especially without De Niro and Pacino around.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Mom and Dad


Brian Taylor made his directing debut (joined by Mark Neveldine) with 2006’s “Crank,” a low-budget endeavor that reveled in anarchy, finding a cult following that celebrated the feature’s maniac style and pitch-black sense of humor. “Crank” made a little bit of money. 2009’s “Crank: High Voltage” made considerably less, suggest audience fatigue with the duo’s scattergun cinema style, but they remained committed to the cause, making “Crank”-style movies with “Gamer” and “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance,” and both efforts were met with a collective shrug from filmgoers. Making his solo helming debut, Taylor once again goes to the “Crank” well for “Mom and Dad,” a predictably berserk creation that plays like a cross between “Parenthood” and “Dawn of the Dead,” chock full of the needlessly quaking camerawork, random editing, and screaming performances Taylor once required a partner to master.  Read the rest at

Film Review - 12 Strong


While war stories are common in American cinema, a project like “12 Strong” doesn’t just come from out of nowhere. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer is looking to create his own version of the 2014 smash hit, “American Sniper,” returning audiences to the battleground of the Middle East, where noble military men clash against local enemies, emphasizing sacrifice, honor, and the sheer trained might of U.S. forces. A movie doesn’t simply make superhero cinema money and go unnoticed, and while “12 Strong” doesn’t have the tragic angle of “American Sniper,” daring to go forward with a positive Afghanistan tale, it shares the same simplicity and jingoistic fervor that’s meant to play to certain audiences, buttering up the cruelties of war with fetishistic violence and steel-jawed performances.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Showdown in Manila


I first became aware of Alexander Nevsky last year, when his 2014 thriller, “Black Rose,” was finally picked up for a U.S. release. The picture was painful to sit through, but it showcased a certain fervor for stardom from Nevsky, who handled a good portion of the production’s credits, trying to launch himself as the next big thing in international action cinema. “Black Rose” didn’t find an audience, but Nevsky is back with “Showdown in Manila,” which brings the hulking star to another part of the world to do a little hellraising, but this time the results are weirdly amateurish, with Nevsky handing directorial duties to Mark Dacascos, a longtime actor (and performer on “Iron Chef America”) who makes a particularly clumsy helming debut. For those who can endure the feature’s considerable shortcomings and tone-deaf creative choices, this might be the next “The Room” for action cinema fans, giving Nevsky the spotlight he craves.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Acts of Violence


There’s truth in advertising here, as “Acts of Violence” contains plenty of aggressive encounters, embracing the freedom of brutality the title grants. It’s also a hopelessly ugly, moronic picture that appears to be under the impression that it’s a valuable clue in the ongoing assessment of modern law enforcement, criticizing police procedure as ineffective, perhaps intentionally so. In a sharper effort, such a provocative idea would inspire a multi-layered study of honor, duty, and desperation. In “Acts of Violence,” it’s a green light for lame characterizations, dreary action, and a strange consideration of vigilante justice. It’s brutal work, no surprise there, but the production doesn’t consider material deeply, going the urban western route, rendering the feature completely useless.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Freak Show


All the good intentions in the world can’t prevent “Freak Show” from becoming a trite, borderline obnoxious tale of empowerment via a quest for identity inside a conservative battle zone. Director Trudie Styler has her heart in the right place, hoping to reach out to a younger demographic with this tale of persistence in the face of prejudice, scraping the zeitgeist as the material confronts uncertain sexuality and gender identification, with hope that its saga of personal inventory is able to provide a light of hope for those who remain in the dark. “Freak Show” has a to-do list of clichés to work through, and few of them retain any dramatic impact, finding Styler more interested in dressing up the main character in wild fashions than truly dealing with the psychological tears that comes from social rejection and a broken family.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Proud Mary


I certainly get why many are rooting for the success of Taraji P. Henson. She’s a talented actress and a force of nature, but her taste in scripts leaves much to be desired, as found in recent gigs such as “Term Life” and “No Good Deed.” After scoring positive notices for her turn in last year’s “Hidden Figures,” Henson returns to the bottom shelf with “Proud Mary,” a wannabe Blaxploitation effort that’s more like a Lifetime Original, spending 80 minutes on banal relationships and the remaining five on stiffly imagined action. Henson looks bored throughout the picture, which doesn’t challenge her in the least, merely asking her to cry on cue and pose in black outfits, with the promise of creating a fascinating, empowering character of authority erased by the production’s strange obsession with screen inertia.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Paddington 2


Moviegoing surprises are always the best, and 2014’s “Paddington” was one of greater ones in recent memory. Sold as a crude, dumb comedy for little children, “Paddington” was actually a cute and clever picture, with unexpected warmth and a decent sense of adventure. Co-writer/director Paul King brought author Michael Bond’s creation to the big screen with care, and now he does it again with “Paddington 2,” a sequel that manages to best the original in laughs and tenderness. King sticks to comedy formula, but he makes a grander, slightly weirder follow-up that offers plenty of bear-based mischief, backed by an exceptional supporting cast of British talent who seem genuinely delighted to be part of the franchise, showing needed enthusiasm for the marmalade-smeared high jinks.  Read the rest at

Film Review - The Commuter


Director Jaume Collet-Serra and star Liam Neeson enjoying working together. They’ve collaborated on three previous occasions, showcasing a professional comfort and a shared interest in B-moviemaking with A-list credentials. However, this partnership hasn’t delivered significant thrills, with 2011’s “Unknown,” 2014’s “Non-Stop,” and 2015’s “Run All Night” providing lackluster viewing experiences with little suspense, generally tripping over promising premises for slick, efficient entertainment. The latest addition to this dispiriting tradition is “The Commuter,” which aims to be a Hitchcockian nail-biter featuring an average man caught up in extraordinary circumstances, but Collet-Serra and the screenwriters (three in total) don’t push beyond the visual of Neeson in paranoia mode, delivering a contrived, slapdash, and ultimately useless thriller that has no perceptible interest in pace or surprise.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Humor Me


Writer/director Sam Hoffman plays it safe with the plot of “Humor Me,” his directorial debut, making a movie about the arrested development of a man facing substantial responsibilities, moving in with his father for a free room and to find some clarity. However, formula is thinned out by personality, with Hoffman generating appealing characterizations, putting the players through amusing challenges as he hunts for significance in the dramedy. As the title suggests, there’s plenty of levity and passive-aggressive behavior to enjoy, and Hoffman secures success with the pairing of leads Jemaine Clement and Elliot Gould, who pull off an itchy family dynamic with terrific timing, bringing heart and laughs to “Humor Me,” which benefits greatly from their unique talents.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Inside


It’s difficult to understand any reason for remaking pictures that were part of the French new wave of extreme horror, which was all the rage with genre enthusiasts about decade ago. They were features created during a specific time and in a specific region, making translations difficult, especially for material that perhaps should remain attached to a single interpretation. After dealing with the deflation of 2015’s “Martyrs,” now comes “Inside,” which hopes to rework the 2007 Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo (who recently helmed the crummy “Leatherface”) endeavor for mainstream audiences, under the impression that a wide assortment of moviegoers might be interested in 80 minutes of a pregnant woman being threatened with sharp objects. That a new take on “Inside” is unnecessary is a given, but director Miguel Angel Vivas fumbles whatever debatable tension was there the first time around, delivering a routine chiller that’s largely free of suspense.  Read the rest at