Film Review

Film Review - Damsel


Siblings David and Nathan Zellner have been making movies for quite some time now, but they recently made a career breakthrough with 2014’s “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.” The Zellners are idiosyncratic filmmakers, and “Kumiko” was rich with oddity, also identifying their love of deliberate pacing and specific performances. “Damsel” is the reward for having something notable on their resumes, offered a chance to make a western with recognizable stars in Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska. However, the Zellners aren’t interested in shedding their quirks and games of delay, keeping “Damsel” much like their previous work, offering samples of quirkiness and mental decay while taking their sweet time when moving from one scene to the next. They’re obviously talented men, but their fondness for stillness clouds the highlights of their work.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Escape Plan 2 - Hades


When it was released in America in 2013, “Escape Plan” was sold as a major reteaming of action heroes Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, pairing up for a prison break feature that was a bit more dramatic in execution, failing to live up to standards set by modern adventure pictures and the burning presence of nostalgia. “Escape Plan” didn’t do big business in the states, but it performed better than expected in China, which claimed a sizable slice of the film’s international gross. Never one to leave a paycheck on the table, Stallone returns for “Escape Plan 2: Hades,” which transforms a one-shot concept into a franchise, and one that’s now produced for the Chinese marketplace. Stallone’s here, kind of, but “Escape Plan 2” doesn’t have much interest in his participation, going the easy-peasy B-movie route to cough up an inexpensive, easily marketable sequel that’s led by actor Xiaoming Huang, not Stallone. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom


2015’s “Jurassic World” didn’t come from out of nowhere, but its box office success took most by surprise. It became a phenomenon during the summer moviegoing season, hitting screens at precisely the moment the public wanted to see large-scale dinosaur action at the multiplex. “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” is the sequel, actually the fifth installment of the “Jurassic Park” franchise, which has kept chugging along for 25 years despite limited directions for the story to take. This time, however, the dinos are in great danger, and while screenwriters Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow (who helmed “Jurassic World”) have some difficultly squeezing originality out of the picture, they have a fertile imagination for creature feature mayhem, giving “Fallen Kingdom” plenty of things to stomp and chomp as director J.A. Bayona (“A Monster Calls,” “The Impossible”) crafts perhaps the most stylish and tonally daring chapter of the enduring series.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Summer 1993

SUMMER 1993 2

“Summer 1993” participates in the longstanding filmmaking tradition where the trauma of life is investigated through the eyes of a child, watching little ones deal with new challenges and adult issues while still getting used to the ways of the world. Writer/director Carla Simon shares an autobiographical tale of isolation and confusion, and she creates a riveting study of emotional evolution without pushing unnecessary weight against the dramatic needs of the feature. It’s a loosely defined movie, but its emotions are honest and its observance of child behavior remarkably accurate, giving the effort an appealing verite feel while still making sure a character arc is being worked into place throughout the picture. “Summer 1993” is delicate work, but Simon isn’t distracted by artifice, striving to keep the endeavor realistic from all perspectives.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Never Steady, Never Still


Critical to the viewing experience of “Never Steady, Never Still” is belief in the lead performance from Shirley Henderson. It’s not an easy role, as Henderson is tasked with portraying a woman dealing with the daily challenges of living with Parkinson’s Disease, and she’s not an actress who’s normally thought of with these types of grueling parts, having built her career portraying best friends and unhinged types, blessed with an unusual voice to help tap into weirdness. However, in “Never Steady, Never Still,” Henderson completely immerses herself in the character, emerging with a striking performance that gives writer/director Kathleen Hepburn support to create an unusual examination of frustration in the wilds of Canada. It’s not an easy sit, but the chance to watch Henderson go deep into the part is worth the time invested. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Catcher Was a Spy


“The Catcher Was a Spy” tells the story of Moe Berg, a highly educated, observant catcher for the Boston Red Sox who, as trouble was brewing in Europe during the 1930s, wanted to participate in the war. It sounds like a comedy, a mild one, and the film’s prologue actually goes for a laugh. However, screenwriter Robert Rodat (adapting Nicholas Dawidoff’s book) and director Ben Lewin aren’t interesting in keeping things light. Tonality is one of many elements of the picture that remain unsteady throughout, but “The Catcher Was a Spy” certainly puts in an incredible effort to keep audiences engaged, boasting an impressively varied cast of familiar faces and a plot that really should result in one of the more engrossing endeavors of the year. Instead, Lewin and Rodat slow their pace and lose their focus, squeezing any sense of surprise out of the movie.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Brain on Fire


Writer/director Gerard Barrett most likely commenced production on “Brain on Fire” with a sincere effort to shed light on the medical emergency that consumed Susannah Cahalan, a twentysomething woman suddenly faced with a darkened world of psychological breakdown, with doctors unable to understand just what was happening to her. It’s a true story, chronicled in Cahalan’s book, and there’s some evidence in the feature that it was, at one point, aiming to condemn the diagnosis process, suggesting that medical professionals are too quick to dispatch a patient when the going gets tough. It’s a little reckless, but Barrett doesn’t have much of a film without it. “Brain on Fire” isn’t hardcore journalism or even effective melodrama, remaining in a tedious T.V. movie holding pattern where crisis is everything and character is simplified to help connect the dots.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Set It Up


There’s a definite lived-in quality to “Set It Up,” which details the lives of two corporate assistants as they endeavor to decrease the level of insanity they endure every day from their bosses. Screenwriter Katie Silberman seems to funnel plenty of personal experience with demanding superiors into the work, which is always at its best when exploring the hectic pace of the day when its filled with inane tasks and frustrations. However, the story for “Set It Up” isn’t nearly as inspired, with Silberman using romantic comedy formula as a way into warmth, desperate to make the picture appealing via young people in love when its most engaging exploring terrible behavior. Little here is inspired, finding Silberman often resorting to dumb gags when she seems capable of delivering sharper focus on the painful particulars of life as an overworked underling.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Beach House


Co-written and directed by Jason Saltiel, “Beach House” plays a perfectly fine short story that’s been stretched unnaturally into feature-length movie. There’s compelling sinister business contained within, but the production gets addicted to the art of delay, introducing the effort as a slow-burn descent into suspicion and seduction, but it never kicks into high gear. Saltiel certainly has bright ideas for suspense, and “Beach House” has its highlights, especially when seemingly casual encounters begin to contort into more menacing interactions. However, as intermittently successful as it is, the picture doesn’t fully reward investment in character and sludgy pacing, struggling to come up with things to do to fill up 90 minutes of screen time, which gives Saltiel a sellable film.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Gotti


It’s easy to see why John Travolta wanted to play John Gotti. It’s a chance to portray a unique figure in criminal history, with the real Gotti a tough guy who thrived on dominance, developing from a man of presence to one of power. “Gotti” the movie merely cherry picks the most Scorsese-esque parts of the mob boss’s life to create a greatest hits viewing experience that’s often randomly photographed and glued together with pop music. Travolta has all the enthusiasm in the world, but there’s no place to put it in “Gotti,” which is a sloppily directed, poorly scripted endeavor that stumbles where other productions have strutted. There are 44 credited producers on the picture (good. lord.), and not one person had the nerve to question just what kind of derivative, borderline nonsensical film was being made. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Tag


“Tag” doesn’t have to do much to be a passably enjoyable good time. All it needs are a collection of dim-witted characters and the titular game, permitted a feature-length run time to go wild with chases and crashes, allowing the cast to unleash themselves with slapstick merriment. Cruelly, the movie isn’t as carefree as it seems, as it’s very determined to remind audiences that the screenplay (credited to Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen) is based on true story, chronicled in a Wall Street Journal article by Russell Adams. Real life has a way of carrying on too long, and so does “Tag,” which launches with all the mischief it can carry, but ends up winded by the final act, unsure if it should take the tale seriously or turn it into an R-rated cartoon. Read the rest at

Film Review - Nancy


It’s not entirely clear where writer/director Christina Choe received her inspiration to make “Nancy,” but the story of a con artist taking advantage of longstanding grief is similar to the one found in 2012’s “The Imposter.” Mercifully, Choe’s take on essentially the same material is just as vital as the documentary, dramatizing a case of pathological behavior with subtle emotion and deeply considered performances. In keeping with the general presence of the titular character, “Nancy” is distant and observational, but Choe finds a way into the strangeness of the situation, finding unexpected empathy in the midst of potentially off-putting predatory conduct.  Read the rest at

Film Review - The Fabulous Allan Carr


Confronted with a documentary subject who refused to live a life of structure, it’s interesting to watch director Jeffrey Schwarz work especially hard to figure out a storytelling arc for his feature, “The Fabulous Allan Carr.” The picture opens with the famous producer’s lowest moment, orchestrating a flashy revival of glamour and spectacle for the infamous 1989 Academy Awards, where Rob Lowe sang a parody version of “Proud Mary” with Snow White, horrifying viewers everywhere. It’s the very bottom for Carr, but it’s hardly the only borderline insane moment of his colorful career, with Schwarz quickly leaping back in time to identify a path of dreams, dominance, and pure ego, celebrating Carr’s life and influence on the movie business and gay culture.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Hearts Beat Loud


No matter what type of business “Hearts Beat Loud” does at the box office, the film is guaranteed to find its audience one way or another. It’s a sensitive endeavor about the communicative aspects of musicianship and songwriting, and it’s similar to smaller movies like “Once” and “Sing Street,” which also mixed troubled souls with the power of performance. The bonus here is that while constructed out of familiar working parts, “Hearts Beat Loud” is a lovely picture unafraid to touch on real emotions, using music to explore the fears of people on the precipice of enormous life changes. Co-writer/director Brett Haley has a terrific cast to help him achieve such tricky vulnerabilities, and for those who crave the musical arts, the feature delivers a rich sense of craftsmanship and passion behind the creation of songs.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Superfly


It doesn’t take much to remake a Blaxploitation classic, but there should be something involved the mix that demands a resurrection of a brand name that’s been dormant for decades. “Superfly” is a new version of 1972’s “Super Fly,” which, at the time, contributed to the expanding exploitation market and gave actor Ron O’Neal a career, portraying a conflicted but authoritative drug dealer at a crossroads with his underworld interests. It wasn’t gold, but it had attitude and a steely sense of conflict. The remake smooths down rough material to give audiences a more stylish ride with bad dudes, with the movie marking the feature-length helming debut for a man billed simply as Director X, who’s enjoyed longtime service as a music video maker. His practice with short bursts of style and floss certainly influence his take on “Superfly,” which is a lengthy rap video made up of shorter rap videos, offering little excitement as it stumbles through predictable criminal events.  Read the rest at

Film Review - China Salesman


The big draw for “China Salesman” is the pairing of stars Mike Tyson and Steven Seagal, who do battle with each other and the very art of acting in the Chinese production. Their names will bring attention to the movie, which saves a fight sequence for the duo, giving the effort its lone moment of excitement, and even that’s open for debate. The rest of “China Salesman” covers the experience of the titular character, who’s not a gladiator ready to pound opponents alongside Seagal and Tyson, but a meet telecom lackey trying to bring a 3G wireless network to the far reaches of Africa. While the material is apparently based on a true story, vague authenticity is no excuse for this hilariously miscalculated slog, with co-writer/director Tan Bing gifted a chance to put on a series of physical challenges, but is more interested in the particulars of business bids and long travel to remote cell towers. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Yellow Birds


Stages of the Iraq War and ensuing conflicts have been covered extensively in American cinema. Filmmakers tend to follow a template when isolating areas of domestic disruption and combat shock, but the more interesting movies figure out ways to attack common issues from a more personal perspective, waving away melodrama. Unfortunately, “The Yellow Birds” doesn’t think outside the box when it comes to the depiction of trauma, as director Alexandre Moors (“Blue Caprice”) plays it all very bluntly, trying to remain respectful to the military experience while still tending to the painful realities of service. “The Yellow Birds” aims to be poetic and insular, but it’s not a particularly compelling feature, slogging through the same old sights and sounds without inspiration to be anything more than disappointingly predictable.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Incredibles 2


When “The Incredibles” debuted in 2004, it was released during the infancy of the superhero movie movement that we know so well today. Writer/director Brad Bird was paying homage to the comic book stories of his youth, using blockbuster aspiration and fluid animation to fully realize his vision for big screen heroics, also examining the stresses of family life when up against nefarious supervillains and their persistent desire to take over the world. It was also a time in Pixar Animation Studios history when the company was dragged into sequels, with Bird perfectly content to leave the Parr Family alone after a single installment, much to the frustration of fans everywhere. Time has changed minds, and 14 years later, there’s “Incredibles 2,” which welcomes release during a glut of superhero offerings, hoping that the passing years haven’t diluted the appeal of the premise and Bird’s special touch with animated spectacle. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Hotel Artemis


Jodie Foster doesn’t do much acting anymore, with her last screen appearance in 2013’s “Elysium.” She made some questionable (and reconsidered) accent choices in a film that quickly spiraled out of control, but her thespian authority was never in doubt. She faces a similar challenge in “Hotel Artemis,” which also presents a chewy role for the actress, only here she’s backed up by a flavorful ensemble set loose in a pulpy crime thriller that’s tight on surroundings but crammed with hostilities. Foster is excellent in the genre role, shaping something out of next to nothing, and writer/director Drew Pearce (making his helming debut) is lucky to have her around, as “Hotel Artemis” is supported in full by its performers, not plotting, helping to make the effort a breezy sit with a fair amount of suspense. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Ocean's Eight


The “Ocean’s” film series was last seen in 2007 with the release of the wildly entertaining “Ocean’s Thirteen.” It was the culmination of director Steven Soderbergh’s interest in the ways of smooth criminals, sending the franchise out on a high note after stumbling with 2004’s “Ocean’s Twelve.” “Ocean’s Eight” isn’t reboot of the brand name, but a semi-sequel to the Soderbergh pictures, with director Gary Ross picking up the thrill of illegal dealings with a new cast but the same surname, handing thievery over to Danny Ocean’s younger sister, Debbie. Ross attempts to mimic parts of Soderbergh’s staccato style and dry wit, which gives “Ocean’s Eight” a nice consistency with the previous chapters, continuing the screen celebration of shifty individuals coming together for a grand con. It’s slight, on the long side, but Ross gets the machine up and running again, using a talented ensemble to launch the felonious joyride. Read the rest at