Film Review

Film Review - The Hunter's Prayer


Director Jonathan Mostow was once primed to become a major force in thriller cinema. 20 years ago, he helmed “Breakdown,” an effective suspense piece starring Kurt Russell. “U-571” followed, while the moderately engaging “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” permitted Mostow to take a bite out of blockbuster moviemaking. But that was pretty much all he was allowed to get away with, returning in 2009 for “Surrogates,” a career-slowing misfire. And now, nearly a decade later, he returns with “The Hunter’s Prayer,” a “Taken”-style actioner arriving too late to matter, starring Sam Worthington, who seems to have an allergic reaction to giving expressive, meaning performances. It’s an uphill battle for the production, but it doesn’t have the motivation to be either a brutal chase picture or a sensitive study of an ailing hitman. Read the rest at

Film Review - Miles


It’s difficult to get upset with “Miles,” as it arrives with the purest of intentions, striving to give its audience an empowerment tale that explores sexuality and equality. Co-writer/director Nathan Adloff has a plan for a sensitive portrayal of clouded identity, but his vision isn’t always crystal clear, introducing an abundance of subplots and halfhearted crisis to beef up what should really remain a story about a young man taking possession of own life after experiencing a personal loss. Adloff has a willing cast to color “Miles,” and they do great job with the messy screenplay, which is fond of introductions, but not always examination, resulting a feature that’s kind and communicative, but seldom profound, never adding up to anything distinct. Read the rest at

Film Review - Captain Underpants


Coming soon after the release of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul,” “Captain Underpants” is another picture that’s strictly for young audiences, or at least anyone who finds the very pronunciation of diarrhea hilarious. It’s the first of possibly many movies adapted from a book series by author Dav Pilkey, who plays to children with a tale that covers creative expression, teacher manipulation, and best friend interplay, setting the whole thing in a kids-rule-the-school scenario. “Captain Underpants” is occasionally imaginative, and director David Soren’s addiction to speed is helpful for adults hoping to get through a feature that offers more undergarment jokes than the 2017 film year needs, but the material doesn’t lend itself naturally to 90 minutes of screen time, with signs of stress increasing as the production searches for ways to feed the CG-animated beast. Read the rest at

Film Review - Wonder Woman


Wonder Woman was introduced to the DC Extended Universe in last year’s “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” It was a supporting turn, but a notable one, unveiling the full power of the character before any history was established. It was a chance to see an iconic superhero on screen, finally taking Wonder Woman’s considerable comic book history seriously with a broadly powerful figure, fighting alongside Batman and Superman. Now it’s Wonder Woman’s turn for a starring vehicle, with director Patty Jenkins (who hasn’t helmed a feature film since 2003’s “Monster”) taking on a considerable challenge of tone, working to find a balance between feminine power and franchise appeal. Jenkins is mostly successful with “Wonder Woman,” capturing the majesty of Diana Prince and her call to global consciousness, crafting a satisfying origin story that gifts the beloved Amazon a formidable first step toward big screen domination. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Commune


Thomas Vinterberg is a founding member of the Dogme 95 movement and a helmer typically drawn to provocative material. He’s mastered the art of cinematic confrontation, exploring haunted characters put through Hell in “The Hunt” and his 1998 breakout endeavor, “The Celebration.” Vinterberg is sensational with emotional wreckage, and his streak continues with “The Commune,” assembling another trial of unbearable decisions for his characters with this semi-autobiographical effort. Once again, troubled people come together with the purest of intentions, only to watch their lives explode with conflict, with Vinterberg overseeing excellent performances and crushing turns of plot. There’s a newfound sense of manipulation in play, but the helmer accesses some profound feelings here, building a nicely pained drama that could be interpreted as a spiritual sequel to “The Celebration.” Read the rest at

Film Review - War Machine


It’s difficult to tell what kind of movie “War Machine” wants to be. It has satirical edges, but it often plays like a drama, and its handle on Middle East politics and interests generally whiffs when broader comedy is introduced. Precision is not a priority for writer/director David Michod (“Animal Kingdom”), and perhaps he believes he’s making the second coming of “Dr. Strangelove” with the effort, but “War Machine” never gels as intended, trying to do something oddball with the Afghanistan War, to help separate it from the plethora of features also attempting to dissect the confusion of combat that has no direction, no end game. Michod displays a level of confidence with his strange brew of laughs and frustration, but the endeavor misses as much as it hits, which, considering the talent involved, feels like a missed opportunity. Read the rest at

Film Review - Vincent N Roxxy


Co-writer/director Gary Michael Schultz wants to make a hardcore crime movie with “Vincent N Roxxy.” He’s stuffed the picture with bad dudes and enigmatic women, picking an all-American setting as well, emphasizing cinematic influences by taking troubling situations of guilt and theft into the middle of nowhere, stepping away from urban intensity. There are haunted characters, sex, and plenty of violence. However, Schultz doesn’t have a strong enough vision for this riff on the 1993 cult classic, “True Romance,” showing up without proper editing to make sense of a flimsy script, while his interest in screen brutality is alarming, destroying whatever intimacy he’s trying to create along the way. For a film that’s about the ways of love, redemption, and family, “Vincent N Roxxy” is wholly unpleasant. Read the rest at

Film Review - Be Afraid


While the title is “Be Afraid,” it’s often difficult to understand what there is to fear in the movie. A semi-Shyamalan effort from writer Gerald Nott and director Drew Gabreski, the feature doesn’t provide an original take on very worn out ideas, once again playing with creatures of the night, forbidden forests, domestic dysfunction, and small town doubt. The big addition here is the concept of sleep paralysis, a state of immobility where the dreamer is fully aware of the moment, but little is done with the detail, which is basically introduced to secure easier pickings for an iffy monster. “Be Afraid” isn’t a significant genre achievement, going through the basic cable chiller motions, in desperate need of passion, not scares, to bring it to life. Read the rest at

Film Review - Handsome Devil


Writer/director John Butler (2013’s “The Bachelor Weekend”) doesn’t have much in the way of originality with “Handsome Devil,” so he invests in heart instead. It’s smart move, as the story works through familiar coming of age incidents, showcasing personal growth with teenagers saddled with bullying and parental neglect issues -- average After School Special stuff. “Handsome Devil” remains alert through engaged performances that know what to do with the emotions Butler introduces, keeping the cast busy trying to define their characters in interesting, even fresh ways. Formula is important to Butler, but he fights to keep the picture as real as possible, touching on personal connections and awakenings, which save the feature from complete predictability. Read the rest at

Film Review - Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales


13 years ago, there was “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.” It was the little blockbuster that could, overcoming dismissive press due to its theme park origin and heavy competition at the box office, becoming the third highest grossing picture of 2003. It earned its success through imaginative storytelling and a playful tone that balanced light and dark events, and there was Johnny Depp, who created a memorable character in Jack Sparrow, redefining what it means to be a big screen pirate. Back-to-back sequels followed in 2006 and ’07, and the bloat started to set in, with the producers caring more about enormity of visual effects than pure adventure. And 2011’s “On Stranger Tides” flatlined from the very first scene, struggling to come up with anything even remotely thrilling. After a long break from SparrowLand, “Dead Men Tell No Tales” arrives with the opportunity to revitalize the franchise, to find a new direction that could rekindle the mischief and mystery of “The Curse of the Black Pearl.” Sadly, “Dead Men Tell No Tales” doesn’t possess the ambition to be anything more than yet another noisy “Pirates of the Caribbean” misfire. Read the rest at

Film Review - Baywatch


One doesn’t expect a cinematic miracle with a big screen adaptation of the television show “Baywatch,” but a little effort wouldn’t have hurt. Seth Gordon, the director of “Four Christmases,” “Identity Thief” and “Horrible Bosses,” is put in charge of the transition, with the production taking a cheeky, skin-heavy show with mild heroics and turning it into an R-rated raunch fest that takes its ridiculous plot too seriously, often at the expense of character and comedic timing. The new “Baywatch” is an extended joke, hinting at parody, but it ends up a misfire without enthralling stunt work or even a proper beach vibe. It’s barely even an episode of the show, coming up short in almost every department except abdominal muscle definition. That’s the feature’s primary achievement. Read the rest at

Film Review - Wakefield


It’s hard to resist the premise of “Wakefield,” which finds the lead character intentionally hiding away from his dysfunctional family for months, observing the chaos and concern raised in his absence. It’s an ideal role for any actor, but star Bryan Cranston positively sinks his teeth into part, giving the material (adapted from a short story by E.L. Doctorow) necessary attitude and dramatic commitment, offering his best big screen work in some time. Writer/director Robin Swicord clearly relishes her time with Cranston, allowing him room to do his thing, and “Wakefield” creates an intriguing balance of comedy and darkness to support the actor, examining identity and responsibility with this atypical tale of male escape. Read the rest at

Film Review - Berlin Syndrome


As if moviegoers need another reason to be wary of European strangers. “Berlin Syndrome” teases a case of xenophobia, but it’s really a grim chiller that introduces and explores the miserable existence of Stockholm syndrome, which is a complex psychological concept that requires something more than cheap scare. Director Cate Shortland offers terrific command of the material, generating all the requisite horror of capture and imprisonment, but there’s more in the margins with “Berlin Syndrome” (based on a book by Melanie Joosten, scripted by Shaun Grant), which drills deeper into sicko games of possession to explore sensuality, anger, and, ultimately, submission. Shortland has a specific vision for this mix of “Misery” and “Hostel,” refusing to break her effort down into digestible exploitation chunks for easier consumption. Read the rest at

Film Review - Becoming Bond


There’s a movie to be made about the life and times of George Lazenby, and “Becoming Bond” isn’t it. Part documentary, part reenactment, the feature struggles to share Lazenby’s colorful experiences, where the Australian car salesman became a male model, eventually finding his way into the starring role of 1969’s “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” taking over the role of James Bond from Sean Connery, who left his post at the height of his Bondian fame. A rehearsed rascal, bruiser, and raconteur, Lazenby does sit down with director Josh Greenbaum to recount the steps toward his legendary one-film duty as 007, but “Becoming Bond” often plays like an iffy “Funny or Die” short, lacking polish, focus, and laughs to truly become the raucous celebration of a bad business decision it wants to be. Read the rest at

Film Review - Black Butterfly


There have been many movies about the frustrations that arise with writer’s block. It’s not an inherently cinematic affliction to explore, requiring some genre boosts to keep the mad tango between artist and inspiration twirling along. Director Brian Goodman (who previously helmed the terrific 2008 drama, “What Doesn’t Kill You”) and writers Marc Frydman and Justin Stanley have a few tricks up their sleeves with “Black Butterfly,” which endeavors to tap into the insanity of the creative process, doing so through the guise of a thriller that attacks both physically and psychologically. “Black Butterfly” is likely to divide audience with its twists and turns, but it’s rarely dull, perhaps best appreciated as a higher minded exploitation effort than a brain-bleeder with occasionally iffy working parts. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Wizard of Lies


Most filmmakers don’t want to portray evil in a straightforward manner, especially real-world villainy, which is often too nuanced to simply fit for a black hat. “The Wizard of Lies” has the difficult task of humanizing Bernie Madoff, the stockbroker and investment advisor who built a Ponzi scheme that defrauded clients on a grand scale, erasing 65 billion dollars from those counting on a secure financial future. An adaptation of Diana B. Henriques’s book, “The Wizard of Lies” certainly isn’t a cinematic shoulder rub, with director Barry Levinson attempting to understand the psychological and technical details of the scheme, which, for Madoff and his family, became a daily reality, giving the production a compelling perspective to work with as it figures out a way to make a Bernie Madoff movie without immediately crucifying its dastardly subject. Read the rest at

Film Review - Obit


In 2011, director Andrew Rossi brought viewers into the offices of the New York Times for “Page One,” a documentary exploring the daily experience of journalism in its highest form, making note of writers and challenges that go into the creation of news. It was a fascinating look at the mechanics and personalities that make up the newspaper, and “Obit” returns to the same location, only this time director Vanessa Gould takes a deeper dive into a specific type of coverage for the New York Times, examining the construction and care of the obituary department. Like “Page One,” “Obit” is a fascinating inspection of 9-5 work, highlighting the research, writing, and personal touches of the obituary section, with its staff trying to make their assignments something special, continuing a prized tradition of the paper. Read the rest at

Film Review - Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul


Originally a series of YA books from author Jeff Kinney, the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” brand name found its way to the big screen in 2010, introduced with an uneven, unappealing adaptation that basically confirmed Kinney’s world was better suited for the page, where its cartoon shenanigans could be left to the imagination. Two terrible sequels followed (the last released in 2012), each met with flat box office returns and overall audience indifference. However, profits were made, inspiring Hollywood to try again, reawakening the saga of Greg and his hapless family for “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul,” which completely recasts and refocuses the franchise, though co-writer/director Dave Bowers (who helmed the last two movies) returns, hellbent on proving his unpleasant comedic vision for this feature, ending up with the worst “Wimpy Kid” sequel yet. Read the rest at

Film Review - A Quiet Passion


If there’s one person capable of bringing the life and times of poet Emily Dickinson to the screen, it’s Terence Davies. The director of “The House of Mirth,” “Sunset Song,” and “The Deep Blue Sea,” Davies has focused his career on artful pursuits, fascinated by social showdowns and private desires, all the while developing helming interests that lean toward the painterly, making beautiful pictures that value cinematic art. “A Quiet Passion” isn’t a traditional bio-pic of Emily, missing many years and life-changing movements. Instead, it remains tight on its subject, keeping poetic purging constant, but also setting out to grasp artistic drive, which is often motivated by an unquenchable thirst to be understood. Davies finds the edges of Emily’s life, but he’s primarily motivated by mood, keeping viewers immersed in the moment as the poet hones her talent and begins to share it with outsiders. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Survivalist


“The Survivalist” isn’t made to comfort its audience. It’s punishment from writer/director Stephen Fingleton, who’s determined to communicate the horrifying end of civilization with this survival chiller, which depicts savagery, betrayal, and sacrifice with a disturbing matter-of-fact tone. It works because it’s meant to be frightening, understanding an all-too-real possibility of global breakdown, but it remains intimate, focusing on the plight of three characters locked in an uneasy situation of trust, dealing with their own issues while threats from the outside world creep into view. “The Survivalist” is harrowing and savage, and Fingleton is largely successful with his tonal and visceral goals, only periodically allowing the ugliness of this story to reach beyond its grasp. Read the rest at