Blu-ray Review - Dakota


1945's "Dakota" isn't remembered as a particular bright spot in the massive filmography of screen legend John Wayne, but for a man who rarely turned down anything, it's a surprisingly buoyant western that gives the actor a chance to be more playful than his average steely ways. Director Joseph Kane (a seasoned genre helmer) provides a journeyman touch to the picture, but his professionalism serves it well, creating an amusing romp with Wayne and co-star Vera Ralston. While it doesn't offer anything new to the western tradition, its meat-and-potatoes approach is agreeable, keeping the chases, clashes, and banter rolling along. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Wanderers


Embracing a newfound hunger for nostalgia, the 1970s provided an endless stream of retro entertainment, with specific emphasis on the celebration of the late 1950s to the early 1960s. The creative and financial triumph of George Lucas's "American Graffiti" and the longstanding ratings dominance of the T.V. show "Happy Days" created a demand for this type of storytelling, allowing something like 1979's "The Wanderers" to enter production. Based on a respected novel by Richard Price, the movie adaptation strives to deliver the same glow of memories and mischief as "American Graffiti," but provides the grit of The Bronx, its vivid setting, to help squelch any dewy depictions of adolescent life. "The Wanderers" hits a few sweet spots in period recreation, with co-writer/director Philip Kaufman unafraid to submerge the effort in pop music and era attire, but the picture isn't a cohesive endeavor. Kaufman masterminds a grab bag of incidents and emotions, delivering an episodic look at a time in American culture when cartoonish expressions of masculinity were about to be flattened by the harsh realities of the larger world. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Invisible Ghost


In the autumn of his film career, Bela Lugosi used his genre reputation to participate in a few off-kilter productions. 1941's "Invisible Ghost" is one of many Lugosi projects to embrace oddity, finding the screen star struggling to transform a bizarre possession story into a proper chiller, using wonderfully intimidating looks and his own industry reputation to generate some frights in a feature that's almost exclusively invested in prolonged stalking sequences just to get the picture up to its current 64 minute run time. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Chamber of Horrors


1940's "Chamber of Horrors" is saddled with fairly misleading title. Sure, some chambers are present, but horrors are few and far between in this murder mystery (which was titled "The Door with the Seven Locks" internationally), which is more dialogue-driven endeavor than a chilling one, almost coming across as a filmed play instead of a suspenseful genre offering. Director Norman Lee keeps to the basics in whodunit cinema here, arranging a full "Clue" game of suspects and motivations, and every now and then, something macabre will sneak into the frame to keep the effort rolling along to an energetic finale. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Mummy


Perhaps it’s fitting that a character who’s a product of immortality should be subjected to repeated reboots and remakes over the last 86 years. Universal Pictures is not about to let one of their top horror icons fade into obscurity, reviving the creature for “The Mummy,” which also represents the first shot fired in the studio’s Dark Universe franchise movement, because nothing can just be a movie anymore, it has to be a multi-decade financial plan. The brand name hasn’t been touched since 2008’s “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor,” and for good reason, as it’s tough to make a chiller these days, especially with a titular character that offers few surprises. Sadly, the production doesn’t supply a stripped down version of the tightly wrapped menace, burying the monster’s core appeal under layers of needless exposition, prized supporting characters, and the starring demands of Tom Cruise, who’s completely out of his element in this update. Reaching for laughs, CGI-laden action, and sequels before the first installment has a chance to cool, “The Mummy” simply attempts too much, forgetting how this whole series began with mood, not fireworks and breathless backstory. Read the rest at

Film Review - It Comes at Night


“Who will survive and what will be left of them?” is the famous tagline of 1974’s “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” It’s also a fitting summation of “It Comes at Night,” the new film from the writer/director of “Krisha,” Trey Edward Shults. While lacking overt scares, the feature does successfully chart the mental and physical health of those caught in an inescapable crisis, inspecting the wear and tear of lives lived in perpetual paranoia. “It Comes at Night” is being marketed as a horror effort, which is incorrect. It’s not grotesque with violence, but purposeful, detailing a world gone mad from the perspective of those barely hanging on. It’s challenging, artfully made work from Shults, requiring those electing to see it to relax some expectations as the movie endeavors to unnerve, not shock. Read the rest at

Film Review - Awakening the Zodiac


The exploits of the Zodiac Killer, one of the most feared serial murderers in history, have been brought to the screen on numerous occasions. Most notably, there was “Dirty Harry,” where the titular character was allowed a chance to exact revenge on the enigmatic madman, preserving justice with the most powerful handgun in the world. And there’s David Fincher’s “Zodiac,” which examined real world panic surrounding the case, employing journalism as a way to detail the ways of murder, suspicion, and anxiety. “Awakening the Zodiac” isn’t joining the pantheon of great investigative movies about the Zodiac Killer case, but as a chiller, it’s not bad, mixing feverish decoding and paranoia, offering reasonable thrills along the way. It’s nowhere near as precise as Fincher or blunt as Clint Eastwood, yet “Awakening the Zodiac” can be appealing when it focuses on the heat of the moment. Read the rest at

Film Review - I, Daniel Blake


Ken Loach doesn’t make easy movies. It’s not something that comes natural to him, preferring to stay in the realm of the real, with behavioral authenticity prized most highly by the lauded filmmaker, often searching for the tenacity of the human spirit in the depths of misery. Loach can be an amazing storyteller (“My Name is Joe,” “Raining Stones,” “Sweet Sixteen”), and he can be a frustrating one as well, perhaps a bit too obsessed with depicting onscreen misery. “I, Daniel Blake” is his latest effort, and it plays like a greatest hits mix of Loach fetishes, covering the pains of poverty, injustice, bureaucratic entanglements, and social humiliations. It’s not a light sit by any means, but the helmer is fully in his element, keeping “I, Daniel Blake” relatable and restless, with remarkable performances leading Loach’s mission to sustain realism for as long as possible. Read the rest at

Film Review - Camera Obscura


Co-writer/director Aaron B. Koontz has a made a John Carpenter tribute film with “Camera Obscura,” only one that doesn’t celebrate the best the maestro has to offer. A homage to “In the Mouth of Madness” with a touch of “They Live” for flavoring, “Camera Obscura” toys with the unreal, building a supernatural serial killer story that begins with a touch of dark magic and ends in a nightmare realm of insanity. Koontz is determined to remain one step ahead of his audience, messing with grim visions and bloodied victims, but his command of tonality is severely lacking, somehow turning a tale of PTSD into a darkly comic chiller that rests on a bed of Carpenter-esque synth scoring, ultimately crippled by miscastings and a screenplay that’s often caught scrambling for something to do. Read the rest at

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

Blu-ray Review - Z.P.G.


The 1970s were a fertile time for dystopian adventures. Reflecting an increasingly hostile and hopeless world rife with political upheavals, terrorism, and pollution concerns, world cinema took notice, producing a great number of films throughout the decade that attempted to turn societal ills into mass entertainment, often granted a license to be as depressing as possible, to best brand audiences looking to grab a peek at the dark side of life. Think "Soylent Green," "Logan's Run," and even "Planet of the Apes." Offered early in this revolution is 1972's "Z.P.G." ("Zero Population Growth"), which examines life in an overpopulated futureworld where the air is choked with smog and babies are outlawed to preserve global control, pitting the few against the many as free will fights to survive. Directed by Michael Campus ("The Mack"), "Z.P.G." has all the ingredients for a vivid examination of oncoming misery, delivering impressive production achievements that sell the sterility of a society built on complacency. While not precisely satiric in nature, the feature has some fun with era-specific concerns between bouts of depression as the end of the world is recreated for the screen. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Witchtrap


After achieving a cult hit in 1986's "Witchboard," director Kevin Tenney returns to the dark side with 1989's "Witchtrap" (titled "The Presence" on the Blu-ray), which isn't a sequel, but displays a similar fascination with dangerous supernatural terrain. Although it's a low-budget feature shot on the quick, Tenney's work here is surprisingly effective, putting in noticeable effort to jolt a tale of a rather specific haunting, using inventive special effects and lively performances to secure entertainment value. "Witch Trap" has its limitations, but its genre adulation remains endearing throughout, gifting viewers a scrappy, snarky, low-wattage take on a demonic uprising, offering enough carnage and panic to cover a few dramatic and technical potholes found during the journey. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - They're Playing with Fire


Perhaps trying to reignite the flames of teenage lust, co-writer/director Howard Avedis returns diminutive actor Eric Brown to the screen in 1984's "They're Playing with Fire," which follows his success in 1981's "Private Lessons." Once again casting Brown as boy experiencing a sexual awakening at the hands of an older woman, Avedis makes a wise choice in casting. Not with Brown, but co-star Sybil Danning, who possesses a pronounced aura of sexuality that turns certain sections of the film into 3-D, making an appealing focal point for the picture, which often needs all the distractions it can find. A curious combination of Hitchcock and "Friday the 13th," "They're Playing with Fire" arranges vivid excursions into sex and violence, playing up its soft-core attitude with gore zone visits and a screenplay (co-written by Avedis's spouse, Marlene Schmidt) that goes from appealingly straightforward to bewildering as the story unfolds, requiring Danning to disrobe just to maintain cabin pressure in this weirdo thriller tailor-made for late night cable showings. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - China Girl


Adult cinema visits the superspy genre in 1974's "China Girl," which delivers a 007-ish take on global threat, evil organizations, and erotic enticements, executed with a certain cinematic flair not always found in such saucy endeavors. Director Paul Aratow is tasked with completing the basics in coupling and naughty interactions, but he also takes time with performances, helping to bridle the potential outrageousness of the "China Girl" world of spying with some unexpectedly effective turns, including a primary villain played by James Hong, from "Big Trouble in Little China" fame (credited here as "James Young"). 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