Film Review - Bad Times at the El Royale


Writer/director Drew Goddard made a big splash with 2012’s “The Cabin in the Woods,” his helming debut. It was a production plagued with problems and missed released dates, yet, when it finally hit screens, it offered a knockout mixture of frights and funny, with Goddard one of the few able to balance the tricky tonality of a horror comedy, especially one that’s glazed up with self-referential humor. Weirdly, it took Goddard six years to get another project up and running, with “Bad Times at the El Royale” his long-awaited follow-up to the genre hit, which takes his career in a slightly different direction, trading mischief for pulp, assembling a crime thriller that returns him to the concept of hellacious doings within a single setting. Unfortunately, Goddard appears less interested in economical, ferocious filmmaking this time around, keeping “Bad Times at the El Royale” long-winded and intermittently exciting, often favoring production polish over storytelling urgency.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Hold the Dark


With his last efforts, “Blue Ruin” and “Green Room,” director Jeremy Saulnier has managed to become one of the more compelling helmers working today. He’s interested in violence, the ugly, gruesome kind so many movies avoid depicting, and he’s committed to character, always pushing for deeper psychological inspections with his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Macon Blair. He’s made masterful, low-budget pictures, and now he’s moving into more permissive areas of production, with his latest, “Hold the Dark,” a more epic undertaking that submits a manhunt scenario, but show more interest in primal behaviors and dark awakenings. Previous creative successes highlighted Saulnier’s skill with monetary and dramatic boundaries. “Hold the Dark” doesn’t offer the same discipline, and the farther it reaches into the unknown, the less essential the film becomes.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Cruise


Nearly a decade ago, Robert D. Siegel was in an incredible creative position. He wrote the screenplay for Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler,” crafting an outstanding character study of a broken man from a pain-filled world trying to make things right for himself and what remains of his family. Siegel also directed “Big Fan,” his look at the ways of mental illness filtered through the world of sports star worship. Both pictures delivered original visions in well-worn genres, cementing Siegel’s position as a creative force to pay attention to. Siegel finally returned to screens with the screenplay for 2016’s “The Founder,” and now directs again with “Cruise,” his ode to the masculine pleasures of the cruising scene in Queens, circa 1987. It’s a feature that tries to get by on period atmosphere and thespian heat, but, coming after “Big Fan,” it’s a disappointment, finding the helmer getting caught in cliché he managed to avoid before.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Ride


The automobile is an intimate space, and one that’s not inherently cinematic. There’s not much one can do with a few seats, riders, and a destination, requiring some supreme filmmaking sorcery to find something interesting with a setting that doesn’t allow for much bodily movement. “Ride” endeavors to be a thriller, pitting a rideshare driver against the growing menace of one customer who has his own plans for the evening, creating a scenario that should result in a sustained nightmare. What writer/director Jeremy Ungar actually comes up with is about 25 minutes of serviceable threats and charged banter before he runs out of inspiration. “Ride” is a one-act play trying to be a big screen pulse-pounder, but there’s not enough here to fill what’s already a scant run time of 76 minutes. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Grave Robbers


The screenplay for 1988's "Grave Robbers" makes several references to the work of Stephen King. Writer/director Straw Weisman is clearly a fan, basically recycling King's formula of strangeness happening to an innocent while trapped in a deceptively cheery small town. These ingredients have worked for King on multiple occasions, and they help Weisman as well, giving his odd little movie a nice boost of atmosphere and illness. "Grave Robbers" is a dark comedy with horror interests that never completely gel, but the production is certainly focused on achieving something with the material, which adds pinches of zombies and necrophilia into its genre stew, watching Weisman work earnestly to make a strange feature that's impossible to predict and even harder to comprehend at times, but maintains a lively sense of madness and era-specific sexual concerns. Read the rest at 

Blu-ray Review - Ninja III: The Domination


Still trusting the power of ninja mania during the 1980s, Cannon Films wasn't about to let a good idea die peacefully. Instead of rehashing work found in "Enter the Ninja" and "Revenge of the Ninja," Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan push the series into a far stranger direction (with help from screenwriter James R. Silke) for 1984's "Ninja III: The Domination," which is, true to its title, a martial arts picture, but one that's incredibly mindful of trends, trying to be the most '80s movie of the 1980s by combining aerobics, video games, and demonic possession into a feature about a war between ninjas. "Ninja III" is nuts but, strangely, it's also lovingly made by director Sam Firstenberg, who doesn't take the helming assignment lightly. While faced with utter ridiculousness and a limited Cannon budget, Firstenberg tries to pack in as much violence and movement as possible, wisely choosing to hypnotize viewers with exploitation instead of winning them over with craft.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Disorganized Crime


For his second directorial effort, Jim Kouf returns to the tonal issues that plagued his previous endeavor, 1986's 'Miracles." The screenwriter of "Stakeout," Kouf isn't sure what kind of movie his wants to make with 1989's "Disorganized Crime," so he samples a little of everything, initially starting with a crime caper before segueing into broader acts of comedy and strangely intense moments of robbery. It's not a triumphant feature, though it does contain an impressive cast, with the actors trying to figure out their place in the story as Kouf wanders about, unable to master much suspense or laughs.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - 5 Films 5 Years Volume #1 - Golden Age Erotica


Vinegar Syndrome is having a birthday party, and they've invited the HD-loving public to join the festivities. After working through exploitation and horror movies with "5 Years 5 Films – Volume #2," Vinegar Syndrome turns their attention to the hotter side of life with "Volume #1," which focuses on adult cinema, sharing five pictures previously available only on DVD. Included on this collection are 1985's "Too Naughty to Say No," 1978's "Hot & Saucy Pizza Girls," 1985's "Ribald Tales of Canterbury," 1980's "Prisoner of Passion," and 1983's "Dixie Ray Hollywood Star." All the essentials are provided here, with sex, strangeness, comedy, and some mild genre hopping. And, if star power is your thing, the pictures welcome thespian efforts from John Holmes, Lisa De Leeuw, Ginger Lynn, Desiree Cousteau, and Seka. It's a buffet of writhing bodies and graphic close-ups, giving viewers an opportunity to watch selections from the golden age of adult cinema with evocative Blu-ray presentations. Read the rest at

Film Review - Hell Fest


We just did this a month ago. Rooster Teeth’s “Blood Fest” brought the concept of a real slaughterama found at a Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights-style event to the screen, doing so with a good amount of gore and a defined sense of humor, trying to sillier than sinister. “Hell Fest” has virtually the same plot, following a group of young people into a remote theme park set up to celebrate the wonders of being scared, only to be targeted by a real threat inside the property. The main difference between the two movies is that “Hell Fest” has unintentional laughs. Director Gregory Plotkin doesn’t have the budget to do much of anything with the setting, going the repetitive route with this slasher effort, struggling to give the tired routine of kills and paranoia some necessary energy, which doesn’t come as easy as it should. Read the rest at 

Film Review - A Star Is Born


“A Star Is Born” isn’t crossing fresh cinematic terrain. It’s been done before, three times in fact, with versions produced in 1937 (starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March), 1954 (with Judy Garland and James Mason), and in 1976 (with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson), giving co-writer/director Bradley Cooper plenty of guide rail to work with as he mounts what’s ultimately a mixture of the films, but mostly favors the greasy despair of the bicentennial rock musical. It’s a Teflon plot, delivering romance, stage performance, and tragedy, and Cooper understands what the audience is looking for. His “A Star Is Born” is handsomely mounted and profoundly felt at times, becoming an “Actors Studio: The Movie” take on music world misery. It’s also an overlong and somewhat confusing endeavor that always favors emotion over editing. Read the rest at

Film Review - Little Women


Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel, “Little Women,” has inspired many adaptations, as recently as this very year, with the BBC trying their hand at creating a mini-series version of the story. Such repetition makes sense, and so much of this tale of the March Sisters and their struggle to find themselves is irresistible, giving co-writer/director Clare Niederpruem a head-start when it comes to delivering compelling dramatics. While it’s a popular book to bring to all forms of media, it’s not an easy translation to make. While the production tries to streamline some subplots and disconnect from a few characters, this new “Little Women” has ideal charm and, most important of all, sincerity, offering the faithful a heartfelt update that respects Alcott’s prime message of familial love while inoffensively trying to modernize the saga for a more contemporary teen audience.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Night School


Nobody involved in “Night School” needs to put in any effort. Director Malcolm D. Lee had a massive hit last summer with “Girls Trip,” so he’ll be making variations on the film for the next five years. All star Kevin Hart has to do is show up for close-ups and scream and he’s good. And Tiffany Haddish is still working on her sudden rise to national consciousness after a supporting turn in “Girls Trip,” sticking with the sense of humor that broke her into the big time. It’s hard to condemn the professionals for not trying to make something special with “Night School.” It’s there, it’s raunchy, and it’s programmed to have some heart. However, laziness is a big problem with this dispiriting comedy, which could’ve been so much more than the feeble collection of gross-out jokes and wayward riffs it currently offers. Nobody particularly cares about the final product, and such apathy keeps the feature anchored to the ground for nearly two hours.  Read the rest at

Film Review - I Think We're Alone Now


“I Think We’re Alone Now” deals with a largely undefined post-apocalyptic world. However, screenwriter Mike Makowsky doesn’t go for violent wasteland ideas with feral characters, instead examining the limits of loneliness and the comfort of routine when all else is lost. It’s more of a personality piece than a customary story, at least for the first two acts, providing a spare but compelling inspection of an empty world, and how such vastness of quiet is processed by the two people left to experience it. Director Reed Morano follows up her achingly sincere 2015 picture, “Meadowland,” with something more mysterious, and while she fumbles the landing, the helmer does create spaces, emotional and geographical, worth exploring.  Read the rest at

Film Review - The Padre


Director Jonathan Sobol was last seen in theaters with “The Art of the Steal,” a heist comedy that tried to play in the same sandbox Guy Ritchie and Steven Soderbergh often reside in. The results weren’t perfect, but the picture maintained appeal, eased along with a lively sense of mischief (having Kurt Russell around certainly helped). Sobol sobers up some with “The Padre,” a darker take on the manhunt routine that never wants to play as bleak as it initially seems. Sobol tries to keep the film approachable as it details grim events and greets questionable characters, and he achieves a good portion of his tonal goals. Acting efforts from Nick Nolte, Tim Roth, and Valeria Henriquez help the cause, but “The Padre” gets by on screen energy, keeping chases and intimidations close as a revenge story transforms into road journey before morphing into heist movie. Read the rest at

Film Review - Summer '03


We’re moving into a new age of nostalgia, with “Summer ‘03” taking a trip in time, back to an age when cell phones were miraculous simply because they could send text messages and teen humiliation was only beginning to form the foundation of internet exchanges. Writer/director Becca Gleeson doesn’t mummify her feature with endless references to gadgets and atmosphere, preferring to use slightly more community-minded time to launch her own take on a coming-of-age dramedy, trying to treat raging emotions with some level of realism while constructing a screenplay that’s softened by quirk and distracted by supporting characters. “Summer ‘03” captures the endless summer vibe with ease, only struggling when it comes time to address the severity of bad decisions, with Gleeson giving in to hysterics too easily.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Smallfoot


The collision between humans and monsters is once again recycled for family entertainment in “Smallfoot,” with the picture’s focus on neurotic, sheltered yetis about to have their whole world shattered. The feature is an adaptation of a Sergio Pablos book, but the production goes out of its way to be its own thing, eschewing a sustained run of madcap antics to become a musical of sorts, with periodic breaks in the action to do some singing and dancing. “Smallfoot” has color courtesy of co-writer/director Karey Kirkpatrick (“Over the Hedge,” “Imagine That”), but it’s a laborious film that’s too caught up in exposition to have much fun with itself, with an uneven balance of mischief and metaphor. Whatever amusement manages to make it all the way to the screen doesn’t last for very long.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Little Italy


Director Donald Petrie has been here before. 30 years ago, he helmed “Mystic Pizza,” a low-key dramedy about life around a pizzeria that co-starred Julia Roberts. And now there’s “Little Italy,” another dramedy about life around a pizzeria (two of them to be specific), and this one offers Julia’s niece, Emma Roberts, as one of its main attractions. Perhaps Petrie is trying his luck again after striking out with many duds (“My Life in Ruins,” “Just My Luck,” “Welcome to Mooseport”), but he’s an impossibly bland filmmaker, and “Little Italy” is another offering from his creative kitchen that has no discernable flavor. 1988 can only happen once, leaving Petrie struggling to do something with his latest endeavor, which plays everything so safely, it’s exhausting long before it’s obnoxious.  Read the rest at

Film Review - All About Nina


“All About Nina” is a difficult film to watch. It’s partially engineered to be that way, with writer/director Eva Vives endeavoring to create a screen space that’s suffocating and unrelentingly bleak, using a tightening grip to support a character study of a thirtysomething woman suddenly facing the demons she’s been unable to outrun. The movie is a churning assortment of abrasive personalities and self-destructive behaviors, but somewhere in the middle of all the hostilities, there’s supposed be some faint light of realization, giving viewers an exit out of the darkness Vives supplies. It’s hard to sense any sense of achievement here, but there’s plenty of pain to go around, giving actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead a meaty role that demands a full-body commitment to both the abyssal agony of the part and her vocation as stand-up comedian.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Maximum Impact


The curious career of Alexander Nevsky takes another deadening turn with “Maximum Impact,” the Russian actor’s latest attempt to achieve some level of global fame with a Hollywood-style actioner. Nevsky’s big but he can’t act, electing to surround himself with a highly bizarre collection of thespians who are known for taking any type of paycheck role that comes their way. Nevsky’s got the physical presence, but his energy reserves run low in this painfully amateurish production, which doesn’t take long to shed any level of seriousness, emerging as a parody of VOD thrillers, with director Andrzej Bartkowiak trying to make sense of Ross LaMann’s loopy screenplay, which tosses cliches and characters into a blender, making B-movie paste that’s impossible to make sense of, much less enjoy.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Miracles


Screenwriter Jim Kouf ("Class," "Secret Admirer," "Up the Creek") makes his directorial debut with 1986's "Miracles," bringing with him dreams of establishing a rich farce filled with chases, near-misses, strange luck, and combative characters. He would go on to write "Stakeout," one of the best films of 1987, but such a creative triumph was still a year away, leaving him stuck with a frustratingly inert, unfunny comedy that would normally kill a helming career before it had a chance to fully develop. So, thank goodness for "Stakeout" and god help us all with "Miracles," which emerges as a kitchen sink idea from Kouf, who's desperate to make this manic endeavor work despite dreadful miscastings, a thin premise, and dialogue that's primarily interested in detailing how two people hate each other. It's unpleasant and worse, unadventurous, testing patience as a brief run time is wasted on uninspired shenanigans and a half-realized gimmick.  Read the rest at