Film Review - The Ice Road


Writer/director Jonathan Hensleigh hasn’t made a movie in a decade, last seen on screen with the forgettable “Kill the Irishman.” “The Ice Road” is his big return to the industry, taking command of a Liam Neeson action film during the actor’s Charles Bronson period, with the star taking simple jobs that play up his brawniness. There’s nothing wrong with working, and it’s nice to have Neeson around, once again becoming the most appealing element of the production. Neeson squints and barks like a pro, but Hensleigh has a little more in mind for “The Ice Road,” trying to create a slam-bang thriller involving big rigs and a race to a miner rescue, hoping to keep the picture busy with multiple subplots and a collection of suspicious characters. The feature is incredibly dopey at times, but Hensleigh knows how put on a show, with the “Die Hard with a Vengeance” and “Armageddon” screenwriter perfectly aware of absurdity, hoping to generate enough of a white-knuckle ride to cover for the endeavor’s weaker ideas, including its depiction of villainy. Read the rest at

Film Review - F9

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Unlike previous installments, the makers of “F9” know they’re coming back for more. There will two more chapters in this real never-ending story, “The Fast and the Furious” saga, and the latest sequel is clearly out to clean up the mess that’s been left behind by various filmmakers trying to advance an ongoing series that never had a blueprint to begin with. Bad guys became heroes, the dead are now alive, and brothers that never existed before are now integral to the plot. It’s been a weird (and wearisome) ride with “The Fast and the Furious,” with every endeavor hungry to escalate action and melodrama, and “F9” is no different, only now there’s some freshly poured narrative concrete to follow into the future, with screenwriter Daniel Casey and Justin Lin (who returns to the director’s chair after taking the last two movies off) putting together a plan to establish bad guys, evil plans, and even more family ties to manage, inspiring at least two features to come. Read the rest at

Film Review - Werewolves Within


“Werewolves Within” is a loose adaptation of a VR game of the same name, released in 2016. It was a title without cinematic potential, with gameplay involving a group of characters sitting around a campfire, trying to zero in on the lycanthrope of the gathering while asking one another questions. There’s a hefty screenwriting challenge here for Mishna Wolff, who’s tasked with taking a social deduction experience and transforming it into the suspense picture with big laughs. Tonally, “Werewolves Within” holds together, merging violence and horseplay comfortably, creating an immersive genre event populated with strange personalities. It’s an entertaining film, but it’s best to know beforehand that the endeavor is not a horror extravaganza, with Wolff trying to retain the original game’s escalation of accusations, offering a talky take on a creature feature emergency. Read the rest at

Film Review - False Postive


“False Positive” is a slight reworking of “Rosemary’s Baby,” trading satanic panic for modern fertility fears, providing a different kind of jolt with a similar sense of creepiness. Co-writer/director John Lee is a somewhat strange choice for the project, with “The Heart, She Hollar” creator and “Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday” helmer certainly familiar with weirdness, but less proven with genre entertainment. He’s joined by co-writer/actress Ilana Glazer, with the pair endeavoring to update the patriarchal themes of “Rosemary’s Baby” while delving deeper into surreal imagery and freak-out reactions. “False Positive” is a slow-burn endeavor, much too leisurely at times, but Glazer and Lee have certain ideas on the female experience that emerge with clarity, and they get awfully close to fascinating levels of darkness at times. Read the rest at

Film Review - Good on Paper


A veteran stand-up comedian, Iliza Shlesinger made a positive impression as an actress in last year’s “Spencer Confidential.” Forced to fight for screen time against Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg’s penchant for noisiness, Shlesinger managed to be funny and alert in an aggressive role. Aiming to generate a leading part for herself, Shlesinger takes a screenwriting credit on “Good on Paper,” creating a study of insecurity and treachery in the world of relationships, possibly drawing from her own experiences with a film that’s “based on a lie.” The approach seems to represent a general avoidance of romantic comedy formula as the lead character finds love with a man whose trustworthiness is elusive at best. The concept has potential, and the material gets most of the way there with comedic disasters, industry awareness, and snappy banter. Shlesinger doesn’t have a third act for the endeavor, but there’s enough lived-in discomfort to support a lively picture. Read the rest at

Film Review - Vicious Fun


“Vicious Fun” initially brings viewers back to a time when horror journalism was hitting its stride, offering power to reporters covering the latest in macabre entertainment, with the 1983 setting putting the action in the middle of the slasher cinema trend. While some Fangoria fumes are huffed, director Cody Calahan quickly abandons the most original element of his feature, getting rid of magazine authority and industry awareness to eventually make his own scary movie. Calahan isn’t pushing for major chills with “Vicious Fun,” preferring to make more of a comedy that’s frequently interrupted by gore zone visits, with characters dispatched in ghastly ways. The picture should be a carnival ride, but Calahan isn’t prepared to make something truly funny, keeping the effort wildly broad to invite a sense of fun that never fully arrives. Read the rest at

Film Review - Lansky


Filmmakers love gangster stories, and tales about Meyer Lansky have been told many times before. There’s the usual tough guy stance, with orders and intimidation offered with equal restraint, reinforcing Lansky’s power as organized crime took hold of gambling operations in the 1940s and ‘50s. There’s violence, women, and money, and writer/director Eytan Rockaway isn’t about to ignore the cinematic possibilities of these vices, with his “Lansky” yet another examination of the criminal life in motion. What’s new here is time with a different character, with Rockaway creating a dual examination of strained men and their costly mistakes. Expectations for a Meyer Lansky bio-pic are not met with the feature, which only cherry picks a few areas of underworld unrest. The rest of the effort is a mild drama about the hunt for missing money and the stress of personal responsibility, and it’s not a particularly gripping take on a complex man. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Satan's Blood


There's an odd opening for "Satan's Blood" that introduces the audience to the teachings of Professor Vasallo, an expert on dark magic and the occult. The picture promises "accuracy and authenticity" when dealing with black mass particulars, leading to an additional prologue that observes a Satanic ritual where the head priest, an old man, is offered an opportunity to grope and lick a young woman prepared for sacrifice. It's at this point where any possibility for an evocative understanding of occult worship ends, pushed aside by the real creative goal of the movie: sexploitation. Director Carlos Puerto doesn't dream big with "Satan's Blood," keeping things intimate with this study of evil influence and nudity. It begins like a college lecture and ends with Argento-style insanity, and somewhere in the middle is a mildly engaging chiller featuring at least two characters who have no concept of danger. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Cthulhu Mansion


A director with a long history in genre entertainment, Juan Piquer Simon ("Pieces," "Slugs," "The Rift") attempts to do something with the static location of a house that's being taken over by a demonic force. Taking pieces of "Poltergeist" and trying to play tribute to the works of H.P. Lovecraft, Simon offers 1992's "Cthulhu Mansion," which pits cocaine-dealing punks against the forces of evil during one long night in Madrid. Simon isn't blessed with a major budget for the endeavor, but he tries his best to create something memorably macabre, providing genre fans with loathsome creeps and bizarre deaths to help fill the run time. More exotic elements of supernatural menace aren't quite as enchanting, but "Cthulhu Mansion" delivers compelling weirdness as Simon creates a war between generations and highlights building pressure from beyond. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Rogue


While the team at Lionsgate is surely trying to find anything to entice viewers into watching "Rogue," the cover of the Blu-ray offers a note that the picture is "from the director of 'Silent Hill: Revelation'," and provides images of star Megan Fox and a snarling male lion, which isn't even featured in the film. There's little on the outside that seems promising about the production, and it turns out there isn't much to embrace about the movie, which presents itself as some type of actioner with a conservation message buried beneath layers of tepid plotting, bad screenwriting, and weak performances. "Rogue" begins with a bang, announcing itself with big guns, bad guys, and pogo stick cinematography (credited to Brendan Barnes), but it soon settles into a "Jaws" situation of survival on an African lion farm, only writers Isabel Bassett and M.J. Bassett (who also directs) don't push hard enough on animal activity, making the effort more about exposition than exploitation, which dials down the potential fun factor of the material. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Centigrade


"Centigrade" is a survival picture that's based on true story, though the specifics of the inspiration are vague at best. It's better to put the reality of the story aside and approach the feature as a two-hander drama, where the participants are stuck inside of a car buried in the snow for 85 minutes of screen time. Screenwriters Daley Nixon and Brendan Walsh (who also directs) have quite the creative task, trying to make near immobility into a nail- biting experience of panic. "Centigrade" doesn't achieve a few of its limited goals, but the movie is largely successful as a claustrophobic mission of self-preservation and logic. It's not the easiest film to sit through, presenting all sorts of anguish and argumentative behavior, but Walsh believes in the endeavor's importance as an offering of emotionality and perseverance, even when he can't communicate such urgency to the viewer. Read the rest at

Film Review - Luca


After getting caught up in a lust for sequels for few years, Pixar Animation Studios continues their return to original stories with “Luca,” which follows the successful releases of “Onward” and “Soul.” After exploring fantasy realms and jazz, the company now focuses on the delights of Italy, presenting a tale of sea monsters experiencing the wonders of Vespas and the heavenly highs of pasta. The screenplay by Jesse Andrews and Mike Jones has a lot of fun soaking up the sights and sounds of an Italian coastal town, and they do well with the unreality of the story, creating distinct characters brought to life through outstanding voice work. It’s the Pixar Formula that’s a little too heavy this time around, hurting the brightness of the feature, with its merriment periodically interrupted by tiresome dramatics and familiar messages on the power of friendship and family. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard


The success of 2017’s “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” came as a great surprise to everybody, but I’m guessing the producers were downright shocked at the audience response to the feature. It was a throwaway comedy for the late-August crowds, enjoying wonderful marketplace timing with a post-“Deadpool” appearance by Ryan Reynolds. “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” filled a need for viewers looking for big action and bigger performances, and now the gang’s returned for the awkwardly titled sequel, “The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard,” which does what many unnecessary sequels do: rehash the original endeavor to maximize potential profits. There’s no bold creative leap in “The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard,” just more noise from director Patrick Hughes, a once promising helmer whose mission with the continuation is to make an even more obnoxious movie with a bigger budget, keeping the talent screaming and the stunt set pieces chaotic. Read the rest at

Film Review - Fatherhood


Kevin Hart isn’t known for his dramatic capabilities, offering a rare show of non-yelling sensitivity in 2017’s “The Upside.” He’s largely remained in the field of comedy, playing to his fanbase with silly pictures that demand volume, not timing, but “Fatherhood” is perhaps the most direct acting challenge Hart has faced during his screen career. He’s tasked with playing a broken widower trying to raise his daughter on his own, and while the endeavor isn’t too far from laughs, it makes a few attempts to deal with the emotional realities of parenthood, especially for those unprepared for its immense challenges. Hart’s does a fine job away from his usual shtick, and “Fatherhood” clicks when it stays focused on the taxing education of household management with a little baby. Any time the writing moves away from the core challenge of endurance, the movie gets caught up in irksome formula. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Birthday Cake


“The Birthday Cake” is a story about the Italian mafia in a day and age when tales of old-world criminal endeavors have been exhausted, with enough of these productions all following the same story of paranoia and “fuhgeddaboudit” family ties. The writing (credited to Diomedes Raul Bermudez, Shiloh Fernandez, and Jimmy Giannopoulous, who also directs) doesn’t aim especially high, supplying a tale of danger involving one young man’s dangerous night on the town as he makes his way to a celebration, and casting is both oddball and dispiritingly predictable. It takes a lot of patience to stick with “The Birthday Cake” as it deals with angry encounters with loud people, but it helps to have the knowledge that the material is going somewhere, offering a payoff that’s way more interesting than the picture’s laborious introductions. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Sparks Brothers


Music has always been important to director Edgar Wright. It’s been a major element in everything he’s made, with his last effort, “Baby Driver,” emerging as a musical in some ways, with the action edited with soundtrack selections in mind. For his latest picture, Wright makes a move into documentary filmmaking, trying to do something meaningful with his longstanding adoration for the band Sparks, who’ve been around for over 50 years. “The Sparks Brothers” is an unabashed valentine for siblings Ron and Russell Mael, who’ve created a striking career in the art pop genre, using their love of cinema and humor to mastermind 25 albums of spacey, polarizing songs. Fandom for Sparks is on the secret handshake side of things, but Wright is determined to share his love for the duo with “The Sparks Brothers,” which is more of a commercial at times than an offering of journalism, but it remains a joyous, educational viewing experience. Read the rest at

Film Review - 12 Mighty Orphans


It’s one thing to offer an underdog sports story, but “12 Mighty Orphans” presents a football saga set in Texas during the aftermath of the Great Depression. Hope for a measured understanding of adversity is pretty much lost in the opening act of the feature. The material is “inspired by a true story,” giving screenwriters Ty Roberts (who also directs), Lane Garrison, and Kevin Meyer wiggle room with the tale of Coach Rusty Russell and his radical efforts to create a football team out of a collection of teenage orphans, and one that could compete on a statewide level. “12 Mighty Orphans” isn’t looking to be much more than a thick slice of feel-good cinema, but Roberts gets carried away with his depictions of good and evil, transforming the endeavor into a cartoon at times, unwilling to pull back when it comes to a balanced understanding of gridiron glory and individual strife. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Serpent


The big screen needs new action heroes, and it’s been difficult to find people capable of presenting such toughness while backed by at least passable direction and writing. Stepping up to the plate is Gia Skova, a Russian-born fashion model who’s tried to make something happen as an actress for nearly a decade. Perhaps fed up with the system, Skova decides to make her own cinematic bruiser with “The Serpent,” claiming acting, writing, directing, and producing credits on the picture, which follows a CIA agent working to crack a terrorist event involving bombs implanted in children. Skova keeps herself front and center during the film, trying to sell herself as a major threat to evil men, but the reality of “The Serpent” isn’t quite as captivating, with the production basically a gigantic mess of baffling moviemaking choices and low-budget blunders. Skova creates one seriously goofball feature that’s meant to celebrate her industry presence, but the endeavor primarily reinforces her inexperience with the production process. She wants to be an action star, but she barely qualifies as an action figure. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Dark Tower


It seems the late 1980s was a big time for supernatural horror films set in tall buildings. In 1988, there was the ill-fated "Poltergeist III," and for 1989, producer Sandy Howard brings terror to a Barcelona office complex in "Dark Tower." The picture didn't enjoy an easy road to completion, with original director Ken Wiederhorn possibly replaced by Freddie Francis (Weiderhorn denies this, so who knows), and, apparently, Roger Daltrey and Lucy Guttridge were set in leading roles before Michael Moriarty and Jenny Agutter stepped in to complete the film. While watching "Dark Tower," one can sense behind-the-scenes issues emerging, as the effort's strong start with strange, violent happenings in an office building is gradually turned into semi-random events involving a ghostly presence and his apparent love of elevator antagonism. There doesn't seem to be anyone helping to guide the events of the feature, but B-movie appeal and committed performances end up saving the day in this endeavor. Read the rest at