Film Review - Bumblebee


I’ll admit to finding 2007’s “Transformers” agreeable, partially due to the way director Michael Bay managed to handle something of an origin story for the Hasbro toy line’s live-action debut, giving the Robots in Disguise proper scale and mystery. It was still teeming with nonsense, a Bay specialty, but his lust for cinematic overkill was muted to a certain degree, with his helming power tested by the introduction of a potentially huge franchise for a global market. Such restraint didn’t last for long, with four “Transformers” sequels managing to break box office records and reduce the multiplex experience to a sensorial torture chamber, finding Bay encouraged to go as hostile and baffling as possible to delight a growing international audiences. Grosses dipped substantially with 2017’s “The Last Knight,” inspiring the producers to take a different approach, pushing Bay aside for “Bumblebee,” which strives to be everything the other pictures in the series weren’t, submitting a more fan-friendly, sensitive take on robots and the humans who love them. Read the rest at

Film Review - Aquaman


The DC Extended Universe has endured some troubles during its tenure, with 2017’s “Justice League” once considered a sure thing at the box office, only to emerge with middling grosses and a tepid reaction from fans. The idea of an Aquaman movie being the first picture out of the gate since “Justice League” initially seemed like an alarmingly bad idea, with producers electing to bring one of the most visually challenging comic book characters to the multiplex for his own adventure after he previously shared the screen with other iconic action figures. It turns out “Aquaman” is just the shot of adrenaline the DCEU needs at this point, with director James Wan pulling out all the stops as he strives to give the undersea hero an epic adventure that takes audiences up in the air and down to the depths, offering myth, muscle, and pure big screen scale. Considering the odds of a humiliating failure here, Wan has crafted quite a creative achievement. Read the rest at

Film Review - Mary Poppins Returns


“Mary Poppins Returns” sets a Hollywood record for the longest time divide between installments, with the sequel arriving 54 years after the original “Mary Poppins,” which helped cement star Julie Andrews as a screen icon, delivered Disney a monster hit, and won the studio five Academy Awards. Disney took their time to deliver a follow-up that could do walk and talk like the original picture, forced to find a way to bring Mary Poppins back to screen without the help of Andrews, who doesn’t return for the new adventure. Instead, there’s Emily Blunt, and she’s an amazing replacement, handling elegance, cheekiness, and musical numbers with impressive grace and screen magnetism. It’s the rest of “Mary Poppins Returns” that slightly underwhelms, finding the production unable to find the line between continuance and rehash as it plays a very safe game of nostalgia, only here the effort has been fluffed up considerably by Broadway influence. Read the rest at

Film Review - Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse


It’s a good time to be a Spider-Man fan. The character has had it rough on the big screen in the past, but 2016’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming” corrected many mistakes, giving the superhero a proper screen translation he hasn’t enjoyed since director Sam Raimi was in charge of the web-slinger’s cinematic adventures. Last year’s “Avengers: Infinity War” added emotional weight to the refresh, but instead of focusing solely on live-action endeavors, Sony Pictures has decided to expand the Spider-Man party to the animated realm, creating “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” which should’ve been just a pit-stop in the brand name’s longstanding media journey, but instead has something interesting to offer audiences, especially those hooked on the character’s comic book adventures. “Into the Spider-Verse” is unexpected, which is a good thing, making a valiant attempt to take the icon on a trippy wave of style, pathos, and identity. Read the rest at

Film Review - Mortal Engines


Around the same time Peter Jackson is presenting “They Shall Not Grow Old,” a wonderful documentary on the soldier experience of World War I, he’s also issuing “Mortal Engines,” a large-scale fantasy endeavor that’s become catnip to the filmmaker, who was last seen trying to survive “The Hobbit” trilogy. It’s clear that smaller, personal stories better represent Jackson’s cinematic talents, as he wrings more personality and soul out of 100-year-old war footage than he does with the expensive, ultra-modern “Mortal Engines,” co-scripting and producing a formulaic overview of YA cliches and blockbuster excesses. It’s a very large movie, but it’s hollow, trying to play the potential franchise long game with material that’s barely tolerable for a single picture. Read the rest at

Film Review - Vox Lux


Brady Corbet was once an actor. While he didn’t enjoy a distinguished career, he did manage to work with an impressive roster of independent and European filmmakers, appearing in Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia,” Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” remake, Gregg Araki’s “Mysterious Skin,” and Ruben Ostlund’s “Force Majeure.” Corbet moved behind the camera for 2015’s little-seen “The Childhood of a Leader,” and now graduates to a higher profile release in “Vox Lux,” which channels all those artistic influences into a strange little character piece that has no beginning and no end, merely existing for 110 minutes of unfiltered behavior masquerading as a study of callousness. It’s broadly acted and predictably enigmatic, with Corbet trying to make a movie that’s been done before, and by more adventurous helmers. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Quake


Having beaten Hollywood at their own disaster movie game with 2015’s “The Wave,” Norway is trying to keep momentum going, ordering up a sequel in “The Quake.” It’s not the riskiest step in national filmmaking, but there’s no reason to leave money on the table, especially when the formula for this style of storytelling works, at least better than recent American subgenre offerings. “The Quake” collects a new director in John Andreas Andersen, but the rest of the gang returns for a fresh round of destruction, with the action this time surveying the horrors of earthquakes in the big city, gifting the main characters all new survival challenges. The reunion is unexpected and welcome, with “The Quake” staying patient with characterization and ferocious with calamity, making for proper nail-biting chiller. Read the rest at

Film Review - Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle


There have been many screen adaptations of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book,” but few have opened with the sight of baby Mowgli, covered in his own mother’s blood, being rescued by the black panther Bagheera from the predator dangers of the jungle. Clearly, this is not going to be another Disney adaptation (they’ve gone back to the Kipling well three times already, most recently in a 2016 blockbuster), but something far darker in tone. “Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle” (simply titled “Mowgli” in the film) is a game attempt from director Andy Serkis to butch up the material, giving it real stakes as natural world violence is slightly exaggerated to fit Shakespearean drama, with the helmer offering a CGI-laden overview of challenges and position in the animal kingdom. Intent is far more interesting than execution, finding Serkis slowly losing control of his vision as the effort drags on, ending up with more of a curiosity than a triumphant reimagining. Read the rest at

Film Review - Dumplin'


“Dumplin’” is an adaptation of a young adult novel by Julie Murphy, with screenwriter Kristin Hahn attempting to manage the dramatic texture of literature and meet the demands of the casual Netflix audience. Handling the tone is director Anne Fletcher, who’s never made a sophisticated picture, previously helming movie such as “27 Dresses,” “The Proposal,” and the wretched “Hot Pursuit.” Fletcher is a mainstream filmmaker, unable to get into the thick of conflict and character and do something memorable with special locations and troubled characters. Instead of finding the heart of the feature, Fletcher pours on the empowerment message honey-thick, leaving “Dumplin’” only diverting in small doses, with most performances trying to create some sense of organic material in a sea of plastic sentiment. Read the rest at

Film Review - Backtrace


We’ve already dealt with the VOD filmmaking stylings of director Brian A. Miller this year. His last picture, “Reprisal,” was released back in August, adding another dud to his growing filmography of forgettable cinema, which includes “Vice,” “The Outsider,” and “The Prince.” Keeping up his interests in B-movies with nondescript titles, Miller issues “Backtrace,” which doesn’t deviate at all from his formula of limited locations, amateur supporting actors, and enough money in the budget to entice one big star. Bruce Willis slept through “Reprisal,” and now it’s Sylvester Stallone’s turn to pick up a paycheck, giving a few days out of his busy schedule to pretend to act interested in a dreary thriller concerning soggy memories and a stashed bag of cash. “Backtrace” has no creative fingerprints, with Miller rehashing all his low-budget helming tricks to cough up yet another tedious flip-book of cliches. Read the rest at

Film Review - Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes


Last year, director Alexis Bloom delivered “Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds,” which provided an insider peek into the family dynamic and living spaces of two Hollywood stars. It was a bittersweet viewing experiencing (the picture aired mere weeks after their deaths), but a warm, educational overview of two incredible lives enduring complication relationships with vices, insecurities, and each other. It’s unfortunate that Bloom can’t follow-up “Bright Lights” with something similarly appealing, electing to head into the competitive political documentary marketplace, turning her attention to the rise and fall of a powerful man. “Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes” offers some assurance from its title that it’s going to track life experiences from the architect of Fox News, but Bloom doesn’t remain committed to such study for very long, eventually pulling back from the toxicity of Ailes to explore cable news pollution, corrupt men, and the evils of propaganda. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Oscar


At the height of his fame, a dramatic and action star known around the world, Sylvester Stallone wanted to change things up, trying on a comedy for size to expand his thespian horizons. 1984's "Rhinestone" bombed at the box office and scared the star away from pronounced silly business for years to come, retreating to the comfort of Rambo sequels and easy money from Cannon Films. While a cheeky turn in 1989's "Tango & Cash" permitted Stallone to showcase his snarkier side, it was 1991's "Oscar" that found him diving back into the challenge of funny business, this time paring with director John Landis, who was following up his successful work on "Coming to America." The helmer wanted to make a farce, only to be faced with the acting limitations of Stallone, who wasn't known for his fast mouth and limber movement. Landis works very hard to support his star through this endeavor, which tries to simulate the blazing speed and wit of a classic comedy from the 1930s, and achieves a good portion of its creative goals, giving Stallone plenty of co-stars to bounce off of, while Landis orchestrates fine timing for "Oscar," which isn't all that hilarious, but it's consistently entertaining. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Shot


It all began in the early 1970s when a gang of students at the University of Illinois decided they wanted to move from making short documentaries to a major motion picture. Devouring the supercop movies of the day, writer/director Mitch Brown and producer Nate Kohn settled on "Shot," which attempts to make a "French Connection"-style ruckus with only a $15,000 budget to work with, leaning on University resources to see the project to completion. Created solely by college students (one of them being Chuck Russell, who would go on to a wildly uneven directorial career) trying to create a calling card for Hollywood employment, "Shot" is a weird but engaging compilation of stunts, shootouts, and cops and robbers, watching Kohn and Brown working within their means to assemble a smashmouth actioner while in the middle of rural Illinois, giving the feature the first of many distinctive marks. Read the rest at 

Blu-ray Review - Zama


"Zama" is a period piece, an adaptation of a novel by Antonio di Benedetto, handed over to respected Argentinian filmmaker Lucrecia Martel ("The Headless Woman," "The Holy Girl"), who makes a return to screens after a near-decade break from fictional storytelling. Perhaps fueled by her own career set-backs, Martel pours her perspective into "Zama," which examines the days of a Spanish officer (Daniel Gimenez Cacho) in colonial South America trying to get himself out of professional and psychological stasis, running into all kinds of problems as the surroundings start to poison his mind. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Favourite


As he ascends in filmmaking circles, director Yorgos Lanthimos has sharpened his vision for eccentricity, taking on dark projects that make the most of his strange vision for human (and inhumane) interactions. After coming to world cinema’s attention with “Dogtooth,” Lanthimos has found success with endeavors such as “The Lobster” and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” retaining his delight with disaster while edging his way into bigger projects. With “The Favourite,” the helmer has the closest thing to a mainstream hit on his hands, returning to screens with a period piece that’s a bit like watching professional wrestling, offering broad performances, wild turns of fate, and hateful behavior. “The Favourite” is a black comedy, and one that benefits from Lanthimos’s particular world view, using his quirks and adoration for emotional instability to make a relationship picture where nobody possess even a spark of warmth. Read the rest at 

Film Review - They Shall Not Grow Old


Peter Jackson is no stranger to filmmaking technology. The driving force behind “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Hobbit,” and “King Kong,” Jackson has always managed to create CGI-laden adventures with extreme detail, going beyond the manufacturing of monsters to generate entire worlds for audiences to get lost in. While the concentration has been on fantasy and horror endeavors for the better part of his career, Jackson goes beyond his creative borders with “They Shall Not Grow Old,” which attempts to turn 100-year-old footage from World War I into a living, breathing immersion into a time and place traditionally viewed in scratchy black and white. Jackson’s team of moviemaking wizards have transformed brittle celluloid into flesh and blood, working with color, sound, and clarity to deliver a vision of WWI that’s not about flipping through pages of history, but providing 3D experiences from the men who were there. Read the rest at

Film Review - Clara's Ghost


For her directorial debut, Bridey Elliot has decided to make it a family affair. A third-generation performer in the Elliot household, the helmer turns to her famous relatives for assistance in bringing “Clara’s Ghost” to life, hiring father Chris and sister Abby for help, also encouraging her mother Paula, an acting novice, to take on the responsibility of the main role. Elliot also doesn’t stray far from home, literally using her family’s Connecticut residence as the setting for this specialized freak-out, which has the air of horror but the bitterness of therapy. “Clara’s Ghost” is definitely not for everyone, but those capable of weathering Elliot’s mixture of genre attacks and home movies are rewarded with a pleasingly odd endeavor that, if it doesn’t scare you, it will at least provide some insight into how the Elliot household works. Read the rest at

Film Review - Asher


The screenplay for “Asher” is credited to Jay Zaretsky, and he sets out to deliver a mournful, sobering take on the aging hitman subgenre. In many ways, the writing is similar to the 1997 classic “Grosse Pointe Blank,” but Zaretsky isn’t interested in having much fun with this story, electing to keep the concept of a killer suddenly targeted for death as serious as possible, striving for characterization, not action. “Asher” gets very dark at times, but it’s never far away from a commendable performance or intriguing study of the human experience, with director Michael Caton-Jones (“This Boy’s Life,” “Scandal”) maintaining impressive control over the tone of the movie, steering difficult material through difficult realizations about life and the cinematic panic of men with guns trying to pick each other off. Read the rest at

Film Review - Back Roads


As an actor, Alex Pettyfer has been extremely problematic. He’s struggled with emotive performances and American accents, trying to survive dreck like “Beastly,” “I Am Number Four,” and the “Endless Love” remake. Things have improved for Pettyfer in recent years (including turns in “Elvis & Nixon” and “The Strange Ones”), but with “Back Roads,” he really seems to be taking the possibilities of his career seriously, working to define himself as something more than a handsome man willing to take his shirt off for the camera. Pettyfer is so intent on doing something substantial here, he also makes his directorial debut with “Back Roads,” putting himself in charge of a frightfully lurid and pained family drama, giving himself a tonal challenge he manages to pull off with concentration on performances and a slowly rising tide of mental illness, careful not to overwhelm viewers with unsettling revelations. Read the rest at

Film Review - Swimming with Men


Rob Brydon is a famous Welsh comedian, rarely finding his way to American theaters, mostly stuck in supporting roles in recent fantasy films such as “Cinderella” and “The Huntsman: Winter’s War.” Perhaps his most defined international offering is “The Trip,” a television series turned into movie for art-house release, where he joined co-star Steve Coogan for a restaurant tour of Northern England. A minor hit, there were two sequels (“The Trip to Italy” and “The Trip to Spain”), giving Brydon some presence outside of Europe, sharing his particular way with punchlines and celebrity impressions. With “Swimming with Men,” Brydon leads a large cast across familiar British comedy terrain, with this “Full Monty”-style romp utterly dependent on its star to weave magic with a screenplay that doesn’t welcome inventive silliness. “Swimming with Men” means to have heart and trigger smiles, but what it needs is writing worthy of Brydon’s talents, giving the main attraction a cinematic playground to explore, not a yellow line of cliché to follow. Read the rest at