Film Review - Us

US 2

In 2017, comedian Jordan Peele moved behind the camera, transitioning from a skit-based basic cable show to the big screen with “Get Out.” Scoring big with audiences and critics, Peele eventually collected Oscar gold for his genre-based study of race relations and paranoia, setting himself up for great expectations with any potential follow-up. He landed on “Us,” concocting another twisty chiller, this time dialing down the social commentary for a more straightforward freak-out, or at least as simplified as Peele gets, with the “Twilight Zone” fanatic (currently in charge of the show’s upcoming reboot) offering viewers as second round of weirdness and violence, with greater emphasis on chase sequences and extended exposition. “Us” is undeniably effective, but only when Peele settles into a groove of macabre events. Overall, it plays much like his previous effort, with spine-chilling developments chased by offerings of tepid comedy. Read the rest at

Film Review - Relaxer


In 2014, writer/director Joel Potrykus and actor Joshua Burge unleashed “Buzzard,” their tribute to the creepy fantasies of unmotivated individuals. It was a darkly comic picture, and shared a unique vision for strange characters and situations. The duo attempts to top themselves with “Relaxer,” an even more gruesome, idiosyncratic assessment of mental illness, taking the tale back in time to 1999, merging the relative innocence of a PlayStation world with the bottomless depths of depression. Once again, Potrykus and Burge strive to make something horrifying and often indescribable, with “Relaxer” a more defined attempt to deliver a Midnight Movie-style brain bleeder that still retains a sense of humor. It’s no improvement on “Buzzard,” but there’s a clear escalation of directorial bravery that’s interesting to watch unfold. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Invisibles


As filmmakers seek out corners of World War II history to dramatize, director Claus Rafle discovers a particularly interesting one with “The Invisibles.” Instead of making a picture about those who escaped Nazi Germany, Rafle details the unusual lives of Jewish citizens who elected to stay in the country during a time of genocide. “The Invisibles” is a docudrama, helping Rafle understand the exact moves of the people he’s chronicling, but there’s also a healthy amount of suspense and emotional pull to the feature, which tracks the danger of such a personal choice, with those embarking on this survival challenge electing to live free, but soon coming up against the reality of life in the shadow of Nazi rule. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - National Lampoon's Class Reunion


We live in a day and age when a hit movie is often met with sequels and knockoffs in a year, with Hollywood speeding up their game to secure audience attention, often fearful that waiting to cash-in on a smash will result in swift disinterest. For National Lampoon, the hunt to follow-up 1978's "Animal House" resulted in a lengthy delay, creating a four year wait for 1982's "Class Reunion" (1981's "Movie Madness" was released in 1983), which is an eternity for any company, giving the faithful a chance to seek ribald pleasures elsewhere. Not helping matters is the actual quality of "Class Reunion," with the comedy trying very hard to be the most hilarious release of the film year, only to whiff with every punchline and bit of physical humor. It's an awful effort from director Michael Miller, who doesn't display awareness of funny business finesse, instead using a sledgehammer on sly jokes and tasty parody, keeping the endeavor as far away as possible from the weirdness it craves. Read the rest at

Film Review - Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase


The history behind the young detective Nancy Drew is vast, dating back to her literary debut in 1930. Every now and then, Hollywood endeavors to revive the franchise, with many television and film adaptations striving to update the character for modern audiences, giving old-fashioned sleuthing a trendy twist. “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase” is no different. The production works to keep things current to best engage an easily distracted audience, and they have a special star in Sophie Lillis, who contributed greatly to the monster success of 2017’s “It.” Lillis picks up the flashlight and unstoppable curiosity for this fresh round of clue gathering, and she’s the brightest thing in the feature, which is best appreciated with lowered expectations, offering mildness for the target demographic, while Lillis comes ready to play. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Captive State


As alien invasion movies go, “Captive State” isn’t interested in destroying cities or filling the run time with combat sequences between space invaders and human defenders. It’s steelier than that thanks to director Rupert Wyatt, who managed to pull off a cinematic miracle with 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” creating a new direction for the franchise, and one with impressive technical achievements and a forbidding tone. Wyatt returns to sci-fi (after taking a break with 2014’s dismal remake of “The Gambler”) with “Captive State,” but he’s not going to indulge the obvious, taking a small-scale approach to an Earthly uprising, turning an occupation premise into a study of radicalization and defense, getting at least halfway there with suspense sequences and intergalactic conflict before running out of gas. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2


1984's "Silent Night, Deadly Night" was intended to be yet another slasher offering in an increasingly competitive marketplace, using the gimmick of a slaughtering Santa to lure the curious in. Instead of taking over the box office, the picture triggered tremendous controversy over its provocative marketing (Santa holding an ax), which resulted in cult longevity, making the feature something taboo for horror fans to embrace. In 1987, producer Lawrence Appelbaum elected to make a no-budget sequel, trying to rework footage from "Silent Night 1" into "Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2," an editorial assignment that didn't work. Enter co-writer/director Lee Harry, who managed to form something of a new story to tell in this universe, mixing footage from the earlier picture with a fresh tale of mass murder, hoping to inspire a potential franchise with a little post-production magic. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Claire's Camera


Hong Sang-soo is a prolific director, and not one to spend too much time refining his cinematic poetry. In "Claire's Camera," there's not much more than a central crisis between three people and a woman who studies the unrest with aid from her titular device, with the action basically regulated to conversations in cafes, apartments, and on French beaches, with the tale taking place around the time of the Cannes Film Festival. "Claire's Camera" is simple work, offering those who typically enjoy these minor forays into ennui a chance to embrace the helmer's special way with sparseness, humor, and repetitive anxiety. Read the rest at

Film Review - Triple Threat


For VOD addicts, “Triple Threat” is a very big deal. It’s “The Expendables” with lowered star standards, bringing together notable tough guys from American and Asian cinema, with director Jesse V. Johnson in charge of managing this battle royal of fight styles, attitudes, and English-speaking abilities. Brutality is there, with the picture exploding with all sorts of violence, packing gun fights, martial arts, and car chases into the run time. The cast seems to be enjoying themselves as well, providing scowls, barking threats, and squeezing out some emotion when necessary. It’s the story that ultimately kneecaps “Triple Threat,” which presents a mix of too many action figures and hazy plot and character details, making the feature more about appreciating smashmouth choreography than strengthening dramatic pull. Read the rest at

Film Review - Woman at War


“Woman at War” asks a very important question about today’s world: where’s the line between protection and extremism? The Icelandic production tracks the experience of a woman caught up in a dangerous game of escalation with an ecological preservation effort, where a love of the Earth transforms into assumed knighthood, blurring the concept of nobility once violence enters the question. Co-writer/director Benedikt Erlingsson takes the story very seriously, but there’s a poetic quality to the work, which combines flashes of fantasy with sobering reminders of reality concerning the encroaching dangers of climate change. “Woman at War” is constantly surprising and sharply realized by lead Halldora Geirharosdottir, who matches the confidence of the filmmaking with an impressively animated performance, keeping the movie focused on a singular power of vigilante justice running into serious trouble. Read the rest at

Film Review - Five Feet Apart


Movies about teen romances and elongated disasters are usually inspired by YA fiction, where there’s never a shortage of tales about adolescent woe. “Five Feet Apart” has enjoyed a slightly different origin story, beginning life as a screenplay before it was turned into a novel (released last November). It’s a pleasant change of pace, offering screenwriters Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis an opportunity to develop distinct subplots instead of trying to pack the vastness of a literary offering into a single picture. That doesn’t mean the feature is a memorable effort, but it’s a refreshingly direct one, finding the right balance of character and setting to give viewers a full understanding of motivation and longing. Such simplicity ends up frightening the filmmakers, but “Five Feet Apart” does connect as a something gentle, periodically invested in real feelings of frustration and attraction that sustain when the third act goes haywire with melodrama. Read the rest at

Film Review - Wonder Park


For their first animated project since 2015’s “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water,” Nickelodeon Movies decides to play it very safe with “Wonder Park.” Pinching elements from numerous pictures, the production endeavors to slap together a tale of imagination and dimmed spirits with the feature, which borrows most heavily from Pixar’s “Inside Out” and the 1984 fantasy gem, “The NeverEnding Story.” It’s hard not to be cynical with “Wonder Park,” which is a paint-by-numbers endeavor from screenwriters Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec (2014’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”), who slather on emotional manipulation and summon feeble magic for a routine adventure, while the overall animated effort falls far below recent family film competition, supplying a pre-packaged viewing experience that will babysit just fine for 75 minutes, but probably won’t linger for very long with younger audiences. Read the rest at

Film Review - Yardie


Idris Elba is known as an actor, and one managing a career with some serious highs and lows. Endeavoring to try out some creative control, Elba makes his directorial debut with “Yardie,” pouring his energy into a Jamaican crime saga that proudly retains its cultural position. Taking cues and mood from helmers Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, and Perry Henzell, Elba attempts to fashion something sprawling, threatening, and distinctly Jamaican, taking viewers into the violent core of West Kingston before moving the tale to London for a more recognizable battleground. An adaptation of the book by Victor Headley, “Yardie” is skilled work from Elba, who’s eager to make an impression, loading the feature up with violent confrontations and revenge scenarios motivated by abyssal pain. Read the rest at

Film Review - Starfish


Writer/director A.T. White attempts to craft a low-budget brain-bleeder with “Starfish,” his take on a creature feature where the odyssey of monsterdom is contained within. There are wild visions presented here, but as freak-out cinema goes, it’s not a picture for those with limited patience. White moves forward carefully with his psychological free dive, keeping up with trends in digital cinema that deliver more visual detail than dramatic lure, working to disturb the traditional viewing experience with concentration on imagery and mental distortion, keeping common storytelling away from the endeavor. White certainly knows how to put together a sharp-looking movie, and “Starfish” is ideal for those who enjoy meditative missions into the interpretive unknown. Dramatically, it’s intermittently compelling, but after about 30 minutes of this ambling effort, this very well may White’s intention with his feature-length helming debut. Read the rest at

Film Review - Finding Steve McQueen


Mark Steven Johnson has a very problematic filmography. He’s the director of “Ghost Rider” and “Daredevil,” with his last effort the little-seen “Killing Season,” starring John Travolta and Robert De Niro. He’s not someone that’s proven his skill behind the camera, struggling with dramas, comedies, and actioners, but “Finding Steve McQueen” seems to be his attempt to trying something softer for a change, helming an “Inspired by a true story” tale concerning the United California Bank Robbery, where a group of greedy men tried to steal 30 million dollars in Nixon re-election campaign contributions, hoping to use thievery to stop a thief. Johnson, along with screenwriters Ken Hixson and Keith Sharon, toys with the heist aspects of the tale, but the production is also attempting to make something sweet, taking the sting out of criminal behavior as love flows throughout the endeavor. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Puppet Masters


Bringing the work of Robert A. Heinlein to the screen isn't easy. Just ask Paul Verhoeven, who transformed "Starship Troopers" into an orgy of excess, upsetting fans in the process. For 1994's "The Puppet Masters," the screenplay (credited to Ted Elliot, Terry Rossio, and David Goyer) tries to be respectful of the source material for as long as possible, and the sci-fi aspects are what keep the feature afloat for its first half. The film doesn't stay inspired, with director Stuart Orme losing his way as the story deepens, making areas of the endeavor ridiculous when they should be emotionally devastating, and he generally loses interest in selling the stranger aspects of the tale, peeling alien intimidation off the finished product. Read the rest at 

Blu-ray Review - The Phantom Empire


While working in the film industry for some time by 1988, writer/director Fred Olen Ray really came into his own during the latter half of the decade. Known for his no-budget entertainment, specializing in exploitation and homage, Ray was pounding out productions around this time, having previously helmed "The Tomb," "Armed Response," "Deep Space," "Cyclone," "Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers," and "Beverly Hills Vamp" in a two-year period, clearing the way for "The Phantom Empire," which, according to legend, was shot over a period of six days. Taking a small crew into the Bronson Caves area of Griffith Park, Ray concocted (with T.L. Lankford) a tiny tale of adventuring, with the main characters coming into contact with monsters, Robby the Robot, dinosaurs, and the blinding presence in Sybil Danning dressed in vinyl. "The Phantom Empire" has no finesse, just forward momentum, working with iffy performances, limited cinematic tools, and sheer enthusiasm for B-movies from the 1950s, finding Ray's adoration for the filmmaking period coming through with more accuracy than the story he's trying(?) to tell. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Ice Harvest


The late Harold Ramis was an enormous talent. However, his directorial career covered a frustratingly uneven collection of instant classics ("Caddyshack," "Groundhog Day," "Vacation") and immediate duds ("Bedazzled," "Club Paradise," "Year One"). 2005's "The Ice Harvest" (Ramis's penultimate film) falls somewhere between the creative extremes, emerging as a slightly mystifying take on Midwestern noir, taking inspiration from Scott Phillip's 2001 crime novel. One can easily see where Ramis wanted to go with the picture, but his desire to mix black comedy with bits of existential dread and underworld entanglements mostly comes off uninspired, finding such careful stepping draining the endeavor of personality and tension. What should've been a home run for the gifted helmer is instead a disappointing non-starter. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Sudden Fury


Writer/director Brian Damude only made one movie during his career, and thankfully it's a terrific one. 1975's "Sudden Fury" eschews Hollywood comforts for the great outdoors of Ontario, with the helmer creating an unusual cat and mouse thriller with the simplest of cinematic ingredients. This is spare work, often avoiding music and dialogue to maintain concentration on the movement of characters, but Damude doesn't need much to create a proper nail-biter. "Sudden Fury" is engrossing, with moments of shock and sadness to present it with purpose, while Damude does everything he can with only a few locations, putting effort into characterization and editorial muscle, getting the feature up on its feet as quickly as possible before staging an unusual game of survival. Read the rest at

Film Review - Triple Frontier


Writer/director J.C. Chandor was last found mining for Oscar gold with 2014’s “A Most Violent Year.” He made a fine film, but it didn’t reach the creative heights of the production that preceded it, 2013’s “All Is Lost,” a masterful exploration of classic dramatic conflicts with a powerful cinematic presence. Chandor’s been away for quite some time, but he returns with “Triple Frontier,” which reunites him with primal battles for survival in the middle of nowhere, but this time there’s a lot more male energy. Teaming up with “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Hurt Locker” writer Mark Boal, Chandor approaches “Triple Frontier” with full command of his helming potential, crafting a twisty nail-biter that only really stops to assess troubling situations of sanity, with the rest of the endeavor concentrating on a blistering pace and meaty displays of pained masculinity. Read the rest at