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May 2012

Film Review - Bernie

BERNIE Still 1

“Bernie” is based on a true story, though many details have been smeared to protect the film’s darkly comic intentions. It’s a small price to pay for a wholly satisfying endeavor from director Richard Linklater, who turns a weird case of murder and manipulation into an almost lighthearted jaunt to the limits of self-control. Anchored by a wonderful performance from star Jack Black, “Bernie” is highly amusing and surprising, contorting a horrible event into a deceptively pleasant viewing experience, filled with laughs and mischievous discomfort. Perhaps the picture is ultimately disrespectful to the facts and tone of the case that inspired the feature, but Linklater’s work here is strangely reverential to community gossip and mental strain.

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Film Review - Sound of My Voice


Despite a punishing pace and a few lukewarm performances, “Sound of My Voice” still manages to preserve a beguiling mystery. Credit the screenplay by Zal Batmanglij (who also directs) and co-star Brit Marling, who layer in subtle twists and confrontations, keeping the picture semi-alert as it works its way to an unsatisfying ending. Although deeply flawed, “Sound of My Voice” does hold attention, creeping along with unnerved characters as they inadvertently find themselves on a journey of science fiction, struggling to separate reality from manipulation in a feature that enjoys the dramatic possibilities of both approaches.

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Film Review - The Samaritan


While it doesn’t come together as a gripping motion picture, “The Samaritan” does offer actor Samuel L. Jackson something different to play for a change. Gravitating to the same brute role time and again (years back, Jackson admitted he picked acting gigs based on his proximity to golf courses), the icon finds a softer side to his personality in his latest effort. Although guns are brandished and heads are smacked around, Jackson hits an effective note of remorse and resignation, blended with some unnerving sensuality to give a formulaic grifter movie an interesting spin, though this interest in unexpected directions is short-lived.

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Film Review - Hick

HICK still 1

The main character of “Hick” goes by the name Luli McMullen. There’s the film in a nutshell. An attempt to cinematically realize the Great American Story about innocence lost, “Hick” is a messy, monotonous picture, showing immense trouble maintaining focus as it labors to turn a host of disagreeable characters into meaningful figures of tragedy. It’s bad Midwestern poetry, carried by actors unqualified to handle such ferocious swings of behavior, while director Derick Martini basically gives up on storytelling about 20 minutes into the feature, hoping a grubby atmosphere of creepy men and vulnerable women is enough to patch the abyssal holes in the plot.

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Film Review - Battleship


When dealing with a movie based on a popular board game, there’s some sense of critical relaxation involved. I knew going into “Battleship” that it would be idiotic, hard on the ears, and directed with a lean toward total screen aggression. However, I wasn’t prepared for how noisy and moronic the feature actually is. Tasked with providing summer entertainment on a massive scale, director Peter Berg goes bananas with this production, turning the harmless merriment of kitchen table strategy involving plastic ships into an alien invasion extravaganza, frosted with explosions for the explosions and a 100-pound pop music star in a supporting role as a tough-as-nails naval officer. All hopped up on Michael Bay-brand steroids, Berg attempts to outwit his audience by playing so broadly with a painfully simple concept. It’s a shame almost nothing in “Battleship” comes close to genuine fun.

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Film Review - The Dictator


At this point in his career, Sacha Baron Cohen has done one thing with his starring roles, and he’s done it well. With “Ali G Indahouse,” “Borat,” and “Bruno,” Cohen has set out to explore stereotypes and challenge prejudices, while making a silly mess out of every room he enters. He’s a gifted performer with fantastic chutzpah, but “The Dictator” feels a little tired, a little too calculated to create a few ripples of controversy. It’s a broad creation taking a whack at dissecting Middle East and North African culture and political tyrants (the movie is dedicated to Kim Jong-il), but the bubble gum doesn’t hold its flavor for very long. Perhaps its fatigue with Cohen’s comedic impulses or some good old-fashioned lazy writing, but “The Dictator,” while occasionally hilarious, is mostly flat and uninspired.

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Blu-ray Review - NOVA: Secrets of the Sun


It's extremely easy to take the Sun for granted. As the growling yellow star at the center of our solar system, the Sun is a dependable source of energy and mystery, enthralling the residents of Earth for an eternity, with certain cultures of the past worshipping its powers. Recent centuries have seen the star transformed into the ultimate question mark of the galaxy by a host of inquisitive scientists, each hoping to acquire a greater understanding of the Sun's inner workings. "Secrets of the Sun" is a NOVA production that plunges into the heart of the matter, assembling satellite imagery, scientific study, and intensive research (feel the suspense of microfiche examination!) to gather a stronger appreciation for the blazing circle in the sky. Read the rest at

Film Review - Dark Shadows


The process of abridging a daytime soap opera that ran for over 1,200 episodes down to a single two hour picture is not a simple task, and while I only have a fringe appreciation for the “Dark Shadows” television program, it’s easy to see director Tim Burton has handled the translation to the big screen with a great degree of care. Unexpectedly macabre (it’s not exactly titled “Happy Shadows”) with a flexible funny bone, the feature film update of the cult show bares it fangs with some success, likely unnerving those on the hunt for a slapsticky good time. Although burdened with far too much story and one too many supporting characters, “Dark Shadows” is a solid return to form for Burton, who creates his most measured and atmospheric effort in quite some time.

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Film Review - Get the Gringo


In recent years, Mel Gibson has proved himself to be a concentrated architect of pain. Throughout his entire career, the actor has always been drawn to human suffering, but lately it’s been an obsession, but I suppose audiences would expect nothing less from the once mighty Mad Max. “Get the Gringo” (titled “How I Spent my Summer Vacation” overseas) puts Gibson back on track in terms of quality filmmaking, putting misfires like “The Beaver” and “Edge of Darkness” in the rearview mirror to roar ahead with his latest effort, an occasionally vicious prison picture that fits the actor’s groggy worldview snugly. Layered with dark comedy and toxic locations, “Get the Gringo” isn’t a thorough return to form for Gibson, but it’s a step in the right direction.

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Film Review - Darling Companion


It’s been nearly a decade since Lawrence Kasdan last made a movie, making “Darling Companion” a welcome return to screens despite pronounced faults. One of the better screenwriters in Hollywood, Kasdan was last seen guiding 2003’s “Dreamcatcher” (a weirdo guilty pleasure), a big-budget Stephen King adaptation that failed to attract much attention at the box office. The filmmaker returns to his character-based roots with his newest effort, a chatty, quirky comedy sure to draw divisive reactions from viewers. While it’s far from perfect, “Darling Companion” is pure Kasdan, and it’s great to have him back behind the camera again.

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Film Review - The Perfect Family


“The Perfect Family” means well enough, but it’s a hopelessly scattered picture attempting to cover a lot of emotional ground in 80 minutes. A story of enlightenment and religious concern, the movie is a grab bag of subplots and characterizations, failing to gel into a cohesive whole despite a clear passion for the messages presented from director Anne Renton. At least there’s Kathleen Turner, who delivers a spunky performance that carries the feature, showing signs of life onscreen she hasn’t reveal in ages, helping to slow the erratic storytelling momentum that comes to destroy any lasting message of personal illumination the material is hoping to impart on the viewer.

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Film Review - First Position


Ballet is hard enough to watch adults perform, yet “First Position” is a documentary about children on the hunt for dance glory. Although the film is a cookie cutter effort showing absolutely no interest in a visual personality of its own, the subject remains engrossing, following a group of aspiring ballet performers as they march to an unknown future, contending with aching bodies, overbearing parents, and astonishingly gifted competition. Actual dance almost feels like an afterthought to the picture, which finds more life holding on the participants, soaking up their individual stories of ambition and adversity as they inch closer to a seemingly unattainable dream.

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Film Review - Transit


Unlike many of its low budget brethren, “Transit” has a singular drive to thrill its audience with ferocious displays of gunfire, car stunts, and feverish performances. It’s a ridiculous movie, abandoning logic immediately upon commencement, yet its dedication to pace and intensity is charming and frequently effective. It’s a turn-your-brain-off viewing experience, with director Antonio Negret eager to share a little Louisiana troublemaking with viewers, hitting juicy points of pursuit and intimidation with a clear vision for violence. Instead of playing dead due to lack of funds, “Transit” carries itself with confidence, delivering the goods in a clean and efficient manner.

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Film Review - Dragon Eyes


A few years back, I reviewed “Universal Soldier: Regeneration,” which was technically the fifth installment of the tired series, leading to minimal viewing expectations. Instead of a snoozy actioner, director John Hyams (son of inconsistent helmer Peter Hyams) refreshed the franchise with a shockingly stout effort, returning some firepower back to a flatlining futuristic concept, also replacing a few blown light bulbs in Jean-Claude Van Damme’s marquee value. Unfortunately, the excitement was only fleeting, with Hyams’s latest, “Dragon Eyes,” a tepid fight picture that’s too reliant on chaotic moviemaking elements to make an impression, creating noise where a thrilling revenge saga should be. Where “Regeneration” showcased a filmmaker ready to pound some life into dreary formula, the ugly and bafflingly dull “Dragon Eyes” revels in cliché, slowly falling asleep despite some gratuitously violent content.

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Blu-ray Review - Birdsong


"Birdsong" is a television production that prizes repetition. Unfortunately, its chief export is misery, making the viewing experience quite punishing for those not in the mood for endless bouts of suffering via physical and mental trials. There's a story of fleeting romance and wartime consciousness that's compelling, possibly profound, but its buried under a thick glaze of depression without insight, lost in a fog of sadness acceptable for a 90-minute-long movie, tolerable for two hours, but insufferable at nearly three hours of gloom. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Murder Obsession


It's not every day that one comes into contact with a movie that opens with a philosophical quote before it showcases slashings, stabbings, demonic worship, breast fondling, spider and bat attacks, and a homage to the Michelangelo painting "Pieta." 1981's "Murder Obsession" (also known as "Murder Syndrome") is a film packed with oddity and horror ambition, and while it doesn't provide a sustained display of terror, this gory mystery has enough salacious details and viciousness to keep the average giallo fan invested in the proceedings. Of course, it could be stranger, more alert, and erotically charged, yet "Murder Obsession" carries itself confidently, weaving in and out of dreamscapes to provide the viewer with a few handfuls of evildoing and suspicion. Plus, the feature offers the rare opportunity to view a scene where a Herve Villechaize-sized spider fondles the legs of a screaming woman, which is almost worth the purchase price alone. Read the rest at