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August 2013

Film Review - I Declare War


While perhaps not a common pastime, I’m sure most children have experienced the fantasy of playing make-believe war. With the rules of engagement clearly identified, the event largely consists of combatants using the honor code to successfully pull off the imagery and intensity of combat, all in good fun. “I Declare War” advances this dark imagination, evoking real-world aggression with average suburban kids, mirroring the pains of the battlefield with a cast of pre-teens, turning their afternoon adventure into a bitter battle of repressed emotions and advanced stratagem. It’s a film about children but not for children, making it one of the more fascinating pictures of the year. Read the rest at

Film Review - Getaway


“Getaway” is a film fueled entirely on stupidity. And not the amusing kind of dumb that generates delightful junk food cinema, but the oppressive, lurching level of idiocy that takes roughly five minutes to sink into the system. Cruelly, there’s another 90 minutes of screen activity to digest in “Getaway,” and it doesn’t go down smoothly. Chock full of logic leaps, tuneless performances, and mind-numbingly repetitive car crashes, the feature is a complete waste of time, openly expressing contempt for audience intelligence. The engine roars, the edits flicker like a strobe light, and Hawke Holler is in full effect, but there’s no movie here to follow, just a series of ludicrous encounters meant to pass as some type of suspenseful endeavor. Read the rest at

Film Review - Austenland


Based on the novel by Shannon Hale, “Austenland” arrives with a premise ripe with potential. With opportunities for satire and romance, while giving period film tropes a thorough pantsing, the material appears ideal for screen exploration, yet in the hands of first-time director Jerusha Hess, “Austenland” is unsteady and unsure of itself. While Jane Austen fanatics will likely delight in the unabashed fandom of all things Mr. Darcy, the feature just isn’t up to snuff, often caught floundering with easy lay-up jokes while playing into Austen formula instead of dissecting its intoxicating quality. The picture has charm and a bright lead performance from Keri Russell, but it doesn’t come together as cohesively as it should. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Grandmaster


I suppose it’s difficult to review the American cut of “The Grandmaster,” which is 22 minutes shorter than the Chinese version of the movie, with scenes fussed with and hand-holding voiceover employed to guide English-speaking audiences out of the fog of exposition and atmosphere that’s commonplace to the work of director Wong Kar-wai. The feature’s been simplified but hardly neutered, preserving lush cinematography and skilled editing to the effort’s many sequences of fighting, allowing great appreciation for the technical aspects of “The Grandmaster” to remain. However, what was once an emotional ride of human connection and the soulful lift of kung fu is now a streamlined examination of conflicted man who would go on to train Bruce Lee in the ways of Wing Chun. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Lifeguard

LIFEGUARD Kristen Bell

In the future, someone will unearth a copy of “The Lifeguard” and know exactly what the state of indie film was in 2013. Slavish to cliché and trends, the picture sums up the best and worst aspects of the HD moviemaking scene, making for an unsteady viewing experience, positively exasperating at times. The lone bright spot is Kristen Bell, who’s allowed to holster her lackluster attempts to conquer the screen as a comedienne, trying on a dark drama for size. The fit’s a little loose, but the actress reveals impressive range with this challenging role, helping to snap writer/director Liz W. Garcia out of the fog of absurdity she seems determine to remain in. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Frozen Ground


“The Frozen Ground” is exploitation disguised as a funeral. The production claims the material is based on a true story concerning evil acts committed by serial killer Robert Hansen throughout the 1970s, but how much authenticity there is to the picture remains questionable, with writer/director Scott Walker inching away from creating a tight procedural to slurp up the salacious events of the story. Capable work from stars Nicolas Cage and John Cusack are enough to keep tension somewhat in play, while a supporting turn from Vanessa Hudgens reveals previously unexplored depth. Despite positive attention from the cast, “The Frozen Ground” is familiar, semi-eventful, and hampered by a weird fixation on the ugly details. Read the rest at

Film Review - Devil's Pass


The career of director Renny Harlin has been a corkscrew ride of quality, from wickedly entertaining actioners (“Die Hard 2,” “The Long Kiss Goodnight”) to abysmal Z-grade schlock (“12 Rounds,” “The Covenant”). He’s a helmer who’s never been shy about chasing trends, leading him to the creation of “Devil’s Pass,” a found-footage horror picture that’s about three years too late to truly cash in on the moviegoing interests of young audiences. Harlin’s a capable genre craftsman, but his predilection for tone-deaf performances and hokey scare sequences steamrolls “Devil’s Pass” early and often. It’s not a disaster, but just tedious enough to numb its positive attributes as the feature drags to an overly ambitious conclusion. Read the rest at

Film Review - Closed Circuit


“Closed Circuit” doesn’t know what type of film it wants to be, and it bears the marks of editorial indecision, where the original direction of the story was whittled down to make the picture more palatable to a wider audience. There are satisfactory elements contained within, with a gifted ensemble working intently to make their performances stand out in an increasingly absurd thriller. However, whatever promises of quality and taste are made in the first half of the feature are unfulfilled in the second half, where a passably intriguing legal drama with some procedural heft is turned into a junky network television pilot, complete with logic leaps and uninspired chases. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Tower of Evil


Produced two years before 1974's "Black Christmas," "Tower of Evil" has built a reputation in recent years as one of the forefathers of the slasher subgenre, which would go on to mainstream success in iconic pictures such as "Halloween" and "Friday the 13th." While the effort doesn't have much creative gas in its tank, it remains an interesting sit due to its historical placement, detailing a reign of terror that picks off victims in a most gruesome manner, often catching these poor folks following sexual relations, thus making their exit from the film all the more cruel. "Tower of Evil" is rough on patience levels, but there's undeniable craftsmanship to study, displaying interesting atmosphere that emphasizes oncoming doom, while the friskiness of the characters is remarkable. In fact, there's so much attention paid toward the sexual proclivities of the personalities, it's easy to forget the stillborn fright feature antics that rarely add up to genuine chills. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Hands of the Ripper

Hands of the Ripper

"Hands of the Ripper" sets the bar for gruesome violence high during its main titles, where we witness Jack the Ripper murder his wife in front of his young daughter. It's a horrifying moment that certainly establishes the tone for the feature, suggesting that anything goes in this Hammer production. Fortunately, in terms of "should I be watching this?" ugliness, "Hands of the Ripper" doesn't match its vivid opener, though it tries with multiple gory moments intended to give increasingly demanding genre fans a jolt. What's actually here is a fascinating psychological chiller that's artfully made on a low budget, trusting the power of performance to carry a heavy workload of exposition and suspense as the famed horror factory endeavors to breathe new life into an oft-told tale of serial murder. Read the rest at

Film Review - Empire State

EMPIRE STATE Dwyane Johnson

Director Dito Montiel is a major fan of New York City. It’s been the setting for all his pictures, and the helmer loves to infuse his work with urban juices of bravado and street honor. For all his labor and knowledge of the area, Montiel has yet to tell a story with any type of encouraging success. With “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints,” “Fighting,” and “The Son of No One,” the filmmaker has summoned tremendous passion and grit, but there’s always been a lack of substance. “Empire State” adds to the nagging emptiness surrounding Montiel’s screen efforts, only this tale of a heist gone wrong is more streamlined, calculated to appeal to fans of the subgenre, and it still shows no signs of life. Read the rest at

Film Review - Clear History


Love it or hate it, “Clear History” is 100% Larry David. The mastermind behind “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Seinfeld,” David’s DNA is all over this production, which often plays like the most elaborate stand-up comedy special ever filmed. Dripping with neurotic behavior, pained observations, and non sequiturs, the picture is perhaps only of value to die-hard David admirers -- those who have minimal expectation for a complete narrative. However, in the care of director Greg Mottola, “Cleary History” doesn’t get bogged down in programmed shtick, retaining a charming, occasionally uproarious silliness that keeps the movie flowing along from one rant to the next. Read the rest at

Film Review - You're Next


“You’re Next” isn’t a revolutionary slasher film. That it works so well is a bit of a surprise, considering the staleness of the genre and how familiar the working parts of the picture are. Credit goes to screenwriter Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard, who find a way to refresh the slaughter of innocents for the big screen, with “You’re Next” oozing tension while revealing an unexpected sense of humor, managing to keep matters occasionally light as it masterminds some truly heinous sequences. It’s a blast, perhaps best experienced with a theater packed with horror fans -- insiders already on the production’s wavelength, able to appreciate the subtle twists of formula contained within. Read the rest at

Film Review - The World's End


It’s been dubbed the “Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy” (a cheeky nod to the appearance of a special ice cream treat), but director Edgar Wright has done an impressive job keeping these features separate in terms of style and sense of humor. With “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz,” the helmer fashioned a special tour of film fandom and genre exercises, but all good things must come to end, and it does, somewhat abruptly with “The World’s End.” Amusing and impeccably designed and photographed, the latest work from Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost comes across a tad undercooked, as though the creative team was backed into making a movie instead of triumphantly mounting one. Although it has plenty of impish intent, there’s an air of fatigue swirling around the production that constantly hinders the comedic adventuring. Read the rest at

Film Review - Drinking Buddies

DRINKING BUDDIES Jake Johnson Olivia Wilde

It’s great to see something like “Drinking Buddies” make its way to movie theaters. Especially in a day and age when most dramas pull their punches, here’s a feature that’s decidedly human, trusting in the power of internalization over the showmanship of melodrama. It’s an effort that requires attention to tiny behavioral details, articulated by actors contributing the best work of their careers, while director Joe Swanberg keeps pace and maintains intimacy. It bruises and stings along the way, but “Drinking Buddies” skillfully surveys the details of friendships and longing, delivered in a messy, improvisational manner that feels completely natural to the habitual hesitation at hand. Read the rest at

Film Review - Ain't Them Bodies Saints

AINT THEM BODIES SAINTS Casey Affleck Rooney Mara

There’s beauty to behold in the bizarrely titled “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” which possesses a moviemaking mission to resuscitate a bygone era of film construction that dwelled in mood and feeling, most pointedly in the early work of Terrence Malick. It’s a quest shared by many indie directors, but David Lowery (who also scripts) finds an organic way of homage while detailing his own story of loss and longing, employing an atmospheric sense of Texas culture to ease audiences into this tone poem of a picture. Dramatically static but superbly assembled, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” isn’t just an eye-crossing title, but a warmly realized portrait of separation as therapy, appreciating all the minor triumphs of maturation. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Attack


“The Attack” asks very pointed questions about the nature of marriage and the preservation of secrets in a romantic, intimate union. It’s a film concerning the aftereffects of a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, but it doesn’t linger on the fury that traditionally follows these sacrifices, electing to focus on those left behind to process the mindset required to make such a diabolical personal choice. It’s a harrowing picture with an interpretive ideological viewpoint that develops sensational dramatic turns of plot. It’s certainly not easy to digest, but the internal struggle director/co-writer Ziad Doueiri isolates here is exceptional at times, giving the divisive topic the meditative approach it deserves. Read the rest at

Film Review - Rising from Ashes


It’s a given that “Rising from Ashes” succeeds at selling its inspirational tale. After all, the story includes genocide survival, an underdog saga, and a soulful rebirth in the form of unexpected companionship, making the feature easy to fall for. It’s slight work, without much in the way of a beginning and ending, but as a documentary it scores with a heartfelt study of perseverance, watching those who struggle every single day to contain their lives build confidence and develop an alien sense of joy, with that purity of spirit contributing to a sporting odyssey that’s more about human details than physical achievement. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones


We currently live in a “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” free world, with both franchises closing up shop over the last few years, leaving Hollywood in a mad dash to find the next big fantasy saga that could uncover billions in box office returns over the course of numerous sequels. There have been many failures (don’t expect a “Beautiful Creatures 2”), but that won’t stop producers from giving the impossible a go, with “The Mortal Instruments” saga from author Cassandra Clare the next literary series up to bat. It’s difficult to surmise if the faithful will fully accept the big screen interpretation, but it’s safe to write that those who don’t have a clue about “The Mortal Instruments” before viewing will know even less about the property on the way out of the theater. Read the rest at