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October 2013

Film Review - Last Vegas


Reviewed at the 2013 Twin Cities Film Festival

It seems unfair to compare “Last Vegas” to “The Hangover” franchise, though it’s obvious where the production received its inspiration from. Instead of brain-fried debauchery and R-rated shenanigans, “Last Vegas” plays it pretty mild for its older demographic, with Viagra jokes and bikini contests passing for edge around these parts. Director Jon Turteltaub is rather notorious when it comes to cranking out pictures with mass appeal (“Nation Treasure,” “Phenomenon”), and his vanilla approach remains in full effect for this dramedy, though a few surprises are sprinkled throughout the feature, and the helmer has quite an advantage with his stellar cast, unleashing four pros on threadbare script, using their natural gifts to make the viewing experience as pleasant as possible. Read the rest at

Film Review - 12 Years a Slave


After battling convention with his uncompromising work on “Hunger” and “Shame,” director Steve McQueen travels down a familiar path with “12 Years a Slave.” Harrowing, brutal, and heartbreaking, this tale of abduction and subjugation is brimming with powerful imagery, making the audience feel every last lash that’s cracked across the back of the lead character. It’s powerful work, but it also has a fatiguing concentration on suffering, lingering on torture instead of studying it for the greater thematic good. Rich with details, “12 Years a Slave” is an accomplished effort, yet McQueen is distracted by the weave work of story, failing to find art in agony. Read the rest at

Film Review - Ender's Game


“Ender’s Game,” based on the beloved, lauded 1985 book by Orson Scott Card, finally blasts its way to the big screen after decades of development. There’s franchise gold in them thar hills, with the production carefully mounting what appears to be a story that could carry on for multiple films, following the titular character as he journeys from an awestruck boy to an intergalactic lawman, complete with elaborate training missions and enormous space battles. While ambitious and exceedingly well designed, “Ender’s Game” is mummified in the drama department. It’s absolutely cold to the touch, with clumsy scenes sapping power from the material’s thought-provoking commentary on war, leaving writer/director Gavin Hood with a gorgeous picture that retains very little spirit. Read the rest at

Film Review - Blue Is the Warmest Color


“Blue Is the Warmest Color” is generating a considerable amount of controversy due to its explicit content, with an eight-minute-long lesbian sex scene helping the film receive the dreaded NC-17 stamp from the MPAA. It’s actually amusing to see the movie’s release trigger such uptightness because the sex adds up to a mere eight minutes out of 180 minutes of screen time. It’s hardly a concern with a picture this ponderous, acting more as smelling salts for this French after school special, which is so distracted with its verite execution, it leaves out any sense of emotional urgency. “Blue Is the Warmest Color” take three hours to tell a story that tops out at 90 minutes, 98 if you leave in the bumping and grinding. Read the rest at

Film Review - Free Birds

FREE BIRDS Owen Wilson Woody harrelson

Not every animated film needs to be an event, but “Free Birds” could use a little more oomph to make it a must-see for crowds currently starving for family entertainment. It’s not particularly exciting, never lands a laugh, and doesn’t have the ambition to truly lampoon Thanksgiving traditions. It’s a bland effort that’s contently cartoon until it suddenly feels the need to trigger emotions with weird detours into death and survival. Perhaps the idea looked better on paper. As a CG-animated endeavor, “Free Birds” packs very little punch, with wild mood swings that take a simple story and needlessly complicates it to fill a contractual run time. Read the rest at

Film Review - Last Love

LAST LOVE Michael Caine

Star power is a rare thing, but it’s important, often helping mediocre work find its footing through exceptional acting, guiding dramatic direction when the production itself can’t manage the task. With iconic actor Michael Caine, talent was established long ago, and while his taste in screenplays isn’t always inspiring, his clarity of communication is never in doubt. “Last Love” is his latest endeavor after receiving a late-inning career boost due to his collaborations with Christopher Nolan, and the feature benefits mightily from his effortless presence. Skillfully conveying the ache, newfound elevation, and confusion required of him, Caine is terrific here, making “Last Love” and its ultimate third-act nosedive palatable, even profound during a few scenes of intimate soul searching. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle


We live in a special time for comic book fanatics, with characters great and small receiving a shot at big screen glory, helping to augment a revolution that began decades ago on the page and grew into an inescapable industry. "Superheroes: The Never-Ending Battle" is a three-part highlight reel of comic book evolution hosted by Liev Schreiber, who examines amazing developments that transformed seemingly silly, small-time super men into legends, tapping into the psyche of readers who fantasized about such heroism and mysterious powers, highlighting a reoccurring presence of awe as artists, writers, and corporate players sit down to discuss their participation in trends and invention as the saga of the comic book unfolds. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Open Road

OPEN ROAD Camilla Belle

A film such as "Open Road" should come packaged with a pair of maps: one to navigate the interstate travels of the lead character, and another to help track her emotional journey as it winds through a range of experiences that aren't defined to satisfaction. Without some type of guide to ease explanation of screen events, the picture feels hopelessly lost, baffling viewers as it strives to concoct a poignant odyssey of self-discovery and maturity, only to peel off storytelling textures in the editing process. It's seem rude to label the movie a mess when it clearly launches with pure intentions to connect with viewers via road trip melodramatics, but director Marcio Garcia (an popular South American actor at the helm of his second feature) doesn't have the skill to manage such suffocating cliche, playing too fast with the particulars of the plot in an effort to tie a bow around the tale by the time the end credits arrive. "Open Rage" immediately dissolves into a blur of motivations and ill-defined histories, making soulful connection impossible. Read the rest at

Film Review - Bad Grandpa


After the release of three hugely successful “Jackass” movies, it’s time for the bruised and battered boys to rest their weary bones for a spell. Picking up the franchise slack is “Bad Grandpa,” a spin-off feature highlighting the antics of Irving Zisman, a senior citizen character portrayed by Johnny Knoxville. Stripped of anarchic monkey business, the “Jackass” team has cooked up a new direction for the brand name, mixing a scripted story with “Candid Camera” style segments that allow for a display of their wince-inducing sense of humor without the burden of artificial male bonding. “Bad Grandpa” is certainly crude, but it’s also riotously funny at times, with a bizarre calmness about it that’s immensely appealing, toning down the cruelty to play some old-fashioned pranks on a semi-suspecting public. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Counselor

COUNSELOR Brad Pitt Michael Fassbender

Beloved for novels such as “No Country for Old Men,” “The Road,” and “All the Pretty Horses,” author Cormac McCarthy becomes a full-fledged Hollywood player with “The Counselor,” his first original work written directly for the screen. Teeming with unsavory, duplicitous, philosophical types that normally populate his books, “The Counselor” is ripe with McCarthyisms, while director Ridley Scott takes the mission of adaptation seriously, working to preserve the vagueness and violence of the effort. It’s a dark film, offering unsettling images and uncomfortable situations, and it has moments of greatness, just not enough of them to generate a riveting sit. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Wicker Man: The Final Cut

WICKER MAN Christopher Lee Edward Woodward

This re-release of 1973’s “The Wicker Man” is labeled “The Final Cut” to provide a little marketing muscle, suggesting director Robin Hardy has finally had his way with the feature 40 years after its debut. There have been multiple versions of the movie, created from various source materials, yet “The Final Cut” promises a definitive construction of screenwriter Anthony Shaffer’s tale of pagan manipulation and Christian fury. Perhaps in Hardy’s eyes, this is the last word on “The Wicker Man,” but instead of engorging the effort with additional secrets and oddity, he’s trimmed the picture in a peculiar manner, attempting to cut to the chase to limit any initial disinterest in crucial characterization. Read the rest at

Film Review - Concussion


“Concussion” is a small package, remaining intimate with its characters and composed with its drama. It’s a story of female sexuality told with interest in the subject, not just flying a flag of womanliness to attract a male audience. It’s tasteful work about a salacious subject, with writer/director Stacie Passon taking tremendous care with the subtleties of the story, sacrificing narrative drive to perfect moments of human connection and the parched crawl of lust. “Concussion” isn’t what it appears to be, making a considerable effort to upend expectations and carry onward with determination, working to scrape away the artificiality of female desire to survey an uneasy spot of dissatisfaction most viewers may identify with. Read the rest at

Film Review - How I Live Now


Reviewed at the 2013 Twin Cities Film Festival

“How I Live Now” has no idea what type of movie it wants to be, so it becomes them all. A scattered, meaningless war drama, the film comes from director Kevin Macdonald, who’s made some impressive features (“One Day in September,” “The Last King of Scotland”) and some duds (“The Eagle”). He’s an interesting helmer who normally has a vision for his efforts, but this one eludes him, to a degree where it begins to feel more like punishment than suspense. “How I Live Now” isn’t a mess, but it’s indirect, irritatingly so, wasting a tempting premise on half-baked emotions and aimless moments of distress that should be far more penetrating than they actually are. Read the rest at

Film Review - Zaytoun

ZAYTOUN Stephen Dorff

“Zaytoun” is often strong stuff, depicting acts of violence with a merciless abruptness that triggers the requisite amount of shock. The harshness of select scenes contrast intriguingly with the picture’s overall gentle demeanor, depicting a wartime friendship between sworn enemies, developed over time and through various acts of trust. We’ve seen this type of story before, and the production doesn’t try to avoid familiarity, offering the viewer a customary offering of feel-good cinema set during a horrifying time of loss. The movie means well enough, yet “Zaytoun” doesn’t do enough to upset expectations, trusting in the power of warm orchestral strings and softening demeanors to coax the viewer into a deceptive comfort zone. Read the rest at

Film Review - Screwed


Reviewed at the 2013 Twin Cities Film Festival

The trouble with no-budget filmmaking is that productions often feel they deserve a badge for completing a movie with limited funds. As though there’s a participation ribbon to be collected just for showing up. The comedy “Screwed” was made for $1,400, which sounds like a laudable accomplishment until you see the feature, than it becomes painfully clear that additional monetary lubrication was in order. Amateurishly shot and assembled, while the clichéd screenplay saps the last drop of promise from the picture, “Screwed” is a chore to sit through, never landing a joke properly or seeing its oddball premise to its natural conclusion. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Weird Science


Inside the average 15-year-old boy is a furious mechanism of sexuality that's so demanding, it clouds rational thought. In "Weird Science," writer/director John Hughes harnesses that impetuous, erection-heavy urge and channels the tension into a full-fledged cartoon; he relaxes his career concentration on teen pathos with a screwball comedy that combines titillation, humiliation, and the awe-inspiring, traffic-stopping screen presence of Kelly LeBrock. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Monster Club

MONSTER CLUB Vincent Price

If there must be a film about dance party happenings at a club built exclusively for creatures of the night, it seems appropriate that Vincent Price would be our tour guide. 1981's "The Monster Club" is an anthology effort with a bizarre wraparound story that interrupts spooky and disturbing events to observe singers and bands rock out onstage in front of a throng of extras clad in bad Halloween masks. Normally, this type of schlock would trigger immediate dismissal, yet "The Monster Club" has enormous charms and a fairly convincing line-up of chiller material to help offset the feature's cannonball splashes into absurdity. It's a lively, sincere movie, given considerable genre reach by a colorful cast, including Price, John Carradine, and Donald Pleasence. Sure, it's silly business, perhaps spending too much time trying to sell a soundtrack, but picture is immensely entertaining, setting the spooky season mood with aplomb. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Fifth Estate


“The Fifth Estate” aspires to be a stirring investigative film dissecting a combustible situation where truth is unfiltered, participants unsecured, and the ultimate end game is hazy at best. For this type of cinema to work, it needs a lead character who’s worth following. He can be irredeemable and destructive, but has to retain a depth of personality that rewards over two hours of screen time. I’m not sure Julian Assange is worth the investment, at least not in the way “The Fifth Estate” depicts him. A hopelessly dull picture concerning a fiery situation of exposure and betrayal, the feature looks to dazzle the viewer with aggressive acting and whip-crack globetrotting intrigue, yet director Bill Condon feels like he’s dog paddling with material that demands an emphatic front crawl. Read the rest at