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November 2013

Film Review - The Great Beauty


Huffing Fellini fumes until he’s blue in the face, co-screenwriter/director Paolo Sorrentino attempts to revive a shimmering Italian atmosphere of pure cinema for “The Great Beauty.” He’s largely successful, constructing a valentine to one of the great filmmakers, but also finding his own themes and obsessions to follow. It’s a gorgeous picture with a few baffling events, though it rewards a lengthy sit (140 minutes) with an impressive tour of Roman architecture, an exhaustive exploration of deep-seated fears and desires, and an unexpectedly potent view of mortality, with Sorrentino generating a full-blooded mood of life in motion facing a lead character who’s uncomfortable with the forward momentum. Read the rest at

Film Review - Oldboy

OLDBOY Josh Brolin Samuel L jackson

Some movies shouldn’t be remade. The 2003 Korean film “Oldboy” is practically a religious experience for some cinephiles, making it a curious choice for a do-over, especially one from director Spike Lee. Reheating the plot for American audiences, Lee seems lost here, staying true to the highlights of the original work while rushing through the toxic connective tissue that made the initial picture such a disturbing, distressing tragedy. While toning down his typical stylistics, Lee is the wrong choice for the material, unable to make any sense out of action sequences and character relationships, making his “Oldboy” more of a flip book version of the 2003 production, stripped of its merciless tone and throat-punch conclusion. Read the rest at

Film Review - Nebraska

NEBRASKA Bruce Dern Will Forte

Reviewed at the 2013 Twin Cities Film Festival

Director Alexander Payne has explored the Midwest experience on a few occasions, perhaps most pointedly in 1996’s “Citizen Ruth” and 2002’s “About Schmidt.” “Nebraska” is Payne’s submersion into the sights and sounds of his homeland, coming off his Oscar-winning hit “The Descendants” with a small-scale comedy about fathers and sons, junk mail and stolen air compression equipment. Shot in black and white and sparingly scripted by Bob Nelson, “Nebraska” continues Payne’s streak of delightfully human stories with heavy cultural seasoning, exposing quirks, exploring cantankerous personalities, and generally remaining unafraid to make a rural movie without resorting to caricature. The picture is an absolute treat. Read the rest at

Film Review - Homefront


After trying to locate some dramatic range in the summer effort “Redemption,” Jason Statham returns to fist-first material with “Homefront.” Although the film is an adaptation of a book by author Chuck Logan, the picture plays more like an old Jean-Claude Van Damme endeavor, only there’s a community of characters to pay attention to instead of the one-man-marauder scenario. As junky, B-movie entertainment with an emphasis on explosions, the feature is passably entertaining, submitting a decent amount of growly escapism and chewy performances. However, “Homefront” doesn’t live up to its potential, relying on Statham’s gifts with stone-faced intimidation instead of trying to manufacture a suspenseful atmosphere that could challenge the bruiser, inspiring the rest of the work to achieve a higher level of engagement. Read the rest at

Film Review - Philomena

PHILOMENA Judi Dench Steve Coogan

It’s impossible to doubt Judi Dench, but it’s easy to underestimate her. The acclaimed actress and former M in the 007 franchise, Dench rarely, if ever, gives a bad performance. She’s just one of those talents that’s confident and concise. However, in “Philomena,” she’s extraordinary, performing at such a level of emotional communication, it’s startling to witness, making a simple, minor mystery riveting as she commands the screen with her subtlety. Co-star Steve Coogan makes a fine partner in the movie, with the pair developing a sense of intimacy and trust that helps the story find its footing as a tear-jerking, eye-opening journey of a broken heart. Read the rest at

Film Review - Frozen


After flirting with musical interests with 2009’s “The Princess and the Frog” and 2010’s “Tangled,” Walt Disney Animation furthers the Broadway mood with “Frozen,” which seems even more calculated to reignite the blockbuster energy that fueled studio hits from the late 1980s and early ‘90s. Filled with tunes and elaborate sequences, “Frozen” is Disney playing it safe, packing the film with adorable characters, broad villainy, and a marketable landscape of snow and ice. It’s far from revolutionary work, but there’s undeniable charm to be found in the movie, which features wonderful singing, dazzling animation, and some cheeky Nordic humor, helping to enliven what’s often a disappointingly routine picture. Read the rest at

Film Review - Black Nativity

BLACK NATIVITY Jennifer Hudson Forest Whitaker

“Black Nativity” takes its title from a 1961 Off-Broadway show written by Langston Hughes, but it doesn’t have much in common with the source material. Instead of slavish recreation, writer/director Kasi Lemmons creates her own take, mixing theatrical staging and broad performances with cinematic intimacy, trying to convey a faith-based story in an unusual manner. She’s marginally successful, establish a raw, low-budget energy to the feature that keeps it surprising, while performances are generally accomplished, selling the morality of the story without dissolving into a puddle of amens. Straightforward but convincing, “Black Nativity” is refreshingly restrained, making it a nice counterpoint to other, noisier holiday entertainment. Read the rest at

Interview - "Homefront" author Chuck Logan


Chuck Logan is a seasoned author who's published nine books, with the majority of them devoted to the exploits of Phil Broker, an undercover cop from the far, snowy reaches of Minnesota. The force of justice and devoted father is about to receive his first big screen adaptation with "Homefront" (opening November 27th), a Sylvester Stallone-scripter action film starring Jason Statham as Broker. The cast also includes Winona Ryder, Kate Bosworth, and James Franco. Recently, critic Brian Orndorf had the opportunity to sit down with Logan to discuss his experience with "Homefront" and his future plans for publishing as the e-book revolution grows. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Super Buddies


It's hard to believe this all started with "Air Bud." The 1997 picture has spawned a series of sequels and spin-offs that have transformed a simple tale of a basketball-shooting pooch into cash cow for Disney, who issue a DTV production every year, using the power of puppies to latch on to whatever trend is happening in Hollywood. The dogs have met Santa, searched for buried treasure, and enjoyed Halloween, but now it's time to suit up in spandex and save the world. "Super Buddies" is the latest in the "Air Buddies" franchise, working with visual effects to turn everyone's favorite canine pack into caped crusaders, protecting lovable humans from an intergalactic threat. As these things tend to go, kids won't mind the light action and mild jesting, with the whole production played in an exhaustively cartoon mode to avoid the burden of actual screenwriting. Older viewers may not be as patient, though "Super Buddies" could be of use to die-hard comic book cinema fans unable to wait for the next Marvel or DC endeavor. Read the rest at

Film Review - Delivery Man

DELIVERY MAN Vince Vaughn Coby Smulders

The last few years haven’t been kind to actor Vince Vaughn. Once a firecracker of a comedic talent, Vaughn hasn’t really charmed audiences in a significant manner since 2005’s “Wedding Crashers,” spending subsequent years trying to land his own holiday perennial (“Four Christmases,” “Fred Claus”), survive indie films (“Lay the Favorite”), and slog through disastrous comedies (“The Internship,” “The Watch,” and “Couples Retreat”). Looking to dial down his rapid-fire persona for a bit of Thanksgiving warmth, Vaughn saunters up to “Delivery Man” as quietly as possible, hoping to come across appealing in a picture that’s programmed to tug at heartstrings. It’s an interesting change of pace for the star, but the movie doesn’t work. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Hunger Games: Catching Fire


A little over a year ago, “The Hunger Games” made its cinematic debut, wowing audiences delighted to see the work of author Suzanne Collins brought to the screen. For those outside the circle of fandom, the picture was a difficult sell, slowed by tremendous exposition, disrupted by an absurd use of shaky-cam cinematography, and cursed with a deflating climax that promised nail-biting situations of survival, only to gradually slow to a crawl. Now there’s a sequel, “Catching Fire,” and a change in the director’s chair, with Francis Lawrence taking over for Gary Ross. Although the narrative continues down an established path to dystopian revolution, there’s renewed purpose to this part two, finding “Catching Fire” skillfully communicating beats of unrest and despair, finding a way to help the ongoing franchise settle in as an energizing story of an underground uprising. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Broken Circle Breakdown


Heartache and harmonies help shape the experience of “The Broken Circle Breakdown.” It’s not an easy film to summarize, but few Belgium-born bluegrass tragedies are, arriving in a time-scrambled manner that’s fluidly realized, shaping an unusual take on the arc of a combustible relationship hit from all sides by woe. Co-writer/director Felix Van Groeningen manages this unusual vision with exceptional care, creating a kind of cinematic poetry out of disorientation, with music the glue that holds the picture together. “The Broken Circle Breakdown” is a stunning, poignant feature that deals with troubling examples of mourning and fractured communication, yet holds as a vivid statement of love in all its forms. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Book Thief


Although it’s being marketed as a tearjerker, “The Book Thief” is far stranger than it appears. Perhaps fans of the 2006 novel by Markus Zusak won’t be unnerved by the oddity contained within the film, but newcomers to this tale of wartime perseverance and the joys of literacy might find themselves baffled by a few of the elements that define this story. For example, “The Book Thief” is narrated by Death, who provides a running commentary on the extraction of individual souls and the beauty of expiration. Didn’t see that one coming, did you? Surprise is a valuable weapon in this otherwise familiar tale, keeping viewers alert enough to make it through this overlong but sincere coming-of-age saga. Read the rest at

Film Review - Charlie Countryman


I’m not sure what screenwriter Matt Drake (“Project X”) originally had in mind for “Charlie Countryman,” but in the hands of director Fredrik Bond, the picture is turned into a mess of ideas and motivations sliding around the screen under the guise of youthful impetuousness. It’s the cinematic equivalent of somebody rubbing their bottom on shag carpeting to work up a static electric charge, working furiously to build a sense of excitement that never comes to fruition, despite admirable aspirations to work the effort into a tizzy. Although gifted colorful locations and glossy HD cinematography, “Charlie Countryman” is too manic and meandering to achieve the emotional authenticity it’s searching for. Read the rest at

Film Review - Cold Turkey

COLD TURKEY 2013 Bogdanovich Witt Hines

“Cold Turkey” concerns the release of long-held animosities plaguing a dysfunctional family during the Thanksgiving holiday. Writer/director Will Slocombe isn’t exactly out to win any prizes for originality with this picture, following in the footsteps of a great number of filmmakers fascinated with the contrast of celebratory traditions and bruising emotional realities. In the movie’s favor is an unusual determination to find a frequency of unbearable behavior and remain there for 80 minutes, showing refreshing tonal bravery as the script inspects the callousness of characters who can’t seem to get their lives together, even for a single day. The discomfort found in the feature is overwhelming at times, which is a lot more interesting than many of the dramatic developments Slocombe serves up. Read the rest at

Film Review - A Case of You


To her credit, director Kat Corio has attempted to shake things up during her short career, trying on different stories of romance and perceived personal ruin. However, her storytelling gifts rarely match her ambition, with “A Case of You” floundering in a way familiar to anyone who caught “And While We Were Here” and “Life Happens.” A romantic comedy for twentysomethings, “A Case of You” labors to conjure the panic of a love life in today’s world of social media sleuthing, aiming to put a contemporary spin on age-old romantic comedy clichés, sold by actors in desperate need of a change in scenery. Some jokes land as intended, and there’s a weirdly star-studded supporting cast, but Corio isn’t brave enough to make the movie matter, eventually submitting to painfully labored formula to land this underwhelming effort. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - JFK (American Experience)

JFK American Experience

On the 50th anniversary of his assassination in Dallas, the life and times of John Fitzgerald Kennedy is recounted in the new American Experience production, "JFK." Stripped of conspiracy theories and belabored political dissection, the two-part program seeks to pull focus away from eye-crossing debate to expose how John lived his life, growing from a sickly boy into one of the most powerful men in the world. Gathering interviews with experts, family members, and authors, collecting photos and film, and using recordings created by John while in the White House, "JFK" constructs a dynamic weave work of experience and ambition, shaping a portrait of an American icon that's honest and engaging. Instead of playing up the myth, the show scrapes away the protective layer of time to expose John as a fallible man who strived to make his homeland a better place, using connections, good looks, and intelligence to achieve greatness in a manner that might inspire his fellow Americans, working to protect a country he dearly loved. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning


I'm not entirely sure what the point of a horror prequel is. The genre is dependent on scares to transmit its experience, to use shock as a method of suspense. Yet, with a prequel, there's no reason to get excited about the story because, after all, we all know who lives and who dies. It's a toothpaste-back-in-the-tube situation that would take remarkable moviemaking skill to transform into a nail-biting effort. With "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning," we're faced with Jonathan Liebesman, the helmer of "Darkness Falls," "Wrath of the Titans," and "Battle: Los Angeles." Not exactly a stunning resume. A 2006 prequel to the 2003 remake, "The Beginning" fulfills its titular promise by detailing how Leatherface found his chainsaw, how Sheriff Hoyt came across his law enforcement uniform, and how Monty Hewitt lost his legs. You know, burning questions horror geeks have been dying to see answered. The uselessness of this feature is astounding, emerging from the smoke and sweat as an obvious cash-grab from producers caught off-guard by their own success, unaware that forward, not backward, is the proper direction to take with a simplistic blood-smearing series such as this. Read the rest at