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November 2013

Film Review - The Best Man Holiday


Sequels with a great divide of time between installments are a rare thing, but when they do happen, usually there’s a reason, either financial or fandom, that’s motivating the return to screens. There was a 28-year gap between “Tron” and “Tron: Legacy,” 22 years between “Psycho” and “Psycho II,” and 19 years between “Rambo III” and “Rambo.” It’s been 14 years since the release of “The Best Man,” though it’s difficult to tell if anyone noticed. Greeted with a box office yawn when it was originally released, it seems that if there was any time to mount a follow-up, it would’ve been within striking distance of 1999. Instead, it’s the year 2013, and the gang’s been reunited for another round of misunderstandings and betrayals, only now the group is a little older but not necessarily wiser, with writer/director Malcolm D. Lee trying to rekindle the chemistry that informed his helming debut, perhaps too late for comfort. Read the rest at

Film Review - Spinning Plates


Foodie culture is inescapable these days. It seems everyone has a cultured, measured opinion about mealtime execution, with thousands of blogs, shows, and articles dissecting the details of technique and flavor. However, at the core of creation is passion and inspiration, guiding forces that can turn the blandest of ingredients into a sensorial experience, displaying a rich appreciation for tradition and, in some cases, innovation. The documentary “Spinning Plates” take a look at three restaurants in America, each with their own backstory of struggle and unique culinary viewpoint. Mercifully, this is not a Food Network-style itemizing of idiosyncrasy, but an emotional understanding of inspiration and financial struggle, exploring how these establishments manage day-to-day with the help of family, friends, and adoration for the unifying power of food. Read the rest at

Film Review - Kill Your Darlings


There have been a films made about the Beat Generation, but few have been so obviously targeted to entice a young generation of moviegoers. As common in today’s superhero-shellacked marketplace, “Kill Your Darlings” is an origin story of sorts, heading back into the thick of WWII, where the world received its first lungful of creativity from the likes of Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac -- a trio of writers who would go on to challenge literary and cultural stagnancy with their liquid minds. “Kill Your Darlings” dramatizes the development of this artistic liberation, using a tale of obsession and murder as passageway into a private world of intelligence, recklessness, and revolution. Read the rest at

Film Review - Sunlight Jr.

SUNLIGHT JR Naomi Watts Matt Dillon

It’s interesting to note that the poster for “Sunlight Jr.” features a picture of its two stars, Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon, smiling. In the film itself, there’s little time for such positive indulgence. It’s deceptive marketing, but it has to be, as most viewers probably wouldn’t go near the movie if they knew exactly what type of experience awaited them. This is an impossibly dark effort, launched under the guise of social realism, but carries a heavy tone of punishment, with writer/director Laurie Collyer going out of her way to make the audience feel every disappointment and mistake. Instead of reflective, “Sunlight Jr.” feels calculated -- 90 minutes of cinematic flagellation without the expected profundity. Read the rest at

Film Review - At Berkeley


Education is under fire these days, with monetary concerns taking top priority at universities around America. Documentarian Frederick Wiseman, a filmmaker lauded for his spare style and observational approach, isolates the worry to a single institution, with “At Berkeley” exploring the debate and daily business for the venerated California campus, taking in the sway of life found on hallowed grounds. At 244 minutes, it almost lasts as long as an actual semester, yet the extended run time permits Wiseman to feel out the pressure put on school leaders and witness classroom activity, soaking up the brilliance at stake as budgets expand, leaving Berkeley scrambling to find a way to balance out the needs of faculty and students. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Starving Games


Just when you thought it was safe to enjoy parody pictures again, here comes Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer to ruin the gift of laughter for another filmgoing year. After the unsurprising success of their 2010 “Twilight” riff, “Vampires Suck,” the boys have return to the teen lit template with “The Starving Games,” which sends up “The Hunger Games” in a most obvious manner, but such thick-fingered finesse is all Friedberg and Seltzer are capable of. After “Date Movie,” “Epic Movie,” “Disaster Movie,” and “Meet the Spartans,” it’s safe to report that “The Starving Games” falls perfectly in line with their previous endeavors. That’s critic code for, “Dear lord, this feature is insufferable, please make it stop.” Read the rest at

Film Review - Great Expectations


It’s not that there shouldn’t be any adaptations of the Charles Dickens book, “Great Expectations,” but it would benefit the filmmakers if they elected to space out the productions, putting a few years between attempts. After a 2011 BBC miniseries with Gillian Anderson made its way to America in 2012, this Mike Newell-directed version hits screens a year after its British debut. That’s a lot of “Expectations” to manage, especially when this latest effort to realize the work doesn’t have the luxury of time, speeding through the story, sacrificing characterization and nuance of plot to stuff it all into a single picture. The strain shows, and while the tech credits are undeniably striking, this “Great Expectations” is merely perfunctory, not essential. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Harlequin

HARLEQUIN Robert Powell

Ozploitation takes a serious turn in "Harlequin," a bizarre mystery film that employs the art of magic to help secure its illusory intentions. The picture doesn't quite add up as a cohesive exercise in cinematic misdirection, but its working parts are fascinating, especially when director Simon Wincer and screenwriter Everette De Roche play into the fantastical, making a logical breakdown of the feature's enigmas impossible. It can be a frustrating movie with a foggy sense of purpose, yet performances, especially Robert Powell in the lead role, are greatly amusing, with a few hypnotic qualities, and the story's ambition to blend political intrigue with historical influence, enough to save "Harlequin" from itself. Read the rest at

Film Review - Birth of the Living Dead


There are many iconic horror pictures throughout cinema history, but few have actually established their own subgenre. 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead” arrived without much fanfare, brought to the public by a distributor that had no clue what to do with it, yet it found an audience with its austerity, suspense, and era-specific bleakness. Over the years, “Night” has become a classic, wowing viewers with a pure shot of entrails-munching terror, launching the concept of undead, lurching zombies as one of ultimate fright. “Birth of the Living Dead” seeks to understand how the movie came to be, interviewing those involved with the production and its many admirers to explore the creative background and thematic resonance of this truly independent feature. Read the rest at

Film Review - Diana

DIANA Naomi Watts

“Diana” doesn’t succeed at a great many things, but it somehow excels at making its subject an unstable, repellent person who’s prone to manipulations and unreasonable tantrums. Any film concerning the life and times of Princess Diana is going to run into trouble, encountering disconcerting personal details in the quest for truth, yet “Diana” doesn’t appear all that authentic, trading grit for glamour in what amounts to a Lifetime Movie treatment of a problematical existence. That the screenplay turns the iconic woman into a petty, vindictive shrew is surprising considering the celebratory summation of the feature. Read the rest at

Film Review - Thor: The Dark World

THOR THE DARK WORLD Chris Hemsworth Natalie Portman

2011’s “Thor” was a minor miracle. Out of all the superhero stories that have inundated theaters in recent years, this character, a Norse god who wields a magical hammer, was perhaps the least likely to translate to the screen without coming across as pure silliness. Yet, director Kenneth Branagh managed to summon a mythical sense of wonder while keeping the story down to Earth, crafting a funny, adventurous tale of broad heroism that allowed access into this strange comic book realm. Unexpectedly, the picture took off at the box office, allowing Thor to tag along with “The Avengers” extravaganza in 2012. And now he’s up to bat again with a new solo effort, this time without Branagh’s guidance. The helmer’s pursuit of majesty is missing, but “Thor: The Dark World” comes across just as exciting and good-natured as its predecessor, once again finding the bulky, hardware-hurling superman in the thick of intergalactic war, only this time finding just as much hostility emerging from his love life. Read the rest at

Film Review - Dallas Buyers Club


Judging by its exterior, “Dallas Buyers Club” could be considered a traditional slice of “Oscar bait,” with star Matthew McConaughey physically transforming himself to deliver a performance intended to act as flypaper for awards season accolades. And the movie does contain a few scenes that strain for no discernible reason outside of pure showmanship. The actual film doesn’t invest in shallow theatrics, submitting a fascinating tale of a death sentence refused, watching one man build his own medical industry to save his life, disturbing the slumber of the powers that be. Meaningful and explosively performed, “Dallas Buyers Club” is an oddly inspirational picture that has a little more on its mind than a late-in-the-film-year victory lap. Read the rest at

Film Review - Let the Fire Burn


In 1985, after complaints about livability and hostility were logged against the MOVE organization, a black liberation group living in a fortified townhouse on peaceful Osage Avenue in Philadelphia, local police moved in to contain the situation. A standoff of indeterminate aggression ensued, with the city officials bombing the MOVE compound, not only eradicating the perceived threat, but also wiping out 60 homes and killing 11 people. It was a catastrophic mess executed in front of countless witnesses and captured on multiple news cameras, with reporters eagerly narrating every step of the meltdown. The documentary “Let the Fire Burn” endeavors to explore the incident and escalations preceding the disastrous event, passing on the formality of talking head interviews, using television and film footage to reconstruct the timeline of the bombing and emphasize the longstanding antagonism between MOVE and the police. Read the rest at

Film Review - Aftermath


Finding yet another shadowy corner of WWII history to draw from, writer/director Wladyslaw Pasikowski mines the misery of Poland for the seething picture, “Aftermath.” However, this is not a traditional tale of victimization at the hands of invading Nazi forces, but a gut-punch mystery that uncovers horrifying secrets and national shame, positioning Poland as a malevolent force in a crime of opportunity. It’s heady material, executed in a clenched-fist manner that maintains a pleasing unrest about the film, which always seems one carefully chosen taunt away from exploding into rural war. Tackling an impossibly bleak subject, Pasikowski infuses the effort with passion and tragedy, making the work come alive onscreen. Read the rest at

Film Review - Best Man Down


The current cut of “Best Man Down” seems compromised, as though the producers and the director had different visions for the material, so they ended up with a passable but uninspired version for general release. Sensitivity battles comedy is this uneven effort, failing to find a stable middle ground that permits writer/director Ted Koland a chance to explore his ideas in full. It’s intermittently disarming work with a terrific supporting performance from Addison Timlin, but there’s very little meat on these bones, with long passages of “Best Man Down” resembling a trailer for another iteration of the movie that isn’t rushed through at top speed. Read the rest at

Film Review - Paris Countdown


“Paris Countdown” offers an interesting twist on the crime film routine. Instead of younger participants, twentysomethings caught up in a world of drugs and money, we have two 50-year-old men for this underworld go-around. They can’t quite outrun their pursuers and have serious family issues to deal with, complicating what turns out to be an extremely formulaic endeavor from writer/director Edgar Marie, who makes his helming debut with this loud, stylish picture. “Paris Countdown” aims to be a slick piece of action entertainment, but there’s little imagination beyond the age of the lead characters, and while the feature is mercifully simplistic, it’s rarely engaging, even as a violent distraction. Read the rest at

Film Review - All is Lost

ALL IS LOST Robert Redford

Throughout his storied career, Robert Redford has been drawn to tales concerning the tranquility and unpredictability of nature. It’s in the man’s blood, explored in pictures such as “Jeremiah Johnson” and even the poetry of stillness found in “A River Runs Through It.” “All is Lost” is perfect material for Redford, playing to his strengths of internalization and measured physicality, and he provides an exceptional lead performance in writer/director J.C. Chandor’s sublimely straightforward tale of oceanic endurance. Working only with a sinking boat, a willing star, and the open water, and the helmer is able to create one of the most suspenseful, striking features of 2013. Read the rest at