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May 2014

Blu-ray Review - The Man Who Lies


After the success of "Trans-Europe Express," director Alain Robbe-Grillet continued his exploration of the abstract with 1968's "The Man Who Lies," a fascinating but bloodless film interpretation exercise that's more academic than involving. Working with the concept of the untrustworthy narrator, Robbe-Grillet invents a puzzle of deception that only he can solve, or perhaps nobody can -- either way, the helmer seems to be satisfied with the confusion he summons and the manipulation he maps out. The effort is impressively knotted and bizarre, but Robbe-Grillet treats emotional involvement like a case of the cooties, once again making viewing of his work an extended appreciation of cinematic form, not storytelling. Read the rest at

Film Review - A Million Ways to Die in the West

A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST Charlize Theron Seth MacFarlane

Seth MacFarlane generally does one thing, and he does with occasional inspiration. After years building his animation empire with “Family Guy” and “American Dad,” MacFarlane tried out live-action filmmaking with 2012’s “Ted,” a lewd, crude comedy with pleasingly bizarre acts of mischief wedged between the helmer’s obsessive need to shock and awe with his juvenile sense of humor. After experiencing a global box office smash, MacFarlane quickly returns to screens with “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” a western parody that makes “Blazing Saddles” look like a Noel Coward play. Limited in scope and silly business, the feature plays directly to MacFarlane’s fascination with poo-poo, pee-pee humor, without ever moving beyond the basics of sophomoric gags to transform into the raging farce it sporadically hints at becoming. Read the rest at

Film Review - Maleficent

MALEFICENT Angelina Jolie

2010’s billion-dollar blockbuster “Alice in Wonderland” is the reason why we’re being inundated with fairy tale and fantasy revivals. 2012’s “Snow White and the Huntsman” continued the trend, last year’s “Oz the Great and Powerful” sustained it, and now there’s “Maleficent,” which returns to Disney’s animated classic, 1959’s “Sleeping Beauty,” for inspiration (a live-action “Cinderella” is due for release in 2015). However, this is no remake or reboot, but a reheating of known elements, with a few changes in motivation and an extension of backstory working to turn all attention to the villain of the tale. Only now, she’s no villain at all. Draining wickedness out of Maleficent, the production has defanged the character, and in their quest to recycle a brand name in the pursuit of big money, they’ve sucked the joy and danger out of the material, though, ever the plucky studio, Disney flails desperately to keep the feature candied and approachable. Read the rest at

Film Review - Cold in July

COLD IN JULY Michael Hall

“Cold in July” isn’t a typical revenge story, even while it retains pronounced elements of sin, murder, and paranoia. It’s an adaptation of a Joe R. Lansdale’s 1989 novel, yet it takes on a special screen magic in the care of co-writer/director Jim Mickle, who knows exactly what buttons to push when it comes to the saga of an innocent man pulled into a scheme of murder and survival. Thickly Texan, richly performed, and teeming with nail-biting sequences built around a riveting pulp story, “Cold in July” is aggressive and precisely crafted, playing with grim genre highlights in an excited manner that suggests Mickle was smiling throughout the entire production. Read the rest at

Film Review - Ida


As a vessel of drama, the Polish production “Ida” doesn’t swing wildly. In fact, conflicts are minimal and passions are largely tempered or worn down by life, giving a simplistic story of awakening room to breathe as it carries out its observational approach. What’s impressive here is director Pawel Pawlikowski’s cinematic form, creating a black and white world for “Ida” that carries harsh and seductive qualities while wisely remaining invested in the power of reaction, as internalization plays a critical role in the effort. It’s beautifully crafted all around, keeping “Ida” engrossing as it explores screen stillness, putting its faith in the power of subtle revelations as a means of suspense. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Big Ask


“The Big Ask” isn’t exactly emotionally authentic, but it makes a concerted effort to represent the scattered mindset of grief and depression. To help plumb the depths of woe, it employs a slightly comical premise to ease viewers into murky psychology, teasing a randy farce when all the film would like to do is sit down and cry. It’s an interesting misdirect for a largely successful exploration of human connection, with all its insecurities and temptations, featuring a sharp ensemble of talented actors able to extract pure feeling out of a potentially hackneyed script. Director Thomas Beatty and Rebecca Fishman botch their third act payoff, but “The Big Ask” remains a compellingly exploratory odyssey into desperate acts of communication, with a side of sexual awkwardness. Read the rest at

Film Review - Filth

FILTH James McAvoy

When the source material for a movie emerges from the mind of novelist Irving Welsh, certain expectations for European hellraising are set. “Filth,” an adaptation of Welsh’s 1998 book, follows the writer’s routine, summoning a carnival of chemical excess and bad behavior that’s tied to past trauma, playing both the impish qualities of troublemaking and its deep-seated shame. After “Trainspotting,” “The Acid House,” and “Ecstasy,” perhaps everything about Welsh’s work has been sufficiently exploited by now. “Filth” proves there’s a little more gas in the tank than originally thought, and while the feature isn’t as cohesively anarchic as it imagines itself to be, it works in fits, boosted by a triumphantly face-rubbing lead performance from James McAvoy. Read the rest at

Film Review - Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas

AGE OF UPRISING Mads Mikkelsen

A French-German production, the heroically titled “Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas” will most likely be identified as a historical adventure in the vein of Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart,” and the pictures share a few similarities in vast European locales and brutality of justice. However, “Age of Uprising” is a far more subtle creation, less about the roar of inhumanity and more about the cold stare of fairness. Led by exceptionally internalized work from star Mads Mikkelsen, the feature doesn’t reach out to the mass audience, instead embarking in a specialized direction of medieval disruption that often plays stoically and silently. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Normal Heart


And how could one even begin to disagree with the message of “The Normal Heart.” Larry Kramer brings his 1985 off-Broadway play on the HIV/AIDS crisis to the screen, reviving a period in American history where the great unknown mercilessly tore through the gay community, trigging panic and isolation while the powers that be refused to participate in the fight. It’s a story of courage, anger, and confusion, sold with blistering honesty, realism, and liberal helpings of theatricality, with extensive monologues exploring the bitter feelings of social and medical quarantine as the particulars of the disease were being researched. “The Normal Heart” absolutely retains its significance, it’s the execution from director Ryan Murphy that’s worthy of dismissal, allowing a heavy-handedness to drive the provocative material into frustrating repetition. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Hunchback of Notre Dame


Victor Hugo's 1831 novel, "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," has been adapted countless times for television and cinema, with its gothic tale of deception and protection ideal fodder for visual mediums. Arguably the most famous incarnation of the story is this 1923 film, a colossal epic produced by Universal Studios with intention to sell the picture as their "Super Jewel" production of the year. And the feature lives up to its epic reputation, with glorious sets (amazingly, the effort was shot at Universal City in California, but the illusion of Paris remains intact), costuming, and performances contributing to this vivid retelling of Quasimodo and his dealings with destructive acts of obsession. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Gang War in Milan


1973's "Gang War in Milan" asks a lot of the viewer as it goes about its Eurocrime business. The screenplay by Franco Enna and Umberto Lenzi (who also directs) pits crooks against crooks, trying to build sympathy for the main character as he slaps around women and engages in provocative business tactics, while the cops are basically useless, mere decoration for the feature to occasionally call on to apply pressure. It's a troubling picture in many ways, with the material's pronounced distaste for women difficult to digest. However, accepted as the genre effort it aspires to be, populated with roughhousing, uncaring men, and "Gang War in Milan" is certainly diverting with its operatic inclinations. Winding through betrayals, antagonism, and murder, the movie does a commendable job establishing criminal escalation and the price paid for such rampant misdeeds, with only the payoff that's unsteady, losing a little third-act hustle as Lenzi struggles to find a way out of this maze of unpleasantness. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Two Mules for Sister Sara


In their second collaboration during a fruitful creative run throughout the 1960s and '70s, star Clint Eastwood and director Don Siegel elected to return to old business with 1970's "Two Mules for Sister Sara." Inspired by Eastwood's work with filmmaker Sergio Leone and the global success of their "Dollars" trilogy, the production mounted a vague homage to the Man with No Name, only here he had a name, and plenty of dialogue. Saddling up with a score from Ennio Morricone and gorgeous Mexican locations, "Two Mules for Sister Sara" is a solid return to icy Eastwoodian action, this time pairing the iconic figure with Shirley MacLaine, a noted intimidator in her own right. Against all odds, the stars share spunky, charged chemistry, making this heat-stroked trip across the open desert highly entertaining, observing a pair of mismatched travelers as they unite to achieve a common goal. Plenty of drinking, flirtations, and short tempers are shared, and while the movie doesn't offer an overwhelming sense of conflict, sly personalities and chewy western traditions are big enough to capture attention. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Angriest Man in Brooklyn


Phil Alden Robinson is a talented filmmaker, responsible for gems such as “Sneakers” and “Field of Dreams.” It’s been quite some time since he last helmed a movie, dating back to 2002’s underrated Jack Ryan thriller, “The Sum of All Fears,” making his latest, “The Angriest Man in Brooklyn,” interesting before it even begins, as it represents material that pulled Robinson out of whatever semi-retirement state was in. Once the feature gets going, hope for a wondrous return to form is lost, as Daniel Taplitz’s screenplay is soaked in phoniness, while Robinson can’t get his hands around the premise, swinging wildly from farcical elements to wearisome melodrama, offering a shapeless, tedious pass at a self-improvement picture. Read the rest at

Film Review - Parts Per Billion


“Parts Per Billion” is the type of film that stretches for profundity, but can only reach a punishing ambiance of despondency. Taking on the end of the world, writer/director Brian Horiuchi struggles to create a dynamic doomsday vibe while tending to the intimate details of humanity as it struggles with the inevitable. More dull than devastating, “Parts Per Billion” can’t kickstart a convincing mood of panic, instead resting on tedious existential discussions and relationship woes while stringing together a useless cat’s cradle of character connections, forgoing the larger portrait of desperation to keep everything linked in a contrived manner. Read the rest at

Film Review - X-Men: Days of Future Past


The seventh installment of the “X-Men” series, “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is determined to remind the viewer that there were only two high-quality chapters, 2000’s “X-Men,” and 2003’s “X2: X-Men United.” The rest of the franchise is treated as mere bumps in the road as director Bryan Singer hopes to reclaim what he lost when he walked away from the series after the first sequel. Renewed comic book vigor is front and center here, restoring the grandeur of the mutant superhero saga, taking the characters to a uniquely dark place of possible extinction that transforms the feature into a game of survival, not slick widescreen heroism. Gritty and mindful of character, “Days of Future Past” is a triumphant return to form for the “X-Men” universe, proving there’s still some life kicking around the brand name after last summer’s snoozy “The Wolverine” missed the mark. Read the rest at

Film Review - Chef

CHEF Jon Favreau

It’s been 13 years since Jon Favreau made a small-scale comedy like “Chef.” In the interim, he’s been busy making blockbusters and helping Marvel get their act together with the eye-opening success of 2008’s “Iron Man” and its sequel. “Chef” returns some much needed spontaneity to the helmer’s filmography, creating a character-based story that trades enormous displays of CGI for the miracle of cooking, using succulent showcases of kitchen creations to lure viewers in while an effectively simple tale of growth and responsibility plays in the background. It’s a lovely picture, brimming with an elastic sense of humor and modest pathos, returning Favreau to a position of behavioral observation, playing around with screen essentials instead of organizing colossal elements of action. Read the rest at

Film Review - Stand Clear of the Closing Doors


“Stand Clear of the Closing Doors” has a story, and it’s a powerful one about the loss of a child, with the searching parent left with limited resources as their worst nightmare is realized. However, director Sam Fleischner doesn’t pay much attention to a narrow dramatic view, electing to create a nervous landscape of sights and sounds to help shape the narrative. “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors” is a wonderfully cinematic effort, brimming with life and tension, while performances from a host of newcomers summon a rich sense of curiosity and despair that instills the picture with a special screen power. Although it never holds much interest in emphasis, it’s a striking, riveting feature that showcases Fleischner as a refreshingly observant talent. Read the rest at

Film Review - Blended

BLENDED Adam Sandler Drew Barrymore

Adam Sandler hasn’t been hurting at the box office, yet “Blended” feels like an act of career desperation. The last few years have showcased a fatigued performer unable to revive the glorious insanity of his early work, resorting to drag (“Jack & Jill”), sequels (“Grown Ups 2”), and animated fare (“Hotel Transylvania”) to keep the money train in motion, forgoing the nuisance of actual jokes to plow ahead with bodily function humor and strained broheim shenanigans with equally tired co-stars. “Blended” isn’t a return to form for Sandler, but it resembles an actual movie at times, a quality that’s been missing from his recent output. Never inspired but intermittently amusing, “Blended” brings in Drew Barrymore, a proven Sandler love interest, to pull the star out of his shell, and it works, but not nearly to the extent it should. Read the rest at

Film Review - Forev


FOREV Noel Wells

“Forev” is a micro-budgeted love story that plays with the conventions of a romantic comedy while indulging more than a few clichés to boost its appeal. Perhaps its most notable aspect is star Noel Wells, a newcomer to “Saturday Night Live” who found herself in a crowd of unfamiliar faces, all angling for precious seconds of screentime this past season. With “Forev,” Wells is allowed to show off her skills, and she delivers a funny, likable performance in a charming but unremarkable movie that doesn’t really aspire to be anything but cute. To that extent, it’s a success, hitting a few high points of manic behavior while smoothly managing its predilection towards indie film quirk. Read the rest at