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June 2014

Film Review - Rage

RAGE Nicolas Cage

“Rage” is a generic title for a generic film. After clawing his way back to critical respectability with last spring’s “Joe,” Nicolas Cage boomerangs to paycheck roles with this rather impressively confused thriller, teasing Steven Seagal career territory with his participation in such a low-budget actioner. With dead eyes and stiff hair, Cage simply shows up for this tale of revenge, working through beats of distress and menace that require little effort. Director Paco Cabezas seems to understand the limited interest, working to liven up the picture with stylized brutality, not quite understanding that the screenplay by Jim Agnew and Sean Keller is a meditation on the merciless, cyclical nature of violence. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Human Race


I’ve seen my fair share of ugly movies, and while most revel in mean-spiritedness to attract attention, a few manage to build something artistic and substantial while maintaining the beat of their black hearts. “The Human Race” is a double threat. It’s both a no-budget disaster and an effort that’s desperate to offend, imagining itself a “Death Race 2000” on legs, only without a satiric slant, rudimentary filmmaking skills, and authentically wacky performances. An amateurish mess that’s only out to provoke with its abuse, “The Human Race” sprints forward with its shoelaces tied together. Despite a nifty premise, the feature is a complete waste of time. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Omar


"Omar" carries the weight of the world on its shoulders, but it manages to extract sincerity and preserve cinematic intentions with startlingly ease. Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Academy Awards, the picture also has a little prestige to go along with its many creative accomplishments. Deserving of such accolades, "Omar" takes a troubling subject matter and turns it into an engrossing mystery and study of psychological warfare. Writer/director Hany Abu-Assad presents a clear vision for his exploration of Palestinian unrest, working to build strong characterizations while developing a larger depiction of violence and manipulation, working suspense beats to their fullest potential. Heartbreaking and spare, "Omar" doesn't provide easy answers as it builds its pressure cooker environment, putting primary attention on the personalities involved, allowing for a human perspective as it details acts of breathless survival and suffocating paranoia. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Snow Monkeys


The "Nature" episode "Snow Monkeys" has an ace up its sleeve with the titular macaques. These creatures are adorable (at least when they're young) and immensely amusing to watch in action, immediately elevating the documentary's appeal. Thankfully, "Snow Monkeys" has a lot to offer the viewer, tracking the seasonal cycle for the primates as they battle life and death in the far reaches of Japan, with their adventures narrated by Liam Neeson -- a rare flash of marquee value for a series that prides itself on scientific study. Read the rest at

Film Review - Witching and Bitching


The director of “Day of the Beast” and “The Perfect Crime,” Alex de la Iglesia has built a reputation for screen insanity, creating wild visions of death and destruction, often with a darkly comedic slant. “Witching and Bitching” is perhaps his most berserk creation. A horror free-for-all that toys with the irritations and appetites of witches while surveying the frustrations of men, the feature burns through a cinematic playground of magic and misery, supplying ghoulish images and situations that play directly to the helmer’s interests. Slick and humorous, “Witching and Bitching” is not a film that’s easily forgotten, burning a welcome amount of energy trying to entertain and repulse in equal measure. Read the rest at

Film Review - Obvious Child


It’s always an absolute pleasure to come across a performance that’s in perfect sync with the material, especially work from a talent who’s never received a proper dramatic challenge before. After a few uninspired years at “Saturday Night Live” and a high-profile supporting role in “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked,” it was easy to write comedian Jenny Slate off as another nondescript performer unable to get their voice out into the open. With “Obvious Child,” Slate proves her screen worth in a big way, delivering what I can safely proclaim to be one of my favorite performances of the film year. Her chuckling take on an open-wound personality is a revelation, backed by an oddball but sneaky dark comedy that’s almost pitch-perfect, taking on taboo subjects and silly behavior with lovable scatterbrained enthusiasm. Read the rest at

Film Review - How to Train Your Dragon 2


2010’s “How to Train Your Dragon” was a revelation, a thrilling, poignant animated movie that broke through conventions to become a richly defined character piece with the odd scene of soaring adventure. It was beautifully made all around, rewarded with big box office, television spin-offs, and now a sequel, which has the disadvantage of trying to keep up with the achievements of the original effort. “How to Train Your Dragon 2” eschews repetition to deepen its mythology, finding a fresh theme of maturation to explore with hero Hiccup and his trusty dragon Toothless, while delivering a formidable villain, epic battle sequences, and a more profound understanding of the personalities that populate this irresistible world. While it’s missing the opportunity for introductions, “How to Train Your Dragon 2” sustains all the pitch-perfect filmmaking that carried the original feature to glory, allowing for sophisticated emotions to develop organically. Read the rest at

Film Review - 22 Jump Street

22 JUMP STREET Jonah Hill Channing Tatum

Sequels aren’t easy to assemble, but it helps to have a production team that’s up for the challenge, ready to send established characters on a fresh adventure. “22 Jump Street” plays it safe and cynical, hoping to subvert the norm by openly mocking sequels as it goes about the business of building one. 2012’s “21 Jump Street” was silly and fun, its follow-up is a little less so, missing a jewel of an idea that could transform the update of a popular 1980s cop show into its own thing. Repetition is intentional, and the picture barely colors outside the lines. “22 Jump Street” is certainly amusing, but rarely is it funny or energetic, mostly content to rehash beats from the previous feature, you know, like a sequel. Get it? Read the rest at

Film Review - Ping Pong Summer


“Ping Pong Summer” is in love with the 1980s. It’s an obsession that drives writer/director Michael Tully, who celebrates and satirizes the era with this vague “Karate Kid” riff that’s all about the details. While it teases “Wedding Singer”-style nostalgia as a means of wink-happy derision, “Ping Pong Summer” is a more pure-hearted affair, with an interest in silliness that carries throughout the film. It’s funny at times, energized by its idolatry, and while there are substantial shortcomings to the picture, it knows how to have a good time, playing with teen cinema conventions as it checks off its laundry list of references and sense memories. Read the rest at

Film Review - Lullaby


“Lullaby” is a film that contains immense passion and heartbreak, yet the final cut doesn’t retain much in the way of organic emotional release. The directorial debut of actor Andrew Levitas, “Lullaby” is a disjointed, overcooked tale of familial relationships, self-examination, and assisted suicide, and a feature that delivers only sporadically when it comes to the feelings it’s hoping to inspect. It’s grabby work, perhaps too concerned with fulfilling its tearjerker intentions, but there is some detectible skill from Levitas that suggests he might be a helmer to watch one day. For all the manipulation that requires a machete to hack through, there are moments contained within that are welcomingly human. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Grand Seduction


“The Grand Seduction” is as Canadian a production as can be. Featuring cocaine abuse and rampant unemployment while it tracks a concerted attempt to trick a young man into submission, it’s just about the friendliest film of the year so far. Playful and charming, the picture coasts on its sense of humor and handle on mischief, while sustaining a casual atmosphere of community bonding that would be rendered as pure syrup in America. Director Don McKellar doesn’t possess enough judicious editing confidence to make “The Grand Seduction” airtight, but even slogging through excessive length and the effort registers appealingly. After all, there are not many movies that feature scenes of phone sex that you could bring your grandmother to, making the endeavor’s startling approachability something to savor. Read the rest at

Film Review - Ivory Tower


The idea of college as a means toward a future filled with employment opportunities and intellectual advancement is slowly going by the wayside. Times are tough for everyone, including students and institutions, creating a financial pit for those who choose to continue their education. The documentary “Ivory Tower” sets out to explore why higher education is under siege, visiting campuses and accumulating interviews that highlight the growing discontent with the state of school as tuitions rise and student loan debt swallows what little hope is left after graduation. It’s a topic worth dissection, but what director Andrew Rossi has here are 45 powerful, incisive minutes of information. The rest of “Ivory Tower” is lost to repetition and substantial padding to reaching a 90 minute run time. Read the rest at

Film Review - Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia


How does one even attempt to compact the life and times of author Gore Vidal into a documentary that runs less than 90 minutes? I don’t envy director Nicholas D. Wrathall, who struggles to mount a comprehensive understanding of one of the most complex (and catty) men of the 20th century. More of an overview than a proper dissection, “Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia” liberally shaves off more than few highlights and lowlights from the subject’s life, electing to transform into a political documentary, taking a look a Vidal’s history of outspoken behavior when it comes to the leadership of the U.S., and his abyssal knowledge of the nation’s past. It’s not a filling cinematic meal, but juicy morsels of candor and a chance to acquire a deeper appreciation for Vidal’s epic ego are worth the price of admission. Read the rest at

Film Review - I Am I

I AM I 3

Sincerity goes a long way in film. It’s difficult to sustain, but individual moments count for something, which is why “I Am I” remains a strangely beguiling picture, despite obvious shortcomings. It marks the directorial debut for actress Jocelyn Towne, who conjures a generous starring role for herself as well, arranging a challenge of tonality that’s largely conquered, managing deep-seated emotion with an askew premise that teases uncomfortable areas of interaction. “I Am I” isn’t bold work, but it’s interesting when it finds true intimacy, masterminding a few suspenseful moments of poor judgment and bruised hearts that hold attention. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The War Wagon

WAR WAGON Kirk Douglas John Wayne

The teaming of stars Kirk Douglas and John Wayne carries a surplus of masculinity. 1967's "The War Wagon" is their third and final pairing, after "In Harm's Way" and "Cast a Giant Shadow," and it's a film that perhaps extracts the purest expression of screen charisma from the actors, who contribute beefy appeal to a routine western that concerns a heist scenario. Everyone else just looks small in the feature, though the ensemble contribution is quite valuable to the picture, which has use for a range of reactions that shy away from the confidence Wayne and Douglas project. Directed by Burt Kennedy (who remained in the western genre for years to come, but also helmed "Suburban Commando"), "The War Wagon" has all the highlights a genre enthusiast could ask for: gunfights, a bar brawl, a runaway wagon, acts of nostril-flaring intimidation, and a bridge explosion. While dramatically the movie is missing a rich understanding of motivation, the surface delights of the effort are handled with care, allowing plenty of room to explore western traditions and allow the leading men an opportunity to trade barbs and suspicions as they attempt to out barrel-chest each other (spoiler: Douglas wins). Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Sugar Cookies

Sugar Cookes Mary Waronov Lynn Lowry

Well, if you're a filmmaker and you're trying to rip-off Hitchcock, excessive amounts of nudity always helps. 1973's "Sugar Cookies" isn't the most memorable sexploitation shocker of its era, but a few of the names associated with its creation certainly raise eyebrows, with credits boasting the participation of Troma Entertainment founder Lloyd Kaufman (who co-scripts) and Oliver Stone, who's listed among the producers. Everyone has to make their start somewhere, and I can certainly understand the external appeal of "Sugar Cookies," with its elements of mystery, bare skin, and perversion. It's a strange picture, not entirely coherent despite the illusion of comprehensible sinister business, but it's entertaining in a B-movie way, offering a steady stream of threatening behavior and spastic seductions to help ease an awkward "Vertigo"-inspired plot into place. Read the rest at

Film Review - Willow Creek


Recent work from writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait has proven the now part-time stand-up comedian to be an impressive filmmaker with a clear artistic vision, balancing tragedy and comedy with exceptional skill. With “World’s Greatest Dad” and “God Bless America,” Goldthwait has been fearless and hilarious, creating movies that take genuine risks with violence and satire. For “Willow Creek,” Goldthwait sets his sights on the found footage subgenre, running uphill with an aesthetic that’s been drained of any surprise over the last few years. While it doesn’t reinvent the wheel, “Willow Creek” commits to simplicity, turning a basic Bigfoot hunt into an authentically creepy, evocative event, with sound the driving force here, not berserk visuals. Read the rest at

Film Review - I'll Follow You Down


It’s difficult to dream up new surprises in the time travel subgenre, with many pictures covering the basics in awe and timeline complication, often coupled with suspense or action elements to keep the whole enterprise on the move. And then there’s a movie like Shane Carruth’s “Primer,” which takes a scientific approach to the event, attempting to appeal to those who’ve grown weary of flux capacitors and gaudy time machines. “I’ll Follow You Down” works on the same level of scientific discourse, only here the focus is on family and how the manipulation of time sacrifices this essential component of life. Writer/director Richie Mehta doesn’t summon the most riveting tale with “I’ll Follow You Down,” but his intentions are pure, striving to rework the subgenre from a more human standpoint. Read the rest at