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September 2014

Film Review - This is Where I Leave You


Director Shawn Levy has a way of ruining a perfectly good thing. The helmer of the “Night at the Museum” franchise, “The Internship,” and “Date Night,” Levy isn’t easy to trust with comedy, and he’s virtually untested with the depiction of deep-seated emotions. “This is Where I Leave You” provides a unique creative challenge, forcing Levy to manage a plethora of characters and numerous shifts in tone while preserving a core feeling of family, shooing away melodrama and plastic antics to find the soul of this battered group of sad sacks. While he’s still powerless to sitcom urges, Levy manages to capture dimension and sensitivity, aided in great part by an ensemble who shade their participation carefully, finding satisfying pockets of ache in a familiar but charming look at dysfunction and enlightenment. Read the rest at

Film Review - Fort Bliss


There’s unfortunate timing when it comes to the release of “Fort Bliss.” An Afghanistan War-themed drama, the feature has to compete with a plethora of similar productions, each with something to share about state of life on the front lines and back home. Sadly, the marketplace is crowded for this type of tale, yet “Fort Bliss” is worth a viewing. Its setting is familiar, but the emotions contained within are genuine and frequently devastating, contributing to an overlong but truthful inspection of separation and the reality of service. Led by a moving performance from Michelle Monaghan, the film carries heaviness with sensitivity, more interested in the pains of post-service reentry than the usual pressures of a war zone. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Zero Theorem


The last two decades have been a career roller coaster ride for director Terry Gilliam. Acquiring studio faith with 1995’s “12 Monkeys,” the helmer subsequently lost his Hollywood itch with 1998’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and 2005’s “The Brothers Grimm.” The rest of this time was devoted to screaming indies, chaotic efforts such as “Tideland” and “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” which did more to reinforce Gilliam’s frustration with filmmaking, intentionally submitting off-putting pictures as an act of defiance. His latest, “The Zero Theorem,” is reminiscent of Gilliam’s earlier triumphs, acting as almost a sequel to 1985’s “Brazil” with its vision of authoritarian hell and psychological flights of fancy. This isn’t Gilliam reclaiming what’s been lost throughout the years, but it’s refreshing to encounter one of his features and not wish to be somewhere else enjoying the afternoon. Read the rest at

Film Review - My Old Lady


There’s no reason to beat around the bush here: the title “My Old Lady” promises a potent comedy filled with curmudgeons and playful ageism. The actual “My Old Lady” is the opposite of mirthful escapism, wading into surprisingly murky psychological waters as it tries to add a dash of levity to an otherwise potent understanding of dysfunction and loneliness. Instead of silly, it’s raw work, but that doesn’t necessarily discount its advantages, including a wonderful cast and a generous exploration of its Parisian setting. Truthfully, I’d vote for a new title, but since that opportunity is now gone, it’s best to remind potential ticket-buyers to bring down farcical expectations and prepare for something with more substance. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Green Prince


Arriving to add some perspective to current unrest in the Middle East is “The Green Prince,” a documentary that’s primarily driven by personal recollection, not visual evidence. Director Nadav Schirman (“The Champagne Sky”) takes a distinctly theatrical route to examine tensions between Israel and Palestine, concentrating on two participants in a larger war, dissecting how men from opposing sides of an agonizing conflict worked together to disrupt violence and secure soulful clarity. “The Green Prince” often plays like an NPR special, but the purity of feeling and inherent suspense of the story remains alert, adding new dimension to a numbing conflict. Read the rest at

Film Review - Flamenco, Flamenco


An accomplished filmmaker with a hunger for the performing arts, director Carlos Saura brings “Flamenco, Flamenco” to a global audience. Not just dance picture, the movie is a celebration of form and passion, leading with sophisticated footwork and body movement as the helmer organizes 21 performances from a wealth of gifted Spanish musicians, singers, and dancers. It’s lively work, perhaps a bit overwhelming for those not typically versed in the ranks of flamenco performers, but it remains bold enough to impress, offering the viewer an opportunity to soak up the indelible images and sounds delivered, presented with a celebratory concentration from Saura, who clearly adores his work. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Ringer

THE RINGER Johnny Knoxville

In the mid-2000s, Hollywood picked up on the monster success of "Jackass," trying to turn its bruised and battered lead, Johnny Knoxville, into the next big thing. He was offered prominent supporting parts and a few leads, and audiences responded to this development by largely refusing to buy tickets. Perhaps the most potentially disastrous project to emerge during this dark period was 2005's "The Ringer," a film that attempted to poke good-natured fun at the Special Olympics, shepherded by the Farrelly Brothers. Pre-release press wasn't favorable and audiences were clearly uncomfortable with the idea, yet, in the midst of all the suspicion, "The Ringer" proved itself to a refreshingly mild comedy that made good use of whatever Knoxville actually does in front of a camera ("acting" just isn't the right description). It takes some serious unclenching to get used to the plot of the movie, but once comfort is established, it's clear that director Barry W. Blaustein ("Beyond the Mat") and screenwriter Ricky Blitt aren't out to offend with this effort, working to celebrate Special Olympics participants with a liberal helping of silliness. "The Ringer" isn't a classic comedy by any means, but that it's approachable at all is an achievement. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Juggernaut

JUGGERNAUT Anthony Hopkins

During a decade of terrorist thrillers and paranoia cinema, 1974's "Juggernaut" emerges as a crisp, efficient chapter in the era's examination of global mayhem. Director Richard Lester submits some of the tightest work of his career in this engrossing suspense effort, trading theatrics to take on a coldly procedural event that's teeming with A-list actors, working with a script that's paced wonderfully, always paying close attention to the nail-biting aspects of the story. "Juggernaut" is deceptively casual, yet there's hardly moment when it's not extracting near-perfect details of character and setting. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Space Raiders


"Space Raiders" was Roger Corman's attempt to piggyback on the release of 1983's "Return of the Jedi," hoping to steal a few gold bars from George Lucas's vault before anyone noticed. Instead of putting in a heroic cinematic effort, Corman instead recycled footage, music, and design achievements from such movies as "Battle Beyond the Stars" and "Galaxy of Terror" to construct another space opera, creating a kiddie adventure with the bare minimum of budget. This is why the film, while determined to entertain, is shoddy, incomprehensible at times, and shameless. All the space battles and rogue banter in the world can't scrape away the crummy penny-pinching vibe of this excessively noisy feature. Read the rest at

Film Review - No Good Deed


You may want to keep your receipt after a viewing of “No Good Deed.” My showing was completely devoid of suspense, passable performances, and basic screenwriting flair. I hope this isn’t a widespread problem. If so, writer Aimee Lagos and director Sam Miller have a lot to answer for with this stillborn thriller, messing up a straightforward exercise in exploitation entertainment. Instead of producing nail-biting tension as the central nightmare escalates, “No Good Deed” is weirdly conversational and bafflingly protracted, laboring to fill 80 minutes with the most tedious interplay seen in an intentionally trashy production all year. The ingredients couldn’t be simpler, yet the end result is lifeless and, worse, boring. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Drop


“The Drop” emerges from the mind of Dennis Lehane, the author of “Shutter Island,” “Mystic River,” and “Gone, Baby, Gone.” The latter is important to note as “The Drop” carries enormous similarities to its film adaption, with both efforts concentrating on the sticky folds of a tough neighborhood, where bad business carries on while daily business continues without question or comment. It’s another dip into working class woe, only here Lehane stuffs in more of a slow burn thriller element, pulling the audience into a troubling situation of deception and antagonism while focusing on building character through strange conflicts. It’s an odd one, but the movie has a terrific curveball that’s worth the patience required to digest all its eccentricities. Read the rest at

Film Review - Dolphin Tale 2


I doubt anyone who saw “Dolphin Tale” back in 2011 could’ve imagined such a story was ripe for a sequel. Not only was Winter the dolphin a powerful source of inspiration for visitors to her Florida rehabilitation aquarium, but she proved surprising muscle at the box office, allowing producers an opportunity to continue the drama with “Dolphin Tale 2,” a pleasant follow-up that’s more meaningful than its predecessor, touching on a few choice adolescent dilemmas before it plunges back into Disney Channel-esque habits that are harsh on the senses. Read the rest at

Film Review - Leprechaun: Origins


The “Leprechaun” series is not precious. Conceived as satiric dig at the unstoppable killing machine craze of the 1980s and ‘90s, the original film merged silliness and shock with some degree of care, launching a franchise that carried on for five increasingly ridiculous sequels, making star Warwick Davis a cult icon and his agent very happy. 2003’s “Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood” was the swan song for the tiny monster, but a decade of dormancy hasn’t been as educational as one would hope. “Leprechaun: Origins” is the inevitable reboot, reworking the goofy premise into an R-rated chiller with a radically redesigned foe. Unfortunately, the production asks the audience to take the whole effort with the utmost seriousness, which somehow makes it even more absurd. Read the rest at

Film Review - At the Devil's Door


The admirable aspect of “At the Devil’s Door” is how careful it works to disrupt predictability. The horror genre has basically seen it all in terms of plots, tricks, and scares, with most filmmakers beating the same routines into submission, content to recycle to play into profitable trends. Writer/director Nicholas McCarthy doesn’t necessarily introduce new ideas with his picture, but the helmer is determined to keep viewers on edge with twists and blunt transitions, striving to advance a mystery that’s impossible to deduce from the opening act. However, in his attempt to pull “At the Devil’s Door” inside out, McCarthy has forgotten to retain a gripping consistency to the work, rendering the effort distanced when it should snowball into something menacing. Read the rest at

Film Review - Life of Crime


There has been no shortage of Elmore Leonard adaptations over the last 30 years, with efforts such as Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown,” Steven Soderbergh’s “Out of Sight,” and Barry Sonnenfeld’s “Get Shorty” representing the cinematic highlights, while forgettable features such as “Killshot” and “Touch” populate the other side of the creative spectrum. “Life of Crime” isn’t a particularly urgent slice of Leonard, but this take on “The Switch” is appealing enough to pass, with writer/director Daniel Schechter locating a casual rhythm to a pressurized situation, relying on the writer’s way with characters and twists to feed into well-acted adventures with criminals and the hostages who love them. Read the rest at

Film Review - Wetlands


I wouldn’t advise a trip to the concessions counter before a showing of the German film “Wetlands.” It’s not a movie made to stoke appetites, it’s a creation hoping to repulse in a myriad of ways. Based on a novel by Charlotte Roche, “Wetlands” sets out to the capture the head rush of a broken adolescence, with all its impulses, curiosities, and emotional unrest, and the feature is certainly vivid enough to reach a few high points of experience that are rarely explored on-screen. However, its visual intensity is tiring and incessant shock value tends to weaken emotionality present later in the picture. This is certainly unforgettable work, but often for the wrong reasons. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Little Rascals (1994)


After achieving major success with 1992's "Wayne's World," it's amazing how badly director Penelope Spheeris stumbled with her subsequent career choices. Hunting for an easy lay-up Hollywood hit, she accepted the challenge of bringing "The Beverly Hillbillies" to the big screen during the great T.V. adaptation gold rush of the 1990s. And then Spheeris turned her attention to an update of Hal Roach's "Our Gang" film series of the 1920s and '30s. It was an impossible mission of tonality that was doomed from the start, working to bring something that was defined by its era into the present, yet still retaining all the old-timey shenanigans and iconic character design. "The Little Rascals" wasn't a smart professional decision for the helmer, and the stress shows in every scene of this misbegotten endeavor. Instead of paying tribute to a golden age of comedy, the production merely reheats established bits, adding crudeness to lubricate likability, generally missing the appeal of the original shorts. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Toxic Avenger

TOXIC AVENGER Andree Maranda

1984's "The Toxic Avenger" is the movie that put Troma Entertainment on the map. Previously employed as a distribution machine for titillation comedies, Troma hit pay dirt when they switched their focus to silly splatter efforts and horror pictures, finding a rabid audience who couldn't get enough of their specialized brand of winky mayhem. "The Toxic Avenger" is the prototype for subsequent Troma endeavors, mixing a bewildering cocktail of one-liners and ultraviolence in a production that actually desires to make audiences laugh, even while it kills a kid and a dog, and points a shotgun at a baby. Still, the earnestness of the feature is amazing, always working to find a note of absurdity to molest as directors Michael Herz and Lloyd Kaufman (billed here as "Samuel Weil") bathe the screen in blood, nudity, and slapstick, funneled into a superhero spoof with a vague environmental message. 30 years after its initial release and "The Toxic Avenger" still manages to trigger disgust and a handful of laughs, representing not only a key Troma financial victory, but it's quite possibly their finest original work. Read the rest at