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October 2014

Film Review - Horns


Having made his mark in the horror genre, director Alexandre Aja inches away from pure frights (“High Tension,” “The Hills Have Eyes”) and slightly sillier endeavors (“Piranha”) with “Horns,” a complex and tonally offbeat effort that challenges the helmer in unusual ways. Star Daniel Radcliffe is game to go where this oddball tale of murder and fantasy leads, permitting Aja to explore frequently bizarre escapades featuring a horned lead character with some degree of confidence. It doesn’t always click as tightly as it should, but the ambition of the picture is refreshing, with Aja weaving the wild, violent, darkly comic world of author Joe Hill into an impressively demented feature. Read the rest at

Film Review - Nightcrawler


They don’t make movies like “Nightcrawler” much these days. A feature about evil in multiple forms, the picture is more interested in sinister moves, not overtly violent ones. It gets under the skin with its depiction of a sociopath, yet never loses its sense of humor and appreciation for its home city of Los Angeles. Think early Michael Mann crossed with a heavily sedated Oliver Stone endeavor, and that’s the hazy moral area “Nightcrawler” resides in. Credit writer/director Dan Gilroy for taking a shot with an unpleasant lead character and his business of pure ugliness, pulling off an amazing filmmaking achievement with this devious but hypnotic effort. Read the rest at

Film Review - The ABCs of Death 2


The experiment is simple: hand the alphabet over to 26 moviemakers, each tasked with cooking up a short film celebrating their assigned letter. There are no rules, just a project goal to create brief blasts of horror using panic, gore, and, in many cases, the most depraved sense of artistic expression imaginable. The original 2012 feature was pretty much a disaster, failing to do anything of interest with a potentially Wonderland-esque visit into the bowels of filmmaking freedom. Around the time “F is for Fart” arrived, all hope was lost. The good news is that “The ABCs of Death 2” is a noticeable improvement over the previous anthology effort, spinning new tales of disaster and irony with greater concentration and imagination. The bad news is that old habits die hard, with a handful of the segments more interested in tepid shock value than weaving wicked magic with their fleeting amount of screen time. Read the rest at

Film Review - Laggies


Lynn Shelton’s career has offered intimate comedies founded on uncomfortable events. She’s good with neuroses and terrific with actors, making potentially awkward pictures such as “Humpday” and “Your Sister’s Sister” meaningful with her attention to character, making sure to dial down the cute. “Laggies” isn’t a significant change of pace for the helmer, but it does represent a slow side step toward mainstream acceptance for the once steadfastly independent filmmaker, who makes her version of a romantic comedy with the feature, albeit one that identifies with crippling anxiety and celebrates the rotten layers that form bad decisions. Frequently humorous and sharply observed, “Laggies” may not have the grit typically associated with Shelton’s work, but it preserves a sweet spot of complex behavior and retains a whole lot of charm. Read the rest at

Film Review - Art and Craft


“Art and Craft” explores the strange world of Mark Landis, a master of art forgery who lives a cluttered life with mental health issues, yet is capable of producing astonishing replicas of a wide range of famous pieces. The twist here is that Landis isn’t doing this for money. He’s not a part of some multi-national criminal empire looking to squeeze collectors for easy coin. Instead, he’s a frail man who lives in a fantasy of philanthropy, gifting museums his creations, taking pleasure from the act of acceptance. Directed by Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman, and Mark Becker, “Art and Craft” has it easy in terms of documentary subjects, as Landis is ready for his close-up, eager to share a distorted idea of himself with viewers. Read the rest at

Film Review - Force Majeure


While October is widely regarded as a month to celebrate horror, it seems the concept of marriage is the real terror being put under the microscope this year. With David Fincher’s “Gone Girl,” audiences were treated to a theatrical display of pent-up matrimonial resentment and harrowing psychological gamesmanship. Sweden’s “Force Majeure” takes a more realistic and intimate look at the cracks in companionship, pitting its characters against instinct, commitment, and themselves, weaving dark thoughts and nagging insecurities through a heavenly, and appropriately forbidding, ski resort location. Patient and incisive, “Force Majeure” takes its time to get where it’s going, but the raw feelings unearthed by writer/director Ruben Ostlund are frightening in their accuracy. Read the rest at

Film Review - Before I Go to Sleep


Apparently, 2014 is the year Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth can’t quit each other. Last spring, the pair co-starred in “The Railway Man,” a stark POW drama that demanded the most out of Firth, while Kidman played support. In “Before I Go to Sleep,” the roles are reversed, with Kidman taking on the majority of screentime, put through the emotional wringer while Firth stands back and waits for his moment. Considering their combined talent and commitment to the cause, it’s a shame “Before I Go to Sleep” is such a snooze, barely putting in the effort to be a proper nail-biter before it reveals that it was never about suspense anyway. It somehow bores and disappoints in the same instant. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Sudden Death

SUDDEN DEATH Jean-Claude Van Damme

1988's "Die Hard" was an influential action extravaganza that spawned countless imitators, creating a subgenre with a league of "Die Hard in a…" variations that gave action heroes of all shapes and size a chance to show off their screen fury. Perhaps the most famous of the knockoffs was 1992's "Under Siege," which pitted Steven Seagal against terrorists onboard a battleship. Not wanting to be left out of the trend, Jean-Claude Van Damme received his own one-man-against-many vehicle with 1995's "Sudden Death," a "Die Hard in a Hockey Arena" endeavor that reteamed the star with director Peter Hyams. Fresh off the success of their 1994 collaboration, "Timecop" (the highest grossing film for both men at the time), "Sudden Death" was meant to extend the celebration, with Van Damme sweating through a routine thriller that held the distinction of being the rare actioner set during the Stanley Cup Finals. Of course, a decent script wouldn't have hurt, but the production invests more in explosions and atypical hostility toward children, rendering the feature more numbing than inviting, leaving a bitter aftertaste. Instead of scoring with a surefire premise, "Sudden Death" follows the title's direction, keeling over before game even begins. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Lionheart

Lionheart Jean Claude Van Damme

Around 1990, Jean-Claude Van Damme was just breaking through with American audiences, finding modest but unexpected grosses for 1989's "Kickboxer" and "Cyborg" suggesting viewers were interested in this odd action hero. Looking to expand his limited repertoire, Van Damme cooked up 1991's "Lionheart," taking a story credit on an old-fashioned melodrama about a good-guy fighter trying to do the right thing by his family and friends. The experiment is successful to a slight degree, offering the star an opportunity to portray other emotions besides teeth-gnashing rage, while director Sheldon Lettich does his best to keep the endeavor light on its feet, mixing face-pounding action with sensitivity. Nobody will mistake "Lionheart" for a Disney movie, and while the picture does retain severe limitations, it remains an engaging ride for Van Damme fans, with plenty of kicks to please the faithful while inching the actor's abilities along, allowing him to cry and interact with children between fierce beatdowns. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Hard Target

HARD TARGET Jean Claude Van Damme

Although 1993's "Hard Target" is regarded as a Jean-Claude Van Damme action vehicle, the feature is more interesting when approached as the American filmmaking debut for director John Woo. Lured to the states by co-producer Sam Raimi, Woo was a monumental get, with his work on Hong Kong masterpieces such as "The Killer" and "Hard Boiled" cementing his reputation as unique architect of blistering action sequences, often executed with an emotional foundation that preserves performances and widens cinematic scope. The transition wasn't easy, with Woo's exaggerated sensibilities alien to Hollywood's shoot-em-up formula, but the marriage resulted in an especially funky offspring. "Hard Target" isn't a convincing drama, but this loose update of the 1924 short story, "The Most Dangerous Game," is transformed into a celebration of carnage and bruising stunt work, reworking western traditions to fit Van Damme's rise as a big screen hero. It's a berserk picture slathered in absurdity, but if one can find the rhythm of its outrageousness, "Hard Target" rises to become the most satisfying entry in Van Damme's rise to glory during the early 1990s, smartly using the star's limited vocabulary and limitless flexibility to create one of the finest B-movies of the decade. Read the rest at

Film Review - Dear White People


With a shapeless jazzy score, incendiary material, and pronounced performances, there’s no doubt that “Dear White People” is meant to emulate the work of Spike Lee during his most creatively fertile period. It also targets the bravery Lee once exhibited, marching forward with a provocative take on race relations and self-serving interests in the realm of exploitation, submitting a biting but windy screenplay that’s out to emphasize its thematic reach with every available moment. While not particularly inventive, “Dear White People” has a certain underdeveloped moxie that might’ve resulted in a braver effort, interested in telling a solid story and ruffling feathers. Instead, the movie only makes to the halfway point before it exhausts itself, biting off way more than it can chew. Read the rest at

Film Review - John Wick


It’s rare to come across an action film that isn’t bloated these days. In recent weeks, features like “The Equalizer” and “Fury” have taken an eternity to explore simple themes, offering violence that’s more about anger than escapism. And now comes “John Wick,” which runs just over 90 minutes and values economical storytelling, acting as a breath of fresh air in suffocating marketplace. Roughhouse and genuinely thrilling, “John Wick” sprints with its B-movie premise, delivering exceptional stunt work and engaging theatrics, while star Keanu Reeves returns to his impressive “Matrix” physicality, taking the form of a human steamroller in this deliriously entertaining, enjoyably brutal revenge picture. Read the rest at

Film Review - Whiplash


“Whiplash” displays originality by taking audiences into the world of jazz drumming, observing the lead character as he receives the education of a lifetime at the hands of a mentally unhinged teacher. It’s a thunderous movie, following its percussive lead with booming outbursts and aching physical strain, with performances by Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons displaying authority both actors have rarely shared before. “Whiplash” is a cinematic adrenaline shot with a sharp jazz tempo, and while nagging questions of genuine reaction to the malice at hand remain, it’s a dynamic piece of work, always on the verge of explosion as it surveys an unusually punishing creative skill. Read the rest at

Film Review - Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)


Maintaining his reputation as a sophisticated filmmaker fostering an obsession with human suffering, co-writer/director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu unleashes another torrent of self-loathing and psychological flight with “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” presenting himself with a firm technical challenge to match the screenplay’s exhaustive reach into the banalities and pressure points of an actor on the edge. The picture is certainly an achievement, with winding cinematography and a captivating, face-rubbing performance from star Michael Keaton, but it’s also showy work, persistent in its effort to remind the audience that they’re watching intricate craftsmanship, not necessarily an intimate study of a mental breakdown. Read the rest at

Film Review - Ouija


A few years ago, Universal Pictures lost a lot of money trying to bring the board game “Battleship” to the big screen. It was loud, explosive, and slick, but at the end of the day, it was a film based on a board game. The studio returns to the scene of the crime with “Ouija,” only now the budget has been miniaturized and the genre has switched over to horror and its notoriously forgiving fanbase. The true power of fright that drives the Ouija board experience remains up to the viewer, but as a feature, the dark distraction makes for a sleepy time at the movies. Read the rest at

Film Review - White Bird in a Blizzard


Writer/director Gregg Araki loves young people. Or, more specifically, the young people from his own coming-of-age period. He’s made several films chronicling the misadventures of reckless youth, and a few more about the pain of this lonely existence, leaving his latest, “White Bird in a Blizzard,” at a disadvantage, with its to-do list of dysfunction already worked through by the helmer. Helping to define the new feature are mystery elements concerning a disappearance, and there’s Eva Green in a self-destructive mother role, creating some fresh elements to survey while Araki works out a way to make “White Bird in a Blizzard” feel fresh to all interested parties. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Young Savages

Young Savages

In his second feature film, director John Frankenheimer attacks the social problem movie with 1961's "The Young Savages," a potent but overlong look at the woes of racism, poverty, and the complex nature of crime. Although it's based on a book by author Evan Hunter, the picture is pure Frankenheimer, taking a stylish, challenging look at the erosion of society and the politics of justice. Strikingly crafted, "The Young Savages" manages to overcome its fatiguing length to isolate raw emotions, led by strong work from star Burt Lancaster. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Short Eyes

SHORT EYES Bruce Davidson

1977's "Short Eyes" is an ambitious film that puts the viewer in a troubling position of judgment. An adaptation of the Miguel Pinero play, the movie brings a collection of uneasy characters and impossible situations to the screen in a theatrical manner, contrasting the imposing prison location with broad but penetrative performances, while still preserving Pinero's sting. It's a heroic directorial effort from Robert M. Young, who manages to capture character idiosyncrasies while sustaining an atmosphere of doom as Clark, a young child molester (Bruce Davidson), receives the full force of inmate intimidation as he begins his sentence. Read the rest at