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November 2014

Blu-ray Review - Jennifer

Jennifer Lisa Pelikan

Well, if a production is determined to rip-off "Carrie," there's no reason to be subtle about it. 1978's "Jennifer" looks to cash-in on the outcast subgenre of horror, forgoing Stephen King plotting to raise a holy ruckus, being the rare movie to use snake handling as a method of screen torment. While derivative and missing the stylish curves of a Brian De Palma picture, "Jennifer" manages to find a few thrills of its own, with star Lisa Pelikan submitting committed work as the titular demon seed, showing surprising comfort with snakes and goofball plotting as she tries to turn a thin idea into a rounded performance. Missing any real scares, "Jennifer" retains an adequate amount of tension as mischief is played out, hitting all the highlights of a 1970s fright film without ever generating any authentic psychological disruption. "Carrie" was bizarre and unsettling. "Jennifer" is merely amusing, with the occasional surge of evil. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Man of the West

Man of the West

In one of his final films, screen icon Gary Cooper slipped into a dark space with 1958's "Man of the West." Although early scenes suggest a routine rise-of-the-hero story to come, the picture is actually quite cynical and forbidding. Director Anthony Mann doesn't pull many punches with this adaptation of a Will C. Brown novel, depending on his aging leading man to articulate the stomach churn of unease as Cooper's character, reformed outlaw Link Jones, returns to the source of evil that initially sent him down the wrong trail in life, facing malevolent Uncle Dock (Lee J. Cobb) and his band of criminals, who want to keep the one that got away in place as they plan out a new bank robbery. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Babadook


There are few horror films with the dramatic depth and patience of “The Babadook.” An Australian production, the picture explores real and imagined threats with interest in a blurring of psychological lines, pushing cinematic terrors into the realm of depression. It tends to sinister business beautifully, establishing a frightful monster while playing with the anxiety of dark corners, and it’s genuinely scary in ways few genre efforts can manage to achieve. But there’s another level to writer/director Jennifer Kent’s work, allowing a traditional run of chills and mounting chaos to have new meaning, fulfilling as both a scare machine and a gripping portrait of delayed grief. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Planet of the Vampires


Without a genre mentor to guide me during my formative moviegoing years, I stumbled on the work of director Mario Bava almost by accident. It was a viewing of "Danger: Diabolik" on "Mystery Science Theater 3000" that opened my eyes to the helmer's work, watching the rare movie on that masterful program that dodged the riffing, revealing itself to be an inventive, charmingly loopy effort with a distinct period vibration. 1965's "Planet of the Vampires" isn't Bava's best picture, but it provides another portal into an unknown world, boasting visuals that are remarkable in their originality and homegrown construction, mirroring "Danger: Diabolik" in the way it takes absolutely nothing and creates an entire world in-camera, highlighting brilliant design achievements and sheer ingenuity. While Bava possesses a filmography filled with highlights in horror, his most fertile work seems to emerge beyond the demands of terror, unleashing his imagination in full. Read the rest at

Film Review - Penguins of Madagascar


Skipper, Rico, Kowalski, and Private were always the highlights of the “Madagascar” films. Their blend of spy satire and slapstick was good for a laugh in movies that needed the help, creating memorable asides away from the main characters, stealing scenes whenever they slipped into frame. “Penguins of Madagascar” is their first solo feature (after headlining a successful television series), posting the question: can this simple joke be stretched from a few minutes to an entire picture? The answer is yes. Restoring some old-fashioned silliness into animated filmmaking, “Penguins of Madagascar” is a frequently hilarious and exciting effort that hands these tiny action heroes a big screen adventure worthy of their wonderful idiosyncrasy. Read the rest at

Film Review - Horrible Bosses 2


One could argue that 2011’s “Horrible Bosses” tapped into the frustration of the average working stiff -- the 9-to-5ers facing wretched superiors who abuse and discard without a second thought. Or maybe the feature was the crude movie du jour, pulling audiences in during a dry spell in American comedy releases. Either way, the picture was a hit, paving the way for a sequel three years later, and one that’s determined to top the previous endeavor’s comfort with vulgarity, stupidity, and, worst of all, improvisation. “Horrible Bosses” was a terrible offering of funny business, sloppy and dull all around. “Horrible Bosses 2” somehow sinks lower, stumbling through a meaningless plot while fumbling around in the dark for jokes. And it’s ten minutes longer than its predecessor. Oof. Read the rest at

Film Review - Foxcatcher


“Foxcatcher” is a film that’s so deliberate, it doesn’t just get under the skin, it possesses an unnerving force born from attentive direction and committed performances. It tells the story of John du Pont and his intense relationship with Olympic wrestlers Mark and Dave Schultz, but it’s not always a linear appreciation of a toxic union. Instead, director Bennett Miller (“Moneyball”) creates a series of haunted silences punctured by unsteady behavior, creating an exceptional mood of unease that aids appreciation of these fractured psychological states. “Foxcatcher” isn’t interested in speed, just character, and it achieves a stunning depiction of obsession and jealousy, punctuated by a devastating true-crime conclusion. Read the rest at

Film Review - Reach Me


Calling in favors from all over Hollywood, writer/director John Herzfeld (“15 Minutes,” “2 Days in the Valley”) gathers a promising cast for “Reach Me,” an Altman-esque collection of characters and neuroses, sold in clusters of conflicts. Probing the anxieties of interconnected residents of the southwest, Herzfeld has the potential to create a colorful and sincere atmosphere of introspection, especially with a plot that details the highs and lows of the self-help headspace. The picture is sincere but always on the wrong side of melodrama, failing to come together as a revelatory whole. Herzfeld is determined to make these puzzle pieces fit, yet there isn’t much to solve with “Reach Me,” which gradually limps to a cop-out close. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Theory of Everything


“The Theory of Everything” is an interesting title for a bio-pic that only provides a surface appreciation for Stephen Hawking and his now ex-wife, Jane. The “Everything” part is most certainly avoided here, replaced with an average study of a brilliant man and his dutiful wife, with their ups and downs carefully tended to by the screenplay, which ultimately has most interest in the couple’s strange dynamic. “The Theory of Everything” is given a substantial boost by its stars, who deliver exceptionally nuanced performances. They’re often the glue holding the picture together, finding director James Marsh trying to find the romantic poetry of this union instead of tending to the textures of such an unusual relationship. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Viva Maria

Viva Maria

Here's a comedy that opens with string of public bombings and an act of suicide. Either it's insane work or French. Turns out, 1965's "Viva Maria!" is a little of both, with director Louis Malle (who also co-scripts) guiding a highly bizarre farce that teases darkness while engaging in madcap antics that often resemble an episode of "The Benny Hill Show." It's Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau as circus performers transformed into Central American revolutionaries. If that isn't enough to entice a viewing, perhaps this isn't the film for you. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Salting the Battlefield


Instead of becoming the final chapter in the Johnny Worricker Trilogy, "Salting the Battlefield" provides more of a pause on the ongoing tale of MI-5's most conflicted spy (Bill Nighy) and his ongoing war of rumor and discretion with the Prime Minister (Ralph Fiennes). Writer/director David Hare attempts to complete a storyline that originated in 2011's "Page Eight," but breaking up is apparently hard to do, with "Salting the Battlefield" terrific with dramatic encounters, but less successful with closure, leaving the door wide open for Worricker to return and tend to his scattered life once again. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Turks & Caicos


It's been three years since writer/director David Hare introduced Johnny Worricker in "Page Eight," exploring the nervous existence of a habitually composed MI-5 officer caught up in a corruption scheme involving the Prime Minister (Ralph Fiennes, returning for a split-second cameo). When we last left the character, he was taking off on a plane to parts unknown, but it turned out he was headed for the sun and sand, with "Turks & Caicos" picking up the chase in paradise. Of course, any relaxation is fleeting, with Worricker returning to the defense when the troubles his left behind manage to find their way back to his doorstep. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1


After two successful films, a choice has been made to turn the last chapter of “The Hunger Games” saga into a pair of movies. While an argument could be made that creative breathing room is the reason behind the sudden expansion of sequels, it’s most likely colossal financial possibility that’s driving the decision. Much like “Twilight” and “Harry Potter,” the studio wants to keep the cash machine powered for as long as possible, even willing to torpedo the fantastic momentum that was left after the conclusion of 2013’s “Catching Fire.” “Mockingjay – Part 1” returns viewers to the world of Panem and its power struggle between President Snow and Katniss Everdeen, but instead of providing economical storytelling and a nail-biting pace, the movie slows down the series to a dead stop, now subjected to the repetition and stasis the previous efforts largely avoided in their quest to shave Suzanne Collins’s books down to a manageable single-feature size. Read the rest at

Film Review - Extraterrestrial


“Extraterrestrial” arrives after a long drought of alien invasion pictures. Not the world-decimating kind, but the sneakier offerings that play with images of big-eyed, gray meanies from another world, here on Earth to cause nothing but trouble. And probe. Lots of probing. Director Colin Minihan gives the genre a go with “Extraterrestrial,” but he doesn’t arrive with a game plan. Trying to marry laughs with aggressive violence, the helmer does a poor job of tonal juggling, botching an effort to restore some fright to an alien visitation. Derivative and cynical, the feature squeezes out a few effective moments, but the rest is poorly managed and rarely terrifying. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Mule


“The Mule” is the rare movie to actually contain a motivation to include fecal matter in its story. A dark semi-comedy with crime film overtones, the picture largely concerns the durability of a man’s digestive system, watching the character endure a week of forced constipation to protect a potentially life-ruining secret. While missing bellylaughs, “The Mule” does have pace and sharp performances, and the script is mindful of twists and turns, also good with gross-out incidents, making the ick factor a substantial part of the viewing experience. To make a feature where evidence of diarrhea is a critical part of the plot? That’s a real creative accomplishment. Read the rest at

Film Review - V/H/S: Viral


The great thing about 2013’s “V/H/S/2” was how it greatly improved on its mediocre predecessor, developing a confidence that drove the sequel to dizzying heights of horror and found-footage mayhem. “V/H/S: Viral” returns the unlikely franchise back to square one, issuing a handful of terror shorts that mostly underwhelm, while the wraparound tale is a complete mess, balling up and tossing away the very premise of the series. After the last movie managed to get almost everything right, it’s a disappointment to watch “V/H/S: Viral” flounder, unable to locate a spirited rhythm of ghoulishness and devious editing to help lackluster chapters come to life. Read the rest at

Film Review - Miss Meadows


“Miss Meadows” isn’t a terribly convincing movie, but it does feature a refreshingly twisted turn from star Katie Holmes. The actress, often gravitating to mediocrity, takes a chance with this oddball vigilante saga, clearly having a ball playing a derange woman buffering herself from the outside world through good manners and happy thoughts. A dark, violent tale with periodic blips of comedy, “Miss Meadows” could do with a great deal more oddity, moving carefully into madness with a lead character who openly commits crimes, trying to manage the aggression as heroism. In a rare display of confidence, Holmes nails the unease surrounding the woman, along with her enticing fixation on fantasy. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Better Angels


Apparently, if one works with Terrence Malick, one becomes Terrence Malick. “The Better Angels” is directed by A.J. Edwards, a frequent collaborator with the famously media-shy filmmaker, looking to strike out on his own with a feature that closely resembles a Malick picture. Replicating swirly, nature-intensive cinematography, wandering performances, and maintaining a goal to capture life in motion, not drama, “The Better Angels” is familiar work but not a parody, with Edwards taking the whole production with the utmost seriousness, determined to mime Malick while figuring out his own helming interests. The effort is also the Abraham Lincoln origin story, but that intriguing detail is flushed out of the movie early on, leaving viewers with artful intent, not storytelling determination. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Married to the Mob

Amarried to the Mob Michelle Pfeiffer

Jonathan Demme currently enjoys one of the most unpredictable careers in the industry, a position of defiance and creativity he's held for the past four decades. He's perhaps best known for his disturbing way with 1991's "The Silence of the Lambs," a masterful film that showered Demme with awards and amplified his career with significant box office. Less is understood about his work in comedy during the 1980s, with efforts such as "Melvin and Howard" and "Something Wild" developing an unusual but snappy sense of humor. 1988's "Married to the Mob" is the most successful of the bunch, if only because it takes a tired subject in the mafia and does something original with working parts concerning violence and law enforcement. It's an oddball picture, playful and sharp, keeping Demme on task as he navigates stereotypes and romantic comedy urges, working toward an overall lightness to a tale that's pitch black at times. It's a tonal gymnastics display that doesn't come around very often, making "Married to the Mob" special, assisted in great part by Demme's askew vision for this type of story. Only this helmer would make a mob comedy and score it to New Order songs. Read the rest at