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December 2014

Film Review - The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies


The final chapter of Peter Jackson’s epic adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” “The Battle of the Five Armies,” brings the anemic series to a blazing close, pulling out all the stops to make it the most violent, emotionally stirring, and propulsive of the trilogy. Yet, there’s still very little reason to invest wholeheartedly in this troubling sequel. Mistaking noise for giant adventuring, Jackson shifts into overkill with “The Battle of the Five Armies,” a film that lives up to the promise of its title, but doesn’t know when to quit. As striking as the visuals are, as thunderous as the war becomes, this is still a superfluous continuation that has almost nothing in common with the previous installments. And if you’re a fan of Smaug, or expect anything near closure on the dragon laboriously set-up to be the primary antagonist of this world, perhaps another moviegoing choice this holiday season will be more satisfying. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Metallica: Some Kind of Monster

Metallica Some Kind of Monster

It started innocently enough: filmmakers Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger (the "Paradise Lost" documentaries) were called in to document Metallica's (singer James Hetfield, drummer Lars Ulrich, and guitarist Kirk Hammett) return to the studio to record their new album, which would eventually become 2003's "St. Anger." The studio time was booked, the equipment set up, and the helmers ready to capture the creative process. Unfortunately, the band was a mess, having just lost longtime bassist Jason Newsted, while internal friction heated up to such a degree that the presence of Phil Towle, a $40,000-a-month psychologist and "life coach," was necessary to assist band communication and focus. What was intended as mere months in the studio became over two years of footage. "Some Kind of Monster" chronicles this arduous journey toward metal clarity and patience. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Sam Whiskey

SAM WHISKEY Burt Reynolds

1969's "Sam Whiskey" explores a sillier side to the wild west, with the titular character (played by Burt Reynolds) a man of angles and tricks, but willing to work for others if there's enough money involved. Reynolds and his ease with mischief is a fine match for William Norton's screenplay, embodying a rascal with complete comfort. The feature doesn't quite live up to its potential, but "Sam Whiskey" is undeniably amusing, especially when it sets aside its intentions to be an askew heist movie and enjoys the chemistry shared among its stars, including Angie Dickinson, Ossie Davis, and Clint Walker. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Dracula (1979)

Dracula 1979 Frank Langella

Bram Stoker's novel "Dracula" has served as inspiration for countless adaptations, with every production out to spin the source material their own way, with some pledging respect to the author's creation, while others merely reflect the book's nightmarish intentions. 1979 was a particularly fertile year for bloodsucker efforts, though none attempted to mount such a richly cinematic world as "Dracula." Directed by John Badham, the feature invests in a highly gothic world of stone castles, howling winds, and open flames, trying to celebrate the period while emphasizing the titular character's powers of seduction, finding a pouty leading man in Frank Langella, who, armed with coke dealer hair and his kitten purr of a voice, works to embody his own version of Dracula -- one more interested in the removal of nightgowns than the spilling of blood. A game attempt to celebrate Stoker and tweak established elements, "Dracula" is ultimately sunk by its own stasis, finding Badham unable to work the material into the frenzy he's hoping to achieve. Read the rest at

Film Review - Grace of Monaco


Screenwriter Arash Amel and director Olivier Dahan (“La Vie en Rose”) are looking for a fresh way to dramatize the life and times of Grace Kelly. Not interested in tracking the career of the popular actress, the team elects to slice a wedge out of her most volatile years, attempting to stir up intrigue and domestic discomfort with a look at Kelly’s adjustment period during her early days as the Princess of Monaco. It’s a laudable attempt to find an approach that allows for the unexpected, but “Grace of Monaco” indulges in melodrama, diluting its emotional impact and understanding of its subject to play like the average Lifetime Movie, only with exceptional technical credits. Read the rest at

Film Review - Top Five

TOP FIVE Chris Rock

I’m not sure what’s bothering Chris Rock when it comes to the state of his comedy, but his latest, “Top Five,” feels like a purging of ideas and long gestating resentments. It’s his third directorial effort and arguably his best work as a helmer, coming the closest to managing his habitual inability to land a consistent tone. “Top Five” is a mess, but it’s a hilarious mess, portioning out the wacky and the sincere with some degree of approachability, despite how false the feature feels at times. Still, when it’s funny, it works alarmingly well, capturing the coarseness of Rock’s comedy and his ease with other comedians. Read the rest at

Film Review - Exodus: Gods and Kings


The story of Moses and Ramses has been explored in all forms of media time and again, with each production sticking close to the highlights of plagues and sea-parting, approaching a biblical story with emphasis on catastrophe. One might expect director Ridley Scott to sense such obvious repetition, doing whatever he can to avoid familiarity. With “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” Scott tries to out-spectacle the competition, transforming the tale into a CGI-heavy blockbuster with plenty of carnage, populated with a scenery-chewing ensemble. The only element truly innovative is the physical appearance of God, but that isn’t enough to keep the film awake long enough before it conjures the end of the world in its final act. As handsomely mounted as it is, “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is disappointingly routine. Read the rest at

Film Review - Zero Motivation


“Zero Motivation” is an Israeli production that plays like an American workplace comedy, or perhaps a distant cousin of “Stripes.” Set on a military base, the feature observes the banalities and unfortunate power plays that make up daily life, following a select group of soldiers as they deal with predictability, periodically encountering shocking events and crushing disappointments. It’s a dark comedy that could use a pinch more silliness, but writer/director Talya Lavie has firm handle on behavioral nuance and storytelling, submitting three connected tales of false hope, betrayals, and tests of friendship, while supplying a different perspective through its female protagonists and Israeli setting. Read the rest at

Film Review - Dying of the Light


There’s controversy surrounding the release of “Dying by the Light.” Removed from a film he wrote and directed after producers couldn’t find value in his early cut, Paul Schrader has rejected the final production, making claims that substantial work continued on the effort long after his dismissal. View the feature with this protest in mind, and yes, one can see where Schrader’s ideas remain and where the Hollywood B-movie mindset takes over. However, after the wretchedness of Schrader’s last picture, 2013’s “The Canyons,” it surprises me that anyone would want to see what the helmer originally had in mind for this terrorist thriller/meditation on mortality. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Captive


Writer/director Atom Egoyan is often listed as a preeminent Canadian moviemaker, but his actual resume displays a wide range of failures and successes. He’s capable of greatness (“The Sweet Hereafter”), but he’s also masterminded borderline unwatchable work (“Where the Truth Lies”). “The Captive” explores Egoyan’s interest in mainstream suspense, overseeing a lurid abduction mystery with a riveting opening, only to slowly introduce basic cable elements to the story that help to thin out its initial complexity and threat. “The Captive” certainly holds the potential for a compelling study of deteriorating characters, and it works quite well for the first half. Once Egoyan loses interest in an intelligent way out of a harrowing plot, the effort sinks to the level of cheap thrills and easy resolutions. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Naked Face

Naked Face Roger Moore

It's always been difficult to separate Roger Moore the everyday actor from his iconic turn as James Bond during the 1970s and '80s. 1984's "The Naked Face" is a good reminder that Moore can act away from shaken martinis and exotic locations, doing the concerning psychoanalyst routine in this adaptation of Sidney Sheldon's 1970 literary debut. Patient and subtle while his co-stars chew the scenery, Moore is a highlight in this effective mystery, which manages to achieve a sense of misdirection while openly detailing the face of the killer. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - To All a Goodnight


David Hess lived a colorful life, working through music and movie worlds, enjoying a few near-misses during his career before achieving cult success with his starring turn as Krug in Wes Craven's "The Last House on the Left." Capable of communicating menace and managing no-budget demands in front of the camera, Hess was less successful behind the camera. 1980's "To All a Goodnight" was his directorial debut, picking a cheapy slasher production to kick off his helming career, and while his history with the genre certainly aided the work, general filmmaking ineptitude ruins the fun at every turn of the feature. Painfully amateurish, tone-deaf, and screwy all-around, "To All a Goodnight" represents the lazier side of horror, where the people in charge stopped at the concept, not the execution, leaving behind a dull, doofy effort that's full of mistakes and fails to chill. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Gator

Gator Burt Reynolds

A sequel to 1973's "White Lightning," 1976's "Gator" arrives with full confidence that the audience is ready to accept the franchise's brand of violence and southern-tinged comedy. However, "White Lightning" was raw and hungry to please viewers, presenting a nimble version of Reynolds, still in the infancy of his massive fame. "Gator" arrives in the midst of the actor's heyday, and while it isn't a lazy performance, the Reynolds (who also directs) featured here is a bit too comfortable, failing to reignite the flame of machismo that served the character so well before. Aggressive in fits, but in desperate need of a tighter edit, "Gator" fails to build on the achievements of its predecessor. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - White Lightning

White Lightning Burt Reynolds

Perfecting his good ol' boy screen persona, Burt Reynolds makes a mighty fine southern hero in 1973's "White Lightning," a roughhouse revenge picture that makes the most out of its star's mischievous charms and Arkansas locations. Directed by Joseph Sargent and scripted by William Norton, "White Lightning" doesn't sustain its excitability, but the first hour packs quite a punch, setting up a suitably enraged story that gives Reynolds plenty to work with as the movie unleashes all sorts of car chases and collisions of masculinity. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Pyramid


Low-budget horror heads into tight spaces. Again. For those paying attention to the fright film marketplace, the August release, “As Above, So Below,” took audiences into Parisian catacombs, where tunnels were tight and madness was waiting. “The Pyramid” is an uncomfortably similar picture, only this version carries an Egyptian theme and the threat is decidedly hokier. Familiarity could be overlooked if the new feature offered any substantive quality, but screenwriter Gregory Levasseur isn’t ready for his simplistic directorial debut, missing crucial details and easy suspense with this DOA effort. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Sheik

SHEIK Iron Shiek

The Iron Sheik is one of the most famous pro wrestlers in the history of the entertainment business, using his cartoon villainy to achieve worldwide stardom. Of course, there is a real man behind the theatrics, a struggling athlete who’s spent his life clinging to the occupation that’s made him a star, working through chemical dependency and professional humiliations to remain The Iron Sheik for a legion of fans. “The Sheik” is more of a commercial for the wrestler than a true overview of life-shaping events, but the documentary scores in intimate moments and interviews, with a sizable amount of faces from pro wrestling history gathering to discuss the sheer oddity and hidden humanity of this bear of the man. Read the rest at

Film Review - Life Partners


“Life Partners” mines a few very real anxieties when it comes to the challenges of a long-term friendship. It’s not particularly sharp, but it’s warmly realized, with co-writer/director Susanna Fogel trying to communicate the precise moment when life is forever altered by love interests, vocational goals, and the general ticking of the clock. It’s an amusing picture with two likable performances from Leighton Meester and Gillian Jacobs, but seldom does it rise above its sitcom presentation, feeling a little too restrained with the interpersonal quandaries presented here. “Life Partners” is amiable, capably observed at times, but little of it sticks after a viewing. Read the rest at

Film Review - Point and Shoot


War documentaries are plentiful these days, with productions of all shapes and sizes working to impart the horrors of conflict, with special attention to daily unrest in the Middle East. These are important stories, crucial to the understanding of cultural divides and the true impact of violence, but few have a gimmick to help ease audiences into the thick of chaos. “Point and Shoot” has an odd central figure in Matthew VanDyke, an OCD-anxious, everyday American who decided to embark on a “crash course in manhood,” hoping to unearth some sense of self-worth by speeding into the heart of danger. Armed with a video camera that rarely left his side, VanDyke experienced the intricacies of conflict close-up, eventually moving past spectator status to take part in a rebellion. Read the rest at