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February 2015

Blu-ray Review - Wetlands


I wouldn't plan for an elaborate dinner and exquisite dessert before screening the German film "Wetlands" at home. It's not a movie made to stoke appetites, it's a restless creation hoping to repulse in a myriad of ways, endeavoring to find beauty within the folds of unrepentant illness. 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 frightfully detailed experience that are rarely explored on-screen. However, its visual intensity is tiring and incessant shock value tends to weaken already feeble emotionality present later in the picture. This is certainly unforgettable work, but often for the wrong reasons. Read the rest at

Film Review - Focus


To pull off a reasonable movie about con artists, a script has to offer some likability. I’m not suggesting sainthood or part-time dog-sitting, but there has to be a level of charm that makes inherent evil take a two hour vacation. “Focus” does not have an embraceable moment. It’s a style piece from the writer/directors of “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” who try to tart up a sleepy script of misdirection with sex appeal, only to cast two actors who are more credible as siblings. “Focus” has the raw materials to generate a thrilling combination of emotional gamesmanship and sticky-fingered fun, but it’s unwilling to pursue anything resembling excitement, thinking the mere presence of Will Smith is enough to razzle-dazzle the audience. Read the rest at

Film Review - What We Do in the Shadows


One of the better filmgoing surprises within the last decade has been the opportunity to watch Taika Waititi develop into one of the finest comedy directors around, displaying his gifts with timing and performance in hilarious efforts such as “Eagle vs. Shark” and “Boy.” “What We Do in the Shadows” is a slight change of pace for Waititi, turning away from a human element to mess around with the undead, sharing helming duties with co-star Jemaine Clement to mastermind a faux documentary about the life and times of New Zealand vampires. Hilarious, with refreshing attention to the gruesome possibilities of the premise, “What We Do in the Shadows” is a creative step forward for Waititi, taking interesting tonal risks while maintaining a steady flow of silly business. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Lazarus Effect


“The Lazarus Effect” has the unenviable task of trying to assemble a full-blooded horror experience without a significant budget and varied locations. It’s yet another Blumhouse Productions cheapy, but instead of jazzing up the ordinary with some directorial finesse, David Gelb loses his plan of attack quickly, hanging on for dear life as the movie stumbles through junk science and PG-13-level nightmare imagery, with a faint “don’t mess with the beyond” message pinched from a dozen “Twilight Zone” episodes. It’s not eat-your-ticket-stub bad, but “The Lazarus Effect” doesn’t work at all, perhaps most successful at putting the audience to sleep. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Salvation


“The Salvation” doesn’t mess around. Leave it to the Danes to make the best western in recent memory, utilizing gorgeous South African locations to make a most American story of revenge and tragedy. Director Kristian Levring (“The King is Alive”) takes extreme care of genre traditions, refusing distractions and superfluous dramatics to charge ahead as a steely saga of leathery men out to prove their dominance. While gracefully made, it’s raw, unflinching work, with simplicity that harkens back the genre’s prime years of darkness. If you enjoy your meat rare, booze gulped out of a dirty boot, and tingle at the sound of jangling spurs, “The Salvation” is the movie for you. Read the rest at

Film Review - '71

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Returning to the times of The Troubles, screenwriter Gregory Burke avoids a history lesson filled with agonized participants and blurred lines of morality. Instead, he builds a visceral experience out of known elements, taking viewers into the heart of panic and paranoia with a unique take on community unrest. Squint and tilt your head to the side, and perhaps “‘71” could even be considered an homage to “The Warriors,” sharing a similar caught behind enemy lines premise. However, this is not flippant movie, but a grim inspection of loyalties and honor during a clouded period of national divide, with director Yann Demange capturing panic and fear with remarkable precision. Read the rest at

Film Review - Maps to the Stars


David Cronenberg is a tremendous director, with a filmography filled with ghoulish delights, piercing psychological studies, and classic “body horror” endeavors. The man behind “Scanners,” “The Fly,” and “A History of Violence” isn’t used to stumbling, but Cronenberg hit rock bottom with 2012’s “Cosmopolis,” cooking up a frightfully tone-deaf and miscast effort. “Maps to the Stars” restores a little spring to the helmer’s step, returning interests to the undoing of humanity through the snap of satire. While it lacks outright Cronenbergian pleasures, “Maps to the Stars” repeatedly connects as a dark comedy and insidious display of rancid human behavior. Read the rest at

Film Review - Out of the Dark


“Out of the Dark” is never going to be celebrated for its originality. In genre dominated by creepy events occurring in shadowed corners, this horror effort generally follows the same routine, offering a ghost story with a South American setting. However, it’s effective work from director Lluis Quilez, who guides an ambitious screenplay through the bob and weave of a fright film while maintaining character through an eco-disaster subplot, allowing some real-world terror to seep into the system. While limited in armrest-gripping suspense, “Out of the Dark” is handsomely made, with an interest in investigating cultural exploitation that elevates it away from the average mouthbreathing endeavor. Read the rest at

Film Review - Ejecta


Trying to create an original alien encounter movie is a difficult challenge, with scores of productions working out ways to depict the horror, fantasy, and, at times, wonder of such a meeting. Unfortunately, “Ejecta” elects to use the found footage aesthetic for at least part of its journey. A highly charged sound and light show, “Ejecta” doesn’t offer much besides screen chaos, laboring to whip up enough torture and terror to cover for its limited budget and strangely one-note script, which tends to recycle the same scenes repeatedly. A few crisp encounters retain pleasing intimidation, but directors Chad Archibald and Matt Wiele are too busy making a visual effects demo reel to care much about the dramatic value of their feature. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Ten Seconds to Hell


Not only is 1959's "Ten Seconds to Hell" a genuine nail-biter, but it manages to find another corner of WWII history to explore, pulling emphasis away from the Allied effort in Europe to explore tensions in Germany during the initial phases of reconstruction. Adapted from a Lawrence P. Bachmann book and directed by Robert Aldrich ("The Longest Yard," "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?"), the feature hands viewers a unique perspective, tracking the conflicts and confusion of six disgraced German soldiers who've accepted a bomb disposal detail that seldom permits a happy ending. It's a flipside of wartime honor and duty that isn't frequently explored, observing the shell-shocked reaction of traditional enemies now in charge of piecing together a shattered country. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - 52 Pick-Up


Before the great Elmore Leonard adaptation explosion of the 1990s, bringing the likes of "Get Shorty," "Out of Sight," and "Jackie Brown" (based on his novel, "Rum Punch") to the big screen, there were slim pickings when it came to authoritative productions using the author's colorful and threatening literary world. 1986's "52 Pick-Up" makes a game attempt to commit Leonard's universe of tough guys and big problems to celluloid, even attracting John Frankenheimer as a director -- perhaps the most leathery moviemaker working at the time. Even armed with surefire elements of sleaze and underworld chicanery, "52 Pick-Up" barely registers a heartbeat, stumbling through a confused narrative that strives to examine a man facing the biggest mistake of his life, but ends up detailing the actions of three impossibly idiotic thugs, which throws off the intensity of the effort. Select scenes crackle with tension, and star Roy Scheider does his professional duty to make his character appear together when he's actually falling apart, but this isn't steady work from Frankenheimer, who's lost in the particulars of porn and criminal buffoonery, never achieving necessary suspense. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Love Is the Devil


The full title is "Love is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon," which might be a play for irony from writer/director John Maybury, who doesn't actually make sense of his subject despite having the cinematic tools to do so. A blizzard of images with the occasional blip of emotional clarity, "Love is the Devil" is more of a sensory experience, finding the viewer blasted with the mere idea of Bacon's intricate appetites in both art and sex, not necessarily gifted a concrete vision of creative stimulus and domestic intent. It's raw, unhinged work, but it's often caught servicing Maybury, not the needs of drama. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Retrieval


The American Slave experience on film tends to follow a set course of merciless violence and dramatic despair. "The Retrieval" makes a valiant effort to remove itself from customary images of plantations and seething white characters, electing for an intimate tale of connection between lost souls, taking the action to the forests and creeks of the country. It's a Civil War picture that's barely about combat, instead working to find other corners of history to mine as it builds a powerful relationship between its main players and explores their unique bond during a time of constant threat. Spare and heartfelt, "The Retrieval" is exceptional work from writer/director Chris Eska, who takes time with his script to extract as much self-examination as possible, deepening the personalities as they struggle with the reality of the changing nation, fighting for their lives along the way. Read the rest at

Film Review - McFarland, U.S.A.


“McFarland, U.S.A.” is a very kind and gentle film. It doesn’t offer a single surprise, but it has feeling, courtesy of director Niki Caro, who made a name for herself with 2002’s “Whale Rider,” and then promptly lost her mojo with the muddled “North Country,” from 2005. Returning to semi-stable dramatic ground with an underdog sports movie, Caro crafts an emotional picture, aided by wonderful performances from the entire cast. “McFarland” isn’t always consistent, and shows strain in the editing department, but when it finds a cozy spot of empowerment and community generosity, it charms in a big way. Read the rest at

Film Review - Hot Tub Time Machine 2


Released in 2010, “Hot Tub Time Machine” was a nice surprise. While dramatically unsteady, the picture led confidently with silliness, combining a love affair with nostalgia with an absurd premise it committed to wholeheartedly, resulting in an overlong but frequently hilarious effort. Its box office wasn’t stellar, but audiences generally enjoyed the movie, with “Hot Tub Time Machine 2” finally here to pick up where the characters left off. Sadly, the considerable amount of time between installments wasn’t spent perfecting the screenplay. Weirdly stale and unpolished, “Hot Tub Time Machine 2” doesn’t live up to the original’s sense of mischief, going low-budget and crude to squeeze out a few laughs. Read the rest at

Film Review - Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead


Zombies are all the rage these days, inspiring countless B-movies and perhaps the most popular television program around (“The Walking Dead”). The possibilities for slow-crawl, brain-munching horror seem exhausted at this point, but then “Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead” comes around to restore faith in an undead uprising. Messy and heroically violent, this Australian production doesn’t have much of a budget to help realize ambition, but it does have a spunky filmmaking duo in Kiah and Tristan Roache-Turner, who whip up a frightfully appealing doomsday, filled with tortured participants, inventive turns of plot, and necessary pit stops of humor. “Wyrmwood” is an original vision worth paying attention to, even when it threatens to spiral out of control. Read the rest at

Film Review - Accidental Love


“Accidental Love” began life in 2008 under the title “Nailed.” It was intended to be director David O. Russell’s follow-up to “I Heart Huckabees,” but the production experienced several cash-flow problems during the shoot, causing multiple shutdowns and, eventually, abandonment before the effort could be finished. Seven years later, the picture has finally found its way to theaters, only without Russell’s participation, selecting the pseudonym “Stephen Greene” to mask his involvement in the movie. “Accidental Love” certainly isn’t quality work, best appreciated as an industry curiosity, returning viewers to a time before Russell became a respectable Academy Awards magnet, back when the helmer crafted scattershot endeavors with select moments of enlightenment. Read the rest at

Film Review - Digging Up the Marrow


According to director Adam Green, director Adam Green has quite a large, passionate fanbase who’ve slavishly followed his work through films such as “Hatchet” and “Frozen,” while supporting his cult television series, “Holliston.” “Digging Up the Marrow” is the helmer’s attempt to create a faux documentary, giving horror a slight change in direction while it works through its found footage phase. Green has a great idea that’s not serviced to satisfaction here, with much of “Digging Up the Marrow” devoted to circular conversations and iffy “realism” instead of launching a terrifying viewing experience. Perhaps Green’s admirers will embrace his lead performance and insistence on boo scares, but the rest of this limp outing reeks of a missed opportunity. Read the rest at

Film Review - The DUFF


To start off the movie on a particularly nauseating note, “The DUFF” opens with a reference to “The Breakfast Club,” because, for reasons unknown, nearly every feature aimed at a teenage audience but made by thirtysomething filmmakers is required to attach itself in some way to the legacy of tremendous adolescent cinema. It’s a bad idea, especially when “The DUFF” reveals itself to be a shallow, witless, and bizarrely cast endeavor, always eager to preach about the value of self-acceptance, but just as ready to indulge shallow behavior as a method of empowerment. Perhaps less time aping Hughes and more time building a consistent script should’ve been the priority for this irksome dramedy. Read the rest at