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March 2015

Film Review - The Gunman


Director Pierre Morel is the man behind “Taken,” a massive international success and one of the best action films of the last decade. With that in mind, there’s a tremendous amount of curiosity surrounding his latest, “The Gunman,” with Morel once again orchestrating a bruising thriller with an older, refreshingly creased star. Sadly, the formula doesn’t produce a kissing cousin to “Taken,” finding “The Gunman” more dour, confused, and sluggish than the Liam Neeson smash. Perhaps direct comparisons are unfair, but established formula is clearly being exploited for another round of bullets and Euro-based brawn, with Sean Penn suitably physical in appearance but mentally checked out as he slogs through a prolonged misfire. Read the rest at

Film Review - Deli Man


The story of the delicatessen emerges as a surprise, simply because who knew there was a tale to tell? “Deli Man” is a documentary on the history of delicatessen culture and generational responsibility, with director Erik Anjou taking cameras into the most famous establishments remaining in America today, exploring kitchens and customers, out to understand how this tradition, rooted in an old-world sensibility, remains alive today. Obviously, there is a mouth-watering component to keep “Deli Man” in step with recent hits such as “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” yet Anjou cuts a little deeper, striving to achieve an understanding of longevity and culinary skill that gives certain delis their personality and popularity. Read the rest at

Film Review - To Write Love on Her Arms


There comes a time in every successful actor’s life when they want to break free from the norm, to stretch in some significant way, hoping to attract different attention with a movie of integrity. For Kat Dennings, “To Write Love on Her Arm” is that attempt, pushing away from her sitcom dominance on “2 Broke Girls,” and overly snarky turns in films such as “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” and “Thor.” Dennings isn’t a stranger to drama, but “To Write Love on Her Arms” has all the ingredients of a career-widening role, committing to the fried life of a psychologically smashed junkie trying to piece her mind back together. Mercifully, she’s a nice fit for the part. Read the rest at

Film Review - Tracers


Taylor Lautner received worldwide fame with his role as Jacob the shirtless werewolf in the “Twilight” series. Hollywood tried to capitalize on his pop culture ubiquity with 2011’s “Abduction,” a John Singleton actioner that wiped out at the box office, slamming the brakes on Lautner’s dreams of industry domination. The actor makes a return to starring roles with “Tracers,” a fleet-footed crime movie set in the world of parkour. Making use of his natural physicality, director Daniel Benmayor is wise to let Lautner loose to flip, jump, and sprint around the frame. However, “Tracers” also endeavors to tell a story, working with a to-do list of clichés to dream up a yarn strong enough to support extensive stunt work, only to end up with a limp, tiresome film interrupted periodically by exciting footwork. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Black Sunday


1960's "Black Sunday" is the movie that put director Mario Bava on the map. A helmer with an enormous capacity for creativity and low-budget craftsmanship, Bava funneled his cinematic skill into a gothic chiller, boasting a spooky castle, witchcraft, and poor saps tinkering with the devil. Delighting in mood and visual heft, "Black Sunday" solidifies Bava's appetites as a filmmaker and secures his gifts with atmosphere, bringing out eerie events with an eye toward disquiet and menace, attaining a sense of dread while sticking to era-specific demands of action and impassioned performances. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Hester Street

Hester Street Carol Kane

"Hester Street" is certainly a rarity, arriving in 1975 as a tale of traditional Jewish values colliding with American permissiveness around the turn of the century. And the picture was written and directed by Joan Micklin Silver, making her the rare female helmer in a largely male-driven industry. Its specialty is its saving grace, stepping forward as a rare film of distinct perspective and religious discussion, while maintaining a comfortable focus on domestic unrest, permitting simplistic but valued drama to carry the viewing experience. Evocative on a modest budget, Silver pulls off something of a miracle with "Hester Street," managing to capture a time and place without the benefit of a budget or major stars, putting her faith in the power of the conflicts provided here, adapting a 1895 book by Abraham Cahan with a distinctly '70s headspace of grit, empowerment, and heartache. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Firepower

FIREPOWER James Coburn

The name's Fanon. Jerry Fanon.

Actor James Coburn is no stranger to the world of superspy franchises, having worked through the lighthearted Derek Flint pictures of the 1960s. 1979's "Firepower" has a bit of James Bond envy, with "Death Wish" director Michael Winner working to mount his own take on exotic locations, golden women, and roughhouse men attempting to save the world. A brawny, noisy movie, "Firepower" is a reasonable facsimile of a Roger Moore-era 007 adventure, favoring excessive characters, stunt-heavy action, and a few secret agent tricks. However, Winner isn't entirely out to replicate, adding his own extremes to the effort, laboring to energize a plot that's basically a basic bounty hunter story into a towering display of excitement. The feature almost gets there, aided by a few violent chases and escapes, but it's not the most stimulating endeavor, periodically lost in laborious expositional banter that doesn't widen the scope of the hunt as profoundly as the production imagines. Read the rest at

Film Review - Cymbeline


Director Michael Almereyda has been here before. In 2000, the helmer modernized William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” transforming the play into a scrappy indie film production, turning broad strokes of obsession and death into a commentary on corporate and consumerist culture. “Cymbeline” returns Almereyda to the Bard’s playground of tragedy, once again updating ancient drama to fit a contemporary look, bringing along “Hamlet” star Ethan Hawke for good luck. Although ambitious, “Cymbeline” doesn’t display any type of storytelling fluidity, lurching from scene to scene, barely making character connections as the production fights to preserve the iconic language while letting the rest of the effort slip into a coma. Read the rest at

Film Review - Ballet 422

BALLET 442 2

Movies focusing on the ins and outs of ballet companies and dancer ambition have become a subgenre in recent years, with “Black Swan” and the documentary “First Position” capturing audience attention, allowing the performance art to make a comeback in pop culture. Filmmakers have embraced fictional depictions of behind the scenes turmoil, but the documentary “Ballet 422” doesn’t bother with overt manipulation. Director Jody Lee Lipes simply takes his camera into the heart of the New York City Ballet to study the creative process, allowing the professionals to tell their own story through concentration and reaction, delivering a simple but effective study of these incredible shows. Read the rest at

Film Review - Cinderella


The third effort in Disney’s business plan to mine their animated empire with live-action reworkings, “Cinderella” rockets to the top of the list, easily outdoing last year’s “Maleficent,” and the blockbuster that ignited this company mandate, 2010’s “Alice in Wonderland.” Leading with heart, charm, and exquisite production achievements, “Cinderella” is the first of this new breed of upgrades to find a balance between spectacle and intimacy, while retaining its fairy tale accouterments to give the picture some much needed magic. Credit director Kenneth Branagh, who’s seasoned enough to comprehend when the movie needs the presence of anthropomorphized mice, fairy godmothers, and broad villainy, and when it simply requires time with genuine feeling. Read the rest at

Film Review - Run All Night


In their third collaboration, “Run All Night” reunites star Liam Neeson and director Jaume Collet-Serra after their work on last year’s “Non-Stop” and 2011’s “Unknown.” Keeping the streak of mediocrity alive, “Run All Night” is yet another disappointing thriller from the duo, which supplies a screenplay (by Brad Ingelsby) bursting with emotion, yet the film itself insists on frivolity, putting slick visuals ahead of gritty characterization. Again playing up the unstoppable nature of big screen Neeson, the feature fails to ignite, with the actor and the movie revealing more of a limp than a full gallop, while Collet-Serra goes cross-eyed trying to keep his action sequences in a straight line. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Cobbler


Hopefully, there will come a day when writer/director Thomas McCarthy dares to sit down and explain what exactly he was intending with “The Cobbler.” Likely 2015’s strangest film, McCarthy’s script attempts to braid together ideas on gentrification, abandonment, depression, envy, and the restorative power of pickles. Also, it’s a superhero origin story, just to keep audiences guessing. Whatever ambition has been funneled into the picture, the end result is a mess -- a complete whiff from McCarthy, who clearly has a vision for “The Cobbler,” but no secure idea how to communicate it without resorting to syrupy sentimentality or mean-spirited violence. Star Adam Sandler will certainly receive the brunt of the blame for the mangled effort, but he doesn’t deserve the heat. This is all McCarthy’s doing. Read the rest at

Film Review - Like Sunday, Like Rain


Frank Whaley has always been an interesting actor, with compelling supporting roles in “The Doors,” “Born on the Fourth of July,” and “Hoffa,” while earning center stage in such films as “Swimming with Sharks” and, a guilty pleasure of mine, “Career Opportunities.” As a director, Whaley has been hit and miss, finding a confident dramatic rhythm with his debut, “Joe the King,” while subsequent efforts, “The Jimmy Show” and “New York City Serenade” weren’t quite as finely tuned as hoped for. Thankfully, Whaley’s sharpened his vision for “Like Sunday, Like Rain,” a sensitive, exploratory character study that retains a remarkably peaceful presence despite checking in on turbulent lives. Read the rest at

Film Review - Walter


“Walter” is a strange movie with big ideas it doesn’t confront in full. It’s a fantasy rooted in severe trauma, boasting a comedic opening and a crushing closer, trying to find a comfortable place where the story’s sincerity can be felt in full. The moment never arrives, but director Anna Mastro and screenwriter Paul Shoulberg offer interesting moments of psychological clarity as they attempt to address the ways people avoid the grieving process, slowly poisoning their own lives. It’s uneven work, but not without elements that come together quite well, including a game supporting cast skilled at bringing personality to picture, while lead Andrew J. West commits in full. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Lovers


When one considers the career of writer/director Roland Joffe, substantial pictures such as “The Killing Fields” and “The Mission” come immediately to mind. However, Joffe’s overall filmography isn’t without a few misfires, with recent fare such as “There Be Dragons” failing to connect with audiences. There’s also the 2011’s effort “You and I,” which was meant to launch the group t.A.T.u. to big screen heights. And, of course, there’s 2007’s “Captivity,” a mangled “Saw” clone that was reportedly taken away from the helmer to beef up scenes of torture and gore. I hope somebody writes a book about that production one day. It’s been a rough journey for Joffe lately, and “The Lovers” isn’t about to reverse his fortunes. Commanding a confused, overblown romantic adventure, Joffe loses concentration quickly, allowing the movie to shatter into pieces of stunted emotion and visual design, never registering as the complete, complex journey the helmer imagines. Read the rest at

Film Review - Kidnapping Mr. Heineken


A decent heist movie has to share a sense of discovery, camaraderie, and contained panic, allowing the audience to feel the pressurized atmosphere of crime and the nervous energy of its participants. “Kidnapping Mr. Heineken” doesn’t have much in the way of excitement or grit, stuck in a cycle of repetition with crooks that come across as interchangeable, while the crime at hand turns into more of a waiting game than a battle of tempers. A nondescript cast, featuring a coasting Anthony Hopkins performance, doesn’t help the cause, finding “Kidnapping Mr. Heineken” chasing a pulse-pounding pace without success, missing critical tension as bad men plan out a wicked crime. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Massacre Mafia Style


About 17 years ago, when I attended a midnight showing of "The Beyond" during its brief Quentin Tarantino-approved re-release, I received my first look at Duke Mitchell's "Massacre Mafia Style" (a.k.a. "Like Father, Like Son" and "The Executioner"). The trailer (later revealed to be the opening sequence of the endeavor) was a display of ultraviolence and unintentional comedy that blew my mind, sharing a bizarre vision of mass death, bad acting, missed cues, and big hair that proved to be irresistible, triggering an immediate need to see the film. Contact would come years later at a cult movie society screening, which utilized a print that was likely used as finish line tape for local marathons, leaving the viewing experience unstable, mucking with Mitchell's idiosyncratic vision. Now "Massacre Mafia Style" has arrived on Blu-ray with a revived image and clear soundtrack, allowing B-movie daredevils and the curious an opportunity to view the effort as Mitchell intended, permitting appreciation for its substantial passion, iffy creative choices, and torrent of violence. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Don't Go in the Woods


"Don't Go in the Woods" is as close to a cinematic representation of a stroke as I've ever seen. The 1981 shocker seems like a cruel joke from director James Bryan, who, all fueled up on the slasher craze of the era, elected to try out his own take on the permissive subgenre, moving the action into the wilds of Utah mountain areas. Surrounding himself with friends and family, armed with script credited to Garth Eliassen, Bryan fights for some type of cinematic vision with "Don't Go in the Woods" (sometimes known as "Don't Go in the Woods…Alone!"), but filmmaking skill eludes the man. Stumbling through a series of casual kills with unidentified characters, the effort looks to chill viewers with displays of random violence and agony, but it mostly confuses in a way I've never seen from a horror picture. Without boundaries and sense, Bryan coughs up a greatest hits reel of pain, trying to pass off the wildly scattered results as some type of parody, but it's mostly just nonsense, albeit periodically amusing nonsense. Read the rest at