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April 2015

Blu-ray Review - David and Lisa


Filmmakers are often tempted to treat mental illness as a golden ticket to melodrama, orchestrating extremes of behavior in the name of manipulation, giving actors free reign to create the experience of psychological torture in the broadest manner imaginable. When a rare feature comes along that doesn't indulge overkill, it's cause for celebration. 1962's "David and Lisa" has its share of heated moments, but writer Eleanor Perry and director Frank Perry are careful to treat the characters with respect, searching motivation and instinct with sensitivity and a great degree of understanding. Far from a crude movie of the week, "David and Lisa" manages to isolate internal frustration and troubling interactions, emerging as a story of tentative endearment, but also one of rare comprehension (at least for its time), portraying schizophrenia and obsessive actions with attention to detail, not outbursts. It's an emotionally satisfying picture with limited manipulation. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Wicked Lady


Cannon Films gives the director of "Death Wish II" a chance to make a period piece, and this is the result. 1983's "The Wicked Lady" should rightfully challenge helmer Michael Winner's base sensibilities, tasked with bringing a costume drama to the screen, yet his blunt ways with cinematic craftsmanship bend the material towards a routine of sex and violence. While not without a few scenes of beguiling madness, the movie spends more time struggling than soaring, grounded by a bizarre lead performance from Faye Dunaway and Winner's dedication to transforming a bawdy story into a Penthouse Letter, with a few softcore scenes breaking up the action. While never intended to be a Merchant/Ivory production, "The Wicked Lady" could use a blast of dignity, often caught trying too hard to be raunchy and ridiculous, lacking proper creative lubrication to carry this semi-farce, kinda-melodrama all the way to the finish line without encouraging a few pained reactions from the viewer. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Long Weekend


Maybe you thought your last vacation was bad? 1978's "Long Weekend" is an unnerving reminder that hotels and resorts are perhaps the only way to truly relax in the big, bad world. A horror effort that invests almost completely in atmosphere, "Long Weekend" is a highly effective exercise in slow-burn terror, putting the entirety of its focus on two characters as their extraordinarily troubling camping trip to a remote Australian beach turns into a prolonged test of survival. However, it's not poor planning that comes back to haunt the couple in question, but a karmic explosion of animal retaliation in response to human savagery, allowing the screenplay to explore a different type of suspense. The feature takes time to get where it's going, but the reward is superb tension and unpredictable surges of intensity, with stars John Hargreaves and Briony Behets capturing utter distress as director Colin Eggleston orchestrates an unforgettable downward spiral of sanity, with villainy agreeably dimensional and the great outdoors ruined forever. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Just My Luck


In 2005, actress Lindsay Lohan was at a crossroads in her career. Building a fanbase with Disney fare such as "The Parent Trap," "Freaky Friday," and "Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen," while nurturing a career as a pop star during MTV's last stand as a music-oriented cable channel, Lohan was running out of time, stuck with a starring role in "Herbie Fully Loaded" that played to children while she was breaking into adulthood. Resisting the lure to keep playing young, Lohan elected to make a few grown-up films that reflected her maturity, using 2006 to appear in "A Prairie Home Companion" and "Bobby," while returning to starring duties with "Just My Luck." Positioned as a hip romantic comedy with a heavy lean toward slapstick, the effort provided Lohan with an opportunity to play a savvy businesswoman in the NYC fast lane, take on a more pronounced sexual identity, and mingle with other adults. What "Just My Luck" failed to supply was a sense of humor and a director capable of turning a dreadful script into adequate escapism. Read the rest at

Film Review - Child 44

CHILD 44 1

To sit through “Child 44” takes special moviegoing patience. It’s not an especially bad film, but the subject matter concerns a serial killer targeting little boys, murdering them in an especially gruesome manner. The story also takes place in the Soviet Union during the 1950s, creating a sense of gloom and doom with everyday life, finding happiness forbidden and paranoia the national sport. It’s grim work, and taking in the world director Daniel Espinosa is aiming to create requires the ability to withstand the picture’s dedication to punishment. What began as a novel by Tom Rob Smith probably should’ve stayed there, but for those with especially iron-like constitutions, “Child 44” does provide some terrific performances and a full sense of Soviet immersion. Read the rest at

Film Review - Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2


In 2009, I gave “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” a mildly positive review. I feel like I’m confessing a crime here, and perhaps to some cinephiles, I am. Yet, beyond the stupidity, there were a few appealing elements to the slapstick comedy that allowed it some sense of life and action other knucklehead endeavors never even bother to achieve. Hitting it big at the box office, the continuing adventures of Paul Blart were put on hold for reasons unknown, with the security stooge waiting six years to return to screens. For an of-the-moment success, that’s an unwise delay. Time also isn’t a friend to the screenplay, which doesn’t even bother with jokes for this unnecessary continuation, finding “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2” simply a vehicle for star Kevin James to showcase his ability to wheeze, flop, and mug. No actual punchlines are included. Read the rest at

Film Review - Unfriended


Traditionally, fright pictures that utilize the computer tend to fail miserably, often inventing technology or online rules to fit the situation. Last year’s “Open Windows” is a prime example of a browser-based horror effort that went off the deep end just to keep the audience guessing. “Unfriended” is refreshingly minimal with its tech, allowing just everyday tools such as Skype and Facebook to set the scene for its nightmare. A stripped down ghost story that’s more about intimidation than overt violence, “Unfriended” actually works, delivering a reasonable amount of chills, most guided with imagination by director Leo Gabriadze. At the very least, the feature retains a real-world feel as it zips through heated searches, accusatory conversations, and poor internet speeds. Read the rest at

Film Review - Monkey Kingdom


It’s been fascinating to watch the team behind Disneynature adapt to the demands of their audience. With every new release, the original concept of capturing nature as it stands is stripped away, with the features now resembling Disney’s old “True-Life Adventures,” electing to shape a story with footage instead of relying strictly on animal behaviors. “Monkey Kingdom” is their eighth production, arriving a year after “Bears” stomped through theaters, returning to more fleet-footed creatures to study with a smile: the toque macaque. Moving farther away from observation to organize staged scenes of mischief, “Monkey Kingdom” remains a total charmer, only missing a sense of life in motion that’s often the best part of nature documentaries. Read the rest at

Film Review - True Story


With starring roles handled by Jonah Hill and James Franco, “True Story” could be mistaken for the next big Hollywood comedy. Instead of laughs, the picture asks these funnymen to sober up for a grim true crime drama, with Hill and Franco downshifting into sullen behavior to best capture the gray skies of the material, which is based on experiences explored by disgraced journalist Michael Finkel. Indeed, “True Story” is based on a true story, which permits the production a sense of gravity as it analyzes the concept of truth and its relationship with emotion. Pieces are missing, yet the feature remains compelling thanks to fine performances and an icy sense of detachment, finding David Kajganich’s screenplay interested in a moral gray area instead of big thrills. Read the rest at

Film Review - Beyond the Reach


Gordon Gekko heads into the west in “Beyond the Reach,” which isn’t a sequel to “Wall Street,” but feels like a natural extension of the series. Michael Douglas returns to villainy in the picture, transforming a financial wizard into a hunter of men, and he’s immense fun to watch, managing chewy lines and offering the camera variations on intimidating looks. The rest of “Beyond the Reach” doesn’t live up to his performance, but as survival stories go, it offers a decent amount of thrills and sun-caked frustrations. Get up and leave before the final ten minutes, and the movie provides a compelling ride into disaster. Read the rest at

Film Review - Alex of Venice


Chris Messina is currently found on the hit television comedy, “The Mindy Project,” but he’s been a working actor for quite some time. Routinely cast in helpless or handsome boyfriend roles, Messina finally takes command of his career with the dramedy, “Alex of Venice.” Making his directorial debut, Messina manages a startlingly human look at maturity and separation, making specific choices to understand behavior at a primal level while still tending bits of comedy and tragedy that remain dramatically familiar. “Alex of Venice” is straightforward and heartfelt, always more interested in personalities than formula, trying to fight off cliché with nuance. Read the rest at

Film Review - Queen and Country


Joining a growing list identifying the longest gaps between film sequels, “Queen and Country” is a follow-up to the 1987 feature, “Hope and Glory.” Clearly, there was something about the original picture that felt unfinished to writer/director John Boorman, who returns to duty after 2006’s “A Tiger’s Tail” to helm the continuation of his personal war story, leaping ahead nine years to study the next generation of global conflict. While “Hope and Glory” was accomplished work, meaningful and confessional, “Queen and Country” is more of a sitcom than a study of uncertainty in shadow of duty. It’s not hopeless, but it’s surprisingly slack, unfocused work from Boorman, who aims for a scattered tonality that reflects the madness of the moment, but mostly loses his way. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Road Within


Gren Wells is best known for writing the 2011 picture, “A Little Bit of Heaven.” It was a spectacularly wrongheaded script that attempted to turn a cancer diagnosis into a foundation for a romantic comedy. The Kate Hudson-starrer predictably died at the box office, but its failure hasn’t deterred Wells, who makes her directorial debut with “The Road Within,” another effort that strives to marry Hollywood convention with sobering human realities. Admittedly, “The Road Within” is a tremendous improvement over “A Little Bit of Heaven,” allowing realism a little more breathing room. However, these moments are fleeting in a chaotic feature, which often turns to cliché too quickly. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Squeeze


“The Squeeze” is a gambling movie that uses golf as its game of choice. Transferring slick gangsters and quivering marks to the local country club is an interesting idea, and one the promise a unique sets of goals to disturb the routine of the subgenre. Sadly, writer/director Terry Jastrow does next to nothing with potential of the premise, skipping on intensity to satisfy his cast of overactors, while the script doesn’t supply a single fresh idea to match the tension on the links. Perhaps golf fanatics won’t pay close attention to dramatic particulars, but for those hungering for something substantial from “The Squeeze,” disappointment is all but certain. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Life of Riley


French director Alain Resnais experienced a powerful, eclectic career before his death in 2014 at the age of 91. With such classics as "Hiroshima mon amour" and "Last Year at Marienbad," Resnais defined a generation of filmmakers, contributing to the rise of the French New Wave with his dignified work. "The Life of Riley" isn't his most triumphant effort, but this adaptation of an Alan Ayckbourn play provides a fitting end to his career, finding the last picture from Resnais touching on themes of life and death, love and loneliness, and the comfort of others. As parting shots go, it's remarkable how fitting the material is to the helmer's personal journey. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Fortitude


Police procedural television shows are a dime a dozen these days, with murder the daily diet for most channels. Inspiration is limited, with productions content to provide comfort through familiarity, tracking cops and baddies with all the enthusiasm of an actor trapped in a multi-year series deal. "Fortitude" seeks to shake up formula by changing locations, moving away from the big city, rooms filled with computer screens, and coldly lit labs to head to the Arctic. Moving the action to a remote village north of Europe, "Fortitude" selects snow and depression to set the mood, approaching its tale of murder and paranoia from a perspective of human survival and community intimacy. It's a cold world out there, with the program endeavoring to use such bleakness to its advantage as it motors through 12 episodes of sex, violence, and observation. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - At War with the Army


As they entered the moviemaking stage of their career, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis selected a military comedy to keep up with the competition, deploying their balance of smooth and sharp to mess around with the details of life in the service. 1950's "At War with the Army" hedges its bet some with the addition of director Hal Walker, who previous worked with Hope and Crosby on "The Road to Utopia," bringing a well-oiled understanding of comedy team timing to the screen. An adaptation of a play by James B. Allardice, "At War with the Army" struggles to become something cinematic, retaining its theatrical origins with stiff slapstick and finger-snap dialogue, and while Lewis tornados around the frame, energy is missing from this amiable but unremarkable effort. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Just Married


After scoring a minor hit with the kiddie comedy "Big Fat Liar," director Shawn Levy wanted to graduate to the world of young adults. Despite his inability to stage a big screen joke, Levy gravitated toward "Just Married," with the 2003 effort requiring a helmer capable of balancing slapstick and heart, spritzing the endeavor with a little acidic humor. "Just Married" is one of those comedies that should piece together easily enough, yet Levy has a way of making simple tasks seem impossible. Recruiting stars Ashton Kutcher and Brittany Murphy, the director embarks on a dissection of thinning marital patience and European calamity, yet he somehow comes up spectacularly short of his goal, issuing a feature that's almost completely devoid of laughs, charms, and warm fuzzies as the two leads scream punchlines at each other for 90 long minutes. Read the rest at