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June 2015

Blu-ray Review - Poldark


"Poldark" isn't simply emerging from out of nowhere. Adapted from the literary series by Winston Graham, which already inspired a 1975 television series, the brand name is well known for its depiction of tragedy and heroism, and for its critique of class divide. With "Downton Abbey" currently working on its final season, now is the time for "Poldark" to rise. While the two shows don't have much in common, the producers of the new series have made sure to provide some familiarity, delving into the period piece with a plan to celebrate far-off locations, forbidden love, financial horrors, and a dashing leading man in Aidan Turner. What should be a slam-dunk of churning emotions is instead quite tedious at times, with a strange concentration on repetition and padding that's meant to fill eight hours of entertainment. Truthfully, there isn't enough incident to keep the effort alert. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - An Eye for an Eye


The year is 1981, and at this point in the career of martial art superstar Chuck Norris, things were looking promising. Developing his big screen brand name with a string of actioners in the late 1970s, Norris graduated to more streetwise entertainment in the early 1980s, widening his appeal in the pre-beard days, when all heroism required were a pair of tight jeans and a Members Only jacket. "An Eye for an Eye" is Norris's move to Steve McQueen territory, put into the driver's seat for this revenge thriller, mixing broad kick-happy confrontations with dour investigative movements. Amusement remains with the picture's concentration on exaggerated performances and waves of dim-witted baddies, and while "An Eye for an Eye" isn't a shining example of the genre or even Norris, it remains perfectly approachable, with a satisfying level of violence and squinty acts of intimidation to make the run time fly by. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Boys in the Band


Making its big screen debut in 1970, years after its success on stage, "The Boys in the Band" carried a heavy responsibility. Largely credited as the first breakout hit of gay cinema, the picture is a crowded, argumentative ride of emotions, masterminded by playwright Mart Crowley. Setting out to create a gathering of men who defy and participate in stereotype, working to move past appearances and inspect pure behavior, Crowley creates a loving portrait of instability. "The Boys in the Band" is raw, catty, and sincere, shedding its theatrical origins thanks to smart direction from William Friedkin. Read the rest at

Film Review - Max


“Max” arrives with noble intentions, out to publicize the efforts of military working dogs, who sacrifice and suffer alongside their human handlers. There’s a riveting picture to be made about this subject, digging into canine psychology as it’s hit with the development of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Frustratingly, the screenplay for “Max” doesn’t go anywhere near such compassion, instead ordering up a glorified “Scooby-Doo” episode that takes violent turns and it shuffles away from its original intent. This is not a good film, with weak acting and worse direction, but what makes the feature a true spirit-crusher is how badly it botches an original perspective, trading valuable veteran insight for cliché. Read the rest at

Film Review - Ted 2

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“Ted” emerged from out of nowhere to become one of the top grossing pictures of 2012. Little was expected of a talking bear comedy co-starring Mark Wahlberg, but co-writer/director Seth MacFarlane delivered a brew of smut and sweetness that was big on laughs. “Ted 2” isn’t a radical change of direction for the new franchise, but the production seems intent on preserving a plot for the sequel, trying to give the feature dramatic heft as it also stages gags involving marijuana, tipped cups of semen, and a ceramic penis bong. MacFarlane hasn’t grown up, but “Ted 2” delivers on its limited ambition, finding something for the bear and his bro to do while the helmer adds more of his fetishes and obsessions to the overstuffed follow-up. Read the rest at

Film Review - Testament of Youth


Although “Testament of Youth” is based on Vera Brittain’s best-selling memoir about her time in World War I, it still feels utterly surprising. History and romance collide in this sensational drama, which manages to capture the wonders of attraction and the brutality of war without giving in to overt manipulation. Screenwriter Juliette Towhidi wisely shows restraint when necessary, but she also explores passions in an epic manner, confidently managing tragedy and fantasy as she depicts the maturation of a special young woman. Director James Kent also displays certainty, avoiding a PBS glaze of wartime events to cut straight to the needs of the heart and the expansion of the mind. Read the rest at

Film Review - Balls Out


The title “Balls Out” is a turn-off, promising a crude and crummy sports comedy that’s in a dispiriting pun-happy mood. It takes some work to get past it (there’s a wretched Seann William Scott tennis comedy from 2009 with the same title), but it’s worth the effort, as this “Balls Out” is a smarter, sharper take on self-aware sports cinema, finding a healthy balance between razzing the genre and celebrating its pleasures. It’s also a periodically hilarious picture with an amiable sense of humor, eased along by an enthusiastic cast who’ve come to play, giving the feature a special spin of silliness. Read the rest at

Film Review - Big Game


“Big Game” is a throwback to a time in the world film market when studios would happily put pictures featuring heroic kids into production. Examples remain today, but it’s not as pervasive a plot as it once was, with animated antics taking over for live-action offerings aimed at pre-teens. From the writer/director of the sneaky evil Santa Claus effort, “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale,” “Big Game” is a refreshingly short but enormously entertaining actioner that toys with cliché, but primarily gets by on explosive antics, trying to generate a Joel Silver mood in the middle of Finland. It’s far from original, but helmer Jalmari Helander successfully simulates the spirit of high-octane adventure for the PG-13 crowd. Read the rest at

Film Review - Into the Grizzly Maze


2015 appears to be the year for killer bear releases. A few months ago, “Backcountry” stomped into theaters, bringing with it a ferocious appetite for terror and tension, making something exceptional out of basic forest location, limited casting, and no budget. “Into the Grizzly Maze” is after a slightly grander cinematic experience, though director David Hackl isn’t about to leave his exploitation interests behind, with the helmer of “Saw V” masterminding a graphically violent take on bear hunting that’s big on bloodshed and characters in peril. It’s a shame “Into the Grizzly Maze” isn’t more invested in straight-up horror, as its take on a family drama is wholly uninspired, despite the appearance of a varied cast trying to make something out of nothing. Read the rest at

Film Review - Aloft


The pain exposed in “Aloft” comes dangerously close to parody. The independent film drills into paralyzing emotional ache that details a fractured relationship between a mother and her son, and the feature is set in the wilds of Canada, with freezing temperatures providing metaphorical chill. “Aloft” is not the most subtle effort, and it’s not the liveliest either, as writer/director Claudia Llosa makes sure to slow down and absorb as much misery as possible. Through the darkness, there are elements of the unknown that work well, giving the picture a reasonable mystery to solve, but it takes special moviegoing endurance to make it through the story, which seems determined to shut down as much outside interest as it can. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Strongest Man


Imagine if Jared Hess directed “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure,” and that’s something of a description of “The Strongest Man.” Helmer Kenny Riches invests entirely in deadpan humor and a quasi-spiritual journey of personal maturation, combining the ways of mind, body, and soul with a story that concerns a stolen BMX bike. “The Strongest Man” is silly, but it never admits to it, finding Riches doing whatever he can to throttle the impish spirit of the piece, slowing the film down when it’s most comfortable with comedic speed. In fact, the feature is so comatose at times, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to bring a mirror with you to the theater, just to make sure the movie is still breathing at the midway point. Read the rest at

Film Review - L.A. Slasher


Co-writer/director Martin Owen is on a mission to shred the pop culture poison of reality television with “L.A. Slasher,” which takes on the qualities of a horror film, but never finds its footing. It’s a subject that could always use exploration, but Owen is primarily interested in staging a sound and light show with the movie, which elects style over substance when dealing with a satire of disposable stardom. “L.A. Slasher” is a good-looking effort but offers no threat, positioning itself as dangerous, chic, and wise when it’s mostly muddled and poorly edited. These days, reality T.V. is mostly about lampooning itself, leaving Owen a little late to the condemnation party, rendering the feature dull and passé. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Kings of the Sun


Continuing their professional relationship after competing "Taras Bulba," director J. Lee Thompson and star Yul Brynner reteamed for 1963's "Kings of the Sun," marketed as one of the few major motion pictures to examine ancient Mayan culture, doing so as an epic production with blockbuster intentions. It's the size that's most impressive about "Kings of the Sun," which offers hundreds of extras, towering sets, and frame-filling war scenes. Less inviting is the melodrama at the core of the screenplay, which works diligently but fruitlessly to build an intimate tale of doomed attraction and pained leadership as the populations of Central America and North America collide. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Killer Cop


1975's "Killer Cop" uses the 1969 Piazza Fontana Bombing as inspiration for another round of cop vs. criminal action. The Americanized title is a tad misleading, as the picture is more about investigation than a steady serving of vigilante-style justice, but "Killer Cop" does carry darkness, with movements of terrorism and corruption driving an otherwise immobile police movie that's often more tell than show. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - River of Death


"River of Death" is a loose adaptation of Alistair McLean's 1981 novel. While it sips from a literary source, the true inspiration for the 1989 effort seems to be split between "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Apocalypse Now." Director Steve Carver ("Big Bad Mama," "An Eye for an Eye") makes a game attempt to give the adventure story a cinematic lift, channeling Spielberg and Coppola to the best of his ability, striving to give Cannon Films an easily marketable picture. "River of Death" isn't shy about stealing, but it remains weirdly inert. Despite its Amazon River setting, interest in shootouts and threatening, highly decorated natives, and star turn from action hero Michael Dudikoff, the feature doesn't provide the necessary speed for excitement, struggling to come up with ways to make a bland tale at least passably gripping. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Invitation to a Gunfighter


There's an appealing sense of disorientation that flows throughout 1964's "Invitation to a Gunfighter." It's not a dramatically dense effort, but it holds focus on shifting allegiances and desires, attempting to find different dramatic directions that move past traditional offerings of six-gun violence than typically motivate the genre. Returning Yul Brynner to the old west, "Invitation to a Gunfighter" scores with surprise and intimidation, finding the star's icy stare and the screenplay's behavioral curiosity combining to deliver a slightly askew take on revenge. Read the rest at

Film Review - Burying the Ex


Director Joe Dante has forged a career on a love for genre pictures. The helmer of “The Howling,” “Gremlins,” and “Matinee,” Dante has demonstrated a devotion to Hollywood and all its ghoulish highlights. “Burying the Ex” is more of an easy lay-up for the moviemaker, but it plays to his strengths of dark comedy and horror, successfully molesting romantic comedy formula to fit the askew needs of undead cinema. “Burying the Ex” is hilarious, icky, and smartly made, reinforcing Dante’s gifts as a storyteller and his endearing appreciation for shock value and uncomfortable laughs. Read the rest at

Film Review - Inside Out


After a steady run of regular releases, Pixar Animation Studios took a brief vacation after the release of 2013’s “Monsters University.” Possibly in need of a breather after an intense foray into sequelization, the company comes roaring back with “Inside Out,” a superbly sophisticated yet endearingly madcap romp around the complex realm of emotions. Directed by Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen, “Inside Out” returns to the adventurous side of Pixar filmmaking, taking great risks with content and execution while softening the blow with a tremendous sense of humor expected from the studio. It’s challenging work, but refreshingly so, taking the audience on an original ride through the human experience, stopping periodically to tend to elastic animated business. Read the rest at