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July 2015

Film Review - Phoenix


Building a Scorsese/De Niro-style relationship of fruitful collaboration, director Christian Petzold and actress Nina Hoss continue their successful ways with “Phoenix,” a modest but highly charged drama set in post-WWII Berlin. Their fifth feature together (with credits that include “Yella” and “Barbara”), the team creates another squeeze of longing and loss, this time employing slight noir-ish qualities that develop the screenplay’s central theme of identity. However, “Phoenix” isn’t stylish escapism, but a psychological drama that touches on betrayal in the aftermath of incalculable tragedy, finding Petzold in command of mood and reveals, while Hoss delivers exemplary work in the lead role. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Bank Shot


While George C. Scott was already a respected actor who consistently worked in Hollywood, his post-"Patton" run of pictures reads like a to-do list of genres and career opportunities that couldn't be passed up. After famously refusing at accept the Academy Award for his turn as the iconic WWII general, Scott was transformed into a bankable star, filling the 1970s with oddball career choices, perhaps to keep himself (a notoriously humorless man) entertained. One of the silliest professional detours is 1974's "Bank Shot," which is actually an adaptation of a Donald E. Westlake novel, with the central character John Dortmunder transformed into Walter Upjohn Ballentine, set loose in a bank caper that's all about broad antics. "Bank Shot" is a strange update of classic comedies from the 1930s, with a sizable cast supporting Scott as he strives to play weird as quietly as possible, letting the rest of the feature lose itself to periodic chaos and exaggerated performances. The film doesn't always come together as a hilarious joyride of colliding personalities, but it does find occasional inspiration, especially when it explores its snappy timing in full. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Crimson Field


Produced by the BBC, "The Crimson Field" is a hospital drama set during World War I. It's a time period popular to costume dramas right now (both "Downton Abbey" and "Mr. Selfridge" have set seasons during these volatile years), giving the show a boost of confidence as it strives to create a riveting depiction of wartime strife, romance, and uneasy camaraderie. It's a surefire formula that somehow eludes the production, which spends six episodes with uninspired characters caught in the middle of tedious conflicts, barely using the potential of the premise. Instead of WWI intensity and passion, "The Crimson Field" sticks closely to melodrama to best comfort its audience, yet the writing doesn't dream up heated adversity, instead paging through familiar beats of longing and secretive behavior that never quite adds up to anything compelling. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Scooby-Doo! and KISS: Rock and Roll Mystery


The band KISS doesn't have a particularly encouraging history with theme park mysteries. In 1978, the group starred in "KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park," a fantastically ridiculous television movie that attempted to rebrand the creatures of the night as comic book heroes, with their shared superpower apparently being complete acting inability. Decades have passed, blockbuster tours have rocked the world, and KISS has finally found a place of professional stability. Returning to the hero realm, the unit has teamed up with cartoon legends for "Scooby-Doo! And KISS: Rock and Roll Mystery," which brings back the roller coasters, the themed property, and underground evildoing from an enigmatic villain. Wisely avoiding a live-action extravaganza, KISS makes a fine transition to animation, contributing songs, one-liners, and artful spectacle as the musicians befriend a talking dog and his sleuthing friends for an adventure that travels through space and devours churros, making theme parks safe again for highly decorated rock bands. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Sugar Hill


Paul Maslansky is perhaps best known for producing the "Police Academy" franchise, helping to guide the series through numerous film and television incarnations, keeping the slapstick alive even to this day, with threats of a remake popping up on a yearly basis. He only directed one movie during a lengthy career, the 1974 blacksploitation effort, "Sugar Hill," challenging his early years producing Euro horror pictures to help create one of few black-centric zombie features. As a novelty, "Sugar Hill" is acceptable, highlighting strange happenings with silver-eyed undead soldiers under the command of a woman seeking revenge for the death of her boyfriend. As an endeavor with dramatic purpose, the effort lacks gusto, with concentration on ghoulish murders pulling attention away from pace and excitement. Read the rest at

Film Review - Joe Dirt 2: Beautiful Loser


It may be hard to believe, but the original “Joe Dirt” was released all the way back in 2001, a time when movie theaters were open to the idea of running a comedy starring David Spade. Now there’s “Joe Dirt 2: Beautiful Loser,” which took its sweet time to arrive on the scene, though it’s trading a theatrical release for an internet streaming debut, giving away the sequel for free. Despite such an enticing price tag, the follow-up remains overpriced, with Spade and co-writer/director Fred Wolf hitting rock bottom with this cheap, unimaginative effort. Not that the first feature was an example of comic timing and good taste, but the depths of laziness reached in “Joe Dirt 2” are genuinely shocking at times. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Death of "Superman Lives": What Happened?


Long before Hollywood immersed itself completely in comic book movies and geek culture, such big screen extravaganzas were few and far between. In the mid-1990s, Batman was really the only game in town, recently flexing box office muscle with “Batman Forever,” which pushed Tim Burton’s franchise down a brighter path of audience engagement, refreshing monetary potential. In the moments before “Batman & Robin” popped the superhero bubble, Warner Brothers was ready to revive another caped crusader for mass consumption: Superman. After burning through its own series of blockbusters, Superman was ready for a facelift, finding producer Jon Peters and the powers that be ready to return to Burton for another radical reworking of known elements. The picture was “Superman Lives,” and it never made it into production. Read the rest at

Film Review - Trainwreck


As a stand-up comedian, Amy Schumer is known for her biting, off-color material, frequently taking jabs at her sex life and personal appearance. As an actress, Schumer hasn’t been fully tested, with work on her Comedy Central hit, “Inside Amy Schumer,” mostly regulated to broad, satiric antics and straight-man reactions to impossibly awkward situations. “Trainwreck” is her first starring vehicle, scripting herself a tale that’s not entirely different from ones she’s told before. There’s a feeling of repetition to “Trainwreck,” which is more about showing off what Schumer can do instead of changing career directions. Mercifully, she’s outstanding here, delivering a tart, touching performance, reaching surprising depths while director Judd Apatow struggles with tonality and timing, never exactly sure what type of movie he wants to make. Read the rest at

Film Review - Ant-Man


As Marvel Studios completes their “Phase Two” of film production, they’ve decided to sneak in one last superhero before the gate closes. After the gargantuan action of “Avengers: Age of Ultron” rattled multiplexes last May, “Ant-Man” arrives as an after-dinner mint, highlighting a little-known character in the Marvel universe, but one with unique technology. Sadly, to bring the diminutive warrior to the screen, the studio hired director Peyton Reed for the job. With credits such as “Down with Love,” “Bring It On,” and “Yes Man,” Reed isn’t the first helmer that comes to mind when thinking of a proper visionary for a comic book extravaganza, and “Ant-Man,” while second-tier by design, doesn’t benefit from his limited scope and impotent way with comedy. Read the rest at

Film Review - Cartel Land


The Mexican Drug War is devastating its homeland, with violence and misery spilling over the border to America. When governments prove useless, with corruption overtaking responsibility, civilians proceed to make themselves the first line of defense. The documentary “Cartel Land” studies aggression fueling cartel butchery and vigilante justice, with director Matthew Heineman embedded in Mexico and America to grasp the subtle ways the average person is striking back at encroaching evil. The you-are-there aspects of “Cartel Land” are compelling, with Heineman capturing street horrors and subtle shifts in power, creating an inherently frustrating but informative look at national defense and human vanity. Read the rest at

Film Review - Batkid Begins


In a summer moviegoing season that’s light on heartwarming entertainment, “Batkid Begins” is specifically designed to make sure every ticket-buyer exits the theater with a lump in their throat and hope for a better tomorrow. Recounting the saga of young Miles Scott, a six-year-old boy from small-town California with leukemia who elected to use his Make-A-Wish dream to become Batman, “Batkid Begins” journeys into the heart of charity and community support, clearing away the ugliness of the world for 80 minutes to bask in the glow of what was intended to be a block-wide event that eventually snowballed into a global phenomenon. Read the rest at

Film Review - Mr. Holmes


The world of Sherlock Holmes has never really gone out of style, but the consulting detective, created by author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is all the rage these days, inspiring movies, television, and books that continue to mine the character’s obsession with mystery over 125 years after his introduction. “Mr. Holmes” takes a slightly different approach to crime-solving, introducing an elderly Sherlock at the very end of his days, struggling with memory as he winds down his life. Director Bill Condon (“The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn”) remains respectful of Doyle’s creation, and purists will likely enjoy viewing a different incarnation of the famous sleuth, but this is a very deliberate picture, restrained and observant, perhaps a bit too slow for its own good. Read the rest at

Film Review - Lila & Eve


The idea of “Lila & Eve” is often more interesting than the film itself. A look at abyssal depths of grief and a rather unorthodox method of therapy, the picture is a strange brew of screaming emotions and exploitation interests, with director Charles Stone III never exactly sure what type of feature he’s making. A strong lead performance from Viola Davis is enough to secure some realism to the effort, but the production tends to give in to B-movie hysterics, losing sight of real-world misery that informs the picture’s finest scenes. Sometimes it’s looking for tears, sometimes it’s hoping for cheers, leaving “Lila & Eve” uneven and, at times, frustratingly simplistic. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Pit Stop


1969's "Pit Stop" is, at its core, a racing film. Entering the gladiatorial arena known as Figure-8 racing, writer/director Jack Hill has a specific idea of screen excitement, pulling off an impressive display of the demolition derby-style sport with a limited budget, using large sections of the movie to capture the smashing and crunching of metal, set to a rock and roll tempo. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Island of Doctor Moreau


Hollywood has been fascinated with "The Island of Dr. Moreau" for a long time. The 1896 H.G. Wells novel has been adapted time and again, dating back to a 1913 French silent film and a 1932 production starring Charles Laughton, titled "Island of Lost Souls." Perhaps most infamously, the book inspired a messy 1996 endeavor that starred Marlon Brando as the titular madman, with its nightmarish shoot recounted in a documentary from last year, "Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's The Island of Dr. Moreau." Joining the roster of interpretations is a 1977 effort that favored action over science, with heavy emphasis on the chaotic community of animal and man, striving to whip up a frenzy with dangerous stunts and ghoulish make-up effects. Directed by Don Taylor ("Damien: Omen II"), "The Island of Dr. Moreau" suffers the same fate as most adaptations, with the limitations of Wells's story unable to fill the needs of a feature film, thought the movie certainly has its share of eye-popping moments, most born from era-specific recklessness when dealing with live animals. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Some Call It Loving


1973's "Some Call It Loving" is an expansion of a John Collier short story. A reimagining of "Sleeping Beauty," the feature erases all fairy tale hope to toy with sexual and emotional gamesmanship, studying the psychological fallout of love when it confronts the submission of fantasy. Written and directed by James B. Harris ("The Bedford Incident," "Cop"), "Some Call It Loving" attempts to conjure a mood of mystery and seduction, gradually revealing its illness as the story unfolds. It's an odd one, designed with esoteric intent to fit an experimental decade of filmmaking. However, it's richly made with a true sense of allure to go along with its equally impressive handle on repulsion, making it a sure bet for cineastes who crave the feeling of a honeyed submersion into idiosyncrasy and kink. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Onion Field


Setting out to create a true crime tale, author Joseph Wambaugh found deeper psychological wounds to explore when he wrote the 1973 novel, "The Onion Field." A former cop with intimate knowledge of the law enforcement system, Wambaugh understood the emotional spaces of his characters, while fascinated with the ways of evil. Planning to bring the work to the big screen, Wambaugh secured creative freedom by partially funding the feature himself, hiring director Harold Becker to craft a version of "The Onion Field" that would respect the source material and help flesh out the corroded personalities of the players. The 1979 picture is successful in this respect, delivering a literary atmosphere of procedural events and troubling intimacies that help to comprehend the case at hand. Certain cinematic elements slip out of Becker's control, but Wambaugh's core interests in crime and punishment are heartily respected. Read the rest at

Film Review - Self/less


“Self/less” is the latest feature from director Tarsem Singh, an artful filmmaker behind “The Cell” and “The Fall,” but also someone looking to preserve industry longevity, masterminding the studios efforts “Immortals” and “Mirror Mirror.” Trying to straddle the line between spectacle and emotionality, Singh has never proven his worth with storytelling. He can shoot the stuffing out of a sunset, but give the man drama, and he’s always baffled. “Self/less” suffers the same fate as his other pictures, though it shows immense promise in its opening act, setting a fantasy mood as mad science morphs into a thriller of sorts, holding together longer than most of Singh’s work. Read the rest at