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October 2015

Film Review - Experimenter


The life and times of social scientist Stanley Milgram are recounted in “Experimenter,” but not in direct way. Instead of taking the bio-pic route, writer/director Michael Almereyda cherry picks concepts and domestic struggles to form a larger portrait of iciness and commitment to curiosity. The helmer also selects an artful approach to the feature that makes it feel like a stage production, though the reason for such a specific visual choice is difficult to compute. “Experimenter” is a sterile viewing experience, but not an unpleasant one, with Milgram’s insatiable need to classify human response rubbing off on the effort, which displays more verve in observational mode than it does in domestic replication. Read the rest at

Film Review - Beasts of No Nation


Harrowing is a singular way to describe “Beasts of No Nation,” which takes viewers into the folds of African unrest and the birth of the child soldier. The portrait of innocence lost is almost unbearable to watch at times, as writer/director Cary Joji Fukunaga presents an unflinching look at the horrors of war and the disease of men, detailing murder, rape, insanity, and despair without pause, but not without some degree of hope. Though it samples repetition to fill out an excessive run time (137 minutes), “Beasts of No Nation” is essential work, exploring an eye-opening subject matter with clear thinking and respect for the complexities of the psychological damage done.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Busting


In one of his first forays into feature filmmaking, writer/director Peter Hyams ("Outland," "Capricorn One," "2010") takes the hard-charging heroism of the supercop subgenre and dips it in boiling acid for 1974's "Busting." While not the first force of cynicism concerning the futility of police work to emerge from Hollywood, it's one of the most pronounced, containing an almost punishing level of bitterness to accompany an organized crime takedown plot. Hyams keeps the material on edge, managing the roller coaster ride of frustration that informs nearly every scene, creating a few surges in straightforward action to bait the viewer into a feeling of progress before lowering the hammer once again. "Busting" is raw and inventive, but a little of the picture goes a long way, especially with Elliott Gould and Robert Blake in the lead roles, delivering polar opposite performances that often distract from the theme at hand. It's a powerful film, but it only achieves greatness in periodic bursts. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Savage Weekend


While "Savage Weekend" is often left out of any conversation concerning slasher cinema, it holds a unique position in the subgenre, offering horror entertainment that concerns the killing spree of a disguised killer, with the production dating back to 1976 (the film was ultimately released in 1980). Pieced together before "Halloween" spawned hundreds of imitators, "Savage Weekend" is somewhat ahead of its time, with writer/director David Paulsen managing a deadly journey into rural America, where a pack of sex-crazed adults engage in secretive couplings as a murderer in a clown mask emerges from the shadows. It's not rocket science, but Paulsen doesn't always know what type of movie he's making, caught between bloodletting duty and his interest in nudity. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Lisa


1990's "Lisa" is an attempt to build a thriller based on the desires and fears of a 14-year-old girl. It's pulled off with a certain degree of good taste, with co-writer/director Gary Sherman ("Dead & Buried," "Poltergeist III," "Wanted: Dead or Alive") genuinely interested in creating a three-dimensional character out of the titular teen, and not just another screamy, dim-bulb focal point for the slasher routine. "Lisa" isn't a sustained ride of suspense, but the details do count, with Sherman taking time to develop complex emotions to go along with his scares. It's an interesting movie with a creepy vibe, capturing the lure of troublemaking and the stress of broken family life. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Young Billy Young


Robert Mitchum wasn't necessarily feeling the grandeur of Hollywood while shooting "Young Billy Young," participating in a straightforward western that wasn't exactly going to challenge his dramatic abilities. Reportedly, Mitchum was ready to retire after the feature's release, only to be coaxed back into the limelight with the 1970 David Lean epic, "Ryan's Daughter." While it's true that "Young Billy Young" isn't inventive cinema, it remains quite engaging, thanks in no small part to Mitchum's steely lead performance and nimble way with the effort's chewy dialogue. He's great in a picture that needs his help, carrying the cowboy way for yet another Wild West adventure, with this round of revenge boosted by some credible motivation. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Oblong Box


Returning to Edgar Allen Poe for creative inspiration, star Vincent Price is once again the best match for the author's reserved intensity. 1969's "The Oblong Box" returns Poe to the screen, this time with a tale of body-switching, voodoo, and sibling guilt, teaming Price with Christopher Lee to goose the horror legends atmosphere. Suspense is teased throughout "The Oblong Box," but never achieved in full, leaving the bulk of the feature to the actors, who do a fine job snapping the effort out of its periodic slumber. Read the rest at

Film Review - Momentum


The low-budget action market is saturated with titles these days, and they all tend to look and sound the same. “Momentum” is the latest endeavor to play the VOD sweepstakes, and the South African production has a compelling focal point in actress Olga Kurylenko, who graduates from supporting parts in other dismal actioners to topline her own snoozy effort. Female leads are rare in these productions, but director Stephen S. Campanelli isn’t interested in shaking up the formula, submitting yet another colorless, featureless stunt extravaganza that emphasizes physical feats and convoluted plotting, trying to razzle-dazzle audiences with visuals they’ve seen countless times before. Read the rest at

Film Review - Goosebumps


In the 1990s, R.L. Stine’s “Goosebumps” series of YA horror novels managed to playfully terrify an entire generation of readers. There were audio books, video games, and a television series to help expand Stine’s brand, but now the big screen receives its chance to frighten audiences with “Goosebumps.” While handed a self-aware plot to ease the translation to feature-length frights, the picture mostly plays it straightforward, mixing comedy and scares while a monumental amount of CGI works to create all creatures great and small. “Goosebumps” is a mixed bag when it comes to technical achievements and storytelling, but it does offer the most enthusiastic cast of 2015, watching the actors mug their way through a cinematic adventure that needs their complete thespian attention. Read the rest at

Film Review - Bridge of Spies


Completing his stoic, dry oatmeal trilogy of noble characters (which includes “War Horse” and “Lincoln”), director Steven Spielberg finally finds some sense of tempo again with the Cold War drama, “Bridge of Spies.” Moving forward on the talky but eventful tale of a prisoner exchange negotiation, the celebrated helmer works past his interest in pained reflection, trying to summon procedural snap to what’s otherwise a tale of men discussing other men in frigid locations. While it doesn’t always welcome suspense, “Bridge of Spies” is intelligent and paced, anchored by a sensational lead performance by Tom Hanks, who once again makes magic with Spielberg in this, their fourth collaboration. Read the rest at

Film Review - Crimson Peak


In 2013, writer/director Guillermo del Toro went big with “Pacific Rim,” receiving a rare opportunity to make his own mega monster movie with an appropriately gigantic budget and global scale. For his latest, “Crimson Peak,” the helmer goes relatively small, setting the majority of the picture inside a crumbling mansion populated with only a few characters. Out to create his own version of a gothic Italian chiller from the 1960s, del Toro has all the right dramatic ingredients and pure technical mastery, but the story is lacking serious threat, often caught admiring itself instead of marching forward as a proper spine-tingler. Read the rest at

Film Review - Steve Jobs


We’ve been here before. In 2013, Ashton Kutcher suited up in bad beards and turtlenecks to portray Apple icon Steve Jobs in a dreadful bio-pic (“Jobs”), which trafficked in wheezy melodrama and suffered a blurring of intent as it attempted to manage the man’s myth without addressing reality. “Steve Jobs” isn’t a rehash of the earlier picture, taking a more theatrical route to explore the complexity of the subject and his corrosive ways with every human on Earth. Director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin combine forces to deliver a slingshot ride around the Apple universe, emerging with more questions than answers. “Steve Jobs” doesn’t take in the enormity of a life, it merely cuts down a few biographical moments and studies the rings, working to distance itself from other artistic endeavors by disrupting a traditional timeline assessment of developing character. Read the rest at


Film Review - The Final Girls


Hitting a fairly obvious target for satire, “The Final Girls” pokes fun at the wonderland of gore, sex, and peer pressure that defined slasher cinema of the 1980s. However, instead of mounting another rehash/celebration, screenwriters M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller dream up an inventive way to explore the subgenre, blending “Scream” with “The Purple Rose of Cairo” as they take on and take down the horror formula from a comedic perspective. Director Todd Strauss-Schulson smothers the effort in excessive style, but “The Final Girls” is an unexpectedly amusing picture that has genuine fun with itself and the mechanics of B-movies. Read the rest at

Film Review - Tales of Halloween


The spooky season brings out the best in horror moviemakers, and an enduring love for the anthology film inspires “Tales of Halloween,” a holiday-specific overview of suburban terror, twists, and general dread. While on the goofy side to welcome a wider audience, the feature has its macabre appetites, showcasing fine technical achievements on a minimal budget, while setting a Halloween mood with fun-sized samplings of disaster. For genre fanatics, there’s something here for every taste, ornamented with industry cameos and supported by a few grim detours that keep the production on task as a satisfactory holiday chiller. Read the rest at

Film Review - Victoria


“Victoria” is a gimmick film from director Sebastian Schipper, who, a long time ago, appeared in the German art-house hit, “Run Lola Run.” Perhaps looking for a way to update the formula, Schipper attempts to razzle-dazzle the audience with a single take, following the action through an unbroken shot that lasts a whopping 134 minutes. As a technical achievement, “Victoria” is impressive, working with loose choreography and precise planning to turn a casual night of drinking into a turbulent series of personal challenges. While it’s a neat idea, Schipper doesn’t have anything more to offer than the cinematographic stunt, taking such a long time to position characters into the heat of the moment, he forgets to add the moment. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Satan Bug


1965's "The Satan Bug" is director John Sturges's follow-up to "The Great Escape," moving from the punishment of World War II to, well, the end of the world. A bio-terror production adapted by James Clavell and Edward Anhalt (from the novel by Ian Stuart), "The Satan Bug" digs into a secret world of deadly viruses and hidden government installations to find a cinematic level of suspense. While poky at times, the picture is successful with an epic tale of investigation and terrifying discovery, with Sturges generating a coolly unnerving doomsday atmosphere that provides adequate motivation for the characters. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Wonderful Country


In 1959's "The Wonderful Country," Robert Mitchum portrays a mercenary caught between the U.S.A. and Mexico, living a conflicted life without a true homeland. Adapted from the best seller by Tom Lea, "The Wonderful Country" plays exactly like a literary creation, with a page-turning tone that emphasizes matters of the heart and soul, not traditional western suspense. The stasis can be taxing at times, with director Robert Parrish ("A Town Called Hell") perhaps too caught up in melodrama to make a suitably engaging feature, missing opportunities to tighten suspense and truly depict the torturous conflict at hand. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Civil War


Ken Burns was a respected documentarian before he tackled "The Civil War," but when the nine-episode program hit PBS in 1990, it turned him into the only documentarian. While numerous film and television projects have attempted to explore pieces of the Civil War, few have ever tried to wrap their arms around the entire event, leaving such painstaking research and psychological dissection to behemoth literary endeavors. Against all odds, Burns reaches for the brass ring with "The Civil War," embarking on a massive informational and emotional journey of history and intimacy, trying to discover the true face of a nation divided by bitter conflict and soaked in blood. Perhaps it goes without noting that Burns's achievement is landmark television, spawning countless imitators. What's actually true about the show is how efficient and smartly designed it truly is, making the enormity of the War Between the States feel approachable and, at times, achingly human. It's a remarkable directorial accomplishment. Read the rest at