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March 2016

Blu-ray Review - Beachhead


1954's "Beachhead" is perhaps the quietest war film I've seen in recently memory. The picture makes extensive use of sneak attacks and stealth, with dialogue exchanges largely whispered, providing an unusual acting challenge for stars Tony Curtis and Frank Lovejoy, who are asked to dig into meaty WWII lines while dialing back on intensity. Thankfully, performances are alert enough to carry the movie, which follows military formula without hesitation, looking to provide viewers with the basics in combat pressure and Men on a Mission heroics, only without the thespian volume this type of production often demands. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Southerner


While 1945's "The Southerner" isn't a documentary, it does get a few details of the American Dream exactly right, creating an unnerving realism that's softened somewhat by the picture's literary approach to storytelling (adapted from the novel by George Sessions Parry). It's directed by Jean Renoir, who offers an impressive amount of sympathy for his lead characters, striving to identify the malleability of the human spirit as it's hit from all sides by tragedy and defeat. "The Southerner" isn't quite the funeral dirge it promises to be, supporting a mood of perseverance that inspires as much as it horrifies. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Cop


There was a time in the 1980s when Hollywood was intent on making James Woods a star. An actor respected by critics and peers, Woods never made the leap to a bankable lead, starring in a string of forgettable thrillers and dramas that tried to make the most out of his manic energy and screen authority. Arguably the least effective effort from the batch is 1988's "Cop," which labored to transform the jittery thespian into a gun-swinging police superhero who's irresistible to the ladies and frequently stumbles over clues without trying. Adapted from a James Ellroy novel, "Cop" is never far away from a ridiculous moment, with writer/director James B. Harris trying to construct a suspenseful event with very little tension and a semi-baffling story, relying on Woods to simply do his lip-licking thing to boost the movie's appeal. To be fair, the star is game to do anything the script asks of him, but it's difficult to get past a basic miscasting when it comes to the trials of a bulldozing supercop on the trail of history's most uninteresting serial killer. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Passage


With 1979's "The Passage," director J. Lee Thompson returns to the Men on a Mission formula that served him well during 1961's "The Guns of Navarone," out to mastermind a cinematic take on Bruce Nicolaysen's novel. It's a return to a World War II landscape, this time taking the action to the Pyrenees mountains, where a story of survival is allowed time to explore numerous physical and psychological challenges. While Thompson brings a meaty, action-centric mood to the feature, he's less certain with its dramatic capabilities, rendering "The Passage" a strange mix of indulgence and inattentiveness, with the production as a whole struggling to define its tone as the effort swings from nobility to camp without warning. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Pauline at the Beach


1983's "Pauline at the Beach" is regarded as an installment of writer/director Eric Rohmer's "Comedies and Proverbs" series, with the French New Wave veteran continuing his examination of human behavior as its challenged by deception, painful truths, and disappointment. For this production, Rohmer takes his fixations into the sun, adding the sensuality of beach bodies and the lure of a long vacation to ornament a coming-of-age exploration, puckered by sketchy characters and extended dissections of romantic need. Read the rest at

Film Review - London Has Fallen


Three years ago, “Olympus Has Fallen” was supposed to be the lesser of the two “Die Hard in the White House” movies, released in the spring to little acclaim, trying to sneak in before Roland Emmerich’s “White House Down” destroyed the competition. But something strange happened. Audiences showed up for “Olympus” instead, drawn to its hard R-rated action and liberal pilfering of “Die Hard,” not just its formula. It was a surprise smash, leaving the arrival of a sequel, “London Has Fallen,” completely expected. The producers aren’t about to disturb the chaotic tone of the franchise at this point, leaving the follow-up just as noisy and ugly as its predecessor, only changing the location and limiting a clear view of the central fight. Read the rest at

Film Review - Zootopia


For their 55th production, Walt Disney Animation reaches for a deeper understanding of race relations via an effort that’s populated with anthropomorphized animals. “Zootopia” is actually something of a creative gamble for the studio, trusting that a thinly veiled (and sometimes offered no veil at all) depiction of interpersonal tensions in a most unusual melting pot might be of interest to younger audiences on the hunt for colorful and cute fun. To the picture’s credit, it’s ambitious and elaborate, eschewing the easy route of slapstick and songs. “Zootopia” is a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to entertainment value, but for the first time in a long time, Disney’s attempting a high wire act with tone and content, making the feature intriguing but not always triumphant. Read the rest at

Film Review - Whiskey Tango Foxtrot


Building on her work in “Admission” and “This is Where I Leave You,” actress Tina Fey returns to her semi-dramatic side with “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” which provides the comedienne with her most challenging role to date. Based on the memoir by Kim Barker, the feature is a war story with a sense of humor, searching for the idiosyncrasy and contradictions of journalism on the front lines, using Fey’s natural timing to lift heavy material off the ground. Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (“Focus,” “Crazy, Stupid, Love”) don’t always have the firmest grip on storytelling needs, but they manage to find life in the middle of Hell, with “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” achieving levels of entertainment other pictures of this ilk have failed to acquire. Read the rest at

Film Review - Camino


Zoe Bell first appeared on the film scene as a stuntwoman, and one particularly favored by Quentin Tarantino, who slammed her around in “Kill Bill” and rewarded her with a supporting part in “Death Proof.” Now Bell’s developed into an appealing actress, gifted no-nonsense characters in parts that favor her natural physicality and intimidating stance. “Camino” arrives as a rare dramatic test for Bell, handed a lead role that challenges her range as much as her stamina, with the jungle adventure asking a great deal of the actress as she’s pummeled by enemies and the elements. “Camino” is solid work, with periodic highlights of suspense guided superbly by director Josh C. Waller. However, the movie is perhaps best valued as a chance to see Bell transform into a lead, handling everything thrown at her with nuance and ferocity. Read the rest at

Film Review - Knight of Cups


At this point, it’s clear that whatever writer/director Terrence Malick wants to do with his movies, he’s just going to do. There are no producers, stars, or low box office returns that can throttle his interest in esoteric journeys of sight and sound, returning to the screen with “Knight of Cups,” which resembles nearly every film he’s previously made. After years of dormancy, Malick has suddenly become the Woody Allen of impenetrable cinema, issuing odysseys into the mind and depths of space with surprising frequency, playing to his fan base with habitual interests and familiar technical achievements. On the Malickian scale of confusion and artfulness, “Knight of Cups” has a great deal of passion for itself. However, it’s not something that’s casually approached, with those unable to tune into Malick’s point of view rewarded with another wandering spirit of a feature, and one that’s content to recycle the helmer’s particular brand of soul-searching. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Wave


Not content to simply sit and watch Hollywood have all the fun, Norway elects to get into the disaster movie business with “The Wave,” working to figure out the balance between character dimension and widescreen spectacle. Mercifully, director Roar Uthaug doesn’t take the Roland Emmerich route, submitting a thoughtful take on catastrophe, using the presence of a crumbling mountain and ensuing tsunami to inspect family matters and nail-biting acts of survival. Perhaps “The Wave” is tame compared to junk food like “2012,” but its retains sincerity when dealing with characters and threat, making its harrowing vision for oncoming doom all the more chilling and, in a way, relatable. Read the rest at

Film Review - Rams


In a very peculiar way, “Rams,” a production from Iceland, emerges as the most sincere study of brotherhood to come along in perhaps the last decade. It’s about dysfunction and isolation, but it details subtle acts of protection and support that come with family ties, developing an estranged sibling tale in the middle of remote Icelandic farmland, which adds to the unusual mood of the movie. Writer/director Grimur Hakonarson is careful and patient with “Rams,” and the reward is a confidently observed drama that bathes in behavior, adding bits of comedy and tragedy to help underline pleasing idiosyncrasy. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Curse of the Faceless Man


There's certainly a faceless man provided here, but it's the curse part of the title I'm not so sure of. A horror effort from 1958, "Curse of the Faceless Man" is small-time programmer with an interesting plot, pitting science and art against an unexplainable discovery found at the site of the Pompeii disaster, unleashing a stone creature who's not above killing anyone who stands in the way of longstanding love. Actual scares aren't generated by the production, but "Curse of the Faceless Man" remains an agreeably odd B-movie that keeps its macabre star front and center. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Ambush Bay


1966's "Ambush Bay" has the impossible task of selling Mickey Rooney as a grizzled career Marine, handing the diminutive actor a machine gun and some choice lines to build him into a force of nature. To the production's credit, the transformation works, with Rooney one of the highlights of this meat-and-potatoes war film, joined by Hugh O'Brian and James Mitchum in a World War II story that explores the price of valor and the fatigue of combat. Read the rest at