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May 2016

Blu-ray Review - Secret Admirer


Released during the blur of teen cinema in the 1980s, "Secret Admirer" often plays like an effort from the 1940s. While R-rated and periodically raunchy, co-writer/director David Greenwalt infuses the feature with unexpected good taste, laboring to find an alternative way to play up shenanigans featuring horny teens without giving in to the habits of the subgenre. Not that "Secret Admirer" is a film fit for the entire family, but I've never encountered a picture about sex that was so afraid to mention the word "sex" when detailing a few amorous escapades, almost going out of its way to deny salacious details. Lacking invention but agreeably acted, the movie invests entirely in misunderstandings, more interested in the potential for a farce than a true inspection of virgin confusion. Greenwalt has the chance to do something special with the material, but his timing is stiff, his writing dull, and his lead character absurdly unappealing.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Beat Street


1984's "Beat Street" was supposed to be the major breakdancing movie hit of the summer, only to find its thunder stolen by Cannon Films, who rushed "Breakin'" into theaters earlier in the season, capturing the hearts and allowance money of American teenagers hunting for a cinematic representation of the body-quaking fad. While "Breakin'" was a cartoon, "Beat Street" endeavors to represent the soul of hip hop culture, offering a more sobering take on battling gangs, the achievement of lofty dreams, and the reality of poverty in the big city. It's still semi-comical stuff, but the feature is more interested in characterization, putting its collection of dancers, artists, and DJs through an emotional obstacle course that's only broken up by extended displays of acrobatic moves.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Shadows in an Empty Room


Supercop cinema heads to the Great White North in "Shadows in an Empty Room," a 1976 production directed by Alberto De Martino ("The Pumaman"). Taking intrigue and murder to the rough streets of Quebec, the picture has a certain cultural point of view to keep it engaging, offering a mystery populated with restrained, almost polite participants. The helmer strives to keep the feature eventful and, at times, horrific, and for those who enjoy their police adventures with real bite, "Shadows in an Empty Room" supplies an enormous amount of crashing and smashing to fill up its run time, with De Martino more committed to the essentials of bodily harm than the nuances of a whodunit. And thank goodness for that. Read the rest at

Film Review - Money Monster


When Jodie Foster directs a movie, it should be an event. The lifelong actress certainly has the experience to create riveting, emotionally authentic cinema, and her eye for casting should be second to none, showcasing an innate awareness of performance limitations. And yet, Foster routinely churns out mediocre features that fail to reach some lofty creative goals. Her latest disappointment is “Money Monster,” which initially positions itself as a scathing indictment of provocative Wall Street business practices, but quickly transforms into a Movie of the Week, eaten alive by contrivances and a maddening refusal to take the premise seriously, exposing mental and professional illness on all sides. Foster isn't identifying financial world crimes in “Money Monster,” she's celebrating them, turning personal ruin and chilling corruption into fodder for an exceptionally tedious thriller, and one that somehow has the idea it’s doing God's work by being so stupid. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Darkness


Director Greg McLean is best known for his work on “Wolf Creek” and its sequel, establishing him as a genre filmmaker with an appetite for violence and silent menace emerging from corporeal threats. His interests turn to the supernatural for “The Darkness,” a ghost story that’s never really about malicious spirits, showing more interest in exploring a dysfunctional family challenged by poor communication, behavioral issues, and alcoholism. There’s barely any room for frights in this dismal, uneventful chiller, but McLean isn’t going down without a fight. Packing plenty of cheap scares and loose logic in this misfire, the helmer tries to tart up “The Darkness” with expected noise, but it never comes together as imagined, failing to compete with other, better haunted house tales. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Family Fang


As actor Jason Bateman continues his journey into film direction, his projects grow increasingly interesting, though their execution isn’t always as inspired. In “Bad Words,” Bateman guided a vulgar comedy about a reckless spelling bee contestant that transformed into a dark domestic drama. “The Family Fang” abandons the crutch of shock value and immediately hunts down parental ills and their lasting impact on children. Written by David Lindsay-Abaire (“Rabbit Hole”), who adapts Kevin Wilson’s celebrated novel, “The Family Fang” is loaded with potential, erecting a juicy mystery to propel the story, while characters are dealt their share of dysfunction. Bateman definitely shows improvement behind the camera, but the effort isn’t always as intriguing as the helmer believes. Read the rest at

Film Review - I Am Wrath


Although the feature was in development long before the release of 2014’s “John Wick,” “I Am Wrath” can’t help but come off as a poorly designed rip-off, exploring the same elements of the stellar Keanu Reeves picture, but lacking directorial flourish, storytelling clarity, and credible performances. John Travolta steps into the retired killer role for this round of criminal extermination, but he’s truly lost here, struggling to make sense of his character and director Chuck Russell’s complete mangling of theme. “I Am Wrath” is trashy and forgettable, and it never ceases to feel like a missed opportunity to have some B-movie fun with angry men out to stomp on urban scum.  Read the rest at 

Film Review - The Trust


“The Trust” is the directorial debut for Alex and Benjamin Brewer, with the siblings jumping into the industry via cliché, served up bruised and battered by dark comedy. It’s easy to spot a lack of seasoning with the helmers, who arrive with big ideas for visuals and twists, but fail to juggle the various tones they excitedly introduce. “The Trust” has initial promise and personality, but as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that nothing interesting is happening. Instead, the feature works through formula with dwindling enthusiasm, leaving stars Nicolas Cage and Elijah Wood to come up with their own level of dramatic interest, and even they stop faking it after the first act.  Read the rest at 

Film Review - High-Rise


Director Ben Wheatley has built a career making tough, impenetrable semi-horror pictures that explore grim psychological abysses and shocking violence. He’s dealt with domestic meltdowns (“Down Terrace”), period torment (“A Field in England), and cult nightmares (“Kill List”), but “High-Rise” pulls Wheatley into the big time, gifted known actors and a reasonable budget to create a suspense feature that details a vicious societal breakdown in a tight, suffocating space. It’s not quite the haves vs. the have nots, but “High-Rise” definitely has a few ideas on the state of the world and the ravages of unchecked capitalism. However, for every sharp stick jab of satire, Wheatley provides needless excess, clinging tight to repetitive helming habits that ultimately drown out the material’s war cry.  Read the rest at 

Film Review - Cash Only


As a gritty, low-wattage crime story, “Cash Only” has a few interesting deviations from the norm. It’s not every day that one encounters a tale of survival that highlights the quick-thinking actions of an apartment landlord, and the feature explores the Albanian immigrant experience in America, identifying community interaction in Detroit. “Cash Only” is effective and periodically nail-biting, but that it works so hard to remain fresh for those burned out by the same gangster business found in dozens of movies every year is its real achievement. Screenwriter/star Nickola Shreli puts some thought into the picture, which manages to capture desperation superbly, at least until the final 20 minutes.  Read the rest at 

Film Review - Divine Access


Billy Burke hasn’t enjoyed the most eventful of film careers, often stuck in bland roles of little consequence, like his long stretch as Bella’s powerless father in the “Twilight” series. In an effort to help brighten job opportunities, Burke produces “Divine Access,” which, at times, seems to be created strictly to showcase Burke’s previously unseen range. With those limited creative goals in mind, the feature is enormously successful, delivering Burke’s best role to date in a production that’s comfortable offering a good chunk of its run time to the performer to do whatever he wants with it. “Divine Access” is most enjoyable keeping close to Burke, with the alternative being a somewhat silly story about fanaticism and jealousy that’s difficult to take seriously.  Read the rest at 

Film Review - Queen Mimi


Los Angeles is home to millions of wayward soul stories, but Marie “Mimi” Haist is just special enough to inspire a documentary about her life. An eccentric and feisty 88-year-old woman, she’s the subject of “Queen Mimi,” a feature tracking her daily experience as a connected homeless woman in California, with pal Yaniv Rokah picking up a camera to capture her special point of view and surprising longevity. In today’s documentary-everything marketplace, it’s difficult to understand what inspired Rokah to bring Mimi to screens, but luckily there’s just enough biographical curiosity and star power to carry the viewing experience.  Read the rest at 

Film Review - Sundown


“Sundown” is on a mission to revive the Spring Break comedy of the 1980s, hitting modern audiences with cheap thrills and thinly developed characters while the film soaks up the sun and sand. Going the R-rated route, the feature at least understands the elements that made movies like “Hardbodies” semi-tolerable, but as juvenile farces go, “Sundown” is lacking in insanity. Co-writer/director Fernando Lebrija tries to work the effort into a frenzy with broad comedy and bizarre encounters, but he’s missing a crucial sense of escalation, with the picture stopping to rest between incidents, which ruins the pace of the endeavor. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Crazylegs Crane


Arriving in 1978, "Crazylegs Crane" represents the other end of the quality spectrum for DePatie-Freleng Enterprises, who offer 16 shorts of fumbled comedy and aggressive voicework with saga of a bird and a dragonfly mixing it up on a daily basis. Even with lowered expectations for television animation from the 1970s, "Crazylegs Crane" tests patience with its unadventurous storytelling and slack sense of humor, content to rework select gags repeatedly, with only the rare moment of oddity arriving to wake the series up. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Manhattan Project


Marshall Brickman is perhaps best known for his collaborations with Woody Allen, co-scripting efforts such as "Sleeper," "Manhattan," "Manhattan Murder Mystery," and the Academy Award-winning "Annie Hall." It's an impressive resume, but Brickman's directorial output isn't quite as stunning, encountering rough creative seas with 1980's "Simon" and 1983's "Lovesick." 1986's "The Manhattan Project" may not be a towering achievement of cinematic craftsmanship, but it's the best thing Brickman helmed during his career, guiding an exciting and idiosyncratic thriller that played into the nuclear fears of the era (unfortunately, little of that has faded away in our current volatile age) while remaining an effective teen-centric offering, investing in smart characters and complex situations. "The Manhattan Project" isn't above a dramatic manipulation or two, but it carries confidently, trying to explore a real-world scenario of human fallibility and intelligence, with Brickman working to achieve a nail-biting tone to preserve the escapist qualities within this sobering film. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Solarbabies


Brooksfilm is the company Mel Brooks created to help develop personal projects, helping them through the Hollywood system. The quality of these efforts varied wildly, but 1986 was a particularly volatile year for the company, which welcomed the release of "The Fly," arguably one of the best horror pictures of the 1980s, showcasing a thunderous directorial vision and creative freedom from David Cronenberg. In '86, Brooksfilm also shepherded "Solarbabies," an awkwardly titled take on "Mad Max" that featured a cast on roller skates, emoting to a glowing blue sphere. There's certainly no way to compare the movies in terms of artistic and dramatic reach, but it's difficult to fathom what Brooksfilm was thinking with "Solarbabies," their attempt to join the fantasy film sweepstakes of the decade, only without a defined approach to transform its vast collection of absurdities into high-flying, fast-rolling, orb-cradling fun. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Ant and the Aardvark


Working to create their own take on the destructive misadventures of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, DePatie-Freleng Enterprises delivers "The Ant and the Aardvark," a 17-episode saga featuring playful combat waged between an anteater who sounds like Jackie Mason (John Byner provides the voice) and Dean Martin-esque insect named Charlie (also Byner). Doing away with plot and a great assortment of supporting characters, the production focuses almost solely on the titular duo, who spend these brief blasts of screen time engaging in all kinds of violent shenanigans and zany chases, playing up cartoon slapstick with a merry-go-round of exaggerated misfortune. Read the rest at

Film Review - Captain America: Civil War


After the rousing success of 2014’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” which strived to redefine a problematic superhero in a post-“Avengers” landscape, Marvel Studios sustains the introspective atmosphere for “Captain America: Civil War,” expanding on ideas of heroism and responsibility as the Marvel Cinematic Universe expands and costumed crime-fighting becomes ubiquitous in fictional realms and at the local multiplex. Returning directors Anthony and Joe Russo know exactly how to play these characters, building on the “Winter Soldier” success through community inspection while still making time for bulldozing action sequences. Captain America remains the focal point of the movie, but his place as a symbol for freedom feeds into a larger appreciation of heightened abilities and tech, and all the confusion it creates in a paranoid world. “Civil War” teases the Big Ideas while still wholly triumphant as superhero cinema. Read the rest at