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July 2016

Blu-ray Review - The Alien Factor


Magazine publisher and genre enthusiast Don Dohler decided to try his luck as a movie director in the 1970s, with his debut, "The Alien Factor," a riff on the extraterrestrial terror pictures from the 1950s. Armed with a severely limited budget, Dohler elected to use his home community as a backlot, turning rural Maryland into a battleground for intergalactic war. "The Alien Factor" is undeniably shoddy in construction and muddled in tone, and it won't win any accolades for helming finesse, watching Dohler trip over himself trying to keep up with basic technical challenges, but for those who embrace the art of schlock, especially one that's not striving to be campy, the feature has its bottom-shelf charms. At the very least, Dohler keeps the malevolent creatures coming throughout the run time, proving his awareness of the film's appeal. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Absolution


"Absolution" is a devious picture from 1978, continuing screenwriter Anthony Shaffer's inspection of evil and psychological gamesmanship, adding to an impressive filmography that includes "The Wicker Man" and "Sleuth." It's slow-burn cinema from director Anthony Page, who takes his time with Shaffer's subtle motivations and acts of defiance. Encompassing the pressures of religion, the cruelty of man, and the power of isolation, "Absolution" is an unexpected chiller with the most basic of ingredients, playing a convincing game of manipulation that leads to murder. Read the rest at

Film Review - Bad Moms


Making an industry splash with the screenplay for “The Hangover,” writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore strive to raise a similar type of hell with “Bad Moms,” trying to offer a female audience their own style of raunchy comedy. The idea is fun, and the trials of motherhood provide endless inspiration for punchlines, but “Bad Moms” doesn’t want to put in the effort. A dismal offering of R-rated shenanigans, the feature almost makes to the end without a single laugh, with Moore and Lucas relying on their established brand of lowbrow comedy to skate by. Miscast and frequently insufferable, the picture only stands up straight when dealing with the daily routine of parenting and all the anxieties it triggers. The rest is just numbing stupidity, unsure if it wants to indulge wish fulfillment in full or take its loopy characters seriously. Read the rest at

Film Review - Jason Bourne


2007’s “The Bourne Ultimatum” was an electrifying final chapter in the Jason Bourne saga, rewarding faithful viewers with a sense of closure and plenty of heated action, giving star Matt Damon another reason to pummel enemies and evade capture. Another chapter wasn’t necessary, and after a problematic spin-off (2012’s “The Bourne Legacy”), the franchise is back up and running with “Jason Bourne.” There was a nine year wait for the fourth installment of this disoriented spy saga, and such substantial patience isn’t rewarded. “Jason Bourne” is a shockingly leaden picture that’s content to retread instead of innovate, conscious of audience expectation when it comes to the titular character stalking and silencing those out to kill him. All this time to cook a full cinematic meal, and director/co-writer Paul Greengrass insists on reheating leftovers. Read the rest at

Film Review - Nerve


“Nerve” attempts to bring online life to the big screen in a credible way, at least for its first act. Screenwriter Jessica Sharzer (adapting a novel by Jeanne Ryan) has big ideas to share on the state of the internet, taking on anonymity, groupthink, and cruelty when it comes to teenagers and their computerized lives, and the feature manages to at least establish the impulse generation, overseeing a compelling introduction of kids addicted to online fame. But in the care of directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, “Nerve” loses its titular gumption right when it gets going, growing moreobsessed with Disney Channel-style social circle hysterics than the greater evil of a life lived in service of a faceless audience. Read the rest at

Film Review - Hunt for the Wilderpeople


Quietly, writer/director Taika Waititi has built an impressive filmography of comedy releases. With “Eagle vs. Shark,” “Boy,” and “What We Do in the Shadows,” Waititi has showcased outstanding timing and creativity, displaying growing confidence with every effort. This experience is funneled into “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” an adaptation of author Barry Crump’s 1986 book, “Wild Pork and Watercress,” which provides Waititi with a chance to display his growing command over disparate moods. Silly with a side of heartache, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” isn’t Taititi’s best work, but it’s impressively executed, making time for broad antics and intimate exchanges without unraveling into a mess of ideas, with Waititi doing an impressive job of storytelling management. Read the rest at

Film Review - Phantom Boy


A French production set in America, “Phantom Boy” is the latest effort from directors Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol, whose previous collaboration, 2010’s “A Cat in Paris,” rode its popularity all the way to an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Film. Returning to their signature style, the team takes on the world of crime-fighting and the supernatural with “Phantom Boy,” which offers an unexpected combination of comedy, heartbreak, and thrills. It’s a superhero origin story in a way, but executed with charming style and human characters, playing broad with villains and near-misses to have some fun in the midst of heavy turns of fate. It’s a delightful picture, but its greatest asset is its as-is approach, refusing melodrama despite ample opportunity to wallow in misery. Read the rest at

Film Review - Into the Forest


“Into the Forest” takes on the survival genre from a different angle. Death and destruction are set aside to focus on the long march to doom, focusing on the plight of sisters facing the ultimate challenge in their protected lives. It’s based on a novel by Jean Hegland and the feature retains its literary approach, with writer/director Patricia Rozema preserving the “life goes on” aspects of the story, building events with the momentum of a reader burning through chapters. “Into the Forest” is particularly irksome at times, but the core viewing experience is sustained by Rozema, who handles mounting anxiety and the long apocalyptic waiting game competently, maintaining a feel for the end of the world as it visits those already off the grid. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Fundamentals of Caring


Rob Burnett is best known to comedy nerds as the former head writer of “Late Night with David Letterman,” enjoying a long career with the television legend, masterminding some of the weirdest jokes and most inspired material. For his second directorial effort, Burnett attempts to find a balance between light and dark with “The Fundamentals of Caring,” an adaption of the Jonathan Evison book, “The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving.” While the material explores laughs, often the uncomfortable kind, it’s also fairly heavy stuff, dealing with physical disabilities and personal loss. While Burnett doesn’t provide a full cinematic meal with “The Fundamentals of Caring,” he juggles tone surprisingly well, managing to keep the feature afloat where other helmers would fail within the first act. Read the rest at

Film Review - Can We Take a Joke?


The world feels smaller these days, creating unique tension when it comes to the ways of free speech. With social media and organizational efforts clouding the national dialogue, it doesn’t take much for someone to be offended these days, finding comedy a frequent target of disdain. The documentary “Can We Take a Joke?” explores the closing gap between thought and action, with director Ted Balaker trying to understand why personal expression is under attack by an unusual enemy, bringing in a host of comedians, experts, and bewildered interviewees to better understand the changing boundaries of provocative comedy and its current position in a most sensitive world. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Grantchester: Season 2


"Grantchester: Season 2" is put into a difficult creative position from the very first episode. The previous year of crime-busting with Reverend Sydney (James Norton) and Detective Inspector Geordie (Robson Green) offered a more traditional take on small town sleuthing, playing up the dichotomy of religion and reality, following a priest working to share faith with his flock while witnessing horrors created by human impulse and frailty. "Season 2" doesn't particularly want to continue with the same old mix of criminal activity and sermonizing, turning to heightened dramatics to push through lukewarm material, giving the show an unpleasant soap opera vibe, only teasing grittiness and bitter characterizations. The humanity of "Season 1" has been dialed down for the follow-up year, making "Grantchester" a frustrating watch, providing only flashes of compelling chemistry between the leads, while the cases are set aside for a larger narrative arc. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Taking of Pelham One Two Three


When people discuss the great New York City features of the 1970s, examples tend to gravitate toward classics such as "Taxi Driver" and "The French Connection." These are movies that weren't just set in NYC, they used NYC to convey a particular cesspool of crime and indifference -- the city becoming a siren's song for the mentally damaged and the desperate. A vital addition to the list in 1974's "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three," which also weaves urban illness into its filmmaking fabric, though it generally avoids introspection to pursue thriller intentions, bringing John Godey's successful novel to the screen. It's a tremendously effective picture, brilliantly cast and executed, with director Joseph Sargent investing in tight storytelling that doesn't have time to stop and consider its options. It's a splendidly snowballing effort, using the streets and bowels of the Big Apple to perfection as it details criminal activity and law enforcement confusion. Once it gets going, it doesn't stop, delivering a rare thrill ride during a production era where grit automatically equaled tight-jawed contemplation. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Cuba


1979's "Cuba" is director Richard Lester's attempt to fashion his own "Casablanca," boldly using elements from the 1942 classic to inspire another tale of tight-jawed love in a turbulent corner of the world. Not a helmer known for warmth, Lester keeps matters characteristically calm for this exploration of a country on the brink of revolution, showing more interest in the details of the land and its inhabitants than he does the lead characters, who often seem stuck without emotions as the picture investigates unrest and desire at the end of a political era. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Napoli, Napoli, Napoli


On a break from dramatic endeavors, director Abel Ferrara ("Bad Lieutenant," "King of New York") takes a moment to address the troubles brewing within Naples, Italy. It's a location the filmmaker is clearly interested in, making himself a participant in 2009's "Napoli, Napoli, Napoli," a documentary intended to dissect exactly what's gone wrong with the locals, with Ferrara visiting prisoners and community members to best illuminate the downfall of a once promising city. Read the rest at

Blu-ray 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 - Star Trek Beyond


While the franchise isn’t ailing, “Star Trek” hit a creative dead end with 2013’s “Star Trek Into Darkness,” which decided to cap a fairly effective sci-fi thriller with disastrous fan service, electing to replicate the ending of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” as a useless offering of familiarity to a fan base known for its ability to adjust to new dramatic directions. Trying to get things back on track, “Star Trek Beyond” loses helmer J.J. Abrams (who took his ball and went over to the “Star Wars” universe), ditches parallel plotting to the original “Trek” film series, and brings in Justin Lin to helm, fresh off his work reigniting the “Fast & Furious” features with refreshed sequels. The change behind the scenes isn’t as obvious as one might expect, but there’s a noticeable shift in tone for “Star Trek Beyond,” which strives to be a traditional adventure to help realign creative chi, while still allowing Lin to play around with widescreen action, giving the 13th “Trek” movie some real velocity. Read the rest at

Film Review - Lights Out


As the horror genre tries to quit its addiction to celebration of pain, movies about supernatural terror have come into vogue thanks to the hits “Insidious” and “The Conjuring.” Both pictures were directed by James Wan, and he’s not about to let a good thing go, returning to produce “Lights Out,” which slavishly follows his formula for scares, making sure every cheap jolt is lovingly tended to. Refreshingly lean (running about 75 minutes sans end credits), the feature offers little more than a series of spooky, shocking encounters, but it really doesn’t have to provide more than that, with director David F. Sandberg effectively staging suspense from start to finish, giving “Lights Out” the disturbances it needs to cover for uninspired dramatics. Then again, who’s coming to this film for the story? Read the rest at

Film Review - Ice Age: Collision Course


It may seem hard to believe, but “Ice Age: Collision Course” is actually the fifth entry in the franchise, and nobody seems more surprised by the overwhelming success of the series than its producers. Scrambling to come up with plots to keep the cinematic cash machine open, the production finally reaches a limit to Paleolithic shenanigans with “Ice Age: Collision Course,” which doesn’t really bother with a story, charging full speed ahead with cartoon gags instead, perhaps realizing there’s nowhere left to go with the initial “Ice Age” premise. Essentially committing to film anything that pops into their minds, co-directors Mike Thurmeier and Galen T. Chu go for broke with “Collision Course,” hoping to charm with silliness instead of endear with established personalities heading in a fresh narrative direction. Read the rest at


Film Review - Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie


Unlike a lot of television-to-feature transitions, writer/star Jennifer Saunders has definitely taken her time bringing “Absolutely Fabulous” to the big screen. While only racking up 39 episodes, the BBC series has remained in and out of production since 1992, generating a loyal audience of fans who appreciate a bit of tasteful debauchery and inspired silliness. While she doesn’t take full advantage of the R-rated opportunity to raise widescreen hell, Saunders cooks up an enjoyable romp with “Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie,” sticking to the franchise’s core appeal while cranking up its comedic potential, sustaining a pleasingly madcap tone throughout, never completely fatiguing a good thing. Read the rest at