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August 2016

Blu-ray Review - Boy and the World


Writer/director Ale Abreu's "Boy & the World" is both a celebration of animation and a hypnotic trip through Latin American culture and history. Settling on a kaleidoscopic atmosphere for the feature, Abreu sends viewers on a cinematic ride of colors and music, intentionally avoiding dialogue to tell the story through bright, inventive imagery, giving the effort an explorer's spirit and surprising heart. "Boy & the World" is stunning work, filling its brief run time with ample energy and true directorial vision. Read the rest at

Film Review - War Dogs


“War Dogs” is being marketed as a comedy, using the trusted name of co-writer/director Todd Phillips to help conjure memories of “The Hangover” trilogy (okay, maybe not the second film) instead of confronting what the new movie actually is: a drama. It’s a typical shell game from the Hollywood publicity machine, selling one experience to lasso ticket-buyers, but the relief here is that “War Dogs,” while rickety as it searches for an ending, is actually intriguing, taking a long look at arms dealing as it pertains to the gold rush dreams of two greedy Americans. It’s not perfect, but it’s Phillip’s best effort in nearly a decade, summoning a crucial sense of threat when the helmer would normally go for the goof. Read the rest at

Film Review - Kubo and the Two Strings


Laika Entertainment has developed a strong reputation for quality work, keeping up the tradition of stop-motion animation with movies like “Coraline,” “ParaNorman,” and “The Boxtrolls.” They’re a studio that respects artistry and welcomes sophistication, trying to distance itself from the competition with more advanced family films that often take on mature themes and vivid style. “Kubo and the Two Strings” is Laika’s most challenging effort to date, mixing Japanese culture and folktales with a heaping helping of magic, entering realms of life and death to feed an unusual adventure. It’s a bewildering feature at times, but impressively constructed, always managing to secure awe with subtle character animation when the larger quest at hand fails to hold attention. Read the rest at

Film Review - Ben-Hur


“Ben-Hur” isn’t untouchable material, with Lew Wallace’s 1880 book inspiring numerous media adaptations. Most recently, the novel was reworked as a U.K. miniseries co-starring Joseph Morgan and Hugh Bonneville, and, most famously, the 1959 epic with Charlton Heston remains a classic in the eyes of many, defining the widescreen majesty of the era (a 1925 silent production is also treasured). Reviving the tale for another cinematic inspection is Timur Bekmambetov, helmer of “Wanted” and “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” Bekmambetov’s primary language is overkill, and he brings his excesses to the picture, softening the book’s religious direction to underline melodrama and action, basically making the movie to construct his own chariot race. He’s not an especially gifted storyteller, barely committing to the community of characters and winding plot of “Ben-Hur.” Read the rest at

Film Review - Joshy


Although “Joshy” has a credited screenwriter in Jeff Baena (who also directs), it barely adheres to any type of structure. It’s an improvisational Olympics starring a who’s who of independent cinema, with the actors committed to conjuring mood over story, tasked with playing off one another as Baena tries to shape all the camaraderie and personality into a vague narrative. Mercifully, instead of feeling slack, “Joshy” preserves a sense of humor and timing, with the helmer delivering encouraging management of talent, allowing the feature to reach its share of sensitivities and big laughs. It’s not a tight effort, but we’ve seen this permissive style of movie before, and it rarely turns out this well. Read the rest at

Film Review - Tallulah


Writer/director Sian Heder has made a name for herself as a creative force on the hit Netflix show, “Orange is the New Black.” Pouring her experience on the gritty program into her helming debut, Heder issues “Tallulah,” a troublesome tale of purpose discovered and grief gradually confronted. Although it welcomes viewers with moments of quirk and comforting catharsis, the feature is actually quite disturbing, challenging Heder to locate a way to embrace difficult characterization and still keep the audience interested in the unfolding drama. Heder gets it mostly right, with “Tallulah” largely engrossing and impeccably acted, watching stars Ellen Page, Allison Janney, and Tammy Blanchard create living, breathing people who aren’t easy to watch, yet it’s hard to ignore their fascinating surges of pain. Read the rest at

Film Review - Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World


I can’t imagine a man more curious about the planet and the details of its inhabitants than Werner Herzog. The celebrated filmmaker of “Fitzcarraldo” and “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” Herzog has showcased a longstanding fascination with nature and the influence of humanity, which often leads to breakthroughs and destruction that touches on the very meaning of life. Herzog has also developed an impressive but low-key career as a documentarian, recently releasing “Into the Abyss” and “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” while hitting a box office high with 2006’s “Grizzly Man.” The famously philosophical helmer returns to non-fiction exploration with “Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World,” taking on the enormity of the internet, which proves to be as elusive and intimidating as any of Herzog’s previous subjects. Read the rest at

Film Review - Killer Party


The concept of “Killer Party” is enticing, studying an end of the world scenario played out at a baby shower, offering the material plenty of opportunities to poke at celebration clichés and genre traditions. Writer/director Alex Drummond has the right idea, but no real budget or filmmaking finesse to bring it to life. A backyard production, “Killer Party” attempts to deliver laughs and gore normally associated with horror comedies, looking to “Shaun of the Dead” for inspiration. However, the picture doesn’t work, often caught in static situations instead of kinetic fun, laboring through relationship woes as the occasional burst of violence breaks through, acting as smelling salts for the rest of the feature. Read the rest at

Film Review - My King


“My King” is directed by Maiwenn, an actress who’s appeared in several European films, but perhaps is best known globally as Diva Plavalaguna, the blue opera singer from Luc Besson’s gloriously bonkers sci-fi extravaganza, “The Fifth Element.” She’s also chiseled out a directorial career in recent years, with “My King” arguably her most personal offering. Plumbing the depths of her own toxic relationships, Maiwenn creates a troubling ode to submission with “My King,” which, as honest as a may be, is also a deeply disturbing portrait of a woman who only achieves clarity through calamity. It’s raw, exhaustive, and completely dismissible, but there’s something about Maiwenn’s study of human fallibility that keeps the effort passably interesting. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses


Arriving in 2012 to rave reviews, the BBC series "The Hollow Crown" was intended to bring the works of William Shakespeare to a new audience, using the power of name actors to juice up a cycle of films that explored the dramatic highs and lows of royal power and madness. For "The Wars of the Roses," the production returns to the formula, staging "Henry VI, Part 1" (116:18), "Henry VI, Part II" (128:13), and "Richard III" (134:19) with a cast of Shakespeare devotees and industry veterans, including Benedict Cumberbatch, Judi Dench, Hugh Bonneville, and Sally Hawkins. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Movie Movie


1978's "Movie Movie" is meant to be throwback entertainment, replicating a filmgoing time of double features, where different genres were smashed together to provide an evening's entertainment to those looking to get lost in disparate screen adventures. And who better to mastermind a spoof/homage to the cinematic achievements of the 1930s than director Stanley Donen, helmer of "Singing in the Rain" and "On the Town." "Movie Movie" isn't out to wow with plot and expanse, more interested in packing in jokes and adoration for the production era, assembling two short efforts that cover the gamut of emotional responses and musical opportunities, bringing together a gifted cast to breathe life into a screen experiment that's ideal for those who personally value golden dreams of cinematic glamour and for those with short attentions spans. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Only Yesterday


As Studio Ghibli ends operations, one of their earliest efforts finally makes it to American audiences. Better late than never. 1991's "Only Yesterday" is the company's fifth feature and, for an animation house known for creating faraway lands and fantastical creatures, it's also one of their most human, turning to memory and regret to inspire an emotional journey of a woman who yearns to reclaim and reassess an earlier, simpler time in her life. Gorgeously animated in the distinct Ghibli style, director Isao Takahata manages to understand the erratic flow of childhood impulses and curiosity, while pinpointing the moment when nostalgia transforms into personal need. "Only Yesterday" is 25 years old, but it remains surprisingly relevant, warmly conceived and executed from beginning to end. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Five Miles to Midnight


1962's "Five Miles to Midnight" has an unfortunate casting issue that's difficult to ignore. It's not that Anthony Perkins and Sophia Loren are unpleasant performers, far from it, but director Anatole Litvak makes quite a leap pairing them in what should be a tense domestic drama with thriller interests. Instead of conjuring suspense, "Five Miles to Midnight" takes a leisurely stroll around screen anxiety, with Loren and Perkins sharing stiff chemistry normally reserved for sibling characters, not a married couple. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Mountains May Depart


Threads of time are knotted carefully by director Jia Zhangke in "Mountains May Depart," which attempts to explore the lives of three characters as they experience 25 years of Chinese cultural and economic development and their own maturity. Taking place in 1999, 2014, and 2025, the picture successfully creates a broad sweep of life, tracking emotional and physical growth in an unusual way. It's an emotional effort, though it commences with more subtlety than it concludes with, fighting off the artificiality of melodrama for the most part, ultimately growing too fatigued to better balance a disappointing third act. Read the rest at

Film Review - Sausage Party


I applaud Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg for their continued celebration of juvenile humor, with the producing/writing partners trying to keep up with demand through recent releases like “Neighbors” and its sequel, “”The Night Before,” and “The Interview.” “Sausage Party” is perhaps their most direct offering of raunchy mischief, only now their game’s been elevated to the CGI-animated realm, delivering a sweeping adventure (on a low budget) that’s packed with cursing, sexual situations, and gore, all involving supermarket foods. It takes a special mind to dream up such a fantasia of fluids and puns, and “Sausage Party” is surprisingly ambitious when it comes to thematic reach. However, a little of this berserk creation goes a long way, especially when it feels like the production is running out of ideas to fill 80 minutes of screen time. Read the rest at

Film Review - Pete's Dragon


The original “Pete’s Dragon” is no classic, but the 1977 Walt Disney production isn’t without charm. In an effort to replicate the live-action/animation formula that turned “Mary Poppins” into a smash, the movie goes broad with musical numbers and character design, trying to make every frame lovable. While remake cinema is rarely a positive creative direction, the feature is ripe for a do-over, bringing a tale of a magic and friendship to a new audience. The 2016 “Pete’s Dragon” does away with songs and mugging, focusing on more dramatic pursuits while still celebrating the protective instincts of a green dragon. It’s a wonderful film, an unexpectedly triumphant reworking of the earlier picture, assembled by a talented and patient production team committed to launching a new “Pete’s Dragon” that’s all heart. Read the rest at

Film Review - Hell or High Water


Last year, actor Taylor Sheridan made the leap to screenwriting with “Sicario,” which attracted plenty of positive attention, awards, and decent box office, launching his writing career in the best way possible. He was rewarded for his strong characterizations and ability to construct suspense in surprising ways, also managing to twist clichés into something approaching originality, delivering meaty material. His follow-up is “Hell or High Water,” and it’s an even tighter, more stunning meditation on criminality, moving the action from the bowels of Mexico to the punishing flatness of Texas. It’s a knockout feature from Sheridan and director David Mackenzie, who bring touchable textures to the big screen, creating a smooth mixture of menace and humor, investing in human nuance over cinematic stylistics. Read the rest at

Film Review - Florence Foster Jenkins


We’ve already been here in 2016 with the release of the French production “Marguerite,” which used elements from the life and career of Florence Foster Jenkins to inspire its own tale of askew musical performance and heartfelt delusion. It was a fine picture, but more of a restrained take on the subject than what director Stephen Frears provides with “Florence Foster Jenkins,” which emphasizes the fluttery bewilderment of a woman who loved to sing, but simply couldn’t carry a tune. Frears plays his version of the story to the back row, but it’s not an unappealing approach, especially when there’s a legend like Meryl Street in the titular role, and a charming turn from Hugh Grant that effectively erases most of the nonsense he’s been involved with over the last decade. Read the rest at

Film Review - Edge of Winter


While it’s a flawed movie, “Edge of Winter” offers one of the most unique takes on paternal custody issues I’ve seen in quite some time. It’s dressed up as a survival picture set in the deep snow, but the feature emerges with a different goal at the halfway mark, switching tone and dramatic goals in a surprisingly severe manner. “Edge of Winter” doesn’t always know what kind of story it wants to tell, and its narrative thinness tends to hurt it in the end, but there are elements here that work, from performance to locations, keeping the film engrossing as it figures out where exactly it wants to go. Read the rest at