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September 2016

Film Review - Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children


The Tim Burton of today isn’t the Tim Burton of yesterday. The once lively helmer of “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure,” “Beetlejuice,” and “Batman” is now a colder craftsman of quirk, turning to “Alice in Wonderland,” “Dark Shadows,” and “Big Eyes” to keep his career eventful, emerging with varied results. “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” seems tailor-made for Burton, presenting a YA playground of the fantastical and the whimsically odd, with plenty of room to explore strange worlds and characters. The Burton of yesterday would’ve swan-dived into the material. The Burton of today can only summon a modicum of interest in what’s intended to be the first step of a franchise, delivering monsters and idiosyncrasy, but only at half-speed. Read the rest at

Film Review - Flock of Dudes


With a title like “Flock of Dudes,” a promise of an unbearable film is made. It’s not a great name for a movie, but there are few options available to co-writer/director Bob Castrone, who’s attempting to make a picture about the expiration date of broheim culture and still celebrate its highlights. A low-budget comedy starring a host of “hey, it’s that guy from Comedy Central” types, the miracle of “Flock of Dudes” is how appealing it actually is, managing some sense of personal examination before it slips back into silly business. The potential is there for a greater understanding of Peter Pan Syndrome, but Castrone isn’t prepared for the bigger battle, instead creating a pleasant, periodically hilarious feature that pokes fun at twentysomethings facing the pains of arrested development. Read the rest at

Film Review - Queen of Katwe


Now here’s a film that’s about children, but values intelligence and sophisticated feelings and fears. It’s set in Africa, and while it depicts poverty and hardships, it’s not swallowed whole by scenes of brutal violence, treasuring culture. And it’s about chess, but feels as nail-chewingly suspenseful as any sports drama. “Queen of Katwe” is exceptional work from director Mira Nair, who finds a very special rhythm of life to support the feature’s formula, consistently finding surprises with character and situations that dodge predictability, even when the picture finds itself on familiar terrain. “Queen of Katwe” largely avoids exaggeration to make a grander point of hope and brilliance coming together in one unique girl, and it’s a must-see for those tired of the blockbuster and genre routine, with its human touch powerful and achingly sincere. Read the rest at

Film Review - Deepwater Horizon


In their continuing quest to find stories of American heroism and physical endurance to dramatize after scoring a major hit with 2013’s “Lone Survivor,” director Peter Berg and actor Mark Wahlberg reunite for “Deepwater Horizon,” which recreates the 2010 drilling rig explosion that created the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history. Stripped of guns and military hardness, the pairing goes blue collar to successfully oversee a replication of the Gulf of Mexico catastrophe, dialing down the tiresome theatrics of “Lone Survivor” to play the new picture as respectfully as possible. Explosions are common and the American flag is positioned carefully in frame, but Berg actually manages to smother his battering-ram storytelling skills for a change, keeping “Deepwater Horizon” lean and meaningful, though his predilection towards cartoon filmmaking isn’t completely abandoned. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Dressmaker


While a remake of “The Magnificent Seven” rumbles through theaters, “The Dressmaker” proves itself to be a superior western in western in every way. It’s a clever picture (an adaptation of a Rosalie Ham novel) that imagines small town hostilities as genre entanglements, with Kate Winslet starring as most unusual gunslinger, wielding thread and fabric instead of cold steel. While “The Dressmaker” contains a restless, borderline crazed Australian energy, director Jocelyn Moorhouse manages the insanity with skill, conjuring a beguiling mystery with rich characterization, dark humor, and a cheeky love for Leone-esque theatrics while sorting through domestic problems. It’s a strange film, but memorably so. Read the rest at

Film Review - A Man Called Ove


“A Man Called Ove” threatens to be smothered by a case of the cutes, tracking the growth of a curmudgeon learning to enjoy life once again after the loss of his wife. It has all the ingredients for a flat, benign charmer, but the Swedish production retains enough dark humor to become something else, digging deeper into the titular character to find something more than just episodic mischief. “A Man Called Ove” has its crowd-pleasing moments, but it preserves enough sincerity to capture hearts, with writer/director Hannes Holm (adapting a best-selling novel by Fredrik Backman) balancing tone and incident with confidence, making the picture more of an odyssey into a personal awakening than a sitcom. It’s a strange effort, but often in the best way possible. Read the rest at

Film Review - Masterminds


When “Masterminds” opens with a “Based on a True Story” card, it feels like a “Fargo”-esque prank. There’s simply no way any of this nonsense could be based on an actual armored car heist, but, indeed, it’s true, with the production taking inspiration from a 1997 robbery that occurred in North Carolina. Instead of assembling a true crime tale, director Jared Hess (“Napoleon Dynamite,” “Nacho Libre”) bends reality as far as it can go with “Masterminds,” which emphasizes slapstick over suspense, trying to transform a federal offense into a wild farce populated with a cast of comedians. It’s not a great movie, but it’s not without laughs, finding Hess laboring to find an anarchic tone for the picture that delivers mainstream silliness while sticking closely to big screen idiosyncrasy that’s been a staple of his career. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Last Film Festival


“The Last Film Festival” is selling itself as the final starring appearance for legendary actor Dennis Hopper, which is really something to celebrate considering the man died in 2010. It’s been a long road to release for the film, and stress shows throughout the effort, which arrives with good intentions but seems unfinished and unfocused. The feature aims to be a satire of the festival experience, taking in the diverse personalities and temperaments of those who participate in such public celebrations of cinema. It’s a topic worthy of an extensive pantsing, playing up anxiety felt by creative forces and snobbery shared by attendees. “The Last Film Festival” doesn’t have the precision to successfully slap around the setting, but it does have Hopper, who’s part of an ensemble trying their best to make sure co-writer/director Linda Yellen has something to work with. Read the rest at

Film Review - ClownTown


This Halloween season welcomes not one, but two movies centered on the idea of killer clowns hunting innocent people through empty buildings for sport. Rob Zombie’s “31” is scrappy and sicko, playing to the helmer’s tastes in demented characters and ugly violence, presented with a lovingly low-budget style. Tom Nagel’s “ClownTown” is definitely…in focus. A seasonal chiller that’s more of a tribute to slasher cinema than its own creation, the feature falls apart when compared to “31,” but on its own, it serves as something of a directorial exercise for Nagel, who uses the creative opportunity to mastermind stalking sequences and experiment with tone. “ClownTown” isn’t fresh or ghoulishly inviting, easily making it the second best option for those in need of a homicidal clown extravaganza this spooky season. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Cheerleaders' Wild Weekend


Drive-in cinema receives a thorough workout in 1979's "Cheerleaders' Wild Weekend" (titled "The Great American Girl Robbery" on the Blu-ray), which blends all types of exploitation interests to come up with a bizarre mix of titillation and violence. Director Jeff Werner shows more skill with sleaze than tone, struggling to find a balance between the movie's commitment to exposed skin and its caper-style plotting, which involves a radical organization kidnapping three cheerleading squads on their way to a competition. There are guns, breasts, escape attempts, and money exchanges, and yet the whole thing feels oddly inert. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - My Bodyguard


A staple of teen entertainment, the Bully Situation is often deployed to explore the high school experience, tapping into a universal understanding of hallway pressure and humiliation. It's a difficult subject matter to watch, often fueling tales of underdog triumph, with some pictures, like 1984's "The Karate Kid," using cartoon extremes wonderfully to achieve a precise pitch of audience sympathy. 1980's "My Bodyguard" is far from the best Bully Situation movie, but it does retain a degree of verisimilitude when it comes to the anxiety of classmate punishment and helpless, getting viewers riled up with scenes of abuse and torment. Director Tony Bill has a natural way with his young cast, and this is definitely a feature that means well, taking sensitive relationships seriously. However, "My Bodyguard" has issues with pacing and a screwy way with the cyclical nature of violence, presenting a confused conclusion that doesn't even begin to solve all the trouble that precedes it. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen


Controversy tends to follow any discussion of Charlie Chan, but it's hard to deny the extensive media history the character has enjoyed, bringing his crime-solving ways to books, television, radio, and movies. It's easy to see why some would be offended, finding the Asian detective often played by white men in yellowface, struggling cartoonishly with the English language, but it's also interesting to watch the sleuth always emerge as the smartest person in the room, with little slipping past him. However, for 1981's "Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen," outrage is generally challenged by silliness, with director Clive Donner ("What's New Pussycat?") favoring slapstick for this mystery, playing up physical humor and witty exchanges to act as a rodeo clown while the production returns to a few bad habits. Sure, Peter Ustinov portraying Chan isn't the most sensitive casting, but he's solid in the role, while the rest of the picture is too busy slipping and sliding along to truly engage in hate. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Force Five


1981's "Force: Five" combines the two things every fan wants out of action cinema: fists of fury and a chilling reminder of a mass murder. Using the Jonestown Massacre as inspiration, writer/director Robert Clouse ("Enter the Dragon," but also "Gymkata") finds a way to remake 1976's "Hot Potato," sending a team of heroes into an island compound, where a religious cult keeps order through manipulation and violence, occasionally carried out by a rampaging bull. I'll give "Force: Five" this much: it's never dull, with Clouse making sure to fill his feature with all types of stunts and showdowns, keeping his B-movie speeding along as it showcases questionable taste. Read the rest at

Film Review - Storks


When one thinks of animated family entertainment featuring a cast of kind, cuddly creatures, director Nicholas Stoller isn’t the first name that comes to mind. The helmer of “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “The Five-Year Engagement,” and “Neighbors” (and its sequel), Stoller has built a career on crude humor and acts of humiliation, making him an unlikely mastermind behind a comical tale of birds in charge of distributing newborns to the world. Sharing a newfound interest in the PG crowd, Stoller goes full cartoon with “Storks,” but often seems confused about what he really wants from the picture, unable to decide if he’s creating something heartwarming or something obnoxious. He’s good with big and bright, but Stoller’s sense of humor is too slack to trigger laughs, which there are precious few of in this routine effort. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Magnificent Seven


Sometime over the last decade, director Antoine Fuqua got angry. Always a middling director with a love of action, Fuqua sampled excessive violence with 2007’s “Shooter,” but lost his mind with 2013’s “Olympus Has Fallen,” which showed absolute glee in depicting mass murder. The reign of terror continued in 2014’s “The Equalizer,” which took a simple television program about revenge and transformed it into a bloodbath. Fuqua enjoys senseless brutality, which surely helps to distract from storytelling deficiencies, but now he’s walking on hallowed ground with “The Magnificent Seven,” which is largely regarded as one of the finest westerns ever made. The helmer meets the challenge of remake cinema with both fists clenched, ordering up an extended bruiser that revels in brutality, doing away with the restraint of the 1960 classic, replacing widescreen majesty with meaningless savagery. Read the rest at

Film Review - My Blind Brother


In the screenplay for “My Blind Brother, writer Sophie Goodhart (who also makes her directorial debut) challenges the delicate nature of physical disabilities, crafting a comedy that portrays everyone with the same amount of anxieties and flaws, only the able-bodied are a little more sensitive to personal issues. It’s a smart script, resulting in a funny but fascinating study of people trying to be kind and considerate, but somehow losing themselves in the process, which is more of universal feeling than perhaps Goodhart understands. While modest work, “My Blind Brother” shows depth and courage when it comes to darkly comic scenes, with the helmer doing a skilled job of juggling tone while she encourages laughs from unexpected places. Read the rest at

Film Review - For the Love of Spock


In terms of pop culture history and general geekdom, there are few actors as globally recognized as Leonard Nimoy. Portraying Spock on “Star Trek,” Nimoy’s three-year-long tour of duty on primetime television turned into a lifetime of professional opportunities, giving the actor a flavorful life even while inhabiting a single character for decades. “For the Love of Spock” doesn’t attempt to dissect Nimoy’s life in full, but it does provide a fascinating overview of the man’s rise to stardom and his struggles to keep his career interesting. The documentary’s POV is unique, with Leonard’s son Adam Nimoy stepping up to identify his father as a man and an icon, asking friends and family to help assess an extraordinary existence filled with art, fame, pointy ears, and love. Read the rest at

Film Review - Goat


“Goat” is the nickname for a fraternity pledge -- a subservient, humiliated young man forced to participate in the worst hazing collegiate minds can conjure just for a chance to fit in and belong to a brotherhood. Co-writer/director Andrew Neel doesn’t skimp on the ghoulish details of fraternity pledging, trying to make “Goat” a powerful document of abuse and privilege while still itemizing all the horrors that go along with the process. It’s often ugly and eye-opening, but what Neel is missing is soulfulness, lacking a human touch in a picture that frequently goes for shock value under the guise of authenticity. “Goat” isn’t a powerful feature, and while details of the crime stick to the senses, little dramatic muscle is flexed, keeping the effort frustratingly distant when it clearly aims for the heart. Read the rest at

Film Review - Demon


In recent years, Hollywood has shown an interest in the terror potential of the dybbuk, a malicious spirit often associated with the unfinished business of the dead. With “The Unborn” and “The Possession,” the wrath of the dybbuk was cranked up to spook PG-13 audiences, playing with fantasy and fear to give the demonic presence a cinematic edge. It’s up to a Polish film like “Demon” to set the record straight. Co-writer/director Marcin Wrona strips away visual effects and noise to play a possession rather straightforwardly, depending on the actors to make up for a lack of screen anarchy. Considering the picture is about a supernatural event, “Demon” plays things with a degree of subtlety, embracing the oddity of the event instead of the intensity. It isn’t always out a frighten audiences, but Wrona has some strong ideas about the hollowing out of a man’s soul that keeps the effort engrossing. Read the rest at