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November 2016

Blu-ray Review - The Infiltrator


"The Infiltrator" has all the elements of a classic undercover cop story, including a conflicted protagonist, a Floridian setting, and a secretive world of drug dealing. It presents a true-life tale that offers fascinating characters and heated showdowns, yet director Brad Furman doesn't quite know if he wants the picture to be a sincere study of a lawman's loss of self or a ridiculously overcooked crime tale with a few operatic extremes. "The Infiltrator" is unsatisfying and weirdly absurd at times, but it's not a complete blunder, blessed with a cast that's capable of finding nuances in the moment, bringing friendships and antagonisms to life in a way that Furman is incapable of doing on his own. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Hobgoblins


The blockbuster success of 1984's "Gremlins" inspired an enormous amount of imitators, especially in the world of no-budget filmmaking. Titles like "Critters," "Ghoulies," and "Munchies" come to mind, each with a special interest in raising creature feature hell without spending the money necessary to do it in style. 1988's "Hobgoblins" is arguably the worst of the bunch, with writer/director Rick Sloane barely trying to make something special out of the titular menace. Instead of establishing a little monster mayhem, Sloane tries to make a camp classic featuring occasional appearances from furry demons, mostly relying on his cast to conjure up wackiness to pad the picture's run time. "Hobgoblins" isn't funny, but it does provide a slightly different take on the "Gremlins" formula, and Sloane's periodic production recklessness is something to behold. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Cabo Blanco


When one considers the possibilities of a "Casablanca" knockoff, especially one from 1980, a list of potential actors comes to mind for the Humphrey Bogart role. Men like Paul Newman and Robert Redford, maybe even Harrison Ford, who was fresh to fortune and glory at the time. But "Cabo Blanco" (the full title is apparently "Cabo Blanco…Where Legends are Born") doesn't go that route, electing to hire Charles Bronson for the role of a roguish charmer trying to manage the pains of love with the dangers of his community. It's an oddball casting choice, but "Cabo Blanco" doesn't meet many expectations, preferring to mix a "Casablanca" homage with a treasure hunt adventure, surrounding the star with an eclectic mix of prime talent and those relatively new to the English language. Expectedly, the movie fails to inspire anything approaching romance or excitement, but director J. Lee Thompson doesn't tank the effort on purpose, earnestly trying to craft a thrilling tale of mystery in an exotic locale, trusting the natural beauty of the land will be enough to cover for the feature's substantial deficiencies. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Wolf Lake


1980's "Wolf Lake" hopes to be incendiary work, pitting the World War II generation against the realities of the Vietnam War. It's a grandpas-gone-mad movie that tends to think it's more profound than it actually is, denying the reality of its exploitation elements. Director Burt Kennedy ("Suburban Commando") does a fine job taking the action to the middle of nowhere, and for those who enjoy the ability to view a film performance from space, there's Rod Steiger in the lead role, working himself up into a frenzy as he portrays a member of the greatest generation ready to gun down an example of America's failure. "Wolf Lake" is more odd than suspenseful, but it's certainly something that might appeal to those who value a straightforward summary of hostilities. Read the rest at

Film Review - Bad Santa 2


2003’s “Bad Santa” had better timing than creative instincts, released during a period when moviegoers were hungry from something off-beat and decidedly R-rated, going after the sacred holiday of Christmas with nothing but simple characterization and pure vulgarity. It managed to make some money, while its video release secured a cult following. However, a sequel wasn’t necessary, and the producers certainly took their time to create one, battling legal issues and screenwriting blues to bang out another criminal adventure for Willie Soke and his pronounced misanthropy. “Bad Santa 2” isn’t the follow-up fans have earned, but it’s one they probably deserve, watching the production misjudge what made the first picture so popular, putting all emphasis on crude dialogue and antics, almost forgetting there should be an actual film underneath its scummy top layer. Read the rest at

Film Review - Moana


In a year where Walt Disney Animation already launched one of its top grossing movies of all time (last spring’s “Zootopia”), “Moana” is the icing on the corporate cake. Settling back into a musical groove that hasn’t been explored since 2013’s “Frozen,” the company tries to restore a little of their old big screen magic with this tale of high adventure in the South Pacific. There are so many treats to unwrap in “Moana,” it feels like a packed effort, with “Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin” helmers Ron Clements and John Musker creating a wonderful bigness to the picture, while also tending to its heart. Traditional dramatic arcs remain to secure audience comfort, but it feels like a fresh, alive film, giving the studio another lasting creative success. Read the rest at

Film Review - Rules Don't Apply


Warren Beatty was never one to consistently work, compelled to grindout pictures to feed his fame and please the studios. However, it’s been 15 years since he was last seen onscreen, trying to make the best of a bad situation in 2001’s “Town & Country.” Finally ready to return to his professional life, Beatty takes command of “Rules Don’t Apply,” which takes a fictionalized look at the instability of Howard Hughes through the perspective of two young characters trying to make sense of life and love. Writing and directing the feature, Beatty goes all-in with this oddball endeavor, which does a successful job summarizing the star’s screen interests in controlled chaos and dark humor. “Rules Don’t Apply” is messy work, but it’s also distinctive, carrying the unmistakable Beatty energy that once beguiled audiences everywhere.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Allied


After taking cinema to literal heights with last year’s 3D experience, “The Walk,” director Robert Zemeckis returns to Earth with “Allied,” an unexpectedly moderate espionage thriller from a helmer known for his love of big screen mischief. Technical wizardry remains in the picture, but Zemeckis is respectful of Steven Knight’s screenplay, which takes a chilling look at the vows of marriage and the mercilessness of war. “Allied” has its thrills and spills, and its command of WWII visuals is superb, keeping period mood a supporting character. It’s not the most thrilling feature, going slow-burn to maintain as many secrets as it can. The reward for such patience is an effective mystery with a very strong sense of sexuality and romance, working to redefine wartime warmth with a hearty dose of paranoia. Read the rest at

Film Review - Loving


Writer/director Jeff Nichols is enjoying an amazing creative streak, crafting thought-provoking, atmospheric features that highlight outstanding performances and intimate emotions, exploring soft-spoken types experiencing tremendous psychological turmoil. There’s been “Mud” and “Take Shelter,” and Nichols even sampled sci-fi with last spring’s “Midnight Special,” a fascinating movie that few people saw, as major studios tend not to know what to do with sophisticated, unusual deviations from the norm. “Loving” is perhaps his most human picture, inspecting real-world turmoil born from a legal fight for civil rights, but the helmer’s tempo and attention to detail remain, treating the corners of this tale as importantly as everything else. “Loving” has its missteps, but it’s a typically strong effort from an increasingly reliable filmmaker. Read the rest at

Film Review - Seasons


While it must be difficult to compete with PBS nature shows, entire cable channels devoted to the natural world, and sporadic Disneynature theatrical releases, it’s clear from the opening shots of “Seasons” that co-directors Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzard are working on an entirely different level. The helmers behind “Winged Migration” and “Oceans” return with a study of life itself, using the expanse of European forests to identify animal interaction and survival as it moves from an untested realm of activity to one where human influence has reduced the splendor of nature. “Seasons” is as gorgeously crafted as Perrin and Cluzard’s previous efforts, but the difference here is one of environmental concern, highlighting a strange new world where the wild as we know it is being threatened with extinction after ruling for thousands of years. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Fuzz


An offering of supercop cinema from a decade that was positively addicted to the stuff, 1972's "Fuzz" catches up with the ragtag ways of the Boston Police Department as they're faced with an atypically determined enemy. It's cold-blooded procedural executed with a special spin, managing a community of exhausted cops, dismissive politicians, and active villains as they race around the city, mixing it up while elements of suspense and comedy vie for the dominating mood. It's based on the "87th Precinct" series by author Ed McBain, adapted for the screen by Evan Hunter, and they're both the same man, leading to the sort of confusion "Fuzz" thrives on, overseeing a combustible mix of personalities and tonal adjustments as the production makes its way through the thick of criminal encounters and personal antagonisms. It's a messy effort, odd all over, but director Richard A. Colla keeps the feature on the move to the best of his ability, wisely investing in brevity as the episodic nature of the source material is hammered into shape here, resulting in an entertaining endeavor that's frequently breathless, never lingering anywhere for very long. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Table for Five


The blockbuster success of 1979's "Kramer vs. Kramer" (the highest grossing film of its year) inspired Hollywood to pursue divorced dads as main characters for melodramas, finally assured that audiences would turn out for tales about melancholy men suddenly hit with parental duties they once shared or outright refused to participate in. The pop culture takeover of "Kramer vs. Kramer" is really the only way to explain the creation of 1983's "Table for Five," which charts a similar course of domestic absenteeism suddenly confronted with total child-rearing responsibility, working through an awkward adjustment period with a main character who just isn't prepared for the daily battle. Although it largely avoids swimming in syrup, "Table for Five" can't help but lean into overt emotionality on occasion, attempting to find the rhythm of a tearjerker in a movie that's at its best when trapped in a state of shock. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Laughing Policeman


1972's "The Laughing Policeman" is all about procedure. Director Stuart Rosenberg maintains a chilly atmosphere of observation for this thriller, with stars Walter Matthau and Bruce Dern as San Francisco cops on the hunt for a killer who samples terroristic intent as he commits mass murder on city buses. Although the premise encourages hysterics, "The Laughing Policeman" keeps its cool, hoping to achieve the unexpected through patience, which allows the effort to explore rather sophisticated characterization. Read the rest at

Film Review - Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk


For his last effort, 2012’s “Life of Pi,” director Ang Lee took a creative risk, electing to tell a story that’s light on spectacle in 3D, hoping to create a more immersive viewing experience to boost dramatic potential. It worked to a certain degree, making the movie a box office success, inspiring Lee to cook up new plans for cinematic experimentation. “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” doesn’t feature any bold moments of disaster or animal threat to give it the same scale as “Life of Pi,” forcing Lee to dig deep into his bag of tricks to sell what’s actually a very intimate story of shock and grief. Shooting the picture in 3D and high frame rate, Lee breaks down the barriers of film to put viewers into the moment. It’s a striking endeavor, going for a specific feel of you-are-there drama. It’s too bad few people will actually experience “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” in its native format. Stripped of gimmicks, and the movie is substantially dulled, exposing a feeble story at the heart of all the technical wizardry. Read the rest at

Film Review - Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them


After the astonishing and enduring success of the “Harry Potter” film franchise, which managed to squeeze eight movies out of seven books, it didn’t seem possible that the series would simply end after Potter’s tale concluded. While there was still money to be made with the “Wizarding World” brand name, there was also the bottomless imagination of author J.K. Rowling, who teased expansions and detours with her “Pottermore” website and literary projects, along with massively popular theme park environments around the world. Getting the movie machine back up and running is “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” an adaptation of Rowling’s 2001 book (scripted by the author), and while it doesn’t feature Harry Potter, it has wizards and mischief galore, along with plenty of darkness to signify its intent to appeal to an older crowd. “Fantastic Beasts” is big on wand-slinging and monster hunting, but actual magic is in short supply here. While big screen spectacle is appealing, the material just isn’t as deeply felt as previous Wizarding World adventures, making it appear as more of a business decision than rip-roaring new beginning. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Edge of Seventeen


Teen comedies in this day and age are either obsessed with mean-spirited mischief or the films of John Hughes. The recent “Easy A” decided to pay tribute to the writer/director of “The Breakfast Club” by simply stealing his moves, ending up with a tired feature of little significance. “The Edge of Seventeen” is likely going to be described as Hughesian, but it’s not. Instead, the movie resembles the work of its producer, James L. Brooks, showing patience with textured characterization and honesty with drama, trying to manufacture adolescent authenticity to best support its triumphant mix of heart and horror. It’s a wonderful picture, alive and achingly human, with writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig (making her helming debut) absolutely nailing the pains of teendom, focusing on awkwardness, busting as many clichés as she can. Read the rest at

Film Review - Bleed for This


After an extended period of dormancy, boxing movies are all the rage these days, but few of them have been worth viewing. For every “Creed” there’s a “Hands of Stone,” making the prospect of yet another boxer bio-pic less than appealing. Not helping matters for “Bleed for This” is writer/director Ben Younger, who previously disappointed with efforts such as “Boiler Room” and “Prime.” Younger tries to find a fresh angle to pugilist blues in “Bleed for This,” dramatizing the life and times of fighter Vinny Pazienza, who battled back from a debilitating car accident to reclaim his reputation as a king of the ring. While the cast and crew are fired up about the subject as his colorful family and friends, the film struggles to connect, missing too many pieces of personality and history, struggling to overcome a one-dimensional screenplay that’s more about the arc of triumph than the journey of a stubborn man. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Love Witch


Anna Biller isn’t only the writer and director of “The Love Witch,” she’s also pretty much the entire crew. As DIY a cinematic effort as I’ve seen in recent memory, “The Love Witch” not only has a defined point of view, but a level of craftsmanship not typically found in low-budget independent productions. The film looks terrific, nailing its intent to be a throwback offering of late-1960s Euro-style exploitation, with Billet taking complete ownership of the movie, from visuals to themes. Her editorial skills leave much to be desired, but when the stitching, hammering, painting, and writing is all done by the same person, it’s not surprising to find a feature that’s terrified to cut away from anything, fearful of losing focus on what must’ve been overwhelming work.  Read the rest at