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December 2016

Blu-ray Review - Fort Tilden


The Brooklyn Hipster is a popular target for derision these days. The television show "Girls" seeks to understand the ways of millennial life from a female perspective, wrestling with stereotypes to find the living, breathing people underneath. "Fort Tilden" takes a more jocular approach to understanding the ways of youth as it collides with responsibility, with writer/directors Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers creating a travelogue of sorts for Brooklyn and its edgy, exhausted community of struggling twentysomethings, trying to find the humor in off-putting characterizations. Read the rest at

Film Review - Patriots Day


“Deepwater Horizon” was released only a few months ago, with director Peter Berg and star Mark Wahlberg teaming up to dramatize a real-world horror, emphasizing blue-collar heroism and sacrifice in the face of unimaginable danger. Quickly returning to screens, Berg and Wahlberg pick another harrowing topic for “Patriots Day,” which deconstructs the investigation following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. While “Deepwater Horizon” was surprisingly focused work from a scattergun filmmaker like Berg, “Patriots Day” is a giant offering of maturation from the helmer, using what he learned from the previous picture to inform his latest work. Vividly crafted, suspenseful, and respectful to those involved in violence and law enforcement, the feature is easily Berg’s best work, showing unusual passion and control with a thorny tale of investigation and pursuit. Read the rest at

Film Review - Beyond the Gates


Nostalgia is a major component of horror movies these days. Young filmmakers typically look to the best to inspire their own work, but homage is a tricky game to play, with reverence often slipping into recreation. While “Beyond the Gates” has a slight Italian shocker tilt, drenched in synth and strange colors, the feature wisely digs deep into home video obscurity to stimulate its vision for terror, exploring the strange world of VHS board games to give essentially routine drama a fascinating strangeness. Co-writer/director Jackson Stewart doesn’t have much in the way of a budget, but he has plenty of imagination and a solid cast. Doing something with video store memories, “Beyond the Gates” has the right ideas when it comes to shadowy evil and VHS ephemera, creating a very entertaining and mildly spooky B-movie version of “Jumanji.” Read the rest at

Film Review - A Monster Calls


Sadness is an unavoidable response to “A Monster Calls.” Director J.A. Bayona (“The Orphanage,” “The Impossible”) is tasked with brightening up somber material, using heavy swings of fantasy to alleviate a tale that touches on terminal illness, bullying, and absentee parenting. While never jaunty, “A Monster Calls” does reach a compelling level of mystery to keep it on the move, working to wrap its arms around the saga of a teenage boy facing the grim reality of death for the first time in his life, turning to his imagination to help deal with a flurry of feelings. Behaviors ring true and performances are aces here, helping Bayona find the life in all the darkness, hitting proper tearjerker beats without corrupting a fascinating study of adolescent denial.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Paterson


Writer/director Jim Jarmusch crafts very specific films, though often in the most vague manner imaginable. He’s a one-of-a-kind craftsman, and “Paterson” is a remarkably low-key creative success for a guy who adores screen stasis. After examining the malaise of vampiredom in 2013’s “Only Lovers Left Alive,” Jarmusch returns to real-world wonder with “Paterson,” which samples introspective behavior from all sides, working to identify the power of art in a world of routine. It’s intelligent work from the helmer, who plays everything with his customary dryness, still managing to shape a compelling look at a shy soul teasing a grand awakening through the power of self-expression. It’s a distinct Jarmuschian effort, but I doubt few would want his work any other way. Read the rest at

Film Review - Julieta


“Julieta” is Pedro Almodovar at medium speed, but even at a deliberate pace, his work is better than most filmmakers working today. After releasing some serious wiggles with 2013’s “I’m So Excited,” Almodovar returns to melodramatic interests with this tale of grief and memory, utilizing his sumptuous style and gift with actors to make seemingly innocuous moments burst with life. “Julieta” isn’t thunderous drama, but it finds engrossing elements of behavior and tragedy to explore, with the helmer creating a propulsive journey of doubt with the troubled titular character. It’s typically gorgeous work from the helmer, but for those switched on by his return to beyond broad comedy in the last effort, his latest takes a decidedly more introspective route. Read the rest at

Film Review - A Kind of Murder


Patricia Highsmith built her career on the art of suspense, writing tales of murder and betrayal, feeling around deep psychological grooves to build the players in her games. Filmmakers have enjoyed a longstanding fascination with the author, with adaptations issued periodically over the last 55 years. The most famous work is perhaps 1999’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” which struck gold with its combination of atmosphere and illness. “A Kind of Murder” probably won’t be remembered in the long run, as its take on Highsmith’s plotting is on the lackluster side, unable to find the strangeness of possible coincidence, while casting is uninspired, ending up a costume party with the occasional act of violence. “A Kind of Murder” has a handful of production achievements worth noting, but the rest is frustratingly forgettable. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Hollow Point


“The Hollow Point” has the right idea. It brings big guns and bigger attitudes to a western-flavored revenge story, and one with just the right amount of extremity to add tremendous chaos to the proceedings, giving everything a special boost of nastiness. Sadly, director Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego doesn’t follow through on initial promise, though with a troubling filmography that includes “Apollo 18” and “Open Grave,” the picture’s failure to connect isn’t surprising. “The Hollow Point” is violent but not consistent, trying to make a mess out of a border conflict, only to come up short when it comes to intimidation and storytelling. Lopez-Gallego spends more time polishing his weapons than he does strengthening editing and building characterization. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Boomerang


Famed director Elia Kazan takes on law and order in 1947's "Boomerang" (released the same year as his classic, "Gentlemen's Agreement"), which takes viewers into the heart of justice, inspecting all its passions, procedures, and corruption. It's distanced work from Kazan, who traditionally embraces intimacy when it comes to characterization, but the feature's iciness is intentional, surveying judicial battles and political gamesmanship to deliver a stinging viewing experience that challenges the process, not the authenticity, behind guilt and innocence. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Tikkun


"Tikkun" isn't technically a horror film, but it creates a nightmare realm where religion and sexuality collide, dissecting ideas on obedience and maturation. Writer/director Avishai Sivan has a unique vision for his third feature, launching a provocative descent into a young mind at the point of implosion. "Tikkun" is specialized moviemaking, challenging faith and sanity as a lifetime of order, religious education, and respect for family is thrown out the window when an erection and pent-up curiosity come into play. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Sacrifice!


1972's "Sacrifice" (aka "Man from Deep River") is largely credited in horror circles as the first Italian jungle cannibal movie, inspiring a legion of knockoffs and variations, which grew into its own subgenre during the 1970s and '80s. It's a strange legacy to assign to the picture, which barely features any cannibalism at all, saving most of its human munching for a single scene near the end of the film. However, director Umberto Lenzi (who would go on to replicate this success multiple times, most notably in 1981's "Cannibal Ferox") does generate a familiar atmosphere of dread and fear that other productions would help themselves to, staging a jungle adventure that embraces the reality of remote tribes in the corners of the world while emphasizing myths about tribal life, celebrating grotesque rituals. "Sacrifice" is more observational than macabre, and while Lenzi isn't shy about showcasing body trauma, animal abuse, and sexual horrors, this is by far the easiest of his "cannibal" efforts to digest, more interested in the evolution of its main character than potential depravities to share with the viewer. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Daisy Kenyon


As melodramas go from the 1940s, "Daisy Kenyon" has the advantage of a sharp cast and a surprisingly authentic handling of marital and relationship woes. An adaptation of Elizabeth Janeway's novel, the picture offers director Otto Preminger a chance to toy with the conventions of a traditional love triangle. However, instead of giving in to syrup, the helmer (along with screenwriter David Hertz) maintain a slightly acidic tone to the feature, treating the confusion, hysteria, and growing bitterness with the authenticity it deserves before returning to formulaic events. Read the rest at

Film Review - Jackie


As a dramatic subject, Jackie Kennedy has been exhaustively featured in film and television productions, but she’s often regulated to the background, existing as a figure of support in stories about the life and times of John F. Kennedy and his colorful, powerful family. “Jackie” seeks to change the routine by focusing exclusively on the woman, but only picking a small slice of time to inspect behavioral nuance and psychological wreckage. This is no bio-pic, with screenwriter Noah Oppenheim (“The Maze Runner,” “Allegiant”) zeroing in on specific moments in Jackie’s life that identified her past and solidified her future, grasping the essence of the First Lady without painstakingly inching through her years. Instead of satisfying in a grandly educational manner, “Jackie” offers laser-like focus on the details of a human going through seismic political and personal changes in her life. Read the rest at

Film Review - Assassin's Creed


It’s always a wonder why film producers pursue video game properties. Sure, there’s brand recognition, squeezing money out of the faithful, but these screen-to-screen adaptations rarely work out, especially with open world games that don’t pursue a direct narrative path. And yet, in 2016, there was “Warcraft,” which managed to achieve a sense of scale and fantasy life, finding ways to crack source material that’s famous for its lack of boundaries. And now there’s “Assassin’s Creed,” which, much like “Warcraft,” is incredibly flawed, but there’s something to the confident execution of the feature that gives it a cinematic presence and passable respect for console origins. It rumbles and leaps, and is just bonkers enough to cover for the multitude of head-scratching ideas it introduces, especially to newcomers. Read the rest at

Film Review - Passengers


It takes a movie like “Passengers” to act as a reminder that not all romantic stories are created equal. Some soar due to heartfelt content or smartly designed adversity, and there’s the latest from “The Imitation Game” director Morten Tyldum, which is completely bereft of heart, mind, and even soul. It’s often astonishing to grasp what “Passengers” believes to be warm, cuddly entertainment, marching forward with plot so fundamentally screwy, there’s no star power in the world capable of selling it in any appealing way. Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt commit for the most part, but even they lose faith in the final act, finally giving up a picture that bizarrely tries to transform absolute horror and cold-blooded murder into the date night event of 2016. Read the rest at

Film Review - Why Him?


There’s nothing particularly daring about “Why Him?” It’s a comedy that’s only making a pit stop at multiplexes before a long, prosperous life on basic cable, charming viewers through the power of channel omnipresence, where dead jokes are rendered palatable on a lonely Saturday night. It’s the latest from director John Hamburg, who weirdly hasn’t directed a feature since 2009’s “I Love You, Man,” taking his sweet time to dream up a fresh idea, though one where the most sophisticated joke involves star Bryan Cranston’s character losing a battle with a special, high-tech Japanese toilet during a bowel movement. Perhaps Hamburg wasn’t missed after all, with “Why Him?” trying so hard to be doofy and profane, it forgets to be funny. Read the rest at

Film Review - Fences


“Fences” isn’t your average film adaptation of a stage play. This is monumental work from playwright August Wilson, who collected a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize for the 1987 effort, which spawned several powerhouse performances over the last three decades, including turns from Denzel Washington and Viola Davis on Broadway in 2010. The pair returns to the source of one of their greatest career achievements, teaming up to bring Wilson’s troubling work to the screen. Washington directs, taking special care of the material and its thematic potency, trying to master a cinematic stance for a story that’s always been served on stage, delivered with distance. Intimacy is a challenge for “Fences,” but the acting is expectedly dynamic, with raw nerve work from the leads carrying the feature through a few rough patches of storytelling, supplying a richly defined sense of character as their seasoned ways in front of a camera finally combine with Wilson’s achievement.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Elle


Paul Verhoeven was once a mighty force in Hollywood, and we have him to thank for the brilliance of “RoboCop,” “Total Recall,” sections of “Basic Instinct,” and at least half of “Showgirls.” But after suffering through a few flops, Verhoeven elected to return to his European filmmaking roots, and doing so in a semi-retired state. His last proper production was 2006’s WWII thriller “Black Book,” and now the helmer has reconnected to his once alluring appreciation of psychological disease with “Elle.” While lacking extremity Verhoeven is known for, “Elle” still packs quite a punch, examining sexual violence and almost casual self-destruction, plucking the strings of David Birke’s screenplay with shards of glass. It’s a strange feature, but one doesn’t want Verhoeven any other way, and he delivers a unique viewing experience as the story touches on some truly disturbing events. Read the rest at

Film Review - Sing


Movies about cities populated with anthropomorphized animals are all the rage these days. Coming after the astonishing success of Disney Animation’s “Zootopia” is “Sing,” which does away with social commentary to emerge as a musical of sorts, working to win over audiences with songs. So many songs. The picture is written and directed by Garth Jennings, who, nearly a decade ago, found perfection with “Son of Rambow,” which featured an off-kilter sense of humor and encouraged oddball performances. “Sing” is Jennings playing it safe, creating a world of cutesy creatures and colorful antics, and the film is missing his mischievous sense of humor. While some dramatic grit remains in small amounts, the effort isn’t anything special, checking off a to-do list of animated antics with a large cast of characters, with performance sequences breaking up a slow slide into banality. Read the rest at