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December 2016

Film Review - Moonlight


Movies like “Moonlight” are rare. While the picture investigates a multitude of behavioral issues and cultural crimes, it’s most interested in identity, displaying remarkable patience and understanding of the process of self-discovery, which often elicits more fear than satisfaction. “Moonlight” is a film about the Black Experience in America, but the war it wages with personal comfort and corruption is universal, and its depiction of this struggle is exceptional. Writer/director Barry Jenkins handles the material with courage and indie cinema style, providing a clear view of murky issues, also guiding a gifted cast through intricate emotional speeds. It’s a special feature, rich with character and perspective, and it showcases what Jenkins is capable of, especially with difficult tales of lives lived in a constant state of fear. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Western Union


Following up 1940's "The Return of Frank James" with another western, director Fritz Lang opts to recreate America's developing communication woes with "Western Union." While it's not rooted in any true events, the feature takes a look at the expansion of the telegraph, and how that specialized intrusion on private land plays out with troubled characters all battling for something they can't have. Lang aims to tell a quintessential American story with heightened dramatic intentions, and he ends up with a curious picture that resides somewhere meditative and cartoon, periodically visiting both extremes. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Battle of the Sexes


The 1960 British comedy "The Battle of the Sexes" takes a look at a world where men and women compete in the workplace, playing up the oddity of such an event during a special time of growing national consciousness. However, this is no document of progression, but yet another chance for star Peter Sellers to play dress up, burying himself in middle-age make-up and heavy clothing to portray a mild man brought to a boiling point by female interruption. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Deadly Embrace


Instead of keeping up with comedies and horror efforts, director David DeCoteau aims for a more sensual, soap opera mood with 1989's "Deadly Embrace." Aiming for a late night pay cable vibe, DeCoteau (billed here as "Ellen Cabot") and screenwriter Richard Gabai cook up a few games of sexuality and power to fuel this mild take on film noir, but they also keep up with the era's demands for nudity and overheated bedroom encounters. Mercifully, most of "Deadly Embrace" is played relatively straight, dropping a campy approach to at least attempt a level of suspense typically ignored from cheapie productions. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Murder Weapon


Enjoying a career playing teases and monsters, actress Linnea Quigley receives an opportunity to show off her thespian range in 1989's "Murder Weapon." Granted, director David DeCoteau (credited here as "Ellen Cabot") still demands a substantial amount of nudity and sexuality from Quigley, but the actress gets to do a little more in this oddball thriller, trying out a few dramatic exchanges to help "Murder Weapon" achieve a small degree of gravitas it wouldn't otherwise enjoy. Read the rest at

Film Review - Manchester by the Sea


Due to various reasons, some of them legally inclined, Kenneth Lonergan doesn’t make movies very often. “Manchester by the Sea” is his third directorial effort since 2000, and it’s a cruel reminder that Lonergan should really work more often, as he possesses such a pure vision for character and drama, giving his films a 3D feel just from behavioral nuance alone. Sure, 2011’s “Margaret” was a bit messy due to extensive production problems, but Lonergan returns to stability with “Manchester by the Sea,” which plays with raw nerve concentration and authentic emotional flow, joining 2000’s “You Can Count on Me” as another example of Lonergan’s gift with storytelling and timing, taking a slow but engrossing journey into the ways of grief and responsibility, and doing so with an expert handling of humor, heart, and paralyzing pain. Read the rest at


Film Review - Collateral Beauty


When Will Smith decides to get serious, there’s cause for concern. “Collateral Beauty” is the actor’s latest attempt to project sincerity, which doesn’t come naturally, attaching himself to a screenplay by Allen Loeb (“So Undercover,” “Here Comes the Boom”) that requires intense bouts of staring and teary monologuing, serving up a chance for Oscar gold while trying to reach an audience that never arrived to see a similar exercise in saccharine behavior: 2008’s “Seven Pounds.” “Collateral Beauty” is impossibly flimsy work, trying to merge whimsy with profound pain, emerging with a ridiculous premise that somehow attracted top-tier actors who were either excited to work with Smith or delighted with the number of zeros on their paycheck. Either way, the feature is shallow, programmed, and obvious, with Smith at the center of it all, swinging for the fences with a showy emotion turn that only reinforces just how misguided the effort is. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Brand New Testament


Some movies are worthy of recommendation due to filmmaking care and control, with helmers fashioning elegant assessments of the human condition, using thespian skill and technical knowhow to master visual and emotional communication. And some movies are worth a look just to see Catherine Deneuve romance a gorilla. “The Brand New Testament” is a mischievous creation from co-writer/director Jaco Van Dormel (“Mr. Nobody,” “The Eighth Day”), who picks apart heavenly order to construct a cheeky comedy about creation, God, and a new dawn of human awareness. It’s clever and intricately manufactured, with the production putting everything possible into the picture’s details, making “The Brand New Testament” an effort to be studied, with its craftsmanship as engaging as its dark sense of humor.  Read the rest at

Film Review - La La Land


It seems like every filmmaker holds a secret desire to make a musical, but few actually take a chance and attempt to restore a little sampling of Old Hollywood for modern audiences. The biggies have tried: Scorsese, Coppola, and Allen, laboring to relive their childhood fantasies of choreography, costuming, and songwriting. In the case of “La La Land,” writer/director Damien Chazelle is quick to pounce on a rare opportunity, using accolades collected from his last effort, “Whiplash,” to help fund his dream project. An elaborate homage to the musical genre, with specific attention to the world of Jacques Demy, “La La Land” is expectedly indulgent, but it’s overlong and thinly scripted, with Chazelle putting everything into The Moment, breaking up the feature into bite-sized pieces of song, dance, and Hollywood reverence. Production passion is indisputable, but the movie doesn’t know when to quit.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Nocturnal Animals


Fashion mogul Tom Ford turned to filmmaking with 2009’s “A Single Man.” The highly designed and tightly measured drama still managed to communicate a healthy amount of personal history and emotionality, dealing with intimate issues of love, loss, and friendship. It was an ideal debut for Ford, who managed to highlight his visual gifts and his comfort with actors. “Nocturnal Animals” is his long-awaited follow up, and Ford attempts to switch gears, heading in a Hitchcockian direction with a melodrama that’s braided with thriller-esque events, once again using his interests in symmetry, style, and relationships to boost the significance of what’s essentially a weightless effort. “Nocturnal Animals” is more of an exercise in manipulation than a piercing story of paralyzed hearts, eventually dissolving into a movie of moments instead of a cohesive arc of illness.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Solace


“Solace” isn’t trying very hard to subvert expectations, though it certainly has the opportunity to do something new with the serial killer subgenre. It’s a psychic warfare picture, though one that doesn’t go bananas with its depiction of special individuals capable of manipulating the present by seeing into the future. Director Afonso Poyart doesn’t explore the cinematic potential of the premise, electing to bring the production down to television standards, making the film more procedural than fantastical. “Solace” offers dead bodies, bruised backstories, and an all-consuming hunt for a sly madman, but it’s a frustratingly flat effort, and one carried along by an Anthony Hopkins performance where the actor’s lights are visibly switched off, creating a dramatic gap where urgency usually resides. Read the rest at

Film Review - Rogue One: A Star Wars Story


A long time ago on a place called Earth, there used to be an extended waiting period between “Star Wars” sequels, forcing fans to feast on scraps of information for years as the blockbusters marched through stages of production, find their releases practically declared national holidays. Those days are over. Now that the Walt Disney Corporation owns the brand, “Star Wars” is currently a yearly event, with “Rogue One” a spin-off of sorts, tiding over the faithful after last year’s “The Force Awakens” rocked expectations and box office records, and “Episode VIII” is prepped for a holiday 2017 debut. While it isn’t the first franchise departure (the Ewoks did have a pair of television movies in the mid-1980s), it’s certainly the largest, with “Rogue One” enjoying an immense creative push to help connect its story to the events of 1977’s “A New Hope.” It’s an experiment that mostly works, but there are moments when it’s clear that the task of finding new areas of “Star Wars” to play with is a bit too much for director Gareth Edwards to handle. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Deathrow Gameshow


"Deathrow Gameshow" is the second film from 1987 to address a futureworld where the incarcerated are offered a chance at freedom if they compete on a popular television show. However, this isn't "The Running Man," which is admittedly a pretty goofy movie trying to keep a straight face. "Deathrow Gameshow" is a farce from writer/director Mark Pirro (and his Pirromont Pictures, which uses a mountain-esque image of a single female breast as their logo), who doesn't waste a minute on serious business, launching this take on the disposable lives of the condemned as a wacky exploration of television production and stupidity, without any sort of social or political commentary. It's a broad creation, but one that's eager to please, doing what it can to secure any laughs from viewers, trying to make a limited budget feel sizable with help from slapstick, nudity, and small bites of industry satire. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - I Drink Your Blood


Any drive-in spectacular needs a gruesome reputation, and 1970's "I Drink Your Blood" carries the ominous distinction of being the first movie to be rated X for violence alone. In this day and age, the lowlights of the picture aren't all that shocking, but it's interesting to remember a time when the ratings board was actually careful about violence. "I Drink Your Blood" has its fair share of aggression, soaking in the juices of the Manson Family/Vietnam War era to inspire its own take on disease and Satanic rage, with writer/director David E. Durston coming up with a nifty low-budget shocker that treats exploitation with care. The feature isn't particularly sharp, but it's engaging and enthusiastically performed, coming up with a beguiling take on the zombie subgenre without actually using the undead. It's a weird one, but very entertaining. Read the rest at

Film Review - Office Christmas Party


Now is the time for a tremendous, bawdy, take-no-prisoners seasonal comedy, hitting all the sweet spots during a particularly heavy year of bad news. “Bad Santa 2” stumbled right out of the gate, leaving “Office Christmas Party” a wide open shot to be the bellylaugh generator of the holidays. It almost reaches an inspired level of insanity too, but there’s not enough oddball behavior in the picture to make it truly memorable. Directors Will Speck and Josh Gordon have their hearts in the right place, but here’s the rare movie that’s hurt by characterization, finding “Office Christmas Party” so concerned with telling a coherent, emotionally resonate story, it often forgets to have fun with itself, eventually losing focus on chaos to adhere to convention, just to provide a comfort zone for its audience. Read the rest at

Film Review - Friend Request


After years spent trying to figure out how to make the internet scary (“Feardotcom” anyone?), Hollywood finally found something to work with 2015’s “Unfriended,” which inventively utilized online technology and social media connection to inspire a successful chiller. It was no great achievement in cinema, but a movie that was capable of surprise in a genre that often goes out of its way to avoid it. “Friend Request” isn’t as gonzo a picture, playing more traditional with its blend of witchcraft and Facebook, but it isn’t terrible, which is as close to praise as I’m willing to get. Co-writer/director Simon Verhoeven doesn’t go to the dark web to inspire the feature, but he does successfully land a degree of eeriness. Read the rest at

Film Review - All We Had


It’s certainly understandable why Katie Holmes has decided to take more control of her career. Just over a decade ago, she was the focus of the marketing push for “First Daughter” and co-starred in “Batman Begins.” Five years ago, she was playing second banana to Adam Sandler in drag in “Jack and Jill.” Industry opportunities weren’t trending upward. Holmes makes her directorial debut with “All We Had,” an adaptation of an Annie Weatherwax novel and material that unsurprisingly permits the star to achieve the greatest performance of her career. It’s an episodic picture, and perhaps a premise seen one too many times, but Holmes finds a way to soften cliché and make the feature feel lived-in and emotionally true. Read the rest at

Film Review - Kill Ratio


It’s tough out there for action heroes these days. The titans of the industry have aged out of the quest for cinematic dominance, and the next generation doesn’t have the benefit of a VHS revolution, earning their reputation through basic cable repetition and games of lonely Saturday night VOD roulette. We once had Schwarzenegger, and now we have Scott Adkins. Trying to bring his own special sauce to the party is Tom Hopper, who beefs and strips down for “Kill Ratio,” delivering his take on a standard survival actioner. Hopper certainly has the physicality for the part, showcasing his muscular hairlessness throughout the feature, but there’s a more challenging war to be waged with the production, as director Paul Tanter struggles to make something out of nothing with “Kill Ratio,” which doesn’t have the budget to become the explosive bruiser he imagines. Read the rest at