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January 2017

Film Review - xXx: Return of Xander Cage

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Moviegoers had to endure “xXx” back in 2002 because Hollywood smelled blood in the water, jumping on the chance to cash-in on star Vin Diesel’s sudden popularity after his work on 2001’s “The Fast and the Furious.” The feature was a valentine to Diesel’s meaty screen persona, with the production attempting to shape a spy movie for Generation X, using extreme sports and extreme mumbling to give James Bond some youthful competition. The film did well mostly due to hype, but Diesel promptly abandoned the franchise, handing the reins to Ice Cube for a 2005 sequel that completely tanked. Now that the “Fast and Furious” franchise is capable of producing billion-dollar hits, the industry wants Diesel all over again, resurrecting the tattooed hero for “xXx: Return of Xander Cage,” hoping there’s still some box office magic left in the teat for the now 49-year-old actor to squeeze. Read the rest at

Film Review - 20th Century Women


In 2010’s “Beginners,” writer/director Mike Mills mined personal experiences to inform a tender story of parental understanding and acceptance, delivering a level of intimacy his debut effort, 2005’s “Thumbsucker,” completely lacked. “Beginners” offered a more exploratory viewing experience, and Mills wisely builds on it for “20th Century Women,” which also presents a semi-autobiographical approach to best capture nuanced human behavior. Taking audiences to 1979, a year of remarkable social, political, and music transitions, Mills inspects ways of sexuality, friendships, and maturation, but he really zeros in on parenthood, showing interest in the dynamic between a mother and her rebellious son. While a collection of actresses contributing some of their finest work is enough to entice, it’s the texture Mills brings to his characters that completely sells “20th Century Women,” securing a rich understanding of personality to go along with his more artful take on the flow of life. Read the rest at

Film Review - Antarctica: Ice & Sky

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For most people on Earth, Antarctica is an unreachable continent, possessing an environmental fury and physical distance that makes a full understanding of its secrets and beauty impossible to understand. For scientist Claude Lorius, Antarctica is a second home. For such a faraway land, Antarctica is now the key to Earth’s future, home to evidence of life before industry and population began to change the planet’s climate. “Antarctica: Ice & Sky” recounts Lorius’s multiple trips to the frozen land, greeting the 82 year old as he reflects on his excursions and discoveries, including critical research into climate change over 30 years ago that’s now beginning to take shape. Read the rest at

Film Review - A Patch of Fog


Actor Stephen Graham has appeared in a great number of films, showing up in supporting roles, typically playing lackeys and goons in pictures like “Snatch,” “Gangs of New York,” and “This is England.” “A Patch of Fog” doesn’t rework Graham’s screen presence, but it does offer him atypical depth, gifting him a chance to play a “Single White Female”-style game of stalking with screenwriting that sympathizes with the monster, using thriller conventions to make sense of loneliness. Graham is terrific here, joined by an equally sharp turn from co-star Conleth Hill, with the men committed to the inspection of a particularly tense relationship built on blackmail and opportunity. However, “A Patch of Fog” doesn’t work itself up into a frenzy, taking a more subtle direction when spotlighting a toxic union between predator and prey. Read the rest at

Film Review - Mad Families


When comedians speak about Fred Wolf as a person, they’re usually very kind, describing his sharp sense of humor and general pleasantness. I’m sure Wolf is a gentleman, but he’s a lousy filmmaker. The screenwriter of “Joe Dirt 2,” “Grown Ups” and its sequel, and “Black Sheep,” Wolf returns behind the camera to guide “Mad Families,” which isn’t really a movie, but more of a loose collection of improvisational dueling and random characterization that’s occasionally broken up by childish racial humor. Wolf is credited as the director, but there’s no noticeable control over the picture, which basically brings a large group of actors to a single rural location and allows them to do whatever they want, no matter how useless and painfully unfunny it is. “Mad Families” is available to watch free online, but even then, it feels like too high a price, handing a chunk of life over to Wolf, who doesn’t deserve it. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Book of Love


As an offering of quirky sentimentality, “The Book of Love” fails miserably. It’s a replication of a mid-1990s indie hit, trying to reach audiences with heavy amounts of eccentricity while dealing with heavy real-world issues such as abandonment and death. Screenwriters Bill Purple (who also directs) and Robbie Pickering (“Natural Selection”) push too far with plastic personalities, working to win over viewers with peculiarity, which comes off strained and unpleasant. Building a bridge between paralyzing grief and raft construction, the production ends up a tedious routine of manipulation. Perhaps Purple and Pickering have honest intentions, but “The Book of Love” doesn’t deliver sincerity. It’s more comfortable with heavily sugared predictability. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Undying Monster


While it boasts the presence of a shadowy wolfman, 1942's "The Undying Monster" isn't truly a horror picture. Adapted from a novel by Jessie Douglas Kerruish and directed by John Brahm (1944's "The Lodger"), "The Undying Monster" is more of a murder mystery, preferring acts of sleuthing to shock value. It's a talky effort, but wonderfully constructed by Brahm, who works overtime to make what ends up becoming a series of conversations and tasteful confrontations somewhat unsettling, bathing the feature in gothic mood. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Frontier


On co-writer/director Oren Shai's IMDB page, there's a picture of him engrossed in a pulp novel. It's unlike most photos on the website, highlighting his literary interests, which have been funneled into his feature-length directorial debut, "The Frontier." Playing around with time and motivation, Shai constructs a criminal chess game in the middle of the Arizona desert, using broad characters and secret pasts to manufacture a mild mystery with noir-ish flavorings. "The Frontier" doesn't have a big enough budget to completely erase signs of production limitation, but Shai gets an impressive amount accomplished with the resources he has, finding enough tension to preserve interest in this saga of bad people involved in dirty deeds. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Cosmos


Writer/director Andrzej Zulawski is perhaps best known for his 1981 endeavor, "Possession," an authentically bonkers feature that's breathtakingly nightmarish and unhinged. "Cosmos" welcomes the helmer back to a similar playground of madness, making a return to filmmaking after a 15 year absence. "Cosmos" is also Zulawski's final movie (he passed away earlier this year), but it's another doozy. Replacing horror with a macabre mystery, the effort successfully braids the unexplainable with the unknowable, transforming a simple visit to a country house into a carnival of warped behavior. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman's The Fantastic Four


The saga of 1994's "The Fantastic Four" is no Hollywood secret. Over the last two decades, details have leaked about the film's quickie production and aborted release, with the picture eventually discarded altogether after some promotional work was already underway. It's one of those industry black eyes, and while journalistic endeavors have explored the creation and disintegration of "The Fantastic Four," director Marty Langford looks to dig deeper with "Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman's The Fantastic Four," constructing a documentary that collects stories from those on the front lines. It's not a cheery tale of creative and financial success, but it delivers a wider appreciation of what was attempted in the 1990s, with B-movie imagination eclipsing the blockbuster intentions later iterations of the property attempted. Read the rest at

Film Review - Live by Night


As a writer/director, Ben Affleck enjoyed an impressive streak of exceptional pictures, creating truly fantastic efforts in “Gone Baby Gone,” “The Town,” and “Argo.” He showcased a filmmaking talent unseen in his thespian pursuits up to this point, regenerating his enthusiasm for the art form with movies that were easily among the best of their respective years. With “Live by Night,” Affleck’s instincts fail him for the first time, abandoning the relative intimacy of his previous endeavors to mastermind a gangster saga adapted from a 2012 Dennis Lehane novel, giving him narrative responsibilities that quickly overwhelm him. “Live by Night” is a frustrating sit before it becomes a dull one, with Affleck unable to shake himself out of a creative coma, treating the material too preciously, refusing to give it the adrenaline shot it needs. It certainly doesn’t suggest Affleck has lost his touch, but the feature does showcase his tendency for misguided passion. Read the rest at

Film Review - Sleepless


Jamie Foxx wants his own “Taken,” and he’s turned to 2011 French thriller to make it happen. “Sleepless” is a decidedly American remake of “Sleepless Nights,” taking the action to Las Vegas, a location that celebrates the outrageous and reckless, making it a perfect setting for the film, which starts off as an enjoyable junk food actioner and slowly transforms into a tiresome cartoon. However, it does serve its function as a vehicle for Foxx to showcase his stunt skills, tossing himself around the frame for director Baran do Odar, who sticks with the basics when it comes to coverage, editing, and general velocity. That “Sleepless” is idiotic isn’t the problem. It’s the good kind of dumb for 45 minutes. But it doesn’t sustain itself for the full feature, relying on ridiculous extremes to keep viewers awake. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Bye Bye Man


Horror needs inspiration to survive, delivering at least the illusion of care when it comes to the construction of frights and the identity of the villain. “The Bye Bye Man” has no real reason to be, it simply exists as a product due in multiplexes on Friday the 13th, with its original R-rated cut whittled down to a more teen-friendly PG-13. The producers erased most of the blood, but it’s debatable if they had a decent screenplay to begin with. “The Bye Bye Man” isn’t much more than a terrible title, gifting paying customers wretched performances, murky mythology, and low-wattage chills, with stupidity the dominating vibe of the picture. When it’s not in expositional hell, it comes to a complete stop, with director Stacy Title bungling even the most basic scenes in this amateurish mess. Read the rest at

Film Review - Monster Trucks


It’s not been an easy road to release for “Monster Trucks.” Shot three years ago, the feature has endured several delays and bad buzz, with releasing studio Paramount basically blaming recent financial woes on the seemingly harmless family film, which wasn’t cheap to produce. Finally ready for public exhibition, and it’s easy to see why the picture was involved in an elaborate corporate game of “Not It.” Longtime animation director Chris Wedge makes his live-action debut with “Monster Trucks,” and it seems like the challenge of dealing with real people was too much for the helmer. While the effort isn’t disastrous, it’s deathly dull, scripted in Crayon, and strangely cast, hoping the central visual of a monster positioned as the engine of a truck is enough to forgive all moviemaking sins the production commits. Read the rest at

Film Review - Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds


Originally set for broadcast in March, “Bright Lights” was intended to be a study of a mother and daughter engaged in life, love, and mega-fame. Directors Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens were only examining the dynamic between Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, offered access into both homes for years to best pinpoint their special bond, showcasing layered personalities away from movie premieres, concerts, and conventions. But now, after Fisher and Reynolds passed away within days of each other last month, “Bright Lives” takes on a different purpose. While it remains a feisty, fascinating portrait of an enduring relationship, Bloom and Stevens also provide a focal point for grieving, supplying a reminder of these unique women and their separate struggles, which only strengthened their bond. What was once a project meant to charm is now a vital document of lives lived in defiance of adversity. Read the rest at

Film Review - Claire in Motion


“Claire in Motion” offers actress Betsy Brandt a chance to show her stuff on the big screen after a successful career on television, most notably on the show “Breaking Bad.” It’s a juicy part that presents a rich thespian challenge, tasked with portraying a character who’s having a psychological breakdown but doesn’t understand it, keeping a tight lid on emotions while the weight of the world just keeps getting heavier. Brandt proves herself more than capable with the role, carrying “Claire in Motion” with a sophisticated turn that showcases impressive body language and ability to communicate bits of raw feelings without pole vaulting into melodrama, keeping the feature steady and sincere, even when it teases conventional conflict and resolution. Read the rest at

Film Review - 100 Streets

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Dramatically, “100 Streets” offers nothing new. It’s a stern look at hopelessness in London, where lost souls struggle to find purpose in a grim world, working to redirect their misery into something constructive. It’s a multi-character piece, tonally similar to a Paul Haggis picture, layered with sympathy and coincidence. Screenwriter Leon Butler falls short on satisfaction, but he does manage to find a few interesting character corners, and director Jim O’Hanlon is wise to turn most of the effort over to the cast, who generate a compelling sense of frustration before the movie decides to use behavioral extremity to solve its substantial problems. “100 Streets” looks to detail the capacity of the human heart during its darkest trials, but it only connects periodically. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Crash


“The Crash” isn’t very good at predicting the future. Shot nearly four years ago, the picture imagines a tomorrow that takes place in 2017, where the world is besieged by cyber terrorism and America is commanded by Hillary Clinton. Sadly, iffy forecasting isn’t the worst of the feature’s ills. Writer/director Aram Rappaport (“Syrup”) has much more difficulty trying to sell the hysteria of online horror with a limited cast and budget, working overtime to create excitement where there isn’t any. “The Crash” concerns a modern version of doomsday, where terror emerges from hacking, not bombs, but it’s a remarkably silly take on the end of the world, and the more Rappaport tries to pull urgency out of thin air, the harder the movie flounders, finding its title more descriptive of production ambition than dramatic content. Read the rest at

Film Review - Arsenal


It’s rare to encounter such an intentionally odious picture like “Arsenal.” It serves no purpose, showcasing inept filmmaking skills that keep it miles away from its thriller intentions, while its celebration of violence is cranked all the way to 11, enjoying the spilling of blood and the snapping of bones. Director Steve C. Miller has no real idea what’s he doing with the feature, but coming from a helmer with such nondescript B-movie projects like “Marauders,” “Submerged,” and “Extraction” on his resume, it’s easy to understand why “Arsenal” doesn’t inspire anything but an immediate need to do something else with your precious time. Even with the wonders of thespian paydays in play, the effort is disastrously executed bore, slogging through the burnt ends of society to celebrate the ways of crime and punishment in the most moronic manner possible. Read the rest at

Film Review - Bad Kids of Crestview Academy


Unnecessary sequels aren’t anything new. We ended up with three “Toxic Avenger” follow-ups, three “Wild Things,” and a second “Road House,” so the appearance of “Bad Kids of Crestview Academy” isn’t completely surprising. It’s a continuation of “Bad Kids Go to Hell,” a 2012 chiller that I’m not sure anyone actually watched, but apparently some degree of success was reached, spawning a new adventure in the world’s least secured school with a fresh group of obnoxious characters. The material is based on a graphic novel, giving it a shot at irreverent fun, playing with slasher film conventions and teen sarcasm, but the finish product is strangely sedate, unable or unwilling to snowball into a macabre take on mischief and murder. It’s restrained work from director Ben Browder, who strives to treat the screenplay carefully, respecting the source material, only to end up with a lethargic second round of suspense. Read the rest at