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April 2017

Blu-ray Review - Deluge


Disaster films usually save their big moments of mayhem for later, using destruction to motivate characters through the second act. Sometimes, massive visuals are reserved for finales, hoping to leave audiences woozy from all the spectacle. 1933's "Deluge" doesn't feel the need to wait, establishing global destruction soon after the main titles, securing screen interest with an opening earthquake and tsunami sequence that promises bigger and crazier events to come. A pre-code production, "Deluge" doesn't massage initial momentum, but it contains enough oddity and tonal bravery to last, working to upset crowds with mass destruction, only to come back around with an askew tale of love and survival in a post-apocalyptic world. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Circle


“The Circle” had a shot at greatness. An adaptation of a 2013 novel by Dave Eggers, the story inspects a modern age of online permission and surveillance, imagining a Google/Facebook-style company as an evil empire trying to take over the world under the guise of honest exposure, gifting users the chance to live an idyllic life free of secrets and solitude. It’s a sinister plot, perhaps already a reflection of the world we live in, but the film version of the Eggers book runs into serious trouble with tone and editorial finesse, almost reaching cartoon extremes with incidents and disasters that should be horrifying, cutting too close to home. Co-writer/director James Ponsoldt (“The Spectacular Now,” “The End of the Tour”) graduates to large-scale storytelling with “The Circle,” but the effort slides right out of his hands almost as soon as it begins, with the picture often too clumsy and overcooked to frighten viewers. Read the rest at

Film Review - Sleight


“Sleight” is a movie about a magician, but it’s not a movie about magic. Much like the “Now You See Me” films, “Sleight” isn’t dedicated to the craftsmanship of the profession, instead using magic as a means to explore sci-fi ideas while keeping the whole endeavor tethered to the ground with an urban survival story. Co-writer/director J.D. Dillard presents a peculiar blend of the fantastic and the real, but he’s not particularly prepared to do something astonishing with the adventure. The picture bites off more than it can chew as it tries to make sense of its unreality, often turning to cliché and repetition just to fill 90 minutes with limp dramatics and the periodic pop of B-movie invention. Read the rest at

Film Review - Their Finest


“Their Finest” would make a lovely double feature companion for the recent smash hit, “Hidden Figures.” Both movies explore a journey of empowerment, albeit in wildly different eras and settings, but the pictures touch on a primal struggle to be seen and heard in both work and love, showing amazing respect for its leading characters. Where “Hidden Figures” was a decidedly American production, “Their Finest” couldn’t be more British, with director Lone Scherfig managing the sights and sounds of wartime London, with all its sacrifices, destruction, and frustrated citizens. Scherfig is also challenged to balance the needs to comedy with intimate emotional exploration, handling a story that’s wide open for pure silliness, sly wit, and stressed hearts and minds. It’s a blend of pathos and industry satire that works quite well. Read the rest at

Film Review - Graduation


“Graduation” captures the turmoil of parenthood with startling accuracy. While it’s a drama with a few convenient turns of plot, writer/director Cristian Mungiu remains committed to a realistic portrayal of a father and husband slowly losing what little control he has left over his dismal life, sent on a torturous journey of desperation to a secure something resembling a future for his daughter. Mungiu pinpoints behavioral leaps and emotional strain, highlighting the process of parental sacrifice, which is never as cleanly defined as hoped. “Graduation” doesn’t tear itself apart as it depicts this particular fall from grace. Instead, it chips away at integrity, real and imagined, finding the exact moment when a child recognizes their parent as the human they are, which is devastating for both parties. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Lost City of Z


James Gray is a very patient filmmaker, and he doesn’t work often. The helmer of “The Yards,” “The Immigrant,” and “We Own the Night,” Gray is a deliberate craftsman who takes the challenge of dramatic recreation seriously, filling his pictures with a remarkable amount of texture and depth, offering those who choose to take a cinematic journey a chance to get lost in screen particulars. Even when Gray slips up, he does it with style, always sincere and confident in the work. “The Lost City of Z” presents a true test of directorial courage, as it covers adventures into punishing locations, deals with tightly-wound characters not prone to emotional outbursts, and takes on a story that doesn’t exactly have an ending. At least a tidy one. Taking his chance to make a David Lean-style epic, Gray gives everything he has to “The Lost City of Z,” which isn’t an easy sit, but rewards with its attention to detail and fondness for the unknown.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Black Rose


“Black Rose” was originally released in Russia in 2014. For reasons not entirely understood, the picture is finally making its way to America in 2017, creating a Netflix-series-worthy mystery of film acquisition and delayed deal-making. Without stars and a pronounced genre hook, “Black Rose” is simply a generic cop thriller in need of something interesting to define itself, coming close with director/star Alexander Nevsky, who positions himself in the Seagal/Van Damme mode of tough guy justice. Sadly, Nevsky is a big guy but doesn’t possess anything more than a scowl, making him a weirdly inert hero for the endeavor, which could use a dose of physical prowess. Someone, somewhere thought it was a good idea to bring the feature west, but there are few clues in the movie as to why this decision was made. Read the rest at

Film Review - Rupture


Steven Shainberg doesn’t direct very often, but when he does, he specializes in fetishes, using the screen to explore interests in restraint and discipline. His last picture was 2006’s “Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus,” which explored abnormal body hair growth and artistic curiosity, but Shainberg is best known for 2002’s “Secretary,” which brought the private world of BDSM to art house audiences and Blockbuster Video renters, detailing an intense relationship between a dominant and a submissive in an office environment. Now there’s “Rupture,” which adds to Shainberg’s celebration of kink, but this round is more macabre, highlighting one bound woman’s experience with the limits of fear. “Rupture” is a bizarre effort and not at all satisfying, and as the feature begins to unravel while pursuing impossible visual and storytelling goals, one begins to wonder if the basic atmosphere of suffering isn’t feeding Shainberg’s personal appetites.  Read the rest at

Film Review - The Black Room


Director Rolfe Kanefsky has specialized in adult entertainment before, helming bluntly tiled pictures like “Sex Files: Alien Erotica” and “Adventures Into the Woods: A Sexy Musical.” He’s no stranger to the world of low-budget filmmaking, especially one that relies on salacious content to attract attention. With “The Black Room,” Kanefsky manages homage to Italian horror of the 1970s, which was never shy about the merging of gore and toplessness, amplifying his celebration of the decade’s delights throughout the feature, working to bend technical limitations into replication. To be fair to Kanefsky, “The Black Room” contains a few surprises, and the female stars of the movie deserve a medal for surviving what looks to be rather unpleasant special effects. However, a few decently raunchy moments don’t support an entire effort, which tends to miss more than hits as Kanefsky piles on the demonic mischief.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Prince of Foxes


Regality is the goal of 1949's "Prince of Foxes," which endeavors to play a royal game of loyalties and intimidation, adapting a 1947 book by Samuel Shellabarger, which took a close look at the reign of Cesare Borgia (played by Orson Welles) through the eyes of Andrea Orsini (Tyrone Power), a determined but conflicted soldier for the cause. Director Henry King goes for bigness with "Prince of Foxes," which was proudly shot around actual Borgia locations, giving the effort historical authenticity. The dramatic grip of the material is debatable, as initial intimacies and scheming give way to a wider canvas of deception and collaborations, transforming the picture into an iffy puzzle of last names and motivations. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Desire Will Set You Free


Art and individuality collide in "Desire Will Set You Free," which presents a charged snapshot of Berlin's underground scene, with its performance art, musical acts, and flavorful gay community. Co-writer/director/star Yony Leyser aims to braid his experiences in Germany with a story of personal awakening, supporting the journey with cameos from creative forces, a thumpy soundtrack, and a point of view that gives "Desire Will Set You Free" a distinct fingerprint other picture of this ilk lack. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The General


Trying to achieve bigger and brighter screen events, 1926's "The General" finds director/star Buster Keaton embarking on a herculean task, attempting to craft a slapstick comedy about the Civil War that makes extensive use of full-sized trains. It's the picture that almost torpedoed his career, but Keaton's folly has developed an appreciative audience over the last 90 years, becoming not only a beloved feature, but one largely considered to be his finest endeavor. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Three Ages


For 1923's "Three Ages," Buster Keaton wanted to prove himself as a feature-length helmer after a career crafting shorts. However, to achieve such box office dependability, he returned to the process of making shorts, transforming "Three Ages" into a study of time and comedy, capturing the wilds of human behavior in Prehistoric Times, the Roman Age, and Modern Times, identifying the evolution of society and the enduring insanity and determination of a man in love. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Babyface


1977's "Babyface" is an adult film that pulls a bit of a switcheroo with gender roles. The tale of an all-male brothel, the story puts women in positions of power, with director Alex de Renzy trying to acquire a slightly different sense of sexual gamesmanship, turning men into objects while exploring the ferocious bedroom appetites of paying customers simply looking for a warm body to an hour or two. "Babyface" isn't consistently progressive, prone to period obsessions with sexual assault, but little efforts count in John Mulligan's screenplay, which strives to make a hot movie turn in unique directions, keeping viewers interested in oddball encounters. Read the rest at

Film Review - Phoenix Forgotten


The found footage subgenre has been nothing but problematic over the years, inspiring iffy filmmakers to craft their own suspense or horror experiences using amateur actors and quaking camerawork. It seldom works, and even success stories are plagued with nagging issues of logic and creative aspiration. The latest contestant to try for a multiplex miracle is “Phoenix Forgotten,” which boasts producing participation from Ridley Scott, but the rest of the effort is strictly a no-budget lump that does nothing to reinvent found footage or is able to jazz it up with real tension. It’s a “Blair Witch Project” knockoff from co-writer/director Justin Barber, who goes through the motions with limited actors and bruising cinematography, aiming for a blend of investigation and chills from the sci-fi realm. Cruelly, “Phoenix Forgotten” doesn’t inspire awe, but a need to bury deep the whole found footage career plan for inexperienced moviemakers. Read the rest at

Film Review - Free Fire


At this point in his career, it’s pretty safe to label writer/director Ben Wheatley as an acquired taste. The helmer of “A Field in England,” “High-Rise,” and “Kill List,” Wheatley marches to the beat of own drummer when it comes to committing his cinematic interests to film. A firm believer in dark comedy and ultraviolence, he doesn’t make things easy for his audience, showing a level of independent spirit that’s rare to find these days. And yet, few of his features truly become something special, often lost in their own idiosyncrasies and nightmares, with Wheatley more invested in oddity than storytelling. His streak continues with “Free Fire,” which somehow manages to make an hour-long shootout feel endless and empty, despite the valiant efforts of an itchy ensemble that’s ready to play with bullets and taunts. Read the rest at

Film Review - Unforgettable


It’s not going to be easy for “Unforgettable” to find an audience. Decades ago, a sinister jealousy thriller wasn’t a weekly event, but cable channels such as Lifetime have diluted the market, making it nearly impossible for women to go crazy on the big screen and expect ticket-buyers to show up. While it’s not a radical reinvention of the subgenre, “Unforgettable” certainly isn’t a wipe-out, putting in a little hustle when it comes to scripted motivations and technical achievements, while stars Rosario Dawson and Katherine Heigl commit to the slow-burn madness with engaging performances. Director Denise Di Novi attempts to class up the warring wives routine, and while she doesn’t knock the effort out of the park, she certainly makes a positive impression with a fatigued premise. Read the rest at

Film Review - Born in China


After sitting out last year, Disneynature returns to screens with “Born in China,” which could be viewed as another chapter of Earth’s wonders opened for inspection, or perhaps the Disney Corporation is trying to extend the box office reach of their nature documentary series by setting the story in a red-hot moviegoing market. Interpretation of production motivation is up to the individual viewer, but the essentials of “Born in China” remain free of cynicism, with director Chuan Lu achieving impressive results with his mission to photograph wildlife in motion, keeping the picture steeped in the natural beauty of China while he works out various subplots that touch on life, death, and adorableness. Read the rest at

Film Review - Sandy Wexler


When Adam Sandler signed a deal to make movies for Netflix, giving up the theatrical distribution business, he was offered financial freedom to make pictures studios would normally refuse. With “The Ridiculous 6,” Sandler starred in an expensive western, becoming a hero who rides horses and saves the day. In “The Do-Over,” Sandler was offered an opportunity to make an R-rated comedy -- a rare event in his career. And now there’s “Sandy Wexler,” a personal project where the comedian pays tribute to the failures and idiosyncrasies of his manager, Sandy Wernick. It’s also the longest endeavor in Sandler’s career, clocking in at a whopping 131 minutes, which is a level of Netflix permissiveness studios would never allow, and for good reason. There’s no reason why an Adam Sandler feature should run over two hours, especially one like “Sandy Wexler,” where nothing actually happens outside of an extended impression of Wernick only a small group of Hollywood insiders are going to get. Read the rest at

Film Review - Sand Castle


It’s difficult to avoid a sense of familiarity with “Sand Castle,” which examines the fried headspaces of soldiers fighting in the Iraq War. It’s a setting and a story that’s been told many times before, through films and documentaries, with each production searching for authenticity, following the same path of procedural inspection and personal breakdown. “Sand Castle” manages to define itself through its depiction of hesitation, watching the lead character attempt to delay the inevitable for as long as possible, receiving a distinct education on the price of war. Screenwriter Chris Roessner (a war vet making his feature-length debut) has all the details down perfectly, but his true challenge is one of focus, with “Sand Castle” tasked with taking in the enormity of combat and articulating the subtle ways it shatters individual participants.  Read the rest at