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May 2017

Blu-ray Review - Karate Girl


2011's "Karate Girl" was marketed as a celebration of true fighting prowess, even repeatedly declaring in its trailer that the picture was made without the use of CGI. Bravo to the producers for attempting to restore some organic aggression into their action endeavor, but did the package as a whole have to be so dull? Spending time on martial arts choreography but not on sets, locations, and actors, "Karate Girl" is a fairly banal feature, doing shockingly little with its revenge scenario and magical treasures. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - I Am Not a Serial Killer


Adapted from a novel by Dan Wells, "I Am Not a Serial Killer" is one of the better chillers I've seen in recent memory, using an enticing sense of mystery to act as glue for macabre events occurring in a tiny Minnesota town. It's the new film from burgeoning genre moviemaker Billy O'Brien, and he gives his latest work some serious thought, trying to balance the needs of unsettling characterization with slightly damaged people and a grander arc of horror that takes more than a few unusual directions. "I Am Not a Serial Killer" works best without a full understanding of what lies ahead, so the spoiler-sensitive (and you know who you are) should walk away from this review now, preferably straight to a Blu-ray of the picture, ready to appreciate the dramatic subtleties and indie production achievements of the feature, which offers much more than predictable shock value. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Tower


While the 1966 University of Texas Tower Shooting certainly isn't the first act of gun violence in America, it's largely recognized as a preamble to the world we live in today, where aggression and displays of armament feel like a weekly event. While it was far from an innocent time, occurring during the Vietnam War, the event, where Charles Whitman situated himself on the top floor of the University of Texas Tower and began shooting at students and staff with a small arsenal, joined various motivated murders to erode America's innocence, commencing a new dawn in anytown-style catastrophe. "Tower" is a bold examination of the day's events, but instead of strictly employing talking heads to understand increasing anxiety as Whitman commanded the area for 96 minutes, director Keith Maitland uses rotoscoped animation to replicate intensity and explore the scene, putting focus on those on the ground trying to survive a nightmarish and seemingly never-ending experience. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Lovers on the Bridge


Leos Carax doesn't make many movies, but when he does, he tends to go all-out with his endeavors, searching for ways to wake up cinema as his explores universal themes of love and time. 1991's "The Lovers on the Bridge" is largely considered the ultimate Carax experience, combining his interest in the theatrical and his obsession with heartache, cooking up a wild viewing experience that bends reality and celebrates oddity, but remains achingly human at its core, showcasing an impressive balance of tone while highlighting all types of impulsive, self-destructive behavior. Read the rest at

Film Review - Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales


13 years ago, there was “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.” It was the little blockbuster that could, overcoming dismissive press due to its theme park origin and heavy competition at the box office, becoming the third highest grossing picture of 2003. It earned its success through imaginative storytelling and a playful tone that balanced light and dark events, and there was Johnny Depp, who created a memorable character in Jack Sparrow, redefining what it means to be a big screen pirate. Back-to-back sequels followed in 2006 and ’07, and the bloat started to set in, with the producers caring more about enormity of visual effects than pure adventure. And 2011’s “On Stranger Tides” flatlined from the very first scene, struggling to come up with anything even remotely thrilling. After a long break from SparrowLand, “Dead Men Tell No Tales” arrives with the opportunity to revitalize the franchise, to find a new direction that could rekindle the mischief and mystery of “The Curse of the Black Pearl.” Sadly, “Dead Men Tell No Tales” doesn’t possess the ambition to be anything more than yet another noisy “Pirates of the Caribbean” misfire. Read the rest at

Film Review - Baywatch


One doesn’t expect a cinematic miracle with a big screen adaptation of the television show “Baywatch,” but a little effort wouldn’t have hurt. Seth Gordon, the director of “Four Christmases,” “Identity Thief” and “Horrible Bosses,” is put in charge of the transition, with the production taking a cheeky, skin-heavy show with mild heroics and turning it into an R-rated raunch fest that takes its ridiculous plot too seriously, often at the expense of character and comedic timing. The new “Baywatch” is an extended joke, hinting at parody, but it ends up a misfire without enthralling stunt work or even a proper beach vibe. It’s barely even an episode of the show, coming up short in almost every department except abdominal muscle definition. That’s the feature’s primary achievement. Read the rest at

Film Review - Wakefield


It’s hard to resist the premise of “Wakefield,” which finds the lead character intentionally hiding away from his dysfunctional family for months, observing the chaos and concern raised in his absence. It’s an ideal role for any actor, but star Bryan Cranston positively sinks his teeth into part, giving the material (adapted from a short story by E.L. Doctorow) necessary attitude and dramatic commitment, offering his best big screen work in some time. Writer/director Robin Swicord clearly relishes her time with Cranston, allowing him room to do his thing, and “Wakefield” creates an intriguing balance of comedy and darkness to support the actor, examining identity and responsibility with this atypical tale of male escape. Read the rest at

Film Review - Berlin Syndrome


As if moviegoers need another reason to be wary of European strangers. “Berlin Syndrome” teases a case of xenophobia, but it’s really a grim chiller that introduces and explores the miserable existence of Stockholm syndrome, which is a complex psychological concept that requires something more than cheap scare. Director Cate Shortland offers terrific command of the material, generating all the requisite horror of capture and imprisonment, but there’s more in the margins with “Berlin Syndrome” (based on a book by Melanie Joosten, scripted by Shaun Grant), which drills deeper into sicko games of possession to explore sensuality, anger, and, ultimately, submission. Shortland has a specific vision for this mix of “Misery” and “Hostel,” refusing to break her effort down into digestible exploitation chunks for easier consumption. Read the rest at

Film Review - Becoming Bond


There’s a movie to be made about the life and times of George Lazenby, and “Becoming Bond” isn’t it. Part documentary, part reenactment, the feature struggles to share Lazenby’s colorful experiences, where the Australian car salesman became a male model, eventually finding his way into the starring role of 1969’s “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” taking over the role of James Bond from Sean Connery, who left his post at the height of his Bondian fame. A rehearsed rascal, bruiser, and raconteur, Lazenby does sit down with director Josh Greenbaum to recount the steps toward his legendary one-film duty as 007, but “Becoming Bond” often plays like an iffy “Funny or Die” short, lacking polish, focus, and laughs to truly become the raucous celebration of a bad business decision it wants to be. Read the rest at

Film Review - Black Butterfly


There have been many movies about the frustrations that arise with writer’s block. It’s not an inherently cinematic affliction to explore, requiring some genre boosts to keep the mad tango between artist and inspiration twirling along. Director Brian Goodman (who previously helmed the terrific 2008 drama, “What Doesn’t Kill You”) and writers Marc Frydman and Justin Stanley have a few tricks up their sleeves with “Black Butterfly,” which endeavors to tap into the insanity of the creative process, doing so through the guise of a thriller that attacks both physically and psychologically. “Black Butterfly” is likely to divide audience with its twists and turns, but it’s rarely dull, perhaps best appreciated as a higher minded exploitation effort than a brain-bleeder with occasionally iffy working parts. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Wizard of Lies


Most filmmakers don’t want to portray evil in a straightforward manner, especially real-world villainy, which is often too nuanced to simply fit for a black hat. “The Wizard of Lies” has the difficult task of humanizing Bernie Madoff, the stockbroker and investment advisor who built a Ponzi scheme that defrauded clients on a grand scale, erasing 65 billion dollars from those counting on a secure financial future. An adaptation of Diana B. Henriques’s book, “The Wizard of Lies” certainly isn’t a cinematic shoulder rub, with director Barry Levinson attempting to understand the psychological and technical details of the scheme, which, for Madoff and his family, became a daily reality, giving the production a compelling perspective to work with as it figures out a way to make a Bernie Madoff movie without immediately crucifying its dastardly subject. Read the rest at

Film Review - Obit


In 2011, director Andrew Rossi brought viewers into the offices of the New York Times for “Page One,” a documentary exploring the daily experience of journalism in its highest form, making note of writers and challenges that go into the creation of news. It was a fascinating look at the mechanics and personalities that make up the newspaper, and “Obit” returns to the same location, only this time director Vanessa Gould takes a deeper dive into a specific type of coverage for the New York Times, examining the construction and care of the obituary department. Like “Page One,” “Obit” is a fascinating inspection of 9-5 work, highlighting the research, writing, and personal touches of the obituary section, with its staff trying to make their assignments something special, continuing a prized tradition of the paper. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Skull


Keeping their standing as titans of the horror genre, stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee move from Hammer Films to Amicus Productions for 1965's "The Skull," which keeps the actors busy with a different type of threat emerging from the haunted skull of the Marquis de Sade. Adapted from a short story by "Psycho" author Robert Bloch and directed by Freddie Francis, "The Skull" has the benefit of being just weird enough to work, exploring the limits of sanity and the perils of antique dealing, experiencing evil through a strange vessel of paranormal influence. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Fire at Sea


"Fire at Sea" takes a look at the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean Sea, but approaches the topic with a sense of distance at first, holding back on horrors as the documentary acclimates to the Italian island of Lampedusa, the setting for this story. It's the latest work from director Gianfranco Rosi and an often powerful presentation of extremes, contrasting the daily activities of locals and the waking nightmare occurring out on the waters, where migrants from Africa and the Middle East approach on ramshackle boats often filled with a sick and the dead. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Certain Fury


The theatrical trailer for 1985's "Certain Fury" is quick to remind viewers that the film stars two Academy Award winners, clawing for any morsel of dignity it can find to build the feature up as something more respectable than it actually is. It's true, Irene Cara (who collected an Oscar in 1984 for Best Original Song) and Tatum O'Neal (who brought home a little gold man in 1974 at the age of ten for her supporting turn in "Paper Moon") have reached the pinnacle of peer reward in Hollywood, but they're not exactly two forces of thespian power. "Certain Fury" is an exercise in B-moviemaking from director Stephen Gyllenhaal (father to Jake and Maggie), who makes his helming debut here, tasked with butching up Cara and O'Neal for a chase picture that resembles "The Defiant Ones," but mostly plays out like a television show from the mid-1980s, likely airing after "The A-Team." Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Man Who Could Cheat Death


Weird science is discussed at length in 1959's "The Man Who Could Cheat Death," which adapts a stage play for the screen, hoping a little oddity with a "The Picture of Dorian Gray"-style premise might be enough to satisfy horror fans. Frights aren't important to director Terence Fisher, and while he tries to summon a spooky mood of strange events and medical urgency, he can't avoid the reality that this is one talky endeavor. "The Man Who Could Cheat Death" isn't a whiff for Hammer Films, but it's far from their most suspenseful effort. Read the rest at

Film Review - Everything, Everything


While there’s an extensive history of teen-centric tearjerkers conquering the box office, the raging success of 2014’s “The Fault in Our Stars” has revived the art of tender manipulation, paving the way for “Everything, Everything,” which plays a similar game of grave illness and romantic liberation shared by young characters. An adaptation of a 2015 novel by Nicola Yoon, the picture doesn’t have the severity of “The Fault in Our Stars,” electing more of a grounded, tech-minded understanding of modern love, keeping its dramatic aspirations in check, investing in character as it explores an impossible connection between two lonely people. While pieces seem to be missing from the narrative, director Stella Meghie knows what she’s doing with “Everything, Everything,” creating a visual language for the feature that merges fantasy and reality without bumpy points of entry. Read the rest at

Film Review - Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul


Originally a series of YA books from author Jeff Kinney, the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” brand name found its way to the big screen in 2010, introduced with an uneven, unappealing adaptation that basically confirmed Kinney’s world was better suited for the page, where its cartoon shenanigans could be left to the imagination. Two terrible sequels followed (the last released in 2012), each met with flat box office returns and overall audience indifference. However, profits were made, inspiring Hollywood to try again, reawakening the saga of Greg and his hapless family for “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul,” which completely recasts and refocuses the franchise, though co-writer/director Dave Bowers (who helmed the last two movies) returns, hellbent on proving his unpleasant comedic vision for this feature, ending up with the worst “Wimpy Kid” sequel yet. Read the rest at

Film Review - A Quiet Passion


If there’s one person capable of bringing the life and times of poet Emily Dickinson to the screen, it’s Terence Davies. The director of “The House of Mirth,” “Sunset Song,” and “The Deep Blue Sea,” Davies has focused his career on artful pursuits, fascinated by social showdowns and private desires, all the while developing helming interests that lean toward the painterly, making beautiful pictures that value cinematic art. “A Quiet Passion” isn’t a traditional bio-pic of Emily, missing many years and life-changing movements. Instead, it remains tight on its subject, keeping poetic purging constant, but also setting out to grasp artistic drive, which is often motivated by an unquenchable thirst to be understood. Davies finds the edges of Emily’s life, but he’s primarily motivated by mood, keeping viewers immersed in the moment as the poet hones her talent and begins to share it with outsiders. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Survivalist


“The Survivalist” isn’t made to comfort its audience. It’s punishment from writer/director Stephen Fingleton, who’s determined to communicate the horrifying end of civilization with this survival chiller, which depicts savagery, betrayal, and sacrifice with a disturbing matter-of-fact tone. It works because it’s meant to be frightening, understanding an all-too-real possibility of global breakdown, but it remains intimate, focusing on the plight of three characters locked in an uneasy situation of trust, dealing with their own issues while threats from the outside world creep into view. “The Survivalist” is harrowing and savage, and Fingleton is largely successful with his tonal and visceral goals, only periodically allowing the ugliness of this story to reach beyond its grasp. Read the rest at