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June 2017

Film Review - The House


Within the first five minutes of “The House,” the movie makes light of date rape, and it’s all downhill from there. This should be a home run, pairing Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler in a comedy about an underground suburban casino, encouraging major mischief from two actors perfectly capable of onscreen play until something strikes gold. And yet, “The House” is nearly a complete dud, watching co-writer/director Andrew Jay Cohen tank every moment, unable to get a rhythm going as the picture stumbles from scene to scene. It’s thinly connected series of sketches in need of a script, finding Ferrell and Poehler oddly powerless here, struggling to come up with one decent, considered, expertly timed joke. Cohen would rather scattergun the humor, which creates an unfocused, unhelpful mess starring talented people. Read the rest at

Film Review - Despicable Me 3


Animation studio Illumination Entertainment has built a cash machine with the “Despicable Me” franchise, maintaining a rhythm to releases since the first film’s 2010 debut. Although it’s been four years since the release of “Despicable Me 2,” Illumination didn’t let the brand name wither, unleashing spin-off “Minions” in 2015, which racked up over a billion dollars in worldwide box office. Now it’s time for “Despicable Me” to prove itself once again, with the second sequel returning to the neuroses of ex-supervillain Gru, keeping the Minions to a supporting position for this successful continuation -- the finest installment yet in the series, valuing ridiculousness, pace, and wisely bringing in Trey Parker to energize the picture as Gru’s latest nemesis. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Bad Batch


Ana Lily Amirpour made her directorial debut with 2014’s “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” described as “the first Iranian vampire western.” Some found it to be revelatory work, blending cultural investigation with genre mechanics, coming up with a moody original that signaled the arrival of a major creative talent. Others found the picture dull and indulgent, working a bit too hard to be offbeat, preferring style over substance. “The Bad Batch” is Amirpour’s second at-bat, and she largely retains the same genre interests, constructing another dialogue-light foray into graphic novel-inspired menace, this time using a different type of bloodsucker: cannibals. “The Bad Batch” enjoys a larger budget and an ensemble of familiar faces, but Amirpour shows no improvement when it comes to focus, laboring through another tedious exercise in nothingness, working extra hard to end up nowhere.  Read the rest at

Film Review - The Big Sick


Producer Judd Apatow has a formula he likes to recycle. Embracing realism to inform character and comedy, Apatow frequently encourages writers to dig deep within, challenging them to use private humiliations and fears, with hopes that a personal touch will result in a more intimate movie or show. Think Pete Homes in “Crashing,” Amy Schumer in “Trainwreck,” Lena Dunham in “Girls,” and even Apatow himself in “This Is 40.” The latest member of the introspection club is Kumail Nanjiani, a Pakistani comedian using his borderline disastrous courtship with Emily Gordon to help shape “The Big Sick.” Scripting with Gordon, Nanjiani makes the leap to leading man status with the effort, following Apatow’s to-do list of mishaps and neuroses to conjure the expected awkwardness and warmth these pictures tend to generate, only the predictability of it all is more pronounced.  Read the rest at

Film Review - The Beguiled


Writer/director Sofia Coppola was once a filmmaker of immense power, delivering subtle emotion and overwhelming atmosphere with early works such as “The Virgin Suicides” and “Lost in Translation.” Her subsequent endeavors have been beautiful, but cold to the touch, adrift in style not storytelling with “Marie Antoinette,” “Somewhere,” and “The Bling Ring.” There’s immediate disappointment with “The Beguiled,” as it’s not a return to form for Coppola, but it remains a fascinating feature. While the R-word (“remake”) is forbidden around these parts, “The Beguiled” is the second adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel, which was first brought to the screen via a 1971 Clint Eastwood vehicle, helmed by Don Siegel. Coppola’s effort isn’t quite as direct with its tension, but she does manage to dilute the insistent masculinity of the previous production, constructing a measured, feminine take on what’s essentially an exploitation picture tastefully displayed behind glass.  Read the rest at

Film Review - The Little Hours


Writer/director Jeff Baena has made a positive impression during his emerging career, pulling off a horror comedy with “Life After Beth,” and achieving a cinematic miracle with “Joshy,” a movie about male bonding that wasn’t basted in ugliness. “The Little Hours” proves to be his greatest tonal challenge yet, mounting a comedy that’s not always pursuing laughs, and its target is repression found in organized religion. It’s a gamble from Baena, likely alienating a great number of potential viewers right out of the gate, but he mostly sticks the landing, finding ways to scrape out the blasphemy by playing it all so broadly, making a film that certainly has the potential to reach farcical highs, but pulls back a bit too often, perhaps afraid to really dive into the weirdness of the material.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Okja


Director Bong Joon-ho has maintained an impressive streak of dramatically satisfying films, displaying wonderful creativity with efforts such as “The Host,” “Mother,” and especially 2014’s “Snowpiercer,” which astounded with its tonal confidence, dark comedy, and vivid performances. The helmer returns to duty with “Okja,” another strange event from a man who has considerable experience in the realm of oddity. What begins as a tender tale of friendship between a little girl and her gigantic pig becomes something incredibly wild and grim, while still retaining engaging action and offerings of social commentary the keep the viewing experience lively, even when it already involves the antics of a massive CG-animated creature.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Baby Driver


It’s been four years since Edgar Wright last directed a movie (2013’s “The World’s End), and “Baby Driver” plays like a picture made by a man who desperately wants to release some wiggles. It’s a semi-furious concoction of music and widescreen movement, continuing Wright’s addiction to cinematic speed, this time taking his fetishes to the streets of Atlanta to mastermind a crime film that’s driven by the mystery of an iPod playlist. “Baby Driver” is an idiosyncratic endeavor, perhaps a bit too in love with itself, but it’s entirely, 100% Wright, who rubs his fingers over every edit and lubricates the viewing experience with full soundtrack of hits and misses. The effort is noticeable and carries on longer than it should, but Wright has something here that’s volatile and distinct, keeping himself busy with another visit to Planet Edgar, where feats of strength are superhuman, attitudes are plentiful, and direction is nearly unstoppable.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Jigsaw Murders


1989's "The Jigsaw Murders" (where only one titular killing takes place) is positioned as a crime story with occasional interruptions by the demands of exploitation cinema. Some nudity remains, and a few ghastly encounters are detailed, but director Jag Mundhra prizes characterization first and foremost, bending the Roger Corman-released project in a way that explores psychological issues, not just a body count. It's a valiant attempt to do something different with bottom-shelf production values, and while "The Jigsaw Murders" isn't completely victorious, there's some grit and excitement to hold attention, and the picture's gradual evolution into camp isn't entirely unpleasant. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Savage Attraction


There's a reason why 1983's "Savage Attraction" (titled "Hostage" on the print) insists on reminding viewers on multiple occasions that it's based on a true story. Otherwise, it would be easy to fault the filmmakers for committing such melodramatic nonsense to the screen. To buy into this world of abuse and manipulation, it takes a substantial leap of faith, as director Frank Shields (who scripts with John Lind) details a tremendous amount of stupidity without the psychological depth to back it up. Marital violence is no laughing matter, but the way it's presented in "Savage Attraction," one finds themselves checking the lead character's head for signs of a recent lobotomy. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Don't Go in the House


Reworking elements from "Psycho" to manufacture a new tale of damaged childhood and motherly worship, co-writer/director Joseph Ellison goes deep into the psychological abyss with 1979's "Don't Go in the House." Already an uneasy picture due to its horror content, the feature takes aggression to the next level with its depiction of abuse and murder, fulfilling a genre obsession with the torture of women. While decidedly low budget, "Don't Go in the House" is effective in spurts, winning points for its bizarre depiction of violent appetites and Ellison's mild style, which puts in a noticeable effort to sell frights and repulsion without breaking its concentration on the nightmarish story it's trying to sell. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Anatahan


After a lengthy, celebrated career in silent and sound features, director Josef von Sternberg elected to close out his filmmaking interests with 1953's "Anatahan," a picture he continued to tinker with long after its initial release. Dramatizing the true story of Japanese soldiers stranded for six years on an island after their home country's surrender (eventually confronted with the allure of the lone woman living there), "Anatahan" takes a strange story of isolation and delivers it with a docudrama approach that finds von Sternberg assuming narration duties, becoming a personal guide to a war story trapped in time. Read the rest at

Film Review - Transformers: The Last Knight


There are always going to be ardent fans of director Michael Bay. People who not only respond to the helmer’s pictures, but wear their fandom like a badge of honor, proud to celebrate a man whose chief pursuit during his career has been the creation of utter screen chaos. Bay has always been a populist filmmaker, and his “Transformers” movies have been welcomed with open arms, even when they suffer through severe storytelling issues, wretched performances, and aggressive visual effects. Audiences just love this stuff, all over the globe too, making him bulletproof when it comes to criticism, but not immune to shortcomings. “Transformers: The Last Knight” isn’t the worst chapter of the eye-crossing saga (the one that showcased Decepticon testicles, that’s the worst), but it’s close, watching Bay say sayonara to this blockbuster cash machine with a “Transformers” retirement party that’s deafening, bewildering, and painfully clichéd, showing little interest in anything besides the Bay basics when it comes to yet another round of metal-crunching madness. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Exception


Are audiences ready for a sympathetic portrait of German authority during the dawn of WWII? “The Exception” believes so, striving to mix sex and contemplation during a hostile time in European history, searching for the nuanced psychology of those participating in, or at least confronted by, a horrific change in wartime atrocities. Director David Leveaux leans toward sensuality to help ease the audience into a challenging plot, finding some success with raw feelings and urges. But the overall feel of “The Exception” isn’t defined to satisfaction, stuck between the demands of its literary origins (based on the book “The Kaiser’s Last Kiss,” by Alan Judd) and its slightly veiled desire to become a wartime melodrama, with hunky Nazis, conflicted women, and a raving old man. It’s a passably engaging film, but anyone expecting a serious deconstruction of Third Reich policies and complications of animal-like attraction aren’t likely to be enlightened by anything presented here. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Hero


“The Hero” doesn’t exactly tell a story. It’s more of a valentine to lead actor Sam Elliot, supplying him with a role that makes full use of his thespian gifts, offering enough contemplative screentime to watch him explore the frame in ways he’s rarely even enjoyed before. Of course, such adulation is entirely deserved, with the leathery, thickly mustachioed actor capable of amazing things when paired with the right material, with co-writer/director Brett Haley (“I’ll See You in My Dreams”) making sure all of Elliot’s needs are tended to. “The Hero” floats along without much focus, but it’s not meant to be sharp, electing a dreamy journey through the trials and tribulations of a man forced to confront his own mortality and mistakes, suddenly faced with finality after decades gliding along, self-medicating and denying. And Elliot plays it all just perfectly. Read the rest at

Film Review - Ripped


I suppose a stoner comedy should be easygoing, but it’s often difficult to tell if “Ripped” is even awake. The picture doesn’t exude much energy, putting its faith in the entertainment value of F-words and pot smoke, but it’s not a mean-spirited effort, which should be a blessing, as gentleness is one of the few appealing aspects of “Ripped,” which doesn’t lunge for the throat when depicting low-brow funny business. A mild attempt to replicate the “Hot Tub Time Machine” viewing experience, writer/director Brad Epstein doesn’t have the inner drive to do something insane with the material, putting stars Faizon Love and Russell Peters in charge of screen charisma and one-liners. The men certainly look like they’re having a good time, but seldom does that ease translate into laughs. Read the rest at

Film Review - Letters from Baghdad


Timing is everything, and “Letters from Baghdad” hits theaters right after “Queen of the Desert” breezed through a few U.S. art houses this past spring. Both pictures endeavor to tell the story of Gertrude Bell, but “Queen of the Desert” had the advantage of Werner Herzog as a director, and a notable cast, featuring Damian Lewis, Robert Pattinson, James Franco, and Nicole Kidman as Bell. It was far from a triumph, but it offered a sufficiently dramatic take on the woman’s experiences in life and love, laboring to turn her adventures in the Middle East into sweeping big screen entertainment. “Letters from Baghdad” emerges as the more successful production, armed with the basics in evidence. Directors Sabine Krayenbuhl and Zeva Oelbaum pore through diaries, letters, and observations to generate a portrait of Bell, making a feature that’s more in tune with her achievements in archaeology, filling in necessary gaps with Bell’s own intimate thoughts. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - A Game of Death


The 1924 short story, "The Most Dangerous Game" (by Richard Connell), has been adapted on multiple occasions over the last 90 years, but in 1945, it was still fresh creative ground, arriving on the big screen as "A Game of Death." Changes were made to accommodate a new creative perspective, but director Robert Wise sticks to the essentials of the macabre horror story, pitting strangers against a madman on a remote island, where the sport of hunting takes on a whole new level of intensity once man is made the target. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Electric Chair


1976's "The Electric Chair" offers a haunting title and an initial scene of corpse discovery that promises something macabre to come. However, it's unwise to trust drive-in cinema, which often uses every trick in the book to sucker audiences in to see something they'd otherwise avoid like the plague. Instead of a chiller, "The Electric Chair" is a particularly terrible episode of "Law & Order," taking the action to North Carolina, where lawyers and cops attempt to figure out the motive behind a double murder and bring someone to justice for the crime. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Daughter


"The Daughter" is an adaptation of "The Wild Duck," an 1884 play written by Henrik Ibsen. The Norwegian playwright is not known for his cheery study of character, instead working to find behavioral and emotional authenticity in everyday interactions, building tensions from within. Writer/director Simon Stone (making his directorial debut) is determined to protect Ibsen's solemnity in "The Daughter" while modernizing the story to fit more relatable concerns of heart and home. It's a penetrating family saga, which braids together dysfunction and secrets to create a series of hidden betrayals uncovered as the film unfolds, and Stone confidently manages each horrific unveiling. He also sustains Ibsen's uncompromising plotting, which ranges from cracks in the concrete to all out war, generating a wild ride of anger that brings the material to full attention. It's dark work, but satisfying in the way it values these personalities and their individual approaches to strife. Read the rest at