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June 2017

Blu-ray Review - A Great Wall


Co-writer/director Peter Wang makes a very unassuming picture with 1986's "A Great Wall." While its claim to fame is the distinction of being the first U.S. production permitted to film a Chinese story in China, Wang doesn't wear the impressive access with arrogance. Instead, he creates a family dramedy that explores disparate cultures with sensitivity and remarkable insight, making a movie about characters, not just previously forbidden locations. While it has elements of humor, "A Great Wall" is best in meditative mode, simply taking in the sights and sounds of a newly welcoming country. Read the rest at

Film Review - All Eyez on Me


If you’re not a scholar on all things Tupac Shakur, there’s no reason to see “All Eyez on Me.” Those new to the slain rapper’s world aren’t going to learn anything of value about the man or the myth, with screenwriters Jeremy Haft, Eddie Gonzalez, and Steven Bagatourian simply rehashing a greatest hits package of hot tempers and bad decisions, barely making an effort to dig below the surface. It’s a tongue bath meant to celebrate Tupac’s questionable legacy instead of challenging it, playing to the devoted with disjointed storytelling that liberally leaps through the years, creating a loose portrait of a music artist who never did wrong, constantly suffered through persecution, and always led with a heroic attitude. Much like 2015’s “Straight Outta Compton,” it’s a hagiography, but one that never rises above the quality of a basic cable movie. Read the rest at

Film Review - Cars 3

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“Cars 3” is the apology for “Cars 2” we all deserve. Not that 2006’s “Cars” was an amazing achievement in animated entertainment, but “Cars 2” was built almost entirely out of bad ideas, with Pixar so concerned with taking the franchise in a fresh direction, it forgot what was modestly appealing about the material to begin with. Recognizing a swing and a miss, Pixar rebounds with “Cars 3,” which eliminates the gratuitous violence and slapstick antics of bumbling tow truck Mater to return to the essentials of Lightning McQueen race world anxiety. Director Brian Fee (taking over for John Lasseter) knows exactly what he want from the second sequel, keeping the picture stuffed with likable characters, mild tests of integrity, and a sustained examination of aging, preserving a circular arc of maturity that picks up where “Cars” left off. Read the rest at

Film Review - Rough Night


As the title suggests, things do not go well for the characters in “Rough Night.” Keeping up with Hollywood trends, the feature is a hard R-rated comedy that enjoys shock value and the limited reach of improvisational comedy, providing its five leads with ample opportunity to riff their way around scenes, searching for the funny instead of bringing a completed script to life. There are limits to this type of entertainment, and co-writer/director Lucia Aniello finds them all, but not before landing enough decent scenes and ace one-liners to make one wonder what happened to “Rough Night” in the editing room. The finished product has an appealing first half, but dies horribly in the second, overstaying its welcome as the screenplay is only partially paid attention to, keeping the picture either screwball or weirdly serious, never particularly successful at either end of the spectrum. Read the rest at

Film Review - 47 Meters Down


Last summer, there was “The Shallows.” A relatively low-budget effort, the feature promoted the heck out of its shark attack angle, hoping to rope in ticket-buyers for what was actually more a survival film with a pronounced emotional hook. “The Shallows” turned out to be a surprise hit, inspiring the competition to cook up a shark tale of their own for the summer of 2017. Surprisingly, there was already one completed, awaiting a DVD release, even making it into a few stores before it was acquired for a major theatrical release. “47 Meters Down” was yanked from the precipice of DTV obscurity, offered a shot to prove itself with a shark-hungry audience, with hopes that its painfully limited budget and lack of polish won’t matter to those who simply crave a deep water frenzy, and nothing more. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Book of Henry


“The Book of Henry” wants to be loved, and it won’t allow its audience to consider any other reaction to the work besides pure, teary joy. It’s a return to smaller-budgeted filmmaking for director Colin Trevorrow, who gained industry attention with 2012’s “Safety Not Guaranteed,” quickly accepting an opportunity to try blockbuster helming on for size, guiding 2015’s “Jurassic World.” Perhaps searching for a palate cleanser before taking the reins on “Star Wars: Episode IX,” Trevorrow gives the impression he’s returning to a human story after orchestrating dinosaur rampages, but “The Book of Henry” just as fantastical as “Jurassic World,” with screenwriter Gregg Hurwitz lost in preciousness with what should be a devastating drama, while Trevarrow welcomes any chance for manipulation, making as candy-coated a feature as possible, avoiding realism and characterization to focus almost solely on cloying storytelling. Read the rest at

Film Review - Lost in Paris


“Lost in Paris” is a latest effort from Fiona Gordon and Dominique Abel, a married couple who’ve built their career on numerous collaborations, holding a shared love of silly business, mastered by the likes of Chaplin, Keaton, and Tati. Co-directing pictures such as “Rumba” and “The Fairy,” Gordon and Abel maintain the family business with “Lost in Paris,” which plays to their strengths of slapstick, whimsy, and the absurd. It’s a fairly strange feature, but that’s exactly how the couple likes it, organizing a special series of physical and psychological challenges for the characters they portray, with the endeavor riding waves of pure comedic bliss and slower oddity. While the film never snowballs into an outright farce, moments of composition and timing are fantastic, showcasing just how sharp Gordon and Abel are with adorable lunacy. Read the rest at

Film Review - Kill Switch


While certain movies have experimented with the first-person perspective, last year’s “Hardcore Henry” elected to utilize the unique POV throughout the entire picture. It was a hyper-violent, cheeky romp, with its experimental ambition its only real success, daring to give video game fans the cinematic experience nobody in particular asked for. “Kill Switch” is the next production up to bat, also employing a first-person perspective to detail the experience of a corporate mercenary lost in a strange land, with only his computer display in front of his eyes to keep him steady. Based on a short, “Kill Switch” doesn’t have much to do the stretch itself to the 90 minute mark, but it certainly embraces the technical challenge, with director Tim Smit aiming to please with an in-your-face viewing experience that’s just fine with violence, but less confident with dramatics, which struggle to provide life to an otherwise cold, digital production. Read the rest at

Film Review - Once Upon a Time in Venice


Bruce Willis hasn’t been the most invested actor in recent years, taking roles in a string of B-movies where his paycheck likely ate up half the production budget. As he enters his twilight years, Willis has stopped caring, which has been difficult to watch, finding the man who once dazzled with intensity in “Die Hard” now sleepwalking through his career, making awful choices to keep himself busy. “Once Upon a Time in Venice” isn’t a satisfying feature, but it requires Willis to be more active, accepting a lead role that asks the veteran actor to skateboard in the nude, dress as a woman, and tolerate improvisational efforts from Thomas Middleditch. For that alone, Willis deserves every penny he commands. “Once Upon a Time in Venice” is flat and unfunny but, at the very least, it requires Willis to break a sweat, which he does with a slight boost in thespian commitment. Read the rest at

Film Review - Band Aid


Zoe Lister-Jones has been a problematic presence in film, often stuck portraying best friends and cold individuals, while her screenwriting career delivered “Lola Versus,” one of the worst movies of 2012. With “Band Aid,” Lister-Jones graduates to the director’s chair, helming an unusual ode to the pressures, trials, and weird balance of married life. Storytelling-wise, the picture is slow-pitch softball, basically creating a domestic gladiatorial arena for Lister-Jones and co-star Adam Pally to work on their improvisational skills, weaving through light and dark moments that are meant to represent the flow of codependency. “Band Aid” is a much better feature when it’s not trying so hard to be profound, coming alive in the rare moments when Lister-Jones isn’t taking a sledgehammer to drive home themes. There’s definitely something here that’s worth a viewing, but it takes some patience to get through Lister-Jones and her reliance on cliché to connect the dots. Read the rest at

Film Review - Pray for Rain


“Pray for Rain” offers a compelling setting, traveling to rural California where farmland is being destroyed by drought, and those most in need of water have little control over the management of resources. Screenwriters Christina Moore and Gloria Musca have all the opportunity in the world to focus on this conflict, which doesn’t show up in many movies, keeping political and combustible with the fight for water. Moore and Musca only get halfway there with “Pray for Rain,” which seems terrified of attempting to hang an entire film on headline news, instead hiding their passion in the middle of a formulaic mystery that repeatedly blocks the view of a stronger feature struggling to be seen. As much as I enjoy the image of Jane Seymour blasting away with a shotgun that’s probably bigger than she is, the melodrama of the effort only manages to cripple the production. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Dakota


1945's "Dakota" isn't remembered as a particular bright spot in the massive filmography of screen legend John Wayne, but for a man who rarely turned down anything, it's a surprisingly buoyant western that gives the actor a chance to be more playful than his average steely ways. Director Joseph Kane (a seasoned genre helmer) provides a journeyman touch to the picture, but his professionalism serves it well, creating an amusing romp with Wayne and co-star Vera Ralston. While it doesn't offer anything new to the western tradition, its meat-and-potatoes approach is agreeable, keeping the chases, clashes, and banter rolling along. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Wanderers


Embracing a newfound hunger for nostalgia, the 1970s provided an endless stream of retro entertainment, with specific emphasis on the celebration of the late 1950s to the early 1960s. The creative and financial triumph of George Lucas's "American Graffiti" and the longstanding ratings dominance of the T.V. show "Happy Days" created a demand for this type of storytelling, allowing something like 1979's "The Wanderers" to enter production. Based on a respected novel by Richard Price, the movie adaptation strives to deliver the same glow of memories and mischief as "American Graffiti," but provides the grit of The Bronx, its vivid setting, to help squelch any dewy depictions of adolescent life. "The Wanderers" hits a few sweet spots in period recreation, with co-writer/director Philip Kaufman unafraid to submerge the effort in pop music and era attire, but the picture isn't a cohesive endeavor. Kaufman masterminds a grab bag of incidents and emotions, delivering an episodic look at a time in American culture when cartoonish expressions of masculinity were about to be flattened by the harsh realities of the larger world. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Invisible Ghost


In the autumn of his film career, Bela Lugosi used his genre reputation to participate in a few off-kilter productions. 1941's "Invisible Ghost" is one of many Lugosi projects to embrace oddity, finding the screen star struggling to transform a bizarre possession story into a proper chiller, using wonderfully intimidating looks and his own industry reputation to generate some frights in a feature that's almost exclusively invested in prolonged stalking sequences just to get the picture up to its current 64 minute run time. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Chamber of Horrors


1940's "Chamber of Horrors" is saddled with fairly misleading title. Sure, some chambers are present, but horrors are few and far between in this murder mystery (which was titled "The Door with the Seven Locks" internationally), which is more dialogue-driven endeavor than a chilling one, almost coming across as a filmed play instead of a suspenseful genre offering. Director Norman Lee keeps to the basics in whodunit cinema here, arranging a full "Clue" game of suspects and motivations, and every now and then, something macabre will sneak into the frame to keep the effort rolling along to an energetic finale. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Mummy


Perhaps it’s fitting that a character who’s a product of immortality should be subjected to repeated reboots and remakes over the last 86 years. Universal Pictures is not about to let one of their top horror icons fade into obscurity, reviving the creature for “The Mummy,” which also represents the first shot fired in the studio’s Dark Universe franchise movement, because nothing can just be a movie anymore, it has to be a multi-decade financial plan. The brand name hasn’t been touched since 2008’s “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor,” and for good reason, as it’s tough to make a chiller these days, especially with a titular character that offers few surprises. Sadly, the production doesn’t supply a stripped down version of the tightly wrapped menace, burying the monster’s core appeal under layers of needless exposition, prized supporting characters, and the starring demands of Tom Cruise, who’s completely out of his element in this update. Reaching for laughs, CGI-laden action, and sequels before the first installment has a chance to cool, “The Mummy” simply attempts too much, forgetting how this whole series began with mood, not fireworks and breathless backstory. Read the rest at

Film Review - It Comes at Night


“Who will survive and what will be left of them?” is the famous tagline of 1974’s “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” It’s also a fitting summation of “It Comes at Night,” the new film from the writer/director of “Krisha,” Trey Edward Shults. While lacking overt scares, the feature does successfully chart the mental and physical health of those caught in an inescapable crisis, inspecting the wear and tear of lives lived in perpetual paranoia. “It Comes at Night” is being marketed as a horror effort, which is incorrect. It’s not grotesque with violence, but purposeful, detailing a world gone mad from the perspective of those barely hanging on. It’s challenging, artfully made work from Shults, requiring those electing to see it to relax some expectations as the movie endeavors to unnerve, not shock. Read the rest at

Film Review - Awakening the Zodiac


The exploits of the Zodiac Killer, one of the most feared serial murderers in history, have been brought to the screen on numerous occasions. Most notably, there was “Dirty Harry,” where the titular character was allowed a chance to exact revenge on the enigmatic madman, preserving justice with the most powerful handgun in the world. And there’s David Fincher’s “Zodiac,” which examined real world panic surrounding the case, employing journalism as a way to detail the ways of murder, suspicion, and anxiety. “Awakening the Zodiac” isn’t joining the pantheon of great investigative movies about the Zodiac Killer case, but as a chiller, it’s not bad, mixing feverish decoding and paranoia, offering reasonable thrills along the way. It’s nowhere near as precise as Fincher or blunt as Clint Eastwood, yet “Awakening the Zodiac” can be appealing when it focuses on the heat of the moment. Read the rest at

Film Review - I, Daniel Blake


Ken Loach doesn’t make easy movies. It’s not something that comes natural to him, preferring to stay in the realm of the real, with behavioral authenticity prized most highly by the lauded filmmaker, often searching for the tenacity of the human spirit in the depths of misery. Loach can be an amazing storyteller (“My Name is Joe,” “Raining Stones,” “Sweet Sixteen”), and he can be a frustrating one as well, perhaps a bit too obsessed with depicting onscreen misery. “I, Daniel Blake” is his latest effort, and it plays like a greatest hits mix of Loach fetishes, covering the pains of poverty, injustice, bureaucratic entanglements, and social humiliations. It’s not a light sit by any means, but the helmer is fully in his element, keeping “I, Daniel Blake” relatable and restless, with remarkable performances leading Loach’s mission to sustain realism for as long as possible. Read the rest at

Film Review - Camera Obscura


Co-writer/director Aaron B. Koontz has a made a John Carpenter tribute film with “Camera Obscura,” only one that doesn’t celebrate the best the maestro has to offer. A homage to “In the Mouth of Madness” with a touch of “They Live” for flavoring, “Camera Obscura” toys with the unreal, building a supernatural serial killer story that begins with a touch of dark magic and ends in a nightmare realm of insanity. Koontz is determined to remain one step ahead of his audience, messing with grim visions and bloodied victims, but his command of tonality is severely lacking, somehow turning a tale of PTSD into a darkly comic chiller that rests on a bed of Carpenter-esque synth scoring, ultimately crippled by miscastings and a screenplay that’s often caught scrambling for something to do. Read the rest at