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July 2017

Blu-ray Review - Adios, Sabata


After the unexpected success of 1969's "Sabata," producers scrambled to put together a sequel, ready to cash in on a cult legend in the making. However, star Lee Van Cleef couldn't return to duty, necessitating a casting change to Yul Brynner, who's pretty much the polar opposite of Van Cleef in every way. However, this lead actor shake-up doesn't bring 1970's "Adios, Sabata" down, forcing director Gianfranco Parolini to rework the iconic nature of the titular character, who's presented as more of a matinee cowboy for his second outing, with Brynner showing more flair and care for costume fringes than Van Cleef would be comfortable with.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Broken Arrow


1950's "Broken Arrow" has the distinction of being one of the first westerns to approach Native American characters with a degree of respect. It's a movie about tolerance set during one of the least tolerant times in American history, attempting to reexamine and reconfigure the traditional "Cowboys vs. Indians" simplification of history. Its ambition to rise above the competition is fascinating, giving "Broken Arrow" a boost in dramatic possibility, with director Delmer Daves (helming an adaptation of a Elliot Arnold novel) taking characterization as seriously as he can while still serving up elements of action and romance that act as comforting familiarity while the feature works to introduce new ideas of cultural awareness.  Read the rest at

Film Review - The Emoji Movie


Children’s entertainment is a tightrope walk for most parents. For every thoughtfully scripted, masterfully produced offering of animation, there are ten no-budget, quickie productions simply there to take advantage of guardians in need of a visual babysitter for 90 minutes of downtime. “The Emoji Movie” isn’t sloppy, spending a few bucks to bring its cartoon realm to life, but it’s as creatively bankrupt a picture as can be, merely created to make jokes about poop and sell impressionable kids on the magical wonders of smartphone ownership. Crammed with product placement and dramatically constructed with parts from other, better films, “The Emoji Movie” is a soulless endeavor and a painful viewing experience. Your kids deserve better. Read the rest at

Film Review - Atomic Blonde


2014’s “John Wick” was a dream come true for action movie fans who wanted something more than edits to define big screen mayhem. It was helmed by two people, Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, and they did an incredible job turning what should’ve been a forgettable bottom shelf title into a powerhouse of bodily harm and chilly temperaments, sold with color, style, and sound. Stahelski remained with the brand name for last February’s “John Wick: Chapter 2,” making an equally enthralling sequel that managed to do something interesting with the raw materials delivered in the first feature. Leitch veers off into a slightly different direction with “Atomic Blonde,” which is cut from the same cloth as “John Wick,” using furious brutality and stunning visuals to bring another genre battle royal to life, this time concentrating on Cold War paranoia, German locations, and star Charlize Theron, who’s committed in full to the controlled chaos Leitch masterminds with palpable glee. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Incredible Jessica James


In 2015, writer/director James C. Strouse made a wonderful impression with “People Places Things,” a sweet and smartly observed dramedy that superbly utilized star Jemaine Clement and brought Jessica Williams to greater awareness with the general public. Sensing something about the young actress and former “Daily Show” contributor, Strouse ups his dosage of Williams, gifting her a starring vehicle in “The Incredible Jessica James,” which makes full use of her many thespian talents. They’re a fine pair, with Strouse understanding what Williams can bring to the screen, while the actress offers her own vibrant personality, permitting the director to locate many emotional subtleties otherwise unachievable with another performer. “The Incredible Jessica James” is small in scale but big in spirit and laughs, and it would be a shame if Strouse and Williams stopped their wildly effective collaboration here.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Landline


“Landline” isn’t the first film to feed on memories of the 1990s, but it’s one of the best, capturing a time and place with subtle reminders of the way things were before technology took over. It’s the latest release from co-writer/director Gillian Robespierre, who made a sizable impression a few years ago with “Obvious Child,” and she continues her exploration of arrested development here, expanding her vision with the addition of a family saga and her choice of setting, taking viewers back to New York City in 1995, which permits settled dramatic entanglements that avoid modern connectivity, and it offers Robespierre a chance to work in a few autobiographical touches, strengthening a viewing experience that often feels most comfortable in wander mode, vacuuming up odd behaviors and heartfelt ache while tending to darkly comedic and dramatic encounters.  Read the rest at

Film Review - The Last Face


If there has to be a movie about the experiences of humanitarian workers, it should come from Sean Penn. The actor, activist, and aid organizer returns to direction after nearly a decade away (last helming 2007’s “Into the Wild”) with “The Last Face,” working with writer Erin Dignam to explore the struggles of those who choose to help in areas of the world the rest of humanity works very hard to ignore. It’s debatable to suggest there’s some type of audience for the feature, with the tanking of 2003’s “Beyond Borders” identifying audience indifference to tales of sacrifice and unspeakable violence. Weirdly, while the picture is horrific at times, Penn remains in a romantic mood, trying to make “The Last Face” about two people in love, with the bloody disarray of Western Africa background decoration to the saga of doctors who are so moved by the call of philanthropy, they spend more time on their doomed relationship than they do on the ills of the region.  Read the rest at

Film Review - It Stains the Sands Red


Considering the pop culture-dominating success of “The Walking Dead,” it’s amazing that any filmmaker out there would choose to make a zombie movie these days. The market is saturated, requiring a production with a little more smarts and invention than the average horror experience. Enter co-writer/director Colin Minihan (“Extraterrestrial”), who attempts a classic merging of genres, slowly but surely creating a relationship drama about a lonely woman and her undead partner. “It Stains the Sands Red” is a little bit funny, a teensy bit scary, but it’s primarily introspective, with the production searching for ways to maintain interests outside of flesh-munching zombie antics. He’s mostly successful, following a bizarre plot that’s more of a relationship drama than an end of the world nightmare come to life.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Lady Macbeth


“Lady Macbeth” has no connection to the possibly cursed William Shakespeare play, but it does carry a special Shakespearean energy of its own. It’s actually an adaptation of a 1865 novella from Russian author Nikolai Leskov, taking a periodically harrowing look at one woman’s experience with isolation, domination, and, eventually, revenge. Director William Oldroyd is on familiar ground with this period piece, but “Lady Macbeth” bares its teeth early and often, rising above the tea-and-dismissal scene to showcase pure illness from its characters, who seemingly enjoy destroying one another. It’s a grim picture with a deliberate pace, but attention to behavioral detail is extraordinary, led by a thunderous performance from Florence Pugh, who makes a mighty leap to industry visibility with her brave, dark, and thrillingly commanding work.  Read the rest at

Film Review - The Midwife


Even if there was nothing of interest in “The Midwife,” the picture provides a chance to spend time with actresses Catherine Deneuve and Catherine Frot, paring two legends of French cinema in a drama that shows particular patience with layers of characterization and offers space for extended dialogue exchanges. Thankfully, there’s plenty of story to feast on in the feature, which takes a closer look at the power (and obsolescence) of personal support, the never-ending process of grief, and soulful revitalization that comes with intimacy, especially the unexpected kind. Writer/director Martin Provost takes special care of his dramatic mission, using Deneuve and Frot in full, relying on their highly seasoned ways to bring life and depth to the screenplay, which offers a sensitive understanding of human behavior, especially the chain-tugging sensation of addiction and the need to connect with another human just to make it through the day. Read the rest at

Film Review - The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography


When legendary documentarian Errol Morris isn’t taking on grander topics of history (“Standard Operating Procedure”), true crime (“The Thin Blue Line”), and the cosmos (“A Brief History of Time”), he makes time for little slices of humanity, showcasing odd corners of life and art that identify character and passion in unexpected ways. “The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography” isn’t the first film to tackle the detail of photography, but it offers focus on what’s become a lost art for a seasoned artist in Massachusetts, visiting the Elsa Dorfman archives to grasp her achievements with large-format photography using a Polaroid camera. Perhaps the subject isn’t for every taste, but Morris appears to understand inherent exclusivity, keeping “The B-Side” biographical but also visual, allowing time for the audience to grasp the specificity and serenity of Dorfman’s work.  Read the rest at

Film Review - A Family Man


It’s been a rough couple of years for actor Gerard Butler. Perhaps even longer. His filmography has been erratic at best, picking projects that end up becoming absolutely ridiculous (“Gods of Egypt”) or positively toxic (“London Has Fallen,” “Olympus Has Fallen”), leaving him stuck in typecasting purgatory, forever playing brutes with wretched American accents. “A Family Man” is a rare shot at change for Butler, who sets brawn on the shelf to play a desperate father, albeit a workaholic one that makes use of his alpha male persona. The accent remains and “A Family Man” isn’t very good, but the effort is appreciated, providing a slightly different side to Butler he’s not allowed to share very often. That’s not to suggest he’s ideally cast, but he’s trying.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Daredevils of the Red Circle


Part of the Republic Movie Serial factory, 1939's "Daredevils of the Red Circle" attempts a different approach to the creation of big screen heroes. Turning to the world of acrobatics to find a trio of men willing to put themselves in the line of fire to stop evil, the production finds an engaging starting point for action and adventure, following the exploits of characters who are accustomed to dangerous feats of survival. "Daredevils of the Red Circle" generally keeps up with serial interests in near-misses, silliness, and cheap suspense, but there's craftsmanship from directors William Witney and John English that impresses, keeping 12 chapters filled with cartoonish violence and villainy, occasionally broken up by charged encounters and canine courage. Read the rest at 

Blu-ray Review - The Mephisto Waltz


Movies about the Devil and Satanism became big business in 1970s, preying on fears of organized evil and spiritual corruption. The subgenre would really strike oil with 1973's "The Exorcist," which raised panic over unholy business to monumental levels, but it started small, with 1971's "The Mephisto Waltz" attempting to raise small-scale hell with its tale of manipulation and fantasy. Based on the Fred Mustard Stewart novel, the picture submits a rather complicated inspection of Satanic suspicion, making it alarmingly slow-going as director Paul Wendkos labors over details, not a greater flow of suspense. "The Mephisto Waltz" is more of a tempered look personal doom, requiring a general relaxation of expectations as the production tries to pore some psychedelic melt from the 1960s into a horror experience for a new decade of terror.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Making Contact


Today, we know director Roland Emmerich as a craftsman of Hollywood blockbusters, eagerly attempting to achieve massive success with big- budgeted fantasy actioners. He's had a rough period recently, guiding massive disappointments like "Independence Day: Resurgence" and "White House Down," but Emmerich appears to love the possibility of big screen scale, trying to make escapism with as much noise and stupidity as possible. However, he wasn't always like this, with 1985's "Making Contact" (a.k.a. "Joey") returning to a time in the helmer's early career when all he wanted to do was ape his creative inspiration, Steven Spielberg. Armed with enough homage to make Amblin Entertainment lawyers nervous, Emmerich sets out to create the best "E.T." and "Poltergeist" rip-off he can, using "Making Contact" to share as much Spielberg love as possible, shamelessly lifting every move from the maestro, down to cinematographic moves and the setting of suburban America. In true Emmerich fashion, he's made a spectacular mess of everything, and while his heart is in the right place, his filmmaking vision is cross-eyed at best, as little to nothing about this tedious feature makes any sense.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Optimists


Imagine if Mike Leigh directed a Disney movie, and that's close to the viewing experience provided by 1973's "The Optimists." The production wins points for its interest in the bleak corners of life, trying to live up to its titular promise with a sincere take on relationships and broken dreams, watching director Anthony Simmons laboring to make some magic with lead Peter Sellers, asking him to lift considerable dramatic weight. It's difficult to label "The Optimists" as an all-ages charmer, but Simmons certainly wants it to be, aiming to achieve a bittersweet tone of connection in a hauntingly unforgiving world.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Girls Trip


The summer of 2017 already endured one female-centric party-gone-wrong movie in June’s “Rough Night,” which offered plenty of riffing and nightmarish scenarios, but brought very little funny, eventually taking itself far too seriously. The festivities continue with “Girls Trip,” which also features R-rated shenanigans in a party city and a cast of exceedingly eager actresses looking to feast on the potential for naughty behavior. The difference here is that “Girls Trip” is actually very funny, and its eventual slide into dramatic sobriety is far less painful. Director Malcolm D. Lee doesn’t have the strongest filmography (helming “The Best Man,” but also “Scary Movie 5”), but he catches the vibe here, taking advantage of the restrictive rating to mastermind some effective crude humor, sisterly love, and mild conflict. And it’s hard to dislike a picture about four zany women that includes a reference to “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.”  Read the rest at

Film Review - Dunkirk


It’s strange to consider that after two decades of making feature films, “Dunkirk” the first production from writer/director Christopher Nolan where he’s the marketable star of the picture. His latest employs famous faces, but no single stratospherically famous person to create buzz and fill seats. It’s all about him, and this is exactly what he’s been looking to achieve throughout the years. “Dunkirk” is a war story but it’s also a disaster film, putting everything it has into a bruising audio and visual experience that’s meant to represent pure cinema from a helmer who’s addicted to the stuff, shooting up with 65mm equipment and guzzling 12-track theater sound. It’s not a movie that requests a passive viewing experience, putting the audience into the thick of combat, taking to land, sea, and air to fully inhale an historical event goosed considerably by Nolan’s love of spectacle. He’s made an intimidating endeavor, but those hoping for an exhaustively emotional event should seek their wartime blues elsewhere. Read the rest at

Film Review - Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets


In 1997, writer/director Luc Besson unleashed “The Fifth Element,” a fantasy epic that rippled with idiosyncratic comedy and was shellacked with style, merging American-branded blockbustering with French-scented oddity, making for a delicious mix of the bold and the bizarre. It was a minor hit, growing into a cult jewel in later years, but Besson never revisited it, preferring to stick with minor concoctions and more Earthbound projects in the ensuing years. Two decades later, Besson finally works up the nerve to reenter space and beyond with “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” an adaptation of a French comic series that debuted in 1967. Now armed with every CGI tool imaginable, and a budget to feel out every inch of his imagination, Besson goes for…something with the feature, which is dutifully colorful, populated with weird creatures, and appropriately European when it comes to humor. And yet, with all this work up on the screen, “City of a Thousand Planets” rarely conjures excitement, with the production working to suffocate the audience with artifice, while the lead actors fight an unwinnable war against miscasting.  Read the rest at

Film Review - 13 Minutes


It’s fascinating to watch filmmakers attempt to wring suspense out of movies that explore assassination attempts on Adolph Hitler. Unless it’s a Quentin Tarantino production, there are few surprises waiting for viewers who know how the real story ends when it comes to Hitler’s final hours. For “13 Minutes,” director Oliver Hirschbiegel opens with a failed plot to kill the emerging leader of the Nazis, working backward to explore the life of the mousy man who attempted to pull off the impossible at the dawn of World War II. “13 Minutes” wisely avoids a history lesson to examine the true grit of an unlikely assassin, going in a more character-oriented route with its often harrowing account of Georg Elser’s rise in radicalism and his problematic plan to save Germany.  Read the rest at