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July 2017

Film Review - First Kill


Steven C. Miller is a name that’s come up often in recent years. He’s a B-movie director specializing in VOD entertainment, which has become the new VHS gold rush for distributors looking to make a quick buck. He’s been supported by producers with deep pockets, willing to pony up for fading A-listers looking for easy paychecks, helming features with short, nondescript titles like “Extraction,” “Submerged,” “Marauders,” and the recent “Arsenal” (titles that easily fit in on-demand directory listings). None of them have worked, but Miller keeps chopping away, recently graduating to bigger fish with “Escape Plan 2: Hades,” a Sylvester Stallone-starring sequel due for release next year. Before his launch to the big time, Miller has one more scrappy actioner to share, guiding “First Kill,” a kidnapping/heist-gone-wrong thriller that reteams him with his favorite actor, Bruce Willis (in their third collaboration), joining forces once again for a simplistic adventure that details blue collar blues, small-town woes, and a battle over a bag of stolen cash.  Read the rest at

Film Review - The Gracefield Incident


Found footage returns to duty in “The Gracefield Incident,” which is the second film this year (after the spring flop, “Phoenix Lights”) to use the aesthetic to explore an alien visitation in the middle of nowhere. Writer/director/producer/editor/star Mathieu Ratthe isn’t about to let the exhausted antics of shaky cam chaos slow him down, mounting a clichéd, deafening adventure about a group of strangers in the woods armed with cameras. There’s nothing innovative here to help Ratthe separate himself from the crowd, leaving “The Gracefield Incident” tired, somewhat predictable, and, at times, far too silly. Found footage usually results in creative dead ends, and this production just isn’t strong enough to conquer the myriad of shortcomings it encounters. Read the rest at

Film Review - Killing Ground


There’s going to be a great number of people drawn to the darkness of “Killing Ground.” It’s an Australian production that delves into displays of barbarity and isolation, using extreme violence as a tool to unnerve its audience, showing no remorse when detailing character suffering and death. And it would all be far more interesting if there was a single sliver of invention to it. Another chapter in the “Wolf Creek”-ening of Australian horror films, writer/director Damien Power (making his feature-length helming debut) plays a tedious game of slow-pitch softball with this clichéd effort, which always turns to cheap shock value to make its impact. It’s vile stuff, and “Killing Ground” would much more compelling if there was a scene contained within it that wasn’t featured in dozens of similar endeavors. Power has a desire to disturb, but his cheat sheet shows throughout this dismal offering of backwoods survival.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies


A follow-up to the 1965 hit, "Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines," 1969's "The Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies" (also known as "Monte Carlo or Bust!") looks to sustain a sense of widescreen pandemonium, taking a European car race to the extremes of slapstick comedy. Co-writer/director Ken Annakin certainly maintains a vision for the production, and his management of style and action is impressive, able to keep a ragtag group of characters in focus as they tear around multiple locations. But just over two hours of silly business? "Jaunty Jalopies" pushes its luck when it comes to asking the audience to endure a marathon of mischief. Read the rest at 

Blu-ray Review - Papa's Delicate Condition


What a strange movie 1963's "Papa's Delicate Condition" is. It hopes to be a family feature, pitting star Jackie Gleason against a Disney-esque collection of children, animals, and stymied adults, but at the core of this dramedy is a study of alcoholism, with the title not referencing the lead character's desire to please, but his heavy drinking. Going from light to dark with whiplash-inducing speed, "Papa's Delicate Condition" doesn't necessarily challenge Gleason, who spends most of the picture playing up his industry persona, periodically reaching within to depict a sick man stuck in a cycle of reckless behavior.  Read the rest at 

Blu-ray Review - Tristan and Isolde


Kevin Reynolds is a director worth defending in the Court of Cinema Elitists. He picked up a bad reputation with his work on 1995's "Waterworld," taking heat for his inability to keep an inherently chaotic shoot under control, and there have been a few stinkers during his career, including 1997's "187." But Reynolds, when offered a chance to spread his wings, can be a kinetic filmmaker with a terrific sense of action and adventure, marrying matinee derring-do with grittier visuals, finding efforts like 2002's "The Count of Monte Cristo" and 2012's "Hatfields & McCoys" enjoying their genres instead of merely participating in them, and there's 1991's "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," a wildly entertaining blockbuster that showcased the helmer's special way with period mayhem and romance, going big but remaining steady. Ingredients for another charging extravaganza are professionally portioned out for 2006's "Tristan & Isolde," but the picture has no flavor. Aspiring to be a love story for the ages, the feature is trapped between its mission to treat regional conflict with the severity it deserves and the production's hope to appeal to teenage viewers, soaping up a love triangle that holds no appeal. Instead of conquering another roughhouse tale of war, Reynolds is lost from the get-go, unable to reach his customary verve with this deathly dull endeavor.  Read the rest at 

Blu-ray Review - The Pied Piper


It's hard to fault "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" director Jacques Demy for attempting his own take on the legend of the Pied Piper. And there's certainly a pronounced dark side to most fairy tales, providing a creative challenge. However, it's difficult to grasp what audience Demy is hoping to reach with this 1972 effort. "The Pied Piper" isn't truly for children, but the production has moments of broad behavior, and the casting of rock star Donovan in the titular role appears engineered to reach a young audience. But the rest of "The Pied Piper" is quite bleak, though fascinatingly staged by Demy who respects elements from the original tale, trying to remain as faithful as possible while arranging his own special black plague costume party.  Read the rest at 

Film Review - War for the Planet of the Apes


It’s a rare event when a movie franchise actually improves as it develops. Granted, the “Planet of the Apes” saga has carried on in one form or another for the last 50 years, but its recent incarnation, the Caesar Trilogy, has offered a radical reinvention of the source material, using hindsight and cutting-edge technology to craft a strikingly realistic version of a fantasy premise. And it just keeps getting better and better. Following 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and 2014’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is “War for the Planet of the Apes,” which doesn’t promise series finality, but if it all ended here, the production goes out with its finest achievement. An unsettlingly emotional viewing experience, “War for the Planet of the Apes” manages to achieve what so many blockbusters fail to do: it makes the unreal live and breathe. Director Matt Reeves completely moves beyond demands for extravaganza to create a strikingly intimate second sequel that fully delivers on the empathy “Rise” introduced and “Dawn” developed, making viewers feel just about everything for these damn dirty apes.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Wish Upon


“Wish Upon” isn’t based on an original idea, but it has the opportunity to do something fresh with known horror elements. It’s the umpteenth take on “The Monkey’s Paw,” a 1902 short story that’s spawned countless adaptations and rip-offs, but rarely does the saga of wishes and rashness hit the high school scene. Sadly, in the hands of director John R. Leonetti and screenwriter Barbara Marshall, “Wish Upon” becomes an unbearable mess in a hurry, displaying a level of production confusion and botched editing one doesn’t encounter very often. It’s nonsensical work, poorly constructed and considered, also torpedoed by obnoxious performances and a general disregard for its audience, assuming all they care to see are occasional scenes of murder and social humiliations, as clearly defined personalities, relationships, and even deaths are jettisoned from frame one.  Read the rest at

Film Review - To the Bone


Anorexia is an extremely difficult disorder to dramatically communicate. It certainly can be very visual, challenging actors to drop significant amounts of weight to physically portray the refusal of food, but there’s a heavy psychological component that demands a depth of understanding to fully absorb, as the impulses of anorexia are tough to understand. “To the Bone” feels as lived-in as possible, with writer/director Marti Noxon doing an excellent job slipping into the skin of the lead character, grasping her urges, habits, and reluctance to help herself out of a dangerous medical situation. As with any tale of torture, it’s difficult to watch at times, but Noxon is able to warm up the viewing experience through her study of character, trying to communicate headspaces in flux rather than linger on torment. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Moka


The agony of personal loss inspires unique reactions to revenge in “Moka,” the latest from director Frederic Mermoud (“Accomplices”). While other productions generally head in a “Taken” direction, using the inner fire of a parent in the throes of grief to burn the screen, “Moka” plays a different kind of game. It’s a largely psychological study of a restless mother who needs to feel vengeance to feel anything at all, and Mermoud treats the material (an adaptation of a novel by Tatiana De Rosnay) with care, tending to intimate emotions and subtle shocks to the system. The feature is suspenseful, outstandingly so at times, but it doesn’t indulge bloodlust, taking a far more disorientating route to a sense of satisfaction, and doing so with terrific performances from stars Emmanuelle Devos and Nathalie Baye.  Read the rest at

Film Review - The Sabbatical


“The Sabbatical” is a Canadian production. One can identify a country of origin though accents and locations, but there’s a special comedic vibe to the picture that could only originate from Canada. Co-writer/director Brian Stockton (“I Heart Regina”) has fashioned his own take on “Lost in Translation,” though he doesn’t submit the same whispered screen poetry, working with a small budget and a cast of unknowns. Still, the overall vibe of “The Sabbatical” is lively and highly amusing, asking questions of aging and purpose while tracking a wonderfully sly sense of humor in the largely improvised feature, The helmer respects the talents of his cast yet pushes onward with this study of a mid-life crisis, creating distinct personalities and memorable reactions to even the slightest hint of a challenge, approaching an exploration of personal inventory with steady laughs and authentic behavior.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Austin Found


While it’s not a challenging picture, “Austin Found” does a fine job managing darkly comic material, not exactly trying to be hilarious, and teasing some rather grim behavior from morally dubious characters. Co-written and directed by Will Raee, the film explores the pursuit of fame and fortune through media manipulation, using a common depiction of mental illness to inspire a domino-tipping viewing experience that encounters less-than-bright characters and the schemes they hope to pull off. Again, “Austin Found” isn’t profound, and as a satire of television sensationalism, it falls flat, unwilling to snowball into something truly daring. But accepted on a lowered level of expectation, and the movie manages to balance varying degrees of stupidity and eccentricity.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Blind


This isn’t the first time Alec Baldwin and Demi Moore have starred together in a film. Their last pairing was 1996’s “The Juror,” a moronic thriller that attempted to cash in on the John Grisham gold rush of the decade. It was one of the worst movies of the year. 21 years later, Baldwin and Moore try again with “Blind,” which heads in the more romantic direction. The results are better, but not by much, as the screenplay by John Buffalo Mailer (“Hello Herman”) actually achieves some sense of intimacy and personal loss before it plunges into complete stupidity. “Blind” might work on a lazy Sunday afternoon with relaxed expectations and an iPad on the lap, but it’s hardly successful, almost obsessed with sabotaging itself in its pursuit of dramatic motivation that’s completely unnecessary.  Read the rest at

Film Review - The Persian Connection


Stop me if you’ve read this one before: troubled kid grows into a troubled man, gets in deep with local mob and the wrong woman, forced to fight for a life that might not be worth saving. “The Persian Connect” is bereft of new ideas, but it does offer a cultural fingerprint few productions have attempted to explore, showcasing the Iranian criminal underworld in Los Angeles. That alone should be enough to get the movie up and going, but director Daniel Grove (making his feature-length debut) doesn’t pursue the production’s most promising element. Instead, he sticks close to the crime saga playbook, suffocating the picture in style and pounding it with overacting, eventually stripping “The Persian Connection” of anything identifiable.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Battle Scars


There has been no shortage of films concerning the Afghanistan War, and tales concerning the war at home are just as common. Perhaps the producers have dreams of crafting a modern companion to “Coming Home,” using recent breakthroughs in PTSD comprehension to support a new look at the true price of combat. Unfortunately, a majority of these endeavors aren’t successful, with most features hitting the exact same beats of conflict and domestic disturbance. “Battle Scars” has taken its time to reach screens (it was shot in 2012), losing the war of timeliness, and it’s not a successful movie, but it does manage to locate a particularly sensitive understanding of bodily harm that makes it stand out from the competition, although any distinct viewpoint is eventually buried under clichéd criminal behavior.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Don't Give Up the Ship


Jerry Lewis is about as "your mileage may vary" an actor as they come, either seducing or repelling audiences with his practiced mugging, pratfalls, and penchant for exaggerating comedic situations. While in possession of a wildly uneven filmography, Lewis seems relatively fresh and invested for 1959's "Don't Give Up the Ship," which is one of his early solo efforts. Eager to please and willing to try out some unusual locations for screen mischief, Lewis is appealingly committed to the picture, which doesn't always match his energy levels.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - A Farewell to Arms


Ernest Hemingway's novel, "A Farewell to Arms," is a tough nut to crack. It carries tremendous solemnity and personal experience, giving it an open wound atmosphere that makes it an intimate read with a gut-punch ending. Producer David O. Selznick attempts to turn Hemingway's horror into a new version of "Gone with the Wind," inflating love and war to a point where the original meaning of the book is lost. Melodramatic and in need of another editorial pass, 1957's "A Farewell to Arms" certainly provides beguiling bigness, but the enormity of the production manages to smother literary intent.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Double Exposure


1983's "Double Exposure" attempts to cash in on the rise of sexually-minded thrillers, following the lead of Brian De Palma's work from the era, though writer/director William Byron Hillman doesn't share the same flair for screen style and gonzo plotting. While the feature is far from tasteful, there's a certain stability to the effort that doesn't boost its desire to be a chiller that toys with psychological fracture and ghoulish murder sequences, with Hillman holding most of his attention on tepid characterization, which doesn't unleash frights. "Double Exposure" is best appreciated in select scenes where insanity takes over, watching Hillman attempt to visualize oddball plans for homicide, and there's a defined exploitation atmosphere to the picture that keeps it salacious enough to pass. However, when considering what Hillman is trying to accomplish here, it's bizarre to watch the endeavor slow down to smell the roses when there's significant B-movie work to be done.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Scar


From 1948, "The Scar" (originally titled "Hollow Triumph") takes its plotting very seriously. It's no romp with crooks and cops, but a strange, vaguely "Twilight Zone"-ish journey of a stolen identity that winds through complications that touch on romance and paranoia. Star Paul Henreid (who also produces) assumes command of the feature's uneasy tone, working well with director Steve Sekely, who constructs a noir playground of shadows and danger while sustaining a screenplay (written by Daniel Fuchs, who adapts a novel by Murray Forbes) that's restless, continually redefining the stakes to maintain surprise. Read the rest at