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September 2017

Film Review - Happy Hunting


I’m sure this comparison will make the creators of “Happy Hunting” bristle, but what might be a loose take on “The Most Dangerous Game” actually has more of a “Purge” influence, following a hunt for human flesh that’s been transformed into a sinister contest, with targets and their hunters entering a vast Mexican region to deal with sicko gamesmanship. Writer/directors Joe Dietsch and Lucian Gibson certainly toy with class warfare and grim events, making it hard to wipe off the “Purge” fingerprints, but the duo is after something even darker than the murder night scenario, adding a unique pressure point in alcoholism to keep the feature in a heavy fog, creating a fascinating lead character who confidently marches around a mundane chiller. “Happy Hunting” is slow, painfully so at times, but there are moments of clarity in the writing to make it passably special and inventive, breaking up the routine of a humans-as-prey thriller.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Stronger


It’s hard to believe there are two films about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, and even stranger, they’ve both come out within the same calendar year. This type of dueling production situation is typically reserved for animated pictures, not R-rated dramas. Thankfully, “Stronger” is quite different than January’s “Patriots Day,” which took a procedural look at the terrorist attack, achieve an outstanding level of suspense as it turned a manhunt into a proper thriller, teeming with Boston attitude and blessed with editorial speed. “Stronger” doesn’t pay much attention to the facts of the bombing, preferring to focus on a victim whose life was turned upside down by the blast. It’s a more intimate, passionate effort from director David Gordon Green, who carefully avoids the television movie route to depict a brutal rehabilitation period for a man caught in a dire situation, brought back to life by community and various forms of love.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Last Rampage


As a true crime tale, “Last Rampage” doesn’t do very well with a modest budget. It’s a dramatization of the Tison Gang Crime Rampage of 1978, but director Dwight H. Little (“Anaconda: Hunt for the Blood Orchid,” “Marked for Death,” “Tekken”) doesn’t have a monetary advantage here, challenged to pull off a period tale that requires top-tier wigs, cinematography, and a sense of history. “Last Rampage” isn’t a time machine, but it does deliver necessary horror and pained reflection, permitting it more emotional elbow room to take in the enormity of the event, which shocked Arizona nearly 40 years ago. The Tison experience makes for compelling cinema, with its brutality vividly recreated in the picture, carrying enough shock value to patch visual and dramatic potholes.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Big Bear


“Big Bear” represents a career evolution for Joey Kern. A working actor who appeared in “Cabin Fever” and “Grind,” Kern attempts to take command of his professional fate with this ode to mental instability, assuming writing and directing duties for the first time. It’s a big step up for Kern, who scripts himself the juiciest part, surrounding himself with longtime pals and an appealing location, while the story promises to raise hell with outrageous characters and a plot that involves a botched kidnapping. Kern lines up the elements but doesn’t launch the picture with enough invention, offering a tired broheim movie that’s occasionally interrupted by strange behavior. “Big Bear” isn’t a dud helming debut for Kern, who shows promise with some visual authority, but it plays a little too casual at times, in need of a darker sense of humor. Read the rest at 

Blu-ray Review - Deadtime Stories


One can appreciate what co-writer/director Jeffrey Delman is trying to do in 1986's "Deadtime Stories," looking to fairy tales to inspire a horror anthology that hunts for the thin line between frights and silliness. The vision is there, but the execution leaves much to be desired, confronted with three tales of various tonalities and production polish, with the worst one oddly chosen to close out the picture. "Deadtime Stories" is meant to be a thrill ride of genre surprises, with plenty of gore, some nudity, and broad antics out to entertain its intended audience. However, Delman is hanging on by his fingernails with this endeavor, never establishing consistency between the segments, losing concentration on the essentials of storytelling to play as messy as possible with dismal ideas that fail to tickle or terrify. Read the rest at 

Blu-ray Review - The Apple


The one-two punch of "Saturday Night Fever" and "Grease" gave birth to a host of productions aiming to achieve a similar level of box office success with the same moviemaking ingredients. It was a surge in the late 1970s that created the likes of "Xanadu," "Can't Stop the Music," and, of course, "The Apple," a particularly absurd attempt to mount a Hollywood-style rock musical, written and directed by Menahem Golan, also known as the co-founder of the infamous schlock studio, Cannon Films. "The Apple" was meant to be Golan's ticket to the big time, remaining on trend with disco-inspire production values and big musical ambition, but it didn't find an audience. Actually, it found an audience, but one that reacted violently to the feature's semi-camp/semi-sincere take on biblical temptation, requiring a period of obscurity for the effort before it was reassessed in the early 2000s, rechristened as a Midnight Movie experience and deservedly so, with its general lunacy and earnestness best appreciated fully fatigued and/or drunk.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - 1492: Conquest of Paradise


The thought of making a movie about Christopher Columbus in 2017 is absurd, with any possible production sure to be swiftly blasted by condemnation from various concerned parties. However, back in 1992, there was a race to put as many Christopher Columbus features on screen as possible, offered during a pre-social media era when those acutely aware of the famous explorer's true achievements had no place to protest. Four tales of Columbus's journey across the world were delivered for the 500th anniversary of his "discovery" of America, with one, "Christopher Columbus: The Discovery," a bloated, moronic bomb from Alexander and Ilya Salkind, while director Ridley Scott was gifted a premiere creative opportunity with "1492: Conquest of Paradise," endeavoring to craft a more realistic take on the story, but still paying tribute to the spirit of exploring and the savagery of man.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - A Fantastic Fear of Everything


"A Fantastic Fear of Everything" is an acquired taste, submitting such an itchy, darkly comic atmosphere that's utterly guaranteed to energize those in step with its madness, while others will find the enterprise an overly mannered grind to get through. It's polarizing work that carries immense creativity and sharp sense of humor, burrowing into the spinning mind of a destructively phobic man during an intense period of suspicion. Thankfully, star Simon Pegg is up for the challenge, bringing to the screen a truly scattered character who's hilariously bound by his fears, articulated with all the spasms and pauses the actor is particularly skilled at delivering.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Mother!


In 2010, writer/director Darren Aronofsky created “Black Swan,” which became the biggest hit of his career. It was a slow-burn psychological freak-out that found the right audience at the right time, and bountiful box office permitted the helmer to make any movie he wanted. He chose 2014’s “Noah,” a lumbering, CGI-laden study of faith and survival that represented a passion project for Aronofsky, finally permitted time to play with a major studio and a monster budget. It didn’t click with audiences, forcing the filmmaker to retreat to the wilds of his low-budget imagination. And now he’s come up with “Mother,” a companion piece of sorts to “Black Swan,” once again tempting the audience with a display of insanity, only here the results are far more esoteric and protracted, unable to escalate as a study of cracked minds, as Aronofsky is so busy polishing the grotesqueries of “Mother,” he neglects to actually tell a story worth paying attention to.  Read the rest at

Film Review - American Assassin


Director Michael Cuesta used to tell human stories. He was once interested in the pains of adolescence (“L.I.E.”), maturity (“Roadie”), and professionalism (“Kill the Messenger”), but that style of filmmaking doesn’t pay the bills. Cuesta now graduates to nondescript studio work with “American Assassin,” which intends to adapt a 2010 Vince Flynn novel for the big screen (the first Mitch Rapp adventure in a 16 book series), but doesn’t offer much literary substance, charging ahead as graphic revenge thriller that’s certainly visceral, but also brain dead. Cuesta discards nuance and tries to keep up with the B-movie technicians who normally helm this type of junk food entertainment, and the change doesn’t suit him. He doesn’t know what he’s doing with “American Assassin,” staging unappealing action and encouraging one-dimensional performances, tasked with establishing a new spy game franchise, only to come up short in almost every possible way.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Rebel in the Rye


Author, recluse, and legend J.D. Salinger has been mythologized to a point of no return. There’s no room for the real man anymore, with the “Catcher in the Rye” writer’s life subjected to countless literary offerings, news investigations, and simple fan adulation, with many hoping to achieve a glimpse of a man who, in 1951, created one of the most influential books of all time, and then, in 1959, stopped publishing for the rest of his life (he passed away in 2010). That nut is never going to be cracked, as evidenced in the supremely underwhelming 2013 documentary, “Salinger,” but such evidence isn’t about to stop writer/director Danny Strong, who makes his helming debut with “Rebel in the Rye,” endeavoring to explore Salinger’s life and times in a way that creates order to imagined chaos, finding guidance in clichéd bio-pic tonality, making the feature play like a constipated television movie.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Polina


Dance films are common, and they generally share a common goal of choreographed movement, trying to nail elaborate big screen routines with precise timing. “Polina” is the rare picture to challenge the boundaries of traditional dance, viewing the rigidity of the art form as a necessary for training, but hard on the heart. It’s not a radical rejection of established dance education requirements, but “Polina” has bigger ideas than simply becoming an overtired ballet effort, locking in on creative yearn and the sheer ecstasy of bodily release. It’s a terrific feature, but not for expected reasons, teasing cliché while achieving a deeper understanding of dancer headspace, which is dominated by a need to please and a searing frustration with any repression of artistic expression.   Read the rest at

Film Review - Vengeance


“Vengeance” is the latest B-movie endeavor for actor Nicolas Cage, who’s turned his career into a video store stocked with only bottom shelf titles, with gems once plentiful now few and far between. However, none of these latter-year bombs can claim inspiration from a Joyce Carol Oates novella, while Cage steps back into a producer role, giving the effort a shot at actual interest from the star. While a personality doesn’t emerge, Cage does the one-man-army routine rather well, turning himself into a statue while the rest of the cast is tasked with providing emotional performances. “Vengeance” is missing pieces of its puzzle, but accepted on its level of blunt hostility, and it works with one eye closed, becoming a vigilante thriller that’s straight to the point.   Read the rest at

Film Review - The Wilde Wedding


John Malkovich and Glenn Close famously teamed up almost 30 years ago, playing troubling games of seduction in “Dangerous Liaisons,” which presented two wonderful actors in their prime a chance to play challenging period roles, inhabiting unhealthy characters. The same idea applies to “The Wilde Wedding,” which reteams Close and Malkovich in a contemporary tale of seemingly pleasant people up to no good while in the midst of a celebration. Writer/director Damian Harris isn’t remaking “Dangerous Liaisons,” but he’s offering the ensemble a chance to play in wide open spaces, going for more of a mid-career Woody Allen vibe as personalities collide and predatory behaviors are exposed during the titular event, with a jazzy score keeping the pace as the helmer simply unleashes his cast on the script, making a casual disaster movie with exceedingly talented leads.   Read the rest at

Film Review - Wetlands


Following current crime story trends, “Wetlands” is a heavy viewing experience, offering a level of bleakness that’s difficult to endure, especially when it loses concentration on its most promising elements. Writer/director Emanuele Della Valle aims to achieve a sort of mediation on the scars of sin and the struggles of redemption, and he’s chosen an interesting location to summon the ghosts of the past, with the outskirts of Atlantic City setting the scene for an odyssey that turns the lead character inside out. However, while effective in certain areas, boosted by a fine cast and a knockout turn from Jennifer Ehle, “Wetlands” tends to revel in mood instead of using it to create grim momentum, with the tale’s shock value far too numbed to make its intended impact.   Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Ben


1971's "Willard" is a fairly gentle horror movie, only paying attention to genre demands on occasion, using its tale of killer rats and their human leader as a way to explore a damaged mind finally getting a taste of power. It was a curious revenge picture, but effective, preserving the inherent weirdness of the plot while staging a few murderous encounters between man and rodent. The feature was a hit, thrilling audiences looking for a squirmy good time, making the possibility of a sequel a no-brainer. However, 1972's "Ben" doesn't seem to understand what made "Willard" a smash, taking a far more sedate approach to detailing a pest infestation, almost transforming the concept of a homicidal rat into a family film, stripping away frights to make a modest tearjerker about a dying boy and his beloved pet. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Willard


Take a look at the marketing for 1971's "Willard," and one could come away with the impression that the releasing company was offering a snuff film for sale, reserved only for the most practiced moviegoer. Watch "Willard," and it's a relatively cheery PG-rated chiller about a man and his relationship with a colony of rats. So much for the "This is one movie you should not see alone" tagline. I can't image what director Daniel Mann had to do to maintain order on his set, but his efforts result in an entertaining horror picture, but one that plays rather peacefully between acts of rat-based savagery, leaning on star Bruce Davison to conjure some unnerving behavior and cuddle time with his tiny co-stars to help the feature sustain what little unease it provides.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Twisted Nightmare


To be fair to 1987's "Twisted Nightmare," slasher cinema rarely makes sense. It's a genre that often employs irrational characters acting as stupidly as possible, while filmmakers barely hang on with snoozy plots that only service the needs of the almighty Kills. "Twisted Nightmare" initially appears to have a narrative direction worth following, introducing a Native American curse established long ago that's revived for a fresh round of big screen slaughter. However, something went seriously wrong under the care of director Paul Hunt, who abandons plot, personality, and continuity as his movie struggles to make it to the 90 minute mark. People certainly die, and in horrible ways, but the rest of the endeavor is a bewildering assembly of editorial apathy and awful performances, sure to tax even the most forgiving slasher fan.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Three Sisters


Put celebrated actor Laurence Olivier in charge of directing an adaptation of Anton Chekhov's "Three Sisters," and there's a guarantee of quality seldom seen in the stage-to-screen tradition. Preserving his work on the material for the Royal National Theater, Olivier shows immense respect for Chekhov's writing and the needs of cinema with this endeavor, part of the American Film Theater's efforts during the 1970s to bring theater to the masses.  Read the rest at

Film Review - 9/11

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It took some time after the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, for the movie industry to feel comfortable dramatizing the horrors that occurred on that dreadful, emotionally crippling day. Eventually, producers worked up the nerve to try and visualize something most Americans are loathe to remember, and intriguing cinema emerged, including Paul Greengrass’s “United 93,” Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center,” and a host of smaller pictures and television efforts. Most of these endeavors were trying to understand incredible behaviors of the day and mourn unimaginable sacrifices, hoping to make some sense out of a heinous, cowardly act. Now comes “9/11,” which is a little late to the party, but labors to live up to the “never forget” mantra surrounding the disaster, offering a micro-budget story of survival inside the crumbling North Tower of the World Trade Center. And when one considers the depth of sorrow, the pain of loss, and the boiling rage of frustration surrounding the 9/11 experience, it makes perfect sense for director Martin Guigui to hire Charlie Sheen to star -- a man who’s gone on record questioning the reality of the attacks. It’s the first of many cringe-inducing goofs “9/11” makes on its quick journey to obscurity. Read the rest at