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November 2017

Blu-ray Review - Beggars of Life


1928's "Beggars of Life" is largely considered to be one of Louise Brooks's finest motion pictures. The material asks quite a lot of the actress, portraying a haunted character in the midst of interstate travel and personal turmoil, facing threat from all sides. Brooks gives the role all she's got, and effort is appreciated, adding a rich sense of emotion to the production, which winds through elements of murder, abuse, and law enforcement pursuit, requiring a little softness to balance out all the edge that's served up during the run time.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Wonder


“Wonder” is the latest film from director Stephen Chbosky, who made a sizable industry impression with 2012’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” While I had trouble with its muddled storytelling, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” showed atypical sensitivity when dealing with the lives of teenagers, taking personal issues seriously while preserving the roller coaster ride of social and emotional connections, valuing the often mysterious bonds of friendship. “Wonder” initially seems like the same type of movie, but it’s intended for a family audience, with softer edges and a wider range of age-appropriate problems. It’s also a stronger, more complete endeavor, with Chbosky doing a better job wrangling subplots and defining characters, doing to his best to maintain author R.J. Palacio’s careful understanding of the working parts of a family.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Last Flag Flying


“Last Flag Flying” is described as a “spiritual sequel” to the 1973 picture, “The Last Detail,” with both movies sourced from novels by author Darryl Ponicsan. For obvious reasons, the stars of the previous effort haven’t returned (Otis Young is dead, Jack Nicholson is retired, and Randy Quaid is currently suffering through a prolonged nervous breakdown), inspiring co-writer/director Richard Linklater to shift characterization slightly, keeping Ponicsan’s plot and character camaraderie without being slavish to what “The Last Detail” started. Losing the sequelization aspect is perhaps the smartest play for Linklater, freeing him up to make something frightfully intimate with “Last Flag Flying,” taking a look at the sacrifices of military service and the delicate nature of memories, reviving the road trip for three now ex-Marines as they come to terms with past mistakes and mounting frustrations.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Justice League


There’s no reason to deny it: the DC Extended Universe would like to mirror the global box office triumphs of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, playing a game of catch-up that began with 2013’s “Man of Steel.” Now, just four years later, they’ve arrived at their first major team-up endeavor, quickly building on the success of 2016’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and last summer’s “Wonder Woman.” In a hurry to give fans all the comic book superheroes they can handle, the DCEU jumps right into the fray with “Justice League,” delivering a sizable pounding with iconic characters, upping the action and humor to connect more directly with the mass audience. “Justice League” is a mess, but not a completely unappealing one, best when delivering special powers and toying with a group dynamic. It’s the burden of storytelling that tends to get in the way of the fun, finding the screenplay adhering to blockbuster formula when the movie itself seems more interested in The Hang with a collection of troubled superheroes just trying to get along to fight a common enemy: disappointment in the DCEU.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond


There were always stories swirling around about Jim Carrey’s troubling behavior during the production of 1999’s “Man on the Moon.” These were vague tales of complete role immersion, where Carrey became comic Andy Kaufman to portray him in his bio-pic, offering not just reverence, but his entire body and soul to a part, shelving “Jim Carrey” for a few months to live life as Kaufman and his alter ego, Tony Clifton. It sounded bizarre at the time, and it turns out it really was, with “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond” finally piecing together an understanding of Carrey’s psychological choices as he inhabited his idol, with director Chris Smith granted access to hundreds of hours of behind the scenes video from the “Man on the Moon” shoot, showcasing just what happened during production, conforming that, indeed, there was no Carrey to speak of, only Kaufman.  Read the rest at

Film Review - The Divine Order


While “The Divine Order” shares a story of gender discrimination, misogyny, and marital woes, it’s almost refreshing to find the tale taking place in Switzerland, avoiding American hostilities for once. The change in location is most welcome, with writer/director Petra Biondina Volpe examining the pains of womanhood from a different perspective, and while American influence remains, the screenplay showcases a distinct cultural fingerprint as it details the jail sentence of being a woman in 1971. “The Divine Order” has its melodramatic urges, but it’s an excellent overview of personal need with sharply defined characters, returning to an era of global change with a few details that mirror today’s social turbulence. Volpe taps into the zeitgeist and shares a period saga of equality, creating a picture that’s essential viewing for those interested in a wider perspective on feminist challenges.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Cook Off!


2017 is starting to feel like a big garage sale, with Hollywood searching the archives for features to sell, getting rid of titles that never worked or were impossible to market. In the last month, there was “Amityville: The Awakening” and “Geostorm” (both shot in 2014), and now there’s “Cook Off!” However, the delay on the picture isn’t slight, with the mockumentary shot in 2007, putting a decade between completion and release. It’s an enormous amount of time, keeping expectations low for an effort that, for mysterious reasons, no studio wanted to offer audiences, even with its sellable premise and cast of comedians. “Cook Off!” isn’t a great film, but it’s not a complete disaster, happily lifting moves from Christopher Guest endeavors to create its own improv-heavy take on screwball characters engaged in heated competition.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Sweet Virginia


The interesting thing about “Sweet Virginia” is that it could work as either a small town drama or a suspense picture. Benjamin and Paul China’s screenplay manages to combine the cinematic speeds with care, offering an engrossing tale of mishandled anger and desperation, putting effort into characterization while saving room for savage acts of violence. Director Jamie M. Dagg doesn’t overdo style, remaining respectful of the writing and the cast hired to turn lengthy dialogue exchanges into pained exchanges of need, keeping “Sweet Virginia” slow-burn but highly effective. It takes time, but the China Brothers manage to build something threatening and deeply felt, keeping the viewing experience surprising even while the story deals with familiar elements of intimidation and distress.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Revolt


“Revolt” isn’t really a movie, it plays more like a director’s reel for Joe Miale, who does what many other aspiring helmers do and looks to sci-fi/action to establish his name and style. It’s a road picture of sorts, using an alien invasion hook to explore African locations, working to build a few mysteries that might play out in multiple sequels. It’s a shame Miale doesn’t get the first one right, though his technical skill is impressive in spots, showing similarities to 2010’s “Skyline,” which also came off as a calling card instead of a full-fledged movie. “Revolt” feels incomplete and undernourished in the dramatic department, though Miale isn’t aiming for hospital corners with the effort, electing to focus on alien mayhem and anguished reactions from stars Lee Pace and Berenice Marlohe, who offer thespian commitment to the film and receive little in return.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Almost Friends


With “Almost Friends,” writer/director Jake Goldberger tries to make an honest movie about matters of the heart. He almost pulls it off. It’s a story about friendships that endeavor to be romances, but encounter too many issues to permit a full blossoming into love, with the production establishing multiple subplots to create a cat’s cradle of dysfunction and confession. Goldberger has interest in these lives, but his command of storytelling fluidity and consistency is a tad off, with “Almost Friends” spending too much time on characters who fail to add anything to the picture’s sense of sincerity, while clichés soon catching up to the helmer, kneecapping its dramatic integrity. There’s gentleness to the effort that’s appealing, but it doesn’t last long enough.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Gumby: The Movie


I suppose there should be a club for those who saw "Gumby: The Movie" during its initial theatrical release. Or perhaps a therapy group. Interested in strange moviegoing experiences, I attended a matinee showing in September, 1995 (at the now demolished Brookdale 8 Cinemas, for the Minnesota readers), not really understanding what I was about to witness. My awareness of the Gumby character at the time was limited to occasional syndication encounters and "Saturday Night Live" razzing, lacking a doctorate in all things Art Clokey. While a few brave parents decided to share the wonders of stop-motion animation (then a rare multiplex event) with their children, I was the lone adult there willingly, and my mind was about to be blown. For the next 90 minutes, "Gumby: The Movie" offered sights and sounds so bizarre, I was worried about a possible gas leak in the shoebox theater. It provided a viewing experience that was impossible to describe to others, and the feature tanked so completely, it was out of theaters before I could process just what happened. And here we are 22 years later, and while I still haven't taken the deep sea dive into the Gumby archives, his one and only big screen endeavor remains as potently nutso as I remember, giving family audiences everything they could want: brightly colored characters, slapstick antics, and harsh lessons on the dangers of predatory home mortgage loans. Read the rest at 

Blu-ray Review - Frankie and Johnny


Arriving at the midway point in Elvis Presley's career as a Hollywood leading man, 1966's "Frankie and Johnny" is sadly emblematic of the legendary singer's film achievements. It's not a bad movie, far from it, but carries a distinct programmed feel, with the production getting its star up, acting, and singing before he's on to the next project, keeping the gravy train rolling along.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Good Son


It's interesting to watch "The Good Son" today, 24 years after its original theatrical release, which was pushed primarily as an opportunity to watch Macaulay Culkin, the cherubic star of "Home Alone," play a villain at the tender age of 12. There's no doubt curiosity fueled the feature's so-so box office gross, and likely influenced many reviews at the time that highlighted the movie's somewhat distasteful interest in the torment of children. Decades later, with Culkin permanently erased from pop culture consciousness, "The Good Son" lacks its most shocking element, emerging from the savagery of time as a tepid chiller with very little depth and a tedious concentration menacing faces from Culkin, who's way out of his range with the teeny-weeny serial killer role. It would certainly make a fascinating double bill with "Home Alone," but on its own, the effort is shallow and unremarkable.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Devil's Brigade


It's easy to dismiss 1968's "The Devil's Brigade" as a knock-off of 1967's "The Dirty Dozen," being one of the first productions to swoop in a sweep up any remaining audience interest in the adventures of mismatched military men. There's certainly a "Dozen" charge to the picture, but "The Devil's Brigade" manages to be its own thing, taking a look at the formation, training, and early missions of the 1st Special Service Force, which brought together American and Canadian forces, also offering a chance for film producers to populate the movie with a flavorful cast of character actors.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Obit


In 2011, director Andrew Rossi brought viewers into the offices of the New York Times for "Page One," a documentary exploring the daily experience of journalism in its highest form, making note of writers and challenges that go into the creation of news. It was a fascinating look at the mechanics and personalities that make up the newspaper, and "Obit" returns to the same location, only this time director Vanessa Gould takes a deeper dive into a specific type of coverage for the New York Times, examining the construction and care of the obituary department. Like "Page One," "Obit" is a fascinating inspection of 9-5 work, highlighting the research, writing, and personal touches of the obituary section, with its staff trying to make their assignments something special, continuing a prized tradition of the paper.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Daddy's Home 2


Less than two years ago, “Daddy’s Home” had the guts to open in the wake of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” hoping to be the family film alternative for those searching for broad laughs over the holiday season. Amazingly, it worked, giving Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg one of the biggest hits of their careers, cementing a screen partnership that began with “The Other Guys.” Not willing to squeak by with an unexpected smash, the duo returns with “Daddy’s Home 2,” a quickie sequel that weirdly isn’t trying its post-“Star Wars” release luck again, coming out early in the season armed with more slapstick and a support act in Mel Gibson and John Lithgow. With these movies, anything that conjures even a smile should be considered a triumph, and “Daddy’s Home 2” has a few chuckles to go with its painful repetition.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Murder on the Orient Express


“Murder on the Orient Express” is perhaps the most famous of Agatha Christie’s literary achievements. Adaptations of the 1934 book are numerous, with a 1974 Sidney Lumet film often held as the gold standard for big screen Christie translations, while other efforts, including a 2001 television movie and a 2010 episode of “Agatha Christie’s Poirot,” have had their way with the mystery writer’s twists and turns. Now something grander has arrived from director Kenneth Branagh, who busts out the CGI polish and star-studded casting to give his take on “Murder on the Orient Express” its own modern lift, gifting a new generation with an aged tale of death and deception on a stalled train. Branagh makes a pretty picture and invites some real talent to join in on the game of suspicion, but all is not well when it comes to cinematic sleuthing, as the production tends to gloss over the fine details of certain characters, which leaves the feature feeling empty and anticlimactic. Read the rest at 

Film Review - 24 Hours to Live


“24 Hours to Live” is being sold as a spiritual sibling to the 2014 action bonanza, “John Wick,” with the productions sharing a few producers and a similar interest in the creation of screen havoc, preferably with as much ferocity as possible. However, “24 Hours to Live” isn’t actually a similar endeavor, eschewing one-man-army revenge steeliness for more of a chase throughout South Africa, while the plot leans more toward “Bourne Identity”-type of secret government cruelties. The picture wisely avoids replication to become its own bulldozing actioner with a slight sci-fi twist, and it benefits from Ethan Hawke’s participation, watching the actor commit in full to his character’s brawling abilities and moments of pained introspection, finding a soul to the effort before B-movie demands close in to claim it for good.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Thumper


When Hollywood decided to make a “21 Jump Street” movie, they were afraid to be sincere with it. The late-‘80s Fox show about undercover cops in high school certainly had its goofy moments, and perhaps the program is hopelessly dated, but there was a mission to bring the complexity of the world to an impressionable audience, highlighting social issues and various forms of abuse. “Thumper” isn’t as primary colored as “21 Jump Street,” but it’s a close match in some respects, with writer/director Jordan Ross taking the idea of a cop in deep with teenagers to grittier areas of personal conduct and law enforcement. Perhaps Ross wouldn’t enjoy having his picture mentioned alongside a bubblegum TV show, but the comparison is a compliment, nailing a fascinating tonality as the pursuit of justice clashes with matters of the heart.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Bitch


Writer/director/star Marianna Palka knows that titling her latest endeavor “Bitch” is going to attract some attention. After all, this is the same filmmaker who arrived on the scene with the relationship drama, “Good Dick,” making provocative titles a practiced game for Palka. Thankfully, she can back up such mischief, creating a specialized take on the ways of neglect and depression with this strange but fascinating dramedy. “Bitch” is sure to launch 10,000 essays from bloggers everywhere, but the core experience of the movie supplies a fascinating understanding of mental fracture and repair, with Palka offering her unique take on gender and marital roles and the pain that builds up when respect and communication exit a relationship. She takes things to an extreme, yet her sense of intimacy remains powerful, cutting through a gimmick to identify relatable stress and conjure a startling feeling of hopelessness.  Read the rest at