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December 2017

Blu-ray Review - Adventures of Captain Marvel


These days, it's impossible to go a season without the release of a comic book movie. They're big business these days, perhaps the one sure thing in Hollywood right now, and the industry shows no signs of slowing down the productions, endeavoring to dazzle fans with big-budgeted, snugly costumed fury, often scripted with plans to generate entire "universes" to fully milk source materials for everything they've got. In this day and age of three "Spider-Man" franchises created and released in 15 years, it's hard to consider a time when moguls had no idea what to do with the heroic antics of ink and paint titans. 1941's "Adventures of Captain Marvel" is largely credited as the first big screen attempt to do something significant with a comic book creation, using the serial format (12 chapters in total) to detail feats of strength, survival, and sleuthing, with emphasis on broad fantasy to supply proper weekly escapism and trigger ongoing interest in the fate of a beefy superhero in a tiny cape.  Read the rest at

Film Review - The Shape of Water


After going huge with 2013’s “Pacific Rim” and gothic with 2015’s “Crimson Peak,” writer/director Guillermo del Toro tries a little softness on for size with “The Shape of Water,” but warm and cuddly means something slightly different to the famously fantastical filmmaker. He’s created a romance (written with Vanessa Taylor) with his own unique fingerprints, eschewing dewy acts of tenderness for a bloodier, more hostile examination of forbidden connection, which also features far more masturbation than I’m sure any viewer is expecting. Offered a chance to make an R-rated fantasy that celebrates a love for monsters and the kindness of strangers, and del Toro runs with it, delivering his best effort in years, preserving his idiosyncrasies and extremities with an often wonderfully bizarre movie. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Post


Steven Spielberg matured as a filmmaker a long time ago, but he's recently been determined to showcase a certain level of wisdom in his work. Granted, the maestro’s last endeavor, “The BFG,” involved fart jokes, but “The Post” returns Spielberg to the land of “Lincoln” (along with “Munich,” “War Horse,” and “Bridge of Spies”), sharing a story of history in the most refined manner possible. “The Post” isn’t an Earth-shattering creative accomplishment, but it’s clockwork Spielberg, which is certainly better than most directors can summon. Detailing a critical moment of journalism and the fight for free speech, the picture strives to capture the thrill of reporting and the horror of secretive government misconduct, and the movie achieves these dramatic goals. It’s the overall urgency of the effort that’s up for debate.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Ferdinand


“The Story of Ferdinand” was written by Munro Leaf and released in 1936, were it began its long domination as a children’s literature staple, still selling well to this day. It’s a 32-page exploration of nature and character, charming readers with its cultural thumbprint and relative simplicity. Walt Disney took a shot at adapting the story in 1938, and he only needed seven minutes to identify themes and personality. Blue Sky Studios (the force behind the “Ice Age” saga and 2015’s “The Peanuts Movie”) offers their take on Leaf’s book, only this “Ferdinand” is bull-sized, offering family audiences a 105-minute-long cartoon that barely has anything in common with the source material. Director Carlos Saldanha (“Rio”) goes the more-is-less route with the numbing CGI animated endeavor, furiously trying to pad a tale that was just fine as it was.  Read the rest at

Film Review - The Tribes of Palos Verdes


I’m not sure if it’s a tale of career redemption, but “The Tribes of Palos Verdes” marks the return of directing duo Emmett and Brenden Malloy, who were last seen on the screen with 2001’s snowboarding comedy, “Out Cold.” You remember, the movie that featured a pre-fame Zach Galafianakis portraying a character who gets his penis caught in a hot tub jet? The Malloys didn’t score with crude entertainment, but they fare better 16 years later, showing confidence with this adaptation of a Joy Nicholson novel, which allows them to pursue more meaningful drama and deeper characters. “The Tribes of Palos Verdes” isn’t an upbeat film, but the production doesn’t get caught in the undertow of despair, managing to find a level of alarm that keeps the story engrossing while it surveys some desperate emotional issues.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Hollow in the Land


Small town hostilities and murder in a working class community isn’t a new idea, but writer/director Scooter Corkle handles the routine well in “Hollow in the Land.” Evocative and capably scripted, the film attempts to launch a whodunit with emphasis on the misery of an upbringing interrupted, exploring the true strength of family ties when put to the ultimate test. “Hollow in the Land” has all the identifying marks of a low-budget production, but Corkle captures a welcome intensity to the unfolding drama, and he finds a terrific lead in Dianna Agron, who makes a move to expand her career possibilities with a turn as a downtrodden detective, showing newfound range as she carries the weight of this effective but bleak picture.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Star Wars: The Last Jedi


When we last left the world of “Star Wars,” Rey was about to hand a special lightsaber to Luke Skywalker, arriving at the end of her long, perilous journey to locate the missing Jedi Master. Now, two years later, Luke finally has a little more to do than deliver haunted looks and a long pause. Luke Skywalker speaks in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” which is a promising development. In fact, he does a lot more than simply speak in the eighth chapter of the space fantasy saga, returning to the mess of the galaxy as it succumbs once again to the battle between good and evil. Weirdly, “The Last Jedi” is not a completely Luke-centric movie, with new writer/director Rian Johnson (taking franchise reins from J.J. Abrams) using the aging hero sparingly, concentrating on the group effort as the Resistance squares off against the First Order, summoning a mix of “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” to inspire this latest adventure, which remains thrilling, but only in fits and starts. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle


It was always strange that 1995’s “Jumanji” never received a sequel. Yes, there was 2005’s “Zathura,” which was more of a remake than a true follow-up, but a true continuation of the animal rampage antics never materialized. Now Dwayne Johnson has the urge to battle fantasy creatures, leading an eager cast for “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” which offers a few ties to the earlier picture, but mostly reheats the gameplay formula for a new generation. Director Jake Kasdan and the screenwriters (four in total) try to rework the central concept of panicked adventuring, giving the premise a video game setting, moving away from board games and suburban hellraising to make noise in the tropics. It’s an entertaining romp, wisely avoiding the burden of topping what’s come before, with Kasdan mindful of silly business and CGI chaos as he strives to remain true to character, offering as much personality as this type of extravaganza allows.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Bullet Head


“Bullet Head” is a fairly aggressive title, and conjures images of a brutal actioner starring a host of menacing characters. It comes as a great surprise to learn that the feature, while violent, is more about guys sharing long stories about their lives while an abused dog, one trained to fight, wanders around the setting, periodically chewing on the participants. It’s Quentin Tarantino meets “Jaws,” though writer/director Paul Solet isn’t interested in summoning a rousing genre exercise, preferring to maintain a low-key vibe, preserving the story’s idiosyncrasies. “Bullet Head” is a strange picture, and perhaps it’s ultimately unsatisfying, but Solet maintains his vision throughout, creating an iffy crime story that’s blended with the horrors of animal abuse, adding an unusual wrinkle to the routine of loquacious cretins trying to get away with stolen cash.  Read the rest at

Film Review - El Camino Christmas


Perhaps David E. Talbert hasn’t been the most inspired director in the business, handling titles like “Baggage Claim” and “This Christmas” with some degree of personality, but generally keeping vanilla with softball subjects like family dysfunction and the pitfalls of romance. With “El Camino Christmas,” Talbert graduates to a dark comedy, and one that’s fairly violent, generally choosing antagonisms over laughs. It’s also dreadful, but it’s difficult to tell who’s to blame for this mess, as Talbert tries to deliver professional work with a semi-accomplished cast, while screenwriters Theodore Melfi and Christopher Wehner assemble a familiar display of reckless characters hashing out their differences during a pressurized situation. Perhaps there’s a longer cut of “El Camino Christmas” somewhere, as the version finding release now has been stripped of rhythm and reason. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Birthday Party


"The Birthday Party" is the play that reportedly changed the career of writer Harold Pinter, who finally found his voice in this particularly strange offering of kitchen sink abstraction. In the hands of director William Friedkin, the 1968 picture is pulled from the stage to the claustrophobia of cinema, finding the helmer respectful of the source material, but working to make it come alive on the screen, delivering a lively version of an impenetrable play. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - They Shoot Horses, Don't They?


In the long and distinguished career of director Sydney Pollack, a few classics emerged. Think "Three Days of the Condor," "Tootsie," and "Jeremiah Johnson." Perhaps his most interesting effort is 1969's "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?", which immerses viewers into the world of a marathon dance contest during the Great Depression, delivering a vivid depiction of personal need and exhaustion as a simple game for a cash prize turns into a gladiatorial battle among desperate people. An adaptation of Horace McCoy's 1935 novel, "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" is a commanding, harrowing movie, showcasing Pollack's gifts with actors and his ability to visually communicate the physical toil of the contest, which carries on for months, and the helmer is prepared to make the audience feel every single hour of every single day, generating a frightfully precise viewing experience.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Visit to a Small Planet


1960 was a big year for Jerry Lewis, welcoming the release of "Cinderfella" and "The Bellboy," which was the comedian's directorial debut, inspiring greater control over his movies. Arriving earlier in the year was "Visit to a Small Planet," which has the distinction of being a silly Jerry Lewis comedy that originated as a Gore Vidal play. The Vidal-ness of it all has been scrubbed away, but the theatrical presentation remains, with the sci-fi comedy very static and exaggerated. The production itself wants to compete with Lewis's rubbery performance, making this oddball romp with a literally untouchable alien more loud than funny, though the star can always be counted on to make a satisfying mess of scenes.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Just Getting Started


It’s been nearly 30 years since the release of “Bull Durham,” and writer/director Ron Shelton hasn’t come close to replicating the pleasures and textures of his outstanding helming debut. In fact, he’s made a series of mediocre and crummy movies over the last three decades, eventually breaking away from theatrical releases with 2003’s “Hollywood Homicide.” “Just Getting Started” isn’t a return to form for Shelton. In fact, it’s actually the worst picture he’s ever made, returning to screens with a Christmas dud that’s tonally bizarre, lazily performed, and deeply unfunny. Considering that the effort was shot at a luxury Palm Springs resort and features multiple scenes set on a golf course, it’s pretty easy to see why the project came to be. “Just Getting Started” must’ve been a pleasure to shoot, but it’s a horror to watch.  Read the rest at

Film Review - I, Tonya


It isn’t easy to grasp what “I, Tonya” wants to be, and perhaps that’s what screenwriter Steven Rogers (“P.S. I Love You,” “Love the Coopers,” “Kate & Leopold”) is ultimately after with the project, creative an elusive tone for a specialized subject. Nobody was begging for a Tonya Harding bio-pic, and Rogers doesn’t exactly create one with the picture, which doesn’t make much time for the details of Harding’s life beyond her battles with abusive loved ones and the mental and physical combat she endured during her quest to become a figure skating champion. And there’s the whole Nancy Kerrigan thing, referred to here as “The Incident.” There’s a lot to unpack with “I, Tonya,” but Rogers offers only a tug of war match between tonalities, with part of the film trying to remain sincere when dealing with the downfall of a damaged woman, while the rest plays like a John Waters movie, populated with broad characters and cartoony performances.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Gilbert


It’s hard to picture Gilbert Gottfried as a normal person. He’s not the Average Joe type, building a career as a comedian with a specifically nuclear-style stage persona, decimating audiences with X-rated material and ear-splitting vocal volume. He’s a unique persona, but director Neil Berkeley isn’t particularly interested in Gottfried’s professional achievements, using the documentary “Gilbert” to expose the performer’s average domestic experience, searching for the man behind the yelling and raunchy punchlines. Berkeley manages to uncover Gottfried’s true self in the film, and it’s as unsettling as a one can imagine. However, such rarity comes in handy with “Gilbert,” which supplies a fascinating look at a seemingly meek guy who lives to offend, highlighting career experiences and family ties, creating a portrait of a beloved funnyman that’s, at its best, eye-opening, especially when it comes time to observe Gottfried as a husband and father -- two domestic roles few thought he would ever play.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Wonder Wheel


With the career of Woody Allen, there’s expectation for creative peaks and valleys, but lately, the writer/director has been stuck in a rut, serving up a series of clunkers after the stunning success of 2013’s “Blue Jasmine.” After “Magic in the Moonlight,” “Irrational Man,” and “Café Society,” Allen’s slump continues with “Wonder Wheel,” an ill-considered take on romantic folly and dramatic invention. Allen’s working with a significant budget to resurrect ‘50’s-era Coney Island, and he has a fabulously talented lead in Kate Winslet, but Allen being Allen, only the slightest attention has been paid to approachability, leaving “Wonder Wheel” amazingly unlikable and, periodically, unendurable. Allen likes to maintain his one-film-per-year pace, but there are scripts, like this one, that need a little more time in development.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Darkest Hour


It’s been a big year for Operation Dynamo, the 1940 evacuation of Allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, France. The event has already been featured in “Their Finest” and Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster, “Dunkirk,” and now plays a pivotal role in “Darkest Hour,” which explores a critical month in the life of Winston Churchill. The subject also enjoyed another cinematic inspection this year in “Churchill,” but “Darkest Hour” employs a more precise vision from director Joe Wright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten, who use the pressure point of Hitler’s encroaching army to examine the stress of leadership, especially in England, where Churchill rubs against those who would rather surrender than fight. Wright tones down his usual visual flourishes, but his dramatic command is the strongest it’s been in years, mounting a gripping look at the solidification of Churchill’s legacy, aided by a terrific lead performance from Gary Oldman. Read the rest at

Film Review - The New Radical


“The New Radical” introduces the average viewer to the world of Cody Wilson, who, as a young man, decided to release the design of a plastic, 3D-printed gun for the world to download, imagining himself, as the title suggests, to be a champion of First Amendment freedoms, sharing his knowledge with the world. Director Adam Bhala Lough envisions a provocative look at the pliability of American rights and common sense with the documentary, but journalistic intentions fail to materialize. Instead, “The New Radical” is a 105-minute-long commercial for Wilson’s firearms business that’s also filled with zeitgeist-flicking asides on the omnipresence of gun violence and the subject’s connection to a new generation of people looking to rattle the establishment with dark empowerment, using Wilson to detail a David vs. Goliath war between longstanding government rule and Millennials trying to figure out how to implement a new world order.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Snapshot


In the legacy of Ozploitation, it's difficult to understand what "Snapshot" represents to the cinematic tradition. Coming from the makers of "Patrick," which went far to establish the popularity of Australian chillers, "Snapshot" doesn't register with the same level of creepiness, emerging as more of a character drama than something intending to rile up audiences. It's an unusually reserved effort which trusts in the possibilities of patience, never really pursuing a defined plot until most of the movie is already over. Director Simon Wincer and screenwriters Everett and Chris De Roche trust in quieter, conversational moments, and it gives the feature a different approach to unsettling behavior. It lacks most overt surprises, but the nightmare summoned here appears to be psychological in design, tracking the ruin of a young woman who only wanted quick cash and a little taste of independence. Read the rest at