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January 2018

Film Review - 12 Strong


While war stories are common in American cinema, a project like “12 Strong” doesn’t just come from out of nowhere. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer is looking to create his own version of the 2014 smash hit, “American Sniper,” returning audiences to the battleground of the Middle East, where noble military men clash against local enemies, emphasizing sacrifice, honor, and the sheer trained might of U.S. forces. A movie doesn’t simply make superhero cinema money and go unnoticed, and while “12 Strong” doesn’t have the tragic angle of “American Sniper,” daring to go forward with a positive Afghanistan tale, it shares the same simplicity and jingoistic fervor that’s meant to play to certain audiences, buttering up the cruelties of war with fetishistic violence and steel-jawed performances.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Showdown in Manila


I first became aware of Alexander Nevsky last year, when his 2014 thriller, “Black Rose,” was finally picked up for a U.S. release. The picture was painful to sit through, but it showcased a certain fervor for stardom from Nevsky, who handled a good portion of the production’s credits, trying to launch himself as the next big thing in international action cinema. “Black Rose” didn’t find an audience, but Nevsky is back with “Showdown in Manila,” which brings the hulking star to another part of the world to do a little hellraising, but this time the results are weirdly amateurish, with Nevsky handing directorial duties to Mark Dacascos, a longtime actor (and performer on “Iron Chef America”) who makes a particularly clumsy helming debut. For those who can endure the feature’s considerable shortcomings and tone-deaf creative choices, this might be the next “The Room” for action cinema fans, giving Nevsky the spotlight he craves.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Acts of Violence


There’s truth in advertising here, as “Acts of Violence” contains plenty of aggressive encounters, embracing the freedom of brutality the title grants. It’s also a hopelessly ugly, moronic picture that appears to be under the impression that it’s a valuable clue in the ongoing assessment of modern law enforcement, criticizing police procedure as ineffective, perhaps intentionally so. In a sharper effort, such a provocative idea would inspire a multi-layered study of honor, duty, and desperation. In “Acts of Violence,” it’s a green light for lame characterizations, dreary action, and a strange consideration of vigilante justice. It’s brutal work, no surprise there, but the production doesn’t consider material deeply, going the urban western route, rendering the feature completely useless.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Freak Show


All the good intentions in the world can’t prevent “Freak Show” from becoming a trite, borderline obnoxious tale of empowerment via a quest for identity inside a conservative battle zone. Director Trudie Styler has her heart in the right place, hoping to reach out to a younger demographic with this tale of persistence in the face of prejudice, scraping the zeitgeist as the material confronts uncertain sexuality and gender identification, with hope that its saga of personal inventory is able to provide a light of hope for those who remain in the dark. “Freak Show” has a to-do list of clichés to work through, and few of them retain any dramatic impact, finding Styler more interested in dressing up the main character in wild fashions than truly dealing with the psychological tears that comes from social rejection and a broken family.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Psychos in Love


1986's "Psychos in Love" certainly has the external appearance of a horror extravaganza, with an eye-catching title and marketing materials that emphasize a ghoulish viewing experience to come. But the feature isn't a nightmare machine, it merely wants to tell a plethora of corny jokes and showcase freshly chopped limbs. And if you happen to hate grapes, here's a cinematic experience tailored directly to that phobia. Co-writer/director Gorman Bechard arranges a massacre with "Psychos in Love," but his heart belongs to comedy, pinching from the Marx Brothers and Monty Python as he sets up shop in Tromaville for this unexpectedly goofball take on "Annie Hall," diluting the direct Woody Allen lifts with bloodshed and multiple maniacs. It's a strange picture, but that's the point.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Take the Money and Run


Technically, 1969's "Take the Money and Run" isn't Woody Allen's directorial debut. That distinction belongs to the dubbed farce, "What's Up, Tiger Lilly?" However, what the second effort in a long, decorated career represents is Allen's initial offering of pure silliness, taking his interests and timing as a comedian and film performer, and funneling it into a faux documentary about the life and times of a terrible crook. It's the first shot fired in an early career what would go on to introduce several comedy classics, but with "Take the Money and Run," Allen provides a raw form of cheekiness to come, showcasing early instincts to offer as many jokes as possible, fueling the endeavor on pure goofiness. It's a joy to watch at times, even at its most exhausting, delivering a hungrier Allen at the start of his helming career, eager to please with this zany snapshot of criminal stupidity.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Opera


Dario Argento certainly doesn't have the career today that he once had in the past, and the line of quality tends to be drawn at 1987's "Opera," which represents a final push of youthful exuberance when it comes to staging ghastly acts of violence as stylishly and surreal-like as possible. "Opera" is one of Argento's better pictures, partially because it plays directly to his artistic interests, mixing the theatricality of stage performance with the grim appetites of giallo filmmaking, coming up with a slightly deflated but fascinating horror endeavor that comes alive whenever the helmer frees himself from narrative rule and explodes with evil and animal wrangling. Perhaps in the grand scheme of a career that produced "Suspiria," "Deep Red," and "Tenebrae," Argento's push to make a winded tale of insanity isn't going to penetrate deep enough, but visual delights remain, with Argento working up the energy to supply a proper jolt of the macabre and the exaggerated.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Red Line 7000


The aching hearts of stock car racers and the women who love them are explored in 1965's "Red Line 7000." Director Howard Hawks clearly has a lot of respect for the sport, but his ability to find something interesting to do once the action steps away from the track is iffy at best. "Red Line 7000" aims to be a butch overview of dented masculinity, but it's surprisingly sudsy and a little protracted, though Hawks does well with his cast, putting together an ensemble of disparate talent who lend the feature the little excitement it provides. Read the rest at 

Blu-ray Review - Score: A Film Music Documentary


Movies wouldn't be movies without music. However, film scoring is often an unheralded art, left as something for the senses, difficult to separate from the overall viewing experience. Writer/director Matt Schrader hopes to achieve a level of appreciation with "Score: A Film Music Documentary," which examines the history of composing and performing as it's developed over the last century. It's not an easy task to cover such an enormous time period in just 90 minutes, and Schrader certainly speeds around the subject like the Tasmanian Devil, but the effort is there to spotlight dozens of creative people who painstakingly put together what often becomes the heart and soul of cinema, creating music that inspires emotion and, sometimes, life itself, offered clear identification in this wonderfully vibrant and insightful documentary. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Proud Mary


I certainly get why many are rooting for the success of Taraji P. Henson. She’s a talented actress and a force of nature, but her taste in scripts leaves much to be desired, as found in recent gigs such as “Term Life” and “No Good Deed.” After scoring positive notices for her turn in last year’s “Hidden Figures,” Henson returns to the bottom shelf with “Proud Mary,” a wannabe Blaxploitation effort that’s more like a Lifetime Original, spending 80 minutes on banal relationships and the remaining five on stiffly imagined action. Henson looks bored throughout the picture, which doesn’t challenge her in the least, merely asking her to cry on cue and pose in black outfits, with the promise of creating a fascinating, empowering character of authority erased by the production’s strange obsession with screen inertia.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Paddington 2


Moviegoing surprises are always the best, and 2014’s “Paddington” was one of greater ones in recent memory. Sold as a crude, dumb comedy for little children, “Paddington” was actually a cute and clever picture, with unexpected warmth and a decent sense of adventure. Co-writer/director Paul King brought author Michael Bond’s creation to the big screen with care, and now he does it again with “Paddington 2,” a sequel that manages to best the original in laughs and tenderness. King sticks to comedy formula, but he makes a grander, slightly weirder follow-up that offers plenty of bear-based mischief, backed by an exceptional supporting cast of British talent who seem genuinely delighted to be part of the franchise, showing needed enthusiasm for the marmalade-smeared high jinks.  Read the rest at

Film Review - The Commuter


Director Jaume Collet-Serra and star Liam Neeson enjoying working together. They’ve collaborated on three previous occasions, showcasing a professional comfort and a shared interest in B-moviemaking with A-list credentials. However, this partnership hasn’t delivered significant thrills, with 2011’s “Unknown,” 2014’s “Non-Stop,” and 2015’s “Run All Night” providing lackluster viewing experiences with little suspense, generally tripping over promising premises for slick, efficient entertainment. The latest addition to this dispiriting tradition is “The Commuter,” which aims to be a Hitchcockian nail-biter featuring an average man caught up in extraordinary circumstances, but Collet-Serra and the screenwriters (three in total) don’t push beyond the visual of Neeson in paranoia mode, delivering a contrived, slapdash, and ultimately useless thriller that has no perceptible interest in pace or surprise.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Humor Me


Writer/director Sam Hoffman plays it safe with the plot of “Humor Me,” his directorial debut, making a movie about the arrested development of a man facing substantial responsibilities, moving in with his father for a free room and to find some clarity. However, formula is thinned out by personality, with Hoffman generating appealing characterizations, putting the players through amusing challenges as he hunts for significance in the dramedy. As the title suggests, there’s plenty of levity and passive-aggressive behavior to enjoy, and Hoffman secures success with the pairing of leads Jemaine Clement and Elliot Gould, who pull off an itchy family dynamic with terrific timing, bringing heart and laughs to “Humor Me,” which benefits greatly from their unique talents.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Inside


It’s difficult to understand any reason for remaking pictures that were part of the French new wave of extreme horror, which was all the rage with genre enthusiasts about decade ago. They were features created during a specific time and in a specific region, making translations difficult, especially for material that perhaps should remain attached to a single interpretation. After dealing with the deflation of 2015’s “Martyrs,” now comes “Inside,” which hopes to rework the 2007 Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo (who recently helmed the crummy “Leatherface”) endeavor for mainstream audiences, under the impression that a wide assortment of moviegoers might be interested in 80 minutes of a pregnant woman being threatened with sharp objects. That a new take on “Inside” is unnecessary is a given, but director Miguel Angel Vivas fumbles whatever debatable tension was there the first time around, delivering a routine chiller that’s largely free of suspense.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Day of the Dead: Bloodline


George Romero’s original “Dead” trilogy has already experienced multiple remakes and reworkings, with “Night of the Living Dead” and “Dawn of the Dead” producing passably regarded do-overs. It’s 1985’s “Day of the Dead” that perpetually confounds the reheating process, with “Day of the Dead 2: Contagium” and 2008’s “Day of the Dead” (with Nick Cannon and Mena Suvari) failing to do anything with Romero’s original vision. Now there’s “Day of the Dead: Bloodline,” which is being promoted as a more respectful version of the 1985 endeavor, juiced up with modern visual effects and additional movie science. It’s not like there isn’t room for improvement with “Day of the Dead,” but “Bloodline” is a complete waste of time, taking part in what’s now become a bad movie tradition: watching dismal filmmakers botch Romero’s relatively simple zombie outbreak.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Abe & Phil's Last Poker Game


“Abe & Phil’s Last Poker Game” marks the final acting effort for star Martin Landau, who passed away last summer, leaving behind a varied career with consistent work. The picture provides unusual punctuation for the thespian, who’s asked to not only communicate the ravages of medical and marital strife, but also, at the age of 88, he simulates masturbation and the digital manipulation of a loved one. While it initially appears to be a kissing cousin to Michael Haneke’s “Amour,” “Abe & Phil’s Last Poker Game” eventually strives to be something of an “American Pie” sequel, with writer/director Howard L. Weiner unafraid to depict nursing home shenanigans and senior sexuality, adding a tremendous sense of surprise to what’s typically a funeral dirge for the lead characters. The horrors of life soon visit the players, but the game is mostly about bedroom interests. Read the rest at 

Blu-ray Review - Custer of the West


1967's "Custer of the West" is built for size, not accuracy. It's a weird mix of Western mythology and revisionism, trying to compete in the race of Hollywood spectacles, but unsure if it wants to commit to the legend of George Armstrong Custer in full. It has its heart in the right place, exposing the darker side of the pioneer spirit, but a few steps in the enlightened direction throw the whole cinematic dance off, threatening to confuse viewers confronted with a committed military man known for slaughtering Native Americans, but spent most of his career trying to protect them from harm. At least the movie looks beautiful. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Cyborg 2087


In the future, old men will be robots, and they will all wear ascots. That's the promise made by "Cyborg 2087," a 1966 time travel adventure directed by Franklin Adreon, who attempts to stretch roughly 30 minutes of story into an 86-minute-long film. He's not exactly a miraculous architect of suspense, with the feature enduring incredible padding just to make it to a release-worthy length, but there's a certain tone of super-serious no- budget sci-fi that keeps the effort entertaining, even when it isn't doing anything onscreen. "Cyborg 2087" isn't a genre classic, that's for sure, but it retains some appeal due to committed performances and Adreon's B-movie hustle, often doing anything he can to keep the picture on the move.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band


On the Mount Rushmore of glitter-thwacked, cocaine-dusted cinematic camp from the late 1970s and early '80s, there's "Xanadu," "Can't Stop the Music," "The Apple," and 1978's "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." I'm sure the production marched into battle with a sincerity, striving to redefine an iconic album from The Beatles for a new generation, offering a loose narrative and legendary tunes to The Bee Gees, Peter Frampton, Aerosmith, Billy Preston, Alice Cooper, Steve Martin, and a host of additional musicians and comedians. Assuming the jukebox musical form, "Sgt. Pepper" means to be a good time with familiar music, but producer Robert Stigwood can't help himself, with the feature bizarre and excessive; it's an iffy idea that's out of control, endeavoring to define classics, but ending up a garish curiosity. However, it's no trainwreck, boasting many fine production achievements during its presumptuous run time. It's an easy film to dismiss, and perhaps it should be, but director Michael Schultz is after something memorable, doing his best to marry classic Hollywood spectacle to the soft rock sounds of the 1970s.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Vietnam War


Hubris. If there's a single word that defines The Vietnam War, it's hubris. It's a conflict that's been covered from a thousand different angles, depicted in all forms of media over the last 50 years, with film being a particularly evocative meditation on an era of political folly, innocence lost, and a various nations thrown into chaos. Think "Coming Home," "Platoon," and "Born on the Fourth of July" -- vivid tales of psychological erosion, but personal ones as well, using the particulars of combat and self-destruction to inspire riveting drama. Directors Ken Burns and Lynn Novick elect to forgo corners of the conflict to wrap their arms around the whole event, creating "The Vietnam War," a ten-part documentary that endeavors to make sense of almost everything connected to the shocking experience, from origin to aftermath. Coming from a creative team that's already dissected The Civil War, World War I, and World War II, there's expected greatness with "The Vietnam War," an assurance of quality. And yet, Burns and Novick manage to surprise with their balance between detail and expanse, capturing finer points of mental illness and shame as they track the progress of global horror, born from sheer political arrogance.  Read the rest at