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March 2018

Blu-ray Review - The Ambassador


1984's "The Ambassador" is a Cannon Films production, and I'm not entirely sure if producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus want to encourage peace in the Middle East with this feature or welcome its demise. It's a bizarre effort from the beloved B-movie factory, bringing traditional action thriller beats to Israel, making a tough guy endeavor while dealing with longstanding hostilities between the Israelis and Palestinians. The screenplay by Max Jack (who loosely adapts an Elmore Leonard novel) appears to be interested in the dialogue between warring sides, but director J. Lee Thompson doesn't have much patience for stillness, filling "The Ambassador" with sex and violence, including a few nightmarish encounters peppered with the kind of gushing wounds more commonly on view in a horror film.  Read the rest at 

Film Review - Acrimony


It’s been reported that Tyler Perry makes the bulk of his fortune with lucrative television deals, cooking up hit shows like “If Loving You Is Wrong,” delivering his take on soap operas for an underserved audience. Making features for the big screen appears to be his obsession, stopping creative tinkering to reside in MadeaLand for the last four years, masterminding an animated movie and a pair of Halloween-themed adventures for his most popular character. “Acrimony” represents Perry’s return to melodramatic filmmaking, but the results aren’t far removed from his small screen impulses, once again scripting rash characters involved in bad relationships, working out their issues through violence. There’s a glimmer of hope spotted during “Acrimony” that Perry might offer something subversive for a change and really shake up audience expectations, but such ambition doesn’t last long enough, with the troublesome helmer returning to the comfort of absurdity right when the picture seems headed somewhere interesting. Read the rest at

Film Review - Ready Player One


In recent years, Steven Spielberg has made some very accomplished pictures that detail the importance of being important, but it’s been a long time since he’s been fun. “Ready Player One” is a story about the comfort of nostalgia and elaborate treasure hunting, playing like an homage to the Spielberg of old, making the match of material (an adaptation of Ernest Cline’s 2011 book) to maestro initially difficult to believe. After all, Spielberg hasn’t intentionally made a freewheeling feature in a decade, but something sparks within the helmer, who delivers a high-flying fantasy dotted with an obscene amount of pop culture references, inside jokes, and blockbuster iconography. “Ready Player One” is extraordinarily entertaining for the most part, with its numerous charms only capable of shining brightest while in the hands of the man who inspired Cline’s imagination to begin with. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Pyewacket


A few years ago, writer/director Adam MacDonald made his helming debut with “Backcountry.” There have been many killer bear pictures, but MacDonald’s endeavor was one of the best, mixing the brutality of nature and the terror of survival, managing to do something thrilling with familiar genre elements. With “Pyewacket,” an odd title for sure, MacDonald turns his attention to the pains of adolescence, with the main character dealing with social concerns, motherly influence, and good old fashioned dark magic. A slow-burn chiller with an excellent sense of creepiness, “Pyewacket” handles evil and angst with tremendous skill. MacDonald doesn’t have much money to bring the nightmare to life, but he’s an inventive moviemaker with a refreshing concentration on behavior, not overt shocks, giving the feature a dramatic foundation before it all goes to Hell.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Birthmarked


There have been many movies made about parenting, but few dare to explore the near powerlessness of the lifelong endeavor. “Birthmarked” takes a scientific view of nature vs. nurture behavior, but co-writer/director Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais is quick to expose the fantastic physical and emotional drain of raising children, using such fatigue to generate a darkly funny and passably warmish exploration of guardianship as it begins with clinical study and ends in an emotional mess. “Birthmarked” is rather insightful when it comes to the struggles of parental control and funny about the emergence of personality, funneled into mildly quirky, appealingly strange tale that feels a little dramatically wobbly as the story unfolds, but sustains its unusual perspective on a bizarre domestic battle.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Outside In


Lynn Shelton is a very special filmmaker who’s dedicated her career to the pursuit of primal human response. She’s largely been drawn to projects with comedic potential, scoring successes with “Humpday” and “Laggies,” but the humor is usually positioned as a defense mechanism while the helmer digs deeper for sensitivities and universal emotions. “Outside In” is one of Shelton’s more austere productions, offering very little room for levity as it examines forbidden feelings and longstanding resentments. The director (who also co-scripts with star Jay Duplass) secures enough behavioral authenticity to create a compelling study of longing, wisely putting faith into co-lead Edie Falco to manage a complex character in a movie that never indulges hysteria, preferring to detail tentative steps around deep-seated feelings, which makes for more interesting drama. Read the rest at

Film Review - All I Wish


Sharon Stone isn’t always the easiest actress to cast, with her specific personality often trouble for specific movies, often leaving her muted when she’s capable of bringing something different to many of her roles. At the very least, “All I Wish” places a large amount of trust in Stone to carry a dramedy that swings wildly from slapstick to the sobering realities of life as we know it. It’s not Stone’s finest hour, but it’s the best she’s been in a very long time, bringing a bubbly, sarcastic sense of self to her character, gifting writer/director Susan Walter some unexpected screen energy, helping to temper clichés that constantly threaten to bring the film to a stop. “All I Wish” has some sizable issues with tone and originality, but it does have Stone, and her charms are welcome here, especially when Walter loses her way.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Roxanne Roxanne


As the age of the rapper bio-pic gives birth to a few box office contenders, “Roxanne Roxanne” emerges as the runt of the pack, refused the level of star power and production money to do something momentous with the tale of Roxanne Shante, a teenage hip-hop artist from the 1980s who managed to make her mark on the industry using confidence, sheer skill, and a profound yearn to remove herself from all cycles of poverty and abuse. While there’s a story here with timely gender assessment and personal ache, writer/director Michael Larnell isn’t permitted to go big with the endeavor, which never celebrates the performer, instead focusing on all the misery in her life. “Roxanne Roxanne” isn’t “Straight Outta Compton.” Heck, it isn’t even really “All Eyez on Me,” but it does strive to respect Shante’s personal struggles and comfort with disaster as she fell into a brief career as a pint-sized M.C. who inspired utter devotion from those who managed to find her during the heyday of rap. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - This World, Then the Fireworks


There's been a longstanding Hollywood fascination with the works of author Jim Thompson. He's a writer specializing in dark poetry, creating ugly characters involved in ugly business, unable to touch the bottom of the pool when it comes to the depths of horrible business. Of course, this is catnip to filmmakers, with 1997's "This World, Then the Fireworks" a particularly itchy adaptation of a Thompson novella, with the production working very hard to make as claustrophobic and freewheeling a movie as possible.  Read the rest at 

Blu-ray Review - Dawson City: Frozen Time


Cineastes will surely respond to "Dawson City: Frozen Time" with utter joy, as it details a film distribution discovery previously thought impossible. The tale takes place in Dawson City, a remote Canadian town near the Yukon River, where, in the mid-1970s, a routine excavation project managed to unearth 533 film reels from the permafrost, exposing cans of nitrate film to the sun after 50 years, gifting the National Archive of Canada a treasure trove of lost cinema and footage of history. While the discovery occurred 40 years ago, director Bill Morrison endeavors to summarize not only the unearthing and ensuing restoration effort, but the very history of Dawson City itself, turning what initially seems to be a picture about a film preservation miracle into an offering of history captured in the moment. Read the rest at 

Blu-ray Review - Center of My World


"Center of My World" is an adaptation of a novel by Andreas Steinhofel, and it preserves the structure of a page-turner, winding through the lives of dysfunctional characters trying to keep themselves together during troubling times. It's a melodramatic effort from writer/director Jakob M. Erwa, but he strives to preserve the heartfelt aspects of the story, beguiling through the guidance of passionate performances and attention to nuanced behavior, offering depth to what could easily become a shallow viewing experience. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Sherlock Gnomes


In 2011, “Gnomeo & Juliet” was destined to make a soft landing over a dismal January weekend, but something about the movie appealed to family audiences, who ended up making the picture a surprise hit. Perhaps not by Pixar and Illumination standards, but that a budget-minded, CG-animated film with English humor and music by Elton John (who also produced) could do any sizable business is amazing. Most production companies would jump at the chance to create a sequel, working quickly to cash-in on an unexpected success, keeping a newly christened franchise going at top speed. For reasons not entirely clear, “Sherlock Gnomes” limps into theaters seven years later, and the long wait wasn’t to perfect the screenplay. While “Gnomeo & Juliet” wasn’t a humdinger of a creative achievement, it had moments of silliness that worked. “Sherlock Gnomes” is a more leaden creation, and while not without a few highlights, the sequel tends to abandon what made the first feature somewhat unique and lively. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Pacific Rim Uprising


I had a few issues with 2013’s “Pacific Rim,” which offered a bloated run time and an unfortunate muting of writer/director Guillermo del Toro’s stranger ways. Still, the picture retained some oddness in its bigness, with the helmer aiming to rework the Kaiju movie as a big-budget blockbuster, finally receiving his chance to make a proper multiplex mess with an elaborate fantasy battle royal between robots and invading monsters. “Pacific Rim” periodically struggled to remain alert as it worked to establish a mythology, but “Pacific Rim Uprising” doesn’t have the drive to follow through on what del Toro started. Instead of expanding on the central clash between giants, the sequel dials back dramatic ambition, becoming a more simplistic and cartoonish creation, often playing like a television pilot for a “Pacific Rim” series. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Unsane


Steven Soderbergh is a mischievous director. Throughout his career, he’s always played with image and sound, even actors and release gimmicks, forever on the hunt for askew ways to make and market movies while retaining his idiosyncratic style, which is, more often than not, audience unfriendly. The gimmick driving “Unsane” is the use of an iPhone to shoot the picture, and while Soderbergh isn’t the first person to attempt a compact way of capturing drama, he’s one of the few attempting to bring such a digital aesthetic to the masses. To make the best use out of his smartphone, Soderbergh finds a blueprint for claustrophobia from screenwriters Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, playing with close-ups and interpersonal intensity to best extract some level of suspense out of a classic psychological thriller set-up, only to lose interest in the payoff, visually and dramatically, giving “Unsane” a limp instead of nurturing an unstoppable stride.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Manhunt


It’s been a long time since John Woo took command of a modern action extravaganza. After losing interest in Hollywood after 2003’s “Paycheck,” Woo returned to his Asian cinema roots, handling period epics such as “Red Cliff” and “The Crossing.” “Manhunt” brings Woo back to the basics of outrageous stunt work and melodramatic interactions, guiding the second screen adaptation of a Juko Nishimura book, which was previously turned into a 1976 film starring Ken Takakura. Woo sticks to the basics with this densely populated thriller, combining the interests of several supporting characters with high-octane chase sequences and shoot-outs, doing a fine job replicating the formula that served him well in the 1980s and ‘90s. It’s far from perfect, but “Manhunt,” when it really lets loose, is a fine reminder of Woo’s style and intensity. And yes, there are flying doves.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Furlough


“Furlough” is a simple picture. While it takes on some complicated feelings involving betrayal and frustration, the feature itself has relatively small dramatic goals for itself, forgoing a big push of conflict for smaller, quirkier asides to keep the main characters in a state of unrest for 80 minutes. Director Laurie Collyer and Barry Strugatz manage the essentials in characterization well, and while they don’t reach for an expansive overview of crime and punishment, they secure important areas of personality and humor. They also have thespian talents in Melissa Leo and Tessa Thompson to lead the charge, finding edges to the personalities they’re portraying, helping to deepen seemingly shallow plotting. “Furlough” is funny and active, remaining compelling while it details small acts of connection and evasion.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Benji


“Benji” hasn’t been a brand name for a very long time, with the last sequel, “Benji: Off the Leash,” released in 2004. Creator Joe Camp accomplished quite a bit with his original 1974 canine saga, finding a sizable independent hit with the misadventures of a loveable dog, which spawned multiple follow-ups and made the titular star the most famous movie pooch around for a great number of years. Perhaps feeling that the world needed a new version of a 44-year-old tale, Joe Camp returns with “Benji,” a semi-remake trying to tap into nostalgia that’s no longer there, with a script that doesn’t stray very far from franchise formula. Brandon Camp (Joe’s son) takes over the family business for the latest endeavor, with his creative mission limited to making a mild enough family film, and one passable enough to revive “Benji” for a new generation of fans.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Madame


Last year there was “Beatriz at Dinner,” a tale of a domestic service outsider asked to join a dinner party for the elite, resulting in an evening of conversation, growing hostilities and, eventually, imagined violence. “Madame” features a similar plot of class warfare, only here the results are mostly played for laughs. Writer/director Amanda Sthers teases a grand farce with the working parts of “Madame,” but the effort doesn’t maintain those initial aspirations. Instead of a snowballing comedy concerning the collision of the rich and those who serve them, Sthers throttles the insanity, crafting a film that goes broad with certain aspects of ego and jealousy, but eventually pulls away from full-out absurdity. Still, Sthers has some fun while she’s here, landing several laughs and guiding fine performances in a picture that slowly but surely loses interest in making fun of personality extremes.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Dear Dictator


In 2016, writer/directors Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse issued “Amateur Night,” their attempt to ride the trend of raunchy R-rated comedies, forgoing thought when it comes to the manufacturing of jokes, using cheap gross-out material instead. The movie was borderline intolerable. “Dear Dictator” represents the duo’s second shot at a strained impishness, only for this round, Addario and Syracuse dream up an encouraging premise to go along with their snoozy antics, imagining the mischief that’s churned up when a troubled teenage girl is paired with a Castro-like despot. “Dear Dictator” might sound like a bad sitcom, and more often than not, it is. However, there is Michael Caine and his practiced screen charisma to help Addario and Syracuse out when they need it the most, offering a clear read of wackiness while the helming duo figures out ways for their protagonist to whip around used tampons, which represents the extent of their sense of humor.  Read the rest at

Film Review - I Kill Giants


“I Kill Giants” suffers from a case of bad timing, with the fantasy drama coming roughly a year after the release of “A Monster Calls,” which offered a similar tale of imagination trying to overcome grief. The latter also happens to be the better film, but “I Kill Giants” goes a bit further with its immersion in denial, using inspiration from a graphic novel (by J.M. Ken Niimura and Joe Kelly, who also scripts) to fuel its descent into possible madness involving a teen girl and her grand fear of a giant revolution near her Long Island home. The picture certainly has pure intentions to understand the depths of a broken heart and the defiance of a kid facing unimaginable struggles at home and school, but there’s not enough to the story to keep the effort engrossing, finding the tale overflowing with sincerity, but lacking content, often scrambling to fill a feature-length run time. Read the rest at