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June 2018

Film Review - Ant-Man and the Wasp


Released in 2015, “Ant-Man” was a slight gamble for Marvel Studios, who were trying to branch out beyond the traditional roster of superheroes, tinkering with tone to see what the fansbase could handle while still moving forward with their grand plans of “Avengers”-sized war zones. Directed by Peyton Reed, “Ant-Man” found its audience, and one that was in the mood for something sillier to pair with extensive visual effects, creating a wackier viewing experience that was still attentive to blockbuster expectations, even while it dealt with the miniature universe, even entering the forbidden Quantum Realm. After appearing in “Captain America: Civil War,” Ant-Man returns to his own series with “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” which tries to replicate the mix of laughs and spectacle found three years ago, often contorting itself in awkward positions to do so. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Sicario: Day of the Soldado


Released in 2015, “Sicario” used U.S./Mexico border issues to inspire a thriller about service and revenge, with screenwriter Taylor Sheridan using the gray areas of conduct involving the war on drugs to create a feature that studied nihilism as it constructed taut scenes of suspense. It worked due to creative efforts from Sheridan, director Denis Villeneuve, and cinematographer Roger Deakins, managing to become a small-scale hit in a difficult marketplace, attracting a sophisticated audience in the mood for a grim but effective chiller. The world didn’t need a “Sicario” sequel, but now there’s “Sicario: Day of the Soldado,” which isn’t just a follow-up, but a cinematic foundation poured for a new franchise of border-hopping adventures featuring leathered characters and twisted moral cores. Only Sheridan returns to duty behind the camera, and the absence of those responsible for the original installment is felt in a major way. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Black Water


It’s important to note that while the promotional push for “Black Water” highlights a reunion of “Universal Soldier” stars Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren, the Swedish action hero has more of a cameo role in the picture. There’s disappointment with this realization, with Lundgren tucked away in a prison cell for most of the feature, and the film could use his unusual chemistry with Van Damme, giving the two a rare shot at playing allies for the run time. “Black Water” doesn’t indulge such B-movie fantasies, instead serving up a serviceable but unremarkable thriller that takes place inside a tight setting, but director Pasha Patriki doesn’t call down the thunder with his screen mayhem, keeping the effort lively with gunplay but finding little else to separate it from the competition. Read the rest at

Film Review - Uncle Drew


“Uncle Drew” began life in 2012 commercials for Pepsi, which were apparently popular enough to inspire a plan to make a feature film out of the idea of a young basketball player made up into an old basketball player who still dominates the game. It’s a thin premise for a movie, but screenwriter Jay Longino cranks up the Cliché 9000 machine to help churn out enough conflicts to fill two pictures. Thankfully, there’s some natural charm to “Uncle Drew” to keep away the sense of deja vu that threatens to overwhelm the production, as the effort is always at its finest when leaning on chemistry and oddity to land laughs. Longino pushes hard to give the endeavor structure, but the comedy doesn’t need boundaries, doing just fine with silliness and underdog cinema aspirations.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Woman Walks Ahead


“Woman Walks Ahead” is based on a real relationship between portrait painter Caroline Weldon and Sitting Bull, with the pair sparking to one another while she assigned herself the mission to capture his likeness on canvas. However, to make the relationship meaningful on screen, writer Steven Knight has softened many of its sharp corners, hoping to locate elements of attraction between two people on opposite ends of the cultural spectrum. “Woman Walks Ahead” doesn’t becomes a Harlequin romance novel, but it certainly threatens to break out in heaving chests and wind-blown hair, with director Susanna White preserving Knight’s quest to transform art into heated activism and eventually forbidden commitment, which takes away some of the essential drama the movie communicates particularly well in its first act.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Distorted


“Distorted” aims to be a thoroughly jarring viewing experience. The film takes a look at the concept of a psychotronic takeover, where dark forces, possibly the government, use subliminal messaging and mind control to turn Average Joes into puppets. It’s an interesting idea, but this is not a movie to take seriously, as screenwriter Arne Olsen serves up the same old platter of paranoia and mildly strange occurrences, trying to remain one step ahead of the audience as he attempts to engineer a proper freak out. Trouble is, “Distorted” plays one too many tricks, and its casting is abysmal, handing an intricate breakdown to an actress who isn’t capable of playing all the notes the character requires, while the actor is more concerned about covering his hair in numerous ways than he is giving an engaged performance.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Loving Pablo


No matter the limited box office potential of the subject, filmmakers love the story of Pablo Escobar. He’s a special figure in South American criminal history, with the reach of his influence legendary, giving writers and directors plenty of violent incidents to choose from. After “Escobar: Paradise Lost,” “The Infiltrator,” and even television’s “Narcos” comes “Loving Pablo,” which sounds like the stuff of a romance novel, but helmer Fernando Leon de Aranoa (“Mondays in the Sun,” “A Perfect Day”) once again details Escobar’s vicious ways with enemies and confidants, working through familiar acts of brutality and intimidation to basically recount the rise and fall of a cocaine kingpin. The twist here is a female perspective, with Escobar’s short-term lover sharing her tale of seduction and agony, handing de Aranoa just enough reason to rehash The Escobar Experience for viewers who haven’t tired of this stuff.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Damsel


Siblings David and Nathan Zellner have been making movies for quite some time now, but they recently made a career breakthrough with 2014’s “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.” The Zellners are idiosyncratic filmmakers, and “Kumiko” was rich with oddity, also identifying their love of deliberate pacing and specific performances. “Damsel” is the reward for having something notable on their resumes, offered a chance to make a western with recognizable stars in Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska. However, the Zellners aren’t interested in shedding their quirks and games of delay, keeping “Damsel” much like their previous work, offering samples of quirkiness and mental decay while taking their sweet time when moving from one scene to the next. They’re obviously talented men, but their fondness for stillness clouds the highlights of their work.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Penitentiary II


1979's "Penitentiary" was no great drama, but the prison boxing film was dedicated to showcasing true grit and horrors behind bars, adding some light insanity to play up the material's B-movie potential, welcoming people into the viewing experience. Writer/director Jamaa Fanaka doesn't continue the steeliness for 1982's "Penitentiary II," taking the sequel down a bizarrely comedic path that's more about camp than concussions, perhaps fearful nobody would show up if he dared to play the continuation straight. The guilty pleasures of "Penitentiary" are mostly gone in the follow-up, finding Fanaka out of ideas when it comes to the next chapter of the Martel "Too Sweet" Gardone saga, stripping out the inherent hardness of the setting and the participants to create a near-parody of what's come before, only storytelling skills are severely slackened, performances are nuclear, and the central idea of pugilist redemption is now nothing more than an afterthought. Read the rest at 

Blu-ray Review - Mary! Mary!


1976's "Mary! Mary!" provides a simple premise: Ned (John Leslie) has erectile issues, offering to trade his soul to the Devil (a.k.a. "The Arranger") for a cream that solves all his sexual problems. And with this thin plot, director Bernard Morris attempt to liven up the proceedings with humor, horror, a car chase, and a sexual tryst that brings in salted meats to heat up the evening. It initially appears so benign, but once "Mary! Mary!" gets rolling, there's plenty of oddity to enjoy, along with the surprisingly active hardcore content of the movie. Read the rest at 

Blu-ray Review - Sleeping Giant


Comparisons to 2013's "The Kings of Summer" are valid, but 2015's "Sleeping Giant" is really its own thing, heading to Canada to explore the savage hearts of teenage boys as they're set free for the season. Co-writer/director Andrew Cividino adapts his own 2014 short film, working hard to extend the behavioral investigation, filling the movie with small battles of conscience, love, and trust, all the while indulging all the verite inspiration he's absorbed over the years. "Sleeping Giant" gets mostly there, and while the stress to fill a feature shows throughout the effort, there are periodic moments of enlightenment and combativeness that demand full attention. Read the rest at 

Blu-ray Review - Dolores


In the montage that opens "Dolores," there are shots of triumph featuring the documentary's subject, Dolores Huerta, and a few shots of media types and other folk wondering just who Huerta is. Director Peter Bratt understands her lack of fame, at least in this day and age, creating a cinematic inspection of the labor leader and civil rights activist that's meant to be a celebration and something of an introduction. It's a smart way to approach Huerta's arc of defiance and organization, transforming "Dolores" into a valuable educational tool and an engrossing feature, supported by impressively varied footage of Huerta in action and a slew of interviewees who've come together to recount amazing resilience and focus during turbulent decades of injustice and prejudice for Mexican laborers. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Escape Plan 2 - Hades


When it was released in America in 2013, “Escape Plan” was sold as a major reteaming of action heroes Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, pairing up for a prison break feature that was a bit more dramatic in execution, failing to live up to standards set by modern adventure pictures and the burning presence of nostalgia. “Escape Plan” didn’t do big business in the states, but it performed better than expected in China, which claimed a sizable slice of the film’s international gross. Never one to leave a paycheck on the table, Stallone returns for “Escape Plan 2: Hades,” which transforms a one-shot concept into a franchise, and one that’s now produced for the Chinese marketplace. Stallone’s here, kind of, but “Escape Plan 2” doesn’t have much interest in his participation, going the easy-peasy B-movie route to cough up an inexpensive, easily marketable sequel that’s led by actor Xiaoming Huang, not Stallone. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom


2015’s “Jurassic World” didn’t come from out of nowhere, but its box office success took most by surprise. It became a phenomenon during the summer moviegoing season, hitting screens at precisely the moment the public wanted to see large-scale dinosaur action at the multiplex. “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” is the sequel, actually the fifth installment of the “Jurassic Park” franchise, which has kept chugging along for 25 years despite limited directions for the story to take. This time, however, the dinos are in great danger, and while screenwriters Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow (who helmed “Jurassic World”) have some difficultly squeezing originality out of the picture, they have a fertile imagination for creature feature mayhem, giving “Fallen Kingdom” plenty of things to stomp and chomp as director J.A. Bayona (“A Monster Calls,” “The Impossible”) crafts perhaps the most stylish and tonally daring chapter of the enduring series.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Summer 1993

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“Summer 1993” participates in the longstanding filmmaking tradition where the trauma of life is investigated through the eyes of a child, watching little ones deal with new challenges and adult issues while still getting used to the ways of the world. Writer/director Carla Simon shares an autobiographical tale of isolation and confusion, and she creates a riveting study of emotional evolution without pushing unnecessary weight against the dramatic needs of the feature. It’s a loosely defined movie, but its emotions are honest and its observance of child behavior remarkably accurate, giving the effort an appealing verite feel while still making sure a character arc is being worked into place throughout the picture. “Summer 1993” is delicate work, but Simon isn’t distracted by artifice, striving to keep the endeavor realistic from all perspectives.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Never Steady, Never Still


Critical to the viewing experience of “Never Steady, Never Still” is belief in the lead performance from Shirley Henderson. It’s not an easy role, as Henderson is tasked with portraying a woman dealing with the daily challenges of living with Parkinson’s Disease, and she’s not an actress who’s normally thought of with these types of grueling parts, having built her career portraying best friends and unhinged types, blessed with an unusual voice to help tap into weirdness. However, in “Never Steady, Never Still,” Henderson completely immerses herself in the character, emerging with a striking performance that gives writer/director Kathleen Hepburn support to create an unusual examination of frustration in the wilds of Canada. It’s not an easy sit, but the chance to watch Henderson go deep into the part is worth the time invested. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Catcher Was a Spy


“The Catcher Was a Spy” tells the story of Moe Berg, a highly educated, observant catcher for the Boston Red Sox who, as trouble was brewing in Europe during the 1930s, wanted to participate in the war. It sounds like a comedy, a mild one, and the film’s prologue actually goes for a laugh. However, screenwriter Robert Rodat (adapting Nicholas Dawidoff’s book) and director Ben Lewin aren’t interesting in keeping things light. Tonality is one of many elements of the picture that remain unsteady throughout, but “The Catcher Was a Spy” certainly puts in an incredible effort to keep audiences engaged, boasting an impressively varied cast of familiar faces and a plot that really should result in one of the more engrossing endeavors of the year. Instead, Lewin and Rodat slow their pace and lose their focus, squeezing any sense of surprise out of the movie.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Brain on Fire


Writer/director Gerard Barrett most likely commenced production on “Brain on Fire” with a sincere effort to shed light on the medical emergency that consumed Susannah Cahalan, a twentysomething woman suddenly faced with a darkened world of psychological breakdown, with doctors unable to understand just what was happening to her. It’s a true story, chronicled in Cahalan’s book, and there’s some evidence in the feature that it was, at one point, aiming to condemn the diagnosis process, suggesting that medical professionals are too quick to dispatch a patient when the going gets tough. It’s a little reckless, but Barrett doesn’t have much of a film without it. “Brain on Fire” isn’t hardcore journalism or even effective melodrama, remaining in a tedious T.V. movie holding pattern where crisis is everything and character is simplified to help connect the dots.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Set It Up


There’s a definite lived-in quality to “Set It Up,” which details the lives of two corporate assistants as they endeavor to decrease the level of insanity they endure every day from their bosses. Screenwriter Katie Silberman seems to funnel plenty of personal experience with demanding superiors into the work, which is always at its best when exploring the hectic pace of the day when its filled with inane tasks and frustrations. However, the story for “Set It Up” isn’t nearly as inspired, with Silberman using romantic comedy formula as a way into warmth, desperate to make the picture appealing via young people in love when its most engaging exploring terrible behavior. Little here is inspired, finding Silberman often resorting to dumb gags when she seems capable of delivering sharper focus on the painful particulars of life as an overworked underling.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Beach House


Co-written and directed by Jason Saltiel, “Beach House” plays a perfectly fine short story that’s been stretched unnaturally into feature-length movie. There’s compelling sinister business contained within, but the production gets addicted to the art of delay, introducing the effort as a slow-burn descent into suspicion and seduction, but it never kicks into high gear. Saltiel certainly has bright ideas for suspense, and “Beach House” has its highlights, especially when seemingly casual encounters begin to contort into more menacing interactions. However, as intermittently successful as it is, the picture doesn’t fully reward investment in character and sludgy pacing, struggling to come up with things to do to fill up 90 minutes of screen time, which gives Saltiel a sellable film.  Read the rest at