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September 2018

Film Review - The House with a Clock in Its Walls


Trying to produce something on the spooky side for the whole family to help usher in the Halloween season, Universal Pictures and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment turn to Eli Roth to entertain the kiddies with an adaptation of the 1973 John Bellairs novel, “The House with a Clock in Its Walls.” Roth is, of course, not known for making PG-rated movies, having spent his career orchestrating extraordinary torture for his characters (and the paying audience) with horror films that focused on bloodshed and agony. Even as recently as this year too, with the spring bomb “Death Wish” once again reinforcing Roth’s inability to hold a picture together. “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” poses a unique challenge for the helmer, who’s forced to mute his splattery instincts, playing reasonably nice with playfully creepy material. Roth’s not prepared in full, creating a feature that’s tonally off-balance, making delight with the dark side a chore to experience.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Lizzie


The strange saga of Lizzie Borden has inspired countless dramatic interpretations, crossing all types of media. The magnetic pull to the accused murderer is easy to understand, as Lizzie’s tale hits on social position and domestic abuse, and culminates with the bloody, brutal death of two people utterly destroyed by an ax. It’s the stuff of pulp fiction, and the true story of the woman’s fight for identity returns to screens in “Lizzie,” with Chloe Sevigny taking a producer credit, giving herself the lead role, which provides a dramatic challenge not normally associated with the actress. “Lizzie” has its aggressive moments, but they’re largely saved for the midsection of the movie, with director Craig William Macneill keeping to intense atmospherics, not actual incident, to support the feature.  Read the rest at

Film Review - American Dresser


“American Dresser” initially wants to be a biker movie, following characters as they take off across the country on two wheels, embracing the romantic notion of daily tourism at top speed, taking in national grandeur and local color along the way. Writer/director/co-star Carmine Cangialosi achieves this feeling of freedom for about ten minutes, with the rest of picture sent in several different directions during its run time, and few of them come together in any meaningful way. “American Dresser” is scattered and ill-conceived, but there’s the saving grace of seniority, with stars Tom Berenger and especially Keith David turning in expressive performances as older men on a quest for one last perfect ride, getting the material halfway to competency while Cangialosi employs a blindfold and a dart board to select where the writing goes next.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Spetters


Paul Verhoeven is known as a cinematic provocateur. He's a filmmaker with a defined taste for the extreme, using sex and violence as mere building blocks in his features, which typically amplify the human experience into big screen opera, making a mess of emotions and body parts. 1980's "Spetters" comes before Verhoeven's incredible American run of "RoboCop," "Total Recall," and "Basic Instinct," returning to a time when he was a burgeoning Dutch helmer with plenty of spunk to spray on audiences, funneling his enthusiasm for untamed characters into a story of youthful energy, tragedy, and bad behavior. Imagine if Verhoeven directed "Porky's," and that's close to the viewing experience of "Spetters," which highlights the youth of Rotterdam as they try to make their way in the world, landing on the worst possible personal decisions imaginable along the way. Overkill is a big deal to Verhoeven, and the feature tries to inflate common problems into major incidents of horror, retaining the unmistakable vision of a helmer who excels at creating screen danger, but often doesn't know when to quit. Read the rest at 

Blu-ray Review - Josie


"Josie" emerges from the mind of screenwriter Anthony Ragnone, who makes his feature-length debut with the movie. Apparently, the writing attracted a lot of attention on the screenplay scene a few years ago, even reaching the dubious "Black List," a self-congratulatory Hollywood system that's helped many projects reach the screen, while only a few of them have been as extraordinary as their reputations. "Josie" has the seductive curves of the picture that plays terrific on paper, but as a film, limitations are highlighted in a major way, with the plot more suited for a short story than a big screen endeavor, finding Ragnone working on a puzzle that's not particularly worth solving, while director Eric England doesn't provide much of a reason to remain with the unfolding drama, forgoing narrative drive to linger on lukewarm encounters between banal characters.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Reincarnation of Peter Proud


"The Reincarnation of Peter Proud" is based on a 1973 book by Max Ehrlich (who also scripts), which became a best seller during a decade that freely experimented with the other side, with numerous productions trying to stimulate ticket sales by visiting the unknown, almost as a way to prove the unbelievable exists. While the movies are miles apart, it's hard to think that the massive success of "The Exorcist" didn't play a part in the feature's creation, as both tales concern a seemingly innocent person slowly exposed to something wicked that resides inside. "The Reincarnation of Peter Proud" doesn't dance with the Devil, but it does investigate a certain level of evil, with director J. Lee Thompson ("The Guns of Navarone," "Happy Birthday to Me," "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes") committed to inspecting every square foot of the developing intrigue, even if it means bringing the picture to a full stop, which he does on multiple occasions.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Little Women


There has been no shortage of media adaptations of Louisa May Alcott's 1868 novel, "Little Women," which has been brought to the stage, radio, and screens big and small. It's a timeless tale of sisterhood and maturity, and it makes sense that every few years there seems to be a production taking a stab at bringing Alcott's vivid characters to life in one way or another. There have been a few masterpieces along the way (the 1994 version starring Winona Ryder is a particular triumph), giving this take on "Little Women" from writer Heidi Thomas some sense of perspective as it strives to respect the source material but ultimately become its own thing, emerging as an inspection of empowerment and individual evolution while still sustaining Alcott's way with tragedies of all shapes and sizes. This BBC production ultimately paints itself into a corner, but the three episodes that make up the series (Run times: Ep #1 - 61:23, Ep #2 - 60:23, Ep #3 - 62:02) offers periodic clarity of spirit, giving Alcott's world a brightness of personality that carries the best of what the original book has to offer.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Keep the Change


Writer/director Rachel Israel has made a film about autism that's unlike many pictures about the subject. Instead of creating a mournful endeavor or a shallow quirkfest, she finds the heart and soul of everyday people trying to find their way in the big city. "Keep the Change" has its serious side, but it's mostly a comedy about building confidence and communication, featuring a cast of autistic people to secure authenticity and celebrate a unique perspective on traditionally neurotic characters. "Keep the Change" is also hilarious and warm, finding its own voice as Israel creates a special space for her cast to shine, preserving idiosyncrasies and timing to best reinforce the unusual atmosphere of pure personality on display. Read the rest at

Film Review - A Simple Favor


I’m sure Paul Feig wanted a change of scenery. This is the man who tried to reboot “Ghostbusters” a few years ago with a new cast, treading on sacred ground armed with a massive visual effects budget and a threadbare screenplay, trying to make his brand of make-em-up comedy fit into a fantasy spectacular. The experiment didn’t quite work for audiences, and Feig took a lot of heat for his creative choices, leading him to step away from blockbuster ambitions and tackle the beach read mystery of “A Simple Favor.” Smaller in scale and lighter with improvisations (the riffing remains to a smaller degree), the picture tries to make sense of Darcey Bell’s 2017 novel, which strived to get in on “Gone Girl” mania and deliver its own swirling storm of low impulse control and abrasive personalities, while twists are meant to tie the whole thing together. I’m all for Feig getting out of the funny business, but “A Simple Favor” remains a very broad creation, which doesn’t inspire secretive business this type of entertainment requires to remain surprising and seductive. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Slice


Writer/director Austin Vesley has a lot of influences and interests he’d like to put on the screen with “Slice,” but no particular game plan on how to do it. A horror comedy with its heart in the right place, the movie is a messy presentation of genre imagination and production realities, with the low-budget endeavor struggling to make sense of itself. It only runs 79 minutes, which may help to understand what happened between the feature’s 2016 shoot and its 2018 release date, with Vesley’s vision subjected to severe editing, finding the brutal cutting shaving down “Slice” to the bare essentials of world building and monster making. I’m sure it was a fine screenplay at one point, but in its finished form, the picture is a jumble of ideas that never gels.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Mandy


Eight years ago, Panos Cosmatos made his directorial debut with “Beyond the Black Rainbow.” The film was a brain-bleeder of the highest order, oozing with style and soaking in the juices of psychedelia, with Cosmatos bending cinema to aid in his mission to disturb audiences with unusual visions and atypical screen intensity. He’s back with “Mandy,” which is a slightly more linear tale of a mental breakdown, but Cosmatos doubles down on wild imagery and extreme violence, taking the audience on a ride into Hell in a manner that’s greatly unsettling and massively thrilling, especially for those who embraced the outer limits of “Beyond the Black Rainbow.” “Mandy” is specialized work, but it’s a doozy, cutting through the cosmic cream with nightmare realms, monstrous encounters, and a path of revenge that literally tears people apart. Maybe Cosmatos doesn’t know when to quit, but he’s making movies on a whole other level of consciousness. Read the rest at 

Film Review - The Predator


“The Predator” is the fourth installment of the “Predator” saga (technically sixth if one includes the dismal “Alien vs. Predator” films), and it’s the one production that carries the greatest sense of hope. It’s co-written and directed by Shane Black, who appeared in the original 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger classic, and a guy who generally knows his way around action screenplays, with credits such as “Lethal Weapon” and “The Long Kiss Goodnight” maintaining the shine on his industry medals. It’s a match made in geek heaven, but Black turns out to be one of the worst things ever unleashed on the franchise. Unfocused and obnoxious, “The Predator” takes a hardcore sci-fi/action premise and transforms it into a comedy for this latest brand reawakening, with Black running around with no sense of editing or performance, trying to turn an inherently gruesome concept into blood-drenched wackiness just to smudge his greasy fingerprints all over something that didn’t need such a drastic reworking.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Destination Wedding


Every now and then, Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves are involved in a film project together, with some endeavors more intimate then others. They’ve appeared in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” and “A Scanner Darkly,” but “Destination Wedding” isn’t just a case of co-starring in distinctly separate roles. Here, the entire feature rests on their shoulders, with Reeves and Ryder tasked with carrying all the dialogue and physical discomfort the material requires, finding writer/director Victor Levin giving his work over to the actors, who feast on all the misanthropy. “Destination Wedding” is simple and speedy, watching Ryder and Reeves rise to the challenge of characterization, having a ball with a consistently amusing, periodically hilarious effort that brings out the best in the leads.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Final Score


With Bruce Willis having abandoned enthusiasm for the “Die Hard” series long ago, why not bring in Dave Bautista to take his place? The former professional wrestler and possible former Drax from “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Bautista makes for a fine man-against-the-odds for “Final Score,” which is as close to a “Die Hard”-style of actioner without triggering interest from 20th Century Fox lawyers. Ultimately overlong and improperly balanced in the script department, “Final Score” does have Bautista, who, despite his hulking frame, does a steady job of playing the everyman caught in a terrorist situation that takes place on a grand scale. The lead is welcome with emotion, but he’s best with ferocity, providing the production with a sizable punch and level of panic to help refresh the familiar.  Read the rest at

Film Review - White Boy Rick


Richard Wershe Jr. is primarily known for being the youngest F.B.I. informant, working with the bureau at the tender age of 14. It’s a fascinating piece of trivia and likely the one and only thing interesting about “White Boy Rick,” which hazily recounts his rise and self-inflicted downfall in the world of crime. Screenwriters Andy Weiss, Logan Miller, and Noah Miller go the “Scarface” route with the Wershe’s life and times, trying to turn a bad seed into a sympathetic figure to best fit into the formulaic mechanics of the feature. The labor doesn’t take hold, and while director Yann Demange ladles on the stylistics, trying to make an underworld study set during the 1980s pop off the screen, he’s not careful enough with characterization, playing fast and loose with the details of Wershe’s life, only giving the audience just enough to keep the young man a bruised saint who’s been wronged by the system, keeping things predictable and easily digestible. Read the rest at

Film Review - Pick of the Litter


Dog movies are plentiful these days, and most of these productions reaching for cheap sentimentality to connect with audiences, going saccharine with pooches make sure the endeavor is loved no matter the actual quality of the film. With “Pick of the Litter,” directors Don Hardy Jr. and Dana Nachman avoid dramatic manipulation to make a documentary about the raising and training of guide dogs for the blind, putting their faith into the inherent emotion and suspense of canines put to the test, with hopes they have a future as a powerful companion for the sight impaired. “Pick of the Litter” isn’t about adorable close-ups (although there are plenty of those) and tragedies, offering a more procedural examination of what it takes to develop the right stuff in rambunctious puppies who live to play but are tasked to learn the extraordinary discipline required for one of the most important jobs a dog can have.  Read the rest at

Film Review - The Basement


“The Basement” is meant to be a horror film, but it really could pass as an actor’s reel. Co-star Jackson Davis receives the workout of his career with the material, which requires him to embody the curse of dissociative identity disorder, tasked with playing 12 characters, with most of them deranged in one way or another. It’s a thespian challenge that almost gets the picture to where it needs to be, showcasing an actor working very hard to make his part of the movie connect in full. The rest of “The Basement” doesn’t share the same level of commitment, finding co-writers/directors Brian M. Conley and Nathan Ives trying to knot material that’s best served as straight as possible, with concentration on a secondary plot and a wicked ending proving to be too much of a distraction.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Bel Canto


Ever since he made his directorial debut with 1999’s “American Pie,” Paul Weitz has been determined to prove he’s more than just a comedy filmmaker. He’s had an eclectic career, but few of his endeavors have managed to find their creative footing, despite fine actors (“Admission,” “Being Flynn”) and interesting worlds (“Cirque du Freak”). Weitz almost achieves complete screen stasis with “Bel Canto,” which has the advantage of being based on a fascinating true story of a hostage crisis and loaded with capable actors. However, despite the positives, “Bel Canto” doesn’t have much energy, dramatic or romantic, to keep attention trained on the screen. Weitz goes through the motions with this melodrama, and while it certainly hints at pressure points to come, the feature doesn’t follow through on suspense, at times accurately recreating the feeling of being held against one’s will.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Of Unknown Origin


What's great about 1983's "Of Unknown Origin" is its simplicity. It's a story about a man's battle with the rat that's infiltrated his house, and rarely does the picture stray from the central conflict. It's a B-movie with slightly higher thematic aspirations, and director George P. Cosmatos keeps his eyes on the prize with the feature, which delivers a fair amount of thrills and grotesqueries, staying true to the domestic war as it escalates from something seemingly harmless to a full-body psychological breakdown. "Of Unknown Origin" doesn't contain many surprises, it retains speed, delivering an entertaining, intentionally repulsive viewing experience guided well by star Peter Weller (in his first lead role). Read the rest at 

Blu-ray Review - Deadly Daphne's Revenge


It's never a smart move to believe marketing efforts from Troma Films. They're not a studio known for their integrity, frequently using any means necessary to squeeze a few bucks out of potential viewers. 1987's "Deadly Daphne's Revenge" (actually shot in 1979 and titled "The Hunting Season" on the Blu-ray) is notable for featuring very little Deadly Daphne during its run time. Sure, she's seeking revenge, but the emphasis of the title and the horror come-on of the cover art suggests a thorough genre exercise to come. Instead, "Deadly Daphne's Revenge" is more of a legal program from the 1970s, offering only a single scene pertaining to the titular villain's personal war. It's a big time switcheroo, used to help a tepid drama sneak through horror hound interest filters, promising them carnage, but delivering mostly banal conversations.  Read the rest at