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November 2018

Film Review - Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald


Two years ago, author J.K. Rowling decided to develop a second entrance into the Wizarding World she triumphantly explored in the “Harry Potter” series of films based on her novels. To some, it was a basic cash-grab, giving studio home Warner Brothers a chance to extract more coin from Potterheads looking for anything new to savor from Rowling. To others, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” admittedly lacked some snap, but remained a dense immersion into this vivid realm of wizards and monsters. The feature didn’t create the pop culture stir many were expecting, but it made a lot of money, encouraging Rowling to continue down the rabbit hole of Newt Scamander and his interactions with the dark side of the Wizarding World. She returns to screens with “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald,” which does nothing to correct tonal mistakes made in the first installment, with Rowling and director David Yates doubling down on mean-spiritedness to make sure their grim fantasy leaves a lasting mark.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Instant Family


After bringing “Daddy’s Home” and “Daddy’s Home 2” to box office heights, co-writer/director Sean Anders isn’t about to stop there. He’s created “Instant Family,” bringing Mark Wahlberg back for duty as a besieged parent, and reheating a comedic sense of domestic crisis for possible four-quadrant enjoyment during the holiday season. It all feels like the creation of the marketing department, but Anders swears there’s genuine heart here, emphasizing the importance of adoption as he details the highs and lows of guardianship. “Instant Family” has moments of cuteness, and stars Wahlberg and Rose Byrne are fully alert, giving the feature some much needed enthusiasm as it takes hits from dangerous levels of formula and product placement, while Anders also threatens his own creation by making this family film one of the hardest PG-13 releases of the year. Read the rest at

Film Review - Speed Kills


The last time John Travolta was seen in theaters, it was “Gotti,” the actor’s much-maligned (and rightly so) bio-pic of gangster John Gotti. For his latest endeavor, Travolta returns to the underworld for “Speed Kills,” which is a bio-pic of Donald Aronow, a struggling New Jersey businessman who relocated to Miami and became a famous designer of luxury speedboats. It’s an unusual subject matter, and Aronow is a complicated man to explore, but “Speed Kills” has no desire to be anything more than be a glorified television movie, spending as much time with boats as it does melodrama. Travolta grimaces his way through the picture, trying to be as serious as possible while basically reheating his “Gotti” performance, which demands little more from him than to stand still and act tough in a feature that doesn’t work.  Read the rest at

Film Review - The Front Runner


Director Jason Reitman sets out to make a film about 1988 feel like a production from 1972, and he’s largely successful with his vision for a snappy, zoom-happy, roving-camera endeavor. “The Front Runner” is meant to evoke cinema form the past while telling a very modern tale of sensationalism, using the saga of Gary Hart’s failed run for the White House to establish a line crossed by journalists as candidate coverage turned into a character assassination game, and for good reasons. Reitman’s already made a gem this year with last spring’s “Tully,” and while his vision is clear for “The Front Runner,” his taste in screenwriting, wigs, and targets of derision is a little off. The Hart story is amazing, but the dramatic recreation doesn’t do enough to grasp the finer points of character and disgrace.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Welcome Home


As screenwriters search for new ways to conjure old fears, attention has turned to the community aspect of online life. There have been multiple social media/desktop thrillers and two rideshare chillers, and now writer David Levinson takes aim at Airbnb with “Welcome Home,” which imagines the invasions of privacy inside a rental home in Italy. Other features have preyed on the fear of hidden surveillance, with the addition here being the dream of the impossibly affordable getaway, serving up the young and the oversexed to older perverts everywhere. Problems arrive early in “Welcome Home,” which has the novelty approach to voyeuristic agitation, but lacks the thespian firepower to do something significant with all of its jealousy and paranoia.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Jonathan


“Jonathan” offers a sci-fi concept packaged as a meditative drama. It’s the first feature-length effort from co-writer/director Bill Oliver, who doesn’t push too hard on the cerebral aspects of the story, looking to generate a more emotional journey for a strange tale of fractured identity. “Jonathan” takes time to get where it’s going, and it’s debatable of the final destination is worth the journey, but Oliver achieves a level of introspection and askew gamesmanship that’s compelling, making the endeavor just bizarre enough to hold attention while he works on creating dimensional characters capable of sustaining a premise that, at any moment, threatens to turn into an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”  Read the rest at

Film Review - El Angel


Making a true crime film isn’t easy, with tremendous competition from other moviemakers and the entire genre worth of triumphs and failures to help discourage experimentation. With “El Angel,” co-writer/director Luis Ortega makes a conscious effort to avoid a flashy display of hellraising, instead downplaying the wrath of Carlos Puch, who, as a teenager, became one of the most wanted men in Argentina, responsible for multiple crimes, including eleven murders. “El Angel” isn’t the kind of feature one expects when the subject is an unrepentant serial killer, and while an askew take on known elements is intriguing, Ortega doesn’t always know what he wants to communicate during the run time, which is slowed considerably by dramatic stasis, with the helmer sniffing around for poetic visuals that throttle what little procedural interest the picture has.  Read the rest at

Film Review - The Wild Boys


“The Wild Boys” is an art film, unencumbered by the rules of mainstream cinema. Even better, it’s a French art film, which is pretty much code for “all bets are off.” Working his hands through concepts of horror, gender, and fantasy, writer/director Bertrand Mandico makes his feature-length directorial debut with this odyssey into the unknown, attempting to conjure a phantasmagoria of sensorial highlights and film school itches. “The Wild Boys” lives up to its title, with a distinctly free range feel to the picture, which endeavors to be the weirdest movie in recent memory and nearly succeeds. However, issues remain, as a brief sampling of the bodily evolution presented here is far more appetizing than the full meal Mandico has prepared. Read the rest at 

Blu-ray Review - The Journey of Natty Gann


Disney was undergoing a turbulent change in leadership and corporate identity in the 1980s. It was a strange time for the studio, caught between maintaining family friendly entertainment they built their reputation on and trying to compete with other studios enjoying the riches of edgier product. 1985 alone was a bizarre year for Walt Disney Pictures, who tried to flex some creative muscles with "Return to Oz" and "The Black Cauldron" (creating a few nightmare machines in the process), while also remaining true to their roots with "The Journey of Natty Gann," a throwback effort to the heyday of heartwarming Disney entertainment, only this version of the plucky kid making her way in the world isn't nearly as candied as it initially seems, and thank goodness for that. Read the rest at 

Blu-ray Review - The Day After


If you're a certain age, you probably have a story about the night "The Day After" premiered on network television. The ABC production cut through national consciousness after it aired on November 20th, 1983, finally unleashed on a viewing audience curious about the threat of nuclear war but unprepared to face the realities of its wrath during prime time. It was event television at its most daring and direct, rewarded with massive viewership and ubiquitous conversation, even managing to influence foreign policy after it was revealed most of Washington D.C., including President Reagan, stopped everything to watch the drama. "The Day After" was intended to exploit and educate, but it managed to overwhelm with its power, successfully playing into fears of nuclear arms proliferation even while it held back on the truly gruesome particulars of annihilation. Read the rest at 

Blu-ray Review - Liquid Assets


It's always a little strange to come across an adult movie that almost views sex as an unnecessary distraction. 1982's "Liquid Assets," from Roberta Findlay and Walter Sear, would rather be a comedy than anything else, putting effort into the schemes of the plot and the timing of silliness, with this satire of the theater and tax cheats doing whatever it can to secure a laugh. Perhaps something more seductive should've been in order, but "Liquid Assets" has special determination and a unique target for lampooning to make it semi-successful as the film it wants to be.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Associate


It's obvious that the success of 1992's "Sister Act" had a profound effect on the career of Whoopi Goldberg. She was already popular, accomplished all around and an Oscar winner, but the box office triumph of the singing nuns movie created the potential for a brand name, and Disney wanted to keep that magic going for years to come. It didn't last for long (1993's "Sister Act 2" was rejected by audiences), but as the 1990s rolled out, Goldberg toplined a few comedies for the studio (with Polygram financing), with 1996's "Eddie" and "The Associate" acting as a sort of career roof for Goldberg, who was singlehandedly in charge of selling the pictures to the public, with billing demands simply splashing "WHOOPI" on the posters to reel people in. The star was trying to rise in the ranks as a versatile comedic actress with her own fanbase, but with "The Associate," Goldberg was also trying to sneak in some messages on workplace sexism and patriarchal control of Wall Street and the insular world of New York City business. It's not an especially effective farce, but watching the film in 2018, and it's eerie to see how timely the material is, tackling today's concerns 22 years ago. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Widows


Five years ago, director Steve McQueen was in theaters with “12 Years a Slave.” It was a difficult movie to process, dealing with grim history and inhumane behavior, but the helmer’s skills were easily followed, adding to an already impressive filmography of suffocating efforts like “Hunger” and “Shame.” While he doesn’t sacrifice any of his artistry, McQueen is clearly hunting for something more commercial with “Widows,” which remains icy and rough, but also engineered to rile audiences up. McQueen joins forces with author Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl”) for this crime saga (a remake of a British crime series, first broadcast in 1983), which offers a labyrinth of domestic disorder to navigate, eventually ending up as something of a heist film, but one that’s not entirely attentive to the particulars of crime. “Widows” is powerful and riveting, allowing McQueen to indulge his thriller sweet tooth while still making room for a sophisticated study of race, politics, and marriage.  Read the rest at

Film Review - The Girl in the Spider's Web


Director Fede Alvarez has made a positive impression in recent years. He was handed an impossible task to remake Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead,” and managed to deliver a blood-drenched summary of Cabin in the Woods horror, sold with impressive gusto. He went on to create “Don’t Breathe,” which twisted the home invasion thriller in impressive ways, toying with sound and vision to summon thrills in a close-quarters setting. Now he’s been ordered to make something exciting out of “The Girl in the Spider’s Web,” continuing the American take on the Lisbeth Salander saga that began seven years ago with David Fincher’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Add in three Swedish productions based on the late Stieg Larsson’s collection of Salander stories, and there’s a considerable amount of screen time devoted to the character, with a few installments quite good. Hollywood seems to think there’s still money to be made from Larsson’s universe, putting pressure on Alvarez to pump up the jams on action and lose most of the procedural texture of the series, with “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” mostly content to be dopey, also setting some kind of world record for coincidences in the major motion picture. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Tenacious D in Post-Apocalypto


In 2006, Tenacious D tried to move their blend of music and comedy from television programs and album releases to the big screen, unleashing “Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny” over the Thanksgiving holiday. The picture was largely ignored, turned into a cult hit with a large stoner following. It’s a shame “Pick of Destiny” didn’t do bigger business, with its mastery of weirdness, rock opera, and goofballery delivering an accurate representation of Tenacious D’s appeal. The band went on to an intermittent release schedule (their last recording came out in 2012), but they’ve returned with something of a new movie, creating a series of shorts that pair Jables and Kage with the end of the world. “Tenacious D in Post-Apocalypto” is perhaps the exact opposite of polished entertainment, but the animated offering is fully stocked with the old D magic, creating a silly stew of raunchy missions, inane banter, and free-range imagination to give the feature plenty of insanity to savor. Read the rest at 

Film Review - The Ballad of Buster Scruggs


Joel and Ethan Coen have managed to create one western classic during their career, working their special magic on an update of “True Grit” in 2010, which also provided a box office smash for the filmmaking siblings, an achievement that often eludes them. One could argue that westerns have always been part of their creative DNA, but they’ve elected to return the genre in an immersive way with “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” which presents an anthology tale covering six stories of life and death from the untamed frontier. While it was originally conceived as a television show for Netflix, the Coens have whittled the episodes down into a lengthy feature, electing to use the material to craft a flavorful omnibus instead of trying to win audiences over in individual installments.  Read the rest at

Film Review - The Grinch (1018)


The last time the Grinch was featured in a big screen endeavor, it was back in 2000, and while the box office numbers were big, the satisfaction level was low. Ron Howard tried to do wonders with Jim Carrey as the green, furry, Christmas-hating curmudgeon, merging the book by Dr. Seuss and its first adaptation, 1966 television special, into a big-budget noise machine that came up short in the holiday spirit department. Now Universal is trying again with another sure thing: Illumination Entertainment, producers of the “Despicable Me” franchise, who are tasked with reviving the Grinch’s multiplex profile with “The Grinch,” which also attempts to find a place between literary and small screen worlds. Helping the cause is a return to animation, with directors Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney giving their take on a classic tale of soulful thaw proper visual fluidity and Christmas spirit, returning color and buoyancy to Whoville.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Overlord


Normally, a movie that details rampaging Nazi zombies would attempt to be darkly comedic, but “Overlord” has unusual concentration on the grim realities of the situation. It’s the latest release from production company Bad Robot, the J.J. Abrams-backed genre factory, who usually concoct films about secret behavior and sophisticated puzzles. This time, they’re more interested in becoming a blunt, R-rated weapon. Screenwriters Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith deliver a tale of wartime panic and survival, but instead of embracing historical authenticity, they go wild with weird science, pitting American soldiers and French civilians against a growing population of Third Reich monsters, while director Julius Avery (“Son of a Gun”) strives to keep the endeavor as macabre as possible. It takes a while to get going, but once “Overlord” finds its footing, it becomes a thrilling, profoundly violent ride. Read the rest at

Film Review - Outlaw King


While it was released 23 years ago, “Braveheart” certainly hasn’t lost steam in film appreciation circles, retaining a vocal fanbase for the Best Picture winner that continues to this day, supporting various home video releases. The story of “Outlaw King” picks up where the saga of William Wallace ended, but co-writer/director David Mackenzie (“Hell or High Water”) isn’t making a sequel. At least, this is likely what the helmer was telling himself during production. “Outlaw King” isn’t technically connected to the Mel Gibson effort, but the association isn’t exactly muted, with Mackenzie organizing another historical bloodbath with Scotsmen tearing apart Englishmen over the future of the land. As passionate as the production is about the material, it’s difficult to shake a case of deja vu here, with the epic sweep here closely resembling bigness and toughness of Gibson’s feature, only Mackenzie doesn’t quite have the stamina to keep organizing brutality, slowly losing his ability to tell a clear story as the endeavor grows punch-drunk. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Great Buster


“The Great Buster” is billed as “a celebration,” helping to distance the picture from a documentary label that it doesn’t entirely earn. Instead of a meticulous biographical study of Buster Keaton, director Peter Bogdanovich uses screen time to remind audiences of the subject’s brilliance when it came to making comedies, filing through Keaton’s achievements, not the finer points of his life. The lack of grit is a little disappointing, but “The Great Buster” is on a mission to make sure Keaton’s gifts are thoroughly highlighted, and with that simple goal in mind, Bogdanovich manages to isolate the miraculous creativity and commitment to controlled chaos Keaton used to define his career. Consider it as more of an overview of a master filmmaker than an offering of journalism, and it’s sheer bliss for classic movie admirers.  Read the rest at