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December 2018

Blu-ray Review - A Thousand Acres


Make no mistake, Jocelyn Moorhouse is a very talented filmmaker. She's proved herself with pictures such as "Proof," "How to Make an American Quilt," and the recent Kate Winslet dark comedy, "The Dressmaker." Most helmers have rough patches, and Moorhouse finds hers with 1997's "A Thousand Acres," which not only gives her an impressive cast to manage, but there's the source material, with the feature an adaptation of a 1991 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Jane Smiley, which originally attempted to rework the characters and themes of Shakespeare's "King Lear," moving the setting to a family farm in the 1990s. I doubt few directors could successfully carry the pressure to realize a beloved, respected book, but Moorhouse stumbles particularly hard here, showing uncharacteristic ineptitude with performances and basic editing, making a laborious soap opera that's loaded with half-baked drama and characterization. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Dear Dead Delilah


With a title like "Dear Dead Delilah" (not to be confused with the recent Blu-ray release of "Deadly Daphne's Revenge"), there's a certain expectation put in place for a sinister tale of murder, with the possibility of a ghost story setting. Writer/director John Farris doesn't exactly pursue a hardcore tale of diabolical happenings, preferring to settle into the dismissive ways of southern folk in Tennessee as they deal with plantation life, a hidden inheritance, and a rising body count due to the presence of an ax-swinging killer. Farris prefers family business over chopped-up bodies, making "Dear Dead Delilah" more of a psychodrama than a slasher film. There's some disappointment with the end results, but Farris isn't completely removed from the demands of the genre, putting together a few suspenseful scenes, one genuinely weird kill, and nurtures fine performances from the cast, with lead Agnes Moorehead giving the helmer more than he deserves as the titular woman, who's very much alive during the endeavor. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Wildling


Co-writer/director Fritz Bohm crafts a Grimm Brothers-like tale in "Wildling," which doesn't set out to redefine the monster movie, enjoying a chance to play in the subgenre sandbox while dreaming up a few fresh ideas of its own. It's a dark picture, often quite literally, and one with a plan to sneak up on audiences with scenes of unexplained behavior and baffling personalities, with hopes that when clarification sets in, the feature will have a tight grip on viewers. "Wildling" gets mostly there thanks to a chilling tone and capable performances, and while Bohm doesn't always have the most original vision for the central metamorphosis, there's a momentum to the endeavor that's compelling, and its general direction toward macabre discoveries is periodically hair-raising. Read the rest at

Film Review - Holmes & Watson


There was once a time when Will Ferrell made funny movies. It hasn’t happened for a few years now, with 2017 finding the actor struggling to survive “Daddy’s Home 2” and “The House,” reaching new low points in his wildly uneven career. 2018 brings “Holmes & Watson,” which reunites Ferrell with John C. Reilly, his screen partner in the hits “Talladega Nights” and “Step Brothers.” There’s supposed to be magic with this reunion, but someone didn’t tell writer/director Etan Cohen, who almost completely tanks the partnership with a massively disappointing endeavor that not only doesn’t contain a single laugh, it rarely tries to be humorous in the first place. “Holmes & Watson” is a grab bag of gags from the helmer who gifted the world “Get Hard,” with Cohen completely incapable of triggering even a smile with the surefire tag-team action of Ferrell and Reilly, who always seem to be aware how much of an uphill climb they face with this lousy material. Read the rest at

Film Review - Destroyer


Director Karyn Kusama is doing a fine job rebuilding her career after enduring two critical and commercial duds with “Aeon Flux” and “Jennifer’s Body.” 2015’s “The Invitation” returned Kusama to greatness, masterminding a macabre, sneaky chiller that pulled off the slow-burn approach with confidence, and now there’s “Destroyer,” her take on the burnt-out cop subgenre, only here the emphasis isn’t on hard-boiled antics, but a full corrosion of soul. There’s action and suspense, but the material is suited to Kusama’s interests in character and mood, and Nicole Kidman strips away all glamour to play a burning husk of a woman finally facing the music after years spent dissolving in guilt. “Destroyer” is steely work from Kusama, but also wonderfully textured and mindful of cliches, playing them up or breaking them completely when the moment calls for it. Read the rest at 

Film Review - If Beale Street Could Talk


Barry Jenkins broke through to the big time with 2016’s “Moonlight.” The writer/director crafted a beautiful, unusual effort and managed to ride its unexpected success all the way to Oscar gold, with the feature memorably claiming the Best Picture award, guaranteeing intense concentration on whatever the helmer was preparing for his follow-up. “If Beale Street Could Talk” continues Jenkins’s evolution as a formidable screen artist, assuming the challenge of bringing author James Baldwin to a wide audience, adapting a 1974 novel about the state of love and incarceration in Black America. Baldwin had a specific way of communication, artful and contentious, and such a tone is gently translated to film by Jenkins, who shows expected confidence with “If Beale Street Could Talk,” working to precisely convey Baldwin while maintaining his own elegiac vision for personal crisis. Read the rest at

Film Review - Leprechaun Returns


Technically, Leprechaun has returned already, multiple times. 1993’s “Leprechaun” was a genre lark created to offer oddity to curious audiences, and while success was desired, I doubt anyone associated with the production expected the brand name to carry on for five sequels and one dismal reboot. And now the pint-sized Irish demon is back, just in time for…Christmas. Okay, so the timing is a little strange for “Leprechaun Returns,” but the spirit of ghoulishness is pleasantly revived in what’s actually a direct sequel to the original film. While Jennifer Aniston and Warwick Davis have decided to sit out this homecoming (not a surprise), director Steven Kostanski tries his best to revive the magic(?) of the first chapter, delivering plenty of blood and quips, though his helming powers aren’t impervious to lengthy stretches of screentime with obnoxious characters. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Party's Just Beginning


Taking possession of her career, Karen Gillan steps behind the camera to make her feature-length directorial debut with “The Party’s Just Beginning.” While certainly not an actress who gravitates toward chipper roles, Gillan clearly wants to flex some dramatic muscles with the endeavor (she also scripts), creating a profoundly dark descent into depression with a story that juggles time and levels of helplessness, giving the star her first major test as a performer. Gillan is quite successful with certain aspects of “The Party’s Just Beginning,” and she commits to almost impossible bleakness with the effort, but her performance carries the film, while direction keeps it on the move, presenting low-budget style and darkly comic touches to make the viewing experience survivable. Read the rest at

Film Review - Vice


We’ve been here before. In 2015, writer/director Adam McKay released “The Big Short,” which took a semi-satirical look at the Financial Crisis of 2008, using a large cast of familiar faces and his polished comedic instincts to remind paying audiences of their foolish passivity, detailing just how people with money and opportunity nearly destroyed America in their pursuit of money and opportunity. It was McKay’s middle-finger to the four winds, showing off his rebel instinct with a sizable sense of condescension and intermittent inspiration, managing to score one of his biggest box office successes that didn’t star Will Ferrell. Three years later, the helmer is back with “Vice,” a spiritual sequel to “The Big Short” that sets out to understand just how significant Vice President Dick Cheney’s influence was between 2001-2008. McKay returns to his editorial bag of tricks and honed glibness, but this time the whole things plays like the director is lip-synching to punk rock music instead of trying to ignite a revolution. Read the rest at

Blu-ray 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

Blu-ray Review - The Cured


There's a lot of competition out there for the zombie lover's dollar, inspiring filmmakers to find new and interesting ways to refresh genre particulars, refusing to submit the same old stomp to moviegoers demanding a little more from their flesh-chewing entertainment. Making his directorial debut for "The Cured" is David Freyne (who also scripts), who twists the subgenre in a more allegorical fashion, using the menace of "infected" types to explore political history in Ireland and the violent extremism that plagues all corners of the world today. "The Cured" isn't light, bloody fun, retaining an impressively curated heaviness about it, with Freyne laboring to making something different with familiar working parts, coming up with an impressively forbidding tone and emotional urgency to reach beyond expectations. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Second Act


I can understand the nostalgia for mid-range comedies from the 1990s. After all, who doesn’t miss Hollywood Pictures? (*crickets*) “Second Act” attempts to be a relic from an era when all anyone wanted from their light entertainment was a sassy best friend, a weirdly choreographed group dance number, and plenty of misunderstandings. Sadly, there isn’t much room for such multiplex distractions these days, but that doesn’t stop director Peter Segal, who attempts to revive the romantic/workplace/slapstick comedy with star Jennifer Lopez, who commits to everything “Second Act” presents her, which is no small achievement. After all, this is a supremely bizarre screenplay from Justin Zackham and Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, forcing Lopez to ride a tonal roller coaster in the name of comfy sweater entertainment, finding Segal surprisingly fearless when it comes to eye-crossing plot turns for a move that’s better off remaining as simple as possible. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Bird Box


Director Susanne Bier is known for her work with character, taking the time to shape personalities, trying to deepen viewing experiences with memorable people, not always plots. She’s done well for herself with “Brothers,” “After the Wedding,” and “Things We Lost in the Fire,” but Bier has always enjoyed more artful intentions with real-world characters. With “Bird Box,” the helmer heads straight to horror, in charge of a picture that demands a certain fright factor between scenes of dramatic development. It’s rough around the edges, and clearly made by someone who doesn’t have a degree from Scare U, but Bier does bring some weight to “Bird Box,” which meets strangeness with sincerity, working extra hard to connect the players in meaningful ways before unleashing macabre terror sequences. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Shoplifters


Director Hirokazu Kore-eda has often been celebrated as a master of humanist dramas, placing attention on the seemingly minor crises of everyday life, studying how turmoil identifies and reshapes character. He’s the creator of “I Wish,” “Like Father, Like Son,” and “After the Storm,” and he adds another triumph to his sterling filmography with “Shoplifters,” which delivers all the premiere personality Kore-eda is known for, while adding a slight atmosphere of reflection, with the picture also approachable as a summary of the helmer’s creative interests. “Shoplifters” untangles slowly, but Kore-eda doesn’t leave the viewer behind, gently examining questions of family and sacrifice with his observational style. There’s a lot of heartache in this endeavor, but also a vivid understanding of connection between needy souls. Read the rest at

Film Review - Welcome to Marwen


In 2010, there was “Marwencol.” The documentary explored the unusual world of artist Mark Hogancamp, who was badly injured during a severe beating, coming out of the fog of recovery with desire to pour his anxieties into photographs covering the events in an imaginary Belgian town during World War II, where heroes and Nazis do battle and interact in more unexpected ways. “Marwencol” was terrific, and also very distinct with its subject matter, making a dramatization difficult to pull off. Director Robert Zemeckis attempts to crack the adaptation code, bringing “Welcome to Marwen” to screens with inventive visual effects and special performances that manage to do something with extraordinarily challenging material. There’s a significant amount of strangeness to explore in “Welcome to Marwen,” and while Zemeckis doesn’t get everything right, he definitely has a vision for the feature, juggling Mark’s pain with his artful escape from reality. Read the rest at

Film Review - Roma


The last time director Alfonso Cuaron made a movie, it was “Gravity.” While many filmmakers have reached for the stars, Cuaron managed to create a picture that felt like it was set among them, offering high drama in space, using inventive, seamless visual effects to create a high-tech thriller that also remained intimate with character. It was quite the achievement, rewarding the helmer with unexpectedly healthy box office returns. Using such a success to tackle a personal project, Cuaron returns with “Roma,” an autobiographical effort that’s just as detailed as “Gravity,” but brings his storytelling interests back down to Earth. Mexico, to be more exact, filing through memories and utilizing his creative muscles to mastermind a recreation to his youth, crafting a valentine to the woman who helped raise him. Read the rest at

Film Review - Ben is Back


A few months ago, there was “Beautiful Boy,” which took a look at the pains of substance abuse and the problematic march of recovery, aiming for a softer understanding of the bitter reality that drives such domestic discord. “Ben is Back” is somewhat similar in story, only here messages of self-harm and parental concern are harsher, offering a more frenzied take on the struggle of drug use and the challenges of unconditional love. Writer/director Peter Hedges (“The Odd Life of Timothy Green,” “Dan in Real Life”) strives to keep his picture as close to the heart as possible, but only for the first half. And then, suddenly, the screenplay doesn’t believe in the cinematic value of watching characters trapped in doubt, instead aiming for a more formulaic understanding of drug culture secrets and lies. “Ben is Back” has elements that absolutely work, but Hedges doesn’t trust himself in the long run. Read the rest at