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December 2018

Film Review - The House That Jack Built


Throughout his career, writer/director Lars von Trier has treasured every chance to upset his audience. He’s an artful filmmaker, but one who enjoys being provocative, taking viewers to dark, strange places where human barbarity can thrive. Sometimes, this makes for unforgettable cinema. “The House That Jack Built” is not one of those golden occasions, with von Trier going insular to craft a tale about a serial killer struggling with his own vision for savagery. “The House That Jack Built” is repellant, but predictably so, taking a torturous 150 minutes to keep hitting the same beats of mutilation and commentary, while von Trier puts this thinly veiled examination of his own career into the hands of star Matt Dillon, who’s not built for the uniquely suffocating screen spaces European cinema is capable of producing. Read the rest at

Film Review - On the Basis of Sex


Everything’s coming up Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2018. Not only is the legal titan continuously celebrated in news cycles and pop culture offerings (“Saturday Night Live” has a lot of fun with her personality), she was already the subject of a documentary, with last summer’s “RBG” managing to become one of the highest grossing specialty cinema releases of the year. “On the Basis of Sex” endeavors to join the party during the final days of 2018, submitting a dramatic interpretation of her origin story, following Ginsburg as she steels herself against the patriarchal world, determined to engineer real change when it comes to the legal definitions of gender equality. Coming after “RBG,” it’s difficult to get excited about what “On the Basis of Sex” has to offer, though director Mimi Leder is absolutely determined to make any sort of impact with Ginsburg’s amazing passion for law. Read the rest at

Film Review - Between Worlds


Writer/director Maria Pulera is trying to make a brain-bleeder with “Between Worlds,” attempting to blur the line of reality with a spirit-hopping story that, in some ways, looks to emulate a David Lynch film, even bringing in “Twin Peaks” composer Angelo Badalamenti to compose a theme for the endeavor. Pulera has the right idea with the casting of Nicolas Cage, who can turn anything into a mind-scrambler with the sheer force of his acting, but little else comes together in Pulera’s feature, which possesses the ambition to bend space and time, but has the production value of a late night Cinemax movie. “Between Worlds” is weird but not polished, which doesn’t encourage full immersion into the depths of this oddity. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Serpent's Lair


1995's "Serpent's Lair" is marketed as another offering for the erotic thriller scrapheap, with its ready-made Blockbuster Video elements making it catnip for fans of the subgenre scanning the bottom shelf for something saucy. However, screenwriter Marc Rosenberg and director Jeffrey Reiner aren't committed to a prolonged display of bare skin and orgasmic faces, trying to bend the material into more of a horror experience, finding inspiration from the succubus, a demon who uses sexuality to attract victims. Rosenberg and Reiner aren't exactly making "Hellraiser" here, but they have the right idea for the first hour of the movie, keeping "Serpent's Lair" stocked with strange lustiness and potential threat, while using star Jeff Fahey's talents wisely, keeping the actor in eye-bulging meltdown mode. The film eventually takes itself a bit too seriously, but there's something resembling a ride provided here, working through crazy seductions and demonic paranoia with reasonable speed and enthusiasm. Read the rest at 

Blu-ray Review - Wonder Women


'70s cinema doesn't get more '70s than "Wonder Women." It's an ego-stroke production from 1973, with co-writer/director Robert Vincent O'Neill assembling a bizarre thriller that's steeped in weird science, loaded with scantily clad women, set in Manila, scored to thumpy funk jams, and delivers stunts where actual safety standards were set aside to capture the intensity of recklessness. Perhaps it's not the first movie that comes to mind when discussing the thickness of era-specific influence, but O'Neill initially tries to make something exciting, coming out the other end with a true curiosity that muddies empowerment displays and sexuality, but is frequently willing to endanger lives to provide some cheap thrills. "Wonder Women" is pretty much everything exploitation should be, with the production maintaining focus on sellable mayhem, not dramatic consistency. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Smashing Time


1967's "Smashing Time" is a romp about Swinging London, and it does whatever it can to project a mood of comedic insanity, trying very hard to be the liveliest viewing experience of its release year. Director Desmond Davis offers no restraint here, giving the movie over to a moment in time when the city was exploding with fashion, music, and attitude, sending stars Lynn Redgrave and Rita Tushingham on an odyssey of thespian bigness that's remarkably exhausting to watch. "Smashing Time" is ready to loved and appreciated as a satiric overview of a cultural movement, but about halfway through the endeavor, it starts to feel like a runaway train that's run out of track. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Great Smokey Roadblock


Adventures highlighting the travel plans of rebellious truckers were all the rage in the 1970s, but only one production had the smarts to cast one of the greatest actors of all time, Henry Fonda, in the leading role. 1977's "The Great Smokey Roadblock" (titled "The Last of the Cowboys" on the disc) offers Fonda the part of a sickly man facing his mortality, taking off on one last mission across America to help friends new and old while avoiding trouble from local cops and younger rivals. Writer/director John Leone isn't making high-art with the endeavor, and his command of tone leaves a lot to be desired, with "The Great Smokey Roadblock" unsure if it wants to be deadly serious or slightly madcap. It doesn't come together with any sort of distinction, but the movie does have Fonda, who gives a little extra to the production, playing up the story's death march severity and its interest in wackiness with professional ease. Read the rest at 

Film Review - The Mule


When Clint Eastwood directs, he moves fast. It’s been his modus operandi since the beginning of his career, and such efficiency can be a good thing, forcing the features to be exactly what they are, without a helmer overthinking every detail. When it goes wrong, it results in pure sloppiness, as evidenced in February’s “The 15:17 to Paris,” Eastwood’s attempt to siphon additional American glory out of the box office gas tank after scoring a major smash with “American Sniper,” and one of the worst pictures he’s ever made. “The Mule” isn’t quite as bad as “The 15:17 to Paris,” but it’s close, adding to Eastwood’s gradual disinterest in editing and screen tension, offering a frustratingly leisurely journey into one man’s quest for financial independence, looking in the wrong places for monetary salvation. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Shrek Retold


Four years ago, I reviewed “Our Robocop Remake,” which explored a full recreation of the 1987 Paul Verhoeven masterpiece as interpreted by numerous filmmakers each offered a sequence to reinvent, often using whatever cinematic tools were available nearby. It was an impressive achievement, having immense fun with low-fi production accomplishments, while a few scenes pulled off exquisite parodies of Verhoeven’s excesses. Now it’s time for “Shrek” to undergo the process of reconsideration. While the feature’s assessment of “Shrek” as some type of classic is up for debate, it’s impossible to discount the passion for the material many share here. Offering an animation/live-action smorgasbord, “Shrek Retold” seeks to celebrate the wonders of the 2001 Dreamworks Animation smash, with over 200 fans unleashed on the original endeavor, coming up with their own highly peculiar take on the details of the fairy tale kingdom. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Bumblebee


I’ll admit to finding 2007’s “Transformers” agreeable, partially due to the way director Michael Bay managed to handle something of an origin story for the Hasbro toy line’s live-action debut, giving the Robots in Disguise proper scale and mystery. It was still teeming with nonsense, a Bay specialty, but his lust for cinematic overkill was muted to a certain degree, with his helming power tested by the introduction of a potentially huge franchise for a global market. Such restraint didn’t last for long, with four “Transformers” sequels managing to break box office records and reduce the multiplex experience to a sensorial torture chamber, finding Bay encouraged to go as hostile and baffling as possible to delight a growing international audiences. Grosses dipped substantially with 2017’s “The Last Knight,” inspiring the producers to take a different approach, pushing Bay aside for “Bumblebee,” which strives to be everything the other pictures in the series weren’t, submitting a more fan-friendly, sensitive take on robots and the humans who love them. Read the rest at

Film Review - Aquaman


The DC Extended Universe has endured some troubles during its tenure, with 2017’s “Justice League” once considered a sure thing at the box office, only to emerge with middling grosses and a tepid reaction from fans. The idea of an Aquaman movie being the first picture out of the gate since “Justice League” initially seemed like an alarmingly bad idea, with producers electing to bring one of the most visually challenging comic book characters to the multiplex for his own adventure after he previously shared the screen with other iconic action figures. It turns out “Aquaman” is just the shot of adrenaline the DCEU needs at this point, with director James Wan pulling out all the stops as he strives to give the undersea hero an epic adventure that takes audiences up in the air and down to the depths, offering myth, muscle, and pure big screen scale. Considering the odds of a humiliating failure here, Wan has crafted quite a creative achievement. Read the rest at

Film Review - Mary Poppins Returns


“Mary Poppins Returns” sets a Hollywood record for the longest time divide between installments, with the sequel arriving 54 years after the original “Mary Poppins,” which helped cement star Julie Andrews as a screen icon, delivered Disney a monster hit, and won the studio five Academy Awards. Disney took their time to deliver a follow-up that could do walk and talk like the original picture, forced to find a way to bring Mary Poppins back to screen without the help of Andrews, who doesn’t return for the new adventure. Instead, there’s Emily Blunt, and she’s an amazing replacement, handling elegance, cheekiness, and musical numbers with impressive grace and screen magnetism. It’s the rest of “Mary Poppins Returns” that slightly underwhelms, finding the production unable to find the line between continuance and rehash as it plays a very safe game of nostalgia, only here the effort has been fluffed up considerably by Broadway influence. Read the rest at

Film Review - Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse


It’s a good time to be a Spider-Man fan. The character has had it rough on the big screen in the past, but 2016’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming” corrected many mistakes, giving the superhero a proper screen translation he hasn’t enjoyed since director Sam Raimi was in charge of the web-slinger’s cinematic adventures. Last year’s “Avengers: Infinity War” added emotional weight to the refresh, but instead of focusing solely on live-action endeavors, Sony Pictures has decided to expand the Spider-Man party to the animated realm, creating “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” which should’ve been just a pit-stop in the brand name’s longstanding media journey, but instead has something interesting to offer audiences, especially those hooked on the character’s comic book adventures. “Into the Spider-Verse” is unexpected, which is a good thing, making a valiant attempt to take the icon on a trippy wave of style, pathos, and identity. Read the rest at

Film Review - Mortal Engines


Around the same time Peter Jackson is presenting “They Shall Not Grow Old,” a wonderful documentary on the soldier experience of World War I, he’s also issuing “Mortal Engines,” a large-scale fantasy endeavor that’s become catnip to the filmmaker, who was last seen trying to survive “The Hobbit” trilogy. It’s clear that smaller, personal stories better represent Jackson’s cinematic talents, as he wrings more personality and soul out of 100-year-old war footage than he does with the expensive, ultra-modern “Mortal Engines,” co-scripting and producing a formulaic overview of YA cliches and blockbuster excesses. It’s a very large movie, but it’s hollow, trying to play the potential franchise long game with material that’s barely tolerable for a single picture. Read the rest at

Film Review - Vox Lux


Brady Corbet was once an actor. While he didn’t enjoy a distinguished career, he did manage to work with an impressive roster of independent and European filmmakers, appearing in Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia,” Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” remake, Gregg Araki’s “Mysterious Skin,” and Ruben Ostlund’s “Force Majeure.” Corbet moved behind the camera for 2015’s little-seen “The Childhood of a Leader,” and now graduates to a higher profile release in “Vox Lux,” which channels all those artistic influences into a strange little character piece that has no beginning and no end, merely existing for 110 minutes of unfiltered behavior masquerading as a study of callousness. It’s broadly acted and predictably enigmatic, with Corbet trying to make a movie that’s been done before, and by more adventurous helmers. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Quake


Having beaten Hollywood at their own disaster movie game with 2015’s “The Wave,” Norway is trying to keep momentum going, ordering up a sequel in “The Quake.” It’s not the riskiest step in national filmmaking, but there’s no reason to leave money on the table, especially when the formula for this style of storytelling works, at least better than recent American subgenre offerings. “The Quake” collects a new director in John Andreas Andersen, but the rest of the gang returns for a fresh round of destruction, with the action this time surveying the horrors of earthquakes in the big city, gifting the main characters all new survival challenges. The reunion is unexpected and welcome, with “The Quake” staying patient with characterization and ferocious with calamity, making for proper nail-biting chiller. Read the rest at

Film Review - Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle


There have been many screen adaptations of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book,” but few have opened with the sight of baby Mowgli, covered in his own mother’s blood, being rescued by the black panther Bagheera from the predator dangers of the jungle. Clearly, this is not going to be another Disney adaptation (they’ve gone back to the Kipling well three times already, most recently in a 2016 blockbuster), but something far darker in tone. “Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle” (simply titled “Mowgli” in the film) is a game attempt from director Andy Serkis to butch up the material, giving it real stakes as natural world violence is slightly exaggerated to fit Shakespearean drama, with the helmer offering a CGI-laden overview of challenges and position in the animal kingdom. Intent is far more interesting than execution, finding Serkis slowly losing control of his vision as the effort drags on, ending up with more of a curiosity than a triumphant reimagining. Read the rest at

Film Review - Dumplin'


“Dumplin’” is an adaptation of a young adult novel by Julie Murphy, with screenwriter Kristin Hahn attempting to manage the dramatic texture of literature and meet the demands of the casual Netflix audience. Handling the tone is director Anne Fletcher, who’s never made a sophisticated picture, previously helming movie such as “27 Dresses,” “The Proposal,” and the wretched “Hot Pursuit.” Fletcher is a mainstream filmmaker, unable to get into the thick of conflict and character and do something memorable with special locations and troubled characters. Instead of finding the heart of the feature, Fletcher pours on the empowerment message honey-thick, leaving “Dumplin’” only diverting in small doses, with most performances trying to create some sense of organic material in a sea of plastic sentiment. Read the rest at

Film Review - Backtrace


We’ve already dealt with the VOD filmmaking stylings of director Brian A. Miller this year. His last picture, “Reprisal,” was released back in August, adding another dud to his growing filmography of forgettable cinema, which includes “Vice,” “The Outsider,” and “The Prince.” Keeping up his interests in B-movies with nondescript titles, Miller issues “Backtrace,” which doesn’t deviate at all from his formula of limited locations, amateur supporting actors, and enough money in the budget to entice one big star. Bruce Willis slept through “Reprisal,” and now it’s Sylvester Stallone’s turn to pick up a paycheck, giving a few days out of his busy schedule to pretend to act interested in a dreary thriller concerning soggy memories and a stashed bag of cash. “Backtrace” has no creative fingerprints, with Miller rehashing all his low-budget helming tricks to cough up yet another tedious flip-book of cliches. Read the rest at

Film Review - Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes


Last year, director Alexis Bloom delivered “Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds,” which provided an insider peek into the family dynamic and living spaces of two Hollywood stars. It was a bittersweet viewing experiencing (the picture aired mere weeks after their deaths), but a warm, educational overview of two incredible lives enduring complication relationships with vices, insecurities, and each other. It’s unfortunate that Bloom can’t follow-up “Bright Lights” with something similarly appealing, electing to head into the competitive political documentary marketplace, turning her attention to the rise and fall of a powerful man. “Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes” offers some assurance from its title that it’s going to track life experiences from the architect of Fox News, but Bloom doesn’t remain committed to such study for very long, eventually pulling back from the toxicity of Ailes to explore cable news pollution, corrupt men, and the evils of propaganda. Read the rest at