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January 2019

Film Review - How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World


The “How to Train Your Dragon” series has become big business for Dreamworks Animation, who’ve gone beyond movies to deliver video games, books, and multiple television shows that detail the epic fantasy world where humans and dragons are learning to live with each other, often heroically. That’s all well and good, but the real magic of the franchise is found on the big screen (the biggest, of you can find it), with “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” the most awe-inspiring and thrilling of a trilogy that began in 2010. Closing out the saga of Hiccup and his pal Toothless, writer/director Dean DeBlois gets a little sentimental with the second sequel, but his aim is to end things as excitingly as possible, delivering a healthy amount of action and discovery, along with plenty of Viking tomfoolery. While lacking the sweep of the last chapter, “The Hidden World” makes up for the loss in other ways, with DeBlois crafting a divinely animated, supremely felt effort. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Velvet Buzzsaw


“Velvet Buzzsaw” has an initial stance of satire. Writer/director Dan Gilroy (“Nightcrawler,” “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”) picks a rather easy target for mockery, the modern art scene, and showcases the lives of pretentious people trying to make their mark on a cutthroat world and collect a fortune in the process, wielding weapons of judgment and pettiness. Gilroy definitely has his moments of exaggeration, but he’s using the setting and the participants to create a horror film, delving into the genre with welcome strangeness and specificity. “Velvet Buzzsaw” doesn’t have many left turns, just a gradual tonal shift from art world commentary to blood-spurting terror, and Gilroy gets what he needs from the picture, though some viewers might come away disappointed that he doesn’t remain with the artists and their battle to survive social and professional tests of empathy. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part


2014’s “The Lego Movie” enjoyed the element of surprise. Little was expected of the project, which was initially believed to be a lengthy commercial for Lego merchandise. However, directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller didn’t simply want their film to be a highlight reel of available products, but a sharp animated comedy that used the brick-flinging spirit of Lego to develop a world of heroes and villains, ending up with a tale of bonding between a distracted father and his son. It was a wonderfully strange feature with incredible comedic speed and lust for satiric jabs at superhero formula and character. Instead of jumping right back into the flow of things for a sequel, other projects were developed, including “The Lego Batman Movie” and “The Lego Ninjago Movie,” with both pictures failing to offer the same creative mayhem and emotional hook. Finally, there’s now a follow-up, but “The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part” can’t always shake a feeling of staleness, finding the screenplay trying a bit too hard to be strange when it should be focusing the same level of humor that made the original effort such a treat. Read the rest at

Film Review - Granddaddy Day Care


In 2003, there was “Daddy Day Care,” which was part of the softening of Eddie Murphy for family audiences, with the comedian hoping for a career rejuvenation by playing to children (and their fatigued parents) with slapstick antics. A sequel (“Daddy Day Camp”) popped up in 2007, with Cuba Gooding Jr. taking over the lead role from Murphy, submitting himself for kid judgment, with the picture failing to make much money despite having brand recognition. Now striking while the iron is ice cold, hungry producers have returned to the franchise with “Granddaddy Day Camp,” which tries to mount a spin-off for an older crowd, but still retaining the same juvenile sense of humor. Perhaps seniors might get a kick out of seeing their daily misery played out on screen, and there are certainly talented actors involved, but “Granddaddy Day Care” wasn’t a good idea to begin with, attaching itself to series that nobody really liked in the first place, arriving with only a few ideas for jokes and one tone-deaf lunge for pathos. Read the rest at

Film Review - Then Came You


Teen melodramas are big business these days, with Netflix finding ratings gold with tales of sad but snappy kids in problematic relationships, trying make sense of the world they’re inheriting. “Then Came You” joins the pack, presenting two characters handed the challenge of cancer survival to help complicate their still-forming lives, trying to capture the essence of youth while dealing with the crushing realities of mortality. Writer Fergal Rock isn’t breaking fresh ground with “Then Came You,” but he’s not trying to avoid formula either, presenting a clichéd take on friendship, longing, and loss, trusting the warmth and quirk of the endeavor will be enough to capture interest in the characters. He needs more than familiarity to get by, as the movie never rises above mediocrity, unwilling to put in the effort to make something special out of working parts already on view in dozens of other films. Read the rest at

Film Review - Benchwarmers 2: Breaking Balls


A film critic typically receives only one viewing to formulate a review. It’s a time when assessment is made with care and experience (hopefully), though sometimes a simple in-the-moment reaction is recorded, with certain pictures triggering a gut reaction, going against a reasonable response. 2006’s “The Benchwarmers” wasn’t a particularly well-made movie, and its cast was largely filled with unpleasant actors who really have no business in the world of comedy. But as a mild diversion with plenty of baseball action, its stupidity wasn’t as soul-crushing as expected, managing to be dumb fun with a long list of bad ideas. 13 years later, there’s a sequel, but “Benchwarmers 2: Breaking Balls” only invites one cast member to return to duty, giving the rest of this DTV production over to a new set of thespians who shouldn’t be near funny business in a continuation that’s late to the party, with little to add to what’s now the “Benchwarmers” Cinematic Universe. Whatever embarrassing pushover tingles I felt in 2006 are long gone in 2019. Read the rest at

Film Review - Piercing


A few ago, writer/director Nicolas Pesce made his filmmaking debut with “The Eyes of My Mother,” which display the helmer’s command of style and mood, along with his fascination with prolonged violent encounters. Instead of trying something different for his follow-up, Pesce returns to the land of grime and bloody with “Piercing,” attempting to adapt a 2008 novel by Ryu Murakami. Once again, Pesce doesn’t take it easy on his audience, delivering a picture that savors suffering and observes madness as its leaks out of the characters, often at the worst possible moments. “Piercing” boasts fine technical credits, but the feature’s quest for atmosphere is often more interesting than the actual story unfolding in slow-motion, finding Pesce too wrapped up in the particulars of Murakami’s world, keeping the viewing experience more about shiny surfaces and gaping wounds than macabre drama. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Night Strangler


There wasn't a person around who expected the January, 1972 airing of "The Night Stalker" on ABC to produce record ratings, but when the movie collected a massive audience to watch a newspaper reporter take on the creatures of the night, the money men wanted another instalment. A quickie production, airing a year later, "The Night Strangler" returns to the world of Carl Kolchak and his uncanny ability to be present when supernatural evil rises up to claim lives. For the first installment of the series, a vampire was up to no good, but for "The Night Strangler," the perpetrator is something a bit more complicated, with writer Richard Matheson making some attempt to shake up expectations for the second go-around. Originality isn't big with the sequel, but it retains McGavin and his ability to huff and mug his way through the dullest of scenes, giving his second time with Kolchak needed agitation for a production that's stuck in full rehash mode. Read the rest at 

Blu-ray Review - The Night Stalker


There was once a time when a television movie could bring the nation together. In 1972, the event was "The Night Stalker," a low-budget production meant to act as entertaining filler for ABC's weekly schedule in January, only to pique the curiosity of almost the entire viewing audience. It was a hit, a massive success for the network and producer Dan Curtis (who created "Dark Shadows"), who found an immediate response to something as potentially frivolous as a detective tale featuring the hunt for a vampire. While certainly a case could be made that sheer oddity made people stay home the evening "The Night Stalker" aired, there's something a little more than just shock value here, with director John Llewellyn Moxey finding a proper investigative tone to keep the short (75 minutes) feature on the move, while screenwriter Richard Matheson (adapting an unpublished book by Jeffrey Grant Rice) fills the effort with idiosyncrasy and discovery, rewarding viewer attention with a propulsive genre offering that knows what it wants to accomplish, ditching complexity for a solid offering of chills and Las Vegas exploration. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Bat 21


In 1986, the release of Oliver Stone's "Platoon" changed everything for pictures about the Vietnam War. Suddenly, these stories about hellacious, confusing combat and the psychological scars inflicted could bring in sizable numbers at the box office, and even be rewarded with Oscar gold. Vietnam became big business for Hollywood, with 1988's "Bat 21" (stylized as "Bat*21") part of a producer push to get tales of war up on screens as fast as possible. Screenwriters George Gordon and William C. Anderson (adapting his own book) have the gray area of "Based on a True Story" to play with, detailing the U.S. military's considerable efforts to collect one man shot down over enemy terrain. They split the story into two distinct extremes of combat, trying to soften the rah-rah concept of search and rescue with intermittent reflections on the cold, bloody brutality of war. Director Peter Markle ("Hot Dog…The Movie") is caught between the extremes, and while he fashions a competent survival adventure, he has more trouble pinpointing the message of "Bat 21," which is lost somewhere between explosive action sequences and moments where star Gene Hackman is asked to portray guilt as his character encounters dead bodies for the first time. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Inkwell


In 1991, writer/director Matty Rich made some noise on the independent film scene with "Straight Out of Brooklyn," his ode to the pains of life in the projects. It was a no-budget endeavor that went out into a world in the mood for such stories of the black experience, managing to clear a modest profit and drum up support for Rich, who was a teenager during production. 1994's "The Inkwell" represents Rich's real test as a moviemaker, handed decent money and the support of Disney to create a nostalgic ode to the summer of 1976, tasked with bringing a coming-of-age dramedy from screenwriters Trey Ellis and Paris Qualles to life. Unfortunately, the painfully amateurish elements of "Straight Out of Brooklyn" were no accident, finding Rich belly flopping with his follow-up. Unable to control tone or performance, Rich sprays the screen with random emotions and obnoxiously broad acting, dimming whatever brightness of spirit and power of memory "The Inkwell" is trying to communicate. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Kid Who Would Be King


It’s hard to believe writer/director Joe Cornish has been away from screens since 2011, when his helming debut, the problematic “Attack the Block,” managed to capture cult attention, making him a creative force worth following. Screenplay work filled in the gaps (including “The Adventures of Tintin”), but Cornish has finally returned to theaters with “The Kid Who Would Be King,” which fulfills his initial promise as a storyteller. This is a wonderful picture, with Cornish turning Arthurian legend into an old-fashioned kid-centric adventure with bright performances and soaring spirit, returning to the concerns of children tasked with saving the world in their own special way. “The Kid Who Would Be King” takes wonder, character, and peril seriously, keeping the production searching for inventive ways to rework ancient conflicts, coming up with an endearingly exciting tale of knightly honor in a modern school-age battleground. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Polar


Jonas Akerlund is a respected director of music videos (including Madonna’s “Ray of Light”), but his cinematic pursuits haven’t made much of an impression. He stumbled through forgotten features such as “Horsemen” and “Small Apartments,” making his biggest film culture splash with his debut effort, 2002’s calloused, hyperactive junkie comedy, “Spun.” Akerlund, perhaps fearing he’s lost his touch, returns to the land of excess with “Polar,” which mimics “Spun” in style and sensorial hostility, and much like this previous work, there’s no drama or characters to hook into. An adaptation of a 2012 graphic novel, “Polar” is another case where not everything related to world of comic books needs to be a movie, finding Akerlund delighting in the material’s lust for carnage, and offering no attention to anything of substance. It’s zero-calorie hellraising and fantastically awful. Read the rest at

Film Review - Egg


In 2017, director Marianna Palka delivered “Bitch,” a strange and darkly comic vision of motherhood and marriage, featuring a main character who mentally transforms into a dog to disrupt all the depression that’s entered her life. Palka returns to the subject of female submission with “Egg,” joined by screenwriter Risa Mickenberg, who creates a theatrical observance of five people in crisis as they deal with the prospect of parenthood and the reality of pregnancy. Palka certainly has a subject she enjoys dissecting, and “Egg” does a fine job continuing her mission to tear feminine stagnancy into little pieces, capturing the erosion of complacency and the challenges of control. The material cheats a little to get from one side of the story to the other, but Mickenberg generates vivid personalities, and Palka pulls out strong performances, giving a possible static viewing experience some real tension. Read the rest at

Film Review - IO

IO 3

Science fiction doesn’t need to be flashy, but it’s always problematic when it’s inert. It’s difficult to understand why “IO” was turned into a picture when it seems perfectly suited to the world of literature, with screenwriters Clay Jeter, Charles Spano, and Will Basanta offered a book’s worth of room to explore the dystopian future setting and themes of isolation and longing. Folded into the shape of a feature, and the material comes across flat and unexciting, with no discernable tension created between the characters as they converse about survival and the end of the world. “IO” isn’t ambitious, but it’s still, positioned as more of a filmed play than a cinematic journey, watching director Jonathan Helpert linger on uninteresting details with glacial pacing, ending up with something best suited for off-Broadway than screens of all sizes. Read the rest at

Film Review - King of Thieves


There’s always room for a heist movie. It’s an evergreen genre that’s recently been tended to by the likes of “Ocean’s 8” and “Widows,” and now returns to theaters in “King of Thieves,” which offers an English take on heavily planned criminal endeavors. From the outside looking in, the picture seems to have it all, submitting a story that takes place around London’s diamond district, and the cast couldn’t be better, with Michael Caine leading an ensemble of older actors playing up age-related issues as their characters participate in an elaborate theft. At least half of the film seems to understand the feisty appeal of Grumpy Old Men dealing with a new world of surveillance and security, but “King of Thieves” (based on a true story) doesn’t stay lively long enough, suffering some dramatic balance issues as director James Marsh (“The Theory of Everything,” “Man on Wire”) peaks too soon with seemingly surefire material. Read the rest at

Film Review - Serenity


It’s easy to give writer/director Steven Knight the benefit of the doubt with “Serenity.” After all, his last helming effort was 2014’s “Locke,” a superbly structured and timed tale of one man’s breakdown during a long car ride in the middle of the night. It was one of the best films of the year, but lightning doesn’t strike twice for Knight, who swings for the fences with his latest endeavor, looking to set a Floridian Noir mood while actively disrupting all expectations for sex and murder with the feature. It’s one bonkers movie, but it doesn’t initially reveal its insanity, with Knight portioning out strangeness in small doses while losing control of the whole endeavor, tanking performances and his vision for something different. There are certainly few pictures like it, but such oddity can’t pull “Serenity” out of the tailspin it eventually finds itself in. Read the rest at

Film Review - I Hate Kids


It’s best not to expect much from director John Asher. He’s the man responsible for such execrable entertainment as “Dirty Love,” “Diamonds,” and 2015’s “Tooken,” and he’s determined to display his tone-deaf ways with comedy. After taking a brief break from funny business with his misguided Autism tale, “Po,” Asher is right back to badness with “I Hate Kids,” submitting a toothless take on parental responsibility, making a 22-minute-long sitcom that masquerades as a 90-minute-long film. “I Hate Kids” is terrible, but that’s expected. What’s surprising is how a few talented supporting actors were talking into appearing in this nonsense, doing their best to class up an utterly hopeless feature from a helmer who insists on making stupidity his top priority. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Mayo Clinic: Faith, Hope, Science


While he's taken on the vast subjects of baseball, the Vietnam and Civil War, and jazz, documentarian Ken Burns goes very specific for "The Mayo Clinic: Faith, Hope, Science." Joined by co-directors Christopher Loren Ewers and Erik Ewers, Burns delves into the history and philosophy of the "miracle in the corn field," creating a two-hour-long understanding of perhaps the most celebrated medical institution in the world, which sits in small town Minnesota. "The Mayo Clinic" is as professionally assembled as the rest of Burns's work, deftly piecing together an overview of the hospital and its influence on the medical community, but it's also a profound summary of human potential and compassion. Burns isn't providing a cold read of facts, instead weaving together the particulars of progress while reinforcing what makes the facility so respected and successful, sending the work out into the world to remind the viewing audience that something other than a complete submission to profit can work in the healthcare industry. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Strait-Jacket


1962's "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" reignited interest in Joan Crawford's career, also giving the world the rise of "Hagsploitation," where older actresses could dominate screens once again with material that plays to their aging appearances. Jumping on the chance to use a newly in- demand Crawford is William Castle, noted architect of "ballyhoo" cinema, and a man who knew exactly how to bring in an audience using the art of the gimmick. For 1964's "Strait-Jacket," the pull would be Crawford, who's tasked with creating a dimensional character out of an ax murderer. Castle uses the inherent ugliness of beheading to prime the creative pump, but the majority of "Strait-Jacket" belongs to Crawford, who huffs and puffs her way throughout the picture, giving it a rhythm of intensity it needs as it plows through Robert Bloch's screenplay, which isn't completely convinced that maniac mode is the best way to make it from start to finish. Read the rest at