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March 2019

Film Review - Captive State


As alien invasion movies go, “Captive State” isn’t interested in destroying cities or filling the run time with combat sequences between space invaders and human defenders. It’s steelier than that thanks to director Rupert Wyatt, who managed to pull off a cinematic miracle with 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” creating a new direction for the franchise, and one with impressive technical achievements and a forbidding tone. Wyatt returns to sci-fi (after taking a break with 2014’s dismal remake of “The Gambler”) with “Captive State,” but he’s not going to indulge the obvious, taking a small-scale approach to an Earthly uprising, turning an occupation premise into a study of radicalization and defense, getting at least halfway there with suspense sequences and intergalactic conflict before running out of gas. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2


1984's "Silent Night, Deadly Night" was intended to be yet another slasher offering in an increasingly competitive marketplace, using the gimmick of a slaughtering Santa to lure the curious in. Instead of taking over the box office, the picture triggered tremendous controversy over its provocative marketing (Santa holding an ax), which resulted in cult longevity, making the feature something taboo for horror fans to embrace. In 1987, producer Lawrence Appelbaum elected to make a no-budget sequel, trying to rework footage from "Silent Night 1" into "Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2," an editorial assignment that didn't work. Enter co-writer/director Lee Harry, who managed to form something of a new story to tell in this universe, mixing footage from the earlier picture with a fresh tale of mass murder, hoping to inspire a potential franchise with a little post-production magic. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Claire's Camera


Hong Sang-soo is a prolific director, and not one to spend too much time refining his cinematic poetry. In "Claire's Camera," there's not much more than a central crisis between three people and a woman who studies the unrest with aid from her titular device, with the action basically regulated to conversations in cafes, apartments, and on French beaches, with the tale taking place around the time of the Cannes Film Festival. "Claire's Camera" is simple work, offering those who typically enjoy these minor forays into ennui a chance to embrace the helmer's special way with sparseness, humor, and repetitive anxiety. Read the rest at

Film Review - Triple Threat


For VOD addicts, “Triple Threat” is a very big deal. It’s “The Expendables” with lowered star standards, bringing together notable tough guys from American and Asian cinema, with director Jesse V. Johnson in charge of managing this battle royal of fight styles, attitudes, and English-speaking abilities. Brutality is there, with the picture exploding with all sorts of violence, packing gun fights, martial arts, and car chases into the run time. The cast seems to be enjoying themselves as well, providing scowls, barking threats, and squeezing out some emotion when necessary. It’s the story that ultimately kneecaps “Triple Threat,” which presents a mix of too many action figures and hazy plot and character details, making the feature more about appreciating smashmouth choreography than strengthening dramatic pull. Read the rest at

Film Review - Woman at War


“Woman at War” asks a very important question about today’s world: where’s the line between protection and extremism? The Icelandic production tracks the experience of a woman caught up in a dangerous game of escalation with an ecological preservation effort, where a love of the Earth transforms into assumed knighthood, blurring the concept of nobility once violence enters the question. Co-writer/director Benedikt Erlingsson takes the story very seriously, but there’s a poetic quality to the work, which combines flashes of fantasy with sobering reminders of reality concerning the encroaching dangers of climate change. “Woman at War” is constantly surprising and sharply realized by lead Halldora Geirharosdottir, who matches the confidence of the filmmaking with an impressively animated performance, keeping the movie focused on a singular power of vigilante justice running into serious trouble. Read the rest at

Film Review - Five Feet Apart


Movies about teen romances and elongated disasters are usually inspired by YA fiction, where there’s never a shortage of tales about adolescent woe. “Five Feet Apart” has enjoyed a slightly different origin story, beginning life as a screenplay before it was turned into a novel (released last November). It’s a pleasant change of pace, offering screenwriters Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis an opportunity to develop distinct subplots instead of trying to pack the vastness of a literary offering into a single picture. That doesn’t mean the feature is a memorable effort, but it’s a refreshingly direct one, finding the right balance of character and setting to give viewers a full understanding of motivation and longing. Such simplicity ends up frightening the filmmakers, but “Five Feet Apart” does connect as a something gentle, periodically invested in real feelings of frustration and attraction that sustain when the third act goes haywire with melodrama. Read the rest at

Film Review - Wonder Park


For their first animated project since 2015’s “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water,” Nickelodeon Movies decides to play it very safe with “Wonder Park.” Pinching elements from numerous pictures, the production endeavors to slap together a tale of imagination and dimmed spirits with the feature, which borrows most heavily from Pixar’s “Inside Out” and the 1984 fantasy gem, “The NeverEnding Story.” It’s hard not to be cynical with “Wonder Park,” which is a paint-by-numbers endeavor from screenwriters Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec (2014’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”), who slather on emotional manipulation and summon feeble magic for a routine adventure, while the overall animated effort falls far below recent family film competition, supplying a pre-packaged viewing experience that will babysit just fine for 75 minutes, but probably won’t linger for very long with younger audiences. Read the rest at

Film Review - Yardie


Idris Elba is known as an actor, and one managing a career with some serious highs and lows. Endeavoring to try out some creative control, Elba makes his directorial debut with “Yardie,” pouring his energy into a Jamaican crime saga that proudly retains its cultural position. Taking cues and mood from helmers Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, and Perry Henzell, Elba attempts to fashion something sprawling, threatening, and distinctly Jamaican, taking viewers into the violent core of West Kingston before moving the tale to London for a more recognizable battleground. An adaptation of the book by Victor Headley, “Yardie” is skilled work from Elba, who’s eager to make an impression, loading the feature up with violent confrontations and revenge scenarios motivated by abyssal pain. Read the rest at

Film Review - Starfish


Writer/director A.T. White attempts to craft a low-budget brain-bleeder with “Starfish,” his take on a creature feature where the odyssey of monsterdom is contained within. There are wild visions presented here, but as freak-out cinema goes, it’s not a picture for those with limited patience. White moves forward carefully with his psychological free dive, keeping up with trends in digital cinema that deliver more visual detail than dramatic lure, working to disturb the traditional viewing experience with concentration on imagery and mental distortion, keeping common storytelling away from the endeavor. White certainly knows how to put together a sharp-looking movie, and “Starfish” is ideal for those who enjoy meditative missions into the interpretive unknown. Dramatically, it’s intermittently compelling, but after about 30 minutes of this ambling effort, this very well may White’s intention with his feature-length helming debut. Read the rest at

Film Review - Finding Steve McQueen


Mark Steven Johnson has a very problematic filmography. He’s the director of “Ghost Rider” and “Daredevil,” with his last effort the little-seen “Killing Season,” starring John Travolta and Robert De Niro. He’s not someone that’s proven his skill behind the camera, struggling with dramas, comedies, and actioners, but “Finding Steve McQueen” seems to be his attempt to trying something softer for a change, helming an “Inspired by a true story” tale concerning the United California Bank Robbery, where a group of greedy men tried to steal 30 million dollars in Nixon re-election campaign contributions, hoping to use thievery to stop a thief. Johnson, along with screenwriters Ken Hixson and Keith Sharon, toys with the heist aspects of the tale, but the production is also attempting to make something sweet, taking the sting out of criminal behavior as love flows throughout the endeavor. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Puppet Masters


Bringing the work of Robert A. Heinlein to the screen isn't easy. Just ask Paul Verhoeven, who transformed "Starship Troopers" into an orgy of excess, upsetting fans in the process. For 1994's "The Puppet Masters," the screenplay (credited to Ted Elliot, Terry Rossio, and David Goyer) tries to be respectful of the source material for as long as possible, and the sci-fi aspects are what keep the feature afloat for its first half. The film doesn't stay inspired, with director Stuart Orme losing his way as the story deepens, making areas of the endeavor ridiculous when they should be emotionally devastating, and he generally loses interest in selling the stranger aspects of the tale, peeling alien intimidation off the finished product. Read the rest at 

Blu-ray Review - The Phantom Empire


While working in the film industry for some time by 1988, writer/director Fred Olen Ray really came into his own during the latter half of the decade. Known for his no-budget entertainment, specializing in exploitation and homage, Ray was pounding out productions around this time, having previously helmed "The Tomb," "Armed Response," "Deep Space," "Cyclone," "Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers," and "Beverly Hills Vamp" in a two-year period, clearing the way for "The Phantom Empire," which, according to legend, was shot over a period of six days. Taking a small crew into the Bronson Caves area of Griffith Park, Ray concocted (with T.L. Lankford) a tiny tale of adventuring, with the main characters coming into contact with monsters, Robby the Robot, dinosaurs, and the blinding presence in Sybil Danning dressed in vinyl. "The Phantom Empire" has no finesse, just forward momentum, working with iffy performances, limited cinematic tools, and sheer enthusiasm for B-movies from the 1950s, finding Ray's adoration for the filmmaking period coming through with more accuracy than the story he's trying(?) to tell. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Ice Harvest


The late Harold Ramis was an enormous talent. However, his directorial career covered a frustratingly uneven collection of instant classics ("Caddyshack," "Groundhog Day," "Vacation") and immediate duds ("Bedazzled," "Club Paradise," "Year One"). 2005's "The Ice Harvest" (Ramis's penultimate film) falls somewhere between the creative extremes, emerging as a slightly mystifying take on Midwestern noir, taking inspiration from Scott Phillip's 2001 crime novel. One can easily see where Ramis wanted to go with the picture, but his desire to mix black comedy with bits of existential dread and underworld entanglements mostly comes off uninspired, finding such careful stepping draining the endeavor of personality and tension. What should've been a home run for the gifted helmer is instead a disappointing non-starter. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Sudden Fury


Writer/director Brian Damude only made one movie during his career, and thankfully it's a terrific one. 1975's "Sudden Fury" eschews Hollywood comforts for the great outdoors of Ontario, with the helmer creating an unusual cat and mouse thriller with the simplest of cinematic ingredients. This is spare work, often avoiding music and dialogue to maintain concentration on the movement of characters, but Damude doesn't need much to create a proper nail-biter. "Sudden Fury" is engrossing, with moments of shock and sadness to present it with purpose, while Damude does everything he can with only a few locations, putting effort into characterization and editorial muscle, getting the feature up on its feet as quickly as possible before staging an unusual game of survival. Read the rest at

Film Review - Triple Frontier


Writer/director J.C. Chandor was last found mining for Oscar gold with 2014’s “A Most Violent Year.” He made a fine film, but it didn’t reach the creative heights of the production that preceded it, 2013’s “All Is Lost,” a masterful exploration of classic dramatic conflicts with a powerful cinematic presence. Chandor’s been away for quite some time, but he returns with “Triple Frontier,” which reunites him with primal battles for survival in the middle of nowhere, but this time there’s a lot more male energy. Teaming up with “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Hurt Locker” writer Mark Boal, Chandor approaches “Triple Frontier” with full command of his helming potential, crafting a twisty nail-biter that only really stops to assess troubling situations of sanity, with the rest of the endeavor concentrating on a blistering pace and meaty displays of pained masculinity. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Captain Marvel


For the 21st film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the company tries to reposition the brand name for future big screen heroism with “Captain Marvel.” While the Avengers are off dealing with an apocalyptic situation of loss, the suits need a way to keep things going now that the major MCU stars have fulfilled their contractual obligations or, in some cases, have aged out of their roles. Enter Carol Danvers, an air force pilot experiencing an intergalactic journey with unimaginable powers, submitted as a fresh leader for careworn superheroes. “Captain Marvel” is meant to be a new vision for the 11-year-old MCU big screen journey, imagined as a mighty force for justice and leadership. Under the care of directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the movie only gets halfway to authority, with much of the endeavor playing too flat and careful in comparison with other Marvel powerhouses, finding the indie helmers out of their league when it comes to conjuring big-budget comic book wonderment. Read the rest at

Film Review - We Die Young


He’s battled robots, M. Bison, Dolph Lundgren (multiple times), and he almost, in the mid-90s, went head-to-head with the abominable snowman. And now Jean-Claude Van Damme is going after the MS-13 gang. It’s a sobering change of pace for the action star, as “We Die Young” intends to be a grittier endeavor, with a streetwise sense of horror from writer/director Lior Geller. Van Damme isn’t the traditional hero here, but a broken man barely clinging to life, inspired to stand between the street gangs that control America’s capital and the young lives threatened by violence. “We Die Young” isn’t going to blow minds with its offering of chases and intimidation, but Lior sustains credible peril while examining an urban fight for survival. Read the rest at

Film Review - Trading Paint


It hasn’t been the best professional time for John Travolta. The actor has never been known for his taste in projects, but recent turns in “Gotti” and “Speed Kills” have failed to attract accolades and audiences, keeping Travolta busy with bad movies that he can’t magically save with his charms. “Trading Paint” has the distinction of being the best film he’s made in a few years, but that’s damning the feature with faint praise. Travolta tries to inject some emotional life into a story about car racing and family, but cliches and rough editing eventually win out in the end. “Trading Paint” is short and makes a pass at being heartfelt, but it’s rarely permitted time to breathe, cycling through formula and races with increasing repetition, making any noticeable level of audience engagement difficult to find. Read the rest at

Film Review - Mapplethorpe


Co-writer/director Ondi Timoner has a great fascination with artists and rebels, with most of her career devoted to the chronicling of those who seek to disrupt the norm, putting personality and vision before controlled behavior (“Brand: A Second Coming,” “Dig!”). She’s found an ideal subject for “Mapplethorpe,” taking on the enormity of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s career, tracking its development and controversies during the 1970s and ‘80s. It’s a storytelling challenge in many ways, but the most pressing concern for Timoner how to find a way to make an unpleasant person interesting for 90 minutes, going beyond noted achievements in art to capture the essence of a man who seemingly lived to hurt others. Mapplethorpe was no prince, and this bio-pic doesn’t probe deep enough into the subject’s point of view, ending up a meandering study of photographic ability with occasional inspections of obsessions and ego. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Beware My Brethren


Religious fury is slowly unfurled in 1972's "Beware My Brethren" (aka "The Fiend"), a British production that's endeavoring to wind itself up with scenes of murder and holy manipulation, but it takes a long time to get anywhere of note in the picture. Director Robert Hartford-Davis and screenwriter Brian Comport definitely have ideas to share in the stagnant shocker, but takes on serial killing, motherly influence, and Godly damnation just don't have the punch they should, with most of "Beware My Brethren" coming across as a television movie that's occasionally interrupted by scenes of violence and nudity. Read the rest at