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January 2020

Blu-ray Review - Artik


Writer/director Tom Botchii Skowronski is aiming to put his own stamp on comic book cinema with "Artik," merging the brute force of a serial killer story with a fantasy face-off, only here the opposing forces are a murderer and a straight-edge soldier trying to do something right in his life. It's stylish picture, doing so much with very little in the budget department, and when approached in the right mood, "Artik" engages to certain extent, with Skowronski trying to remain creative and aggressive with the little room he's given himself to explore this showdown between light and dark. Read the rest at

Film Review - Bad Boys for Life


Created as an action distraction for the spring of 1995, “Bad Boys” marked the directorial debut of Michael Bay, who took a low-budget project starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence and made it come alive, feeling out his helming powers with what would become his only movie made with some restraint. Returning to the brand name in 2003, Bay manufactured a hideously bloated and mean-spirited sequel, offered a chance to do whatever he wanted with the series, electing to squeeze all the fun out of it. After a long breather, Smith and Lawrence return with “Bad Boys for Life,” but Bay has chosen to sit this one out, passing the baton to Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, two untested filmmakers tasked with keeping up the Bay energy for the weirdly delayed second sequel. It’s nice not to have Bay around to make a mess of things, but the new kids on the block are just as interested in grotesque violence and sheer noise, unwilling to make “Bad Boys for Life” their own bulldozing creation. Read the rest at

Film Review - Dolittle


It’s easy to see why the 1920 Hugh Lofting book, “The Story of Doctor Dolittle,” is a tempting adaptation opportunity for movie producers. While the literary offering spawned its own series of missions for the titular character, his central gift, born with an ability to speak to animals, is a concept that can go anywhere. And it has on a few occasions, most notably an epic 1967 musical that bombed at the box office, and most recently a 1998 comedy starring Eddie Murphy that trigged a string of sequels. Now there’s “Dolittle,” with co-writer/director Stephen Gaghan striving to make a big-budget, family friendly spectacle featuring gobs of visual effects, one of the highest paid actors in the history of Hollywood, and a supporting voice cast made up of various comedians, actors, and professional wrestlers. It’s a massive production, and yet “Dolittle” feels uncomfortably small, presenting a limited imagination for wonder and funny business, trying to win over audiences with eye candy instead. Read the rest at

Film Review - VHYes


Not so fast, 1990’s nostalgia, there’s still plenty of love for the 1980s out there. For director Jack Henry Robbins, the early days of video recording are lovingly recreated in “VHYes,” which gives audiences a chance to revisit the small thrills of documenting life and television during the wild west years of home electronics. Robbins doesn’t have a story to share here, manufacturing a viewing experience instead, calling in friends and family (including parents Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon) to recreate shows, films, commercials, and household interactions from 1987, creating a bizarre mix tape of comedy and surrealism, with nothing in the feature lasting for very long. It’s a stab at an old-fashioned underground movie, and “VHYes” secures a semi-consistent showcase of amusing performances and welcome silliness, playing up the technical limitations of equipment and satirizing the programming trends of the day to add something wonderfully oddball to the marketplace. Read the rest at

Film Review - Troop Zero


Writer Lucy Alibar has a fascination with the motor that keeps young minds running. She made her screenwriting debut with “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” adapting her stage play “Juicy and Delicious,” and she returns to theatrical inspirations for “Troop Zero,” which is based on her play, “Christmas and Jubilee Behold the Meteor Shower.” Alibar has an appreciation for free-range upbringings, and aims for a sweeter understanding of personal challenges with her latest effort. “Troop Zero” doesn’t stray far from underdog cinema formula, but Alibar keeps her material sentimental and empowering, trying to speak to the heart of pre-teen characters as they battle adults, the 1970s, and their own perceived limitations on a quest to communicate with the deepest reaches of space. Read the rest at

Film Review - Disturbing the Peace


Guy Pearce has accepted some roles he shouldn’t have over the years, but it’s difficult to understand why he said yes to “Disturbing the Peace.” Usually big money is the reason behind respected stars and their need to appear in VOD product, but even by those standards, Pearce is really scraping the bottom of the barrel with this feature. And amateurish production from director York Alec Shackelton (who previously helmed another lump, the Nicolas Cage-starrer “211’), “Disturbing the Peace” tries to be an urban western, pitting a troubled lawman against a pack of violent bikers, but there’s little appreciation for the building of tension, the technique of selling violence, and basic thespian skills. Pearce is the best thing about the picture, but that’s not saying much, as the veteran actor is simply here to make a few bucks and move on, putting in the least amount of effort possible. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Wave


“The Wave” approaches ideas on conscience and karmic balance through the cinematic reverberations of psychedelic drugs. Director Gille Klabin is prepared to take the audience on a special mind-bending ride, armed with distinct visuals and doses of CGI, while instructing star Justin Long to capture the finer points of mental and physical alarm as his character is sent through time and space to deal with his issues as a human being in a dangerous position of power. “The Wave” has a simple message of personal inventory to study, and Klabin tries to capture audience attention through bursts of chaos, hoping to wind up the feature as a manic sprint through different realities. It’s not an especially ambitious production, and not entirely compelling either, but it does have a certain energy at times to keep it going, with Long working hard to communicate the inner melt of a troubled man. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Great Waldo Pepper


Director George Roy Hill was in a rare industry position in 1975. Two years earlier, he delivered "The Sting," which went on to collect a fortune at the box office (ending up the second highest-grossing feature of the year) and multiple Academy Awards, including Best Picture of 1973. Hill could suddenly do whatever he wanted, and with the power of multiple hits (including 1969's "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"), he elected to bring a personal project to the screen, funneling his own experiences as a pilot into "The Great Waldo Pepper," his valentine to the world of early aviation, with all the dangers and glory it contained. It's inspired work from the helmer, who secures strong characterization from screenwriter William Goldman, but absolutely dives into aerial sequences, which provide the production with genuine moments of suspense and some jaw-dropping stunt work. "The Great Waldo Pepper" has some issues with pacing consistency, but Hill gives the effort a wonderful specificity, providing viewers with a peek into the psychology of daredevils gradually being denied the thrill of danger. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Pledge Night


Fraternity life doesn't need much embellishment to become perfect fodder for horror entertainment, and screenwriter Joyce Snyder sets out to be as authentic as possible when exploring the humiliations of a New Jersey university's Hell Week in 1990's "Pledge Night." Snyder has divided the viewing experience into two parts, examining frat house rituals and a supernatural terror, working to blend the different tones into a one scary event, playing into genre expectations while adding enough realistic grotesqueries to unnerve viewers who may be only prepared for a traditional haunt. "Pledge Night" doesn't strive to upset expectations, but it's better film when exploring the reality of fraternity terrors, with Snyder's effort to transform the movie into a sequel-ready production getting in the way of some genuinely disgusting moments. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Secta Siniestra


A Spanish production from director Ignacio F. Iquino, 1982's "Secta Siniestra" is the kind of picture that is so focused on what it wants to be, it forgets how to actually be. It's a clumsy endeavor with all kinds of technical sloppiness and an overall disregard for production polish, but the feature is determined to be a scary experience, and for some viewers, such magical filmmaking will just might be enough to pass. Approach it as refined cinema and "Secta Siniestra" is going to bring on a headache in the hurry. Enjoy it as B-movie nonsense, and there's some amusement to be had with Iquino's habitual refusal to acknowledge his creative limitations. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Vineyard


James Hong has enjoyed an incredible acting career dating back to the 1950s, playing a wide variety of characters in nearly every genre around. However, in 1989's "The Vineyard," Hong strikes gold as a wicked vintner who uses the blood of youth and the power of black magic to secure eternal life, which is not a character one comes around often enough. Co-directing (with William Rice) and co-writing the endeavor as well, Hong tries to do everything for "The Vineyard," which has its rough B-movie movements and iffy assembly, but also manages to be immensely entertaining, with moments of horror, sleaze, and flashes of camp helping to generate an amusing sit with an awfully strange endeavor. Hong understands what the work needs, and he gives it all he's got to secure cult appeal. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Itsy Bitsy


With a title like "Itsy Bitsy," there's a promise made for a lighthearted killer spider picture. It suggests something cheeky is on the way, with co- writer/director Micah Gallo chasing the gleeful mischief of 1990's "Arachnophobia," or perhaps trying to match the B-movie release of 2013's "Big Ass Spider." Gallo is in no mood for laughs with his feature-length helming debut, presenting a more sobering take on arachnid hellraising, coming close to making the starring spider more of a supporting part in the effort, which focuses instead on the ravages of addiction, the struggle of parenthood, and the chest-caving grief of loss. "Itsy Bitsy" is a bad title for the endeavor, as it offers no joyful horror release, remaining closer to the pains of the wounded heart than matinee thrills, trying to be a gritty, aching take on eight-legged intimidation. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Piercing


A few years ago, writer/director Nicolas Pesce made his filmmaking debut with "The Eyes of My Mother," which displayed 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 - Everybody Knows


Writer/director Asghar Farhadi is primarily known for his Iranian dramas, scoring major critical successes with efforts such as "The Salesman," "A Separation," and "About Elly." Ready for more global awareness, the helmer takes baby steps toward the mainstream with "Everybody Knows," which utilizes a sampling of star power to nab attention, finding Farhadi teaming with actors Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem to help carry a kidnapping mystery. However, "Everybody Knows" is not a nail-biter with chases and whiplash turns of fate. It remains in line with Farhadi's previous work, with primary attention placed on the internal churn of decision-making and the troubles that come with longtime relationships and secretive connections. Those expecting something more explosive from the filmmaker this time out might be disappointed, but slow-burn tension is there, realized through accomplished performances from the entire ensemble. Read the rest at

Film Review - Like a Boss


Screen comedy hasn’t been living its best life in recent years, with trends in improvisation and lowbrow humor hurting funny business instead of helping it, finding filmmakers all too content to provide limited imagination. “Like a Boss” isn’t going to change the game, but it does have an interesting director in Miguel Arteta, helmer of “Cedar Rapids,” “The Good Girl,” and the recent “Beatriz at Dinner.” Arteta is far from infallible, but one can sense something trying to happen in “Like a Boss,” which possesses moments of pleasant silliness with two very game stars before it retreats back to numbing cliché, creating strange tonal extremes as Arteta tries to steady himself and create a bawdy, R-rated comedy that also touches on female empowerment and friendship issues. He doesn’t get there, but some mild effort helps. Read the rest at

Film Review - Underwater


There was a time when this type of movie was nearly released on a monthly basis. In the late 1980s, Hollywood wanted in on oceanic horror movies, with features such as “DeepStar Six” and “Leviathan” making a run for box office glory, only to find limited interest from ticket-buyers. 30 years later, there’s another attempt with “Underwater” (shot three years ago), which isn’t quite as monster intensive, but does restore the primal terror of being stuck at the bottom of the sea, facing off against a most determined foe. It’s the “Alien” formula, only with tighter spaces and lots of wetness. “Underwater” has the remote setting and some money for visual effects, but director William Eubank (who contributed effective work with 2014’s “The Signal”) is more interested in creating a chaotic viewing experience, not a terrifying one, shredding his invitation to make a claustrophobic nail-biter, preferring flat acting and cheap scares instead. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Informer


There have been many undercover snitch movies, and there will be a lot more to come. What separates these endeavors is depth of concern for characters in peril and overall suspense while watching conflicted personalities pushed to their breaking point. “The Informer” has no aspiration to be cinematic art, but director Andrea Di Stefano (“Escobar: Paradise Lost”) has steady command of tension when it comes to awful things happening to a wide variety of people, delivering a reasonably unsettling examination of panic in the world of secret lives. “The Informer” has pace and performances, and Di Stefano seems invested in making sure the feature is as gripping as possible before a few dramatic developments fall apart, keeping things compelling for a decent amount of time before the demands of audience-pleasing cinema begin to take over. Read the rest at

Film Review - Inherit the Viper


Anthony Jerjen makes his directorial debut with “Inherit the Viper,” which explores the ravages of opioid addiction and distribution in a small town, reflected in the lives of three siblings deeply involved with the problem. Formula isn’t denied by Jerjen, working with a screenplay by Andrew Crabtree, but concern for the inner lives of the characters remains, giving the production something to work with as it manages forgotten America woes. “Inherit the Viper” aims to go Shakespearean with its study of frayed family ties, and it achieves some of its creative goals, delivering a grim understanding of survival, legacy, and the deterioration of conscience as bad decisions mount, leading to all sorts of emotional and physical violence. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson


Director Daniel Farrands has a fetish for true crime tales. However, instead of exploring the facts of such cases, trying to work his way to the truth, he’s decided to distort minor witness testimony and police report oddities to inspire his own brand of lurid cinema. In 2019, Farrands issued “The Amityville Murders,” which returned to the DeFeo saga to detail the supernatural claims of the family murder. A few months later, there was “The Haunting of Sharon Tate,” which attempted to redress the Manson Family massacre as a downward spiral of psychic awareness, even toying with the outcome of the evening. And now Farrands is back with “The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson,” which revisits the brutality of the 1994 homicide, with screenwriter Michael Arter taking O.J. Simpson’s 2006 suggestion of an aggressor named “Charlie,” and turning it into a feature-length theory that the ex-football star wasn’t the murderer so many people believe him to be. Why do we need a movie like this? Farrands never supplies an answer. Read the rest at

Film Review - Three Christs


While he made a promising directorial debut with 1991’s “Fried Green Tomatoes,” Jon Avnet hasn’t managed to match his initial creative and box office success. He’s worked primarily in television in recent years, but the lasting stench of disasters such as 2008’s “Righteous Kill” and 2007’s “88 Minutes” remains. “Three Christs” is meant to slip Avnet back into the warm waters of personal psychological problems, exploring one doctor’s quest to achieve a greater understanding of paranoid schizophrenia during a research project in 1959. The subject is interesting, exploring the depths of troubled minds trapped in an unforgiving care system. However, Avnet can’t get the material moving in any compelling direction, creating a disappointingly plodding endeavor that’s too concerned with melodramatic asides to get to the heart of mental illness. Read the rest at