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July 2020

Film Review - The Painted Bird


“The Painted Bird” is an adaptation of a 1965 novel by Jerzy Kosinsky. The book, once celebrated for its stark material concerning the Holocaust, has fallen into controversy over the years, with Kosinsky accused of inventing the autobiographical tale, filling it with horrors he never experienced. Such a troubling publishing history doesn’t throttle Vaclav Marhoul’s passion for the material, making a considerable effort to bring unthinkable physical and psychological violence to the screen. “The Painted Bird” is a vivid picture that inspects human cruelty with alarming directness, perhaps making it the most specialized viewing experience of 2020. It’s not a film for everybody, and those who choose to spend nearly three hours with numerous acts of dehumanization are offered a reasonably defined journey into survival and trauma. Marhoul can’t help himself at times, but he’s mostly on target when it comes time to attach meaning to a relentlessly suffocating feature. Read the rest at

Film Review - Easy Does It


Marketing efforts for “Easy Does It” push the image of co-star Linda Hamilton, who’s the largest face on the poster and the biggest name in the film. There’s a reason for this, of course, as nobody would see the picture without Hamilton’s participation. Sadly, the actress is only in the endeavor for roughly 10 minutes, leaving the rest of the movie to writer/director Will Addison as his furious need to prove himself with his feature-length helming debut. He blasts the screen with color and grain, and keeps his characters nervously chatting away, trying to adrenalize a DOA offering of criminal interests. “Easy Does It” tries to be obnoxious instead of incisive, mangling some kind of message on dwindling hope for the American Dream, asking audiences to stick with a noise machine that fails to become the grimy romp it so dearly wants to be. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Sunlit Night


My experience with director David Wnendt dates back to 2013’s “Wetlands,” where he attempted to merge emotional pain with cinematic textures, trying for shock value to help pull attention toward an otherwise underwhelming film. There was an Adolf Hitler fantasy idea in 2015 (“Look Who’s Back”), and now Wnendt returns to more intimate dealings with “The Sunlit Night.” While hardly the rowdy endeavor “Wetlands” was, Wnendt’s latest shares similar ideas and interests, this time blending in misery involving the world of art, striving to follow one woman’s exposure to growth in a remote corner of the world. “The Sunlit Night” has glorious Norwegian locations to survey, and star Jenny Slate tries to get something going with a considered performance. It’s Wnendt who stands in the way of the movie, weirdly obsessed with derailing his own storytelling efforts with a feature that’s scattered and possibly unfinished, often pursuing subplots by accident. It’s a mess, but it’s lovely to look at. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Hell Riders


Biker films had their time and place, experiencing a heyday during the 1950s and '60s, with the image of a raging Hell's Angels-type was used to strike fear in the hearts of moviegoers, offering them the exotic threat of menacing types clad in leather riding around on deafening vehicles. In 1984, such acts of intimidation didn't carry the same weight, leaving "Hell Riders" with little to work with while it strives to assemble a terror show featuring particularly inept biker gang members. While it has the star power of Adam West and Tina Louise, "Hell Riders" doesn't offer much more than the occasional bit of amusing oddity, watching director James Bryan struggle with basic acts of storytelling and conflict. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Blind Rage


1978's "Blind Rage" has a crackerjack premise, pre-mixed for optimum drive-in entertainment. It's a crime/martial arts film about five blind men who are recruited to steal a fortune from a bank, using planning and their remaining senses to pull off a seemingly impossible crime. It's B-movie nonsense of the highest order, and while it has the goods to become something special, or at least deliciously campy, director Efren C. Pinon doesn't push down on the nonsense hard enough, losing interest in developing the effort's natural strangeness. It has its amusing stretches, but "Blind Rage" doesn't explode in the way one might expect from a tale of unusual sensorial ability put to criminal use. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Corporate Animals


There aren't many comedies made about cannibalism. It takes a special filmmaking touch to blend unimaginable horror with jokes, and director Patrick Brice ("The Overnight," "Creep") gets most of the way there with "Corporate Animals." While there are a few macabre events in the movie, the screenplay by Sam Bain is more of a workplace comedy, tapping into office irritations and resentments as a team-building exercise turns into a lengthy challenge of survival. "Corporate Animals" might be relatable for some, but it really wants to be silly business for all, and while Bain can't dream up interesting setbacks for the cast of characters, he scores more often than not, while Brice manages to transform a static setting into a war of quirks, personal histories, and hunger pains. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Record City


To best appreciate anything "Record City" has to offer, one has to secure their 1977 glasses on tight. Painfully tight. Everything in the picture comes from a different era of entertainment, when variety shows where common entertainment on television, and jokes weren't concerned with political correctness, embracing all sorts of stereotypes and dismissive attitudes, finding targets instead of punchlines. In the Wild West of the 1970s, director Dennis Steinmetz and writer Ron Friedman hope to tap into the post-"Car Wash" zeitgeist by offering a wacky comedy set inside a record store, where the hits are distributed to the public every single day, and the staff can't seem to stay out of one another's business. "Record City" is as loosely plotted as a movie can get, going episodic as a series of characters spend the day getting into all sorts of shenanigans, dealing with crime and sex as an amateur talent contest happens outside. Friedman serves up the silliness, and Steinmetz tries his best to shape something sellable out of the high jinks, occasionally interrupting a whirlwind of iffy behavior with musical performances and comedy acts. Read the rest at

Film Review - Greyhound


Tom Hanks has spent a large portion of his acting and producing career making sure stories from World War II are told with the utmost attention to realism and honor. With projects such as “Band of Brothers” and “Saving Private Ryan,” Hanks has reinforced his dedication to the veteran experience, trying to highlight the sacrifices of service and might of bravery. With “Greyhound,” the actor returns to duty in a wartime naval adventure, also taking on screenplay responsibilities with this adaptation of a 1955 C.S. Forester novel (“The Good Shepherd”). Hanks brings along his customary concentration on the steeliness of leadership, joining director Aaron Schneider to create a riveting oceanic battle of skill and ammunition, offering viewers a taut viewing experience that doesn’t have much use for anything that isn’t directly tied to the central mission of protection and survival. Read the rest at

Film Review - Manos Returns


In 1966, on a bet, filmmaker Harold P. Warren tried to make his own horror picture armed with almost no money, spare sets, and a cast of amateurs. When “Manos: The Hands of Fate” premiere, it was greeted with laughter (an unwelcome reaction to a scary movie), soon falling into obscurity. In 1993, the classic television show “Mystery Science Theater 3000” selected “The Hands of Fate” for the full riff treatment, striking comedy gold with one of their finest episodes, soon putting the forgotten endeavor back into cult circulation. Suddenly, there was interest in Warren’s disaster, resulting in merchandise sales, a re-riffing from the heroes at Rifftrax, and a years-long restoration of the original workprint, bringing the effort back to its original theatrical presentation. And now, in the tradition of “Showgirls 2: Penny’s from Heaven,” comes “Manos Returns” -- a sequel nobody asked for, reuniting viewers with Torgo, Debbie, and The Master (sort of), with co-writer/director Tonjia Atomic making something slightly silly to beat potential mockers at their own game. Read the rest at

Film Review - Palm Springs


“Palm Springs” is co-produced by Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer, better known as the comedy trio The Lonely Island. The feature is even introduced as a “Lonely Island Classics” production (a funny riff on Sony Pictures Classics). And yet, “Palm Springs” doesn’t provide the same comedic jolt as earlier efforts, such as “Hot Rod” and “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping.” It’s not really a Lonely Island experience, handing creative reins to screenwriter Andy Siara and director Max Barbakow, who attempt to give Samberg a romantic comedy makeover while still retaining a bit of the wily weirdness he’s known for. “Palm Springs” has its select moments of insanity, but it tries to cut a little deeper, moving past gags to deal with pained characters going through a lot while experiencing something unreal. Read the rest at

Film Review - Relic


In 2014, writer/director Jennifer Kent created “The Babadook.” It was a tale of a demonic presence, and while Kent was very clear with her spooky intent, she was also painting a portrait of parenthood, which is often an experience of unrelenting horror. It was a sharp, stunning feature with a delicious claustrophobic atmosphere. The type of viewing experience is found in “Relic,” which turns its attention to the various challenges of dementia and how the personal experience of such degeneration greatly taxes all those involved. Co-writer Natalie Erika James impressively merges the real-world agony of aging with a haunted house story, coming up with a complex film that’s richly detailed and performed, reaching above and beyond a simple ghost story to tap into deep emotions involving the nightmarish decline of a once vibrant loved one. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Old Guard


It’s kind of amazing that Hollywood hasn’t gotten around to remaking the 1986 adventure film, “Highlander.” Sure, they’ve tried, but nothing’s come together, leaving the original offering and its frustrating sequels to explore the angst and action of a life lived with violent encounters and never-ending tomorrows. “The Old Guard” is the best chance to huff “Highlander” fumes right now, with screenwriter Greg Rucka adapting his own 2017 graphic novel for the screen, introducing audiences to the ways of Andy and her team of eternal warriors, some who’ve lasted for centuries trying to make sense of their endless existence. “The Old Guard” is most engaging when it remains in comic book mode, presenting a heightened take on longstanding relationships and the trials of eternal life, giving director Gina Prince-Bythewood, a helmer known for her dramas (“Love & Basketball,” “Beyond the Lights”), an opportunity to explore genre bigness that’s often restrained by the demands of continuous exposition. Read the rest at

Film Review - Archive


Theo James hasn’t delivered much excitement during his career, making a wrong turn into the flaccid “Divergent” franchise, while recently stumbling through the Netflix release, “How It Ends.” James gets to show a little more dramatic grit with “Archive,” which puts the actor in the realm of robots and grief, basically on his own for much of the picture, receiving a chance to play an ethically dubious character. It’s a fine performance, perhaps his best work to date, and James is boosted considerably by writer/director Gavin Rothery, who makes an impressive feature-length filmmaking debut with “Archive,” finding ways to stretch his budget to help create an immersive study of futureworld technology and personal desperation. Rothery can’t make the mystery go the distance, but the first two acts are compelling thanks to a helmer who really has a vision he wants to see come alive on the screen. Read the rest at

Film Review - Money Plane


Unlike a lot of VOD actioners, “Money Plane” actually has a promising premise. It takes viewers to a casino in the sky where anything goes involving the worst people on Earth, giving them a free space to indulge their awfulness in games of skill and chance. Writers Tim Schaaf and Andrew Lawrence (who also directs) provide a solid reason to track such unrepentant ugliness, which retains a delicious camp factor, but they’re mostly interested in following heist movie formula, aiming for suspense that never emerges. There’s a circus there for the taking, but “Money Plane” plays it safe, delivering familiar beats of intimidation and brutality, trying to wow viewers with twists and turns when they might be better off with a blunt study of evildoers taking to the sky to make a fortune. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Beach House


Credit should be paid to writer/director Jeffrey A. Brown. Making his feature-length helming debut, Brown attempts to deliver a refreshing of the body horror subgenre, doing so without a large cast or a major budget. He pushes for atmosphere and heavy tension, working like crazy to stretch a minor idea into a major picture. “The Beach House” has nothing but good intentions to provide a B-movie immersion for fans of this type of entertainment, and those who live for this stuff will likely devour it without hesitation. Wider appreciation for the effort is up for debate, as Brown is in no hurry with “The Beach House,” forgoing a ripping pace to build the endeavor as slowly as humanly possible. Brown asks a lot of his audience, and while the film has style and a macabre imagination, it never really moves in a fully captivating manner. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Bug (1975)


William Castle enjoyed an incredible career as a filmmaker, producer, and general showman, with his use of gimmicks to sell tickets turning him into an industry legend, creating vivid moviegoing memories for those lucky enough to see titles such as "House on Haunted Hill," "The Tingler," and "13 Ghosts." Castle had a special way of turning subpar cinema into an event, and for his final production, he strives to do something a little different with the insect invasion drama, "Bug." Such a title promises a run time filled with creepy crawlies, screaming co-stars, and some kind of stunt from Castle, but the co-writer/producer calms down for the 1975 feature, which is more of psychological drama than a chiller. In fact, there are barely any scares at all in the effort, as it aims to keep its distance from schlocky highlights. "Bug" prefers to burrow deep inside the main character's mind, going the weird science route with periodic violence and, apparently, use of "Brady Bunch" sets, giving the unfolding freak-out an unexpected familiarity as director Jeannot Szwarc tries to conjure a level of alarm that's not always there for the picture. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Mystify: Michael Hutchence


It's important to note that Richard Lowenstein's documentary, "Mystify: Michael Hutchence" is almost exclusively about the titular subject. This isn't an overview of hits and misses from Hutchence's band, INXS, as I'm certain some potential viewers would like it to be. The group has a presence in the movie, and their music is sparingly used, but Lowenstein, a frequent INXS collaborator, has elected to concentrate on Hutchence and his turbulent life, tracing his days as a child to his 1997 suicide, exploring all the pain, glory, and confusion the man experienced as one of the biggest music stars on the planet. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Radioflash


Writer/director Ben McPherson is trying to put his own stamp on the end of the world, with "Radioflash" examining the power of analog life when the digital universe ceases to exist. It's not really a horror movie, but the helmer does try to inject some fright into the endeavor. It's not exactly a thriller, but a few chases and heated showdowns remain. As a relationship picture, McPherson has something compelling with his overview of a family fighting to stay together during a troubling time. "Radioflash" wants to be a lot of things, but never really comes together, with McPherson overwhelmed by his subplots, struggling to find a story here worth following from start to finish. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Standing Up, Falling Down


Screenwriter Peter Hoare isn't trying to move the world with "Standing Up, Falling Down." Instead, he offers a small-scale relationship drama about an unlikely friendship developing between two aimless men struggling with private issues, bonding over a shared sense of humor. The material has very little wow factor, but it's sincere, and that's most important with a picture like this, which tends to do its best when aiming to be meaningful instead of volcanically dramatic. "Standing Up, Falling Down" has its humor, and it's very funny at times, but director Matt Ratner (making his debut) is more attentive to chemistry, letting his actors interpret Hoare's vision for camaraderie and personal inventory, resulting in a mild but effective dramedy. Read the rest at

Film Review - Desperados


Nasim Pedrad is a former cast member on “Saturday Night Live.” She didn’t have a breakout moment on the show, but she provided refreshing weirdness at times, interested in making deep dives into bizarre characters. She left “SNL” in 2014, kicking around T.V. offerings ever since. Now she has her own starring vehicle in “Desperados,” a Netflix comedy that’s meant to show her stuff, commanding a romantic comedy that’s addicted to raunchy antics. Pedrad deserves better, but she gives an awful script by Ellen Rapoport (“The Jamie Kennedy Experiment”) her full commitment, trying to go screwball and sweet with impressive energy. The picture is a complete waste of time, as paint-by-numbers as it gets, but Pedrad deserves credit for trying to make an unbelievably lame film work on some frenzied level. Read the rest at