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September 2020

Blu-ray Review - L.A. Wars


While "L.A. Wars" is technically a 1993 production, it mostly plays like something from 1985, when action movies created for the VHS market were really starting to take off, trying to create as financially responsible a ruckus as possible. For their introductory sequence, co-directors Tony Kandah and Martin Morris (who also script together) serve up a coke deal gone wrong, filling the screen with bullets and explosions, trying to sell the stuffing out of the title before viewers have fully settled in. It's that type of spunk that carries most of "L.A. Wars," which is exceedingly silly work, but determined to provide at least some level of non-stop excitement, keeping the endeavor stuffed with stunt work and steely characters, coming up with a low-budget ride that doesn't get by on I.Q. points, but offers a dead body for every star in the sky. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Dr. Jekyll's Dungeon of Death


The horrors of Robert Louis Stevenson's 1886 novella, "Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," are significantly diluted for 1978's "Dr. Jekyll's Dungeon of Death." The title suggests an ominous viewing experience, detailing absolute finality in a basement setting. However, what director James Wood is actually offering is a loose appreciation for the original text, mounting his own martial arts exhibition as the potential for frights is replaced by choreographed fights. This is one bizarre feature, seemingly slapped together over a few weekends, with Wood keeping to the bare minimum of story and screen tension while offering large parts of the run time to a local karate school. There's a dungeon and there's some death, but the real Dr. Jekyll-ness of it all doesn't factor into the final cut. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Severed Arm


1978's "Halloween" was a massive hit, turning the slasher genre into a trend that would spawn imitators for over a decade. Most hardcore horror fans generally look to 1974's "Black Christmas" as the feature that really got the ball rolling, delivering death one body at a time. What's interesting about "The Severed Arm" is how closely it plays to the conventions of the subgenre, coming out a year before "Black Christmas." It's an unheralded cinematic achievement, and a mark of distinction the production doesn't make the most of. Yes, there's a shadowy killer on the loose, stalking its victims slowly, delivering grisly exterminations with a sharp instrument. And that's it for thrills and chills in the movie, with co-writer/director Tom Alderman a bit more concerned about reaching a sellable run time than really dialing up the fright factor of this somewhat odd/somewhat familiar endeavor. Read the rest at

Film Review - Antebellum


The massive success of 2017’s “Get Out” has cleared the way for filmmakers to explore racial tensions using genre storytelling. This allows the audience to participate in the tale as it weaves around fantastical turns, giving them a ride before hitting them with doses of reality. Jordan Peele found a way to give his lesson some big thrills, continuing his odyssey in the similar 2019 effort, “Us.” Screenwriter/directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz have the same idea with “Antebellum,” which surveys the horrors of slavery and its continued presence in 21st century America. It’s an unexpectedly grim feature, and one with surprises viewers will either tolerate or reject in full. If Peele and M. Night Shyamalan had a baby, it would be “Antebellum,” which is at its most successful when toying with reality, providing a puzzle to solve while reinforcing the lasting wounds of an unforgiving nation. Read the rest at

Film Review - Lost Girls and Love Hotels


“Lost Girls and Love Hotels” is an adaptation of a 2006 book by Catherine Hanrahan, and while it initially appears to be a salacious account of secretive Japanese sexuality as it pertains to the titular housing, it’s actually a much darker understanding of obsession and depression. There’s definitely kink play featured in the movie, but Hanrahan (who also scripts) is more invested in her characters, following a woman as she succumbs to grim thoughts while embarking on an emotional connection to a forbidden man. There’s plenty of atmosphere in the effort, with director William Olsson making the trek to shoot in Japan, and there’s beguiling shapelessness to the endeavor as well, helping the production to capture blurred headspaces with elements of mystery and compelling displays of self-destructive behavior. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Devil All the Time


To help bring to life a tale of rural American horrors tied to all levels of faith, co-writer/director Antonio Campos (“Afterschool,” “Christine”) gathers a cast of European and Australian talent to help fill out the ranks of corrupt and threatened characters. It’s a different approach when dealing with such regionally specific torment, but this isn’t a straightforward account of evildoing. An adaptation of a 2011 Donald Ray Pollock novel, “The Devil All the Time” offers a knotted timeline as it manages a community of thinly related and connected people confronted by their demons, with Campos looking to keep the audience on their toes while he experiments with the shock of violence to capture attention. While lengthy (138 minutes) and fond of stillness, the feature connects when necessary, offering an immersive tour of mental illness with a few pulpy touches. Read the rest at

Film Review - Enola Holmes


There seems to be an endless appetite for movies and shows about Sherlock Holmes. He’s a perennial character, with the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle creation offering an intellectual game of sleuthing, merging the thrill of the hunt with room for audience participation. While Sherlock has a part in “Enola Holmes,” the film’s really here to introduce a new sibling full of deductive reasoning, adapting a tale from author Nancy Springer’s YA book series. Attempting to make something appealing for a teen audience, screenwriter Jack Thorne (“Wonder,” “His Dark Materials”) delivers a spunkier take on the family business of solving crimes, with “Enola Holmes” aiming for emotional ties and empowerment glow with this whodunit, which is more of a whereshego. It’s a different style of caper for Sherlock’s little sister, putting a lot of pressure on star Millie Bobby Brown to carry the charm and the narrative focus of the picture. Read the rest at

Film Review - Blackbird


“Blackbird” takes on the topic of euthanasia, offering a family drama about a matriarch who’s planning to end it all after a weekend of personal time and group activities, finally stopping developing health issues. Of course such a reunion isn’t easy to watch, but the subject is an important one, and director Roger Michell (“Notting Hill,” “Hyde Park on Hudson”) tries to protect some of the ideas and feelings involved with the event while maintaining dramatic focus. The movie isn’t a grand offering of emotional volatility, but it remains a tearjerker, and one capably handled by the cast, who deliver deeply felt performances. It doesn’t exactly brighten the day, but the sadness of “Blackbird” is compelling, visiting universal issues of dysfunction and communication as the story highlights difficult areas of personal engagement, especially when a level of finality is introduced. Read the rest at

Film Review - H is for Happiness


“H is for Happiness” is an adaptation of the book “My Life as an Alphabet” by Peter Jonsberg, and it’s a bit of a miracle that an American production company didn’t get its hands on the material for a film adaptation. It’s slightly quirky work with some level of melodrama, but the picture is an Australian undertaking, thus achieving a bit more oddity to offset the formulaic elements of the plot. There’s genuine weirdness running through “H is for Happiness,” and that’s a good thing, with director John Sheedy making his feature-length debut with true test of tonal balance, setting out to visualize Jonsberg’s world of unhappy people and one girl’s push to solve their problems, without overdosing on cutesiness or heartache. The helmer gets the movie most of the way there, offering a charming understanding of positive thinking from a juvenile point of view. Read the rest at

Film Review - Alone (2020)


“Alone” is a remake of a 2011 Swedish chiller (titled “Gone”) about a woman traveling across the country getting into trouble with a mysterious and malevolent driver on the open road. Original screenwriter Mattias Olsson returns to duty for the Americanized version, sticking close to the recipe that made the original picture a prime candidate for an English-language do-over. Director John Hyams aims to bathe the endeavor in mood, which becomes a necessity, as “Alone” isn’t big on incident, keeping the helmer attentive to small details and daily business while striving to find some level of suspense to keep the viewing experience passably unsettling. There’s not a lot to the feature, and it shows in the final cut, with Hyams stretching to fill the run time, losing valuable tension along the way. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Secrets We Keep


Once again, actress Noomi Rapace is sent in to portray a physically and psychologically tortured character, this time taking the lead role in “The Secrets We Keep,” which has her playing a woman confronted by the agony of her World War II past. The part plays right to Rapace’s professional capabilities, giving her a chance to deliver the gut-rot emotionality she’s known for, with director Yuval Adler (“Bethlehem,” “The Operative”) making sure to emphasize the character’s pain as much as possible. If only the entirety of “The Secrets We Keep” was as invested in the moment as Rapace, with Adler riding the line between promising chiller and a filmed play with the endeavor, which is big on conversations, preferring dry patches of conversation instead of creating something more intimidating, which it definitely has the potential to do. Adler lingers instead of delivers with the effort, which could use a great deal more anguish and a lot more movement. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Blood Games


1990's "Blood Games" offers one of the more peculiar set-ups for a thriller I've ever encountered. While the material eventually settles into formula, depicting a forest battle between backwoods predators and female prey, the path to such a showdown makes its first stop at a rural baseball game, with the visitors a team of scantily clad ladies that drive around the country, battling local opponents. It's an underworld of sports betting with a side of Hooters-style teasing that gently launches the feature, giving director Tanya Rosenberg multiple opportunities to arrange sexploitation shots and examine the horrors of uncontrollable men. It's so weird, and yet, it's actually a fantastic way to commence "Blood Games," earning viewer interest with the unexpected before Rosenberg gives in to the predictability of genre demands. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Patty Hearst


The saga of Patricia Hearst and her 1974 kidnapping has been explored in numerous media offerings, with journalists and dramatists drawn to the story's overt strangeness and ties to the Hearst legacy. For 1988's "Patty Hearst," screenwriter Nicholas Kazan goes straight to the source, adapting Hearst's 1982 autobiography, "Every Secret Thing." Director Paul Schrader takes the opportunity to probe into the mind of a kidnapped woman brought to her breaking point, examining days of imprisonment that eventually led to the birth of an unlikely "urban guerilla." Admittedly, the sheer oddity of the event is enough to fill a run time, but Schrader and Kazan struggle to locate the urgency of Hearst's transformation, getting lost in style without pinpointing compelling motivations, providing very little insight beyond what Hearst shares in her book. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Immortalizer


Jordan Peele's "Get Out" received critical accolades, Oscar gold, and a sizable box office haul with its homage to "The Twilight Zone" episode, "The Trade-Ins." Imagine another pass at the premise, only without the social and racial commentary, the sleek cinematography, and the gradual rise of sinister business. 1989's "The Immortalizer" has rampaging mutants, it's that kind of movie, but it's interesting to examine another take on the premise of the old looking to be young again via surgery, with brain-swapping mischief offered more of a low-budget horror event from director Joel Bender, the man who gave the world "Gas Pump Girls." There's nothing subtle about "The Immortalizer," which largely gets by on scenes of wild behavior and mild chases, while Bender's periodic visits to the gore zone give the picture a kick when it needs it. It's not the maniac creation it could've been, but it has its moments, especially when the production embraces its sick side. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Greed


Writer/director Michael Winterbottom has always held a great interest in highlighting troubled times around the world, with the growing issue of economic disparity a popular topic of his pictures. With "Greed," Winterbottom does away with any sort of subtlety, instead going for the throat with his vision of a billionaire celebrating his 60th birthday, with his grotesque life opened for study as a decadent party is planned in his honor. The material has its biting comedic moments, but Winterbottom is aiming for a more sobering depiction of the haves and have nots, constructing a briskly paced overview of unrepentant financial manipulation, workplace abuse, and the blind absurdity of privilege, reteaming with frequent collaborator Steve Coogan to assess the ruination of lives as the few retain everything they can get their hands on, while the many fight for survival. Read the rest at

Film Review - Rent-A-Pal


“Rent-A-Pal” is set in 1990, but it’s a relevant picture for today’s world of frustrated people dealing with isolation. This isn’t what writer/director Jon Stevenson initially intended, but he’s found a way to make a movie about 2020, creating a slow-burn chiller about one man’s decent into madness due to suffocating domestic experiences and his own distance from a functional relationship. While other filmmakers have touched on the toxic relationship between man and machine, Stevenson gets oddly specific with his writing, which turns a simple quest for VHS attention into a downward spiral of insanity. “Rent-A-Pal” has flashes of originality, and Stevenson has a good eye for casting, finding actors capable to doing something memorable with a shapeless threat. It’s not the tightest feature around, in need of more editorial pruning, but when it focuses on blurred lines of reality, it’s vividly executed with a wonderfully dark sense of humor. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Grizzlies


Lacrosse is not a sport that’s often depicted in movies. While offering heated competition and high-scoring highlights, filmmakers aren’t all that interested in doing something with the contact game, which received one of its more high-profile explorations in 2012’s “Crooked Arrows.” For “The Grizzlies,” lacrosse is the impetus of the story, but screenwriters Graham Yost (“Speed,” “Hard Rain”) and Moira Walley-Beckett (“Breaking Bad,” “Anne with an E”) are more interested in the community unification of the sport, merging underdog cinema with a sincere examination of despondency in the Artic region. “The Grizzlies” has its playing field highs and lows, but the feature is more interested in the struggles of life for Inuit people, finding a way to deliver sporting development with a stark study of anguished characters looking for something, anything, to lift themselves up. Read the rest at

Film Review - Guest House


It’s been a long time since Pauly Shore has the been the star of comedy. The once mighty pop culture force has been elsewhere since the 1990s, when he delivered one genuinely fun feature (1993’s “Son in Law”) during his brief reign, soon falling out of favor with audiences, leaving him to wander around the industry for decades. There was one stab at a comeback (2003’s “Pauly Shore is Dead”), but “Guest House” is Shore’s highest profile release in a long time, putting the former weasel back in charge of laughs for co-writer/director Sam Macaroni, who puts his faith in the star to deliver the goods in a raunchy, riffy offering about a hostile living situation spinning out of control. Unfortunately, “Guest House” doesn’t have much more on its mind than shapeless shenanigans, with Macaroni trying to raise hell without putting in the effort, creating an unimaginative ride of dismal antics and desperation while Shore displays little participatory interest in this mess. Read the rest at

Film Review - I Am Woman


With musician bio-pics all the rage these days, it’s about time someone decided to bring the story of Helen Reddy to the screen. A powerhouse vocalist and cultural icon, Reddy has experienced all the ups and downs of the music industry, also enduring a multitude of challenges in her personal life. She’s a fascinating individual, but it’s strange to watch “I Am Woman,” which is more about her marriage to manager Jeff Wald than it is about Reddy’s achievements and ambitions. Screenwriter Emma Jensen (“Mary Shelly”) looks to honor Reddy, highlighting her as a key figure of the feminist movement with anthemic songs and fierce intelligence, but she makes a curious choice to downplay the individual to focus on the couple as they stumble through the years. There’s more to Reddy than her self-destructive spouse, and it’s very strange that “I Am Woman” doesn’t recognize that, resulting in a disappointing film. Read the rest at

Film Review - Love, Guaranteed


If we’ve learned anything over the last decade, it’s that Lifetime Movies and Hallmark Channel productions have the potential to be very popular. The business of being easy on the senses has increased in recent years, with the cable networks sticking to a formulaic understanding of new love, nostalgia, and holiday magic. Netflix offers their version of the subgenre with “Love, Guaranteed,” which isn’t set at Christmastime, but it retains a lightly comedic approach, sticky romantic entanglements, and easily solvable problems. There’s nothing here to challenge the audience, but that’s the point of the picture, with the screenplay by Elizabeth Hackett and Hilary Galanoy refusing to color outside the lines. It’s the kind of film made for nights filled with too much wine and regret, and while it does what it does, there’s a growing feeling during the viewing experience that it could try harder to be something special. Read the rest at