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December 2020

Film Review - Promising Young Woman


Taking the revenge movie into a new area of engagement, actress Emerald Fennell (“The Crown,” “Call the Midwife”) makes her filmmaking debut with “Promising Young Woman.” Inspired by courtroom tales and news reports of bad men getting away with heinous crimes against women, Fennell pours her frustration into the material, which presents a mission of malice from a 30-year-old woman who can’t process the unimaginable trauma she’s experienced. Fennell has a vision for the endeavor, taking a big tonal risk by going darkly comedic with the screenplay, and she gets most of it right. Length is a major problem for “Promising Young Woman,” which often grinds to a halt as it figures out its next move, and the presence of cartoon antics diminishes the lasting power of the effort. Horrific moments and atrocious behavior still manage to cut deep, with star Carey Mulligan offered a chance to portray grief in its strangest form, and she captures such torment superbly. Read the rest at

Film Review - Max Cloud


As a director, Martin Owen hasn’t made a strong impression. He’s the helmer of dismal fare such as “L.A. Slasher” and “Killers Anonymous,” struggling with violent entertainment that’s mangled satiric intent, covering his professional limitations with a lot of lighting, the band-aid for troubling filmmakers. Owen returns with “Max Cloud,” trusting in the power of nostalgia to get him through a low-budget adventure, taking viewers back to the glory days of 16-bit video game consoles and their special challenges for gamers. The script (by Owen and Sally Collett) conjures a fantasy about life inside the world of a game, and it’s a fantastic premise, but the production doesn’t have a lot of money or ideas for “Max Cloud,” which would make a fantastic short, but mostly runs out of steam as a feature-length idea, propped up by amusing performances and select moments of side-scrolling escapism. Read the rest at

Film Review - Skylines


It’s hard to believe there’s a second sequel to “Skyline,” a dismal alien invasion chiller that managed to make a few bucks a decade ago. It wasn’t a loved picture in the least, but genre fans apparently demanded a second round, inspiring the creation of 2017’s “Beyond Skyline,” which promoted “Skyline” screenwriter Liam O’Donnell to the director’s chair. Box office was abysmal for the sequel, but somewhere the movie did business, trigging the production of “Skylines,” allowing O’Donnell another chance to play with characters and sci-fi events few seemed thrilled with the first time around. Offering a more alien-centric continuation of the slightly fuzzy franchise timeline, the helmer skips an intensive creative journey and simply rehashes “Aliens,” lifting plot, personalities, and even the title from the James Cameron masterpiece. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Streetwalkin'


All actors have to start somewhere, and before Melissa Leo grew into an in-demand performer, nominated for an Academy Award in 2009 and collecting Oscar gold in 2011 for her work in "The Fighter," she was eager to make her screen debut. Like many before her, Leo found her way to the Roger Corman factory, handed the starring role in 1985's "Streetwalkin'," which has her playing a teenage prostitute caught between the demands of life and the protection of her little brother as her raging pimp seeks revenge. As first movies go, it's not the classiest endeavor, playing into the trends of the day as certain audiences craved tales of bruised innocence and streetwise antagonisms. "Streetwalkin'" isn't a refined dramatic event, it's exploitation, with Leo doing what she can to provide some personality and emotional urgency in the midst of cliché, giving the grungy endeavor bits of life. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Prevenge


Alice Lowe has amassed a substantial amount of credits as a character actress, making brief appearances in "The World's End," "Locke," and "Paddington." Her most substantial screen role was found in "Sightseers," a wonderful dark comedy from director Ben Wheatley, who showed uncharacteristic focus and made the most of Lowe's screen presence. Taking command of her professional future, Lowe makes her directorial debut with "Prevenge," also scripting herself a prime role in a slasher film that's more about the anxieties of motherhood than the piling of dead bodies. Crafted with wit, terrific performances, and some unexpected trips into the gore zone, "Prevenge" is striking work from Lowe, who not only understands the constant concerns that swirl around the journey of pregnancy, but she's good with violence as well, keeping the feature suspenseful when it isn't refreshingly insightful. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Buffaloed


Zoey Deutch deserves a lot of credit for trying to do something with her acting career in recent years. She's worked in teen cinema and romantic comedies, but with last year's "Zombieland: Double Tap," Deutch went full-tilt silly, exposing impressive timing and a sense of adventure when it came time to bring weirdness to a somewhat stale feature. She's back in "Buffaloed," which supplies her with a true acting challenge, tasked with portraying an absolutely manic human being while also being attentive to the quirks of Brian Sacca's screenplay, which plays around in the sobering world of debt collection. "Buffaloed" is amusing, and director Tanya Wexler gives it an appealing velocity, rarely slowing down with skin-crawling displays of predatory criminal behavior. And she has Deutch, who gives the part her all, submitting her finest performance to date, keeping characterization compelling and mischief spinning at top speed as she endeavors to embody a modern take on the American Dream. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - True History of the Kelly Gang


Filmmakers love to make movies about the history of the Bushrangers, and the saga of Ned Kelly is a particular favorite, with his story repeatedly brought to screens of all sizes, presenting different creative visions a chance to get to the core of Kelly's propensity for violence and bruised sense of honor. Talents from Mick Jagger (in 1970) to Heath Ledger (in 2003) have played the man, offering different takes on dangerous behavior, but it's George McKay (recently seen in "1917") who's permitted to go absolutely bonkers with the part. "True History of the Kelly Gang" isn't your average period outlaw experience, with director Justin Kurzel (2015's "Macbeth," "Assassin's Creed") looking to shake things up with his take on the Kelly Gang and their legendary days, blending in brash cinematic style and sneering punk rock attitude to fully realize the primal instinct found within the screenplay by Shaun Grant, who adapts a 2001 novel by Peter Carey. Read the rest at

Film Review - News of the World


Remaining exclusive with thrillers (“Jason Bourne,” “Green Zone”) and nightmarish real-world stories of survival (“Captain Phillips,” “22 July”), director Paul Greengrass attempts something a little softer with “News of the World.” There are plenty of charged moments and environmental challenges, but the helmer dials down his usual restlessness for this western, which follows the efforts of a Civil War veteran to deal with his experiences during a fractured time in American history, sharing tales from the changing country to those unable to learn of such developments. There’s a parental story in the mix as well, presenting Greengrass with an opportunity to showcase a different speed to his skills, offering a more atmospheric and reserved picture with “News of the World,” which has the special ability to sneak up on the viewer with its sensitive understanding of grief and responsibility. Read the rest at

Film Review - Songbird


In a massive miscalculation of marketplace appeal, the producers of “Songbird” (including Michael Bay) have decided to offer moviegoers a chance to experience the COVID-19 pandemic while in the midst of our lockdown experience. Even better, the story is set in the near future, providing a vision of a country that’s become a living hell, with illness rampant, media omnipresent, and hope a thing of the past. I’m not sure who the target demographic is for the film, but it’s difficult to understand its creation. Co-writer/director Adam Mason (“Hangman”) tries to bend “Songbird” into a meaningful thriller concerning doomed lovers and obsessed maniacs, keeping things grungy and claustrophobic to best cover his minimal budget and thin story. What Mason actually creates is a fantastically unpleasant picture that doesn’t work as a nail-biter or an understanding of America’s future, and its release timing couldn’t be worse, best suited for masochistic viewers. It’s doom porn for dummies. Read the rest at

Film Review - Let Them All Talk


After experiencing a creatively turbulent 2019 with the greatness of “High Flying Bird” and the whiff-iness of “The Laundromat,” Steven Soderbergh looks for a more conversational experience with “Let Them All Talk.” The premise is simple, following a reunion of estranged friends as they take a voyage on the Queen Mary 2, but Soderbergh uses the confines of the luxury ship to explore the awakening of dormant feelings and the development of desire, offering tight character work with a mix of improvisation and screenwriting, credited to Deborah Eisenberg. The helmer doesn’t push himself on the viewing experience, wisely permitting his gifted cast room to explore awkward encounters and confessions. It’s a smaller movie with limited dramatic goals, but it’s vividly crafted by Soderbergh, who manages a wonderful sense of exploration with the riveting picture. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Midnight Sky


“The Midnight Sky” represents George Clooney’s first big screen acting role in four years, and his first directorial offering in three, last seen with 2017’s “Suburbicon.” He’s come back with an ambitious project, tackling an adaptation of author Lily Brooks-Dalton’s “Good Morning, Midnight,” which offers a plot that splits time between the frigid extremes of Earth and the technology of space flight. The screenplay by Mark L. Smith has the unenviable task of connecting two different environments and cinematic speeds, creating as close to a disaster movie as Clooney is capable of making. “The Midnight Sky” takes the entire run time to fully expose what it’s ultimately up to, but the viewing experience provides intriguing elements of survival and personal reflection, making for a slightly uneven but interesting sit. Read the rest at

Film Review - Bobbleheads: The Movie


The massive success of 2014’s “The Lego Movie” was bound to spawn a plethora of imitators. Interestingly, most of those offerings were other Lego movies, effectively burning off whatever screen appeal there was for the brand. Still, other toy companies wanted in on a good thing, with 2019 alone bringing “Ugly Dolls” and “Playmobil: The Movie” to theaters. For the nutso year of 2020, there’s “Bobbleheads: The Movie,” with producers hoping to strike gold by building a narrative around the world of collectible knickknacks who, in their own “Toy Story” way, magically come to life to help defeat criminals. “Bobbleheads: The Movie” is more bizarre than campy fun, with the road to financing such a concept definitely more interesting than the film itself. Read the rest at

Film Review - Wander Darkly


Writer/director Tara Miele (“Gone Missing,” “Starving in Suburbia”) endeavors to make something mysterious with “Wander Darkly.” Inspired by the films of Nicolas Roeg, Miele attempts her own take on love and loss with the material, exploring a woman’s experience with death and denial as she revisits moments from her life, achieving a greater understanding of her complicated past. Miele’s idea is to keep viewers in the dark, concentrating on stinging emotions that come with relationships, motherhood, and identity, saving illumination for the final reel. While well-intentioned, “Wander Darkly” spends too much time in the shadows, becoming an actor’s showcase instead of a gripping understanding of confusion, lacking a sustained level of suspense to support what becomes a painfully melodramatic movie. Read the rest at

Film Review - I'm Your Woman


Poster art for “I’m Your Woman” has star Rachel Brosnahan posing with a baby in one hand and a gun in the other. Such a provocative image promises a ferocious movie to come, but co-writer/director Julia Hart isn’t interested in making that type of endeavor. “I’m Your Woman” is being sold as a revenge picture, but it isn’t one, emerging as more of a character study about a wife and mother learning self-sufficiency and reality as her life is upended by underworld violence. Hart makes a deliberate feature, and one that’s quite poky at times, never in a hurry to get anywhere. But she has fine performances all around and some wonderful imagery to keep the production soaked in mood. There’s a sharp 90-minute film in this two-hour-long endeavor, which is best suited for viewers who know exactly what they’re getting with Hart’s love of stillness. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Stand In


“The Stand In” gives Drew Barrymore her meatiest role in a long time. In fact, it’s her first big screen acting gig in five years, returning in dual roles (technically three) that provide her with the challenge of creating distinctly different personalities for a film that doesn’t know what to do with such thespian energy. Screenwriter Sam Bain (“Corporate Animals”) has many moods and subplots to follow in the feature, and while he appears to aiming for a sharp comedy with elements of Hollywood satire, the final cut slowly dissolves into nothingness after a strong first act. “The Stand In” wants to be a great number of things, and such tonal juggling doesn’t work for director Jamie Babbit (“But I’m a Cheerleader”), who soon loses control of the endeavor, ultimately unsure what kind of movie she wants to make with her impressively game star. Read the rest at

Film Review - Safety


“Safety” is a Disney production that plays to the studio’s strengths, offering a heartwarming story of brotherly love and sporting ambition, sold with a PG-level of emotional unrest, making it prime viewing for the whole family. It’s inspired by the true story of Ray McElrathbey, a young college football player suddenly tasked with juggling enormous responsibilities, including the raising of his younger brother while trying to make something of himself on the field. Director Reginald Hudlin delivers an intermittently energetic picture with a strong lead performance from Luke Tennie, who carries the feature with impressive power. The screenplay (by Nick Santora and Randy McKinnon) hits a few clunky areas of irrational behavior, but “Safety” has heart, a big one at times, helping the movie squeak past periodic ridiculousness. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Last Blockbuster


The limits of nostalgia are tested in the documentary “The Last Blockbuster,” which asks audiences to fondly recall the glory days of a video rental empire that helped to destroy the marketplace. For director Taylor Morden, a chance to understand the ways of Blockbuster Video is irresistible, questing to grasp the rise and downfall of the company and its deep-pocketed corporate owners, also charting the strange days of the titular establishment, located in Bend, Oregon. Morden juggles journalism with a memory piece in “The Last Blockbuster,” and he’s not especially skilled at balancing the two sides of the feature. Most compelling is a chance to listen to memories provided by a long list of interviewees, who share their experiences with Blockbuster as employees and customers, getting to the heart of a near-dead social experience. Read the rest at

Film Review - Archenemy


There have been many attempts to bring The Punisher to screens of all sizes. While “Archenemy” isn’t another take on the hyperviolent character and his grim journey of revenge, screenwriter Luke Passmore and director Adam Egypt Mortimer certainly have a different approach to a Frank Castle-style tale of urban aggression and possible insanity. The production remains in a comic book mood, exploring the saga of a homeless man who believes he’s an interdimensional hero, partnering with an amateur reporter who’s pulled into this elaborate sci-fi narrative. Mortimer retains a graphic style for the feature, helping to adjust to its strange frequency, but the payoff for “Archenemy” isn’t nearly as strong as its introduction. Mortimer gets something going in early scenes, teasing a dark direction for the picture, but he doesn’t follow through, ending up with a winded, talky endeavor after a lively first half. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Prom


“The Prom” is an adaptation of a 2016 musical, which worked its way from Atlanta to a 2018 shot at Broadway, welcomed by audiences and winning a Drama Desk Award along the way. It tells the tale of four musical theater players from New York City who descend on a small Indiana town currently working to prevent a gay teenager from attending prom with her girlfriend. With broad antics and big tunes, the material seems like a proper fit for Broadway audiences, playing huge to fill the theater space. Director Ryan Murphy doesn’t fully understand how to translate that specialized energy to the screen with “The Prom,” retaining the material’s theatrical presence while trying to preserve sensitivity when it comes to issues of equality and humiliation. Murphy isn’t the guy for this job, and his inability to balance eye-crossing camp and broken hearts turns a well-meaning offering of hope into a hostile viewing experience. Read the rest at

Film Review - Mank


“Mank” is a passion project for director David Fincher, who’s been eager to realize a screenplay written by his father, Jack Fincher (who passed away in 2003), for decades, finally receiving a chance to do so by Netflix. One can clearly see why major studios were reluctant to make the movie, with the story examining an obscure time in Hollywood history, while the helmer has chosen to use black and white cinematography and various tech tricks to replicate filmmaking trends of the 1930s and ‘40s. Fincher hasn’t made a feature in six years (last seen with “Gone Girl”), and “Mank” feels like the work of a man trying to satisfy himself instead of the audience. It’s precise in all the Fincher-ian ways, masterfully acted by most of the cast, and details industry experiences and practices previously unexplored. All the puzzle pieces are there to admire, but this isn’t a hypnotic picture with sizzling emotion. It’s wise and snappy, but cold, arriving as something to appreciate more than truly devour. Read the rest at