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January 2021

Blu-ray Review - Ghost Ship


With 2002's "Ghost Ship," Dark Castle Entertainment attempted something original after managing two William Castle remakes with "House on Haunted Hill" and "Thirteen Ghosts." Well, perhaps not truly original (1980's "Death Ship" is clearly an influence on the production), but definitely not Castle, with the production company trying to cement their position as a Halloween machine, churning out fright films on a yearly basis. Trouble is, "Ghost Ship" isn't a very scary movie, with screenwriters Mark Hanlon and John Pogue missing spectral menace in their offering of boat-bound terror, leaving the feature slack and tedious as they focus on characters who aren't very interesting, trapped in a nightmare that's not particularly horrifying. Read the rest at

Film Review - Finding 'Ohana


In the grand scheme of Hollywood business and the quest for guaranteed moneymakers from golden IPs, it’s amazing there hasn’t been a sequel created for 1985’s “The Goonies” or, more realistically, a remake of some sort. There’s plenty there to work with, leaving screenwriter Christina Strain (“The Magicians”) with a free shot to harness that special screen energy and find a way to reintroduce it to a new audience. “Finding ‘Ohana” isn’t nearly as feisty or madcap as “The Goonies,” but it’s clearly aiming to achieve the same dramatic goals, putting kids on a path to hidden treasure to seek adventure and help solve a few family problems. Director Jude Weng (“Fresh Off the Boat”) delivers some spirited sequences for the picture, but the material isn’t strictly after thrills, often more interested in the nuances of Hawaiian culture and the power of love. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Little Things


Writer/director John Lee Hancock has maintained a strange career, primarily concerned with male characters dealing with some sort of dissatisfaction in their lives (including “The Rookie,” “The Founder,” and “The Highwaymen”). With “The Little Things,” Hancock stays within his comfort zone, only now he’s assembling a detective story about a serial killer, aiming to stay procedural while dealing with the business of characters trying to move past some form of psychological blockage. It’s a very weird picture, and not always in a refreshing way, with Hancock attempting to remain elusive with cat and mouse elements while offering some of the most cliched dialogue in recent memory. The eccentricity of it all is almost worth a viewing, watching Hancock mount something sinister without really going for it, keeping “The Little Things” restrained to emphasize atmosphere the feature doesn’t always have. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Dig


“The Dig” concerns the specifics of an archaeological excavation project in 1939, a subject that doesn’t exactly scream riveting cinema. In the hands of director Simon Stone (“The Daughter”) and screenwriter Moira Buffini (“Tamara Drewe”), the picture comes alive with a rich level of exploratory adventure, transforming the mystery of Sutton Hoo and its buried treasures into a uniquely riveting sit. Buffini doesn’t simply regurgitate real-world specifics of the labor, working to transform the situation into a parade of characters dealing with the thrill of the hunt and specific fears tied to the oncoming darkness of World War II. “The Dig” does a terrific job sneaking up on viewers, with a simple request to explore a mound of dirt turning into a rich understanding of character and the sheer labor of the mission. Read the rest at

Film Review - Palmer


It hasn’t been easy to take Justin Timberlake seriously as an actor. He’s been unremarkable in mediocre movies (“Runner Runner,” “In Time”), often favoring comedic turns to best match his charms as a pop performer, finding a merging of worlds in his most recent thespian turns, providing voice work for the “Trolls” animated franchise. Timberlake is handed more of a challenge with “Palmer,” portraying a broken character working to put his life back together while assuming a parental role for a neighbor boy who needs the domestic support. “Palmer” isn’t a stunningly original endeavor, but screenwriter Cheryl Guerriero does manage to layer in some heart where it counts the most, also providing Timberlake with a conflicted personality to help show his stuff, which he does in a surprisingly understated turn. Read the rest at

Film Review - Penguin Bloom


There’s initial caution when approaching “Penguin Bloom,” which has the appearance of a Disney production, highlighting the special relationship between an ailing family and the wounded bird they’ve taken in and nursed back to health. What’s seems painfully vanilla at first quickly reveals itself to be a deeply moving picture about rehabilitation and love, with director Glendyn Ivin working extra hard to keep the material as emotionally authentic as possible while featuring the antics of a mischievous magpie. “Penguin Bloom” is a simple but highly effective drama that never strays far from character, dealing sensitively with dueling situations of immobility facing a long road of rehab and recognition on their way back to health. The sweetness of it all is there, but Ivin manages to deliver a movie that isn’t cloying, which is an impressive achievement. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Mauritanian


When a clearer picture emerged of detainee treatment at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in the mid-2000s, filmmakers jumped at the chance to examine and dramatize such experiences. It was a trend meant to mirror journalism features of the 1970s, but with the exception of a few provocative offerings, most of the movies didn’t work, with a few downright awful (anyone rewatch “Rendition” lately?). The decade of dread hasn’t been visited in earnest for some time, but “The Mauritanian” is trying to find its way back to the Guantanamo Bay nightmare, with the screenplay an adaptation of “Guantanamo Diary,” a book by Mohamedou Ould Salahi which detailed his cruel treatment during his lengthy stay behind bars. The literary offering gives director Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland,” “State of Play”) a meaty tale of injustice to sink his teeth into, helped by the presence of Jodie Foster, who delivers a commanding lead performance. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Becky


"Becky" is being sold as the dramatic debut for comedian Kevin James. I'm not sure if that's accurate, as I saw "Grown Ups 2" on opening night in a half-full auditorium, and nobody was laughing. But who am I to get in the way of marketing? The great news is that James tries to be steely and humorless here, and he does a fantastic job playing a menacing character. Even better, "Becky" is an absolute blood-drenched joyride of a film; a revenge picture that's lean, mean, and unexpectedly interested in the bodily harm a 13-year-old kid can inflict on the Nazi goons looking to destroy everything she holds dear. Directors Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion don't pull any punches with their endeavor, offering a nightmarishly graphic descent into feral outbreaks of grief, going wild with B-movie bedlam from an unlikely source of rage. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Deathsport


While it was once intended to be a sequel to 1975's "Death Race 2000," 1978's "Deathsport" gradually became its own thing as it sped toward production. Instead of satiric hellraising with a wacky cast of characters, "Deathsport" offers a futuristic barbarian adventure with grunting actors, dastardly villains, and lots of motorcycle chases. Directors Nicholas Niciphor and Allan Arkush are more interested in completing the feature than perfecting it, delivering a Roger Corman production that falls in line with many before it, gifting a backyard production to an audience hungry for B- movie nonsense. The endeavor isn't polished, but as these junky things tend to go, it's diverting, speeding along with fast vehicles and survival missions, and some light world-building doesn't hurt. It's no Corman classic, but the energy of the effort is engaging, along with the creative drive to turn absolutely anything into a post-apocalyptic epic. There's charm in the visible filmmaking hustle. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Delta Force


In the mid-1980s, Cannon Films struck gold with "Missing in Action," hiring Chuck Norris to topline a broad study of American military heroism behind enemy lines. Producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were quick to exploit the Norris-y vibe for additional productions, delivering "Invasion U.S.A." and a "Missing in Action" prequel, eventually going all-in on 1986's "The Delta Force," pairing the action star with 62-year-old Lee Marvin for a semi-disaster picture spotlighting an attempt to rescue hostages from a hijacked airplane. Although inspired by real events, "The Delta Force" is really a cartoon from Golan, who takes directorial duties (also co-writing the script with James Bruner), striving to merge Middle Eastern pressure points with a rah-rah tale of an American-led takedown of bad guys, and, at 129 minutes in length, he truly takes his time to get to the good stuff. Read the rest at

Film Review - PG: Psycho Goreman


As a director, Steven Kostanski keeps making strikingly odd features, working with impossibly low budgets and deep genre cuts to come up with remarkably inspired mayhem, often sold with a healthy sense of humor (including “Father’s Day,” “The Void,” and “Manborg”). He aimed for more visible work with 2018’s “Leprechaun Returns,” put in charge of doing something with a DOA franchise. He managed to generate some excitement along the way, returning viewers to the ways of practical make-up effects and gory encounters. Leaving horror brand employment for something that plays more to his strengths, Kostanski takes command of “PG: Psycho Goreman,” a horror comedy that provides a major jolt of creativity, welcoming viewers into a highly amusing, blood-soaked adventure with a frustrated alien and the kids who love to control him. “Psycho Goreman” is a hilarious picture and the most charmingly violent effort found in years. It’s a Gwar concert with huge laughs and fascinating production textures, giving Kostanski another winner for his impressive filmography. Read the rest at

Film Review - Our Friend


Screenwriter Brad Ingelsby (“The Way Back,” “Run All Night”) faces a considerable creative challenge with “Our Friend,” hired to transform a 2015 magazine article by Matthew Teague into a feature-length movie about the writer’s struggle to deal with life and love while watching his wife slowly succumb to cancer. The focus isn’t entirely on pain, as Teague was eventually joined by his longtime pal for the experience, teaming up to support a woman they both loved. While it reads like a sitcom, “Our Friend” isn’t lighthearted in the least, going into dark corners of depression and despondency to best replicate Teague’s headspace during the ordeal. Ingelsby injects some intriguing ideas on the challenges of marriage and partnership into the script, but director Gabriela Cowperthwaite (“Blackfish”) doesn’t know when to quit with the film, unwilling to end the endeavor until every viewer is left in a fetal position. Read the rest at

Film Review - Brothers By Blood


Writer/director Jeremie Guez doesn’t take the easy route with “Brothers By Blood” (a.k.a. “The Sound of Philadelphia”). It’s an adaptation of a 1991 Peter Dexter novel, covering the troubles of two cousins born into the mob lifestyle, with one young man embracing his rise in the ranks, while the other deals with unimaginable grief as privately as possible. The material appears prepped and ready to become a sprawling crime saga about family and territory, but Guez bites off more than he can chew with “Brothers By Blood,” which visibly struggles with dramatic exchanges, and miscastings provide a constant reminder that the production didn’t think things through when it came to the execution of the picture. Guez goes where many filmmakers have gone before with the endeavor, showing little interest in doing something different. Read the rest at

Film Review - The White Tiger


“The White Tiger” is an adaptation of a 2008 novel by Aravind Adiga. It was a respected debut offering for the writer, and the film version is handed to Ramin Bahrani, who achieved early career praise with indie fare such as “Man Push Cart” and “Goodbye Solo” before his transition to a Hollywood guy, making mediocre pictures like “At Any Price,” “99 Homes,” and 2018’s “Fahrenheit 451” reworking. As well-intentioned as he is at times, Bahrani isn’t a strong moviemaker, with “The White Tiger” his attempt at an epic, focusing on the journey of a lowly young man in India as he begins to recognize his disposability, considering options to help find his dignity. Adiga’s ideas on self-actualization remain intact, but the rest of the feature lumbers through subplots and characters, eventually reaching a conclusion that feels like the midway point of the story. Read the rest at

Film Review - No Man's Land


“No Man’s Land” begins in a Texas border town on the edge of the Rio Grande, but it largely plays out on the other side of river, in Mexico. This blurring of border and culture inspires parts of the screenplay, credited to David Barraza and Jake Allyn, who labor to build some level of suspense around a central ideal of understanding between fragile communities. It’s an immigration story explored from a different perspective, and if “No Man’s Land” remained there, providing a strange education for its characters, perhaps the picture might’ve been meaningful. Barraza and Allyn don’t trust such softness of feeling, injected a tedious revenge subplot into the feature, which torpedoes much of its honest intent to study the bitter realities and karmic dangers of intolerance. Read the rest at

Film Review - Caged


“Caged” is a story about solitary confinement. Viewers remain close to the lead character as he experiences life in a Segregated Housing Unit (an S.H.U., which was the original title for the picture), slowly grasping how hope dwindles and insanity increases during a lengthy stay in a concrete box. Co-writer/director Aaron Fjellman eventually reveals his message of concern at the end of the feature, but it’s an extremely hard sit before such clarity is provided. This is 75 minutes of a man brought to his breaking point by a system that desires to hurt him and memories of domestic strife that haunt him. I’m not sure who the target demographic for the film is. It’s competently acted and its mission is understood, but Fjellman doesn’t provide a strong enough reason to make the journey with him, as much of “Caged” seems constructed to satisfy the helmer, not viewers. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Alphabet City


The director of "Unmade Beds" and "Frogs for Snakes," Amos Poe tries to summon the real New York City as it was in the mid-1980s for "Alphabet City." The 1984 release takes audiences into a dangerous area populated with drug dealers, addicts, and prostitutes, endeavoring to explore a survival story involving a young hoodlum who's has enough of crime. Poe does better with atmosphere than storytelling with the feature, as "Alphabet City" does just fine as a tour of community devastation and troubling individuals, with the central character trying to manage a typical evening while an unusual problem grows in urgency over the course of the night. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Caller


1987's "The Caller" is a movie that's not easy to describe. Doing so in any meaningful way might slip into spoiler territory, as the screenplay by Michael Sloan loves its slow build to a surprise. Think of it as an extended episode of "The Twilight Zone," with Sloan trying to find his way through a tale of confrontation and paranoia without unleashing the weirdness of it all too soon, keeping director Arthur Allan Seidelman on his toes dreaming up ways to turn mysterious antagonisms between two characters into a feature-length story. Read the rest at