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February 2021

Film Review - The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run


There was a lengthy gap in years between the first “SpongeBob SquarePants” feature in 2004, and its sequel, “Sponge Out of Water,” in 2015. It was a strange delay for a wildly popular franchise, and while creator Stephen Hillenburg passed away in 2018, producers aren’t interested in waiting long for a third chapter, with “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run” making a relatively speedy return to screens. While brightly animated with wonderful textures and cartoon elasticity, Hillenburg’s absence is felt. “Sponge on the Run” is in need of more development time and rewriting, with the effort having difficulty dreaming up things for the characters to do. It’s meant to be explosive fun, but the second sequel is unnervingly inert at times, and corporate interests to keep the brand alive well into the future tend to throttle what little plot is here. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Spellcaster


"Spellcaster" endured a long road to release, with the film shot in 1986 but only received home video distribution in 1992, caught up in producer bankruptcy issues. While it might've been a little out of date when it was finally gifted to viewers, the picture is now a terrific time capsule of MTV-led culture of the 1980s, with the production trying to tap into the pop culture frenzy of the channel, attempting to hip up an Agatha Christie-style story with monster movie trimmings. "Spellcaster" doesn't quite have enough gas to get it past the finish line, but early energy of the feature is impressive, collecting a spunky cast and a fun premise for a spooky tour of murder and panic, topped off with a little black magic. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Killing Birds


While I've covered films before that have multiple titles for worldwide distribution or simple marketplace shenanigans, I've never encountered a picture where there's no real defined choice in a name. 1987's "Killing Birds" is sometimes called "Talons," or "Zombie 5." It's even titled "Zombie 5: Killing Birds" in some places, risking great confusion for those curious about the endeavor but have no clue which version to watch. The good news is that there's only one "Killing Birds," which is the title I'm settling on here, even though the movie only features a few scenes of antagonistic feathered friends. The bad news is that all this work to identify the production is wasted on a mediocre picture from director Claudio Lattanzi, who appears to have some ambition to craft a horror experience with whimpering victims and lumbering zombies, but provides very little style and incident for this type of entertainment. Read the rest at

Film Review - Tom & Jerry


The world has never been away from the antics of Thomas Cat and Jerry Mouse for very long. The cartoon world’s most famous cat and mouse team, Tom and Jerry have been around for 80 years, with producers always quick to keep the brand name in public view, giving the characters film shorts, T.V. shows, and DTV movies to help sustain fandom. Now the pair makes a return to screens with “Tom & Jerry,” their first theatrical event since 1993’s “Tom and Jerry: The Movie.” And to help define such an occasion, a live action/animation hybrid offering is created, endeavoring to bring cartoon violence to a human realm, giving the latest picture some CGI magic to reel in a new generation of viewers. It’s a flashy work with decent technical achievements, but “Tom & Jerry” isn’t funny, with director Tim Story laboring to make real-world miscastings work as hard as the manic animation. Read the rest at

Film Review - Cherry


For almost a decade, Joe and Anthony Russo have been immersed in the world of Marvel Entertainment. The “You, Me and Dupree” directors have enjoyed an amazing career resurrection with superhero cinema, offering the MCU some of its best chapters with “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” “Captain America: Civil War,” and “Avengers: Infinity War,” and they brought the whole shebang to its first close with the mammoth “Avengers: Endgame.” Now, after a substantial amount of time on greenscreen stages dealing with the demands of countless actors, they’ve gone semi-indie with “Cherry,” which follows the ruination of a young man as he’s chewed up by addiction, military service, and love. As a victory lap production with complete creative freedom, “Cherry” certainly provides the Russo Brothers with a chance to showcase a gritter dramatic side to their talents, and they make an afternoon of it, asking viewers to survive 141 minutes of pure, uncut human suffering. Read the rest at

Film Review - My Zoe


Questions of ethics and scientific capability are mixed with a mother’s torment in “My Zoe.” It’s the latest offering from writer/director/star Julie Delpy, who explores the struggles of parenthood and relationships with the feature, which provides a familiar overview of domestic frustration before it takes viewers somewhere unexpected. Dealing with a medical emergency threating the life of a 7-year-old girl, “My Zoe” is unavoidably heavy, and Delpy certainly provides moments of utter heartbreak. However, she’s not content to remain in a state of shock, creating a film that’s perceptive of extremity when it comes to guardianship, taking the story to a different kind of natural resolution that’s meant to inspire plenty of post-screen conversation. Read the rest at

Film Review - Dementer


In 2013, writer/director Chad Crawford Kinkle made his feature-length filmmaking debut with “Jug Face.” A tale of backwoods evil and escape, “Jug Face” delivered a spare but haunting viewing experience, with Kinkle offering a different kind of horror event in a genre that frequently rewards sameness. It was a small production, but packed an impressive punch. For 2021, Kinkle resurfaces with “Dementer,” returning to unsettling incidents in the southern U.S., remaining small in scale and large in strangeness to reach viewers. “Dementer” isn’t a picture that’s easily decoded, perhaps intentionally so, but the helmer secures an eerie atmosphere for the endeavor, which also offers a level of realism as the unfolding nightmare is mixed with documentary-style footage of developmentally disabled characters going about their daily lives. Read the rest at

Film Review - Crisis


Writer/director Nicholas Jarecki hasn’t made a film in quite some time, but his last effort, 2012’s “Arbitrage,” was a compelling drama about corrupt people, examining the fraudulent activities of a hedge fund manager trying to preserve his wealth. The picture connected with a still-timely tale of desperation and privilege, and the helmer returns with a similar story of self-preservation, this time exploring the world of opioid abuse. “Crisis” presents a multi-character journey into corruption and powerlessness, with Jarecki aiming to cut a bit closer in terms of relatability, highlighting a system of criminal and corporate influence that works its way from skyscrapers to suburban households. “Crisis” is mindful of marketplace demands, as thriller-style engagements make periodic appearances, but the core message of exploitation is vividly rendered, making for a fascinating sit. Read the rest at

Film Review - 400 Bullets


Director Tom Paton has spent the last few years attempting to find his way through the film business with small-scale action and sci-fi endeavors (“Black Site,” “G-Loc”), working with technology and small spaces to create escapism that favors some degree of excitement. With “400 Bullets,” Paton (who also scripts) tries to remain earthbound, turning his attention to a double-cross story set during wartime troubles. The helmer wisely whittles down narrative complications to just a handful of pressure points, leaving the rest of the feature to mano a mano battles, shootouts, and light conversation. “400 Bullets” doesn’t do anything new, but Paton handles familiar business with enthusiasm, looking to jazz up the norm with raw violence, eschewing tightly choreographed mayhem for screen hostility that reflects the urgent, confusing survival situation at hand. Read the rest at

Film Review - The United States vs. Billie Holiday


The story of Billie Holiday was perhaps most famously explored in the 1972 film, “Lady Sings the Blues,” which offered Diana Ross a chance to prove her dramatic skills while playing the famous jazz singer, who experienced a turbulent life involving abusive men and drug addiction. The feature used Holiday’s own autobiography as way to get inside the subject, probing her mistakes and fears to create an understanding of her life. “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” takes its inspiration from the 2015 book, “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs,” offering a 2021 take on Holiday’s pain, which includes an F.B.I. conspiracy to cripple her career and health as a way to silence her voice. The new perspective has potential, but director Lee Daniels and screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks (“Girl 6,” “Native Son”) get bogged down in addict atmosphere, looking to replicate the heroin haze of Holiday’s latter years, charting her struggle to keep her head above water while dealing with all sorts of professional and personal challenges. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Vigil


“The Vigil” tracks the experiences of a shomer hired to watch over the body of a recently deceased man. The production explains what a shomer is at the beginning of the movie, helping those unfamiliar with Orthodox Jewish rituals to better understand the position, which carries immense importance when protecting the dead from evil spirits looking to claim them. There’s a distinct religious angle to writer/director Keith Thomas’s picture, but there’s just as much pure genre filmmaking in play. “The Vigil” is a ghost story, exploring spooky encounters and darkly lit rooms, and it’s a highly effective one, well-crafted on a low budget. Thomas wants a little more from the event than simple frights, weaving in elements of guilt and shame to supercharge the haunting that brings the lead character to the edge of sanity. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Teknolust


2001's "Teknolust" returns viewers to the days of internet growth and experimentation, with creators trying to pull users in deeper with increasingly intimate relationship between humankind and the digital realm. Writer/director Lynn Hershman-Leeson aims to understand this strange connection, creating an exploration into obsession, sex, identity, and crime with the screenplay, which offers a loose appreciation for story as it dives into the deep end of performance art. "Teknolust" is an unusual feature, with Hershman-Leeson pursuing a few prescient ideas on internet control, but she's also attentive to quirk, which runs a little less steady in the final cut. Some elements don't connect, but there's an appealing early-2000 indie vibe to the picture, and there's something special for fans of Tilda Swinton, who dominates the endeavor as she inhabits four roles in full. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Baba Yaga: Terror of the Dark Forest


Baba Yaga is commonly identified as a Slavic witch determined to haunt those daring to cross its path. The creature has been utilized as a threat in numerous features and makes a return to levels of menace with the Russian production, "Baba Yaga: Terror of the Dark Forest." Director Svyatoslav Podgaevskiy ("Mermaid: Lake of the Dead") appears eager to provide a scary movie, keeping the endeavor stylish and loaded with shadowy encounters. However, it's difficult to tell just what demographic he's looking to horrify, as the film follows the adventures of pre-teens, making "Baba Yaga: Terror of the Dark Forest" perhaps too graphic for young audiences, while older viewers will likely be left completely underwhelmed by the formulaic effort. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Toy Soldiers


In the years following the successful release of "First Blood," the world demanded a new generation of action heroes. Men of honor. Men of muscles. Men of limited dramatic ability. Co-writer/director David Fisher ("Liar's Moon") skips these requirements for 1984's "Toy Soldiers," bringing in 45-year-old Jason Miller to portray a tough, seasoned war veteran capable of taking on an entire Central America rebel army. In short shorts and a Rambo bandana. Miller's a fantastic actor, and he's trying to get something started for Fisher, teamed with a cast of young actors who don't really understand what they're doing in this supremely goofy actioner. While he doesn't have the physical presence of a powerhouse hero, Miller commits to the endeavor, giving "Toy Soldiers" some needed thespian emphasis while Fisher struggles to sell the central idea of kids saving kids in the middle of a dangerous foreign land. Read the rest at

Film Review - I Care a Lot


We’ve been down this road with star Rosamund Pike before. In 2014 there was “Gone Girl,” which pulled Pike out of a career tailspin (taking supporting gigs in “Wrath of the Titans” and “Johnny English Reborn”), giving her a part she could sink her teeth into, portraying a dangerously disturbed character who’s relishes her psychopathic behavior, giving the screen a cold but calculating villain. She’s basically playing the same role in “I Care a Lot,” only writer/director J Blakeson shows a lot more interest in the well being of the character, delivering a twisty, edgy cat and mouse game between two shades of evil. The picture starts off with terrific intensity, with Pike happy to return to a role that makes the most of her inherent iciness. Blakeson bungles the ending of “I Care a Lot,” but he’s great with introductions, giving viewers an unusual roller coaster ride of nasty people engaged in predatory business. Read the rest at


Film Review - Silk Road


There have been multiple T.V. shows and documentaries created about Silk Road, a darknet market website that made it easy to purchase illegal drugs over the internet. The idea was hatched by Ross Ulbricht, and his story is a fascinating exploration of millennial ego, business opportunity, and online exploitation, making it irresistible to filmmakers. Dramatizing the events of Ulbricht’s build-up and breakdown is “Silk Road,” with writer/director Tiller Russell adapting a magazine article to get inside the mind of the main character, while the screenplay focuses on the operation of the website and the battle to bring Ulbricht down. Russell goes to David Fincher’s “The Social Network” for some of his inspiration, and while it’s rough around the edges, “Silk Road” connects as a study of corruption and temptation, dealing with the new frontier of online accessibility. Read the rest at

Film Review - Days of the Bagnold Summer


Simon Bird is best known as an actor, appearing on the television show “The Inbetweeners” and its big screen adventures. He makes his feature-length directorial debut with “Days of the Bagnold Summer,” taking on a small story involving rising household tensions between a mother and her awkward metalhead son. It’s an adaptation of a graphic novel by Joff Winterheart (the screenplay is credited to Lisa Owens, also making her first movie), presenting Bird with a creative challenge, tasked with preserving the still-frame life of the source material for a cinematic presentation. Dramatic goals are refreshingly modest in “Days of the Bagnold Summer,” which gets by on a healthy sense of humor and wonderfully lived-in performances from the cast, who bring a sharp sense of realism to the picture while Bird keeps the effort nicely paced and open to surprises. Read the rest at

Film Review - Flora & Ulysses


“Flora & Ulysses” is an adaptation of a 2013 children’s book written by Kate DiCamillo (“Because of Winn-Dixie,” “The Tale of Despereaux”), and fans of the novel have an advantage when it comes the movie. They already know there’s more to the material than just the adventures of a superhero squirrel, an element of the plot Disney has emphasized in their marketing materials. Indeed, there’s a creature who can communicate with humans and fly to a certain degree, but “Flora & Ulysses” is primarily about family issues, including parental loss and marital messiness. There’s emotional weight to the film that keeps it from becoming a comic book-style romp, though screenwriter Brad Copeland (“Ferdinand,” “Spies in Disguise”) does a comfortable job balancing the light and dark of the story, keeping the feature approachable as it explores areas of drama unrelated to the communication failures of a super rodent. Read the rest at