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February 2021

Film Review - Body Brokers


Here’s a prime example of a fantastic idea for a film hobbled by mediocre execution. “Body Brokers” examines the treatment industry, where rehab facilities seemingly created to help people with addiction issues are actually part of a system meant to extract insurance dollars, focusing on greed, not health. Writer/director John Swab (“Run with the Hunted”) has passion for the subject, but he’s also trying to create drama to support sharp messages concerning a corrupt system, and that doesn’t turn out well for the helmer. “Body Brokers” gets lost while attempting to be a searing study of fraud, with Swab often more interested in crime movie formula, fearing that any sort of direct, sustained confrontation of the treatment industry won’t hold audience attention. Read the rest at

Film Review - Breaking News in Yuba County


Amanda Idoko makes her feature-length screenwriting debut with “Breaking News in Yuba County,” looking to impress with a cat’s cradle-style story of crime and punishment in small town America. The effort lifts liberally from the Coen Brothers filmography, pairing pitch-black violence with a jocular tone of dimwits falling into deep trouble with every decision they make. It’s a shame “Breaking News in Yuba County” isn’t more successful as a comedy or a crime story, with Idoko paying more attention to quirky character connections than storytelling. The picture is a painful sit, with director Tate Taylor (“The Help,” “Ma,” “Ava”) often unsure how to proceed with a violent endeavor featuring wild personalities that’s largely played for laughs, ending up with a production that often resembles a bad improv troupe’s first movie. Read the rest at

Film Review - Music (2021)


Sia is a pop music veteran who’s been making music for decades, building a fanbase loyal to her sound and special image, making something of an industry statement by performing and appearing with her face fully covered. She’s also directed many of her own music videos, generating cinematic experiences for her work, receiving acclaim for her collaborations with dancer Maddie Ziegler. Sia steps up to feature-length helming with “Music,” reuniting with Ziegler for a drama about love and redemption, with the songstress hoping to blend flashy musical numbers with a serious understanding of human interaction and motivation. “Music” has flashes of style and energy, but those moments remain with song and dance, playing to Sia’s strengths while the rest of the picture wrestles with tone and even basic editing, hinting that someone, somewhere lost their nerve with the original conception of the endeavor (which was shot nearly four years ago). There’s passion for the project, which is refreshing, but for her big screen debut, Sia’s storytelling focus is out of whack. Read the rest at

Film Review - Blithe Spirit


“Blithe Spirit” is a filmed version of a highly successful 1941 play by Noel Coward, which inspired a 1945 David Lean big screen adaptation, starring Rex Harrison, Constance Cummings, and Kay Hammond. A beloved light comedy from a sharp wit, Coward’s imagination is resurrected by screenwriters Piers Ashworth, Meg Leonard, and Nick Moorcroft, who try to do something with the material for another interpretation. The trio get a little angrier this time around, offering a slightly heavier take on Coward’s vision while still attempting to maintain comic rhythms with a game cast who seem genuinely delighted to be participating in this project. “Blithe Spirit” has select moments of enjoyable insanity, but the farcical aspects of the work don’t come through with any distinction in the new version. Director Edward Hall (a television veteran) makes a pretty picture, but one that doesn’t sustain enough energy to the end, giving viewers less and less as the feature tries to bring Coward to a new audience. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The T.V. Set


There was once a time when Jake Kasdan was a very promising director. 1998's "Zero Effect" was a marvelous debut, defining Kasdan's love for strange characters and sly comedy, doing a terrific job reworking the detective movie. Kasdan would go on to oversee painful stuff like "Bad Teacher" and "Sex Tape," and he hit the box office jackpot with "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle" and "Jumanji: The Next Level," but, in the mid-2000s, a Jake Kasdan offering was a welcome proposition, including 2006's "The T.V. Set." Channeling all his frustrations and experience in the television industry, Kasdan crafts a simple but effective overview of the hellacious creative process required to make a pilot, pulling back on outright farce to linger on the misery of frustration as a single idea for a show is sent through a system designed to ruin everything interesting about it. The lived-in quality of "The T.V. Set" is remarkable, allowing Kasdan to deliver a therapeutic endeavor with some decent laughs and an engrossing understanding of industry ego and stupidity. It's a clear vision for satire, only there appears to be extraordinarily little exaggeration in play, making the picture wonderfully direct in its honesty. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Cold Heaven


While a respected filmmaker, Nicolas Roeg certainly struggled in the 1980s and '90s to match his impressive run of features in the 1970s. There was "Walkabout," "Don't Look Now," and "The Man Who Fell to Earth." These were challenging, enigmatic pictures that cemented his reputation as a helmer searching for artful ways to explore the human condition. A year after his unlikely employment at the director of "The Witches," Roeg tries to reconnect with his heyday for 1991's "Cold Heaven." An adaptation of a novel by Brian Moore, Roeg returns to the mysterious ways of life and death, reviving "Don't Look Now" ideas to keep viewers unsettled as he mounts a mix of horror and religion. Well past his prime, the blend of Christian suffering and mystery eludes Roeg's control this time around, as "Cold Heaven" doesn't connect in any profound way, often caught struggling to sell its elusiveness without providing a proper reward for such attention. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Masque of the Red Death


Left with a usable set and some additional Edgar Allan Poe inspiration, director Alan Birkinshaw and screenwriter Michael J. Murray move from 1989's "The House of Usher" to "The Masque of the Red Death," hoping to squeeze a second picture out of the deal. Instead of going gothic with a faithful retelling of the original Poe story, the team elects to create a modern house party murder game with the elements, keeping the budget low and casting awkward as they attempt to execute a blunt slasher movie with little inspiration. Read the rest at

Film Review - Willy's Wonderland


Nicolas Cage’s wild career has come to this: starring in a movie about a mute loner going to war against a Rock-afire Explosion-esque, pizza place animatronic animal band over the course of one long night. Actually, “Willy’s Wonderland” fits snugly into Cage’s filmography, playing to his career interests in oddball characters and extraordinary situations, allowing him to use his penchant for showy acting to its fullest potential. Writer G.O. Parsons doesn’t come armed with an ambitious screenplay, but he does an inventive job fiddling around with genre ideas, while director Kevin Lewis attempts to transform the feature into a surreal nightmare of caffeine-fueled violence and menacing robots. “Willy’s Wonderland” doesn’t offer anything more than it initially delivers, and that’s enough to keep Cage busy and viewers amused with this oddball bloodbath. Read the rest at

Film Review - Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar


The comedy world was rocked in 2011 with the release of “Bridesmaids,” which delivered a major hit for screenwriters Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig. The mid-budget film managed to become a major pop culture event, but Mumolo and Wiig didn’t cash in on this success. In fact, they waited a decade before attempting another comedy. While “Bridesmaids” was wacky, it attempted to retain some heart. “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar” is a straight-up farce, with writers creating a starring vehicle for themselves, portraying wacky, culotte-wearing characters experiencing the trip of a lifetime while stumbling across the end of Florida. While the cartoony ways of the feature result in a few dud scenes, “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar” is good fun with some big laughs, especially when director Josh Greenbaum gets away from the bizarre plot and focuses on his leading ladies, who seem like they’re having the time of their lives with this picture. Read the rest at

Film Review - Wrong Turn (2021)


Perhaps for most outsiders, the idea of a “Wrong Turn” series is baffling. Producers made it happen, sensing brand name potential after the original film made a small profit in 2003, resulting in the creation of five sequels/prequels (no, really) meant to give DVD renters something to do on a weekend night. We haven’t heard from the franchise since 2014, with 2021’s “Wrong Turn” a reboot of sorts, making a distinct play to refresh the marketplace value of the title and get away from the cannibalism aspects of the earlier installments. The feature aims to do something different with the concept of Virginian backwoods horror, and it offers an interest twist on the identification of villainy. The production doesn’t follow through on a few of its ideas, but the “Wrong Turn” do-over has moments of aggression and intimidation that work rather well. Read the rest at

Film Review - Land (2021)


Honing her directorial chops during her stint on the T.V. show “House of Cards,” Robin Wright transitions to the big screen with “Land,” making her feature-length helming debut. She’s selected an emotionally wrenching picture about grief and isolation, gifting herself a role that’s largely internalized, while the Wyoming setting provides a backdrop of glorious nature to best emphasize such a private war. There’s not a lot of dialogue in the screenplay by Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam, but such a challenge of communication doesn’t intimidate Wright, who delivers one of the finest performances of her career while also managing a refreshingly minimal tale of rebirth without dipping into maudlin storytelling. “Land” has real power even when stands absolutely still for lengthy periods of screen time. Read the rest at

Film Review - Me You Madness


Louise Linton is a Scottish actress who struggled to find parts during her career, last seen on-screen in a tiny role in “Rules Don’t Apply,” a film produced by her then-boyfriend, now-husband, Steven Mnuchin, who founded Dune Entertainment (“Avatar,” “Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties”) before joining the Trump Administration, working as Secretary of the Treasury. After years away from the business, Linton is suddenly back on the scene with “Me You Madness,” a feature written and directed by the performer, who gives herself the lead role. It’s not clear why Linton has returned to the movie industry, but she’s been handed an opportunity to prove her worth here, becoming the boss of a dark comedy that openly lifts from “American Psycho.” There’s bloodshed and the 1980s in all its pop culture glory, but nothing else works in “Me You Madness,” with Linton asking the audience to endure a valentine to her sense of style and humor, hitting all the wrong notes with co-star Ed Westwick. It’s an ego-drenched production that doesn’t become the violent cartoon it wants to be. Read the rest at

Film Review - Cowboys


With “Cowboys,” writer/director Anna Kerrigan makes a feature that plays like a short story, dealing with personal issues of parenthood and protection on a smaller scale of dramatic engagement. Kerrigan takes a look at a crisis of guardianship involving a desperate man who wants to do best by his child, but doesn’t understand how to achieve such graceful leadership during a time of domestic upheaval. Instead of immediately reaching for melodrama, Kerrigan creates a vivid depiction of fatherly desperation and motherly frustration with authentic concern for both parties. While this custody tale has a few sobering turns to give it some punch, “Cowboys” remains committed to inspecting complex feelings and displays of limited impulse control, creating an involving page-turner for the big screen. Read the rest at

Film Review - The World to Come


A period tale of forbidden love between two women trying to navigate the injustices and humiliations of a patriarchal society? December’s “Ammonite” struggled to provide a reason to stick with its lethargic storytelling, but “The World to Come” has a more interesting take on roughly the same situation of secret lovers in tight corsets. An adaptation of a Jim Shepard short story (he co-scripts with Ron Hansen), the feature offers an impressively forbidding location for its odyssey into the needs of the human heart. It’s the winter season in 19th century New York, giving director Mona Fastvold a bleak, freezing backdrop for a study of warming hearts, following Shepard’s poeticism to deliver a somber study of an impeded relationship that’s fueled by acts of personal expression. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Map of Tiny Perfect Things


Time loop movies are becoming increasingly common, giving filmmakers a chance to run wild with the fantasy premise, often going for laughs due to the concept of persistent repetition, which is always fun to watch. Just last summer, “Palm Springs” found a way to charm with its take on “Groundhog Day”-style confusion and romance, and now “The Map of Tiny Perfect Things” is playing in the same sandbox, only here the emphasis is on young love and emotional confrontation. Screenwriter Lev Grossman adapts his own short story, creating a blend of mild funny business and deep feeling. It’s easy to spot the stretchmarks on the material, but ideas on life challenges and relationships come through with care, and director Ian Samuels does a clever job keeping the monotony of time loop events on the move, providing the feature with a few stretches of kinetic energy. Read the rest at

Film Review - Judas and the Black Messiah


While the story of Fred Hampton and his time as one of the leaders of the Black Panthers has been in some form of development for years, his tale of authority and betrayal is especially poignant in 2021, with “Judas and the Black Messiah” offered to audiences likely in tune with its message now more than ever. Co-writer/director Shaka King (“Newlyweeds,” “Shrill”) searches to bring Hampton’s life to the screen with a defined cinematic presence, and while that approach sometime backfires on him, the helmer supplies confident work here, creating powerful moments of command and panic, taking a biblical lead to detail what the Black Panthers were doing in the late 1960s, also understanding the lengths the F.B.I. went to make sure that sliver of hope never developed into anything. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Def-Con 4


"Def-Con 4" is not a remarkable film, but it remains memorable due to its home video history. There wasn't a video store around in 1985/86 that didn't have a poster for the feature displayed prominently, and what tremendous artwork New World Pictures commissioned for the release. There was the image of a giant spaceship loaded with bombs, a city in ruins in the background, and the gruesome appearance of a skeleton inside an astronaut suit. If you happened to be a kid during these years, it was the stuff of nightmares, and if you happened to be old enough to rent movies, it was a likely choice for a potentially spooky weekend viewing. Of course, the actual "Def-Con 4" isn't anything near what's promised on the one-sheet, with the small-time, low-budget Canadian production a happy recipient of the Roger Corman Special: suck them in with glorious art, deal with disappointment later. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - California Dreaming


The frolicking and playful mischief of a traditional beach party movie isn't going to fly in the 1970s, inspiring writer Ned Wynn (who appeared in several Annette Funicello/Frankie Avalon pictures) to attempt something with a little more dramatic substance for 1978's "California Dreaming." At least for a little while. Trying to offer audiences more in the way of character development and feeling while still indulging adolescent shenanigans, the feature has something of a personality, dealing with self-destructive behaviors and challenging relationships, also bringing in a cast eager to offer more than just a basic routine of teen lust and cartoon antagonism. "California Dreaming" ultimately gets too heavy for its own good, but the first two acts manage to avoid a few expectations, with Wynn interested in generating a community atmosphere filled with odd people either hoping to achieve or actively deny their dreams. Read the rest at