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March 2021

Film Review - Shiva Baby


Emma Seligman makes an impressive filmmaking debut with “Shiva Baby,” managing to tap into a mounting sense of panic in a way that rivals seasoned helmers. The writer/director doesn’t go big for his first feature, taking viewers into the pressure cooker environment of a funeral gathering, with Jewish families coming together to mourn, but also catch up on gossip and personal achievements, leaving the central character to manage all sorts of judgmental attitudes while dealing with a potentially life-changing reveal of her secretive employment. Offered a house filled with itchy personalities, and Seligman transforms “Shiva Baby” (an adaptation of her 2018 short) into a remarkable suspense picture that’s loaded with amazing performances and turns of plot, keeping the endeavor riveting and also darkly comedic. Seligman does a lot with very little here, showcasing a gift for subtle behaviors and broad confrontations. Read the rest at

Film Review - Assault on VA-33


The “Die Hard” formula still has life in it, but it requires the leadership of filmmakers willing to put in the effort to create a suspenseful ride of askew heroism, keeping the story moving, allowing for plenty of action to command attention. “Assault on VA-33” is the latest subgenre offering, and it underwhelms in a major way, taking the showdown to a Buffalo, New York veterans affairs medical center, which is an unusual location for this type of VOD mayhem. Director Christopher Ray and screenwriter Scott Thomas Reynolds (who last collaborated on “2nd Chance for Christmas,” which starred Vivica A. Fox, Jonathan Lipnicki, Tara Reid and Mark McGrath – more of a warning than a cast list) don’t push hard enough to generate a thrill ride with the feature, showing more interest in dreary plot specifics and drab supporting characters as the movie gradually slows to a full stop. The “Die Hard”-ness of the material is missing, replaced with a steady stream of tedious conversations and a half-baked plot. Read the rest at

Film Review - French Exit


It takes a special viewer curiosity to find the mood of “French Exit,” which is intended to be a dark comedy about powerful feelings. Actually, it’s more of an endurance test, but an intermittently flavorful one from director Azazel Jacobs (“The Lovers,” “Terri”), who’s constructing something mannered to best support the material’s sense of humor and mystery. Jacobs creates a pretty picture, enjoying the sights and sounds of European living, but his effort to decode Patrick deWitt’s screenplay (an adaptation of his own 2018 book) isn’t entirely successful, finding the feature cold to the touch. “French Exit” definitely has moments of psychological clarity to keep it passably compelling, but every time the endeavor starts to dabble in eccentricity, it stumbles, laboring to find its footing again. Read the rest at

Film Review - Godzilla vs. Kong


It’s taken a little time to reach this point. The MonsterVerse began with a great deal of hope in 2014’s “Godzilla,” which found a sizable audience hungry for a big-budget take on the famous kaiju. Attempts to turn the hit picture into something grander and interconnected continued in 2017’s “Kong: Skull Island” and 2019’s “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” with the producers gradually working their way to a big screen showdown between cinema’s most famous towering beasts of destruction. And now there’s “Godzilla vs. Kong,” which is meant to be a payoff for such blockbuster patience, finally delivering on a massive showdown, giving the monsters time to rumble after years spent establishing backstory and motivation. And director Adam Wingard delivers a major event with “Godzilla vs. Kong,” which isn’t just the best chapter of the MonsterVerse, it also delivers on expectations, with plenty of smashmouth sequences featuring the titular opponents, while the human element manages to remain appealing and sparingly used, leaving enough room for a main event meant to fuel playground debates for years to come. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Twins


"Twins" is a 1988 endeavor from director Ivan Reitman, and it's the king of high concept comedies. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito play twin brothers. Boom, done. One doesn't need much more than that to sell the picture to the masses, but the screenplay (credited to four writers) is certainly in the mood to provide a full buffet of tones and gags to help support the display of sheer star power. What initially appears to be a gentle offering of brotherly love somehow turns into semi-violent study of crime, blended with something of a love story and frosted with parental concern. "Twins" is all over the place, but it remains a charming offering from Reitman, who understands that all he really needs is time with Schwarzenegger and DeVito, with their natural screen presence and different thespian skills making a little magic for the helmer. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - I Spit on Your Grave


"I Spit on Your Grave" has spent the last 40 years growing into a divisive film for genre admirers and critics, sustaining a remarkable hold on film history. It's an offering of ultraviolence from writer/director Meir Zarchi, who details the undoing and rebirth of a woman brought to the edge of sanity by vicious (and ridiculously cartoonish) Connecticut goons who spend a day sexually assaulting her. It's rough content with rougher technical achievements, finding Zarchi limited by a tiny budget and his own lack of helming finesse. "I Spit on Your Grave" isn't pleasant, but that appears to be the idea, at least for a small stretch of the endeavor. The rest delights in the possibilities of drive-in entertainment, stroking revenge cinema highlights to best revive a traumatized audience. Your mileage may vary with this title, but the cult longevity of Zarchi's Z-movie is impressive. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Marona's Fantastic Tales


There was a persistent run of dogsploitation movies in American theaters for a few years a short time ago, with Hollywood trying to deliver sappy stories of canine misery and redemption for audiences hungry to cry over cute pooch antics. Mercifully, "Marona's Fantastic Tales" doesn't join the trend, with director Anca Damian attempting to avoid maudlin impulses, presenting an animation examination of a dog's POV as it experiences life with multiple owners. There's sadness here, of course, but Damian is more interested is capturing the world as a canine sees it, using screen artistry to develop a wonderland of exploration for viewers to study. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Love Express: The Disappearance of Walerian Borowczyk


Unlike many documentaries about filmmakers, "Love Express: The Disappearance of Walerian Borowczyk" offers extraordinarily little biographical information about the subject. Director Kuba Mikurda has limited interest in the life and times of the Polish director (who passed away in 2006), preferring to provide more of a grasp on his artistic interests, featuring interviews with collaborators and admirers. "Love Express" remains elusive, but that's the idea, with Mikurda turning his movie into a Borowczyk production in many ways, delivering an idiosyncratic look at an avant-garde mind, supplying a general understanding of the man's professional demands and his textured appreciation of screen eroticism, especially when offered an opportunity to take his vision wherever it needed to go. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Valley Girl (2020)


When is a remake not exactly a remake? I give you "Valley Girl," which is a reworking of the 1983 cult hit. What was once a gentle but textured look at a developing romance between opposites in L.A. (a riff on "Romeo and Juliet") has now been turned into a jukebox musical that's all about soundtrack hits, candied cinematography, and broad performances. To bring "Valley Girl" back to the screen, the producers have made several changes to the tone and approach of the original film, aiming to reach a much younger audience with a simplified tale of love as it works through cultural and social challenges, and is frequently expressed through song. Director Rachel Lee Goldenberg (a veteran of schlock-meisters The Asylum) isn't trying to find dramatic grit with her vision, she's striving to generate a party atmosphere for sleepover audiences, delivering a pleasingly fluffy, high-energy offering of teen exuberance. Read the rest at

Film Review - Bad Trip


Mockumentaries, or prank films, aren’t a new addition to the cinematic landscape. However, after the success of “Borat” and “Bad Grandpa,” a different form of mischief has been popularized, with productions trying to offer some level of storytelling to go with all the shenanigans. Last year, “Impractical Jokers: The Movie” endeavored to share a hybrid viewing experience, and now there’s “Bad Trip,” which brings basic cable troublemaker Eric Andre to screens, offering his wildly divisive sense of humor to the masses. Helping the cause is “Bad Grandpa” co-creator Jeff Tremaine, who joins the effort as a producer, using his expertise to help Andre and director Kitao Sakurai manage a feature-length demonstration of the comedian’s appeal, sending him into the wild with co-star Lil Rey Howery to test the patience of the American public with a series of strange and shocking antics that supplement a threadbare road trip picture. Read the rest at

Film Review - Nobody


I suppose “John Wick” is the reason there’s a “Nobody.” The Keanu Reeves insta-classic actioner managed to wake up a sleeping subgenre, inspiring a fresh wave of one-man-army endeavors that favor autumnal characters clearing rooms of bad guys. With Reeves, the premise made sense, using the actor’s physicality and cold stare to make violent, audience-participatory magic with a determined protagonist. For “Nobody,” the brutalizer is Bob Odenkirk, the director of “Let’s Go to Prison” and “The Brothers Solomon.” Of course, there’s a bit more to Odenkirk’s career in recent years (starring in “Better Call Saul”), but he’s not the first actor that comes to mind for this type of punisher role. Director Ilya Naishuller seems to recognize the oddity of it all, pumping up the soundtrack and the stylistics to make sure Odenkirk is rightfully feared as shadowy character getting back into the murder business. Read the rest at

Film Review - Tina


It’s hard to imagine there’s anything left to report when dealing with Tina Turner. The music icon has enjoyed enormous press coverage, she’s co-written an autobiography (along with being the subject of other books exploring her life and times), and her experience was brought to the screen in 1993’s “What’s Love Got to Do with It.” Tina Turner’s story has been told multiple times, and this is the challenge facing directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin (“Undefeated,” “L.A. 92”), who return to the performer and her extraordinary life in “Tina,” a documentary that’s also meant to act as something of a farewell. Lindsay and Martin come prepared, collecting a large amount of home movies and photographs, also coaxing Tina to sit down for a new interview, pulling her out of retirement to do something she’s always been reluctant to offer: a trip down memory lane. And that’s what makes “Tina” a riveting sit, with the helmers finding new intimacy with a known story, giving Tina Turner a final bow that’s loaded with emotion and empowerment. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Vault


“The Vault” offers an old-fashioned bank robbing caper for the masses, with director Jaume Balaguero going where many storytellers have gone before. A different kind of screen energy is suggested by the production’s choice of helmer, as Balaguero is co-architect of the “Rec” series of horror films, giving the genre a few bumps of excitement with these imaginative offerings. “The Vault” doesn’t do blood and guts, but it offers a comfortable ride of escapism, following a team of thieves as they attempt to crack the unusual code of the Bank of Spain’s security system. The feature follows the ups and downs of such a suspenseful mission, and Balaguero manages to mount a few highlights to keep the viewing experience engrossing. He can’t come up with a satisfying conclusion, but the ride to the final moment delivers surges of suspense and traditional acts of criminal planning. Read the rest at

Film Review - Senior Moment


One doesn’t sit down with a movie like “Senior Moment” holding expectations for a riveting plot. Of course, more detailed writing wouldn’t hurt (and it would certainly help this feature), but viewers are likely choosing to view this picture due its star power, with William Shatner and Jean Smart trying to make sense of a mild romantic comedy from director Giorgio Serafini, a prolific director of DTV actioners and dramas. “Senior Moment” doesn’t provide a memorable viewing experience, finding the screenplay by Kurt Brungardt and Christopher Momenee very restrained when it comes to dramatic stakes, offering an endeavor that’s easy on the senses, while Serafini is permissive with his cast, letting them do whatever they want. What works here are small amounts of charm from seasoned professionals, giving the effort a few blips of character and feeling before the whole thing loses its way again, trusting in Shatner and Smart to find a way out. Read the rest at

Film Review - Shoplifters of the World


A musical appreciation of The Smiths arrives in the form of “Shoplifters of the World,” which attempts to summon the somber poetry of the Manchester band for a very Richard Linklater-esque take on outcasts and emotional purging. It’s not built directly for fans of the group, but the faithful will likely get the most out of the feature, which offers a leisurely understanding of young lives in flux on the last night of their freedom, facing a dire future of responsibility and obsolescence. “Shoplifters of the World” is reminiscent of the 1994 comedy, “Airheads,” but writer/director Stephen Kijak isn’t one to inject a sense of humor into the production, trying to take personal lives and needs seriously, filling the film with music from The Smiths to set the proper mood of tortured adolescence. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Toll


It doesn’t seem like writer/director Michael Nader is trying to launch his own movie monster with The Toll Man, but I’m certain he wouldn’t turn down the opportunity to join horror history if the opportunity arrived. “The Toll” introduces viewers to a different kind of low-budget terror in the picture, examining how the supernatural creature is capable of bringing victims to the brink of madness by using their own trauma against them, requiring a death to make the nightmare stop. It’s a genre tale set in the deep woods, and it could work as a stage play as well, giving the lead actors time to shape personalities and panic as Nader organizes a slow-burn decent into rural Canadian hell. With expectations dialed down a few notches, “The Toll” works as a suspense story, watching Nader try to make something intimidating happen with limited production resources. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Sword of the Valiant: The Legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight


Director Stephen Weeks is apparently a massive fan of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," a 14th century offering of Arthurian storytelling the helmer initially explored in 1973's "Gawain and the Green Knight." Previously taking a more respectful route of interpretation, Weeks tries to crank up the blockbuster possibilities of the material with 1984's "Sword of the Valiant." For his second pass on this tale, Weeks goes the Cannon Films way, with producers Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan ordering up a low-budget riff on John Boorman's "Excalibur" (with a bit of "Conan the Barbarian" thrown in for good measure), hoping to thrill audiences with a fresh helping of heavily suited knights, sword battles, and quests for peace and love. And there's Sean Connery in here too, showing up to collect a nice paycheck and class up the joint with his take on the trickster fury of the Green Knight. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - War of the Colossal Beast


In 1957, director Bert I. Gordon found a hit with "The Amazing Colossal Man," his submission for the giant creature subgenre sweepstakes, riding a trend with a supersized human twist. The picture has some credible drama to fuel its weirdness, with the screenplay trying to create a sympathetic character out of a 60-foot-tall man, understanding his frustrations before a city-threatening rampage began. For 1958, Gordon returns to the well for "War of the Colossal Beast," which isn't sold as a sequel, but it tries to be, catching up with the newly alive abomination as he struggles with a fresh round of scientific prodding and military hostility. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - How to Make a Monster


Trying to stretch a trend as far as possible, American International Pictures aimed to keep the money train rolling with 1958's "How to Make a Monster," which is a follow-up to studio hits "I Was a Teenage Werewolf" and "I Was a Teenage Frankenstein." However, instead of dreaming up another fantasy, the writing turns self-referential, transforming AIP into a villain of sorts with tale of horror set inside a movie studio. The idea has the potential to be outrageously fun, but the material only gets so far before it grows exhausted, offering a talky nightmare instead of something more energized. Read the rest at