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March 2021

Blu-ray Review - Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda


"Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda" isn't a traditional documentary providing a linear overview of career achievements for the celebrated Japanese composer. Director Stephen Schible takes viewers into a few different areas of life with the subject, exploring personal philosophy and interests, but it's focused primarily on the balance of life and nature, with Sakamoto sharing his experiences over the years as he battles with cancer and immerses himself in work to keep his mind moving. "Coda" jumps all over the place to tell Sakamoto's story, but it remains concentrated on his artistic voice, exploring its development and ability to reach the beyond as the composer reflects on a lifetime of success, influence, and experimentation. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Misbehaviour


The messy art of revolution and the origins of a movement are charted in "Misbehaviour," which recounts the efforts of the Women's Liberation Movement as they attempted to disrupt the Miss World 1970 beauty pageant. The screenplay by Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe is based on a true story from 50 years ago, but it plays into topics of equality and objectification that remain in play today, creating a fascinating look at attitudes and offenses. Director Philippa Lowthorpe ("Call the Midwife" and "The Crown") maintains a period look and guides a number of strong performances, but the core experience of "Misbehaviour" is unrest, watching those who dream of a better, more just world setting their sights on a British television institution, and, wisely, the writing manages to understand both sides of the argument while still remaining supportive of a team of twentysomething women and their battle to bring equality to England. Read the rest at

Film Review - Last Call (2021)


It’s amazing that “Last Call” is being released in 2021. It plays like something out of the mid-1990s, when Edward Burns was creating low-budget tales of Irish brotherhood and romantic troubles, setting these struggles in neighborhoods where families have existed for generations. Co-writer/director Paolo Pilladi is a bit late to the trend, but he’s trying to summon a good time with the feature, which observes the beginnings and endings in a crusty Pennsylvania town. Everyone likes a flavorful overview of community spirit, but “Last Call” is aggressively idiotic, with Pilladi overseeing a sitcom, not a movie, manufacturing relentless cliches and predictable turns of plot. He’s under the impression that broheim energy will cover for the picture’s lack of depth, but that doesn’t happen. Pilladi generates a depressing viewing experience instead, arranging the whole thing as a tribute to crabbing culture, but these people deserve better treatment than this dim dramedy. Read the rest at

Film Review - Slaxx


“Slaxx” is about a killer pair of jeans. Of course, there’s more to the feature than that, which may surprise some viewers settling in for a weird slasher film set inside a clothing store. Co-writer/director Elza Kephart hopes to attract attention with her oddball premise, which joins equally strange inspirations for horror entertainment (e.g. “Rubber,” “Death Bed: The Bed That Eats”), and she delivers all sorts of bloody violence with the endeavor, looking to keep up with audience demands for this type of B-movie escapism. “Slaxx” does well with the little it has, but it aims for a different type of awareness overall, gradually replacing silliness with a more sobering assessment of business ethics, adding some thought-provoking material to the effort’s satirical interests. Read the rest at

Film Review - Kid 90

KID 90 1

Perhaps she’s not a television legend, but actress Soleil Moon Frye certainly made her mark on the industry in the 1980s, playing the titular role in the sitcom “Punky Brewster.” She became a pop culture sensation while still a child, with Hollywood happy to send her through the ringer of fame, working to transform the girl into an icon. The dream wasn’t realized, with the brutality of maturation pushing Frye out of the “cute kid” universe and into the danger zone of unemployment, suddenly faced with teen years that exposed her to the cruelties of media coverage and fair-weather friends. For reasons even she doesn’t fully understand, Frye spent her adolescent years documenting her every move, using a video camera, diaries, and voicemails to provide a “chronological blueprint” of her experience around town, surrounded by other actors struggling with the same issues of obsolescence. After decades in deep storage, Frye is ready to confront the evidence, directing “Kid 90,” putting the pieces of her youth back together with an unusual documentary. Read the rest at

Film Review - Happily


BenDavid Grabinski makes his feature-length directorial debut with “Happily,” and he brings a deep love for cinema with him, working to squeeze as much movie mood as possible. He also provides the screenplay, examining the plight of a functional couple as they spend a long weekend with disgruntled partners, left to deal with extreme unease as their adoration of each other is transformed into a behavioral mystery. Grabinksi likes to play with surreal touches and dry humor, casting a few comedians to add some improvisational energy to the picture. It’s not always focused on the problems at hand, but “Happily doesn’t unravel, remaining an inviting puzzle of dark events and interpersonal hostilities, with the material always better off with real feelings instead of self-conscious strangeness. Read the rest at

Film Review - City of Lies


It’s been a long road to release for “City of Lies.” The feature started shooting in 2016, and fought waves of legal and financial entanglements before final making its way to a North American release. Somehow, the picture has become even more topical in the interim, with screenwriter Christian Contreras taking inspiration from Randall Sullivan’s book, “LAbyrinth,” using the investigation surrounding the murders of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls to examine a the greater cancer of corruption spreading through the L.A.P.D. “City of Lies” has a lot on its mind, but it also has some degree of difficulty summoning gripping drama, doing much better as a rapid-fire detective story with multiple suspects and theories concerning an unsolved mystery. A few stretches of melodrama aren’t nearly as interesting. Read the rest at

Film Review - Phobias


As an anthology horror film, “Phobias” does things a little bit differently. Instead of tying together different tales of terribleness via a wraparound story, the picture provides more of a sustained plot, taking breaks from the prime conflict to deal with flashbacks involving a handful of characters. The theme is fear, exploring how such a powerful feeling is being weaponized by an evil scientist, who’s violently pulling such troubling emotion out of test subjects. The production aims to put together five examinations of fragile people confronted by mistakes, mysteries, and self-harm, giving the gathered directors a chance to show their stuff as they deal with macabre events linked to the titular experience. “Phobias” is oddly assembled, feeling like the middle part of a trilogy, but there’s appealing sinister business to be found for patient viewers. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Courier


“The Courier” explores the saga of Greville Wynne, who’s not only in the possession of the most British name I’ve ever encountered, but he’s partially responsible for preventing the outbreak of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. His story of spying and unlikely partnership with Soviet agent Oleg Penkovsky has been previously explored in two BBC productions over the years, but director Dominic Cooke (“On Chesil Beach”) and screenwriter Tom O’Connor (“The Hitman’s Bodyguard”) try to dig a little deeper into the paranoia and tentative friendship of the arrangement. What initially seems like yet another dry British drama about world history grows substantially darker in its second half, with “The Courier” developing into a serious examination of psychological exhaustion, tracking the mounting pressures of a connection that would eventually stop the possibility of global destruction. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Conquest


The success of 1982's "Conan the Barbarian" showed the international film industry that sword and sorcery could be made in the wild, limiting the need for sets and top talent, with audiences responding to a showcase of ultraviolence in wide open spaces. Of course, "Conan the Barbarian" was a polished studio offering, but the knockoffs came fast and furious, inspiring producers and directors to provide their own take on strong men in tiny outfits doing battle with supernatural foes in charge of their own cults. Prolific moviemaker Lucio Fulci joins the trend with 1983's "Conquest," an Italian submission of Conan-esque craziness, only the helmer is more interested in the visual power of raw violence and sexuality, following a pair of warriors going up against a topless enchantress. As with most Fulci offerings, "Conquest" is not about cinematic hospital corners, with the endeavor striving to do what it can with a tight shooting schedule and limited budgetary might, supplying a thoroughly weird viewing experience that's filled with monsters, magical weapons, and half-explained mysticism. Read the rest at

Film Review - Zack Snyder's Justice League


In 2017, there was “Justice League.” It was meant to be the big move for the D.C. Extended Universe, uniting a team of top-tier superheroes to match the box office might of Marvel’s “The Avengers.” Director Zack Snyder spent years laboring to return Superman and Batman to the screen, and the battle royal was intended to be his crowning achievement, but many things went wrong during the editing of the picture, squeezing the helmer out of the production. Snyder was replaced by “Avenger” director Joss Whedon, who reshot and reworked a significant portion of “Justice League,” which ultimately didn’t help the movie, leaving fans disappointed. And now there’s “Zack Snyder’s Justice League,” with Warner Brothers returning the 2017 effort to its original visionary, who’s been offered a chance to restore what was lost and give the faithful the viewing experience they’ve been dreaming about for the last four years. And it’s a commitment too, trading 120 minutes of Whedon’s mangling for 242 minutes of free-range Snyder, with the “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” filmmaker sidestepping the casual viewer to rebuild an offering meant strictly for the D.C. devoted. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Memorial Valley Massacre


1989's "Memorial Valley Massacre" is credited to screenwriters George Francis Skrow and Robert Hughes (who also directs), and one of these guys must've had some previous experience working in the national park service. This is horror picture about a feral man on the loose who doesn't take kindly to those who invade his territory, murdering trespassers, but the real story here is a level of disdain for park campers and their horrible behavior, ranging from employee contempt to unrepentant littering. It's actually quite interesting to watch the film depict outsiders as selfish monsters, and there's some initial hope that the writing will remain focused on the systematic offing of those who don't treasure the pure beauty and fragile ecosystems of the great outdoors. Alas, this is the 1980s, and a scary movie isn't going to get very far on noble intent alone, with the production soon locking into a routine of death and interpersonal discord, turning to bloodshed to meet marketplace demands for slasher entertainment. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Brides of Dracula


After scoring a hit with 1958's "Dracula," Hammer Films was itching for a sequel, hoping to keep their exploration of vampiric activity going for another round of terror. While Christopher Lee wasn't included in plans for a follow-up, Peter Cushing's Doctor Van Helsing was, returning to duty for 1960's "The Brides of Dracula," and thank goodness for his presence. Gothic horror takes the long way home with the endeavor, with director Terence Fisher focusing on performances and production achievements, not pace for this round of Transylvania troublemaking. "The Brides of Dracula" has a little trouble revving its genre engine, but it's a gorgeous picture, delivering a premiere showcase for Hammer style. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Haunt


The screenwriters of "A Quiet Place," Scott Beck and Bryan Woods hope to preserve their directorial careers with "Haunt," which continues their fascination with scary business, this time using the rise of the "extreme haunt" business to create their own Halloween offering. It's a tempting setting, providing an atmosphere of aggression and confusion, but Beck and Woods don't pull out all the stops with their fright film, throttling "Haunt" with crude attempts at characterization and motivation, trying to fashion a substantial lead character when the picture really needs more madness. The feature deals mainly with formula, but the helmers don't choose to combat predictability, delivering a "Saw"-like jaunt into the business of evil, serving up six young things for the slaughter. Your patience is required. Read the rest at

Film Review - Cosmic Sin


Last December, moviegoers were offered “Breach,” a low-budget sci-fi/horror endeavor that paired co-writer/director Edward Drake, co-writer Corey Large, and star Bruce Willis, who certainly hasn’t been choosy in recent years, seemingly taking any job that meets his quote and offers limited time on the set. Three months later, the trio are back with “Cosmic Sin,” another sci-fi/horror offering (perhaps made right after “Breach”) that aims a little higher than the previous collaboration, trying to provide viewers with an epic understanding of imperialism without spending the right amount of cash to bring it to life. Drake returns with colorful cinematography and a passably compelling first half, but “Cosmic Sin” loses its vague intensity in a hurry, soon bogged down by cliches and backyard filmmaking limitations, while Willis is the usual Willis, showing very little interest in anything happening around him. Read the rest at

Film Review - Yes Day


In 2014, director Miguel Arteta took on the challenge of family entertainment with “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day,” tasked with making something softer for a Disney audience after a career creating R-rated pictures for adults. It was a surprising achievement from the helmer, who found a wonderful balance of slapstick and heart, keeping the feature on the move while highlighting a cast capable of delivering manic energy and warm feelings. After working through another stretch of little seen movies (including last year’s “Like a Boss”), Arteta returns to PG-style antics for “Fun Day,” which is a loose adaptation of a children’s book by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld. Skipping on a sincerity this time around, Arteta still delivers a boisterous effort in “Yes Day,” which is aimed directly at younger viewers searching for a live-action cartoon that celebrates the spirit of family and the wonders of undisciplined behavior. Read the rest at

Film Review - Insight


You’ve probably never heard of Ken Zheng before, and that’s something the co-director/writer/star of “Insight” is looking to change. The triple threat hopes to launch his own franchise with the actioner, paring with helmer Livi Zheng to mount a revenge story with elements of mystery and police procedural. There’s also a fantasy element in play to keep things sufficiently unusual. “Insight” isn’t as dynamic as one would hope for, with the production playing it too carefully to come across professional, missing a level of madness that usually makes this type of screen introduction memorable. There’s a cast of character actors trying to support Zheng to the best of their abilities, giving the effort some dramatic flavor while the writing is basically going through the motions between displays of stunt work, where Zheng is happy to show off his physical skills. Read the rest at

Film Review - Long Live Rock


“Long Live Rock” was completed a few years ago, initially intended to be a summary of the hard rock lifestyle as experienced by the artists and the fans. Director Jonathan McHugh (“Cosplay Universe,” and also a soundtrack producer on “Mortal Kombat: Annihilation”) gets into the mess of it all with those heavily involved in these united worlds, collecting interviews from participants and footage from rock festivals, delivering an overview of dedication to a sound that some have suggested is no longer a dominant force in popular culture. However, in our pandemic world, “Long Live Rock” serves a different purpose in 2021, offering a look back at a time not too long ago when tens of thousands of people would gather in large spaces and pack together as tightly as possible, releasing something primal as a community, sharing the music and air in a way that isn’t possible right now. Read the rest at