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April 2021

Film Review - Things Heard & Seen


There are a lot of characters and conflicts to work through in “Things Heard & Seen,” which is an adaptation of Elizabeth Brundage’s 2016 novel, “All Things Cease to Appear.” It’s certainly obvious why the material was transformed into a movie, as pictures like “The Conjuring” have collected a massive audience eager to see homestead hauntings, preferably in a period setting. “Things Seen & Heard” has ghosts and the year 1980, pitting anxious and corrupt personalities against strange spirits who won’t leave them be, and the material provides writer/directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (“American Splendor”) with a challenge to balance the supernatural elements of the story with its domestic disturbance subplots, finding a middle ground for an assortment of real and unreal frights. Berman and Pulcini can’t keep up with the story, but they find some areas of ruinous human behavior that are far more interesting than any ghosts. Read the rest at

Film Review - Tom Clancy's Without Remorse


31 years ago, “The Hunt for Red October” brought the world of author Tom Clancy to movie theaters. It was a masterpiece, giving audiences a chance to experience the writer’s gift for crafting taut military thrillers on the big screen, launching the exploits of CIA analyst Jack Ryan. A lot of money has been spent trying to keep Ryan a household name, detailed through five pictures and a television series that’s about to enter its third season. Jack Ryan has always been the star of the show, but now its time to see what John Clark can do. A fixture of the “Ryanverse,” Clark has been featured in previous film adaptations, but with “Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse,” the character is handed his own revenge story, with actor Michael B. Jordan looking to make his mark with a part that’s been played in the past by William Dafoe and Liev Schreiber. Stripping away most of Clancy’s original story, screenwriters Taylor Sheridan and Will Staples aim for more of a blockbuster mood for “Without Remorse,” delivering a weak tale of vengeance to support extended action sequences. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Outside Story


“The Outside Story” is a different New York City tale, eschewing crime and noise to explore the events of a single day as an anxious man tries to reenter his apartment after locking himself out, forced to experience the world around him for the first time. It’s amazing the feature wasn’t created during quarantine times, as it deals with many of the issues people are facing today, exposed to a different POV as home becomes the new normal. Writer/director Casimir Nozkowski deserves extra credit for his prescient screenplay, but he also manages a charming dramedy about reflection and community interaction. “The Outside Story” also offers a change of pace for actor Brian Tyree Henry, who’s normally cast is moodier roles, presented with a challenge to play lighter in a picture that demands an elastic, emotive performance he’s more than capable of handling. Read the rest at

Film Review - Four Good Days


“Four Good Days” takes on the dark subject matter of drug addiction, but the picture isn’t completely interested in just the user’s perspective. There are more sides to this story, with the film taking inspiration from a 2016 newspaper article writer by Eli Saslow (who also co-scripts), giving the endeavor some foundation of reality to help examine troubled lives pushed to their breaking point. Co-writer/director Rodrigo Garcia (“Albert Nobbs,” “Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her”) attempts to dramatize a distinctly tortuous relationship shared between a paranoid mother and her junkie daughter, and “Four Good Days” certainly captures the hopelessness of such a union, which has been destroyed through years of lying and betrayal. Emotions are strong in the feature, but melodramatic scenes throttle the intended power of the material, keeping a well-intentioned movie struggling to remain authentic with real-world horrors. Read the rest at

Film Review - Eat Wheaties!


“Eat Wheaties!” is a film that defies classification. It’s an adaptation of a 2005 book by Michael Kun, who created a fictional look at celebrity obsession, creating the character of Syd Straw, a seemingly normal guy who gets in deep when he elects to contact actress Heather Locklear and doesn’t realize he should stop. The famous person has been updated to Elizabeth Banks in the screenplay by Scott Abramovitch (who also directs), but the general idea remains, examining the tunnel vision of a character who loses himself in a strange perception of reality. It’s a very funny picture, but it’s not really a comedy. There’s darkness to the effort, but it’s hardly “The King of Comedy.” Abramovitch finds a weird rhythm for his odd movie, dealing with something slightly menacing in a bright way, also guiding Tony Hale to one of his best screen performances. Read the rest at

Film Review - Golden Arm


Many movies have explored the sport of arm wrestling, but there’s only one film about the subculture that everyone remembers: the 1987 Sylvester Stallone flop, “Over the Top.” The story of Lincoln Hawk and his fight for family and fortune on the arm-wrestling circuit was unintentionally ridiculous, and it provides some inspiration for “Golden Arm,” which isn’t a parody picture, but generally has the idea to use the sport as a way to showcase an enormous amount of silliness. The screenplay is credited to Ann Marie Allison and Jenna Milly, but their contributions are difficult to find, as “Golden Arm” is more of an improvisational festival, with the cast going riff-crazy to find the comedy of the endeavor, keeping the feature loose when it comes to jokes and rigid when it comes to plot. It’s an amusing effort with plenty of arm-wrestling action, but structure isn’t welcome, making the whole thing fatiguing long before it ends. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Virtuoso


Anthony Hopkins surprised a lot of people just this week when he took home the Academy Award for Best Actor for his work in “The Father.” It was a ceremony he didn’t attend, actually sleeping though it at his home, and his slumber continues in “The Virtuoso,” a low-budget suspense offering that made sure to reserve some big bucks to hire Hopkins, who appears for a few minutes in a very small role. The rest of the effort belongs to actor Anson Mount, who portrays the titular character, a steely assassin with a particular set of skills who battles with his conscience and assorted enemies while trying to complete his latest job. “The Virtuoso” is small in scale and limited in thrills, but Mount puts in the work to make his part ripple with disintegrating personal control, and writer James C. Wolf creates a few decent puzzles to decode along the way, making for a passably lively picture. Read the rest at

Film Review - Percy Vs Goliath


Tales of little people taking on the ruthlessness of Big Agriculture have been told before, but “Percy Vs Goliath” hopes to approach a larger story of injustice with an intimate tale of farm life. The screenplay is based on the true story of Percy Schmeiser, who was targeted by Monsanto, accused of stealing their GMO seeds for use on his land. The ensuing legal battle carried on for years, and the writing details all sorts of courtroom confrontations, but the overall focus of the film remains on Percy, who was made to look like a thief. The arc of innocence is carefully constructed by writers Garfield Lindsay Miller and Hilary Pryor, who pay attention to Percy’s emotional journey, but they can’t always create a compelling movie out of this experience, and director Clark Johnson’s folksy take on the struggle doesn’t exactly crank up the pace of the low-key endeavor. Read the rest at

Film Review - Limbo


Writer/director Ben Sharrock examines the refugee experience with “Limbo,” and he approaches the rough edges of this subject matter with unusual tastes in comedy and drama. He initially offers a Jared Hess-ian take on the experiences facing a young man from Syria who’s found himself in Scotland, seeking asylum. It’s “Napoleon Dynamite”-esque for its first half, dealing with static shots and offbeat events with peculiar characters. It’s all very strange before Sharrock decides to sober it up, hoping to delve deeper into heartbreaking areas of isolation and depression to give the feature some much needed weight. “Limbo” is uneven and not entirely compelling when it reaches a mild level of irreverence, but interesting ideas on fragile people in tough situations are provided, with the movie finding its footing during scenes of psychological exploration that don’t require comedy or stagy filmmaking. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Silent Madness


While the world knows of "Friday the 13th Part III" and "Jaws 3-D," there were a few other titles in the early 1980s competing in the marketplace race to give genre fans their fill of 3-D action and horror during the format's brief resurgence. One of these titles is "Silent Madness," an ill-fated 1984 offering that elected to remain within slasher expectations to be please ticket-buyers, but the screenplay isn't 100% committed to the idea. Writers Bob Zimmerman and Bill Milling try to keep the feature as more of a mystery than a chiller for the first hour, eventually giving up with a more chase- heavy, bloody final reel of audience-pleasing bodily harm. "Silent Madness" is a strangely conceived picture, and not all that compelling for its first half, but once the production gets comfortable with its destiny the effort grows more entertaining, especially with select 3-D highlights and an unusual choice for a heroine. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Grace of My Heart


After making low-budget movies about characters in tight situations, writer/director Allison Anders aims for something grander with 1996's "Grace of My Heart." It's a musical journey with a female POV, unofficially based on the experiences of Carol King as she tried to make her way through a male- dominated music industry, continuing Anders career pursuit of female-centric stories, exploring all the struggle and suppression the lead character encounters. The helmer's goal appears to be the creation of an epic featuring lots of personalities and locations, also tracking the development of a bright spirit diminished by outside forces, learning to trust her instincts again. The idea of "Grace of My Heart" is pure, but something happened to the endeavor on the way to a final cut, with clunky editing and a few mediocre performances throttling the overall arc of experience Anders is trying to communicate. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Pumpkinhead


Today, we recognize Stan Winston as one of the greats in the world of special effects. He mastered the artform, bringing to life stunning creatures for classics such as "Aliens," "Terminator 2," and "Predator." Winston (who passed away in 2008) was a titan, but in 1987, he was looking to create a directorial career for himself, making his debut with 1988's "Pumpkinhead." The helmer is playing to his strengths with the picture, in charge of a revenge film that features an enormous monster on the hunt for helpless victims. The screenplay by Mark Patrick Carducci and Gary Gerani attempts to give the crisis weight, dealing with moral choices and the pain of guilt, but "Pumpkinhead" tends to reach fantastic genre highlights when it gets away from somewhat fatigued dramatics. It truly roars ahead with an intimidating demon and stunning practical effects from Winston and his incredible crew, who supply an atmospheric viewing experience with a memorable enemy. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - So Sweet, So Dead


1972's "So Sweet, So Dead" is listed as a giallo, and it has most of the elements of one. There's a murderer on the loose, clad in black with a fondness for knives, stalking and slaughtering victims while a lone detective tries to predict the madman's next move before he strikes again. Director Roberto Bianchi Montero has the idea for a thriller, but he's a little distracted with the endeavor, which is more focused on getting actresses out of their clothes before requesting absolute hysterics during dying scenes. There's definitely a routine to "So Sweet, So Dead," and not a particularly riveting one, with the production more about sexploitation than becoming a ripping giallo. Read the rest at

Film Review - Mortal Kombat (2021)


“Mortal Kombat” was just a video game back in 1992, offering players some character histories and the creation of weird realms to support a fantasy fighting game that offered striking visuals and, of course, ridiculous amounts of graphic violence. It was Grand Guignol for the arcade generation, but its producers didn’t stop there, offering video game sequels (the latest chapter was released in 2019), comic books, merchandise, and, of course, movies. There have been a few attempts to bring the video game universe to the big screen, mostly notably a 1995 offering from director Paul W.S. Anderson. The new “Mortal Kombat” endeavors to launch the brand name to new cinematic heights, offered a sizable budget to detail flashy visuals and boasting an R-rating to preserve the core appeal of the game, maintaining its gore zone standards. It also happens to be an entertaining picture once it gets past mountains of exposition, delivering heavy fighting between strange combatants, and bodies are appropriately destroyed in a myriad of ways.

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Film Review - Stowaway


Movies about space travel or exploration usually dip into thriller cinema to help connect the dots for viewers. It’s a way to maintain audience participation, giving them some nail-biting sequences to hold attention, with most filmmakers using some level of science to help buttress a vision for blockbuster entertainment. Think “Gravity” or the recent “The Midnight Sky.” “Stowaway” has a cast of familiar faces and a healthy visual effects budget, and it initially appears to be more of an intellectual and emotional tale of survival in deep space, asking hard questions about sacrifice when disaster strikes, examining the value of human life in an unwinnable situation. “Stowaway” initially seems interested in a dramatic offering of debate and introspection, and it does its best work in quieter moments. Co-writer/director Joe Penna doesn’t remain in the stillness for the length of the picture, eventually succumbing to marketplace demands, but he delivers two acts of fascinating distress in need of a better ending.

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Film Review - Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street


How does a filmmaker get their arms around the world of “Sesame Street” and everything it’s inspired? Arguably the finest, most creative television show ever produced, “Sesame Street” has lasted for over five decades, reaching out to generations of viewers raised on its blissful mixture of education and entertainment, stacked with human and monster characters who’ve helped to create amazing moments of learning and laughing, giving the audience a chance to understand the world around them in a way other programming carefully ignores. There’s a lot to unpack when it comes to this show, and director Marilyn Agrelo (“Mad Hot Ballroom”) has the unenviable task of assembling an origin story. Adapting Michael Davis’s book, “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street,” Agrelo doesn’t bite off more than she can chew with the documentary, providing a look at the formative years of “Sesame Street,” focusing on producing and performing forces that helped to establish the mission of the series, eventually launching a show that achieved the impossible: it changed the world.

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Film Review - Together Together


It takes something special to make a relationship story work these days, and writer/director Nikole Beckwith has exactly that with “Together Together.” It’s a story about love developing between two vastly different people, but it remains careful about the tentative union, keeping the material away from a sitcom approach. It’s also a pregnancy tale, but Beckwith doesn’t turn the experience into a wacky event with nervous parents. She avoids most cliches with the endeavor, preferring a human approach to the complications of parenthood and partnership that arrive in the movie. “Together Together” works extremely hard to remain focused on feelings, and Beckwith is triumphant in that regard, creating an intimate but approachable odyssey of connection during a special experience, working with a terrific cast to bring it to life.

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Film Review - The Mitchells vs. the Machines


Family issues and a device apocalypse compete for screen time in “The Mitchells vs. the Machines,” the latest offering from Sony Pictures Animation, who recently enjoyed a creative and financial breakthrough with 2018’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” Keeping the visual style of the hit film, but losing the superhero, writer/directors Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe hunt for a comfortable balance between sensitive material about the familial experience and the frantic scope of the titular war. “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” is superbly crafted and cast, maintaining a sharp sense of humor that plays into today’s meme-saturated world, and it’s guaranteed to please younger viewers eager to watch something that’s silly and speedy. Rianda and Rowe show difficulty sustaining such storytelling velocity, getting lost in the manic energy of the effort, but there are moments of cartoon clarity that keep the movie together.

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Film Review - Murder Bury Win


It’s about time someone made a film about the world of tabletop gaming, which has experienced a resurgence in popularity over the last five years. Mercifully, writer/director Michael Lovan doesn’t make a documentary with “Murder Bury Win,” instead using the mechanics of gameplay and the ruthlessness of the marketplace to inspire a comedic rendering of board game horrors playing out in the real world. Lovan doesn’t have big bucks to bring his vision to life, instead offering an inspired screenplay that, for the first half, secures a playful understanding of creative partnerships and failure, soon adding some macabre business to twist the material in all sorts of directions. “Murder Bury Win” could use an editorial pruning, but it’s highly amusing at times, offering committed performances and periodic darkness to keep the whole endeavor enjoyable.

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