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May 2021

Film Review - Seance


Screenwriter Simon Barrett achieved strong reviews for his work on “You’re Next” and “The Guest,” earning a reputation of sly work that subverted genre expectations, refreshing hoary plots and dull characters. Barrett makes his feature-length directorial debut with “Séance,” which returns him to scary business, this time examining the haunted happenings at an all-female boarding school, which is experiencing a newfound surge of violence after the suspicious death of a student. Once again, Barrett returns to a well-worn premise, and expectations are in place that he could do something inventive with a semi-slasher, possibly supernatural idea. The helmer is no mood to bring his A-game to the project, overseeing a bizarrely sleepy chiller that doesn’t have much oomph as a thriller or complexity as a mystery. “Séance” just lays there for most of its run time, with Barrett trusting a creepy mood might cover the writing’s lack of adventure. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - American Rickshaw


There was a time in the mid-1980s when film producers actively courted Olympic gymnasts to become Hollywood actors. It's not unheard of to add sporting stars to any ensemble, but there was something in the water around this particular time, with Kurt Thomas transformed into an action hero for "Gymkata," and Mitch Gaylord went the dreamboat route for "American Anthem." It's not easy to coax a performance out of athletes who don't have experience being in front of a camera, and for Gaylord, creating a steady career proved to be impossible. However, in the midst of his short-lived starring days, the gold medalist claimed a leading role in 1989's "American Rickshaw," putting his good looks and ease of movement into the hands of Italian producers looking for ways to Americanize their genre product. The result is an ideal offering for any bad movie night event -- "American Rickshaw" never slips out of control, but it remains determined to be absolutely insane. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Greek Tycoon


More entertaining than 1978's "The Greek Tycoon" is the making of the film. Movie trivia details efforts to coax Jacqueline Kennedy into starring in a picture based on her relationship with Aristotle Onassis, which she understandably refused. Unwilling to give up on the idea, the production elected to make slight changes to the screenplay (credited to Mort Fine) to avoid lawsuits, and key members of the crew set out to publicly reject any connection to real-world people and events. For example, Jackie Kennedy is now Lizzie Cassidy and Ari Onassis is now Theo Tomasis. See? Problem solved. Clearly embarking on completely different tale of a rich Greek shipping magnate and his lustful drive to woo the widow of an assassinated president, "The Greek Tycoon" doesn't achieve any of its sneaky intentions, and it's not an impressive drama either, putting steely journeyman director J. Lee Thompson in charge of a delicate story of romantic and social pursuit, and the helmer elects to sprint through a tale that demands a refined touch and greater attention to the passage of time. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Abrakadabra


Joining other filmmakers interested in paying tribute to giallo entertainment, siblings Luciano and Nicolas Onetti try their luck with "Abrakadabra," which represents their attempt to deliver an Italian-flavored shocker with extreme screen details (there's even a J&B bottle present). It's an interesting offering of pure moviemaking labor, with the Onettis constructing an effort that's determined to replicate the cinematography and sounds of lesser giallo events and, I'll admit, it took me a few minutes to realize the whole shebang was created recently (2018), finding the artistic approach quite convincing, at least until actors begin to populate the frame. That's the trick of "Abrakadabra," and really the only reason to sit through the short (70 minutes with end credits) endeavor, finding its cinematic textures alluring, while the storytelling leaves much to be desired. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Hammer House of Horror: The Complete Series


By the time 1980 rolled around, things weren't looking good for Hammer Films. The theatrical side of the business dried up and public interest was fading. It was time to return to television, with producer Roy Skeggs dreaming up "Hammer House of Horror," the company's second pass at an anthology series. Over the course of 13 episodes, the production aims to bring strange tales of terror to living room audiences, offered a more R-rated push of the macabre, with plenty of sexploitation thrown in to keep viewers interested. "Hammer House of Horror" is nicely varied, touching on the supernatural, monster affairs, and pure madness, brought to life by a talented team of writers, directors (including company man Peter Sasdy), and especially actors, with interesting British performers of the day capably communicating levels of panic and confusion required to sell the small-scale nature of the program. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Fisherman's Friends


Feel-good cinema receives a new offering in "Fisherman's Friends." After the recent release of "Military Wives," here comes another U.K. tale of an unlikely musical success, presenting those in the mood for comfortable entertainment with a mild ride of fish-out-of-water comedy, family ties, and business world deviltry. And there's plenty of music to help lift the production up. "Fisherman's Friends" isn't going to wow with originality, and thankfully director Chris Foggin has managed to preserve some level of charm, delivering a frightfully predictable but amiable movie that's incredibly easy on the senses. There are a few laughs, an engaged cast, and big, clear vocal performances, which help to distract from a connect-the-dots screenplay that has no discernable interest in providing anything more than what the audience expects from a cheery good time with characters from a quaint corner of the world. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Woman in the Window


“The Woman in the Window” is a mystery adapted from a novel by A.J. Finn, who’s not all that concerned with elevating the subgenre buy reworking some of its elements to encourage greater surprises. As a movie, the material isn’t trying to wow either, with director Joe Wright (“Atonement,” “Darkest Hour”) settling in to make his own version of an Alfred Hitchcock picture, with the “Rear Window”-esque endeavor including a glimpse of the Hitchcock classic to prevent accusations of theft. Wright’s the ideal person for the job, with his previous filmmaking outings rich with cinematic detail and precise camerawork. It only makes sense that he would indulge himself here, with material that covers a haunted woman struggling to handle her reality after she witnesses a murder that may have never happened. Storytelling issues eventually arrive to diminish the viewing experience, but when Wright gets wound up, he constructs some workable suspense to support most of the feature. Read the rest at

Film Review - Those Who Wish Me Dead


Last seen a few weeks ago turning in subpar work as part of the screenwriting team on “Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse,” Taylor Sheridan claims more creative control by taking on directorial duties for “Those Who Wish Me Dead,” which is an adaptation of a 2014 book by Michael Koryta. Sheridan made a strong impression a few years back with “Wind River,” an unusual mystery thriller that featured at least one incredibly shocking scene of suspense. The same screen magic doesn’t make its way to his latest picture, which struggles to manage the novel’s story and Sheridan’s helming vision. He’s turned “Those Who Wish Me Dead” into more a western experience, which doesn’t translate to cinematic excitement, overseeing lackluster performances and feeble characterizations, saving his energy for a small selection of rural Montana survival challenges. Angelina Jolie is pushed as the star of the show, but Sheridan aims for more of a group effort here, working to keep the endeavor from transforming into the mid-1990s actioner it wants to become. Read the rest at

Film Review - Riders of Justice


Writer/director Anders Thomas Jensen doesn’t make movies very often, but when he does he always works with actor Mads Mikkelsen. The partnership goes back just over 20 years, and was most recently on display in 2015’s “Men & Chicken,” an excellent dark comedy that offered Mikkelsen a very different part to play. Such surprises are the glue of this relationship, with the duo entering the realm of action films with “Riders of Justice,” which follows one man’s quest to achieve vengeance after his wife is murdered. It’s a steelier Mikkelsen this time around, creating a performance out of tight body language and hard stares, but Jensen isn’t creating the usual violent distraction with the project. “Riders of Justice” is filled with unexpected moments and sensational performances, and it’s the rare picture interested in the psychology of revenge, not just hard-edged acts of violence. Read the rest at

Film Review - Spiral: From the Book of Saw


“Spiral” is presented as “From the Book of Saw,” which gives it a little breathing room in terms of franchise expectations. It’s the ninth installment of the horror series, which began in 2004 and became a Halloween tradition for some viewers before fatigue finally set in around 2010. The producers tried to restart the machine with 2017’s “Jigsaw,” but the picture was met with audience indifference, putting the brand name back on the shelf. Now “Saw” is back once again, this time slightly reworked as a detective story, with “Jigsaw” screenwriters Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger huffing “Seven” fumes as they attempt to merge a serial killer story with traditional displays of blood and guts. “Spiral” presents itself as a fresh take on macabre premise, but it’s really just the same old “Saw,” offering a tired tale of suffering and trapping, lacking any inventiveness capable of making the viewing experience exciting again. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Killing of Two Lovers


Fans of spare filmmaking and developing mood are most likely to respond to the directorial ways of Robert Machoian, who offers a lot of observational time in “The Killing of Two Lovers.” Machoian also handles screenwriting duties, aiming for a small-scale drama about a broken household involving a husband and wife who don’t fully understand how to proceed with their dying relationship, creating a standoff situation of unspoken feelings and fears. This is not a highly charge study of marital distress, with Machoian taking his time to develop the characters and their hidden issues. He also works to create a lived-in feel for the location, adding a wintry chill to a tale about separation, and the helmer’s use of violence is genuinely shocking. It’s assured moviemaking with a compelling crisis to examine, but it’s not for those who demand a steady run of tension. Read the rest at

Film Review - High Ground


Battles of conscience and culture dominate “High Ground.” It’s an Australian production that confronts the brutal history of the continent, capturing rising tensions between violent British policemen and an Aboriginal tribe struggling to process the senseless slaughter of many innocent people. Screenwriter Chris Anastassiades pulls back from a broad understanding of cruelty with the feature, working to identify the confusion that lingers after violence, also delving into hostilities on all sides of the drama, involving characters trying to make sense of an insane situation of pursuit and survival. Director Stephen Johnson provides a vivid understanding of nature and confusion with the endeavor, overseeing a talented cast that captures moral dilemmas and harsh realities when dealing with the terror of colonialism. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Djinn


“The Djinn” isn’t trying to be a radically different horror movie. Writer/directors David Charbonier and Justin Powell (who have another picture, “The Boy Behind the Door,” due for release this summer) don’t have the filmmaking resources to mount a menacing, epic tale of a child trying to survive the night with an evil force unleashed in his apartment. The helmers keep things small and intimate with their endeavor, out to generate some scary scenes and find some psychological grooves to explore, hoping to add some significance to what would otherwise be a standard offering of close quarters frights. “The Djinn” is at its best with scenes of silent stalking and offerings of black magic, remaining an endeavor best appreciated by genre fans who enjoy the essentials in terror mixed with a little emotional agony. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Get Together


Calling on the great spirits of party cinema is director Will Bakke, who made “The Get Together” as a short film in 2015 and returns for a second at-bat with a 2021 version, intending to expand on his original ideas. Instead of troubled teens managing a boisterous evening and relationship distress, the screenplay (written by Bakke and Michael B. Allen) aims to get a little bit older, exploring the confusion of a post-grad existence where future plans are difficult to make and partnerships are threatened by the imposing entity known as adulthood, or “adulting.” “The Get Together” isn’t heavy, but it hopes to reach viewers with its depictions of heartache, with Bakke sending an ensemble to Austin, TX to work through various crisscrossing subplots that analyze what it takes to reach some form of maturity during the chaos of a house party where the alcohol flows, confessions get chunky, and passive-aggressiveness is common. Read the rest at

Film Review - Profile


Desktop thrillers, or “livescreen” movies, are nothing new, recently finding box office success with 2018’s “Searching” (a sequel is due out next year). This wave of screensharing entertainment is primarily limited to thrillers, which help to supercharge the mundane movements and clicks normally associated with computer management. For “Profile,” director Timur Bekmambetov (who co-produced “Searching”) tries to reach beyond escapism and dramatize terrorist horrors, taking inspiration from Anna Erelle’s 2015 book, “In the Skin of a Jihadist: Inside Islamic State’s Recruitment Networks,” which detailed one journalist’s dark exploration of online manipulation. “Profile” commences as a compelling procedural, highlighting the methods used to create a story using social media connections and video conference communication. Maintaining a colder distance to the topic doesn’t appeal to Bekmambetov for very long, soon trying to bend verisimilitude to inspire suspense cinema, turning a real-world nightmare into a cartoon. Read the rest at

Film Review - Oxygen


French filmmaker Alexandre Aja has managed to form an interesting career since he started making movies 21 years ago. He’s remained in the horror genre, working with formula and pure fury to create some magic in features such as “High Tension,” the “Piranha” remake, and 2019’s excellent gators-on-the-loose chiller, “Crawl.” Aja hasn’t always knocked it out of the park (“The 9th Life of Louis Drax,” “Mirrors”), but he’s done well with panicked characters and tight spaces, and it doesn’t get more claustrophobic than “Oxygen,” which takes place entirely inside a small cryogenic capsule, which becomes a prison for the lead character. It’s a directorial challenge in many ways, but also a storytelling test as well, with screenwriter Christie LeBlanc attempting to work through three acts of anxiety and discovery while remaining inside a single space for 100 minutes, making a buried alive-style picture with a high-tech spin. And Aja’s right there, working to keep the whole thing visually varied enough to hold attention. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - L.A. Bounty


In the late 1980s, actress Sybil Danning was looking to change her career path. Typically employed in bombshell roles ("They're Playing with Fire," "Malibu Express"), Danning squeezed out of typecasting by taking more control over her employment options, portraying icier characters and ditching tight outfits. For 1989's "L.A. Bounty," Danning goes the extra mile, claiming a producing and a story credit for the picture, which introduces Ruger, a no-nonsense killer of men who prowls the Los Angeles area hunting for targets, cutting through the community in a ragged leather jacket and mom jeans. Danning presents herself as a royal punisher in "L.A. Bounty," and she fits the "Terminator"-esque part, handling the endeavor's level of violence and steely looks at cowardly targets. She's fun in an entertaining VHS-era actioner, with director Worth Keeter ("Mighty Morphin Power Rangers," "Silk Stalkings") keeping matters on the move with a basic tale of revenge and L.A.-based B-movie tourism. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Chick Fight


The physical brutality of "Fight Club" is handed a makeover for "Chick Fight," which surveys the blood, sweat, and tears of an underground brawling club. A serious study of bare-knuckle liberation and cult formation is jettisoned for the new movie, which tends to play as more of a comedy, hoping to bring laughs to a chilling premise. Director Paul Leyen tries to bring some low-budget style to the endeavor, and screenwriter Joseph Downey labors to sustain character development between scenes of women beating the stuffing out of one another, yet "Chick Fight" has some wily energy to offer with a few sizable laughs. Downey can't resist the comfort of cliché to complete the picture, but he has some fun along the way, and the cast's enthusiasm for the material certainly helps the cause, especially when staleness sets in. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Panic


With a title like "Panic," there's a certain expectation in place that something suspenseful is going to occur over the course of the film. The 1982 production doesn't have that ambition, finding the title more of a bait-and-switch situation, luring viewers to a movie that's mostly about characters standing around, engaging in banal conversations. Director Tonino Ricci doesn't bring the thunder with the horror endeavor, which initially promises a spookier tale of a mutant on the loose during a viral outbreak. Murders occur, police are involved, but extraordinarily little happens in "Panic," which appears to have been created for the sole purpose of creating moments where topless women are terrorized by poorly made-up killer. Read the rest at