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June 2021

Film Review - Black Widow


Although it wasn’t intended, there’s been a two-year-long break from Marvel Cinematic Universe films, giving audiences a chance to breathe after the company pumped out three movies in 2019. For the latest in superhero entertainment, the MCU returns to one of its key characters, finally getting around to Natasha Romanoff after her debut as Black Widow in 2010’s “Iron Man 2.” It’s the least hero-y member of the Avengers, but there’s a lot that can be done with the character and her brooding ways. “Black Widow” doesn’t do enough with Romanoff, with screenwriter Eric Pearson trying to generate a family dynamic for the feature, coming close to ignoring the titular warrior while trying to arrange some form of backstory for her. “Black Widow” isn’t the rock ‘em, sock ‘em adventure the Avenger deserves, but thrills are intermittently present when the story isn’t in explanation mode, giving actress Scarlett Johansson something to work with as her co-stars get a little hammy to make their presence known. Read the rest at

Film Review - Till Death


The trials of marriage are handed a unique survival challenge in “Till Death.” Screenwriter Jason Carvey endeavors to create a small-scale battle for survival with the picture, examining an unusual form of revenge facing a woman who’s been caught cheating by her husband, and he’s not in the mood for forgiveness. As thrillers go, it’s not a major effort from director S.K. Dale, who’s basically handed a single location to explore for 80 minutes, trying to find ways to keep viewers on the edge of their seats as bad things happen to bad people. Despite some shortcomings in the surprise department, “Till Death” is nasty enough to charm, with a few macabre developments that connect as intended, and Carvey’s central idea is refreshingly twisted, fueling some B-movie fun. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Forever Purge


“The Purge” has been incredibly good to creator James DeMonaco. It’s been his business since the debut of the 2013 feature, which made a lot of money on a tight budget, inspiring him to keep churning out sequels and prequels until filmgoers cry uncle. “The Forever Purge” is the fifth installment of the horror franchise (which took a detour into television in 2018), with DeMonaco continuing to write these chapters, handing directorial duties to Everado Gout. There’s a formula to this stuff, with DeMonaco pretending displays of horrific violence and human cruelty somehow reflect the state of America, trying to pass off crude B-movie mayhem as a giant mirror held up to a divided country. Not all of his ideas are far off from the truth, but his screenplays have always been cringe-inducing, and “The Forever Purge” is no different. DeMonaco loves to make cartoons, and his latest summation of national rage is just as brainless as the previous endeavors. The big change here is breathing room, with Gout trying to keep things moving along for a change, making for a somewhat lighter, more approachable “Purge.” Read the rest at

Film Review - The Boss Baby: Family Business


An adaptation of a short storybook, 2017’s “The Boss Baby” tried to find ways to create a world out of a simple idea concerning the challenges of parenthood. Screenwriter Michael McCullers strained to expand the story, or simply create one, taking the original picture on an uneven ride of slapstick and sibling love. The mediocre feature connected with audiences, turning into a major hit for DreamWorks Animation, which promptly created a television show for the characters (“The Boss Baby: Back in Business”), and now a sequel. “The Boss Baby: Family Business” makes a huge time jump to advance the ongoing tale, but McCullers and returning director Tom McGrath (the “Madagascar” trilogy) have removed most of the formulaic softness that made “The Boss Baby” a chore to sit through at times. They move into a more cartoon realm with “Family Business,” and it suits the production, which has real fun dreaming up oddball encounters and frantic chases for the characters, and it presents a wonderfully sillier sense of humor. Read the rest at

Film Review - No Sudden Move


Last December, Steven Soderbergh scored a creative hit with “Let Them All Talk,” a drama about relationships and personal reflection. It was small in scale and wonderfully acted, bringing out the best in Soderbergh’s filmmaking capabilities, finding interesting ways to detail human relationships. Seven months later, the helmer is back on more familiar ground with “No Sudden Move,” which is a crime story with a pretzeled screenplay by Ed Solomon (“Bill & Ted Face the Music”), examining underworld interests in 1950’s Detroit. It’s not a new caper from Soderbergh, playing to his interests in off-kilter characters, mounting trouble, and criminal visions put to the test, pouring his special indie movie glaze over the feature. It’s all familiar and on the static side, but a love of the game is on view in “No Sudden Move,” with the production clearly making Soderbergh happy, offered another chance to depict bad ideas going horribly wrong in the weirdest of ways. Read the rest at

Film Review - Summer of Soul (Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)


“Summer of Soul (Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” is billed as “A Questlove Jawn.” Beloved musician Ahmir Khalib Thompson makes his directorial debut with the documentary, slapping some Philadelphia slang on a story of a New York City event, bringing viewers back to 1969, when the Harlem Cultural Festival ruled Mt. Morris Park for six weekends during a special season. Thompson isn’t simply reviving interest in the concert series, he’s basically saving it from complete obscurity, with the production managing to locate footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival that’s been sitting in a corner somewhere for the last five decades. “Summer of Soul” is a lot of things, including an impressive restoration project, with the helmer creating a time machine for a moment when black culture was changing shape, giving 300,000 concertgoers a chance to see incredible musicians, leaders and preachers, and charismatic people put on a major show of love and respect for a population in need of hope and representation. Read the rest at

Film Review - Long Story Short


“Long Story Short” is the latest film from writer/director Josh Lawson, who was recently on view in “Mortal Kombat,” struggling to come up with funny business during his portrayal of video game insult comic, Kano. The performance wasn’t inspired, and neither is “Long Story Short,” which is Lawson’s attempt to rework a time loop premise, this time offering a brutal education to a callous man who’s magically sprinting through the years. It’s a weird idea, and one that’s almost entirely placed in the hands of actor Rafe Spall, who tap dances like a madman to make the feature work as a comedy and something more sincere. Lawson asks a lot of Spall to carry such a load, with the material going after a lighter touch when the reality of such a year-eraser experience would naturally fit a profoundly dark picture. Read the rest at

Film Review - A Dim Valley


Introductions are always important, helping the audience find the mood of the picture and begin to process characterizations as onscreen personalities start their journey. Writer/director Brandon Colvin isn’t a fan of such immediate impressions, opening the endeavor with ten minutes of a man getting hurt after falling off his bike, also showing a friend his ability to trigger a click in his jaw. This material represents a good portion of “A Dim Valley,” with Colvin in no hurry to introduce screen tension, motivations, or even a plot for this wandering effort, which is primarily about a marijuana-thwacked odyssey into the indie film unknown. “A Dim Valley” is strictly for audiences in an altered state of mind, working with vagueness to such a degree, I’m not even sure Colvin had anything written down before he started shooting the feature. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Some Kind of Wonderful


While it probably wasn't intended to be this way, 1987's "Some Kind of Wonderful" represents the end of writer/producer John Hughes's streak of teen-centric entertainment. He scored a hit with 1986's "Pretty in Pink," joined by director Howard Deutch, but he was allegedly unhappy with the conclusion of the movie, which was reworked to satisfy audience demand, not Hughes's original vision. With "Some Kind of Wonderful," a second pass at adolescent ache is made, this time with a gender switch involving the leading actors and a clearer view when it comes to the needs of the heart. What Hughes and Deutch offer for their second go-around is another extraordinarily charming and sincere examination of insecurity and powerlessness, with casting achievements doing something special with Hughes's lived-in material, creating a superb companion piece to "Pretty in Pink," though it retains a distinct personality of its own. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - She's Having a Baby


Looking to mature as a storyteller after a few years exploring the pitfalls of adolescence in pictures such as "Sixteen Candles," "The Breakfast Club," and "Weird Science," writer/director John Hughes elects to make a movie about himself with 1988's "She's Having a Baby" (which was shot before 1987's "Planes, Trains and Automobiles"). It's not a bio-pic, but Hughes cherry picks parts of his life for the screenplay, exploring his early years of love, cohabitation, employment demands, and, eventually, pregnancy. It's the helmer's most personal statement on the ways of relationships and fears, and his most scattered endeavor, failing to wrangle a narrative to help line-up all his vignettes on domestic life and workplace frustrations. That's not to dismiss the feature, which is filled with sharp observations on partnership and conception. Hughes's ideas are crystal clear at times, resulting in hilarious scenes that reflect a pained reality about maturity. There's just not a straight line to grasp in the work, giving it an episodic feel, with Hughes and his team clearly wrestling in the editing room to find some sort of shape to the effort. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Panther Squad


In the great push to find cult films worthy of celebration and mockery, I'm not sure how 1984's "Panther Squad" has fallen through the cracks. It's pure ridiculousness from director Pierre Chevalier, a longtime exploitation helmer who, in his last feature, decides to go nuts, pitting Sybil Danning against an armed space protection organization bent on trying to stop a global communication device from escaping Earth. Or something like that. "Panther Squad" has a lot of action and assorted distractions, but secure storytelling isn't a top priority for the production. Technical expertise is also politely refused by Chevalier, who elects to march forward with whatever he's got, out to create a global adventure with only a few locations, a limited cast, and Danning's sheer determination to deliver an Eastwood-ian lead performance of pure attitude and physical might. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Norseman


1978's "The Norseman" offers a "based on fact" take on the saga of the Vikings, that "lusty horde of blonde giants" who traveled from Norway seeking adventure and treasure, ending up in a place they called "Vineland," which we know today as America. And when one thinks of a typical Viking, the image of a mid-'70s Lee Majors comes to mind, seen here wearing a snazzy little disco mustache, sweating under the Tampa sun, refusing to cover his southern accent and brunette hair (blonde giants!). Director Charles B. Pierce ("The Town That Dreaded Sundown," "The Legend of Boggy Creek") promises a historical picture at the opening of "The Norseman," but he doesn't really bother with any of that, looking to create a pulpy, low-budget actioner for drive-in audiences perhaps too sleepy to care about the fine details of the time period. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - A Call to Spy


It's not easy out there for a World War II story. English television and PBS productions have cornered the market on "lost" tales of heroism and struggle, especially when exploring female achievements during a devastating time. Writer/producer/star Sarah Megan Thomas tries to add something to the mix with "A Call to Spy," which examines three real-world personalities involved in the Special Operations Executive, an organization committed to infiltrating France during WWII as a way to disrupt Nazi movement across Europe. Thomas has a vision to celebrate such courageous actions, but "A Call to Spy" isn't much more than a miniseries compacted into one film, never cinematic enough to rise above the competition. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Ice Road


Writer/director Jonathan Hensleigh hasn’t made a movie in a decade, last seen on screen with the forgettable “Kill the Irishman.” “The Ice Road” is his big return to the industry, taking command of a Liam Neeson action film during the actor’s Charles Bronson period, with the star taking simple jobs that play up his brawniness. There’s nothing wrong with working, and it’s nice to have Neeson around, once again becoming the most appealing element of the production. Neeson squints and barks like a pro, but Hensleigh has a little more in mind for “The Ice Road,” trying to create a slam-bang thriller involving big rigs and a race to a miner rescue, hoping to keep the picture busy with multiple subplots and a collection of suspicious characters. The feature is incredibly dopey at times, but Hensleigh knows how put on a show, with the “Die Hard with a Vengeance” and “Armageddon” screenwriter perfectly aware of absurdity, hoping to generate enough of a white-knuckle ride to cover for the endeavor’s weaker ideas, including its depiction of villainy. Read the rest at

Film Review - F9

F9 2

Unlike previous installments, the makers of “F9” know they’re coming back for more. There will two more chapters in this real never-ending story, “The Fast and the Furious” saga, and the latest sequel is clearly out to clean up the mess that’s been left behind by various filmmakers trying to advance an ongoing series that never had a blueprint to begin with. Bad guys became heroes, the dead are now alive, and brothers that never existed before are now integral to the plot. It’s been a weird (and wearisome) ride with “The Fast and the Furious,” with every endeavor hungry to escalate action and melodrama, and “F9” is no different, only now there’s some freshly poured narrative concrete to follow into the future, with screenwriter Daniel Casey and Justin Lin (who returns to the director’s chair after taking the last two movies off) putting together a plan to establish bad guys, evil plans, and even more family ties to manage, inspiring at least two features to come. Read the rest at

Film Review - Werewolves Within


“Werewolves Within” is a loose adaptation of a VR game of the same name, released in 2016. It was a title without cinematic potential, with gameplay involving a group of characters sitting around a campfire, trying to zero in on the lycanthrope of the gathering while asking one another questions. There’s a hefty screenwriting challenge here for Mishna Wolff, who’s tasked with taking a social deduction experience and transforming it into the suspense picture with big laughs. Tonally, “Werewolves Within” holds together, merging violence and horseplay comfortably, creating an immersive genre event populated with strange personalities. It’s an entertaining film, but it’s best to know beforehand that the endeavor is not a horror extravaganza, with Wolff trying to retain the original game’s escalation of accusations, offering a talky take on a creature feature emergency. Read the rest at

Film Review - False Postive


“False Positive” is a slight reworking of “Rosemary’s Baby,” trading satanic panic for modern fertility fears, providing a different kind of jolt with a similar sense of creepiness. Co-writer/director John Lee is a somewhat strange choice for the project, with “The Heart, She Hollar” creator and “Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday” helmer certainly familiar with weirdness, but less proven with genre entertainment. He’s joined by co-writer/actress Ilana Glazer, with the pair endeavoring to update the patriarchal themes of “Rosemary’s Baby” while delving deeper into surreal imagery and freak-out reactions. “False Positive” is a slow-burn endeavor, much too leisurely at times, but Glazer and Lee have certain ideas on the female experience that emerge with clarity, and they get awfully close to fascinating levels of darkness at times. Read the rest at

Film Review - Good on Paper


A veteran stand-up comedian, Iliza Shlesinger made a positive impression as an actress in last year’s “Spencer Confidential.” Forced to fight for screen time against Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg’s penchant for noisiness, Shlesinger managed to be funny and alert in an aggressive role. Aiming to generate a leading part for herself, Shlesinger takes a screenwriting credit on “Good on Paper,” creating a study of insecurity and treachery in the world of relationships, possibly drawing from her own experiences with a film that’s “based on a lie.” The approach seems to represent a general avoidance of romantic comedy formula as the lead character finds love with a man whose trustworthiness is elusive at best. The concept has potential, and the material gets most of the way there with comedic disasters, industry awareness, and snappy banter. Shlesinger doesn’t have a third act for the endeavor, but there’s enough lived-in discomfort to support a lively picture. Read the rest at

Film Review - Vicious Fun


“Vicious Fun” initially brings viewers back to a time when horror journalism was hitting its stride, offering power to reporters covering the latest in macabre entertainment, with the 1983 setting putting the action in the middle of the slasher cinema trend. While some Fangoria fumes are huffed, director Cody Calahan quickly abandons the most original element of his feature, getting rid of magazine authority and industry awareness to eventually make his own scary movie. Calahan isn’t pushing for major chills with “Vicious Fun,” preferring to make more of a comedy that’s frequently interrupted by gore zone visits, with characters dispatched in ghastly ways. The picture should be a carnival ride, but Calahan isn’t prepared to make something truly funny, keeping the effort wildly broad to invite a sense of fun that never fully arrives. Read the rest at