Film Review

Film Review - Life After Flash


1980’s “Flash Gordon” has endured a strange ride of recognition over the last 39 years. The picture was hoping to be the big ticket of the Christmas moviegoing season, giving ticket-buyers a large-scale fantasy adventure in the vein of “Star Wars,” only with a more European approach thanks to producer Dino De Laurentiis. While the feature did business, it was far from a blockbuster, sending the endeavor to the wilds of home video consumption, where it developed a cult following. Fandom was born, passionately so, but for the people who were involved in the making of “Flash Gordon,” such delayed response contributed to unsteady careers, especially for its star, Sam J. Jones. Director Lisa Downs tracks down the actor and many more behind-the-scenes personnel for “Life After Flash,” with the documentary splitting its time discussing the creation of the newly understood film and the reaction of those who created it, with Jones the primary focus of professional and personal confusion. Read the rest at 

Film Review - The Hole in the Ground


“The Hole in the Ground” offers the killer kid routine. It’s a staple of the horror genre, with many variations on “The Bad Seed” produced, as recently as this very month with the release of “The Prodigy.” The features tend to abuse the same trick, toying with the image of innocence to best shred nerves, with violence often erupting from the very essence of goodness. It’s usually exploitative, skirting the line of good taste, but co-writer/director Lee Cronin has something slightly different in mind for his fright film, eschewing pre-teen devilry for more of an “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” atmosphere for “The Hole in the Ground,” which generates a proper mood of unease as the lead character explores the weirdness that’s consumed her once beloved son. Read the rest at

Film Review - Fighting with My Family


Dwayne Johnson is a busy man these days, making sure he’s represented on the big screen at least a couple times every year. He’s an action star now, but he never lost touch with his career as a professional wrestler, and he’s returning to the squared circle with “Fighting with My Family,” flexing his producing muscles to bring the story of WWE superstar Paige to the screen. Movies and pro-wrestling rarely mix, but this bio-pic isn’t interested in the sheer silliness of “No Holds Barred” or the odiousness of “Ready to Rumble,” instead going the inspirational route with an underdog tale. Writer/director Stephen Merchant tries to redefine “Rocky” with “Fighting with My Family,” using Paige’s rise to WWE glory as a way to craft an audience-pleasing sports dramedy, and Johnson is along for the ride to secure authenticity, at least with wrestling atmosphere. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Changeover


American audiences are used to a little more extremity from their YA fantasy entertainment, often served the ways of love and danger with a larger sense of scale and apocalyptic stakes. “The Changeover” is a New Zealand production, and doesn’t quite reach for visual fireworks to tell its tale of a teenager experiencing her entrance into the ways of witchcraft. Instead, the production often goes insular, playing the evolution in dreamscape settings, trying to do justice to a 1984 novel by Margaret Mahy. Screenwriter Stuart McKenzie (who co-directs with Miranda Harcourt) has a difficult task of adaptation, working to make the novel’s exploration of magic fit a low budget, and the helmers get most of the way there with “The Changeover,” making a movie that’s more disturbing than fantastical, wisely putting their faith into the cast to sell the mysteries of the story. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Breaker Upperers


While they’ve both been working in film and television for decades, “The Breaker Upperers” is terrific chance to become fully aware of the talents possessed by stars Madeleine Sami and Jackie van Beek. They’re manufacturing their own opportunity with the picture, also accepting screenwriting and directorial duties, working to craft a farce that pokes fun at the fear of ending commitment, taking a business of break-ups to farcical highs. A production from New Zealand, “The Breaker Upperers” is extremely funny and surprisingly tight, with Sami and van Beek keeping their endeavor rolling along with some wackiness and dry humor, creating their own vehicle to display their stuff, which is often fantastic stuff. Read the rest at

Film Review - High Flying Bird


Now six years into his retirement, Steven Soderbergh continues to work on his iPhone moviemaking revolution with “High Flying Bird,” which is debuting a year after his smartphone-shot thriller, “Unsane,” failed to catch much heat at the box office. Turning to Netflix for his distribution needs, Soderbergh sheds production risks and takes a chance on unusual material for his latest endeavor, which takes a brief look at the world of NBA ownership and leadership, and how the game is actually played with billions of dollars on the line. Staying true to his artistic interests, Soderbergh goes minimal, returning to the iPhone for cinematographic needs and working with a screenplay by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who takes more than a few jabs at the state of the basketball union with his sharp screenplay, inspiring the helmer to doing something a little differently than his traditional offering of passivity. Read the rest at

Film Review - Donnybrook


Writer/director Tim Sutton wants to bring the pain with “Donnybrook.” With previous credits including “Memphis” and “Dark Night,” Sutton is no stranger to the unpredictability of human behavior, putting some thought into the construction of his screenplay, which not only examines vicious interactions between unstable characters, but takes a good long look at the current state of America, focusing on an impoverished community of addicts and killers. There’s no joy to be found in “Donnybrook,” but there’s not a lot of engrossing anger either. Sutton is making his western here, only everyone is a black hat and they spend the movie cycling through the same reaction to utter despair. It’s a glacial feature, with the helmer mistaking length for profundity, unable to connect with his overall effort to dissect violence as it’s experienced by those who can’t, or won’t, escape abuse. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Happy Death Day 2U


Just 15 months ago, there was “Happy Death Day.” The Blumhouse production wasn’t aiming very high with its mixture of comedy and horror, offering younger audiences their own “Groundhog Day,” fitting a slasher movie set-up for a time loop gimmick. The PG-13 frightener clicked with audiences in the mood for a wacky distraction, giving Halloween 2017 a slight boost at the box office. Terrified of losing such momentum, writer/director Christopher Landon went right back into production, churning out a quickie sequel in “Happy Death Day 2U,” hoping to retain the limited attention span of certain viewers these days. There’s lots of room for improvement, but Landon merely hints at creative escalation with the follow-up, which chases a tale about a killer in a baby mask with another tale about a killer in a baby mask. There’s a heavy “Back to the Future” influence this time around, for everything except sequel quality. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Isn't It Romantic


Director Todd Strauss-Schulson already did this kind of movie four years ago. It was titled “The Final Girls,” and it deconstructed and lampooned slasher film cliches. It was a bit like shooting fish in a barrel, but it worked, showcasing agreeable humor and enthusiasm for the genre it was pantsing. Strauss-Schulson returns to the well with “Isn’t It Romantic,” which trades a serial killer for Rebel Wilson, delivering her solo starring debut, which takes apart formula found in romantic comedies, offering a self-aware spin around lovey-dovey entertainment. In keeping with Wilson’s style of humor, there’s nothing subtle or sly about “Isn’t It Romantic,” which often delights in pointing out absurdities in rom-coms while wrapping itself in the same comfortable repetition, offering confusion with its ultimate summation of empowerment, and its jokes just aren’t all that funny. Read the rest at

Film Review - Cold Pursuit


2014’s “In Order of Disappearance” was a special Scandinavian movie (receiving a U.S. release in 2016), taking the framework of a traditional revenge saga and turning it inside out, making the experience about blood and rage, but also character and calmness, with director Hans Petter Moland finding ways to give the film eccentricity without dipping into quirk, also guiding star Stellan Skarsgard to one of the best performances of his career. The picture was fantastic. “Cold Pursuit,” the inevitable American remake of “In Order of Disappearance,” isn’t. While Moland returns to duty, trying his hand at the Hollywood game, his sense of darkness has been severely dulled, stuck trying to translate something with specific cultural ties for the Liam Neeson Hit Factory, which only seems interested in broad comedy and tuneless performances. Read the rest at

Film Review - Alita: Battle Angel


The world of “Alita: Battle Angel” is massive, and it requires the control of a filmmaker who can manage the bigness of action and the intimacy of character. Robert Rodriguez, despite landing a handful of creative successes, is not someone with a track record that inspires confidence is his abilities to whisk audiences away to a complex fantasy realm. There’s a lot to unpack with this feature, an adaptation of a 1990 manga, and Rodriguez isn’t quite up the challenge of providing engrossing storytelling. “Alita: Battle Angel” is teeming with technical achievements and ambitious epicness, but it’s winded easily, frequently caught up in expositional quicksand, failing to make something exciting while it spends a substantial amount of screen time trying to verbally itemize a world that’s better off revealed in purely cinematic ways. Read the rest at 

Film Review - The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot


We live in an entertainment world where no-budget films with few redeeming production values are created, often using outrageous titles simply to attract attention (e.g. “Sharknado,” “Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus”), suckering in those on the prowl for wacky good times. “The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot” absolutely qualifies as B-movie identification of the highest order, offering an eye-catching promise of Asylum-style nonsense, playing up a connection between real-world evil and one born from myth. Mercifully, writer/director Robert D. Krzykowski isn’t interested in self-aware comedy, finding a way to turn such a genre-smashing promise into a meditation on aging and memory, perking up now and then to deal with the realities of wartime and forest extermination. “The Man Who Killed Hitler” is serious work, which is its greatest surprise, presenting severity of feeling and violence without feeling the need to rely on cheap shenanigans. Read the rest at

Film Review - What Men Want


“What Men Want” is a remake of a 2000 Nancy Meyers comedy, which tried to make something silly and mushy out of Mel Gibson, back when that was still a possibility. It was a PG-13 production, as vanilla as it gets, with Meyers overseeing a mild battle of the sexes premise that shifted from frivolity to a deadly serious conclusion that touched on suicide. It was typical of Meyers’s uneven work, and the screenplay was certainly ripe for a do-over. Enter Adam Shankman, a crude helmer of terrible movies (“The Pacifier,” “Rock of Ages”), who has the bright idea to play “What Men Want” as broadly as possible, stuck between his desire to craft a hard R-rated version of the tale and the perceived demands of the mainstream audience, with sincerity trying to worm its way into a film that has no use for it. Shankman doesn’t know what he’s doing with the feature, so he does nothing, coasting on painfully inept jokes and sporadic ugliness to complete the job. Read the rest at

Film Review - Everybody Knows


Writer/director Asghar Farhadi is primarily known for his Iranian dramas, scoring major critical successes with efforts such as “The Salesman,” “A Separation,” and “About Elly.” Ready for more global awareness, the helmer takes baby steps toward the mainstream with “Everybody Knows,” which utilizes a sampling of star power to nab attention, finding Farhadi teaming with actors Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem to help carry a kidnapping mystery. However, “Everybody Knows” is not a nail-biter with chases and whiplash turns of fate. It remains in line with Farhadi’s previous work, with primary attention placed on the internal churn of decision-making and the troubles that come with longtime relationships and secretive connections. Those expecting something more explosive from the filmmaker this time out might be disappointed, but slow-burn tension is there, realized through accomplished performances from the entire ensemble. Read the rest at

Film Review - Untogether


Making her debut as a writer/director is Emma Forrest, who chooses an L.A. tale of mismanaged love in “Untogether,” making use of a large ensemble to create tight spaces of relationship woes. As career launches go, Forrest doesn’t select the most original route for her storytelling journey, dealing with broken people making terrible decisions, but there’s an effort found in select scenes to resist cliché, to find the real impulses behind sexual unions that are clearly masking other needs. “Untogether” drops sharpness and nerve as it goes along, eventually ending up a puddle of feelings and ideas in search of a more prepared filmmaker, as Forrest loses her way early and never gets back to the core display of confusion she begins with. Read the rest at

Film Review - St. Agatha


Director Darren Lynn Bousman was introduced to the world as a horror moviemaker, proving his speed with low-budget hits in “Saw II,” “Saw III,” and “Saw IV,” playing his part in the continuation of a series that wasn’t big on variation to begin with. Bousman remained with fright films, some imbued with musical numbers, determined to make his mark on the genre, despite ample evidence that perhaps the conjuring of screen violence just isn’t his forte. After dragging along with tedious work in “Abattoir” and “The Barrens,” Bousman keeps his dream alive with “St. Agatha,” which turns to evil nuns to bring on the nightmare fuel. Of course, other helmers have beaten him to the punch when it comes to the secretive ways of religious servants, and “St. Agatha,” which strives to be stylish, has nothing interesting to share on the state of Catholic imprisonment, with Bousman returning to his old bag of tricks to emphasize an agonizing situation. Read the rest at

Film Review - Under the Eiffel Tower


Matt Walsh is a comedic actor who’s been pushing his way into bigger and better roles over the last decade. He’s been in a lot of things, often portraying uptight characters, playing into his naturally submissive presence, and he’s managed to amass an impressively detailed filmography. With “Under the Eiffel Tower,” Walsh graduates to leading man status, taking command of a “Sideways”-style tale of a man’s mental breakdown while visiting what many would consider paradise. Co-writer/director Archie Borders puts a lot of faith in Walsh, whose job here is to create a dimensional character with peaks and valleys of fallibility but still remain approachable, even understandable. Walsh does fine in the part, but “Under the Eiffel Tower” has a problem with likeability, which becomes an issue with a movie that’s hoping to make a warm impression on viewers. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Amityville Murders


Does the Amityville name mean anything to horror fans these days? It’s been 45 years since the original family murder spree committed by Ronald DeFeo Jr., and 40 years since the ghastly incident was turned into “The Amityville Horror,” a dim production that turned into one of the highest-grossing features of 1979. People were once insatiable when it came to all things Amityville, but the hunger for new versions of old violence diminished long ago, especially after a sustained wave of sequels, remakes, and spin-offs, with 20 movies in all trying to squeeze the true-crime teat dry. Faced with impossible odds for success, writer/director Daniel Farrands tries his luck with DeFeo misery, offering “The Amityville Murders,” a prequel of sorts to “The Amityville Horror,” going back to the scene of the crime to understand the motivation behind the killings that shocked a nation and punished entire generations of genre fans. Read the rest at

Film Review - Miss Bala


It’s been difficult to take director Catherine Hardwicke seriously, as she’s built a filmography made up of misfires and mediocrity (“Twilight,” “Red Riding Hood,” “Miss You Already”), always finding her way into overkill, even with delicate material. Her aggressive style seems like a fine fit for “Miss Bala,” which is a remake of a 2011 Mexican thriller, giving the helmer a template for panic and scenes of intimidation, as the story covers kidnappings, across-the-border drug running, and acts of revenge. And yet, Hardwicke manages to turn it all into a mushy pile of cliches and noise, treating “Miss Bala” as her ticket into the Michael Bay School of Fetishistic Violence. Star Gina Rodriguez seems bewildered by it all, trying to keep up with Hardwicke’s excesses and limited interest in dramatic support, in need of a moviemaker with more patience and taste to successfully execute the unfolding nightmare presented here. Read the rest at 

Film Review - How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World


The “How to Train Your Dragon” series has become big business for Dreamworks Animation, who’ve gone beyond movies to deliver video games, books, and multiple television shows that detail the epic fantasy world where humans and dragons are learning to live with each other, often heroically. That’s all well and good, but the real magic of the franchise is found on the big screen (the biggest, of you can find it), with “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” the most awe-inspiring and thrilling of a trilogy that began in 2010. Closing out the saga of Hiccup and his pal Toothless, writer/director Dean DeBlois gets a little sentimental with the second sequel, but his aim is to end things as excitingly as possible, delivering a healthy amount of action and discovery, along with plenty of Viking tomfoolery. While lacking the sweep of the last chapter, “The Hidden World” makes up for the loss in other ways, with DeBlois crafting a divinely animated, supremely felt effort. Read the rest at