Film Review

Film Review - An American Pickle


While “An American Pickle” is the latest comedy from Seth Rogan, gifting himself a dual role of a man out of time and his distant relative, the picture also represents the first solo directorial outing for Brandon Trost, a gifted cinematographer (dislike Rob Zombie’s “Halloween II” all you want, but that movie looks amazing) who’s put in command of a film that’s semi-serious about religion, but semi-farcical about everything else. As expected, Trost has some definite visual ideas for the feature, which looks interesting and does well with twin Rogens. He’s a little bit shakier when it comes to balancing tone, as “An American Pickle” has some difficulty moving from dramatic interests to broadly comedic sequences. It’s definitely funny in spots, working with a nutty idea from writer Simon Rich (who adapts his own short story). Consistency isn’t dazzling, but Trost gets the material most of the way there. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Tax Collector


David Ayer likes to make one kind of movie, and he keeps doing so repeatedly. He’s a fan of gangland violence, establishing his career with L.A. tales of masculinity run amok (“Harsh Times,” “Street Kings”), and recently exploring fantasy worlds (“Suicide Squad,” “Bright”) that promise to take his vision into a fresh direction, but he ends up with the same hard poses and acts of intimidation. Ayer tries to marry the two tones for “The Tax Collector,” which initially appears to be an assessment of organized crime in California before it goes off the deep end, trying to transform a botched cautionary tale into a franchise. In an extremely underwhelming filmography, “The Tax Collector” distinguishes itself as the worst picture Ayer has ever made, repeating himself with an obnoxious offering of underworld bravado and lame stylistics, once again asking audiences to invest in odious characters involved in cliched criminal entanglements. It’s 90 minutes you’ll never get back. Read the rest at

Film Review - Waiting for the Barbarians


“Waiting for the Barbarians” is an adaptation of a 1980 novel by J.M. Coetzee, which has already inspired a stage play and an opera by Philip Glass. Coetzee handles screenplay duties for the material’s cinematic debut, largely protecting a core story of colonialism that made the book highly regarded in literary circles, carefully bringing a tale of governmental madness and corruption to audiences inundated with the stuff on a daily (hourly?) basis. Pacing is very deliberate here, but Coetzee doesn’t lose control of the tale, doing a commendable job building a sense of horror with the period picture, offering a spare but compelling study of demoralization. “Waiting for the Barbarians” is chilling at times and never strays far from its thematic points, while the cast assembled to portray all manner of evil, shame, and fear contribute excellent performances, always keeping the feature fascinating. Read the rest at

Film Review - Spinster


The trials of a single, childless woman pushing forty is not particularly fresh ground to cover, but screenwriter Jennifer Deyell tries to bring something different to what’s become a subgenre for basic cable channels. With “Spinster,” Deyell sets up a typical situation of romantic hopelessness and social paranoia facing a character who’s trying to avoid defining herself by certain standards, tackling cliché with a refreshingly honest understanding of personal perspective, delivering an appreciation of bruised dignity and individualism. “Spinster” is smart and real, and often quite funny, giving star Chelsea Peretti a starring role that fits her deadpan delivery while pushing her as a dramatic talent. She’s sharp in a feature that attempts to be wise about wants and needs, with director Andrea Dorfman crafting a memorable picture about an often uncomfortable topic. Read the rest at

Film Review - Made in Italy


There’s been an influx of actors turning to direction in recent years. Just last month, Romola Garai found a spot helming the horror film “Amulet.” And now there’s James D’Arcy, who enjoyed roles in “Cloud Atlas,” “Dunkirk,” and Madonna’s “W.E.” The thespian makes his directorial debut with “Made in Italy,” a dramedy about a father and son and their life-changing trip to Tuscany to deal with family business. D’Arcy claims a screenwriting credit as well, putting his heart and soul into the effort, and his commitment to the sincerity of the picture is commendable, dealing with deep-seated emotions and assorted matters of life and love. It’s not a movie with dramatic sweep, but as something easy on the senses, “Made in Italy” is approachable, with some genuine humor and concern for its characters as they confront old business with fresh eyes. Read the rest at

Film Review - I Used to Go Here


Writer/director Kris Rey (formerly Kris Swanberg) had something to say about the motherhood experience in 2015’s “Unexpected,” coming up with lived-in dramedy that successfully avoided cliché. She has a little more trouble getting out of the way of predictability with “I Used to Go Here,” which tackles the quicksand feeling of failure and aging, with more emphasis on funny business. There’s a lot of charm floating around the picture, which features a fine cast skilled at making little moments matter, but the overall push of profundity is missing from the endeavor. There are laughs and some relatable moments of disappointment and heartbreak, by Rey isn’t as focused for her latest helming adventure, which has enough personality to pass, but not much else. Read the rest at

Film Review - Creem: America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine


When one thinks of the quintessential rock magazine, Rolling Stone immediately comes to mind, with its enduring popularity and cultural reach lasting for decades. Director Scott Crawford (“Salad Days”) wants to challenge such a notion with the documentary “Creem: America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine,” which offers the tale of the Detroit-based music publication and its efforts to upend the industry with bluntly written coverage and semi-satirical takes on the players in the game. Crawford assembles a wide range of personalities to share their thoughts and feelings about Creem, including writers from the magazine, who provide an inside look at the madness of the monthly, with its stable of ornery journalists and desire to celebrate the rock universe while pantsing it at the same time. It’s not an especially deep dive into the working parts of a dream, but “Creem” is a fun ride to the bottom. Read the rest at

Film Review - Paydirt


I believe the idea behind “Paydirt” is to replicate the Guy Ritchie experience. The plot involves a hidden fortune, with the collection of morally dubious types searching for a large payday. The loquacious players also have cutesy nicknames, joined in a web of criminal activity that offers some double-crosses and violent outbreaks. Writer/director Christian Sesma doesn’t have the budget to generate a proper reworking of Ritchie-branded mischief, ending up with a pale imitation instead, and one that could use a few more rewrites and some critical recasting. For this type of impish entertainment, “Paydirt” is surprisingly lethargic, coming up short with surprises and amusing antics among underworld figures, while its central mission isn’t compelling enough to power the caper. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Secret Garden (2020)


“The Secret Garden” was originally published in 1911, with author Frances Hodgson Burnett gifting readers a tender tale of a household awakening. Little did the writer know just how influential the story would become, inspiring many adaptations over the years, including a stage musical, an opera, and plenty of film and television takes on the source material. Arguably the most successful of these endeavors was a 1993 feature from director Agnieszka Holland and producer Francis Ford Coppola, who gracefully found a way to bring out the heart of Burnett’s writing while conjuring special big screen magic. 2020’s “The Secret Garden” doesn’t share the same sense of discovery, with director Marc Munden offering a colder version of the tale, delivering a respectful handling of the book’s themes and characters, but ultimately values a visual presentation over a moving viewing experience. Read the rest at

Film Review - She Dies Tomorrow

She Dies Tomorrow_CourtesyNEON_Kate Lyn Sheil_9

Amy Seimetz has enjoyed a career involving smaller, personal projects, taking a rare step into the mainstream with a part in last year’s unwelcome “Pet Sematary” do-over. She returns to challenging work with “She Dies Tomorrow,” reportedly using her “Pet Sematary” salary to fund a low-budget study of mental illness and its contagious effects. Seimetz takes control of “She Dies Tomorrow,” assuming writing and directing duties for this brain-bleeder, which tries to be very artful and visually poetic about the ways of depression. There’s no real story and characterization is hard to come by, but Seimetz commits to the strange atmosphere of the endeavor, which tries to summon a certain level of unease as it examines a dismantling of reality facing a handful of characters as they come into contact with hopelessness and perceived finality. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Secret: Dare to Dream


“The Secret: Dare to Dream” gathers the teachings found in Rhonda Byrne’s 2006 self-help book, “The Secret,” and brings them over to a Nicholas Sparks-style movie, mixing lessons on healing with ideas on love. It’s a painfully obvious film, but that appears to be the point of it, with director Andy Tennant trying to make comfy sweater cinema while keeping Byrne’s brand alive and well as the characters attack monumental problems with the power of positive thought. Byrne’s message has reached an enormous amount of readers, helped along by celebrity endorsements, but the basics of her central idea make for an awkward fit here, as Tennant spends some of the feature maintaining the author’s concepts and the rest managing a droopy romantic drama that feels more at home on Hallmark Channel. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Go-Go's


Identifying achievement appears the primary source of storytelling in the documentary “The Go-Go’s.” Director Alison Ellwood (“American Jihad,” “Spring Broke”) fixates on the overall groundbreaking glow of the world-famous band, identifying their position as the most successful all-female rock band and their domination of American media during the early 1980s. Of course, there’s so much more to the group, who enjoyed their first reign from 1978-1985, and “The Go-Go’s” is mostly interested in getting to the heart of success, personal relationships, and internal strife. Material is missing, but there’s a joyous sense of life and love to the feature, and also an incredible level of candor, with the band and past members and management returning to the early years of formation, charting the rise and fall (and rise again) of a group that made their wildest dreams come true, only to struggle monumentally with themselves and one another when it came time to sustain such magic. Read the rest at

Film Review - Summerland


Playwright Jessica Swale makes her directorial debut with “Summerland” (also scripting the effort), and she remains within the theatrical realm with the period British drama. Swale aims to examine characters as they react to hardships and surprises, using a fractured sense of time to dig up compelling motivations for the players as they embark on complicated tests of courage and responsibility. “Summerland” tries to be big, dealing with World War II survival challenges and the open world of the English countryside, but Swale is more successful with intimacy, tapping into silent fears as her personalities struggle to confront a few unthinkable turns of fate. It’s a satisfying feature that ultimately takes on a bit more than it can handle, but Swale keeps the film sincere, also supported by a capable cast who makes certain the heart of the material is protected. Read the rest at

Film Review - I Want My MTV


To do the story of Music Television justice, a production would probably need a limited series to even begin to scratch the surface of the entertainment empire. For “I Want My MTV,” directors Tyler Measom and Patrick Waldrop give themselves 80 minutes, and they only examine the highs and lows of the 1980s. Business world evils and nostalgia compete for attention in the documentary, which tries to understand how a cable channel initially promoted as “video radio” grew into the top force of pop culture domination during the ‘80s, working its way from a roster of 250 videos to complete control of a generation. It’s a fascinating tale of trial and error, brilliant marketing, and the sheer power of music. Measom and Waldrop don’t get anywhere near a satisfying understanding of the MTV experience, but they certainly achieve a compelling overview of technical hurdles and the evolution of a trendsetting media behemoth. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee


In 2018, a Super Bowl advertisement was created hinting a reboot of the 1986 smash hit, “Crocodile Dundee,” was coming in some form, with Danny McBride taking command of the role. It was eventually revealed to be an elaborate ad for Australian tourism, but the weird result of the mini-movie was excitement for a new “Crocodile Dundee” feature. Few could’ve predicted that response, especially original Mick Dundee, Paul Hogan (who cameoed in the commercial). Instead of capitalizing on the success of the ad with a fresh adventure for the once beloved Aussie icon, Hogan decides to do something smaller, blander, and possibly unfinished. With “The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee,” the actor plays himself living in a world of fading fame and sequel frenzy, participating in a comedy (scripted by Robert Mond and Dean Murphy, who also directs) that tries to be silly and self-referential, but mostly ends up uncomfortably odd. “The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee” plays like a tax shelter production, with Hogan offering the least amount of effort in a film that has no clear idea what it wants to be. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Rental


The company Airbnb has done a remarkable job transforming the vacation rental marketplace, and it’s even more impressive how much it’s influenced genre entertainment. Over the last few years, terror from the depths of luxury living has been explored in “Trespassers,” “Welcome Home,” “Tone-Deaf,” and the recent “You Should Have Left.” And now there’s “The Rental,” which also examines an unfolding nightmare facing a group of travelers looking for the perfect getaway, only to come up against an insidious enemy. The effort marks the feature-length directorial debut for Dave Franco (who co-scripts with Joe Swanberg), and he’s done his homework, endeavoring to provide a spooky ride of mysterious events while gently working in a greater appreciation for character connections. He’s making a relationship movie with a body count, and it’s effective, more so when dealing with people and their problems than acts of murder. Read the rest at

Film Review - Yes, God, Yes


In 2014, screenwriter Karen Maine made her debut with “Obvious Child,” creating richly defined characters and absolutely crushing an intimidating tonal challenge with a story that touched on abortion. Maine graduates to the director’s chair for “Yes, God, Yes,” and she’s not taking it easy on herself, this time taking at a look at the sexual curiosity of a teenage girl attending a Catholic school retreat. Much like “Obvious Child,” Maine has a special talent for understanding the specifics of people in deep with their own issues, managing dramatic clarity and hilarious offerings of comedy along the way. “Yes, God, Yes” is small picture (running just over 70 minutes), but Maine creates a vivid ode to the perils of adolescence, especially from a female perspective. Read the rest at

Film Review - Radioactive


Marjane Satrapi found her voice in the art of graphic novels. She won acclaim and awareness with her work on 2000’s “Persepolis,” eventually bringing the book to the screen (with Vincent Paronnaud) in a 2007 animated picture, which went on to great success, even claiming an Oscar nomination. She continued in the medium for 2011’s “Chicken with Plums,” which was also based on her writings, and now she returns with “Radioactive,” which is a live-action adaptation of a 2010 graphic novel by Lauren Redniss. Instead of manufacturing a formulaic bio-pic of Marie Curie and her brilliant mind, Satrapi tries to remain respectful of the source material, making a periodically dreamlike film that mixes in bits of history while studying Curie’s behaviors, hoping to understand the singular drive of a woman who wanted to change the world and receive credit for her work, coming up against an establishment that had little tolerance for her personality, while matters of love threatened to fog scientific exploration. Read the rest at

Film Review - Animal Crackers


Hollywood once made a movie about the board game Battleship, so the idea of creating one about a snack food for children isn’t too outrageous. Directors Scott Christian Sava and Tony Bancroft set out to make something memorable with “Animal Crackers,” turning crunchy treats into a world of magic, musical showmanship, and numerous offerings of villainy. It’s a very strange picture, but not without inspiration, presenting a noticeable amount of backstory and world-building to expand fairly straightforward source material. “Animal Crackers” is budget animation, but Bancroft and Sava make a clear attempt to do something with the work, creating an exciting, brightly colored family film, besting admittedly low expectations for cracker-based entertainment. Read the rest at

Film 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 aimable 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