Film Review

Film Review - The Call of the Wild (2020)


There have been several screen adaptations of the 1903 Jack London novel, “The Call of the Wild,” dating back to a silent film released in 1923. Even Charlie Brown and Snoopy had their way with the source material in 1978. For the 2020 version of the story, director Chris Sanders remains in a cartoon realm of sorts, merging heavy amounts of CGI with human actors to explore the animal instinct of London’s celebrated book. The director of “How to Train Your Dragon” and “The Croods,” Sanders knows his way around CG animation, and he’s quite good with adventure as well, giving his take on “The Call of the Wild” an enjoyable feel of naturalistic glorification and Alaskan peril, finding a fresh way to communicate London’s appreciation of instinct and survival. Read the rest at

Film Review - Brahms: The Boy II


2016’s “The Boy” wasn’t a major hit, but the low-budget feature enticed enough people into multiplexes to turn a profit, giving producers the idea to return to the brand name. They took their time, but “Brahms: The Boy II” is finally ready for exhibition, and the idea seems to be a gentle reworking of the central concept to feed future sequels and spin-offs, giving the material a “Conjuring”-style marketplace trajectory. Director William Brent Bell and screenwriter Stacey Menear return to duty, and why wouldn’t they? The teat-pulling vibe is in full effect during “Boy II,” which trades corporeal terror for a supernatural hoedown in the English countryside, laboring to revive the basic terror beats of the original effort while inventing dark magic to keep things interesting. Of course, nothing in the picture is interesting, but that doesn’t stop the filmmakers, who serve up jump scares and loose mythology while presenting a more mean-spirited take on violence, which is almost exclusively focused on children and animals. Read the rest at

Film Review - Top End Wedding


Actress Miranda Tapsell enjoyed a breakthrough role in “The Sapphires,” a 2012 musical comedy that didn’t stick its landing, but it managed to make Tapsell memorable. The Australian native returns to screen power with “Top End Wedding,” which also marks her screenwriting debut, gifting herself the lead role in a slightly zany but mostly heartfelt appreciation for married life and cultural reflection. There have been many Aussie wedding comedies, and while Tapsell and co-writer Joshua Tyler don’t score with huge laughs, they create a consistently engaging viewing experience that embraces formula, and also remains mindful of character, trying to dig into unusual personalities as they craft what’s more of an Australian adventure than a celebratory romp with oddball types and mishaps. Read the rest at

Film Review - Standing Up, Falling Down


Screenwriter Peter Hoare isn’t trying to move the world with “Standing Up, Falling Down.” Instead, he offers a small-scale relationship drama about an unlikely friendship developing between two aimless men struggling with private issues, bonding over a shared sense of humor. The material has very little wow factor, but it’s sincere, and that’s most important with a picture like this, which tends to do its best when aiming to be meaningful instead of volcanically dramatic. “Standing Up, Falling Down” has its humor, and it’s very funny at times, but director Matt Ratner (making his debut) is more attentive to chemistry, letting his actors interpret Hoare’s vision for camaraderie and personal inventory, resulting in a mild but effective dramedy. Read the rest at

Film Review - Buffaloed


Zoey Deutch deserves a lot of credit for trying to do something with her acting career in recent years. She’s worked in teen cinema and romantic comedies, but with last year’s “Zombieland: Double Tap,” Deutch went full-tilt silly, exposing impressive timing and a sense of adventure when it came time to bring weirdness to a somewhat stale feature. She’s back in “Buffaloed,” which supplies her with a true acting challenge, tasked with portraying an absolutely manic human being while also being attentive to the quirks of Brian Sacca’s screenplay, which plays around in the sobering world of debt collection. “Buffaloed” is amusing, and director Tanya Wexler gives it an appealing velocity, rarely slowing down with skin-crawling displays of predatory criminal behavior. And she has Deutch, who gives the part her all, submitting her finest performance to date, keeping characterization compelling and mischief spinning at top speed. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Night Clerk


Michael Cristofer hasn’t directed a film for nearly twenty years. He was briefly active with a success in the cable movie “Gia,” but stumbled when trying to move to the big screen, guiding messy efforts such as “Body Shots” and “Original Sin,” unable to deliver the hits required to keep his career going. With “The Night Clerk,” Cristofer returns to duty, and he remains in line with previous cinematic interests, once again mounting a mystery of sorts with this hidden camera version of “Rear Window.” However, instead of summoning Hitchcockian thunder, Cristofer creates a tepid ride of temptation and obsession, striving to add a little real-world unsteadiness to the screenplay’s formula. “The Night Clerk” isn’t a creative wipeout, but there’s always a feeling it could be better, often skipping chances to tighten its grip on the audience to deal with feeble character business. Read the rest at

Film Review - Fantasy Island (2020)


“Fantasy Island” began life as two television movies for ABC, quickly turned into a series that ran from 1978 to 1984, taking viewers to a special place of unknown magic where vacationers could live out their deepest desires or confront unfinished business. The show was a hit, securing pop culture domination and high ratings for the producers, who eventually returned to the brand name for a 1998 revival series that was anything but successful. While the program had its dark side, dealing with the mysteries of the human heart and the dangers of psychologically unstable characters, there was a dramatic pull to the stories, creating enjoyable T.V. For 2020, co-writer/director Jeff Wadlow tries to turn “Fantasy Island” into a horror film, showing some appreciation for the knotted reality of the original material, but he largely goes his own way with the picture. The director of “Cry Wolf,” “Never Back Down,” “Kick-Ass 2,” “True Memoirs of an International Assassin,” and “Truth or Dare,” Wadlow doesn’t have an inspired resume, and it should come as no surprise that his confused take on the series is downright painful to sit through. Read the rest at

Film Review - Sonic the Hedgehog


Sonic the Hedgehog has been around for nearly 30 years, so it seems a little strange that only now is the character receiving the blockbuster film treatment. Of course, the video game staple and Sega foundation doesn’t make the easiest transition to the big screen, posing a large challenge to screenwriters Patrick Casey and Josh Miller (“Dorm Daze,” “Dorm Daze 2,” and “Transylmania”), who struggle with Sonic’s earthly woes, hunting for a real reason to marry the CGI character with a live-action world. “Sonic the Hedgehog” isn’t about hospital corners when it comes to storytelling, but the fun factor of the picture is large enough to pass, with director Jeff Fowler (making his helming debut after years in animation) keeping the title character on the go in this fast-paced adventure, while dips into comedy and action manage to satisfy, giving Sonic the cinematic introduction he deserves. Read the rest at

Film Review - A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon


After taking a box office dive with 2018’s “Early Man,” Aardman Animation is back to more reliable entertainment with “A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon.” Shaun the Sheep has enjoyed a vast amount of exposure over the years, doing especially well on television, while his jump to the big screen in 2015’s “Shaun the Sheep Movie” proved the character could do very well in the cinematic realm, supplying silent comedy-style slapstick over a longer runtime while still remaining fresh and exciting. Now comes the challenge of a sequel, and the production team looks to infuse some of Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.” for “Farmageddon,” which returns to the mischief of Shaun, Farmer John, and Bitzer, but adds an alien visitation element to increase comedic potential and offer a more direct emotional range. The filmmaking labor produces a better picture, with the follow-up scoring big on laughs and heartwarming elements while remaining true to the brand’s love of silliness. Read the rest at

Film Review - VFW


In recent years, “The Expendables” and its sequels have offered the premise of older actions heroes setting out to save the world, joined by members of a younger generation who don’t possess the same seasoning to help get the job done on their own. “VFW” loses the Hollywood hero approach to deliver a more grounded take on old fogey fire, offering the sight of war veterans taking on the drug-bombed youth of today. A Fangoria production, “VFW” isn’t interested in establishing a sensitive understanding of combat shock. It’s a genre smash-em-up production, with director Joe Begos prepared to deliver an absolute bloodbath with violent battles, but also wise enough to rely on the skills of his aged cast, who are happy to showcase the meatiness of their thespian charms, enjoying a rare opportunity to make a mess of things in this wild cinematic battle royal. Read the rest at

Film Review - Downhill


“Downhill” is a remake of Ruben Ostlund’s 2014 picture, “Force Majeure,” which took a darkly comedic look at the state of a troubled marriage attacked by a life-changing challenge of trust during a seemingly idyllic ski vacation. Ostlund had his laughs, but he was more interested in the fracture facing a seemingly settled couple, exploring the bonds and stasis of marriage, and the true nature of self-preservation. “Downhill” is more direct with its offerings of funny business, even bringing in stars Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus to butter up potentially rough characters with familiar mannerisms and delivery. There was no need to rework “Force Majeure,” but you already know that. The real surprise of the do-over is how much it misses the raw anxiety of the original, with co-writers/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash unsure what exactly they want out of the feature, veering wildly between silliness and stillness. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Assistant


As the Harvey Weinstein scandal continues to unfold through lawsuits and revelations, the situation has exposed a terrible reality about life in the entertainment business. It’s a professional descent that has the potential to provide untold wealth and power, but there’s a price paid for such submission, with “The Assistant” joining a handful of movies about the making of movies that endeavors to showcase the soul-flattening nature of the job. Writer/director Kitty Green captures the Weinstein Experience from a careful distance, avoiding direct immersion into predatory behavior to explore what it’s like on the outside, where moral choices have no place with specialized employment. “The Assistant” isn’t urgent, far from it at times, but it does generate an appreciation for the emotional toll of the titular position, especially when it’s in service of corrupt individuals and a protective industry. Read the rest at

Film Review - Olympic Dreams


In 2017, Alexi Pappas teamed with Jeremy Teicher for “Tracktown,” which utilized her natural athletic abilities and experience in track to create an authentic understanding of sporting focus and emotional pains, with Pappas making a fine first impression with a lived-in performance and co-directing credit to preserve the long distance running mood. Pappas and Teicher reteam for “Olympic Dreams,” which offers a similar appreciation for the concerns of those who devote their lives to the pursuit of a sporting goal, but dials up the romantic near-miss confusion and some feel-goods while following two characters trying to get to know each other in a short amount of time, bonding during the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. Again aiming to execute a small movie with a big heart, Pappas and Teicher achieve most of their creative goals, crafting a gentle ride of new relationship excitement and heartache in the middle of a unique location for new love messiness. Read the rest at

Film Review - Come As You Are


Asta Philpot is a physically disabled man who, in 2006, decided to visit a legal brothel catering to men in wheelchairs, sharing his experience in a 2007 BBC documentary. His story was transformed into a 2011 Belgian film, which has now been remade for American audiences, with “Come As You Are” looking to provide a similar balance of comedy and drama, adding sensitivity when it comes to the topics of sexuality and the physically disabled. Director Richard Wong and screenwriter Erik Linthorst have the opportunity to go broad with the material, which invites a level of wackiness to help it compete in the crowded marketplace. Thankfully, they mostly avoid primary colors, endeavoring to remain respectful to the situation and attentive to the emotional nuances of the characters, creating a satisfying sit. Read the rest at

Film Review - Horse Girl


Co-writer/director Jeff Baena likes to make very strange movies. He’s the helmer of “Life After Beth” and “Joshy,” and made a particularly strong impression with 2017’s “The Little Hours,” a Middle Ages farce that managed to score with particularly tricky material and tone. Never one to turn down a challenge, Baena returns with “Horse Girl,” a picture that begins with quirk and comedy before getting deadly serious about the depths of mental illness. Naturally drawn to dark humor, Baena hopes to offer some type of entry point to the story, and he works well with star Allison Brie (who also scripts), giving her the space she needs to form a character living in the growing shadow of encroaching madness. It’s the second half of “Horse Girl” that loses rhythm and tension, finding the writing irritatingly light on detail when it comes time to submerge the lead character in complete insanity. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Photograph


It’s Valentine’s Day weekend, and writer/director Stella Meghie has been tasked with providing some romantic warmth for moviegoers seeking a little tenderness. The helmer of "Everything, Everything," Meghie goes very soft with “The Photograph,” a new-love viewing experience that’s buttressed by melodrama and staring contests from lead actors Issa Rae and LaKeith Stanfield. The picture pushes a fairly safe sense of PG-13 sensuality and conflict, and while the actors are game to follow Meghie’s slow dance style of filmmaking, they can’t bring the feature any sense of urgency. The jazzy mood and delayed response tends to make “The Photograph” sleepy, which does little to pull viewers in tightly with the story’s blend of relationship worry, sexual response, and generational influence. Read the rest at

Film Review - Birds of Prey


While it wasn’t a fan favorite, 2016’s “Suicide Squad” managed to make a lot of money and introduce the villainous character Harley Quinn to the D.C. Extended Universe, giving the faithful a ray of psychotic light in the midst of a dreary, confused mess. Sensing a breakout character, the powers that be have awarded Quinn her own movie, put in charge of assembling a different type of vigilante squad in “Birds of Prey,” which transforms a once dangerous character into an antihero for maximum box office potential. Edges have been sanded down to give Quinn her close-up, and there’s potential in the material’s vision for teamwork, but “Birds of Prey” isn’t really all that different from “Suicide Squad,” offering a slightly more appealing heap of half-realized characters, hand-holding narration, and repetitive action. It’s certainly colorful with a passable female POV, but whatever the picture was during its scripting phase has not made it to the final cut. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Lodge


In 2015, writer/directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala made a wonderfully unsettling debut with their first feature-length effort, “Goodnight Mommy.” It was spare work, but unnerving, creating an enjoyable nightmare that suffered some pacing issues, but managed to sink its talons into the audience. “The Lodge” is their long-overdue follow-up, which returns the duo to the realm of slow-burn horror, which is all the rage these days, embarking on a mission of psychological distortion with their endeavor, which examines the stains of trauma as a family spends the Christmas holiday in a remote dwelling. Much like “Goodnight Mommy,” “The Lodge” is in no hurry to get anywhere, and while such persistent delay ultimately does damage to the movie’s overall effectiveness as a chiller, it remains clear that Franz and Fiala are gifted genre craftspeople, looking to make ticket-buyers feel the pressure of doomsday without fully explaining what’s coming for them. Read the rest at

Film Review - Come to Daddy


Elijah Wood has been working very hard in recent years to become an interesting actor. He’s selected projects for himself that’ve managed to showcase different sides to his personality and capability, and his interest in the dark stuff (extending to producing duties on “Color Out of Space” and “Daniel Isn’t Real”) has largely paid off. “Come to Daddy” continues Wood’s fondness for unexpected cinema, starring in a dark comedy that opens as a family reunion tale and climaxes at a motel swinger meet-up, and somewhere in the middle there’s a lock-picking scene with a fecal matter-covered pen. Director Ant Timpson works extra hard to make a simple idea expand into dozens of odd scenes, and while the picture runs out of steam long before it ends, there’s a special weirdness to “Come to Daddy” that keeps it gripping and intermittently amusing. Read the rest at

Film Review - Gretel & Hansel


As a tale of temptation and survival, “Hansel & Gretel” has been adapted and reimagined countless times since its debut in 1812. The Brother Grimm fairy tale has been transformed into light and dark entertainment, most recently in 2013’s “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters,” which endeavored to turn the storybook siblings into action heroes. For co-writer/director Oz Perkins, the original tale is an ideal fit for his helming interests, giving him another opportunity to explore slow-burn chills, only now he’s handed a little more marketplace visibility with “Gretel & Hansel,” which delves into Grimm Brother doom, but also keeps up genre trends set by Euro-flavored endeavors such as “The Witch” and “Hereditary.” Perkins aims for cinematic creep with the progressively titled “Gretel & Hansel,” and he’s capable of constructing arresting imagery. It’s storytelling stasis that often flattens the viewing experience. Read the rest at