Film Review

Film Review - Meeting Gorbachev


A lauded documentarian, Werner Herzog often brings his idiosyncratic point of view to his subjects, with a habit of making himself part of the informational approach, securing a defined personality when it comes to the examination of faraway places, future technology, and strange individuals. Herzog isn’t one to make a defiantly confrontational feature, but he’s not big on tongue baths either, with “Meeting Gorbachev” a rare shot of sunshine from the helmer, even while assessing the dark history of Soviet politics. Offered three chances to sit down with the former U.S.S.R. leader, and Herzog tries to remain on task with questions concerning the highs and lows of Gorbachev’s time in power, but he can’t help but feel for the subject’s unusual position as a man who sought clarity in the midst of Communist confusion. “Meeting Gorbachev” takes it easy on Mikhail Gorbachev, but that’s the idea, with Herzog most interested in identifying accomplishments and mourning a lost vision for sanity in an increasingly hostile world. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Poison Rose


“The Poison Rose” is meant to be throwback entertainment, restoring an interest in noir entanglements that haven’t been a staple of big screen entertainment in quite some time. The production isn’t shy about its fondness for the genre, with the lead character living above a movie theater showing “The Maltese Falcon,” while a cat is named Raymond and a character is branded Chandler. I’m sure there are more references to be found, and perhaps finding these touches is more entertaining than the actual film. Loaded with characters and motivations, “The Poison Rose” is a buffet of dangerous activity from untrustworthy characters, but director George Gallo doesn’t show much enthusiasm for the construction of suspense, keeping the feature fatigued and overly expository, turning the central mystery into homework, unable to create a delicious cinematic stranglehold. The production wants the audience to know it understands the basics of classic noir, but it shows limited interest in becoming one. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Perfection


It’s difficult to assemble an B-movie experience these days, as self-awareness and nostalgia tends to dominate the viewing experience, with most filmmakers striving to celebrate the ugly side of storytelling, without truly grasping the needs of such entertainment. Richard Shepard (“The Matador,” “Dom Hemingway”) almost finds a way to resurrect the exploitation experience with “The Perfection,” creating a seductive feature that’s initially about one thing before changing entirely, only to reset one more time, making a neck brace readjustment a requirement for all act breaks. It’s a sinister picture, and Shepard wins points for taking his endeavor to the extreme, but the aggression of “The Perfection” grows tiring in a hurry, with small grotesqueries more effective than the gonzo avenues the production is a lip-licking hurry to explore. Read the rest at

Film Review - Rim of the World


Screenwriter Zack Stentz and director McG are trying to make a next-generation “Goonies” with “Rim of the World,” only instead of kids on their own hunting for pirate treasure, the children featured here are in charge of saving the world from an alien attack. The premise is irresistible, holding the potential for sci-fi adventure and adolescent antics, but the production doesn’t follow through on wonder and silliness. “Rim of the World” is shockingly corrosive instead, with a painful sense of humor and a budget-minded take on intergalactic war, with Stentz trying to muster R-rated shenanigans with material that’s aching for something more special than a collection of lame improvisations and generic young teen rebellion beats. It’s definitely bright and colorful, but the movie has no sincerity. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Brightburn


“Brightburn” offers a premise where a Superman-like figure is born bad. Fans of comic book cinema have seen this before, in “Superman III” and sections of “Justice League,” but writers Brian and Mark Gunn have decided to push the idea into the realm of horror, losing fantasy touches to move full steam ahead into slasher territory. It’s a shame the screenplay doesn’t show more interest in doing something original with a well-worn concept, but this is a low-budget chiller after all, giving the production little room to experiment as it tries to deliver frights. “Brightburn” has promise in its early scenes, moving toward an unsettling confrontation between a wicked alien and loving parents trying to preserve peace, but the Gunns are mostly in this for the gore, cooking up a series of banal stalking sequences, while the overall movie feels half-baked at best. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Rocketman


“Rocketman” has the appearance of a typical musician bio-pic, this time focusing on the highs and lows of Elton John as he grows from a musical prodigy to a rock star. It’s hard to doubt the routine of it all, with “Bohemian Rhapsody” smashing box office records and Motley Crue’s “The Dirt” capturing viewers on Netflix. “Rocketman” isn’t about to deny the popularity of tales involving musicians caught in psychological strangleholds, but this is Elton. Hercules. John. He’s one of the most flamboyant and popular entertainers around, but his life story isn’t complete, with screenwriter Lee Hall and director Dexter Fletcher transforming certain aspects of John’s experience into a jukebox musical that teases delightful fantasy, but mostly fixates on depression. The feature works to pry John open, inspecting his demons and dreams, but the movie only finds intermittent clarity. The rest is frustrating repetition, though star Taron Egerton makes it his personal mission to feel everything offered here in full. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Booksmart


Olivia Wilde is looking to expand her career, taking control of her professional future with a move behind the camera for “Booksmart,” her directorial debut. While she’s been growing as a performer, taking a few interesting risks, Wilde seems most comfortable as a helmer, displaying thrilling confidence with her first feature, which takes on the teen sex romp subgenre and finds ways to disrupt expectations and deliver a clear vision for companionship. It’s a buddy comedy that contains a lot of laughs, but Wilde isn’t completely focused on the jokes, instead working with the screenwriters (Katie Silberman, Sarah Haskins, Emily Halpern, and Susanna Fogel) to deliver stronger characters to best support episodic shenanigans, largely avoiding the grimly vulgar nonsense these types of pictures are known for. Read the rest at

Film Review - Aladdin (2019)


For the second installment of Disney’s Year of Animated Remakes, there’s “Aladdin,” which is a live-action reworking of one of the company’s finest animated offerings, with the 1992 picture filled with heart, humor, and wonderful songs. Following in the footsteps of March’s “Dumbo,” the new release tries very hard to downplay cartoon whimsy and fluidity to become yet another underwhelming, CGI-shellacked event, taking audiences to a version of Agrabah that doesn’t look or sound quite right. Director Guy Ritchie (who co-scripts with John August) has the unenviable task of turning something joyous and relatively simple into an epic summertime blockbuster, continuing his recent big-budget career freefall (following duds “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,” and “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”) with yet another hollow viewing experience devoid of real magic. Read the rest at

Film Review - We Have Always Lived in the Castle


“We Have Always Lived in the Castle” is a highly bizarre picture, and this type of strangeness always has the potential to dissolve in the filmmaker’s hands, requiring someone committed to weirdness without permitting the movie to be dominated by eccentricity. The feature is based on a novel by Shirley Jackson, and screenwriter Mark Kruger makes a specific effort to retain as much literary flavor as possible, organizing curious characters and their fried minds as they interact in tight spaces, inspect the depths of dysfunction. Director Stacie Passon (previously reaching screens with the unusual “Concussion”) miraculously maintains control of tone and threat, giving “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” an intriguing atmosphere, joining Kruger to examine insanity and not lose concentration on the storytelling essentials along the way. Read the rest at

Film Review - Charlie Says


As 2019 becomes the year of Charles Manson and the revival of interest in all the chaos he created, “Charlie Says” (the second of three movies about the man this year) makes an effort to move away from some of the famous imagery and characterization that usually inhabits tales about the cult leader. The focus here is on the women in his life, with special attention on the ways of Leslie Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Susan Atkins. Reteaming after their collaborations on “American Psycho” and “The Notorious Bettie Page,” director Mary Harron and screenwriter Guinevere Turner endeavor to humanize those involved in barbaric crimes, striving to understand the brainwashed drive of three women who were caught up in something they didn’t completely understand, chasing emotional needs to macabre extremes. Read the rest at

Film Review - My Son


The director of “The Girl from Paris” and “Joyeux Noel,” Christian Carion sets up a story of a strange kidnapping for “My Son.” A French production, nothing is immediately clear in the tale (scripted by Carion and Laure Irrmann), which blends the terror of sudden loss and the weight of guilt with those forced to deal with such a horrific invasion. While the nightmare seems to lean toward the bitterness of domestic resentment, Carion has something more visceral in mind, keeping away from a somber Euro analysis of pain to become a thriller of sorts, gifting star Guillaume Canet is own chance to perform in a “Taken”-lite actioner. “My Son” is tense and twisty, and it doesn’t mess around with melodrama, with Carion most interested in feral responses to an unthinkable situation. Read the rest at

Film Review - Avengement


Scott Adkins has amassed a considerable amount of acting credits during his career, but it’s difficult to tell if he’s been truly challenged by any of these roles. He’s played a henchman, a terrorist, a ninja, and more henchmen, basically permitted to perform in movies that require more physical movement than dramatic depth. “Avengement” is definitely a violent endeavor, and there’s plenty of Adkins action where the star is often stuck in a room with multiple baddies, forced to bash his way out of some deadly situations. However, beyond the bloody knuckles is a performance, and one that single-handedly supports “Avengement,” giving it the grit and groan it requires to register as something more than a mindless distraction. Co-writer/director Jesse V. Johnson tries to execute some storytelling gymnastics along the way, but Adkins is the foundation here, delivering perhaps the best performance of his career. Read the rest at

Film Review - Funny Story


“Funny Story” is a very small movie about rather large emotions. Screenwriters Steve Greene and Michael J. Gallagher (who also directs) initially establish a slight Woody Allen-esque vibe to the piece, playing light with relationship woes and uncomfortable pairings, but there’s a serious side to the material as well, and when it hits, it hits hard. Thankfully, before characters elect to bring the pain, there’s playfulness to the feature that’s enjoyable, with star Matthew Glave delivering a performance of effortless charm and sharp timing, giving “Funny Story” a pleasant attitude before it grows completely dark, and at the very last minute too. It radiates film festival catnip, but the picture stands on its own, paying attention to wounded people and their habitual interest in making mistakes. Read the rest at

Film Review - John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum


The genuine surprise of 2014’s “John Wick” led to the equally surprising “John Wick: Chapter 2,” which was the rare sequel to understand what made the original offering tick, electing to develop its strengths while gracefully expanding an assassin universe merely teased in the previous installment. The adrenaline rush should be weakening at this point, but nobody told that to director Chad Stahelski, who returns to active duty with “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum,” keeping up the good fight with an enchantingly chaotic second sequel that’s ready to deliver the battered and shattered goods once again, only this time there’s a distinct plan to move forward with the series instead of banging around from one sequel to the next. Keanu Reeves as John Wick. There’s not much more one needs from the saga at this point, but “Chapter 3” has plenty of eye-opening moments featuring blunt force trauma, and while Stahelski has some difficulty knowing when to cry uncle, he’s more than ready to showcase an exquisite display of stunt work. Read the rest at

Film Review - Batman vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles


They combined forces on comic book pages, and now they’re set to conquer animation. “Batman vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” brings together two beloved superhero properties, though with wildly disparate backgrounds and standings in pop culture history. Screenwriter Marly Halpern-Graser completely understands the assignment and does a terrific job uniting Batman and the Turtles to face a common foe. A few of them, actually. Action-packed and humorous without being excessively goofy, “Batman vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” does really well within budget animation standards, with director Jake Castorena presenting a stylized, PG-13 extravaganza that’s peppered with enjoyable characters and major showdowns, giving fans the breezy, bruising sit they’ve been waiting for. Read the rest at

Film Review - All Creatures Here Below


David Dastmalchian makes his feature-length writing debut with “All Creatures Here Below,” and the actor makes a leap to take control of his career as a character actor, scripting himself a leading role in this downbeat drama. Taking inspiration from Terrence Malick and John Steinbeck, Dastmalchian and director Collin Schiffli present an American story of poverty and travel, trying to find the humanity in pure survival and denial. This is a not a cheery tale of misbegotten liberation, it’s something far grittier and troubling yet impressively managed by the production, which manages to find poetry within a dire living experience. Dastmalchian isn’t afraid to go to dark spaces with the material, but his attention to character behavior cuts through any bleakness, getting to know the personalities presented with unsettling intimacy. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Professor


It’s been a long time since Johnny Depp played a normal human being. Perhaps he’s never played a role perfectly straight, at least since megafame arrived to claim his everyman appeal. “The Professor” provides the most earthbound Depp performance in a very long time, but that doesn’t mean the actor is ready to holster all his thespian quirks. Instead of Depp losing contact with reality to entertain himself, he’s challenged to play a man facing the end of his life, with all sorts of sobering feelings triggered after such a revelation. It’s not an easy turn for anyone, but Depp makes an attempt to dial down his eccentricities for writer/director Wayne Kramer, working hard to follow the helmer’s often bizarre tonal journey that begins with laughs and tries to end with tears, only most of the emotion doesn’t track as clearly as it should, periodically inspiring Depp to manufacture his own version of the movie with expected exaggeration. Read the rest at

Film Review - A Dog's Journey


2017’s “A Dog’s Purpose” had the advantage of being based on a popular novel by W. Bruce Cameron, giving fans a chance to see the book translated for the big screen. Schmaltz was piled high and its sense of humor was dismal, but “A Dog’s Purpose” found its audience, becoming a hit film. And with any box office success comes a sequel, following Cameron’s lead with “A Dog’s Journey,” which is also based on his work, continuing the adventures of Bailey, the canine who loves to die. While the first feature tried to shoehorn existential consideration into a picture that was mainly about extracting tears and arranging poop jokes, “A Dog’s Journey” doesn’t put in the same effort, eschewing deep thoughts to become a tired melodrama, playing like a Tyler Perry movie, but with dogs. Read the rest at

Film Review - Trial by Fire


Director Edward Zwick has made a few terrific features during his lengthy career (including “Legends of the Fall” and “Glory”), but in recent years, he’s lacked the ability to find decent project, dealing primarily with duds such as “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back,” and “Love & Other Drugs.” “Trial by Fire” represents Zwick’s effort to get his moviemaking mojo back, turning to the reliably of message-minded cinema for inspiration. The subject here is the death penalty, which has been examined in many pictures, and “Trial by Fire” doesn’t seem to recognize this reality, going through the motions when it comes to unlikely connections and persistent doubt, while the screenplay by Geoffrey Fletcher heads to extreme manipulation to squeeze some suspense out of what’s a surprisingly uneventful film. Read the rest at

Film Review - A Violent Separation


After struggling to find their footing with their remake of the French chiller, “Martyrs,” directors Kevin Goetz and Michael Goetz aim to bring a more American crisis to life with “A Violent Separation,” which sorts through family hostilities and murder in a rural southern location. The setting is familiar but always has potential, and screenwriter Michael Arkof has a vision to braid together domestic issues and resentments, aiming for a grand sweep of simmering hostilities. “A Violent Separation” doesn’t meet all its creative goals, but the helmers do try to manufacture gut-rot acts of guilt and maintain a mood of paranoia, with hopes to get the feature up to speed as something suspenseful and meaningful when it comes to the ties that bind. Read the rest at