Film Review - Star Wars: The Last Jedi


When we last left the world of “Star Wars,” Rey was about to hand a special lightsaber to Luke Skywalker, arriving at the end of her long, perilous journey to locate the missing Jedi Master. Now, two years later, Luke finally has a little more to do than deliver haunted looks and a long pause. Luke Skywalker speaks in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” which is a promising development. In fact, he does a lot more than simply speak in the eighth chapter of the space fantasy saga, returning to the mess of the galaxy as it succumbs once again to the battle between good and evil. Weirdly, “The Last Jedi” is not a completely Luke-centric movie, with new writer/director Rian Johnson (taking franchise reins from J.J. Abrams) using the aging hero sparingly, concentrating on the group effort as the Resistance squares off against the First Order, summoning a mix of “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” to inspire this latest adventure, which remains thrilling, but only in fits and starts. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle


It was always strange that 1995’s “Jumanji” never received a sequel. Yes, there was 2005’s “Zathura,” which was more of a remake than a true follow-up, but a true continuation of the animal rampage antics never materialized. Now Dwayne Johnson has the urge to battle fantasy creatures, leading an eager cast for “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” which offers a few ties to the earlier picture, but mostly reheats the gameplay formula for a new generation. Director Jake Kasdan and the screenwriters (four in total) try to rework the central concept of panicked adventuring, giving the premise a video game setting, moving away from board games and suburban hellraising to make noise in the tropics. It’s an entertaining romp, wisely avoiding the burden of topping what’s come before, with Kasdan mindful of silly business and CGI chaos as he strives to remain true to character, offering as much personality as this type of extravaganza allows.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Bullet Head


“Bullet Head” is a fairly aggressive title, and conjures images of a brutal actioner starring a host of menacing characters. It comes as a great surprise to learn that the feature, while violent, is more about guys sharing long stories about their lives while an abused dog, one trained to fight, wanders around the setting, periodically chewing on the participants. It’s Quentin Tarantino meets “Jaws,” though writer/director Paul Solet isn’t interested in summoning a rousing genre exercise, preferring to maintain a low-key vibe, preserving the story’s idiosyncrasies. “Bullet Head” is a strange picture, and perhaps it’s ultimately unsatisfying, but Solet maintains his vision throughout, creating an iffy crime story that’s blended with the horrors of animal abuse, adding an unusual wrinkle to the routine of loquacious cretins trying to get away with stolen cash.  Read the rest at

Film Review - El Camino Christmas


Perhaps David E. Talbert hasn’t been the most inspired director in the business, handling titles like “Baggage Claim” and “This Christmas” with some degree of personality, but generally keeping vanilla with softball subjects like family dysfunction and the pitfalls of romance. With “El Camino Christmas,” Talbert graduates to a dark comedy, and one that’s fairly violent, generally choosing antagonisms over laughs. It’s also dreadful, but it’s difficult to tell who’s to blame for this mess, as Talbert tries to deliver professional work with a semi-accomplished cast, while screenwriters Theodore Melfi and Christopher Wehner assemble a familiar display of reckless characters hashing out their differences during a pressurized situation. Perhaps there’s a longer cut of “El Camino Christmas” somewhere, as the version finding release now has been stripped of rhythm and reason. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - The Birthday Party


"The Birthday Party" is the play that reportedly changed the career of writer Harold Pinter, who finally found his voice in this particularly strange offering of kitchen sink abstraction. In the hands of director William Friedkin, the 1968 picture is pulled from the stage to the claustrophobia of cinema, finding the helmer respectful of the source material, but working to make it come alive on the screen, delivering a lively version of an impenetrable play. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - They Shoot Horses, Don't They?


In the long and distinguished career of director Sydney Pollack, a few classics emerged. Think "Three Days of the Condor," "Tootsie," and "Jeremiah Johnson." Perhaps his most interesting effort is 1969's "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?", which immerses viewers into the world of a marathon dance contest during the Great Depression, delivering a vivid depiction of personal need and exhaustion as a simple game for a cash prize turns into a gladiatorial battle among desperate people. An adaptation of Horace McCoy's 1935 novel, "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" is a commanding, harrowing movie, showcasing Pollack's gifts with actors and his ability to visually communicate the physical toil of the contest, which carries on for months, and the helmer is prepared to make the audience feel every single hour of every single day, generating a frightfully precise viewing experience.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Visit to a Small Planet


1960 was a big year for Jerry Lewis, welcoming the release of "Cinderfella" and "The Bellboy," which was the comedian's directorial debut, inspiring greater control over his movies. Arriving earlier in the year was "Visit to a Small Planet," which has the distinction of being a silly Jerry Lewis comedy that originated as a Gore Vidal play. The Vidal-ness of it all has been scrubbed away, but the theatrical presentation remains, with the sci-fi comedy very static and exaggerated. The production itself wants to compete with Lewis's rubbery performance, making this oddball romp with a literally untouchable alien more loud than funny, though the star can always be counted on to make a satisfying mess of scenes.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Just Getting Started


It’s been nearly 30 years since the release of “Bull Durham,” and writer/director Ron Shelton hasn’t come close to replicating the pleasures and textures of his outstanding helming debut. In fact, he’s made a series of mediocre and crummy movies over the last three decades, eventually breaking away from theatrical releases with 2003’s “Hollywood Homicide.” “Just Getting Started” isn’t a return to form for Shelton. In fact, it’s actually the worst picture he’s ever made, returning to screens with a Christmas dud that’s tonally bizarre, lazily performed, and deeply unfunny. Considering that the effort was shot at a luxury Palm Springs resort and features multiple scenes set on a golf course, it’s pretty easy to see why the project came to be. “Just Getting Started” must’ve been a pleasure to shoot, but it’s a horror to watch.  Read the rest at

Film Review - I, Tonya


It isn’t easy to grasp what “I, Tonya” wants to be, and perhaps that’s what screenwriter Steven Rogers (“P.S. I Love You,” “Love the Coopers,” “Kate & Leopold”) is ultimately after with the project, creative an elusive tone for a specialized subject. Nobody was begging for a Tonya Harding bio-pic, and Rogers doesn’t exactly create one with the picture, which doesn’t make much time for the details of Harding’s life beyond her battles with abusive loved ones and the mental and physical combat she endured during her quest to become a figure skating champion. And there’s the whole Nancy Kerrigan thing, referred to here as “The Incident.” There’s a lot to unpack with “I, Tonya,” but Rogers offers only a tug of war match between tonalities, with part of the film trying to remain sincere when dealing with the downfall of a damaged woman, while the rest plays like a John Waters movie, populated with broad characters and cartoony performances.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Gilbert


It’s hard to picture Gilbert Gottfried as a normal person. He’s not the Average Joe type, building a career as a comedian with a specifically nuclear-style stage persona, decimating audiences with X-rated material and ear-splitting vocal volume. He’s a unique persona, but director Neil Berkeley isn’t particularly interested in Gottfried’s professional achievements, using the documentary “Gilbert” to expose the performer’s average domestic experience, searching for the man behind the yelling and raunchy punchlines. Berkeley manages to uncover Gottfried’s true self in the film, and it’s as unsettling as a one can imagine. However, such rarity comes in handy with “Gilbert,” which supplies a fascinating look at a seemingly meek guy who lives to offend, highlighting career experiences and family ties, creating a portrait of a beloved funnyman that’s, at its best, eye-opening, especially when it comes time to observe Gottfried as a husband and father -- two domestic roles few thought he would ever play.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Wonder Wheel


With the career of Woody Allen, there’s expectation for creative peaks and valleys, but lately, the writer/director has been stuck in a rut, serving up a series of clunkers after the stunning success of 2013’s “Blue Jasmine.” After “Magic in the Moonlight,” “Irrational Man,” and “Café Society,” Allen’s slump continues with “Wonder Wheel,” an ill-considered take on romantic folly and dramatic invention. Allen’s working with a significant budget to resurrect ‘50’s-era Coney Island, and he has a fabulously talented lead in Kate Winslet, but Allen being Allen, only the slightest attention has been paid to approachability, leaving “Wonder Wheel” amazingly unlikable and, periodically, unendurable. Allen likes to maintain his one-film-per-year pace, but there are scripts, like this one, that need a little more time in development.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Darkest Hour


It’s been a big year for Operation Dynamo, the 1940 evacuation of Allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, France. The event has already been featured in “Their Finest” and Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster, “Dunkirk,” and now plays a pivotal role in “Darkest Hour,” which explores a critical month in the life of Winston Churchill. The subject also enjoyed another cinematic inspection this year in “Churchill,” but “Darkest Hour” employs a more precise vision from director Joe Wright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten, who use the pressure point of Hitler’s encroaching army to examine the stress of leadership, especially in England, where Churchill rubs against those who would rather surrender than fight. Wright tones down his usual visual flourishes, but his dramatic command is the strongest it’s been in years, mounting a gripping look at the solidification of Churchill’s legacy, aided by a terrific lead performance from Gary Oldman. Read the rest at

Film Review - The New Radical


“The New Radical” introduces the average viewer to the world of Cody Wilson, who, as a young man, decided to release the design of a plastic, 3D-printed gun for the world to download, imagining himself, as the title suggests, to be a champion of First Amendment freedoms, sharing his knowledge with the world. Director Adam Bhala Lough envisions a provocative look at the pliability of American rights and common sense with the documentary, but journalistic intentions fail to materialize. Instead, “The New Radical” is a 105-minute-long commercial for Wilson’s firearms business that’s also filled with zeitgeist-flicking asides on the omnipresence of gun violence and the subject’s connection to a new generation of people looking to rattle the establishment with dark empowerment, using Wilson to detail a David vs. Goliath war between longstanding government rule and Millennials trying to figure out how to implement a new world order.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Snapshot


In the legacy of Ozploitation, it's difficult to understand what "Snapshot" represents to the cinematic tradition. Coming from the makers of "Patrick," which went far to establish the popularity of Australian chillers, "Snapshot" doesn't register with the same level of creepiness, emerging as more of a character drama than something intending to rile up audiences. It's an unusually reserved effort which trusts in the possibilities of patience, never really pursuing a defined plot until most of the movie is already over. Director Simon Wincer and screenwriters Everett and Chris De Roche trust in quieter, conversational moments, and it gives the feature a different approach to unsettling behavior. It lacks most overt surprises, but the nightmare summoned here appears to be psychological in design, tracking the ruin of a young woman who only wanted quick cash and a little taste of independence. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Tenement


Exploitation goes pure and uncut for 1985's "Tenement," a film that takes great pleasure in being incredibly violent, with particular attention to the massacre of its characters. The effort comes from Roberta Findlay, a practiced helmer of sleaze, and she's in a particular mood to deliver a truly uneasy viewing experience detailing the horrors of urban living, taking on the nightmare of the Bronx with full attention to B-movie suffering, sold under the guise of a siege picture. Because of its '80s creation date, some of this aggression hasn't aged particularly well, but sections of "Tenement" still manage to summon their intended noise, with Findlay making sure to linger on unsavory business for as long as she can -- a fixation that inspired the MPAA to slap the endeavor with an X rating for its initial theatrical release, making it even more irresistible to admirers of low-budget hellraising.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Duel in the Sun


After creating a moviegoing phenomenon with 1939's "Gone with the Wind," producer David O. Selznick understandably craved a return to such cultural domination. It took him seven years, but Selznick reunited with epic filmmaking for "Duel in the Sun," an adaptation of novel by Niven Busch, getting him out of the south and into the west, finding a cowboy tale that brimming with volatile personalities and boiling emotions. Sadly, "Duel in the Sun" is not as patient as "Gone with the Wind" when it comes to heated confrontations and tangled relationships, with this need to revive the alchemy of the earlier effort screwing with the timing and emphasis of the new production.  Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Prizzi's Honor


As a director, John Huston has enjoyed an incredible career, dating back to his very first outing, 1941's "The Maltese Falcon." 1985's "Prizzi's Honor" is Huston's penultimate picture, but more importantly, it was the last work that connected with a large audience, becoming a sleeper hit during the "Rambo: First Blood Part II"/"Back to the Future" summer, and eventually going on to collect numerous awards, including an Oscar for co-star Anjelica Huston, his very own daughter. Certainly the movie charmed audiences unprepared for a twisty mafia endeavor with a sly sense of humor, but "Prizzi's Honor" also acquired attention due to Huston's participation, acting as sort of a career capper for a helmer who had a little trouble navigating the late 1970s and early '80s. On its own, the film is mostly just fine, never remarkable, coasting on the abilities of its tremendously talented ensemble, which is teeming with character actors and toplined by then-titans, Kathleen Turner and Jack Nicholson. The Huston touch is there with cultural details and bluntness, but the feature falls a little flat when it gets caught up in plot mechanics. Read the rest at 

Blu-ray Review - Barton Fink


Joel and Ethan Coen rarely take it easy on audiences, but 1991's "Barton Fink" is one of their most puzzling, internalized creations. It's a tough nut to crack, and perhaps it's never meant to be, deliberately playing with enigmas and limited information to create an unsettling atmosphere of personal and creative disintegration. It's pure Coen in many aspects, showcasing a tight sense of style and intimidation, but it also offers a few stretches of dark high jinks to preserve the viewing experience. Coming off arguably their finest effort, 1990's "Miller's Crossing," "Barton Fink" plays like an impish purge of creative frustrations and distractions, with the Coen Brothers, tired of managing a lush period piece, electing to plunge within, crafting the most personal psychological drill job of their careers. Read the rest at 

Film Review - The Breadwinner


It’s fascinating to consider that, recently, the most potent stories of Middle East life and history have been explored through animation. There was “Persepolis” and “Waltz with Bashir,” and now the “The Breadwinner” joins the list. While the feature does inspect a particularly brutal time in Afghanistan history (the Taliban era), the story remains committed to arcs of heroism and perseverance, working to create a sense of hope in the midst of absolute madness. “The Breadwinner” is a thoroughly emotional viewing experience, and while it triggers tears, it’s also a powerful tool of empowerment. The production pursues a particular note of hope found in the bold actions of a little girl in a ruthless land, successfully achieving a portrait of bravery that’s inspiring and riveting, while animation brilliantly balances harsh realities with storybook fantasy. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Disaster Artist


Cult films aren’t made, they’re born, often from the strangest of people, with the best worst movies never made cynically or intentionally, finding oddity just pouring out of the creation naturally. The journey for “The Room” began in 2003, where writer/director/producer/star Tommy Wiseau elected to take his thespian dreams into his own hands, creating an awkward psychodrama to best display his acting gifts to the world. The end result was inept from top to bottom, but its passion for tuneless filmmaking launched the picture as a midnight movie oddity, snowballing in popularity as hip audiences latched on to Tommy’s wacky vision. “The Disaster Artist” tracks the construction of “The Room” from the perspective of its co-star, Greg Sestero, who also wanted to acquire Hollywood glory, only to be mortified by Tommy’s creation. For director/star James Franco, the opportunity to dramatize this prolonged agony of production is irresistible, and his wildly entertaining “The Disaster Artist” is a loving ode to the power of delusion.  Read the rest at