Film Review - Speech & Debate


I suppose the knee-jerk reaction to “Speech & Debate” is to compare it to the “Glee,” the television phenomenon that brought music, drama, and diversity into American homes, identifying teen liberation through the performing arts. The material is actually an adaptation of a play by Stephen Karam, who assumes screenwriting duties for his big screen debut. While it has the potential to be snarky, dim, and thin, “Speech & Debate” is downright wonderful at times, eschewing the plastic teen routine to create dimensional characters facing interesting personal and educational challenges, while comedic efforts are shockingly effective, keeping the laughs and mild amounts of absurdity coming as director Dan Harris (who hasn’t helmed a movie since 2004’s “Imaginary Heroes”) creates a bright take on adolescent insecurities and rebellion.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Win It All


Building an impressive filmography of modest, improvised dramedies (including “Happy Christmas,” “Digging for Fire,” and “Drinking Buddies”), writer/director Joe Swanberg adds to his fortunes with “Win It All.” Joined by co-writer/star Jake Johnson, Swanberg constructs an itchy, funky depiction of a gambling addict on the path to a bruised redemption, navigating impulses and an unlikely romance along the way. Like everything Swanberg does, it’s unassuming work, but this time he’s dealing with a special disease, which offers the normally sedate helmer a chance to experiment with more defined tension. Hilarious and horrifying, “Win It All” gives Johnson the best role of his career, reuniting with Swanberg to portray a dimensional human being who can’t quite work up the interest to pull out of his personal tailspin, gifting the actor a psychological challenge he completes with impressive skill. Read the rest at

Film Review - Going in Style


With a cast that includes Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Arkin, it’s impossible for “Going in Style” to go wrong. But director Zach Braff comes close. A remake of a 1979 Martin Breast comedy that starred George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg, “Going in Style” has retained its pain of aging, but updates the world around these cantankerous senior citizens, with the new take focusing on the injustices of the American banking system, and how such cruelty has become casual, even legal. While boasting a screenplay by Theodore Melfi (who recently helmed “Hidden Figures”) and the sheer charisma of its leading men, who deliver feisty performances, Braff keeps the sunshine bright in what was originally a somewhat bleak endeavor. With its edges sanded off, the movie is reduced to pure entertainment, and that’s a creative challenge Braff periodically bungles. Read the rest at

Film Review - Queen of the Desert


In a case of weird timing, “Queen of the Desert” is actually the second Werner Herzog film released this week. In “Salt and Fire,” Herzog plays to his interests in art-house investigation, using strange rhythms and gorgeous cinematography to explore human oddity and environmental ache. In “Queen of the Desert,” the writer/director tries to pull off a more mainstream viewing experience, leading with romance and cinematic sweep as he dramatizes the life and times of English writer Gertrude Bell. Utilizing a larger budget and working with an eclectic cast, Herzog has the right idea here, following in David Lean’s footsteps as the saga touches on cultural shifts and adventurer solitude. What’s lacking from the picture is focus, often caught lingering on the love life of a woman who achieved and experienced far more than attention from multiple suitors.  Read the rest at

Film Review - Mine


In an unusual development, “Mine” is the second European production about the threat of landmines to hit U.S. shores in 2017. Denmark’s “Land of Mine” brought its share of intensity and horror as it visited the terrors of World War II to inspire its take on the omnipresent threat of buried explosives. Italy’s “Mine” doesn’t have the same regality, but it does have a lead turn from Armie Hammer, the America star of “The Lone Ranger,” “The Social Network,” and “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” Hammer is the big draw for the movie, which largely rests on his ability to fill 100 minutes of screen time with varying degrees of suffering, confusion, and enlightenment, remaining the sole focus of the effort. It’s a hard work for Hammer, who’s trapped in feature-length effort that should’ve been a short film instead, with directors Fabio Guaglione and Fabio Resinaro failing to come up with enough substance to keep the film compelling. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Assignment


Director Walter Hill has shared his love of B-movies throughout his career, only tripping over himself when trying to bring his scrappy sensibilities to blockbuster entertainment. His fondness for westerns and cold-blooded violence is reheated for “The Assignment,” which embraces hitman formula while giving the picture a strange twist on the killing machine routine, playing broadly with changes in gender and time. I’m sure Hill had a blast putting the film together, and there’s a palpable sense of mischief at work to lubricate the body count. However, while “The Assignment” is nonsense, it’s not especially interesting nonsense, watching Hill flounder as he tries to make a potentially distasteful premise into a graphic novel-inspired romp that’s miscast and entirely free of suspense. Read the rest at

Film Review - Salt and Fire


It was established a long time ago that writer/director Werner Herzog exists on his own planet of filmmaking interests. Never one to follow trends or structure, Herzog has been focusing on documentaries over the last decade, with the occasional narrative-driven feature popping into view. “Salt and Fire” appears to be an ultimate combination of the helmer’s love of drama and the natural world, crafting an intimate study of two people trying to figure each other out as the end of the world begins to take shape. “Salt and Fire” isn’t a disaster movie, but Herzog has his urgencies to share with ticket-buyers, once again employing his special brand of idiosyncrasy to relive the picture of the expected. Perhaps the endeavor doesn’t stitch together as cleanly as it could, but it’s always 100% Herzog. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Discovery


In terms of going for the Big Idea, “The Discovery” swings for the fences. The screenplay by Justin Lader and Charlie McDowell (who also directs) takes a look at the afterlife, not as an abstract concept constructed by religious ideology, but a very real place -- a plane of existence that one man has discovered and the world is stampeding to get there. There hasn’t been a movie like this in quite some time, giving the production a chance to create something profound, unsettling, and downright brave, while still handling a sci-fi concept that wouldn’t be out of place during the dystopia gold rush of the 1970s. And, for at least half the run time, it feels like writers are on to something amazing. Cruelly, “The Discovery” doesn’t follow through on its initial promise, eventually losing its nerve to challenge and amaze, soon relying on the indie film playbook to connect the dots, which is an impossible task when dealing with life after death. Read the rest at

Film Review - Bethany


“Bethany” is a horror film, and while it’s filled with blood and ghoulish images, its most shocking visual is the casting of Tom Green in a supporting role. The habitual prankster and comedian who shot to fame in the 1990s, Green is normally associated with broad antics and extreme repetition, exploring the limits of anti-comedy, and then going beyond them for indulgent emphasis. However, Green plays it mostly straight in “Bethany,” which strives to execute a macabre ghost story featuring a haunted house and a tortured soul. Thankfully, there’s more to the effort than Green, who’s an odd presence in an otherwise mildly effective B-movie, with co-writer/director James Cullen Bressack cooking up a proper chiller after an extended introduction. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Ticket


Co-writer/director Ido Fluk doesn’t have an original idea with “The Ticket,” but the chance to work with metaphor and biblical despair inspires him to approach the material with emphasis on its visual presentation. It’s a movie that doesn’t even open with a focused image for its first five minutes, introducing a world partially inhabited by the blind with a sensorial immersion that sets the mood for the rest of the feature. “The Ticket” isn’t wholly successful with storytelling essentials, and surprises are few and far between in the picture, but Fluk is good with his cast, getting the effort into all the uncomfortable corners of temptation its hunting for, achieving dramatic goals through living, breathing performances and an unusual appreciation for some aspects of the sightless world. Read the rest at

Film Review - In Search of Israeli Cuisine


Food has become a popular subject for documentarians in recent years, lavishing attention on the power of cuisine (“Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” “Spinning Plates”) and its poisonous possibilities (“Fed Up”). Food remains a powerful mystery to many, inspiring filmmakers to travel to its source, to decode what defines regional tastes, showcasing a tour of artistry and delicacy along the way. For writer/director Roger Sherman, Israel provides a particular challenge of interpretation, spotlighting a country where influence from surrounding areas and personal histories has built local flavor. To help guide this odyssey into food and culture, “In Search of Israeli Cuisine” brings in restaurateur/chef Michael Solomonov, who grew up in Israel, eternally curious about his homeland’s inhabitants and their varied interpretations of food and family. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Frank and Lola


Michael Shannon is an intense actor, and he's maintained a career interest in playing intimidating or fried men, using his natural way with darkness to create often memorable characters that have complete contempt for humanity in common. Perhaps one day Shannon will stun the world with his portrayal of the Easter Bunny, or perhaps he'll star in a music bio-pic about Raffi, but for now, he's trying to corner the market on hard men, and he's doing a wonderful job. "Frank & Lola" isn't a professional detour for Shannon, but it does manage to harness his gift for threatening behavior, with writer/director Matthew Ross (making his helming debut) capturing raw nerve work from the actor, allowing him to define the unsettling tone of this burning, disquieting drama. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - One Million Years B.C.


Taking a chance on the creation of the universe, Hammer Films goes way back in time for 1966's "One Million Years B.C." It's no documentary, showing little regard for natural science and history, instead plowing ahead as a fantasy where more attention is paid to the precision of push-up bras than the true stats of prehistoric creatures. It's a remake of a 1940 effort, but director Don Chaffey doesn't seem inhibited by the recycling job ahead of him, bringing in special effects deity Ray Harryhausen to deliver some bang for the buck, imagining and animating all type of monstrous foes for the characters to battle. And when all else fails, there's Raquel Welch, who, in her own way, is an even more dynamic special effect, taking top billing as the pivotal tribal woman running around the cooling Earth clad in little more than a loincloth. There are half-naked actors, rampaging dinosaurs, volcanic disasters, and very little dialogue. What's not to love here? Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - B.C. Butcher


While most teenagers are lost in concern about social standing, personal appearance, and educational performance, Kansas Bowling decided to pour her energy into making a movie. Well, at least half of one, hiring a cast and crew to make the "B.C. Butcher," a 52-minute-long ode to juvenile and monster cinema of the 1950s and '60s. Bowling is a child and she's made a childish picture, lacking a great deal of polish more seasoned talent would be able to conjure. However, with a tight squint and careful control of the fast-forward button, there's a moderate amount of entertainment value to be found in "B.C. Butcher," showcasing Bowling's interest in silly business and grisly encounters. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Don't Answer the Phone


Many questions arise after a viewing of 1980's "Don't Answer the Phone," including the very meaning of the title. Phones are answered during the course of the picture, but there doesn't seem to be any malicious intent attached to the act. In fact, phone answering is almost campy, with the film's introduction detailing a conversation between nurse in her apartment settling in for the night and her mother, who's clearly being voiced by a man. Perhaps a better title for the production would be "Don't Aspire To Be a Model" or "L.A. Looked Fun in the 1970s." Despite a nonsensical title, "Don't Answer the Phone" has a pretty clear idea of what it wants to be, going full steam ahead as a sexploitation event that's very comfortable separating actresses from their clothing, while violence is favored over actual screenwriting. Director Robert Hammer keeps the basics of cops and criminals here, using formula to support more particular interests in sleazy murder sequences and a heaping helping of psychological disease. It's not a particularly pleasant endeavor, but there are select moments where the effort becomes so unhinged, it achieves a level of absurdity that makes it hard to resist. Read the rest at

Film Review - Ghost in the Shell


The drive to bring “Ghost to the Shell” to the screen isn’t perplexing. What began life as a manga series graduated to a respected animated film adaptation in 1995, which launched its own universe of sequels and reimaginings. It’s juicy fantasyland material with velvety sci-fi edges, making it catnip for a director who’s skilled at bringing out rich futureworld detail to help backdrop an intimate saga of identity. Sadly, the producers landed on Rupert Sanders, a visual wizard but a storytelling snoozer, who’s already displayed his allergy to cinematic momentum in 2012’s inexplicably successful “Snow White and the Huntsman.” Sanders delivers urban sweep with “Ghost in the Shell,” and his command of design elements is appreciable. However, the feature is a leaden, bizarrely uneventful blockbuster that’s heavy with CGI and light on dramatic content, attempting to dazzle instead of engage, leaving it all cold to the touch. Read the rest at

Film Review - All Nighter


It’s strange that “All Nighter” has very limited interest in becoming a farce when it has all the ingredients to do so. Director Gavin Wiesen plays the feature carefully, almost fearful of allowing it to snowball into a series of crazy encounters in different locations, instead trying to find the truth in scenes that demand insanity. It’s not an especially effective movie, with “All Nighter” rarely making time to form its own personality as it plays up Long Night formula. Wiesen and screenwriter Seth W. Owen have the concept of clue gathering and charged interactions for their askew detective tale, but the picture desires to be funny, and it’s never that. It’s flat work crying out for more inventive leadership. Read the rest at

Film Review - Peelers


There have been a few attempts to detail horror insanity occurring inside a strip club. “From Dusk Till Dawn” is perhaps the most famous example of the breasts-and-blood formula, while “Zombies vs. Strippers” is the more memorably titled endeavor. “Peelers” is a latest addition to the subgenre, and there’s a clear desire to deliver a goopy, icky chiller that’s capable of delivering overwhelming gore while still remaining comedic enough to sustain a B-movie mood. Director Seve Schelez has exploitation interests, and “Peelers” has the right idea for R-rated entertainment, but what begins as something silly, populated with oddball characters, eventually becomes deadly serious, which is a strange tonal direction for a picture that features an extended scene of an exotic dancer spraying urine on her customers. Read the rest at

Film Review - Here Alone


It’s a big, dark world out there, and screenwriter David Ebeltoft and director Rod Blackhurst are going to make viewers feel every last second of suffering and solitude. “Here Alone” has the unenviable task of coexisting in a world where “The Walking Dead” is the biggest show on television, bravely submitting yet another post-apocalyptic depiction of a world overrun with zombies and populated with anguished people making difficult, soul-flattening choices during their trials of survival. There are a few other movies the production pinches from, yet all this familiarity doesn’t translate to comfort, with “Here Alone” a slog to get through, content to reach a level of stillness which is supposed to translate into profundity, but it merely remains stillness. An action spectacle isn’t expected here, but Blackhurst’s allergic reaction to pace and dramatic discovery is often painful to sit through. Read the rest at

Blu-ray Review - Blue Money


1971's "Blue Money" is a domestic drama and a procedural feature about the production of pornography, mixing some soulfulness into an effort that's primarily about sneaking in as much skin as possible. Director Alain Patrick funnels his experience in adult entertainment into this movie, hope to bring to the screen an authentic recreation of life as a porno producer, with all the flakes, crooks, and fear involved, often preventing a smooth assembly of sex. As a semi-documentary, "Blue Money" is actually quite interesting, capturing corners of the skin business that aren't normally addressed, going a long way to demystify how the industry works. The rest of the film isn't nearly as compelling, finding Patrick too enamored with himself to honestly attack his woeful lead performance and uninspired screenplay. Read the rest at