Category Archives: Reviews

REVIEW: ‘Bumblebee’ is a Nostalgia-Fueled Delight

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‘Bumblebee’ has succeeded in delivering such a well-realized and satisfying Transformers film that it’s mind-boggling it took six movies to get here. This is not only the best film in the franchise, it’s one of the most joyous film experiences of the year.

When I resignedly walked into the theater for ‘Bumblebee’ I did not know who the director was. I only knew it was not Michael Bay. This was welcome news after subjecting myself to seeing every single one of the five previous films in the theater. Each inane exercise in bludgeoning CGI blizzardry felt like cinematic self-immolation. Every bloated installment brought along new blooming crises of conscience. “Why am I seeing this in theaters when there are a dozen more worthy films I didn’t support this year? Am I part of the problem?” Of course I’m part of the problem. There really is no excuse. Curiosity mixed with a feeling of pop cultural responsibility does not absolve me. I knew what I was getting going in. And after the two hour mark of every film, dizzied into submission by Bay’s second-unit snake oiling and crammed into increasingly-uncomfortable seats: I paid my price.

It really was more than that. Beneath the constant self -flagellation was a hope born in the nostalgic haze-memories of youth playing with Transformers toys and watching cartoons. I just wanted a good Transformers movie. Surely the infinite monkey theorem would bear fruit at some point. Surely the broken clock would be right at least once someday. It never happened. So although I didn’t know who directed ‘Bumblebee,’ I knew it wasn’t Michael Bay. And that was enough to bring me in, my expectations dragging on the floor behind me. Maybe Anyone-Other-Than-Michael-Bay was the hero we needed.

As it turns out, a quick trip to IMDB would have told me to possess high hopes. That’s okay though. Having low expectations is something I try to embrace as a life philosophy, film should be no exception.

‘Bumblebee’ is directed by Travis Knight and I should not have worried. There is pedigree here. Knight was a lead animator for Laika on films like ‘Coraline,’ ‘ParaNorman’ and ‘The Box Trolls’ before his directorial debut, the marvelous ‘Kubo and the Two Strings.’ Like Brad Bird before him, he has made the leap from animation to live-action with remarkable acumen. The medium of stop-motion specifically has trained him with a sense of patience and thoughtful action-planning that is especially refreshing.

If clear and cohesive action was the only thing ‘Bumblebee’ brought to the table, it would have been enough, but ‘Bumblebee’ overachieves in almost every way. The opening scene is filled with such pitch-perfect fan service that I was on-board from the start. Optimus Prime looks like he is supposed to! Everyone looks like are supposed to! Starscream is there! Soundwave is there! And Ravage! Freaking Ravage!

Gone are muddled and overdesigned messes of gears. This is G1 all the way. My inner-twelve-year-old was already on his feet.

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If G1 Transformers was all ‘Bumblebee’ brought to the table, it would have been enough, but Travis Knight and writer Christina Hodson crafted a heartfelt film that draws spirit from ‘E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial,’ ‘The Iron Giant’ and ‘Short Circuit.’

It may be hard to remember a time before the first ‘Transformers,’ it’s hard to believe there ever was such a halcyon era, but one of the biggest mouthpieces for the first film was executive producer Steven Spielberg. At the time he summoned forth the ‘E.T.’ connection. He said he was first drawn to the project because of the simple story of “a boy and his car.” Unfortunately that took a backseat the to cavalcade of nonsense which would only become more nonsensical as the films went on. Bumblebee was less of a friend to Sam as he was a head-on-a-stick for Shia LeBeouf’s twitchy nerd-bro to shout at.

At the center of ‘Bumblebee’ is Hailee Steinfeld’s Charlie Watson. She is a tomboy who exists as more than a caricature of a tomboy. This film is written by a woman. That should be remarked on. Not only because of it’s rarity in blockbuster cinema, but because of the fact that woman characters who are written by women are seldom as well-realized. Charlie is charming, complicated and real. She is a Smiths-loving, edgy 80s alternateen who still crushes on the washboard-stomached brainless hunk who doesn’t know she exists. Haunted by the sudden death of her father, she endlessly works on the car in her garage that her and her dad used to try to fix. She wants a car more than anything and makes regular trips to the junkyard, scavenging for parts. Her dad was a gearhead and her interest in cars is a way to feel closer to him. In many films her interest in cars would be a fetishized machination of hard-hearted toughness. In this film: it is character. If she can make that car run, maybe her dad will still be alive in some way.

It is one of these trips to the junkyard that she finds and old beaten-up VW bug. She tries to start it and the engine tries to turn over. This is more progress than she has ever made with her father’s classic convertible and after some light teasing, her junkyard-owning uncle gives it to her as a birthday gift. I don’t have to tell you the rest because you already know it. And while you’ve seen this story before, that’s perfectly fine because it works in all the right ways. The mute and clumsy Bumblebee is incredibly lovable and it is here where Knight’s animation background once again brings so much. Hailee Steinfeild who showed great promise as a young actress in films like The Coen Brother’s ‘True Grit’ plays Charlie with a depth and tenderness that shames every other human character in the previous films. There are scenes between her and Bumblebee spoken in whispers that illicit a true feeling of connection.

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The 80s setting is perfect not only as prequel/reboot but is the source for killer musical moments and endless era-appropriate references. Even if it does read at times like more of a cartoon of the 80s than the actual 80s, as this is based on an 80s cartoon, I’m willing to forgive it.

No throwback to 80s escapism would be complete without it’s narrow-sighted and obsessive military pursuer. And in this case he is played by John Cena. While I have found Cena passable in most of his film work, he is definitely the weakest link in the film. Still, his square-jawed buffoon is not a deal-breaker and even his most cringe-worthy moments never reach a hint of the embarrassment of John Turturro’s insufferable Agent Simmons.

Rounding out the cast are Charlie’s delightfully detached mom played by the always-great Pamela Adlon (‘Better Things’, ‘Louie’) and well-intentioned and clueless stepdad Stephen Schneider (‘Broad City’) who are the perfect representation of 80s Positivity-At-All-Costs parents. Finally is the delightful Jorge Lendeborg Jr. playing Memo, Charlie’s lovelorn sidekick who is so hilariously unnecessary and gets so spectacularly friendzoned that the angry Facebook comments almost write themselves. It’s gloriousbumblebee-excl-crop-no-wm

‘Bumblebee’ didn’t need to be this good. It could have coasted by as a better-than-expected pre-boot and simply sought to do no harm. It’s more than that. Travis Knight’s steady hand as an action director and talent for crafting small moments and Christina Hodson’s focus on characters you care about make this a really special film. ‘Bumblebee’ is not great-by-comparison. It’s simply great. I hope this is not only the launching point for a new series of Transformers films that learn from the copious mistakes of the previous films, but also for some of the most talented new voices in filmmaking.

I hope we can put those other ones behind us now. Maybe now we can start to heal.

‘BUMBLEBEE’ IS IN THEATERS NOW

 

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Anna and the Apocalypse (2018) Review

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Anna and The Apocalypse

Directed by John McPhail

https://www.aatafilm.com/

Musicals were once an institute of American cinema but have only found sporadic success during the last half century. Some films might spin integral soundtracks but full on song and dance numbers are not particularly commonplace. Horror is not usually a genre known for its stage adaptations though hits like “The Evil Dead” and “The Toxic Avenger” are ample proof of the possibilities although both of those were heavy on humor and gleeful with the gore making the experience more silly than scary.

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“Anna and the Apocalypse,” a 2017 festival circuit favorite finally making it to wide release and US cinemas is a UK film that mixes the influence of its homegrown horror hallmarks “Shaun of the Dead” and “28 Days Later” harnessing the comedy of the former and over the top gore of the latter (and the somber undertones of both) and mixing with a toe tapping, clap happy sing along ready score.

On the surface, this probably sounds like a truly terrible idea hatched from an executive at Hot Topic studios who is still wondering if some ninjas and pirates should be added in digitally like Jabba The Hutt for the special edition. Reservations are reasonable with a “zombie musical” but Anna and Company stuff stockings with Billboard ready material, blood soaked sets and a very different take on holiday horror.

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The hamlet of Little Haven features a rag tag group of friends, acquaintances and enemies who on the Eve of Christmas awaken to a full-blown zombie apocalypse that’s overtaken the British Isle and as everyone learns, the entire world. The characters do develop over the course of the film through both script and song in the John Hughes mold; nothing is particularly scene stealing or mold breaking but attempts to add depth and discussion in the 90- minute running time and numerous vaudeville numbers succeed more often than they fail.

The core cast of Ella Hunt as the strong and charming Anna, intelligent and awkward outcast Steph played by Sarah Swire, Malcom Cumming portrays Anna’s meek best friend at odds with Anna’s love interest and school bully Chris played by Ben Wiggens while couple Chris and Lisa are played respectively by Chris Leveaux and Marli Siu (who reminds me a bit of a Scottish Sarah Hyland, both in appearance and attitude). All are adept at their acting craft though Ella Hunt, Sarah Swire, Ben Wiggins and Christopher Leveaux have the strongest vocal talents by far.

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And the songs (composed by Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly) are the stars here and not paying heed to the soundtracks best selections would be a sin worthy of the naughty list. The uptempo catharsis of “Break Away” is kind of Kelly Clarkson-like (fitting since the same title was one of her biggest hits, though like that song, this one also sounds like it was co-written by Avril Lavinge) with plenty of power, pathos and pop. “Hollywood Ending” is arguably the catchiest cut of the bunch, reminiscent of something off Radio Disney (the lyrics even name check the House of Mouse) with infectious hooks, gorgeous vocal layers and gooey bubblegum goodness. The in-film school holiday talent show features a short but funny “Fish Wrap” that goes over as well as one would expect but the laugh out loud portion that deserves all the accolades is the absolutely hilarious “It’s That Time of Year” where actress Marli Siu does her best “Mean Girls” song and dance routine with far more risqué lyrics and sexy moves. “Soldier At War” is pure sassy power pop that sounds like a Survivor outtake from a lost sports drama of the 80s with a 21st century gloss. “Human Voice” is another standout, it’s emotional alt rock charm having some real resonance as does the somber curtain call of “I Will Believe” that’s mournful but with a defiant spirit, giving it a gorgeous melancholy warmth. A handful of the these

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What elevates “Anna and the Apocalypse” is that while it has some initial oblivious reactions from the cast to the zombie hordes (especially evident in a memorable musical number that apes “Shaun of the Dead” with a loving homage to that horror comedy classic) the very real chaos, confusion and loss that would occur if such a catastrophe were to occur is never dampened. Many die, selfish nature abounds, the dark side of humanity rises – all common fodder for post-apocalyptic cinema but having balls to the wall brutality contrasted with sunshine showtunes creates a dichotomy that makes “Anna and the Apocalypse” a better film than most would expect and likely, a future holiday film tradition for many.

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The House That Jack Built “The Director’s Cut” (2018) Review

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The House That Jack Built (The Director’s Cut)

Directed by Lars Von Trier

www.ifcfilms.com/films/the-house-that-jack-built

When the first reviews out of the prestigious Cannes Film Festival are “audiences walked out in disgust,” that’s usually the cue to head on in. The committee already imposed a ban on director Lars Von Trier for questionable comments in 2011 and his films have been described as “daring,” “intelligent” and “a triumph” while reviews for his latest “The House That Jack Built” have included “an ordeal of gruesomeness and tiresomeness that was every bit as exasperating as I had feared” per Peter Bradshaw at The Guardian or take Jessica Kiang of The Playlists advice and “kiss your children. Go for a walk in the park. Eat a tomato like it’s an apple. Attach a love letter to your payment for the gas bill. Throw some pebbles into a fountain. Learn a few phrases in Xhosa. Defrost the freezer. Do anything — it really doesn’t matter what — rather than go and see Lars Von Trier‘s The House That Jack Built.”

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While no urge ever overcame to exit the theatre during the director’s cut of “The House That Jack Built” extended running time of 152 minutes (the MPAA approved R classified theatrical version shaves off about 20 minutes) it’s understandably not rated E for Everyone. There’s copious amounts of art house aesthetic, stark samples of stock footage, William Blake/Friedrich Nietzche philosophical musings and many of the trappings Von Trier viewers have come to expect but at it’s dark, cold heart “The House That Jack Built” is a sort of “Fight Club” meets “American Psycho” where the violence is localized, drawn out and savage. And everyone knows as Jack is more than open in discussing his perverse proclivities with girlfriends, shop keeps and even law enforcement – there are no rules, you can talk all you want and no one will believe, no challenge will be made, the hunt must continue. Some have taken it as nothing more than a spectator sport of patriarchal, Patrick Bateman approved glee, others as a mission ordained from an unseen force and a drawling, disembodied narrator Verge (who eventually does appear in the films end) or even as simply a force of nature who is an integral part of the vicious but vital cycle where evil is indiscriminate and uncaring.

In the five distinct incidents (labeled in numerical order) Jack and Virgil invite us into, we get to know Jack through roughly a decade plus in 1970s/80s Washington state as he kills a bevy of victims including Uma Thurman, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Sofie Grabol and finally Riley Keough who could be viewed the centerpiece of the slaughter, though the onslaught does not end there. There is no doubt that Jack is a serial killer, a predator stalking not only in the shadows but in broad daylight. In the beginning, we are witnesses to the fact that he is not a suave, efficient murderer but a bumbling, shortsighted shell of a man who makes endless mistakes riddled by Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that give the first half of “The House That Jack Built” a Christopher Guest like mockumentary feel. Those hoping for “American Psycho” may be surprised and amused to see that Jack is not exactly the “Best In Show” when it comes to a killing spree.

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The second section descends like Dante into the circles of the Hell that Jack is both living in and that which he has created. His murders are more refined but also increasingly brazen, a craft perfected but purpose diminished; metaphorically and literally Jack is building a house, the physical one subject to scenes that beckoned for a Randy Newman song while the other is a grotesque garland befitting sonic contributions by Aphex Twin.  We do get to see the frustrations and fruits of Jack’s labor but it’s not a particularly satisfying or filling meal; the appetizer and main course are nourishing if undercooked but the bloated dessert service is anything but a treat. Some may be sickened by the violence and inhumane but devoted gorehounds are going to find this one a chore and not from boredom but because like this year’s other overdrawn entries, “Mandy” and “Suspiria” there is an appetite for more content and quality, not length and pomp.

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As a fair warning to those with sensitive palates, and is often the case for most the harm done to a baby animal by an elementary age Jack elicited the largest & loudest pangs of disgust from the audience; a revolting display to be sure but sadly ironic when the film feast on screen was paired with the side dish in the seats dining upon animals slaughtered in horrific fashion to satiate a much more real bloodlust than the gallons of Karo syrup dripping in each scene. Save for the finale, all the victims are women and children which has caused much fervor in traditional circles as well as enormous anger in the perpetually pissed SJW mob online and off but Jack’s statement is not political or socially motivated; it’s difficult to find any real meaning in his actions and that best describes most real-life monsters. The whole experience is par for the course in the end and it makes it no more outrage worthy or outrageous; this was done nearly 40 years ago with “Maniac.”

Matt Dillon plays his best Frank Zito, albeit more refined and successful but certainly not better than the late, great Joe Spinell. Dillon has always been an immensely talented actor and his work here doesn’t slouch but also feels more imitation than innovation. The remaining cast is rather stock and we rarely feel for most of them, likely Tier’s (and Jack’s) desired paradigm but even some of the most flimsy characters of the 80s slasher heyday were more likeable and memorable than those here.

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If “The House That Jack Built” foundation followed the first half throughout the entirety of the film going into further manic and absurdist territory, a greatest investment could have been garnered. The cast, cinematography, script all had  As it stands, this is one that would best remain a rental; purchase the recently released 40th Anniversary of “Maniac” and take solace in much better bloody sleaze…

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The Possession of Hannah Grace (2018) Review

The Possession of Hannah Grace

Directed by Diederik Van Rooijen

www.possessionofhannahgrace.movie/

“The Exorcist” is celebrating its 45th anniversary this year bearing the honorary title of “the scariest film ever made” and without a doubt could also be considered the most imitated. If not for the slasher boom born of the late 70s/early 80s hopes to duplicate the runaway success of “Halloween,” the glut of green pea spewing demonic darlings dotting the cinematic landscape of the first half of the “Me Decade” would probably hold the copycat crown. The latter half of the 1980s and pretty much all the 1990s abandoned the subgenre until the “The Exorcist” itself spilled into theaters to shock the next generation at the start of the new millennium with “The Version You’ve Never Seen” and a few years later with a prequel that failed not once but twice to put a spell on audiences. Then a curious casting occurred as films like “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” “Paranormal Activity,” “The Possession,” “The Devil Inside,” “The Last Exorcism” and “Deliver Us from Evil” filled studio collection plates, even if not all offerings overflowed with critical praise. The films are usually cheap (“Paranormal Activity” allegedly cost $15k or possible less,) have small to medium casts, often only a few locations and usually don’t require any marquee names to deliver an ROI that would seem to be indicative a deal with the proverbial devil. “The Possession of Hannah Grace” fits all these categories and more; made for about $10 million ($20 million plus if you factor in advertising), has a principal cast of 8 largely unknown actors (the three leads are all TV series mainstays) and almost all locations are interior. While no major risk was taken here in any sense, it also leads to no spectacular payoff.

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“The Possession of Hannah Grace” does start with a promising premise and a bit of a ballsy move with the titular characters exorcism’s end lasting the whole of a five-minute prologue with Hannah dead by her father’s (genetic not Catholic) own hand. Three months later and we meet Megan (Shay Mitchell) who has begun a graveyard shift at a Boston hospital morgue, a role where she will be alone battling her own demons, many of which are from her previous position as a cop on the beat. She adjusts well to the new position until she encounters a stranger attempting to break into the sealed sanctity of the morgue and its further violation with the arrival of the bruised, bloody and battered body of Hannah Grace (well played by Kirby Johnson), her icy blue eye agape, fiery, penetrating. Every goes awry; the photographic equipment malfunctions, the lights flicker, the threat grows…

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Megan, her friend Lisa (who is also a nurse at the hospital, played by Stana Katic) and Andrew (Grey Damon who is a former fellow officer and Megan’s one-time boyfriend) all realize the impending doom far too late with the other denizens of the zero hour evening (an EMT named Randy played by Nick Thule, a pair of security guards Ernie and Dave portrayed by Jacob Ming-Trent and Max McNamara respectively) while Hannah stalks the night. While a few of the characters fates are well done (including the introduction), most are very repetitive. A couple scenes elicit some genuine unease but many are environmental and involve Hannah minimally, if at all. Her makeup and the SFX are creepy but with a lean 90-minute running time, the slow burn is minor – enough to singe but never engulf. Everyone turns in a decent performance but there’s neither an abundance or even quality of scares to make “The Possession of Hannah Grace” memorable. Those hopeful for the excellent “Autopsy of Jane Doe” (whose premise this film apes more than a little) are likely to leave thinking of “The Lazarus Effect.”

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“The Possession of Hannah Grace” is a popcorn possession film in the vein of “The Devil Inside” or “The Possession” – it won’t revive your faith in the subgenre but it’s a fun little service, an apt enough exercise in exorcism.  If the script (originally titled “Cadaver”) had been more willing to do something even half as bold and cerebral as “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” this could have harbored real substance. Instead the line was towed (or is that toetagged?) that though “The Possession of Hannah Grace” isn’t dead on arrival, its debut box office performance, critical thrashing and this viewing don’t have much hope for a second coming of “The Exorcist” – all one can do now is pray for Hannah Grace…

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Overlord (2018) Review

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Overlord

Directed by Julius Avery

https://www.paramount.com/movies/overlord

The horrors of war are well known; they’ve been disseminated through top of the day news, harrowing firsthand accounts, battlefield reenactments and demonstrating the immense power of the medium, in the moving pictures and soaring scores of films.  Most maintain, or at least attempt to preserve historical accuracy in the bravery & brutality of conflict though as is common in the movie business these are scrapped in lieu of dramatic narratives, romantic plot points and modern social & political influence often resulting in rampant revisionism.  When it comes fantasy, science fiction and especially horror, most of these are tossed out the proverbial window or work to find a balancing act between fact & fiction; Julius Avery’s “Overlord” falls somewhere in between; it’s harrowing, intense and completely over the top action-packed fun.

War horror is nothing new with its own small but dedicated subgenre (“Deathwatch,” “Outpost,” “Frankenstein’s Army” – hell, even “Dog Soldiers” counts among the comrades) or the shellshock exemplified by classics like “Deathdream,” “The Keep,” “Ravenous” and “Jacob’s Ladder” but “Overlord” may be the biggest, boldest blockbuster attempt at bringing the demonic frontlines to the big screen.

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It is the eve of D-Day and a ragtag group of young paratroopers is preparing to descend upon a radio tower they’ve been tasked to destroy but are shot down and must scale across enemy territory under cover of night with a skeleton crew led by Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell) and encompassing the stoic Boyce (Jovan Adepo), loudmouth sniper Tibbett (John Magaro) and combat photographer Chase (Ian De Casestecker.)  They soon encounter a local young woman Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier) who takes them to their crumbling chateau home to her young brother Paul (Gianny Taufer) and an unnamed aunt (played by a disfigured and completely unrecognizable Meg Foster.) As they attempt to complete their mission with limited infantry, artillery and hope, their hand is forced by SS Capt. Wafner (Palou Asbaek) who attempts to rape Chloe and due to Boyce’s armed intervention shows that there is more than one face of hell in times of war…

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To say more is a spoil is due only the viewer/victor and while it’s obvious something inhuman is occurring inside the church the Nazi radio tower is housed in to match the evil outside, it’s origin as scientific, supernatural or a blend of both is better left unsaid and the bulk of the fun. While “Overlord” is not connected to the “Cloverfield” universe as many of producer JJ Abrams’ acolytes had hopes for, “Overlord” has more than enough sci-fi horror sparks to satiate any of that franchises diehards and then some. Hell, there’s so much balls out insanity here, I can see fans of properties diverse as “Hellboy,” The Punisher,” and “Wolfenstein” having lots of fun. Screenwriter Billy Ray (whose penned less than stellar features like “Volcano” and “Color of Night” and could-have-been-great titles like “Flightplan” and “Secret In The Eyes”) delivers a serviceable script that’s punched up immensely by the trio of powerhouse performances by the heroic Joyan Adepo, the intense Wyatt Russel with a Busey like tinge of rubber faced madness and the classic villain Palou Asbaek who chews dialogue with a serial flare. A salute to the great Bokeem Woodbine is in order who much like his turn in “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is a standout here despite being so limited; he makes every moment on screen count and deserves more big budget vehicles to showcase his prowess.

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For those who have an appetite for gore, wartime or otherwise “Overlord” may be the bloodliest studio film of the year, save for possibly the incredible “Upgrade.” Not only are there ample amounts of blood, guts and assorted human chum, there are more than a few on screen moments that have a Cronenberg like level of body horror that caused many audience members to recoil in disgust which should be the only endorsement needed…so if the opportunity for an IMAX screening arises, it is your duty to pay the surcharge. There’s an “Inglorious Bastards” level of Nazi killing which is always a plus but truly the legacy of “Overlord” may be that it’s the closest to a cinematic adaptation of the landmark “Wolfenstein” one is likely to see.

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“Overlord” is war horror for both the mainstream that can stomach it enough to celebrate it and the diehard fans in the foxhole that have been championing this niche genre for many on screen engagements. It is unlikely to have the tickertape heavy box office homecoming the studio desires but it’s ability to act adeptly as a live-action precode comic, revisionist war drama and big budget B movie speaks volume of its talent and valor that hopefully will have many others ready to re-enlist….

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