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Ready or Not

Best Hide and Seek champ since Bigfoot?
I realize that a lot of people have seen the more-recent Knives Out, which has a similar plot (rich people, big mansion, murder), but those similarities are superficial. Ready or Not is much more in the vein of You're Next, a family gathering gone awry, a horror movie with spots of comedic activity, and just as bloody. Here, Grace (Samara Weaving), having just married Alex (Mark O'Brien) at his super-rich family's super-big house, learns on her wedding night that she must play a game in order to be accepted into the family. The game is chosen through mystic randomness, and previous players have selected games like chess and Old Maid. Grace, though, gets Hide and Seek. Sounds like a fun game to play, especially in such a large building that's filled with tons of nooks, crannies, dumbwaiters, smart waiters, you name it. But it's not meant to be fun, as we soon find out - the family members, while Grace innocently hides, arm themselves with rifles, handguns, knives, and even a crossbow. How can she win? Grace wonders. Last until daylight, she's told. Good luck with that! The upsides of this movie far outweigh its main problem, that there's a real lack of chemistry between Weaving and O'Brien. The supporting cast is fine, but Andie McDowell, playing Alex's mother, is a real standout; it's a lot of fun to see the star of Groundhog Day and sex, lies, and videotape in a real horror movie, and she steals every scene with a commanding performance. And there's just enough humor to counteract some of the darker themes and scenes, particularly in the final act.

The Forgotten

Kind of place where even the staff is a little bonkers
A comely blonde nurse, wearing a microskirt but otherwise looking quite professional, shows up at a remote sanitarium at the behest of the doctor in charge and finds that the doctor is now deceased and the whole place is in an uproar. Nurse Beale (Rosie Holotik) is quickly informed of the doctor's demise by a Dr. Masters (Annabelle Weenick), who declares herself in charge. But this isn't your typical asylum; no, the patients wander the halls, mingling with the two-person (!) staff. The staff even have rooms right next to those of the patients! And these patients aren't the benign type that just need a little freedom to cure themselves of what ills them - they are crazed pests, nymphomaniacs (back when that was an actual mental illness), ax murderers, and delusional. Our Miss Beale tries her best to work with Dr. Masters, but of course - with a title like this - the bodies begin to pile up. I can confirm, however, that there is indeed a basement in this movie and that one should not look in it. One should find cause to avoid said basement. Interestingly enough, though, the basement doesn't even make an appearance until the movie's mostly over, and even then it's sort of incidental to the plot (such as it is). Is this a bad movie? It is not a good movie. But there is a twist at the end that elevates oh so slightly from being a one-dimensional slasher pic to something a little more devious and weighty. I'd still stay out of the basement, though.

The Nines

Nine times... nine times....
Do you like mind-flipping movies? I mean the ones that, when all is said and done, make you question what you've just witnessed? Not the ones in which every other scene tries to outshock the one that preceded it, I'm talking about psychological tornadoes. The Nines is three smaller stories wrapped up in one, in which the same actors play different roles but they each connect to one another. Ryan Reynolds plays a washed-up actor, a TV writer, and a video-game designer; Hope Davis plays his neighbor, a TV show runner, and a mysterious hitchhiker; Melissa McCarthy plays a PR flack, Melissa McCarthy herself, and a doting wife/mom. And it all comes back to The Nines. What are the nines, anyway? The adventurous among us may recall the movie The Number 23 with Jim Carrey. Poor guy thought he saw the number 23 all over the place, and it's the same with Reynolds and 9. Or is he the nine? I realize none of this review/summary makes an ounce of sense, but the movie does, especially when it's over. It's not one of those movies that one can fully appreciate until it's over, because that's when you realize the clues were there, somewhere, all along. The Nines is a highly existential psychological film that is driven by three strong performances, particularly by McCarthy and Davis, and since I hadn't even heard of it until a few years ago, I guess it's safe to say it underwhelmed at the box office and with critics. But it's so worthwhile.

Let's Scare Jessica to Death

Too slow to capture imagination or attention
This movie felt to me almost unfinished. The plot is fairly staightforward, as a woman recovering from a breakdown moves to the country and encounters strange happenings in and around her possibly haunted new home. There's a name for this sort of thing: gaslighting. Is Our Heroine Jessica being gaslighted? Or even gaslit? Or are these weird goings-on actually, you know, real? The trouble with the film is that it plods along for more than an hour before cramming a lot of plot into the final ten or fifteen minutes. Did Jessica see a mute blonde girl or an apparition? Why are the townsfolk so rude and unwelcoming and mysterious cut about the face? (For that matter, why aren't there any women in the town?) Who is the strange newcomer Emily, who appears to be squatting in Jessica's new home when she arrives? What's Emily connection to the house or the town or literally anything else in the movie? The audience knows from the get-go that Jessica's not going crazy (again), and when her husband and friend are skeptical that she's seen what she claims to have seen...we understand. We get it. She's a little unstable, so maybe she's still on that road to recovery, right? For that first hour or so, these haunting episodes feel like they're adding up to something, as if we the audience will eventually get some (perhaps not all) answers to the questions that nag us as well as Jessica. Now, the atmosphere is appropriately off-putting, and the cast makes a fair attempt at keeping us on their side (particularly Zohra Lampert as Jessica), but the pacing is leaden and the writing one dimensional. This movie simply should have been better.

The Changeling

Frantic haunted-house mystery
There were a lot of movies in the 70s featuring veteran actors in horror roles. Think of Joan Crawford in Trog, Veronica Lake in Flesh Feast, Joseph Cotten in a ton of things. A year before this movie came out, Rod Steiger was a priest in The Amityville Horror, so maybe George C. Scott thought that if Steiger could do it, so could he, and here he is as a composer who, reeling from a terrible family tragedy, leases an old mansion so he can work in private. Of course, he's not alone, as the house won't shut up. What does it want? Well, as these things usually go, it wants revenge of some kind. It takes Scott's John Russell the entire movie to figure it out, but it all has to do with a different family's tragedy some 70 years before, a tragedy that somehow involves a sitting US Senator (Melvyn Douglas). Can Russell and his friend Claire (Trish Van Devere) give the house the peace it needs so he can get the peace he needs? Although there are some logical faults with the plot, and although the movie itself could have withstood some tighter editing (too much exposition crammed into quick scenes), Scott brings equal amounts of panache and vulnerability as the troubled music man. Some of the effects may seem dated to current audiences, but I found them chilling nonetheless. The house itself is pretty cool, too, but don't bother looking for it in real life - it was all a set.

Isle of Dogs

Have you heard the rumor? This is a great movie.
Very enjoyable movie - downright hilarious, and it's good for kids, too. Seems that in Megasaki City, Japan, the dogs have come down with a bad case of the flu and have been forcibly evacuated to the appropriately named Trash Island, which housed factories, trash facilities, and so on. The first dog sent over to the island belongs to the young ward and nephew of the city's mayor; years later, the boy hijacks a small plane and heads to the island to find his pal. Aided by five other dogs, he must deal with the machinations of his distant uncle, robot dogs, the dog flu, and other obstacles in order to find Spots the dog. Wes Anderson's imaginative, beautiful movie employs stop-action animation with excellent detail to wonderful effect. I mean, you can see the individual fur strands move. The life of an untethered dog is exquisitely expressed, and as usual Anderson employs fine actors to provide the dogs' voices, such as Bill Murray, Liev Schrieber, Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum, Tilda Swinton, and Bryan Cranston. As an added bonus, the entire movie is presented as a Japanese film that's been, shall we say, modified for an American audience. When the mayor gives one of his many speeches, for example, a translator sits off in the wings, speaking his words in English. A note tells us that the dogs' barks have been automatically translated to English, too. But lest you think this is a culture appropriation issue, the original Japanese written language is employed throughout. In short, great entertainment no matter who you are.

Captive State

Just so tortuous
This looks like it would be a tense sci-fi movie about invading aliens and the plucky humans who rebel against them. But it's not, not really. The premise is solid (see first half of first sentence), but the execution is lacking. There are far too many characters, which means not much time spent on any one of them, and there are so many different threads that the viewer quickly gets lost in trying to track everyone. John Goodman plays a police commissioner trying to quell the rebellion on behalf of our new alien overlords, known as the Legislators, who have taken over the planet. A plot was hatched against them but failed, with the perpetrators believed to have perished in the attempt. Goodman's William Mulligan isn't so sure. But the overarching problem with the movie is that it never allows the viewer to really become invested in anyone's cause, whether it's the captive humans or those collaborating with the mean ol' aliens. And, for a sci-fi movie, there really isn't much action to speak of. The rare action scenes are Earthling based; heck, we hardly ever see the invaders themselves (it's okay; this is a treatise of man turning on man, with the aliens kind of secondary characters at best). The result is that the movie feels disjointed, distant, and pointless, and the direction is so haphazard and muddled that it's difficult to really get a sense of what's happening and what it all means, even in the mild context of the movie itself. Because of the deficiencies of the script and the direction, watching this movie was a tedious experience.

The Undead

Dumb fun.
This was an early Roger Corman quickie, the kind of movie that first made him famous in the 1950s. It's super low budget, with sets borrowed from other movies, and was shot in less than a week. And it shows. It's about a scientist who gets the awesome idea of picking up a prostitute from the streets and hypnotizing her, in an effort to get her to visit her past lives. Turns out Diana's past life was that of an accused witch in medieval times, and she's slated to be beheaded. However, the whole sending-Diana-to-the-past thing has altered the fate of her past life, and now her present-day life is in jeopardy! There are a few familiar faces in the background, such as Corman stalwarts like Dick Miller and Mel Welles. Oh, and Billy Barty plays an imp, although he has no speaking lines. But, like I mentioned, it's a cheap movie with an interesting plot but not enough effort or talent or skill to make it really work. I enjoyed the twist at the end, which is probably the best part of the whole movie.

Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich

Invisible performance by Thomas Lennon, though.
Before this movie, I'd never seen any of the 10+ Puppet Master movies (or Dollman, or Demonic Toys, etc.), but since this one is labeled a reboot, I figured that my lack of experience with the franchise wouldn't matter much. And it didn't. This is an alternately scary, alternately funny movie about, uh, killer dolls. Killer dolls that were created by a Nazi and are now being controlled from beyond the grave, apparently. The other movies go into this angle quite a bit more, but it's not crucial information for this movie. Tom Lennon plays a comic-book artist (and owner of a comic-book shop, of course) who returns to his hometown after a bitter divorce and moves in with his parents while looking for a new place to stay. He finds one of these devil dolls in his closet; seems his brother found it at a summer camp as a kid and it's always stayed in the house. Well. Edgar (Lennon) finds out there's a convention nearby that celebrates the otherworldly exploits of the evil toymaker, known as Toulon, and he decides to bring his doll with him so that he can sell it. But his is not the only doll at the convention, and soon the bodies pile up as conventioneers and other guests are disposed of in myriad gruesome ways. This is all good if you're particularly a fan of the gory-demise genre. Edgar and pals must find a way to stop the killing. So what's not to like? Tom Lennon, unfortunately. He's just miscast here, as he has more of a deadpan, quiet demeanor about him in really just about everything I've seen him in, and he doesn't quite have the gravitas to pull off the role. And, oddly enough, he seems to deliver his lines in a muted, almost muttered way, even though the other actors' deliveries are clear, crisp, and audible. I had to turn on the subtitles to understand.

Blood Freak

Not so bad it's good.
I watched this last night, on purpose. With a title like this, there's no chance it was going to be, you know, good, and I'm pleased to announce that indeed it was not. A biker falls in with a drug crowd at a turkey farm and eats some "treated" turkey meat, thus transforming into a turkey himself, as one does. It's a terrible premise, but at least it's a premise. The actor playing the biker, Steve Hawkes, also served as cowriter and codirector, and his comrade in writing and directing, Brad F. Grinter, appears uncredited as the world's worst on-screen narrator. (Because you need a neutral party to clarify why this biker suddenly has the head, but not the body, of a turkey.) What makes him so bad? Not deigning to memorize any of his lines; Grinter instead looks down at note cards every couple of seconds. If he were playing a man giving a speech, I might be okay with that, but he was a man telling the audience what's what, face to face (sort of). Anyway, it looks and is ridiculous, but it pales in comparison to the turkey head that poor Hawkes has to wear. It's ugly, sure, but it's so obviously a papier-mache knockoff, probably bought at a particularly nonselective dollar store. Or whatever would pass for one in 1972. The shoddy costume manages to distract the viewer from the purely amateurish acting and bottom-of-the-barrel script.

Vox Lux

Poor effort all around.
An astonishingly bad movie from start to finish. Well, almost. The first 25 minutes or so are pretty harrowing, as they center around a school shooting and set the stage for the remainder of the film, but after that there's very little to recommend. Vox Lux is about a girl who, after suffering a tragedy, goes on to become a hit pop singer. Natalie Portman stars as the grown-up Celeste and Jude Law plays her character's manager. Neither seems well suited for the role, particularly Portman (one of six executive producers of this mess), who just doesn't fit as a volatile musician. Here's a fun fact. The actress playing the young Celeste is British and makes no effort at an American accent (the movie is set on Staten Island, NY). This would be fine if the grown-up Celeste also had a British accent, but no. Instead we have a grating, nasally overdone approximation of a New York accent from Portman, who (it should be said) is not Meryl Streep when it comes to accents. The final half hour or so is wildly anticlimactic and feels pointless. As does the entire film, to be frank. A lot of this may be a by-product of the director (Brady Corbet) adapting his own screenplay; the turgid, overwrought narration (by Willem Dafoe) introduces plot elements and dismisses them just as abruptly. Oh, and if you're the kind of person who loves credits, you're in luck! The first ten minutes include the credits - all of them, it would seem - playing over the movie's lead-in to the school shooting. Now you don't have to wait 'til the end to see who helped with this monstrosity. If you want to see Natalie Portman play a haunted artist, see Black Swan instead. This dreck isn't worth your time.

The Devil's Doorway

Nice work!
I'm a bit of a sucker for horror movies that take place in churches or convents or other religious settings. Don't know why; guess it's one of those juxtapositions of dark and light, or something. I'll leave that to the philosophers. I do know that I quite enjoyed much of what The Devil's Doorway had to offer. It's about two priests in Ireland sent to a home for wayward women to investigate a statue of the Virgin Mary crying tears of blood. The older priest, Thomas, has been doing this sort of investigating for quite some time and is pretty sure the "miracle" is nothing but a hoax or a misunderstanding, but the younger priest, John, has more of an open mind on the subject. Conveniently for us, they record their investigation, as the movie is told in cinema verite' style, mostly through the lens of John's camera. Well, investigate they do, and it's not long at all before some really crazy stuff happens, such as the sound of children playing in halls that haven't seen kids since "the war" (the movie's set in the early 1960s). An evasive and combative Mother Superior does not help them do their jobs, either. Oh, and the mysterious, ever-dwindling, ever-descending hallways and tunnels beneath the buildings. What made this movie work for me was the atmosphere, as one truly feels in the midst of some terrifying, inexplicable events. Lalor Roddy (Father Thomas), Ciaran Flynn (Father John), and Helena Bereen (Mother Superior) give commanding performances, too, and the ending is satisfying yet brutal. About the only debit for this film is the "shaky cam" effect that one does typically get when wielding a heavy camera. Sure, it was realistic, but beware if you suffer from vertigo. Lot of whipping around and such.


Lack of follow-through.
Brightburn isn't a terrible good movie, although it does feature some well-staged action scenes. It's about a strange boy 'adopted' by a couple trying to have a baby. Of course, as anyone would know by looking at the trailers or even just guessing a few minutes in, this is no ordinary boy, 'born' on the same night that an apparent meteor strikes the small town of Brightburn, Kansas, USA. Fast forward to the kid's 12th birthday party, and he's beginning to really show signs of otherness, which adults chalk up to puberty and growing pains and the like. But Mom and Dad know differently, and although they've long warned young Brandon to stay out of the locked-tight trapdoor in their barn...well, I think we all know that all of us, especially Brandon, will find out what's behind that door, and it ain't gonna be a good thing. It's certainly not a good thing when people die grisly deaths, and somehow they each have a connection to Brandon. Coincidence? One issue I had with this movie was that the plot doesn't really explore in any depth the ramifications of Brandon's finding out his origins, other than to wow us with some amazing effects. Another issue is that none of the cast (even Elizabeth Banks, as the always-supportive mom) doesn't acquit itself very well. The adult actors show a lack of range, for the most part, and the kid playing poor Brandon is just kind of dull - a problem not helped by the scattershot plot. Some of these characters, by the way, make some astoundingly dumb decisions, and I don't mean in the horror-movie sense. Sometimes horror-movie characters will do something stupid, but you can chalk it up to their being terrified, in a panic, etc. But here, you'll see people doing things that just don't make sense, and it hurts the film.


Scary funny!
This was such a unique treasure to watch. A group of Japanese schoolgirls travel to a country house owned by an aunt of one of their number. The girls' names indicate their personalities and predilections - Gorgeous, Fantasy, Melody, Prof, Sweet, Kung Fu, and Mac. Gorgeous hasn't seen her aunt since she was a little girl, and the aunt herself has been living a secluded life since her betrothed went off to fight in the war. She's certain he will return, since he promised, and so she waits. The girls quickly find out that all is not well with Auntie and even less so with the house, which is really quite sincerely haunted as all get out. A version of Ten Little Indians ensues. The effects in this movie are simple, elegant, and practical, and most importantly they are wildly inventive (death by mattresses?) and comically terrifying. And yes, I do mean that in a good way; consider this a comedy-horror. The fright scenes are intentionally over the top and delightful to watch. Fun fact: nearly everyone in the movie (and certainly all of the schoolgirls) was an acting novice - but you wouldn't know it from this lost masterpiece, which was largely unseen in the USA until 2009 or so.


Nearly flawless.
This movie really blew me away. On the surface, it looks like pure Oscar bait, doesn't it? Kid with facial irregularity struggles to find himself when he attends school for the first time. Seems like the kind of movie to tug heartstrings. And yes, it does. Of course it does. But this movie isn't just about Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay), it's about everyone in his life. And I don't mean it's about the people in his life and how they react to him or that their lives completely revolve around this wonderkind (pun intended). It's about how their lives are affected, sometimes in quite subtle ways, thanks to the attention paid to Auggie. Tremblay himself gives a grounded, loving, and mesmerizing performance as Auggie, better than even his performance in Room, but he's not the only star on the screen. Izabela Vidovic, who plays his older sister Via, is stunning in a strongly written, emotionally packed role. You see, people love Auggie, and they want him to be happy. And sometimes, when someone in the family has special needs...well, the others in the family are moved aside, unintentionally, so that Auggie can best deal with the hurdles life throws at him. This isn't neglect by any means - it's just a sort of reality. And Auggie, being all of ten years old, doesn't comprehend that other people aren't just sacrificing for him but that their personal growth is being shunted, because people don't know (from his perspective) the troubles he has. Having said all of that, this movie still could have devolved into a slew of treacly lumps of well-meaning banality, using Auggie's impairment as a shield or at least an umbrella covering and overshadowing everyone. And it doesn't. This isn't a disease-of-the-week movie. This isn't about Auggie's parents doing all sorts of research to find a 'cure' for their son. Because at its core, Wonder is about humanity and compassion.

Linda Lovelace for President

Vote upright!
There's a disclaimer at the outset of this movie warning that the content is guaranteed to offend just about everyone. Here in the 21st century, one should heed that warning. There are all kinds of offensive racial and sexual stereotypes that would have naturally raised hackles in 1975, let alone in the present. The movie is about the campaign (fictional) of Linda Lovelace, known mostly for starring in the seminal '70s porn movie Deep Throat, for president of the United States. Lovelace is nominated by a group of six walking caricatures (representing millions of people each), including a really butch lesbian, a really effeminate man, an actual neo-Nazi, a token black, a Chinese man (not played by an Asian, of course), and a Catholic priest. After being convinced by her (literal) Uncle Sam to run for president, Lovelace embarks upon a nationwide tour, giving speeches and hopping into bed with as many helpful young men as possible. Now, in case you're still uncertain about this movie's virtues, there is definitely no reason anyone under 18 should be allowed within 100 yards of the film. There's nudity and sex, although there isn't much violence. But, seriously - she's a porn star playing herself, so there's naturally some softcore scenes thrown in to get the attention of male viewers. If the rampant sex doesn't put you off, then maybe the over-the-top characterizations will. Among the cast are Mickey Dolenz as a near-sighted bus driver, Art Metrano (Police Academy) as a sheikh, Scatman Crothers as a pool hustler named Super Black (!), Kennedy impersonator Vaughn Meader as a lusty preacher, and Joe E. Ross (Car 54, Where Are You?) as a dirty trickster in politics. Like some other movies of the late 60s and early 70s, the major theme here is of chaotic wackiness. As the lead, Lovelace is fine playing herself. There's not much plot, there's a ton of offensive material, and nudity abounds. But if you see it in the right frame of mind, perhaps viewing it as an artifact of its times, this isn't a terrible film. (For a fun bonus, check out all of the protest signs near the beginning of the movie. Pure genius putting the AA people next to the AAA people.)

Bone Tomahawk

Facial hair versus ashy skin
Bone Tomahawk (what a great title!) is a real genre mashup, horror and western - the likes of which you've probably not seen before. The action is light until the final third of the film or so, bu the tension that steadily mounts in the first two-thirds will have you jumping at bells jingling and other startling sounds. Seems a prisoner, a deputy, and the doctor charged with removing the bullet from the prisoner's leg have all vanished over the course of the night. The sheriff (Kurt Russell) sets out to find the trio, aided by his backup to the deputy (Richard Jenkins), a learned man with a predilection for killing Indians (Matthew Fox), and the doctor's husband (Patrick Wilson), who's nursing a bad leg. The lone Indian in their tiny western town is pretty sure who did the kidnapping, based off an arrow found in the jail, and he's of the opinion that it's a group of cave-dwellers - troglodytes. As the sheriff and his posse search, tensions mount among them, and the leg of the doctor's husband acts up time and time again. What they do find when they finally come upon the cave holding the captives and their intimidating captors isn't quite the run-of-the-mill stuff you'd find in an old Western, and that's where the action, terrifying and fleet but so satisfying, kicks in. Bone Tomahawk makes hay out of the long trek to find the trio, and the tribulations of life on the trail, particularly as the men run low on provisions, is expertly told and lends a true sense of realism to the proceedings. Aside from that mounting tension, the first half is pulled together wonderfully by Russell and by Jenkins as the addled backup tin star. Jenkins steals the movie.

Toy Story 4

Freedom for the toys!
I enjoyed Toy Story 4, which is sort of like saying I like to breathe. It's nigh impossible to dislike Pixar's flagship series after 24 (!) years of laughs and heartstring-pulling. Now, along with most people I figured that Toy Story 3 was the end of it all, as Andy goes off to college and the toys wind up with another kid, named Bonnie. But oh, no! There are more feelings to be felt. Bonnie, then a toddler, is now entering kindergarten and is very anxious. Woody sneaks off to her orientation and watches sadly as Bonnie interacts with no kids and appears to feel excluded. Left to her own friend-making devices, she constructs a new friend all of her own, a spork with googly eyes, pipe-cleaner hands, and popsicle-stick feet named, uh, Forky. And by putting her name on his feet, Bonnie gives Forky life. So now we have an all-new toy, one who has never been a toy before (he insists he's trash, as his components were fished from a trash can). Woody sees how much Bonnie needs her new toy, as sort of a security blanket for the stress of kindergarten, and he's determined to make Forky understand his lot in life and his importance to Bonnie. Along the way, Woody has a chance encounter with a figure from his own past - Little Bo Peep, who appeared in early Toy Story films but who has been gone for some time. Bo has it going on, living the life of a "free toy," i.e., one not belonging to any kid - even though that's (apparently) what most toys want. Woody's been someone's toy forever - is this something he wants as well? This movie presents a bit of a crossroads for Woody (less so for the other toys), and as with special messages in the previous films, it is wonderfully handled and expertly expressed. First, let me look at the good stuff, of which there's plenty, from this movie. The voice actors are, as usual, pitch perfect - and it's nice to hear Annie Potts back as Bo Peep. Key and Peele are along for the laughs, and Christina Hendricks, Tony Hale, Keanu Reeves, and Ally Maki are each wonderful additions; everyone feels like a natural fit, not shoe horned into a role. Then there are the inevitable action scenes, some of which are copied from previous TS films and others that are brand spanking new. Very well done; if this were a live-action movie, I'd be praising the choreography. Also, despite the contemplative, life-affirming lessons presented by the plot, the story never stagnates, and the toys learn on the fly (as opposed to learning after deep inner reflection, I guess). Now, the only slight downside for me was that this, again the fourth effort in the series, doesn't quite match up with the others for pure sentimental grandeur. It's not that the plot is trite; kids should love it for the same reasons they loved the other movies. It's just that it feels as if we've been led to the emotional precipice more than once in the toys' journey, and the journey (even with its inevitable strong payoff) doesn't pack the same punch as the first one. And that's about the extent of it. For me, the best movies have several scenes where I hear a sentence like the following in my head: "This is why I love movies." There was one such scene in Toy Story 4, which is one more than most movies but fewer than the first t three in this series.


Stop shaking the camera
This lethargic, uninspired take on a rather overdone topic might work if you really identify with the leads. And if not, then you might be in for a woefully dull time. Derek (Derek Lee) and Clif (Clif Prowse) are embarking on a year-long trip around the world, with the added difficulty that Derek has an inoperable brain tumor. Derek has long been the adventurous one between them, and Clif is an amateur documentary filmmaker, so it's an apropos team-up. Clif can not only watch out for the safety and health of his longtime friend, he can also document the heck out of their trip. In fact, all of their friends and family, and really the entire world, can track the duo's travels via the frequent updates on their website. But in early in their trip, during a visit to a nightclub in Paris, something happens to Derek that causes his body to undergo an interesting and unwelcome transformation - but not before making him deathly ill. That's probably about as much as I can reveal about the plot without giving it away. The story is told to us mostly through the lens of the ever-present cameras held and worn by Clif, although there were a few instances in which the audience appeared to get a (literal) different perspective. Probably the best part of Afflicted is the special effects usage. The movie looks good, and there are some decent scares, particularly given the small budget. But too often the scares are of the jump variety, another trope that's been beaten to death for a couple of decades. But as far as I was concerned, those effects were the only high point of the movie. The plot feels, like those jump scares, to be really overdone, and the characters come off as intelligence deficient, to put it kindly. That characterization isn't helped by the rampant overacting, particularly by Lee. And I can't tell you how many times you'll hear the sentence, "What are you TALKING about?" because I stopped counting. But I could relate to the question.

Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood

A divot in the director's career
It's not peak Tarantino, and that's the biggest flaw of this movie. Whole 'lotta nothing happens for more than two hours, leading to the kind of violent denouement that we'd expect from the auteur. In fact, if you didn't know Tarantino wrote and directed this, you would be none the wiser after watching the film. It's set in the fall of 1969, shortly before the infamous Tate-LaBianca murders in Hollywood, and it (mostly) follows the travails of a has-been TV actor named Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime friend and stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Dalton used to be the star of a show called Bounty Law, a western in which his character is sort of an antihero, but the show ended its run when Dalton wanted to strike out for the presumably greener pastures of movies. Now he's kind of washed up, working as a guest star on current shows as the bad guy. Meanwhile, his buddy Cliff is sort of Rick's gopher, his own career derailed by his actions on the set of The Green Hornet. Completing the trio - although separately - is actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), wife of director Roman Polanski, who lives next door to Dalton in the Hollywood Hills. Much of the movie has to do with everyday life for these three in 1969 Hollywood, and there are a ton of movie references - sort of a Tarantino hallmark. But as Dalton, Booth, and Tate go about their lives, nothing really stands out as...well, interesting or full of any meaning for the audience. What probably was meant to be a lot of little scenes leading up to a fantastic conclusion was really a bunch of vignettes. The casting is as eclectic as we've come to expect from Quentin Tarantino, but the script doesn't really make use of anyone save for DiCaprio. Pitt and Robbie aren't given a lot to do other than look pretty, and talent like Al Pacino, Brenda Vaccaro, Damien Lewis, and Bruce Dern are paid very short shrift. The whole thing feels like imitation Tarantino and is definitely not among his best work. This is a dull movie, even with the "revised history" slant it tries to present.

The Circle

Obnoxious, condescending, and childish
Wow, just wow. A total bomb from start to finish. Emma Watson plays Mae, a tech-savvy youngster stuck in a crappy job doing bill collections via phone. Her friend Annie (Karen Gillan) gets her an interview at The Circle, a big tech company that seems to be an amalgam of Facebook and Google. Needless to say, Mae gets the job. The campus at The Circle would be straight out of science fiction if it weren't for Google's real-life campus - a sort of mix between a college (where no one seems to have classes) and an adult Chuck E. Cheese. There's everything from hot yoga to Quidditch, plus private concerts with acts such as Beck. It's not just a trendy work environment, it's a bleeding edge of hipsterism. The Circle itself is a be-all kind of company, much like Google is, trafficking more in ideas than in material goods. It's run by Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), a stand-in for Steve Jobs, who oozes personality and whose mantra is that sharing is caring and who holds weekly "dream meetings" with the entire campus to put forth his new ideas. Naturally, Mae is head over heels for this new job, since it's such a pleasant environment in which to work, and even more so when she learns she can add her parents (Bill Paxton and Glenne Headley) to her insurance - which means that Dad's MS treatments are covered! Doesn't matter that her customer-approval score is "only" 84, they like her! And she likes it there! Bailey's new idea is called SeeChange, an initiative to create and deploy tiny camera all over the world so that there are no secrets. Raise any alarms? The cameras come in different colors, so they can blend in almost everywhere! And they'll collect data, relentlessly relaying all of it to Circle HQ for analysis. Crimes can be stopped! People can be helped! The world will prosper! Unlike the audience, Mae and the rest of the staff don't see any problems with this approach. The staff meetings, incidentally, are unbelievable - pep rallies for the boss? For a place that seems to pride itself on innovation, there doesn't seem to be an inquisitive mind in the bunch. It's all awesome to them, especially when Bailey tosses the cameras out into the crowd. It's more of a cult, really. At one point, Mae has a video chat with her mom and notices a homemade chandelier in the background, made by Mae's friend Mercer (Ellar Coltrane). After the call, Mae messages everyone in The Circle (they're very, very big on social networking) and plugs Mercer's work. Turns out to be a bad idea, because he finds himself labeled as a deer killer and receives death threats. Whoops. This doesn't deter Mae, though; she still believes wholeheartedly in Bailey's ideas. Later, she helps come up with a new initiative herself that allows people - using the many SeeChange cameras - to find someone in the world. This can't possibly be used for bad, right? Shenanigans ensue. All of the red flags that popped up would have been recognized by even the dumbest staffer, so it makes zero sense that Mae doesn't grasp what's going on - and what's to come. The bad guys are broadly, broadly written, and every plot point seems equally obvious and ridiculous. There's no good reason for the story to progress past the first half hour or so - there's so much dumbness. And Watson, Hanks, and Gillan, plus John Boyega as a master programmer and Patton Oswalt as the company's CEO, are woefully one dimensional. It certainly feels as if this movie wouldn't have been made if it weren't for the star power involved; but here, rather than talented actors raising up a bad script, they merely sink with it. This is terrible.

Abre los ojos

Tortuous, surreal classic.
This Spanish-language mind bender was remade a few years later by Cameron Crowe (with Tom Cruise), but for my money you can't beat the original. A pretty boy-slash-playboy Cesar (Eduardo Noriega), a proud practitioner of one-night stands, meets cute with equally pretty girl Sofia (Penelope Cruz) at his birthday party, even though she arrived at the party with Cesar's best friend Pelayo. He's instantly smitten, and he and Sofia spend the entire night at her house, talking. As he's departing, though, he runs into a slightly off-balance ex, Nuria (Najwa Nimri), who's been stalking him (can't take no for an answer) and who offers him a lift back to his house. A car crash ensues, and next thing poor Cesar knows, he's in a mental institution, wearing a mask to cover his injuries, and accused of murder by the cops, with only sympathetic psychiatrist Antonio willing to listen to him. Cesar has dim memories of what's happened to the women in his life, and to himself, and he finds the line between dreams and reality being blurred to the point of obliteration. What's worse, it seems to him that Nuria has taken Sofia's place and identity - although to everyone else, she's always been Sofia. Confused yet? It makes some sense when you watch it. This movie was absolutely riveting throughout, and it's all told through Cesar's perspective - so the audience is also unsure what's real and what's a dream. Did Cesar commit murder? Is someone gaslighting him? Is he on Punk'd? Just an amazingly well-told story that had me on edge right up through the final, ambiguous scene.

The Night My Number Came Up

See this one!
A naval officer has a dream of a military transport plane with eight passengers (including a woman) being beset by poor weather conditions and equipment malfunctions and then crashing into a mountainside in Japan. He relates this dream, somewhat reluctantly, to a group in Hong Kong leaving the next day for Tokyo. First, their plane is changed at the last minute - and the new one matches the one in the man's dream. Then, two soldiers, who had missed their transportation back to their base, are added to the manifest, making eight! Sir Michael Redgrave plays Air Marshal Hardie, on board the plane, which is also carrying a governor (Ralph Truman) and civilian attache Owen Robertson (Alexander Knox), who's making his first-ever flight. As their journey progresses, many aspects of the flight appear to be aligning with those in the dream, and terror grips everyone as they attempt to stave off disaster. This gripping drama of what should have been a routine flight is mesmerizing, not the least for the expected classy performances of Knox and Redgrave. The whole aspect of superstition (and how those 'medieval' Chinese put too much stock in it) rears its ugly head and gets into the minds of everyone, including the pilots. Imagine being in a small plane at about 10,000 feet and looking outside to see ice on a wing, and it's breaking off. Well, better than it staying on there (and adding to drag and weight), but it still doesn't look too comforting! This is one heck of an electric suspense thriller, and it had been on my 'to-see' list for decades.

Scream Blacula Scream

More fun than a stake through the heart!
Even better than the original, which was pretty fine in its own right. This sequel to the so-called Blaxploitation classic concerns the resurrection of Prince Mamuwalde, aka Blacula, by a voodoo cultist who's trying to take over his group after the death of their leader (his mother). Opposing said cultist is the priestess Lisa (Pam Grier). Do you think Blacula just exacts revenge on the part of the son? Naw, son! He's out for himself, same as always. He gets the idea that the lovely Lisa can use her voodoo magic to put Blacula's soul to rest, but of course Lisa is a little reticent about that option. The bodies keep piling up, because of course Blacula has no compunction about bleeding folks dry. This movie is an example of how good genre pictures could be in the early 1970s, even with (or especially with) a modest budget. This was an early role for Grier, who has gone on to make a boatload of entertaining films, and although her acting is kind of raw here (to be fair), she shows quite a bit of charm and personality, traits that would be on better display in later movies like Coffy. Still, how often to you get to see a black-themed horror movie without it devolving into nonsense (Scary Movie, A Haunted House, Paranormal Movie)? The answer is not often. The atmosphere is haunting and feels authentic.

The Clovehitch Killer

Not dull, but that doesn't mean it was uniformly entertaining, either.
I found this movie to be uneven and oddly paced, although it does feature some fine performances by the two male leads. Tyler (Charlie Plummer) is a Boy Scout and part of a fine, upstanding, church-going family. But he's slowly come to believe that his dad Don (Dylan McDermott) might be the infamous Clovehitch Killer, a man who terrorized the town ten years ago. Don is a Scout leader and a pillar of his community, so surely he's not a deviant and a murderer, right? The evidence might suggest otherwise. It's really a lot of fun to watch Dylan reconcile what he's discovered with his necessarily conservative, suppressed worldview. I mean, it'd be one thing if someone a little more wiser in the ways of the world were to find this stuff out, and it's a whole other thing for someone like Dylan, whose community is very straitlaced. Helping Dylan reconcile these two opposites is the town pariah, Kassi (Madisen Beaty), your standard girl from the wrong side of the tracks who's long followed and researched the Clovehitch Killer. But is the killer (named for his preferred type of knot) dormant, or is he planning to kill again? The answer won't surprise you. I did have some issues with the movie. First, it felt like the characters came off as mildly irritating, whether it was the joking, "just kidding" mentality of Kassi or the super-religious, overbearing stance of Tyler's mother (played very well by Samantha Mathis). Second, the final act of the movie just lost me, as the plot took a sharp turn into the land of unforeseeable but implausible - so although the ending wasn't very predictable, it also wasn't satisfying and left me cold. There was, I'll point out, a neat little narrative trick in the second act or so that is very well done (by director Duncan Skiles and writer Christopher Ford) and more than held my interest, only to jettison said interest a few scenes later as the denouement approached. Still, a high-quality performance from McDermott key role as Tyler's All-American Dad.

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