Coming Home in the Dark

★★½

You ever watch a movie that you know full well is well-made, but it just ain’t for you? “Coming Home in the Dark” (available in select theaters and on VOD beginning Friday, Oct. 1) is a prime example of this trend. If you’re into films such as Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” (either the Austrian or American version), Greg McLean’s “Wolf Creek” or Bryan Bertino’s “The Strangers” this might be in your wheelhouse. If not, you need not apply.

A New Zealand family comprised of school teacher father Hoaggie (Erik Thomson), his wife Jill (Miriama McDowell) and their two sons Maika and Jordan (real-life brothers Billy and Frankie Paratene, respectively) are taking a road trip. Their vacation hits a snag when they encounter drifters Mandrake (Daniel Gillies) and Tubs (Matthias Luafutu).

I don’t really want to say much more about the plot, but suffice it to say these folks’ lives worsen and/or shorten after encountering one another. There’s a horrific action that’s enacted early in the film and the filmmakers challenge their audience to “luxuriate” in all the awfulness that it entails.

First-time feature filmmaker James Ashcroft and his co-writer Eli Kent address an important issue in adapting a short story by Owen Marshall. Mandrake and Tubs are two of more than 650,000 people (many of whom are Maori) that were sequestered into state-run “Boys’ Homes” where they were often physically and sexually abused. The men enact their vengeance against the family in a scenario where Ashcroft and Kent seem to suggest that violence begets violence. I don’t care what the reason is – I generally don’t derive pleasure from seeing people tortured.

The filmmaking and performances are assured. I was especially impressed by Gillies, the cast member I was most familiar with from his turn as J. Jonah Jameson’s son John in Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man 2” and for co-starring in the shitty Elisha Cuthbert-fronted/ Roland Joffé-directed horror flick “Captivity.” (I guess Gillies was also on The CW’s “The Vampire Diaries” and its spinoff “The Originals,” but I’ve never seen those shows.) Gillies’ performance is ferocious enough that Mandrake is a character I won’t soon shake. He kinda calls to mind Rutger Hauer’s John Ryder from “The Hitcher” and Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh of “No Country for Old Men.”

Prior to committing the inciting incident Mandrake says, “Later on, when you’re looking back at this occasion, I think that right there’s going to be the moment you wish you’d done something.” For a lot of audiences I suspect that “something” will be turning this movie off or exiting the theater. Let the buyer beware.

Witch Hunt

★½

I dig horror movies. I dig political movies. I dig it when horror movies have a political bent to them. (Nia DaCosta’s recent “Candyman” was largely successful in this pursuit IMHO.) Writer/director Elle Callahan’s “Witch Hunt” (available in select theaters and on VOD beginning Friday, Oct. 1) touches on a bunch of issues pertinent to our times – most notably immigration (queer identity, police brutality and a woman’s right to choose get nods too) – but does so in such a way that it collapses under its own weight.

We’re in modern day Southern California. Witches are real, but practicing witchcraft is illegal. Claire (Gideon Adlon) is a high schooler whose mother Martha (Elizabeth Mitchell, “Lost”) houses refugee witches in an arrangement that calls to mind the Underground Railroad and Anne Frank.

Martha works alongside Jacob (Treva Etienne) to transport these folks across the United States-Mexico border where they’re granted asylum. Claire and Martha’s most recent houseguests are Fiona (Abigail Cowen) and Shae (Echo Campbell) whose mother Esther (Sadie Stratton) was burnt on the cross back in Massachusetts.

Claire must contend with her prejudiced trio of “Mean Girl” friends Jen (Lulu Antariksa), Megan (Natahsa Tina Liu) and Sofie (Anna Grace Barlow). An even greater threat comes in the form of a federal witch hunter (Christian Camargo, whom I best remember from “Dexter” and “The Hurt Locker”), who correctly suspects that Martha’s housing witches.

I admire Callahan’s intentions and likely agree with her politics, but the resulting product is lacking. “Witch Hunt” is clumsily obvious in its commentary. For a horror movie it’s also surprisingly bloodless – the primary jolt is a recurring image of Esther being immolated. To Callahan’s credit there is an impactful sequence wherein high school girls are tied to chairs with respirators in their mouths and are pushed backwards into a swimming pool – if they float to the surface they’re deemed witches.

A lot of the logic of “Witch Hunt” is faulty. In this small Southern California town a box office clerk asks a teenage girl whom he knows for identification in order to buy a ticket to a retrospective screening of “Thelma & Louise” (a movie to which this is misguidedly trying to draw parallels). What teenage girl in 2021 wants to see “Thelma & Louise” (Granted, a lot of ‘em would benefit from seeing it.) Also, what small town holds retrospective screenings of “Thelma & Louise” let alone any other title? In this same small Southern California town Claire and Fiona are granted admittance to a bar and served alcohol without anyone batting an eye until they stupidly begin practicing witchcraft.

Seasoned adult performers such as Mitchell and Camargo acquit themselves better than their more youthful co-stars. Camargo sorta comes across like a lamer version of Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa from “Inglourious Basterds.” Adlon is an actress I like a lot (I especially dug her in “Blockers”), but the way Claire’s written does her few favors. If you wanna watch Adlon play a “Witchy Woman” you’re better off checking out last year’s “The Craft: Legacy” as opposed to “Witch Hunt.”

No Time to Die

★★★★½

I’ve always asserted that Sean Connery is the best James Bond with Daniel Craig being a respectable second place. (Pierce Brosnan’s my third fave for those of you playing at home.) But the collective effect of “Casino Royale” (2006), “Skyfall” and now “No Time to Die” (available in theaters beginning the evening of Thursday, Oct. 7) has forced me to flip that order. Craig is now unequivocally my Bond.

“NTtD” is the most emotionally resonant Bond movie besting the likes of “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” “Casino Royale” and “Skyfall.” It’s also the second most stylish after “Skyfall.” We’re firmly in Top Five Bond flick territory here, folks.

Bond retired from MI6 at the end of “Spectre” (the weakest Craig entry) in order to pursue a life with Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux). They’re grappling with their pasts at the beginning of “NTtD.” In order to live happily ever after they must not only make peace with their histories – they need to put them to bed.

Interrupting all this personal growth is a cycloptic assassin named Primo (Dali Benssalah), who’s working on behalf of an incarcerated Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz). Bond and Madeleine survive the skirmish, but their relationship does not.

Bond screws off to Somewheresville, Jamaica. His days of fishing and drinking are interrupted by his old CIA buddy Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) and Leiter’s new associate Logan Ash (Billy Magnussen). The men recruit Bond to help them apprehend rogue scientist Valdo Obruchev (David Dencik, he played Mikhail Gorbachev on “Chernobyl”), who helped develop a weaponized nanobot technology for M (Ralph Fiennes) only to turn around and sell said technology to Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek), a terrorist with ties to Madeleine. The mission takes Bond to Cuba where he teams with Paloma (Ana de Armas) – their goals serve in stark contrast to those of M and newly-named 007 Nomi (Lashana Lynch, “Captain Marvel”).

I’m not terribly familiar with the oeuvre of director Cary Joji Fukunaga. I watched and loved his work on the first season of HBO’s “True Detective.” I’ve always wanted and meant to see “Sin Nombre” and “Beasts of No Nation,” but never did so. His “Jane Eyre” didn’t much appeal to me as I’m not big on stodgy period dramas. (Is it better than that?) I also never watched Netflix’s “Maniac” as it seemed a little too weird and/or existential for my liking despite digging the primary cast.

Coolly enough, Fukunaga brings some of the horror energy I imagine he would’ve brought to “It” (a project to which he was once assigned) to “NTtD” – the opening sequence feels far more like Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’s “Goodnight Mommy” or “The Lodge” than it does like something such as “Die Another Day.” Fukunaga also brings some of the style he employed in “True Detective” to “NTtD.” There’s a stairwell shootout done in a oner that definitely calls to mind his best action beat from the HBO staple. (I must also give Fukunaga and his cinematographer Linus Sandgren (a frequent collaborator of David O. Russell and Damien Chazelle) mad props for framing a shot where Craig’s Bond shoots directly at the camera through a tunnel calling to mind the opening credits of all these movies – cool shit.)

Craig is typically great as Bond. There are new shades of the character heretofore unseen, which are more than welcome to this critic. What’s especially fun about “NTtD” is its presentation of women. Bond only sleeps with one woman in “NTtD” – she being Seadoux’s Madeleine. Seadoux is lovely and quite good in the movie, but it’s de Armas and Lynch who really make an impression. De Armas isn’t in the movie much (I suspect she was cast as a lark based on the chemistry between she and Craig in “Knives Out”), but she’s capably funny, sexy and kick-ass with minimal screen time. Lynch is a bad bitch as Nomi. I’d happily watch more movies with her as 007, but sadly it’ll likely never happen.

The movie doesn’t have many drawbacks … here are a few of them. Malek is miscast as the villain. He’s too damned young to be playing this role. Malek is 40 in actuality. Seadoux is 36. Given the relationship their characters have, the actor playing his role should be way older. Javier Bardem would be great in the role had he not already been in “Skyfall.” Where was Benicio del Toro? That said Malek’s still good in the part. It kinda calls to mind “The Little Things” from earlier this year – another film in which Malek was miscast and yet somehow still made an impression. Another flaw is that the action is sometimes too jumbly. It’s often awesome, but when it’s filmed too tightly it’s frenetic in a way that’s less Bourne and more bored.

I don’t know where Bond is gonna go from here, but I certainly thank Craig for his service. His Bond made me cry on the way out too … a feat rarely achieved by this famed spy.

Surge

★★★

Surge isn’t only a soda from the late 1990s that’s made a comeback at Burger King of late – it’s also a British riff on Joel Schumacher’s “Falling Down.”

“Surge” (opening in select theaters on Friday, Sept. 24) stars Ben Whishaw as Joseph, a London-based airport security officer living an emptily loveless life. He isn’t close to his mother Joyce (Ellie Haddington) nor his father Alan (Ian Gelder). He doesn’t have friends. He doesn’t have a girlfriend. Joseph is the sort of cat who brings his own birthday cake to work only to be skipped over for a piece.

The first third of “Surge” focuses solely upon presenting Joseph as such a put upon figure that it’s unsurprising when he finally snaps. The next two-thirds depict his mental decline and misbehavior. Joseph’s first outburst is a successful bank robbery. He follows this up by having unprotected sex with his co-worker Lily (Jasmine Jobson), whose cable he agreed to fix. (Shades of “The Big Lebowski?”) Other freak-outs include sticking up a post office, hopping turnstiles on the tube, contentiously crashing a wedding and stealing the 4-wheeler of his obnoxious neighbor (Perry Fitzpatrick).

The angry white dude subgenre of movies doesn’t do much for me. I outright dislike “Joker” despite really respecting Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. (Last year’s “Spree” is an exception to the rule. Review here.) “Surge” falls victim to many of the subgenre’s trappings, but redeems itself somewhat with a beautifully-played pair of scenes between Joseph and Joyce near the picture’s conclusion.

Whishaw is an actor I generally dig. He’s done awesome work in movies such as “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer” and “Cloud Atlas,” has admirably filled the shoes of Desmond Llewelyn as Q in the past few James Bond movies and was my favorite character on the last season of FX’s “Fargo.” Whishaw received the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Acting at the Sundance Film Festival for his portrayal of Joseph and it’s not unwarranted.

The dude’s a bundle of pinched nerves here. Joseph often bites down so forcefully on forks that you half expect him to break a tooth. He also bites down on glasses while drinking – one time doing so hard enough that the glass breaks badly cutting the inside of his mouth. It’s disquieting stuff. Some actors gravitate to lighter material after tackling a dark role. I suspect the voice of Paddington opted to go the opposite direction.

Further adding to the unsettling nature of the film are the jostling camerawork of cinematographer Stuart Bentley (he shot the “Hang the DJ” episode of “Black Mirror”) and booming sound design of Paul Davies and his crew. Davies is a master at disquieting sound design after having done movies such as “You Were Never Really Here” and “Saint Maud.”

“Surge” is the feature directorial debut of short filmmaker Aneil Karia, who previously collaborated with Whishaw on “Beat” (2013) and more recently with Riz Ahmed on “The Long Goodbye.” At 105 minutes “Surge” is too long and I can’t help but feel it would work better as a short. In spite of this, the movie made an impression on me via its technical merits and Whishaw and Haddington’s performances. I’ll be curious to see whatever Karia makes next.

Apache Junction

★★½

I’m a sucker for Westerns. Go figure – “Tombstone” was a Toombs family favorite growing up. My fandom of the genre is what likely led me to reviewing “Apache Junction” (available in select theaters and on VOD beginning Friday, Sept. 24). I’m not altogether enthused about the arrangement nor the picture itself, but it contained enough Western conventions to keep this cowpoke mildly entertained.

Annabelle Angel (Scout Taylor-Compton of Rob Zombie’s “Halloween” flicks) is a reporter for William Randolph Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner. She’s traveled to Apache Junction, Ariz. in order to cover outlaws in the territory despite the objections of Army Capt. Hensley (country singer Trace Adkins). Hensley’s agreed to let lawlessness run rampant in Apache Junction so long as the criminal element continues to keep his men in meat, grain and whores.

Upon her arrival in Apache Junction, Angel meets saloon keeper Al Longfellow (Thomas Jane), infamous outlaw Jericho Ford (Stuart Townsend), kindly prostitute/Ford’s lady love Mary Primm (Danielle Gross, late of Starz’s “Heels”) and Ford’s Native American friend/bunkmate Wasco (Ricky Lee, who appeared uncredited in movies such as “The Ridiculous 6,” “Jane Got a Gun,” “Hell or High Water” and “The Magnificent Seven” (2016)).

It doesn’t take long before Angel is almost raped by Capt. Hensley’s son Pvt. Hensley (Nicholas Ryan) and a couple of his cohorts. Thankfully, Ford intervenes on Angel’s behalf, murdering the younger Hensley and placing himself on a collision course with the elder Hensley. Capt. Hensley enlists the services of inveterate gambler/gunslinger Oslo Pike (Ed Morrone) to track and kill Ford.

Townsend and Jane almost became big ol’ movie stars and they’re the best reasons to watch “Apache Junction.”

Townsend’s probably best known for dating Charlize Theron for the better part of a decade, almost appearing as Aragorn in Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and playing Lestat and Dorian Gray in respective failed franchise starters “Queen of the Damned” and “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.” The dude dons his cowboy duds well and plays the stoicism of Ford expertly.

Jane made an impression on me with supporting roles in mid-to-late ‘90s movies such as “Face/Off” and “Boogie Nights.” His stabs at being a leading man such as “Deep Blue Sea,” “61*,” “The Punisher” and “The Mist” also impressed me. He isn’t given much to do in “Apache Junction,” but what he does he does well. Jane lends the picture credibility.

The rest of the cast is a bit of a mixed bag. I was pleasantly surprised by Adkins. Mr. “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” plays most of his scenes from behind a desk, but his voice makes a real meal out of the dialogue and always snapped me back to attention. Taylor-Compton is likable enough as Angel, but her voiceover would feel more at home in a Disney Channel original. Gross brings warmth to the proceedings, but her role is mostly reduced to being a damsel in distress. Lee has a cool presence and vibe, but isn’t the best actor. Morrone resembles comedic performer Jason Mantzoukas to such an extent that I couldn’t help but laugh when he threatens to pop a prostitute’s eyeball with a straight razor.

As written and directed by Justin Lee, “Apache Junction” feels like lesser cut scenes from the “Red Dead Redemption” video game meets those Tom Selleck Westerns that always air on Hallmark Channel. It’s R-rated, but largely bloodless – likely the result of budgetary constraints … the picture could’ve used more guts on a coupla different fronts.

Blue Bayou

★★★★½

Writer/director/star Justin Chon’s “Blue Bayou” (now in theaters) possibly bites off more than it can chew. What it does well it does so exceedingly well. Some may see it as misery porn, but it contains far too much beauty (captured in gorgeous 16 mm no less!) to be minimized in such a fashion.

Chon stars as Antonio LeBlanc, a Korean American man who was adopted by a white American family when he was 3 years old in the late 1980s. Despite making some mistakes as a young man (namely two felonies for stealing motorcycles), Antonio has grown into a respectable member of his New Orleans community. He’s a talented tattoo artist, a loving husband to his pregnant nurse wife Kathy (Alicia Vikander) and a sweetly supportive stepfather to Jessie (Sydney Kowalske, HBO Max’s “Doom Patrol”).

Trouble enters the lives of the LeBlanc’s in the form of Ace (Mark O’Brien, “Ready or Not”) – a police officer, Kathy’s ex and Jessie’s birth father who abandoned them both. Ace is pissed that he’s not being granted visitation with Jessie, but she has no interest in seeing him. In an unfortunate stroke of bad luck, the LeBlanc’s run into Ace and his partner Denny (Emory Cohen) at the grocery store. Denny, feeling as though he’s acting in Ace’s best interest, accosts Antonio. Tensions escalate resulting in Denny beating Antonio with his baton and subsequently arresting him.

Turns out Antonio’s adoptive parents didn’t fill out his paperwork properly and he’s now being detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement under threat of deportation. Antonio and Kathy seek assistance from immigration attorney Barry Boucher (Vondie Curtis-Hall), but lack the funds to pay him prompting Antonio’s return to a life of crime.

“Blue Bayou” goes off on a series of tangents – many of them actually work wonderfully. There’s an incredibly tense and well-executed heist sequence. Antonio quickly develops a deep friendship with Vietnamese immigrant Parker Nguyen (Linh Dan Pham, “Ninja Assassin”), a woman with her own struggles who causes him to examine his own Asian identity.

There’s a lot about “Blue Bayou” that I absolutely admire. Chon, Vikander, Kowalske and Pham are all sensational. O’Brien does interesting work in a role with plenty of gray area. Speaking of gray area, the picture does a lot of interesting things with the representation of police and immigration officers. Antonio actually has a friend and customer called Merk (Toby Vitrano), who’s not only an ICE agent but is also completely sympathetic to Antonio’s plight. On the flip side of this coin is Cohen’s Denny. As likable as Cohen was in “Brooklyn,” he’s equally hissable here. Denny is probably the most despicable onscreen representation of law enforcement since Will Poulter’s Krauss in Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit.” Cohen’s a good actor, but his character is frustratingly one-note and serves little purpose beyond being an agent of chaos.

Sadly, prior to “Blue Bayou” I knew Chon best as a sidekick from the “Twilight” series and as the missing drunk buddy in the puerile comedy “21 & Over.” The picture not only shines a light on his immense talents as a writer, director and actor (I have every intention of catching up with Chon’s previous efforts “Gook” and “Ms. Purple”), but on the very real injustices currently being perpetrated against immigrants and adoptees. Thankfully, Congress passed the Child Citizenship Act back in 2000, which protects plenty of younger folks, but often leaves adoptees brought over in the ‘70s and ‘80s out in the cold. “Blue Bayou” is undeniably manipulative (What movie isn’t really?), but its manipulations will hopefully affect real world change that’ll better the lives of innocent victims.  

Prisoners of the Ghostland

★★½

I’m pretty much the President of the Nicolas Cage Fan Club. I outright love the dude and a lot of his work. “Raising Arizona,” “Leaving Las Vegas,” “The Rock,” “Con Air,” “Face/Off,” “Adaptation.,” “Kick-Ass,” “Drive Angry,” “Mandy,” “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” and “Pig” are all bangers with top drawer performances from Cage.

I won’t give a Cage picture a pass just because he’s in it. “City of Angels,” “Next,” “Bangkok Dangerous,” “Knowing,” “USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage” and “Primal” all unabashedly blow.

The dangerous middle ground for Cage flicks are the ones that rock and suck in equal measure. Neil LaBute’s ill-advised 2006 remake of “The Wicker Man” is a textbook case of this phenomenon. The movie’s undoubtedly no bueno, but it has inspired moments of Cage insanity such as him screaming about the bees and karate kicking women and children whilst donning a bear suit. (Jack Reynor’s character in “Midsommar” should’ve taken notes).

Sion Sono’s “Prisoners of the Ghostland” (now available in select theaters – including Indianapolis’ Landmark Glendale 12 – and on VOD) stands firmly in that rock to suck middle ground. Despite having only seen one of the prolific Sono’s 58 directorial credits (that being 2001’s “Suicide Club) prior to watching “PotG,” I know by reputation that he puts crazy shit out into the world. Cage is crazy. Sono is crazy. “PotG” should be crazy … and it is to a certain extent … I just wish it was crazier. In all honesty, I found the flick surprisingly boring.

“PotG” takes place in Samurai Town, a Japanese settlement outside the fallout area of a nuclear blast. Samurai Town is ruled over by the unscrupulous Governor (Rob Zombie regular Bill Moseley) who maintains his power through the sword of Yasujiro (Tak Sakaguchi of “Versus”), a samurai indebted to him on the unfulfilled promise that’ll release his sister from her life as a geisha.

The Governor conscripts a prisoner named Hero (Cage) to retrieve his “granddaughter” Bernice (Sofia Boutella), who fled Samurai Town with her girlfriends Stella (Lorena Kotô) and Nanci (Canon Nawata). Bernice is stranded in the Ghostland, an area within the blast zone inhabited by outcasts, radiation victims and religious zealot Enoch (Charles Glover, “Shin Godzilla”). To ensure Hero’s success the Governor outfits him in a black leather bodysuit with explosives placed at the neck, arms and testicles. If Hero makes a pass at Bernice, tampers with the suit or doesn’t return with Bernice within five days, the Governor will set the charges off.

“PotG” mixes samurai and Western cultures resulting in an Eastern. As cool as that sounds – and it certainly has its moments – the overall product is sorta lacking. (“The Good, the Bad, the Weird” this is not!) Much of the picture is mostly just characters dropping exposition to Cage’s Hero. Show me! Don’t tell me!

Strangely, “PotG” is on Cage’s nuts more than Elisabeth Shue’s character was in “Leaving Las Vegas.” A female extra tells Hero to show her his balls. Cage screams the word testicle like he’s performing Shakespeare. In the movie’s best moment Hero gets one of his balls blown off (Eat your heart out, Lance Armstrong!), which prompts him to run around in circles while shrieking. Cage comes across like a Looney Tunes cartoon in this mega-acting showcase.

Speaking of mega-acting, Moseley (another stranger to subtlety) outdoes Cage in this department. He’s a hoot and a half here. Boutella, an actress whose work I’ve responded to in “Kingsman: The Secret Service” and “Star Trek Beyond,” is a bit of a void as Bernice. The performance hews closer qualitatively to her turn in “The Mummy” (2017) as opposed to the previously mentioned titles. Sakaguchi is a cool presence and has many of the better action beats, but the script by actor-turned-first-time screenwriter Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai betrays him. Yasujiro isn’t developed nearly enough and the character’s motivations are hazy at best. He and Hero inexplicably duel to death at the picture’s conclusion despite sharing a common goal/enemy. I did enjoy that “PotG” serves as a “Face/Off” reunion between Cage and Nick Cassavettes, who plays Hero’s crazed criminal partner Psycho.

“PotG” is obsessed with Cage’s balls … I just wish the movie itself was more nuts.

Review Twofer – Censor/The Last Matinee

★★★½

I recently had the privilege of doing a pretty cool foreign horror double bill. The first film was “Censor” (now available on DVD and VOD), a British offering that revels in the Video Nasties witch hunt of the 1980s. The second film was “The Last Matinee” (now available on VOD with a Blu-ray dropping in October), a Uruguayan slasher flick that takes place in an old-fashioned Montevideo-based movie palace back in 1993. Both international offerings should please genre fans as they’re each chockablock with nostalgia and plenty of jolts.

Censor:

Irish actress Niamh Algar (HBO Max’s “Raised by Wolves”) stars as Enid Baines, a woman working for the British Board of Film Classification. She’s built a reputation as a particularly tough censor by almost always recommending that violent content be cut or banned.

An adult Enid is still reeling from her sister Nina’s disappearance when they were children. Enid insists Nina is still alive; her parents (Clare Holman, Andrew Havill) have declared Nina deceased.

Enid is approached by infamous film producer Doug Smart (Ben Wheatley regular Michael Smiley) to screen the latest work of noted schlockmeister Frederick North (Adrian Schiller). She’s shook by the film as it contains parallels to Nina’s disappearance. Enid goes further down the rabbit hole and procures a contraband VHS copy of another one of North’s pictures. This one stars an actress named Alice Lee (Sophia La Porta), who bears a striking resemblance to Nina.

Further complicating matters is the fact that Enid has been under media scrutiny for passing a film that supposedly inspired a real-life murder. Already on edge, Enid is grasping for reality and sanity in the pursuit of her lost sister.

“Censor” is the feature directorial debut of Welsh filmmaker Prano Bailey-Bond, who co-wrote alongside Anthony Fletcher. There’s much to admire about the movie. The fetishization of VHS and ‘80s sleaze was certainly welcome to this horrorhead. It like many genre efforts from then and now sports neon hues and synth tunes. Algar does admirable work as Enid, but her mental deterioration occurs too quickly during the film’s scant 84 minute runtime.

3.5/5 stars

The Last Matinee:

In all honesty “The Last Matinee” isn’t as good a movie as “Censor” is, but it’s more fun and a whole helluva lot gorier.

Luciana Grasso stars as Ana, a college student who’s kindly offered to cover the second shift of her aging/ailing projectionist Dad Hugo (Hugo Blandamuro), so he doesn’t have to pull a double. Unbeknownst to her, the audience will soon be prey to a killer known as Come Ojos (prolific Uruguayan filmmaker Ricardo Islas), who not only snatches his victims’ eyes … he eats them.

The audience is comprised of loud-mouthed teenage trio Ángela (Julieta Spinelli), Esteban (Bruno Salvatti) and Goni (Vladimir Knazevs); Maite (Daiana Carigi), a Brooke Shields lookalike Goni saw on the bus to whom he’s taken an immediate shine; shy film fan Horacio (Emanuel Sobré) and his handsy, chain-smoking date Gabriela (Patricia Porzio) and last but certainly not least, Tomás (Franco Durán), a horror-obsessed lad who snuck into the screening as he’s too young to attend.

Most of these folks serve little purpose beyond being grist for the grinder. Co-writer/director Maximiliano Contenti (alongside fellow scripter Manuel Facal) dream up some damned demented demises. One cigarette-smoking character has his throat slit and fumes billow from the wound. (I actually had a similar kill in a script of mine.) Two characters that are making out get impaled through their heads/mouths by a pole. Another character gets chopped to death with a film splicer and their blood is projected onto the big screen. This viscera all serves as tribute to giallos, slashers and the simple act of going to the movies – something that’s become far less simple in the last year and a half.

A coupla cool details: the movie within a movie is “Frankenstein: Day of the Beast,” an actual film from 2011 directed by Islas … cooler still – a copy of “Frankenstein” will be included with “The Last Matinee” Blu-ray.

3.5/5 stars

Malignant

★★★½

Director James Wan’s latest horror offering “Malignant” (now in theaters and on HBO Max) is absolutely positively bonkers. It begins sorta slowly and weakly, gets more interesting as it reveals more of its insanity and then concludes on a note that’s all too pat for my liking. “Malignant” is overlong at 111 minutes, but it’s a wild ride that’s undoubtedly well worth taking.

Annabelle Wallis (“Annabelle”) stars as Madison, a woman who’s in an abusive marriage to Derek (Jake Abel, he played Mike Love in “Love & Mercy”). She’s currently with child after having had a series of miscarriages. Derek, true to his douchey form, slams Madison’s head into the wall when she turns off the mixed martial arts broadcast he was watching so they could talk. (To add insult to injury he angrily asks her, “How many times do I have to watch my children die inside of you?”)

The collision causes an evil entity to enter the couple’s home/life. This creature can control electricity, is more than happy to wreck anyone who crosses its path and walks hella weirdly (it could very well be called “The Crab Walk Killer”). When Madison awakens the following morning, Derek’s dead (bummer!), she’s lost the pregnancy and is now randomly transported through time and space to witness murders being perpetrated by the monster.

Detectives Shaw (George Young) and Moss (Michole Briana White, who kinda reminded me of comedienne Wanda Sykes, which prompted me to laugh at the thought of Sykes being cast in the role/movie) suspect Madison of killing her husband and committing these subsequent murders. Madison must now team with her adoptive sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson, “We Summon the Darkness”) and mother Jeanne (Susanna Thompson, Moira Queen on The CW’s “Arrow”) to clear her name and discover the connection between she and the creature.

To say anymore of the plot would be a disservice to y’all. Suffice it to say Wan and screenwriter Akela Cooper (a writer and producer on shows such as “American Horror Story,” “Luke Cage” and “Jupiter’s Legacy” and scripter of the 2018 slasher flick “Hell Fest” – working from a story co-credited to Wan and his wife Ingrid Bisu, who co-stars as Crime Scene Technician Winnie) really go for it. “Malignant” feels like a Dario Argento giallo meets a Frank Henenlotter freak out. It dabbles in body horror and women in prison pictures (replete with a bleached blonde mulleted Zoë Bell (“Death Proof”)). There’s a sequence that’ll make Blue Lives Matter folks go blue in the face. Joseph Bishara’s score riffs on the Pixies “Where Is My Mind?” to awesome effect. Cinematographer Michael Burgess’ curious camera employs excellent POV shots through a peephole and inside both a washing machine and a VCR. There’s a whole helluva lot going on here!

My best advice to y’all is this: if you dig fantastical horror flicks do not pass go, do not collect $200 – go directly to a movie theater or your HBO Max account and watch “Malignant” with the quickness. Don’t let idiots on the Internet spoil its surprises for you.

Small Engine Repair

★★★★

Another week; another Shea Whigham movie – this one’s “Small Engine Repair” (available in theaters beginning Friday, Sept. 10).

“SER” sorta feels like a depraved version of “Three Men and Baby” only fast forwarded 18 years and married to Peter Berg’s directorial debut “Very Bad Things.”

Frank (John Pollono), Swaino (Jon Bernthal) and Packie (Whigham) are lifelong friends based out of Manchester, N.H. They’re a trio of blue collar, middle-aged, hard-drinkin’, harder-fightin’, foul-mouthed dudes. Frank has an 18-year-old daughter named Crystal (Ciara Bravo, “Cherry”) who was the result of an ill-fated relationship with party girl Karen (Jordana Spiro, late of Netflix’s “Fear Street” flicks). When Frank went away for a 5 year prison stint, Swaino and Packie looked after Crystal. She’s like the daughter they never had. In spite of this, now that she’s 18 they’ll bum her smokes and they all curse like sailors at one another.

Following a barroom brawl Frank tells Swaino and Packie that he doesn’t wanna see them anymore. The men take Frank at his word and they don’t speak or see each other for 3 months. Frank, out of the blue, reaches out to his pals and invites them over to his small engine repair business for a hang. He tells Swaino there will be strippers. He tells Packie he has cancer. He’s lying to them both and has an ulterior motive.

Frank plies his buddies with grilled steaks, booze, weed and coke. To further the festivities Frank also invites Chad (Spencer House of Netflix’s “Space Force”), an affluent college kid with whom he’s been playing pickup basketball, in order to buy Molly off of him. Events quickly escalate out of control.

Pollono makes his feature directorial debut adapting his play of the same name. Pollono and Bernthal reprise their roles while Whigham stands in for James Ransone (adult Eddie Kaspbrak in “It Chapter Two”). The movie is expectedly stagey while simultaneously being sneakily cinematic. Pollono ratchets up the tension like an old hand. He also deftly directs five outstanding performances from his castmates as Bernthal, Whigham, Bravo, Spiro and House are all uniformly excellent. Pollono does exemplary work on screen too.

Folks offended by bad language need not apply as we’re firmly in F-bomb territory here. This movie has to be giving “The Wolf of Wall Street” (569 F-bombs) and “Uncut Gems” (560 F-bombs) a run for their money. “SER” ultimately has more than F-bombs on its mind however – it’s a funny and disturbing dissection of toxic masculinity. We see how these behaviors were modeled for this trio by their fathers. It’s especially stinging when Swaino asks Chad, “What’s it like having a father you’re not ashamed of?,” to which Chad replies, “Good, I guess.” It’s also ironic to hear these guys’ locker room talk juxtaposed with how protective they are of Crystal.

Sadly, I could relate to these fellas to a certain extent. I’m not advocating their behavior by any means, but I could see my brother and I doing the same shit were someone to mess with one my nieces. “SER” gave me a lot to chew on. Superficially, it reinforced that Bernthal has one of the best heads of hair in Hollywood and made me think I’d like Pollono in reality (he chose Sturgill Simpson’s “All Said and Done” to play over the closing credits and dedicated the picture to his deceased dog). On a deeper level it made me question my actions and trains of thought. “SER” concludes too tidily, but I suspect it’s gonna linger with me for a good long while.