Wrong Turn

★★★1/2

I have a fondness for the “Wrong Turn” franchise. A lot of this probably stems from having bailed on it after the second installment. (Sorry, folks, I missed entries three through six.)

Director Rob Schmidt’s Stan Winston-produced original is an entertaining-enough combination of “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” and “The Hills Have Eyes” that I’ve wiled away more than one afternoon watching on Cinemax. I dig Joe Lynch’s sequel “Wrong Turn 2: Dead End” what with former “American Idol” contestant Kimberly Caldwell (playing herself) having her lips bitten off before being split in half with an axe in the opening scene (That’ll get your attention!) and Henry Rollins co-starring as a badass/smartass U.S. Marine-tuned- reality show host.

This brings us to “Wrong Turn” (2021), which played briefly in theaters last month as a Fathom Event before being released on VOD, DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, Feb. 23. (It’s also returning to Goodrich Quality Theaters locations in Brownsburg and Lafayette, Ind. beginning Friday, Feb. 26.) This “Wrong Turn” isn’t so much a remake or a sequel as it is a reboot or a reimagining. Whereas Schmidt’s flick drew inspiration from seminal works by Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven, director Mike P. Nelson and screenwriter Alan B. McElroy (who also penned the 2003 original) owe a debt to John Boorman’s “Deliverance” and Ari Aster’s “Midsommar.” Gone are the cannibal mutant hillbillies – they’re replaced with red herrings and antagonists that feel much more pertinent to the last four years we’ve endured.

A group of six friends comprised of three couples – Jen (Charlotte Vega) and Darius (Adain Bradley), Milla (Emma Dumont) and Adam (Dylan McTee) and Gary (Vardaan Arora) and Luis (Adrian Favela) – leave the big city to take a rural vacation hiking the Appalachian Trail. The locals embodied by Nate Roades (Tim DeZarn, who played similar parts in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning” and “The Cabin in the Woods”) don’t take kindly to the group as they contain couplings both interracial and gay and they’re all damned dirty hipsters in their eyes. It doesn’t help that Adam audibly judges and antagonizes the townies.

The local yokels are the least of these youths’ problems when they veer off the main trail for further exploration despite warnings from Aileen (Amy Warner), the proprietor of the bed and breakfast where they’re lodging. The sextet runs afoul of The Foundation, a sect that’s decided to live separately from society since America’s inception. The Foundation operates by its own rules and is led by Venable (Bill Sage, a natural for the role after having appeared in Jim Mickle’s “We Are What We Are”). Once the youngsters have been missing for six weeks, Jen’s Dad Scott (full-on silver fox Matthew Modine) takes it upon himself to investigate their disappearance with Aileen and her kinfolk’s assistance.

While it’s sorta draggy and entirely too long at almost two hours, I found a lot to enjoy in “Wrong Turn.” Vega and Modine admirably give audiences characters to care about and the picture itself some emotional heft. I dug the politicization employed by Nelson and McElroy – this movie actually has something to say, which separates it from so much horror schlock. The kids aren’t entirely innocent and their captors aren’t entirely guilty, though the punishments they enact are undeniably brutish. There’s gray area and gray matter (so many heads get gooily caved in) aplenty. I was impressed enough by Nelson’s work here that I feel compelled to backtrack and catch his 2018 effort “The Domestics.” Pro tip: Stick around through the closing credits – they’re some of the best I’ve ever seen.

I Care a Lot

★★★★½ 

I’ve been kinda surprised that Rosamund Pike didn’t receive better roles after knocking the part of Amy Dunne outta the park in David Fincher’s 2014 adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl.” I suspect many in Hollywood might’ve confused Pike with Dunne and were scared to work with her as she so thoroughly and convincingly inhabited the titular sociopath. (Then again, Pike has young children. Maybe she simply took some time to be a Mom? Regardless, the only role and movie of hers that’s really registered with me since is Rosalee Quaid in Scott Cooper’s “Hostiles.”) I’m glad the industry has finally taken a “if we can’t beat her, let’s join her” approach to Pike by gifting her the arguably even scarier role of Marla Grayson in writer/director J Blakeson’s new Netflix dark comedy/thriller “I Care a Lot.”

Grayson works as a guardian, placing elderly people in assisted living facilities if they’re deemed a danger to themselves and taking control of their homes, finances and medical treatment whether they want it/need it or not. She’s assisted in this task by her business/romantic partner Fran (Eiza González, sporting Jennifer Beals’ “Flashdance” hair). The ladies receive their marks from Dr. Amos (Alicia Witt), who refers patients who annoy her. Grayson’s granted countless guardianships by Judge Lomax (Isiah Whitlock Jr. – “Sheeeeeeeit!”), an adjudicator she has wrapped around her finger. Grayson also has an in with Sam Rice (Damian Young), the administrator of a convalescent home who takes his marching orders from her, but also isn’t above extorting funds from Grayson when the opportunity presents itself.

Grayson and Fran set their sights on Jennifer Peterson (Diane Wiest), whom they refer to as a “Cherry.” She’s the perfect candidate on paper – with no ostensible family and reams of money. Unfortunately for the predatory pair, Peterson is connected to Russian mobster Roman Lunyov (the ever-consistent Peter Dinklage). If Lunyov can’t extricate Peterson via legal means spearheaded by slick attorney Dean Ericson (a very entertaining Chris Messina – I could’ve used more of him), he won’t hesitate to employ more aggressive and violent tactics.

Pike excels at playing ice queens. She truly ups the game on her already boffo “Gone Girl” bonafides. Grayson’s no Boy Wonder, she’s a Woman Reprobate. Pike undoubtedly deserves the Golden Globe she’s been nominated for and an Oscar nod should follow. It’s no small feat to make women as gorgeous as Pike and González so thoroughly grotesque through their character’s actions and “I Care a Lot” does just that.

“I Care a Lot” will anger a lot of its audience and with good reason. Elder abuse is a serious issue in this country – those who engage in such behaviors are cowardly and the absolute worst of the worst. (I’d lump ‘em together with those who abuse women, children and animals. If I were “King of the World” and someone were caught dead to rights perpetrating any of these misdeeds, there’s no trial, you do not pass Go, you do not collect $200, you’re simply dragged into an alley and shot in the face. And I’m a liberal, folks!) I audibly asserted while watching this movie that Grayson deserved to have her ears and nose cut off, eyes gouged out, hands chopped off and to be dumped in a landfill, which prompted my wife to tell me just how profoundly fucked up I am.

It’s a huge credit to Blakeson as a filmmaker and Pike as an actress that they drew such a visceral reaction from me as a viewer. Some might find it distasteful that they’ve grafted a darkly comedic thriller to the theme of elder abuse, but the resulting product is undeniably entertaining, funny and suspenseful and most importantly it’ll hopefully shine a light on this important issue. The movie also gave me pause to think about quitting vaping as Grayson is so damned draconian incessantly doing it and that ain’t a bad thing.

Burn It All

★★1/2

I’m really kinda torn when it comes to “Burn It All” (now available in select theaters and on VOD). On one hand, it’s super-sloppily made. I’m not sure if this is the result of budgetary constraints, a lack of talent on behalf of Seattle-based writer/director/editor/cinematographer/composer Brady Hall or perhaps both? (Most likely it’s a combination of meager funds and Hall being spread thin by wearing so many hats.) On the other hand, Hall should be applauded for making an unabashedly feminist flick as a man. The resulting product reads like a woke iteration of those Cynthia Rothrock PM Entertainment entries from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s only minus the martial arts pyrotechnics. Its shoddiness also recalls ‘70s grindhouse pictures, but with more of a social conscience.

Stuntwoman-turned-actress Elizabeth Cotter stars as Alex, an Army veteran who’s on the brink of committing suicide during the opening scene. Prior to doing the deed she’s interrupted by a phone call informing her that her estranged mother’s had a stroke and is at death’s door. Alex drives to her hometown, but doesn’t arrive before her Mom passes. She hopes to see her mother’s body, but it’s already been absconded by an organ thievery ring.

Alex has gone from having nothing to live for to having a very particular focus – retrieve her Mom’s corpse, dismantle the criminal organization from soup to nuts and protect her younger sister Jenny (Emily Gately), with whom she hasn’t spoken in many years. In order to achieve these ends Alex will have to ascertain whether her abusive ex-boyfriend-turned-cop Travis (Ryan Postell) is an accessory to these misdeeds and run roughshod over the chess piece-named hierarchy of this cabal – King (John Branch), Rook (King Amir Allahyar), Knight (Alexander Kiwerski) and Bishop (Greg Michaels).

Cotter is rough around the edges as an actress, but has a physical presence that sells her role. She’s like that little girl with the little curl right in the middle of her forehead – when she’s good, she’s very, very good, but when she’s bad she’s horrid. To be fair, not even Meryl Streep could sell the line, “Anything you can do, I can do bleeding.” “Burn It All” is Cotter’s first performance in a feature (she appeared as Trump Monster in the short “Trumpocalypse”). She excels in the action sequences (I just wish Hall captured them more capably) and her performance improves in the back half of the picture when she has Gately to play opposite of and greater emotional heights to hit.

The long and short of it is this – in the world of “Burn It All” every single solitary man is a piece of shit from babies (an infant’s seen wearing a onesie reading, “Make me a sandwich, bitch.”) to geezers (during the opening credits when Alex is driving home and stuck at a stoplight an old codger flashes a sign that reads, “Show your tits.”). One baddie’s dying utterance to Alex is simply, “You’re a cunt.” Hall deserves some modicum of credit for reckoning with his gender’s shortcomings while uplifting the fairer sex – I just wish he’d done it with more skill and subtlety. Then again, “Burn It All” derives whatever personality it has from its sloppiness.

The Violent Heart

★★★

William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” has undoubtedly stood the test of time. It has been reinterpreted on screen countless times (Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 adaptation or Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 effort “Romeo + Juliet” for instance). It’s also inspired musicals (“West Side Story”), Troma gutter trash (the James Gunn-penned “Tromeo and Juliet”), action movies (the Jet Li vehicle “Romeo Must Die”) and animated pictures (“Gnomeo & Juliet”). The latest film to tip its cap to Shakespeare’s most famous work is “The Violent Heart,” which is now playing in limited theatrical release and on VOD.

It’s the early 2000s. Lee (Cress Williams of The CW’s “Black Lightning,” seemingly only filming for a day) is a Marine who’s returned to his wife Nina (Mary J. Blige) and children Wendy (Rayven Symone Ferrell) and Daniel (Jordan Preston Carter) in Tennessee from combat in Afghanistan. Nine-year-old Daniel is excited to see his Dad. Teenager Wendy is far less so – she seems preoccupied. Her preoccupation is explained when Daniel sees her sneak off in the middle of the night with a mystery man. He follows them on his motor scooter only to witness Wendy get gunned down by her shadowy shooter.

We flash-forward 15 years – Daniel (now played by Jovan Adepo) is working as an auto mechanic after having been imprisoned for blinding a classmate in one eye during a school-based fistfight. He meets Cassie (Grace Van Patten, daughter of go-to HBO director Tim Van Patten) when she brings her car into the shop for an oil change. She overhears Daniel saying he has to pick up his younger brother Aaron (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) from school. Cassie asks him for a lift since she’s a senior at the same school. She’s chatty. He’s reserved. Despite their differences, a connection is made.

Cassie is studious. Her father Joseph (Lukas Haas, bringing an appropriately odd energy to the proceedings) is her English teacher. The two of them strangely eat lunch together in the cafeteria. Looking to sow some wild oats and having heard Daniel say he has a preliminary interview for the Marines in Nashville, Tenn., Cassie asks if she can return the favor and give him a ride there. Daniel rejects the offer, but counters with taking her there on his motorcycle. The friend Cassie was supposed to visit at Vanderbilt University is otherwise preoccupied, so she and Daniel spend the entire weekend together. Their connection deepens.

Upon her return, Joseph and Cassie’s mother Rose (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) forbid their daughter from seeing Daniel again. Perhaps it’s their age difference (she’s 18; he’s 24)? Perhaps it’s that she’s white and he’s black? Perhaps it’s his criminal record? Perhaps it’s something else entirely?

“The Violent Heart” is melodramatic as all get-out. It has twists and turns and appropriately enough concludes violently. It’s cheese, but well-performed cheese. This is both a slight and a credit to writer/director Kerem Sanga. He coaxes two good, restrained performances out of lead actors Adepo and Van Patten. It probably also helped that I liked each of these performers coming into the film. Adepo made quite the impression in “Fences” and “Overlord” and on HBO’s “Watchmen;” Van Patten – who reads like a less-weird Shailene Woodley – certainly charmed as Adam Sandler’s character’s daughter in Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories.” “The Violent Heart” if nothing else, further cements these folks as two talents to watch.

Body Brokers

★★★★

Opioid addiction is one of the biggest crises facing this nation right now. “Body Brokers” (available in limited theatrical release and on VOD beginning Friday Feb. 19) tackles the problem and those who prey upon the afflicted in a head-on manner.

Utah (Jack Kilmer, son of Val Kilmer and Joanne Whalley) and Opal (Alice Englert, daughter of director Jane Campion) are a pair of junkies living in Columbus, Ohio subsiding by sticking up convenience stores and Opal prostituting herself. Wood (Michael Kenneth Williams), sensing that these kids are struggling, offers to buy the pair a meal and propositions them to take a flight to Los Angeles in order to enter a rehabilitation facility. Opal has zero interest in the offer whereas Utah bites because he’s sick of the life.

Utah’s checked into the clinic by a kindly nurse named May (Jessica Rothe of the “Happy Death Day” movies) and is soon ushered into a group therapy session overseen by Dr. White (Melissa Leo). The facility is owned by Vin (my main man Frank Grillo), himself a recovering addict. Vin narrates the picture with voiceover reminiscent of “The Big Short” breaking down how “caregivers” scam the insurance industry to line their own pockets without actually assisting their patients. In spite of this, Utah thrives in rehab. Now clean, he works with Wood and for Vin recruiting users into treatment centers and shuttling patients to the office of Dr. Riner (‘90s mainstay Peter Greene) for Naltrexone implants that will later be removed. Utah also enters into a relationship with May.

I wasn’t especially familiar with Kilmer coming into this flick having only seen him in Shane Black’s “The Nice Guys.” He looks a good deal like his Pop and also reminded me a bit of the actor Shawn Hatosy (who you might remember from late ‘90s movies “The Faculty” and “Outside Providence”) in his younger years. Kilmer’s Utah is utterly sympathetic even when both he and the audience know he’s doing wrong. You root for the kid as he’s grappling with his own sense of decency.

I knew Williams was in the movie going in, but had no idea he was ostensibly the second lead, which made me very happy. Williams is one of my favorite working actors having played Omar Little on “The Wire” (arguably one of the greatest characters featured in any medium IMHO). Wood isn’t as altruistic as he initially seems, but you never get the feeling he doesn’t care about Utah in spite of using him. This is a credit to Williams’ abilities as he’s always flourished in playing the gray areas of a character’s psyche. Williams’ wardrobe is also a sight to behold chock full of Western wear (cowboy boots and hats, big-ass belt buckles, bolo ties). Ever since he appeared on Sundance TV’s “Hap and Leonard,” Williams seems to have gotten a knack for dressing like he’s Charley Pride, which I’ve got no beef with as he looks like a boss doing it.

Kilmer and Williams are ably supported by their castmates. Englert excels at being truly unlikable as the hugely hissable Opal. Rothe and Leo lend some much-needed warmth to these dark proceedings. Grillo and Greene exude a scummy sleaziness that exemplifies the absolute worst of the treatment industry.

“Body Brokers” is written and directed by John Swab (best known for the Marilyn Manson vehicle “Let Me Make You a Martyr”). It’s an angry movie and with damned good reason. An addict’s sobriety shouldn’t be sold to the highest bidder. Actual recovery should take precedence over simply filling beds.

Willy’s Wonderland

★★★

To have any chance of digging the latest Nicolas Cage cheesefest “Willy’s Wonderland” (now on VOD and playing in limited theatrical release – including runs in Lafayette, Lebanon and Mooresville, Ind.) you must have at least one of the following attributes: 1.) You gotta dig Cage. 2.) You need to be familiar with or have played the video game “Five Nights at Freddy’s,” of which this is a blatant rip-off. 3.) You need to have been to or have familiarity with Chuck E. Cheese (OGs like me are partial to ShowBiz Pizza). The more of these attributes you have – the better you’ll enjoy “Willy’s Wonderland,” which admittedly isn’t especially good but it’s awfully entertaining.

Cage stars as The Janitor, a silent (and I mean SILENT … Cage doesn’t utter a single solitary word during the flick’s duration) drifter whose cherry Camaro has its tires popped by a spike strip in the backwater town of Haysville – home of the shuttered family eatery and arcade Willy’s Wonderland. The Janitor doesn’t have the funds needed to get his car fixed so mechanic Jed Love (Chris Warner) brokers a deal between him and Tex Macadoo (Ric Reitz in a role that seems like it was written for Mickey Rourke or Don Johnson, but they couldn’t afford either of ‘em), owner of Willy’s. If The Janitor stays in Willy’s overnight and gets the place cleaned up and ready to reopen his repaired ride will be awaiting him.

Complications arise in the form of Sheriff Lund (ace character actress Beth Grant), her adopted daughter Liv (Emily Tosta) and Liv’s friends Chris (Kai Kadlec), Kathy (Caylee Cowan), Dan (Jonathan Mercedes), Bob (Terayle Hill) and Aaron (Christian Delgrosso). The teens hope to set Willy’s ablaze as numerous horrors have transpired there, but cannot do so in good conscience while The Janitor’s locked inside.

Further complicating matters: The Janitor is engaging in full-blown combat with the reanimated animatronic robot animals that inhabit the joint. They are Siren Sara (Jessica Graves Davis), Cammy the Chameleon (Taylor Towery), Tito the Turtle (Chris Schmidt Jr.), Arty the Alligator (Chris Bradley), Knighty Knight (Duke Jackson), Gus the Gorilla (Billy Bussey), Ozzie the Ostrich (BJ Guyer) and last but certainly not least, Willy the Weasel (Jiri Stanek).

Cage is fun in the flick despite not speaking. He brings a palpable physicality to the role that primarily consists of him doing janitorial work (there are three separate cleaning montages), beating the bots to an oily pulp, playing pinball and slugging back a plethora of Punch pops (a soda that sports the slogan, “A fistful of caffeine to your kisser,” that sorta serves as spinach to The Janitor’s Popeye). Unfortunately, the fights are sort of a jumble (probably to obscure budgetary limitations) due to the disorienting cinematography and editing of David Newbert and Ryan Liebert. That said Cage’s The Janitor ups the ante on Edward Norton in “American History X” by stomping Gus the Gorilla on a urinal as opposed to a curb.

“Willy’s Wonderland” is directed by Kevin Lewis (who hasn’t made a movie in 14 years) and written by G.O. Parsons (whose only previous writing credit is “Killer Sharks: The Attacks of Black December” from Shark Week 10 years ago). It’s fairly shoddily made and sports more lens flares than the filmographies of Steven Spielberg, John McTiernan and J.J. Abrams combined. (I shit you not – there are even lens flares over the closing credits.)

The movie has a reported budget of $5.5 million, but looks closer to the 20 bucks I spent renting it. I suspect the bulk of the filmmakers’ budget went towards the Lynyrd Skynyrd “Free Bird” needle drop during the finale. In spite of all these criticisms, I still enjoyed “Willy’s Wonderland.” It probably helps that I’m a Cage fanboy and watched the flick projected on a 106-inch screen in my buddy’s basement while eating breakfast burritos and drinking Screwdrivers (Thanks, Ross!). This is a cult movie in the making. I can’t in good conscience recommend you spend $20.00 renting it as I did, but wholeheartedly suggest renting it from Redbox or streaming from whichever service lands it somewhere down the line. It’ll be all the better watched with friends (either in person or virtually) and chemically altered.

The Right One

★★

“The Right One” (now available in select theaters and on VOD) was sold to me as a romantic comedy and it is one … sorta. It’s also predominantly a melodrama about grief.

Sara (Cleopatra Coleman of “The Last Man on Earth”) is a successful Seattle-based romance novelist suffering from writer’s block. She’s being pressured to produce by her agent and friend Kelly (comedienne Iliza Shlesinger). Inspiration strikes when she comes across Godfrey (comedian Nick Thune, best known to me for appearances on the Doug Loves Movies podcast and sorta resembling Karl Urban or Adam Scott on growth hormones) … or one iteration of him.

Sara first encounters Godfrey at an art exhibit opening where he’s posing as both pretentious art critic and pretentious artist … such versatility! She happens upon him again the following day when he’s performing as a singing cowboy in the park. Sara approaches Godfrey wanting to chat. He in turn invites her to his evening gig where he’s performing in drag as a blonde-wigged Iowa hayseed fresh off the bus. Sara again attempts to engage Godfrey. He in turn invites her to an all-night rave where he’s spinning records sporting a plush kitty head. Sara later meets Godfrey’s other personas – Matteo the Argentine ballroom dancer and slam poet Tim Demint.

Audiences also get a glimpse into the other aspects of Godfrey’s life. He successfully works as mohawked, free-spirited, over-the-phone salesman G-Money employing varying names, accents and preferences in order to assure the sale. G-Money’s boss Bob Glasser (David Koechner, only appearing in a few fleeting scenes) ignores his bizarre behavior and flagrant dress code violations as his sales are through the roof. At a local school Godfrey’s known as Mr. G. where he volunteers as a puppeteer. Godfrey’s obviously running from or repressing something in adopting these numerous identities, but what exactly?

“The Right One” is the feature screenwriting and directorial debut of Ken Mok, co-creator of “America’s Next Top Model.” (He also produced the Mark Wahlberg football flick “Invincible” and David O. Russell’s “Joy.”) The movie’s well-meaning, but misguided. It almost feels like Mok was trying to transcribe M. Night Shyamalan’s “Split” as a romantic comedy, but it’s a romantic comedy that’s lacking in both romance and comedy. The romance stalls out as Coleman and Thune – both good – don’t have palpable chemistry and the plot’s too grave to give their meet-cute any meat. The film’s funniest scene finds Thune and Koechner riffing on Blues Traveler and culminates with them playing dueling harmonicas – that’s about it for laughs. The picture’s main character may not be schizophrenic, but the flick he’s appearing in sure as shit is.

PVT Chat

★★★1/2

Reviewing “PVT Chat” (available in select theaters beginning Friday Feb. 5 and on VOD Tuesday Feb. 9) proved to be an interesting experience. The first time through I was pretty tired and fell asleep only to wake up to lead actress Julia Fox graphically masturbating. My wife entered the room as this was transpiring and exclaimed/questioned, “What in the hell are you watching?!!!” Additionally, it was hard (no pun intended) for me to pull pics for this review that didn’t include displays of dildos.

As you’ve probably already surmised, “PVT Chat” is very sexual in nature. I won’t lie – prurient interests drew me to the film given the subject matter and the fact that it stars Fox, who I was enamored by after seeing her breakout performance in the Safdie Brothers’ “Uncut Gems.” I was initially taken aback by just how sleazy the proceedings were (I’m no prude. I’m just unaccustomed to seeing erect penises and unsimulated masturbation in cinema.), but once I fell into the film’s rhythms it actually paid dividends for me and revealed sad truths about how some folks strive for human interaction.

Jack (Peter Vack, whipping his wang out like he’s Harvey Keitel in the early ‘90s) is a New York City-based loner who makes his living playing online Blackjack. He’s lamely/humorously referred to as Blackjack Jack at one point in the picture. When Jack’s not gambling he’s hitting up cam girls. He’s taken a particular shine to Scarlet (Fox), a dominatrix who claims to live in San Francisco and has aspirations beyond camming as a painter.

Lo and behold, Scarlet’s actually also in NYC as Jack spots her in Chinatown and proceeds to follow her around. Turns out Scarlet’s not the only one lying as Jack’s told her that he’s a successful businessman – when in reality he’s about to be evicted. Adding insult to injury, one of Jack’s only friends is Will (Kevin Moccia), the guy who’s been hired to paint the apartment for new tenants.

“PVT Chat” is written, edited, photographed and directed by Ben Hozie (he also cameos in the picture). It kinda calls to mind films such as “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” or “Secretary” (or any other movie where James Spader plays a pervert) as well as flicks by the aforementioned Safdie Brothers (the inclusion of Safdie veteran Buddy Duress as Jack’s other buddy who assists him in stalking Scarlet cements the deal). The picture very much has its roots set in the New York art scene – there’s even a subplot where Jack and his buddies attend the gallery opening of Emma (Nikki Belfiglio), a woman who’s inexplicably drawn to Jack despite the fact that he treats her like crap opting instead to fixate on Scarlet.

Hozie deserves credit for directing Vack and Fox in performances that fascinate. I was unfamiliar with Vack coming into the film – he’s a unique presence. The cadence of Vack’s speech is often overly formal to the point of irritation, but I suspect this has more to do with the performance as opposed to the performer – after all he’s playing a bit of a weirdo. Fox’s work here isn’t as captivating as it was in “Uncut Gems,” but she’s still quite solid and I look forward to seeing her in Steven Soderbergh’s “No Sudden Move” later this year. Neither Jack nor Scarlet are particularly likable, but they’re interesting and immensely watchable despite engaging in off-putting behaviors. I wouldn’t want to be friends with either of these folks in reality, but they’re compelling enough for 86 minutes.

The Reckoning

★★★

Wowzers, there’s a lot to unpack with director Neil Marshall’s latest “The Reckoning” (available in select theaters and on VOD beginning Friday Feb. 5).

Marshall co-wrote the picture with his fiancée and leading lady Charlotte Kirk and Edward Evers-Swindell (who worked in the sound department on Marshall’s “The Descent”). Kirk and by extension Marshall have become somewhat controversial figures in Hollywood in recent years. Kirk has built a reputation as a “mogul slayer” after relationships she had with former Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara and former NBC-Universal vice chair Ron Meyer got each of these men ousted from their lofty positions. Kirk received a $3.3 million settlement after signing a nondisclosure agreement. Rumor has it Marshall attempted to use Kirk’s relationship with Meyer to force him into greenlighting a new film in which she’d star and he’d direct. Marshall denies this accusation – further details suggest it was made to discredit Marshall and Kirk regarding other pending sexual harassment claims. (For the record, Kirk was 19 and Meyer was 66 when they met. I’m generally inclined to believe the younger and female half of this equation.)

You can’t watch “The Reckoning” without thinking of the #MeToo movement (purposefully) and COVID-19 (accidentally, the film was written and filmed prior to the pandemic). “The Reckoning” takes place during the Great Plague of London in 1665. Kirk stars as Grace Haverstock, wife of young farmer Joseph (Joe Anderson) and mother of an infant daughter. Joseph inadvertently contracts the plague at a tavern and opts to hang himself rather than expose his spouse and child to infection.

Shortly thereafter skeezy landlord Pendleton (Steve Waddington) comes to collect rent. Grace reluctantly offers she and her husband’s wedding bands as payment. Pendleton counters with a request for sexual favors, which she sternly denies. He in turn accuses her of witchcraft. Grace is promptly imprisoned and tortured at the hands of Judge Moorcroft (Marshall regular Sean Pertwee giving the film’s best and most interesting performance).

“The Reckoning” plays like a combination of a Hammer horror film and Mel Gibson’s particular brand of sadistic torture porn, i.e. the conclusion of “Braveheart” and the majority of “The Passion of the Christ.” I sincerely hope the process of making the movie was therapeutic for Kirk, but can’t help but feel that there are elements of the overall product that transform the proceedings into a vanity project. Despite Kirk’s Grace being tortured throughout at least half of the picture, her hair and makeup are almost always immaculate. Additionally, she seems to enjoy showing off her bum about as much and as frequently as Jean-Claude Van Damme did back in the ‘90s. Then again, this could be an instance of Kirk owning her own sexuality after having suffered trauma? She’s an attractive woman, a decent actress and a decent writer as evidenced by this work. Kirk already has another project lined up with Marshall entitled “The Lair.” While I hope their personal and professional relationships remain fruitful, I’d also like to see Kirk succeed in an industry that’s done her wrong on her own two feet.

I’m a fan of Marshall’s. I don’t think “The Reckoning” hits the heights of “Dog Soldiers,” “The Descent” (arguably the scariest film of the 21st century) or “Hellboy” (2019) (yeah, I’m one of the few who dug it), but I prefer it to “Doomsday” (if I wanna watch “Mad Max” or a John Carpenter flick I’d rather just watch “Mad Max” or a John Carpenter flick) and “Centurion.” While “The Reckoning” is handsomely made and contains some awesomely gnarly gore (I cackled when a dude’s head was crushed like a grape beneath a wagon wheel – paging Bob Dylan, Old Crow Medicine Show and Darius Rucker!), it’s also a bit of a tortuous slog due to an overabundance of torture.

The Little Things

★★★★

Denzel Washington is one of the best actors of his or any other generation. He’s that rare performer who’s equal parts actor and movie star. Washington has been accused of almost always playing himself. He does often play the smartest and coolest cat in the room, but when you’re as convincing at it as Washington is, you can hardly blame him. Such is the case with “The Little Things” – now available in theaters and on HBO Max through Sunday Feb. 28.

Washington stars as Joe “Deke” Deacon, a disgraced Los Angeles detective who defected to becoming a sheriff’s deputy in rural Kern County, California after a case went sideways. He’s called back to the City of Angels by Captain Henry Davis (Glenn Morshower) to retrieve evidence for a case they’re working. While there Deke makes contact with his former-partner-turned-Los Angeles County Sherriff’s Department Captain Carl Farris (Terry Kinney), former colleague and friend Detective Sal Rizoli (Chris Bauer – Andy Bellefleur 4 lyfe!) and the man who filled his post – Detective Jim “Jimmy” Baxter (Rami Malek). Jimmy’s working a series of murders and disappearances that bear a strong resemblance to the case that got Deke ousted from the LASD. Despite their initial trepidations, Deke and Jimmy team to solve the case. Their primary suspect is skeevy appliance repairman Albert Sparma (Jared Leto).

There isn’t a ton of action in “The Little Things” – it’s a slow burn that’s primarily a psychological thriller. At its heart it’s a three-hander that sports capable performances from Washington, Malek and Leto. Washington could play Deke in his sleep, but by no means sleepwalks through the picture like some of his contemporaries might’ve. The dude elicited a huge laugh from me by simply kicking some mulch. I feel as if Malek was kinda miscast as Jimmy – he sorta alternates between looking like a little kid and a Chihuahua – but he’s a good enough actor that he not only sells the role but is also able to stand toe-to-toe with Washington … no small feat. I suppose I just buy Malek more as Freddie Mercury than I do as a detective. I’ve traditionally been mixed on Leto, but he’s arguably the most impressive of this talented trio here. He adopts dark contact lenses, facial prosthetics and a gait that’s reminiscent of Vincent D’Onofrio’s as Edgar in “Men in Black.” If Leto sent used condoms through the mail to his “Suicide Squad” castmates in order to embody the Joker’s headspace, I’d hate to think of what lengths he went to in playing Sparma. I’d also like to single out actress Michael Hyatt for props since she does wonders in a supporting performance as a coroner who does Deke a serious solid.

Appropriately enough “The Little Things” takes place in 1990, which makes sense as it’s a throwback to the serial killer flicks that dominated the decade. (For the record, it was also penned by writer/director John Lee Hancock in 1990 and at one time had the likes of Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty and Danny DeVito attached to direct.) It doesn’t reach the heights of David Fincher’s “Seven,” but it’s better than any of Washington’s other efforts in the subgenre from that era, i.e. “Virtuosity,” “Fallen” and “The Bone Collector.” The period setting doesn’t factor in considerably otherwise aside from the makes and models of cars characters drive and a lack of cell phones that helps fill plot holes.