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Dead Reckoning

1/2 ★

I take no great joy in tearing a movie to shreds, but sometimes they have it coming. “Dead Reckoning,” now available on VOD, is one of these movies and this is one of those times.

Shot in 2016 and just now being released, “Dead Reckoning” is loosely and tastelessly based on Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the brothers who perpetrated the Boston Marathon bombing back in 2013. K.J. Apa stars as Niko, an Albanian immigrant working as a cabbie on Nantucket to save up for college. Tillie (India Eisley) is a well-to-do young lady who recently lost her parents (John Shea, Frances Fisher … both totally wasted) in a freak puddle jumper airplane crash. Tillie now lives with her Aunt Jenny (Ellie Cornell, Rachel Carruthers from “Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers” and “Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers”!) and her partner, Chris (Devon Diep). She’s also taken to the bottle as means of grieving.

One night there’s a rager at Altar Rock (this movie’s original title) where Niko meets Tillie. She’s in the bag. He’s there to sell a dime bag to Lew (Brooks Bowden, this kid has an immensely punchable face and his character has an affectation where he adopts a horrendous British accent like he’s goddamned Madonna. In a movie chock-full of awful performances, his is undoubtedly the worst.). The two meet cute when she pukes. He gives her a lift home, sparks fly and they’re immediately enamored with one another. Lo and behold, Niko’s long lost brother Marco (Scott Adkins, doing a slight variation on his Yuri Boyka accent) returns to Nantucket. Unbeknownst to Niko, Marco sabotaged Tillie’s parents’ plane as revenge for Tillie’s Dad’s involvement in Niko and Marco’s father’s death. Marco intends to complete his vengeance by vanquishing Tillie. That is unless Tillie’s godfather, FBI Agent Cantrell (James Remar), can hunt Marco down and stop him. Marco also has intentions of bombing Nantucket’s Fourth of July beach party – hence the Tsarnaev connection. Niko must now face the eternal conundrum: Bros before hoes or hoes before bros?

I’ve seen a lot of these folks in other, better works. I don’t watch “Riverdale,” but liked Apa in “The Hate U Give” a coupla years back. Eisley (daughter of Olivia Hussey, who you likely remember from Franco Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet” and Bob Clark’s original “Black Christmas”) was good in the interesting TNT series, “I Am the Night,” where she collaborated with Patty Jenkins and Chris Pine. I’m pretty much the President of Adkins’ fan club, but he doesn’t belong in this movie. He’s one of the best on screen martial artists we have, but he doesn’t spin kick anybody in the face and only has two fight sequences, which are against an aged Remar and a middle-aged woman – they’re both uninspiring. I’ve dug Remar in countless things – “The Warriors,” “48 Hrs.,” “Sex and the City,” “The Girl Next Door,” “Dexter” – he feels uninspired and unengaged like he’s going through the motions to collect a check. They’re all uniformly bad here despite being talented. It doesn’t help that they’re saddled with dialogue that’s reminiscent of the tripe trotted out in “The Room” and “Birdemic: Shock and Terror,” i.e. lines penned by non-native English speakers. The non sequiturs spat by Niko to Tillie (“You’re so pretty. I will fix your bike.”) have BIG time Tommy Wiseau as Johnny energy. As far as I know screenwriters Kristin Alexandre and A. Wayne Carter are native English speakers and have no excuse. They should legitimately be ashamed of themselves.

The direction is no better. This hunk of junk was helmed by cinematographer-turned-director Andrzej Bartkowiak. This dude shot legit shit such as “The Verdict,” “Terms of Endearment,” “Prizzi’s Honor,” “Twins” and “Speed.” I will fully fess up I enjoyed Bartkowiak’s first coupla features – the DMX/Joel Silver collabos “Romeo Must Die,” “Exit Wounds” and “Cradle 2 the Grave” – they’re undoubtedly the guiltiest of guilty pleasures. I was unimpressed by Bartkowiak’s adaptation of “Doom” and his “Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li” is even worse. Chris Klein’s pitiful homage to Nicolas Cage’s mega acting and wigs (seriously, the dude’s hair was reminiscent of Cage’s ‘dos from “Next” and “Bangkok Dangerous”) would be the best performance in “Dead Reckoning” had he been transplanted here. Without hyperbole I can say “Chun-Li” looks like “Citizen Kane” by comparison to “Dead Reckoning.” Much like “The Room” horrific green screen is employed for seemingly no reason. The action has no jolts; the romance no sparks. The film’s most likable attribute is the adorable puppy Niko gifts Tillie. “Dead Reckoning” makes a convincing case that some things are better left buried. If you’re an Adkins fan like I am, you’re better off renting his recent effort “Seized” – that flick actually slaps! Given the movie’s locale, I’ll leave you with a limerick:

                There once was a thriller set in Nantucket,

                The cast and crew said fuck it,

                The action’s bad; the script is worse,

                This picture should be hauled off in a hearse,

                No one showed up to work; there shouldn’t be a junket.

Freaky

★★★★½ 

Co-writer/director Christopher Landon’s “Freaky” (now playing in theaters) is an absolute blast of a movie! I recently better familiarized with Landon’s filmography (I’d previously only seen “Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse,” which is only OK.) by catching up with “Happy Death Day” and “Happy Death Day 2 U” – both of which are fun flicks, but they don’t hold a candle to “Freaky” so far as laughs and gore go. Michael Landon’s son has hit a career peak here, folks.

Millie (Kathryn Newton) is a high schooler who lost her Dad. Her Mom, Paula (Katie Finneran), is busying herself by crawling inside countless Chardonnay bottles. Her older sister, Maggie (Dana Drori), is a police officer who still lives at home and is very much of the opinion that Millie needs to get herself a life. Millie isn’t especially well-liked – she’s the school mascot and gets bullied. She’s not friendless – she’s got the “too gay to function” Josh (Misha Osherovich) and Nyla (Celeste O’Connor, who appeared in “Selah and the Spades” earlier this year). She has a crush on sweet jock Booker Hooker (Uriah Shelton, super-likable here), but she lacks the courage to pursue him and firmly believes that he doesn’t even know she exists.

Millie’s luck goes from bad to worse when she’s attacked by the Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn). He stabs her in the shoulder with an ancient Aztec dagger he pilfered from his most recent massacre. The Butcher doesn’t kill Millie as the attack is interrupted by Maggie and her sidearm, which sends the murderer fleeing. The following morning Millie and the Butcher awake having switched bodies. Hilarity and horrors ensue.

I expected to dig “Freaky,” but was unprepared for just how funny, sweet, gruesome and woke it was gonna be. This is a high wire act of moviemaking that maintains its balance almost perfectly. Qualitatively this hews a lot closer to “Big” than it does “Like Father Like Son,” “Vice Versa” or “18 Again!” It’s kinda like “The Hot Chick” … only good and you get to see a dude get fed through a table saw.

Much of the movie’s success is attributable to the performances of Newton and Vaughn. I don’t know if Newton is lucky or simply has an innate ability to pick cool projects, but she kills it here after having appeared in worthwhile stuff such as “Lady Bird,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and “Blockers.” Her Millie is deeply sympathetic; her Blissfield Butcher is legitimately frightening. Vaughn mixes his finely-honed comedic chops with the justifiably intimidating heavies he’s essayed of late in things such as S. Craig Zahler’s “Brawl in Cell Block 99.” Vaughn’s stature makes his Blissfield Butcher formidable and his Millie a hoot and a half. His performance as Millie kinda calls to mind Jack Black’s hilarious work in “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” from a coupla years back. Vaughn’s absolutely murdering 2020 (Glad someone is!) between this and his inspired turn in Clark Duke’s “Arkansas” (Seriously, see this movie if you haven’t!).

I must give kudos to Landon and Osherovich for gifting us the character of Josh. It’s cool to see a gay filmmaker give a gay actor a gay character that’s this awesome. Josh is a super-cool kid that will likely empower queer teen audience members – he’s funny, smart, a good friend, comfortable with and unafraid of expressing his sexuality. Osherovich is given most of the movie’s funniest lines and he aces ‘em. The kid kinda steals the flick, which is no small feat considering just how good Newton and Vaughn are.

“Freaky” may be the last movie I see in a theater for a while given the recent spike in Covid numbers and a lack of quality titles releasing. I can’t in good faith recommend y’all go see it theatrically considering where we’re at right now, but as always do whatever you’re comfortable with and wear a damned mask! I would wholeheartedly advise y’all to seek it out at some point however. (I suspect it will be on VOD sooner as opposed to later.) When things normalize this would be an awesome option for a night-in with friends, pizza and a bunch of beers. “Freaky” is going to deservedly live on in college dorm rooms and middle and high school sleepovers. It’s a cult classic in the making.

Echo Boomers

★★★

A lot of us are facing financial stressors these days. Most of us wouldn’t resort to crime in order to alleviate such issues nor would we blame wealthier individuals for our plight. (Though maybe we should to some extent on the latter count?) “Echo Boomers,” available in select theaters and on VOD beginning Fri. Nov. 13, concerns a group of young people who aggressively engage in both behaviors by stealing from the rich and giving to themselves.

Patrick Schwarzenegger (Arnie’s eldest son) stars as Lance, a recent college graduate with no job prospects. Lance’s cousin, Jack (Gilles Geary), hails him from Dixie to Chicago with the promise of work. Turns out Jack and his friends – Ellis (Alex Pettyfer, “Magic Mike”), Allie (Hayley Law), Stewart (Oliver Cooper of “Project X” and “Californication”) and Chandler (Jacob Alexander) – are getting addresses of opulent homes from a fence named Mel (incomparable character actor Michael Shannon) and in turn rob and vandalize the joints. The crew members vandalize for various reasons – they grew up in the foster care system, they were abused and/or ignored by their parents, they were bullied as children, they served in combat and now have PTSD. Lance is brought into the fold as he was an Art History major and has insight into what paintings are worth stealing as opposed to destroying and how much they’d fetch on the open market.

There’s a decent amount to like here – much of it stems from the cast. I think this is the best I’ve seen Schwarzenegger from a fairly limited sample size. He’s not as naturally charismatic as his father, but he could prove to be an even better actor in time. He’s given opportunities to emote and he sells them. Geary is a performer I’d never seen before, but he brings a squirrelly energy to his character that should snag him certain sorts of roles moving forward. Pettyfer’s a good-looking cat and has presence, which makes me glad he’s being given another bite at the apple after being labelled as difficult during his stint as an “It Boy” in the early 2010s. He’s sterner and more villainous here than I’m used to seeing him and yet he’s convincingly intimidating. Shannon could do his part in his sleep. He’s entertaining doing what he’s given – I just wish there were more of it. I suspect Shannon’s here as a favor and only did a couple days on set.

“Echo Boomers” is the feature directorial debut of Seth Savoy who co-wrote alongside Kevin Bernhardt and Jason Miller. It’s a competently-made movie and often entertaining enough, but it’s hard to shake the feeling of been there, done that only better elsewhere. It’s also often difficult to empathize with these particular millennials. They’re greedy and all too happy to screw one another over. Had they pulled a Robin Hood and distributed their ill-gotten gains to worthwhile charities their actions still would’ve been wrong, but I would’ve had more respect and sympathy for them. Instead the funds get guzzled down their gullets, snorted up their nostrils or allocated towards luxury vehicles. At the end of the day, they’re worse than the tenets and people they’re flipping the bird to … and the filmmakers don’t seem as concerned about this as they probably could’ve or should’ve been.

Jungleland

★★★★

“Jungleland,”now available on VOD and playing in select theaters (I know for a fact it’s running at Goodrich Quality Theaters’ Brownsburg 8, Lebanon 7 and Eastside 10 in Lafayette, Ind.), feels like a film of yore. It very much gives off the vibes of a 1970s product what with its flawed protagonists, blue collar burnish, slow burn pacing and emphasizing character over plot. The movie it most reminds me of is Walter Hill’s 1975 Charles Bronson/James Coburn-fronted directorial debut “Hard Times.”

Stanley (Charlie Hunnam) and Lion Kaminski (Jack O’Connell, “Godless”) have appropriately enough fallen upon hard times. Their Dad didn’t want ‘em and took off. Their Mom died when they were young leaving the elder Stanley to care for the younger Lion. Lion has preternatural abilities as a boxer. Abilities that could’ve taken he and Stanley out of Falls River, Mass., the house they’re squatting in and their crappy gigs at a sewing factory. That is, had Stanley not been busted attempting to bribe a judge blowing Lion’s shot. Lion has since been relegated to bare-knuckle bouts in smoky back rooms.

Further complicating matters, Stanley owes substantial gambling debts to Pepper (Jonathan Majors, hot off of “Da 5 Bloods” and “Lovecraft Country”) and his associate, Buck Noble (Fran Kranz, best remembered as the stoner in “The Cabin in the Woods”). If he can’t pay, the men will most assuredly kill him. Pepper makes Stanley a deal – he’ll stake Lion in the San Francisco-based Jungleland bare-knuckle boxing tournament if they take Sky (Jessica Barden, “The End of the F***ing World”) along with them and drop her off to Yates (John Cullum) in Reno, Nev. After all, what’s a little human trafficking between friends?

“Jungleland,” co-written by Theodore Bressman (a staff writer on Hulu’s “Future Man”), David Branson Smith (co-writer of “Ingrid Goes West”) and Max Winkler (son of Henry – “Ayyyyyy!”), directed by Winkler and executive produced by Ridley Scott, is deeply sad despite being broadly entertaining. I’ve only seen bits and pieces of Winkler’s 2010 directorial debut “Ceremony” on cable (I enjoyed what I saw) and haven’t seen his 2017 follow-up “Flower,” but he proves to be an assured enough voice here that I’ll backtrack to catch up with his earlier efforts and look forward to whatever he does next. The dude obviously has a deft touch with actors. “Jungleland” is very much a three-hander relying largely on the performances of Hunnam, O’Connell and Barden – all of whom are captivating. Hunnam especially is a revelation. His Stanley is aggravating and sympathetic in equal measure. This is likely the best work of Hunnam’s career revealing dimensions heretofore unseen – besting impressive turns on FX’s “Sons of Anarchy” and in Guy Ritchie’s “The Gentlemen” from earlier this year.

As the mouthy older brother of a more athletically-gifted younger brother, I felt “Jungleland” in my bones. (I was grounded when I was 10 for gambling on one of my brother’s little league games.) Sports movies involving father-son and brother-brother relationships are emotional catnip to me. “Field of Dreams” is one of my Top 15 fave flicks of all-time. “Warrior” and “Creed” are two of my favorite films of the last 10 years and are two of my favorite sports pictures of all-time. “Jungleland” doesn’t quite reach this rarefied air and concludes a tad too neatly, but when Bruce Springsteen’s queued up late (it’s not the song you’re thinking, but rather “Dream Baby Dream” off of 2014’s High Hopes) you’ll be hard-pressed to not turn into a sobbing mess. This is cinema of catharsis.

Let Him Go

★★★★

I’m generally a Kevin Costner fan and/or apologist. “Field of Dreams” is one of my top 15 favorite movies of all-time. Many of his flicks transfixed me as a kid – “The Untouchables,” “Bull Durham,” “Dances with Wolves,” “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” “JFK” – and still do as an adult. “A Perfect World” is one of Clint Eastwood’s most underrated directorial efforts and Costner does some of the best work of his career playing the personification of cool. I dig “Waterworld” to a degree (Dennis Hopper’s super-fun in it) and even defend “The Postman” (How can you hate a movie that co-stars Tom Petty and features the very talented Larenz Tate as a character named Ford Lincoln Mercury?). As far as I’m concerned Costner’s pretty much three-for-three as a director – “Open Range” is a banger of an old school Western. Hell, I even liked his turn as the villainous illegitimate son of Elvis Presley in the much-maligned “3000 Miles to Graceland.”

One of the only times I’ve ever been terribly turned off by Costner was when my wife and I saw he and his band Modern West at the Indiana State Fair back in 2013. Admittedly, the group was pretty decent, but his stage repartee left much to be desired – “We met in the dark – you in the audience; me on the silver screen.” Kinda douche-y, dude! Costner also referred to the State Fair as a county fair, which seemed to leave some concertgoers incensed – not me – but some folks. (For the record: I also think “The Bodyguard” blows. People often misconstrue this movie as being good because Whitney Houston’s Dolly Parton cover is so stellar.)

I don’t have nearly as much of a connection to Diane Lane as a filmgoer. I’ve always thought she was lovely. She certainly made an impression early in her career with the Francis Ford Coppola/S.E. Hinton one-two punch of “The Outsiders” and “Rumble Fish” and Walter Hill’s action musical “Streets of Fire.” She later appeared in some truly forgettable action flicks in the mid ‘90s, i.e. “Judge Dredd” and “Murder at 1600.” I remember seeing “Unfaithful” at a dollar theater back in 2002 due to prurient interests on screen and off. The movie didn’t do a whole lot for me, but her performance was good. Much of Lane’s oeuvre could be described this way for me – dug her performance; didn’t dig the picture itself.

Costner and Lane have reteamed for “Let Him Go,” now playing in theaters, after having played Ma and Pa Kent in Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (“Martha!!!”). “Let Him Go” casts the actors as George and Margaret Blackledge. It’s the early ‘60s in Montana. He’s a retired sheriff. She breaks horses. They have a son, James (Ryan Bruce), daughter-in-law, Lorna (Kayli Carter, seen earlier this year in “Bad Education”) and grandson, Jimmy (played by twins Bram and Otto Hornung). Tragedy strikes and James is killed under mysterious circumstances in a riding accident.

Flash forward a coupla years and Lorna remarries – the fella’s name is Donnie Weboy (Will Brittain, Beuter Perkins from Richard Linklater’s “Everybody Wants Some!!”). Donnie’s a bad egg and quickly takes to physically abusing Lorna and Jimmy, which Margaret witnesses firsthand. Donnie then absconds with them to his family’s ranch in North Dakota without so much as a word to George and Margaret. The grandparents are quickly in pursuit of Donnie and their kin with every intention of bringing the boy home. They befriend a native boy named Peter Dragswolf (Booboo Stewart) and run into roadblocks in the form of Donnie’s mother, Blanche (Mike Leigh and “Phantom Thread” vet Leslie Manville), and uncle, Bill (Jeffrey Donovan), along the way.

“Let Him Go” is an adaptation of Larry Watson’s novel written and directed by Thomas Bezucha (pronounced like the bubblegum or the oft-brandished weapon of ‘80s action movies). Bezucha seems an odd choice to make a dramatic neo-Western thriller after having made the familial Christmas dramedy “The Family Stone” (2005) and the teen girl comedy “Monte Carlo” (2011), but he acquits himself well with the material. It’s slow-moving, character-based, surprisingly violent and sneakily funny. The mountainous scenery is beautifully shot by cinematographer Guy Godfree. The period and regional details are carefully recreated by production designer Trevor Smith, art director Cathy Cowan, set decorator Amber Humphries and costume designer Carol Case. The picture also boasts a beautiful, simplistic score from the always-reliable Michael Giacchino.

There are various styles of acting on display in “Let Him Go.” Costner and Lane play their roles in a subdued fashion and have wonderful chemistry. Manville and Donovan (doing a complete 180 on his recent, likable turn in “Honest Thief”) are BIG ol’ hams playing the most despicable of the despicable and are highly entertaining doing so.

“Let Him Go” seems like it was tailor-made for my folks and in-laws (all hardcore devotees of Costner’s Paramount Network series “Yellowstone”). It’s a film that hasn’t been made much in this era of Marvel, DC and “Star Wars” in that it likely didn’t cost much and is aimed squarely at adults. With where the movie industry’s at right now, I suspect we’ll see more flicks like this in the months and years to come. That ain’t an entirely bad thing.

The Dark and the Wicked

★★★

Is writer/producer/director Bryan Bertino OK? (Granted, a lot of us haven’t really been OK the past coupla days, but I’m talking OK in the grander sense.) I’ve only seen two of the filmmaker’s four flicks – 2008’s “The Strangers” and now “The Dark and the Wicked,” available on VOD and in select theaters beginning Fri. Nov. 6, but he’s made quite the impression.

Bertino makes me think of a certain ditty from “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.” “So what would Bryan Bertino do/If he were here today?/He would torture his protagonists for an hour and a half or two/That’s what Bryan Bertino’d do!” Bertino appears to be a cinematic sadist, but not an untalented one.

Siblings Louise (Marin Ireland, flexing her frightened muscles of late between this and the recent “The Empty Man”) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr., a veteran of many of writer/director Jeff Nichols’ movies) have returned home to their family farm as their Father (Michael Zagst) is dying. Despite the old man’s imminent demise, the siblings seem more concerned about their Mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone). She told the siblings not to return home and seems upset that they didn’t listen. Michael reads a passage of Mom’s diary without permission revealing that she thinks an evil entity seeks to harm her husband – it’s not long before the duo concur with the matriarch’s assessment. A Priest (reliable character actor Xander Berkeley) turns up offering guidance and miniature crucifixes (the same ones their Mom’s sporting despite not being religious), but the siblings can’t make heads or tails out of whether he’s friend or foe.

“The Dark and the Wicked” is a slow burn exercise in supernatural terror. Despair looms LARGE over the proceedings. Bertino and his crew expertly ratchet up the tension until it’s released in disturbing detail. There are instances of hand and eye trauma as well as animal cruelty that I wish I could unsee. Some of this shit’s the gnarliest of the gnarly. There’s a sequence in which Bertino pulls the rug out from underneath his audience so expertly and with such a perverse playfulness that I couldn’t help but cackle despite the depravity being depicted. Bertino’s jolts register as well as they do thanks to his two primary actors – Ireland and Abbott. You buy these two as siblings, you get where they’re coming from and you feel for them even when you don’t like them. They’re both stage-trained performers and it shows – the acting is markedly better than in many genre movies.

Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t expecting a picture called “The Dark and the Wicked” to be all love and light. Bertino’s made a film that’s both effective and affective and at the end of the day that makes it successful. It’s far from bad – it just ain’t my bag.

Spontaneous

★★★★

Most of us look back on high school and have some things we wish we would have done differently.

For many of us, there are regrets based on fears and insecurity that held us back in those teenage years. We were too unsure of ourselves to ask that one girl to prom or too afraid to being ridiculed to try out for the school play. And so on.

But what if you were uncertain you’d make it to graduation? Well, you might live your life differently.

Based on a 2016 young adult novel, “Spontaneous” is a new teen romance/thriller/comedy that depicts teenagers wondering what the future holds for them while dealing with classmates spontaneously and randomly exploding for no apparent reason.

Yes, teenagers explode in this movie. And it’s not neat and tidy. These are bloody, messy explosions that are more like a balloon popping than a bomb going off. Faces are covered in red-dyed cornstarch like the library scene in the made-for-TV adaptation of Stephen King’s “It.”

Katherine Langford (a rising star seen in “Knives Out” and “13 Reasons Why”) stars as Mara, a senior who is shaken after seeing her classmate inexplicably burst like a bubble. She takes hallucinogenic mushrooms (mixed into her pumpkin spiced latte) in a moment of shock and grief only to meet face-to-face with her secret admirer who began texting her after the disaster. Charlie Plummer (“Lean on Pete”) plays her love interest who decides to ask her out after realizing he could explode too and he had to begin living his life.

Senior classmates continue to explode and the government begins to try to find out why. Religious fanatics claim it’s a curse. School is cancelled and teenagers are quarantined as the government promises they are quickly developing a cure (an unintentional parallel to COVID-19, even though this movie/book were made far before the recent pandemic).

The deaths themselves are done in such a preposterous way that there’s room for some clever dark comedy, even though it’s dealing with the topic of young people dying. There are jokes about high school memorials with oddly sexual songs sang and there’s even a very appropriate reference to David Cronenberg, director of “Scanners” (if you’ve seen that scene, you know why).

There are some laugh at loud moments that only this film could create, such as the romantic couple making jokes about “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial” while laying in government hospital beds with tubes inserted, separated by plastic sheeting.

The romance between the two leads is very sweet and you really start to pull for both of them to come out of the film unscathed. But when you know a character could explode at any moment, there’s an added layer of tension to every hug and every kiss. You keep waiting to see if either one will pop.

There are some flaws to this film. The narration, while effective, seems like a pretty by-the-numbers device to frame this story. But even when the movie is cliche at times, first-time director Brian Duffield’s camerawork and the leads’ charismatic performances keep the audience engaged throughout.

The film shifts in tone quite a bit, first laughing at the deaths and then taking them seriously with tear-inducing somber narration. At times, it can be sappy. It even resembles “The Fault in Our Stars” a little. But there’s always a joke around the corner to break the tension.

The movie fumbles its closing message a little. In a meta-joke, Langford’s character narrates that she isn’t sure what she’s learned from the whole ordeal except that life sucks, but it also can be great at times. She ends up settling on, “start living your life today” which actually is a little different than “live like this day is your last.” (The latter lends itself to walking around as if actions have no consequences, while the former leads people to not put off until tomorrow what you can do today).

“Spontaneous” has received a theatrical run in addition to being available to rent on VOD, but this film isn’t playing currently in the Indianapolis area. It’s actually worth spending $10 for the early access rental because in my mind it’s probably the best teen romance movie I’ve seen since “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” in 2015.

The Craft: Legacy


★★★1/2

I’m probably an anomaly in that I was a 14-year-old boy who was stoked to see the chick-centric “The Craft” theatrically when it dropped in the spring of 1996. As I was already 6’0” tall and regularly shaving, I had no trouble gaining admittance to the R-rated movie. The question is why did I want to see it? Most of it was likely that I already had the hots for a pre-“Scream” Neve Campbell from having watched “Party of Five” (probably also an odd choice for a 14-year-old boy). I liked but didn’t love the movie (that’s still the case), but I dug enough of what was going on with it that I wound up picking up the flick’s soundtrack on CD. That was commitment in ’96, y’all!

Fast forward 24 years and low-budget horror super-producer Jason Blum brings us a new spin on “The Craft.” Part sequel, part reboot – “The Craft: Legacy,” now available on VOD, focuses on Lily (Cailee Spaeny), a teenager moving from New Jersey to Massachusetts with her mother, Helen (Michelle Monaghan), in order for Mom to pursue a relationship with Adam (David Duchovny). Adam is a self-help guru with three sons – Abe (Julian Grey), Jacob (Charles Vandervaart) and Isaiah (Donald MacLean Jr).

Lily gets off to a rough start at her new school when she’s mocked by Timmy (Nicholas Galitzine), Jacob’s best buddy. A trio of high school witches Lourdes (Zoey Luna), Frankie (Gideon Adlon) and Tabby (Lovie Simone, seen earlier this year in Amazon Prime’s “Selah and the Spades”) notice a Wiccan trinket around Lily’s neck and are especially impressed when she rebuffs Timmy’s bullshit by telepathically chucking his ass against a locker with authority. The girls quickly invite Lily into their flock completing their coven.

Actress-turned-writer/director Zoe Lister-Jones makes her sophomore feature effort with “The Craft: Legacy.” There’s no slump here IMHO. She drew both praise and controversy by hiring an entirely female crew for her directorial debut, 2017’s “Band Aid.” She couldn’t do the same this time out, but many of her “Band Aid” compatriots tackle pivotal roles here – director of photography Hillary Spera, editor Libby Cuenin, production designer Hillary Gurtler and producer Natalia Anderson. (Another interesting tidbit: other credited positions include COVID-19 Supervisor, COVID-19 Officers and COVID-19 Cleaner … how 2020!)

“The Craft: Legacy” seems less concerned with conjuring scares than it does with being woke … and that’s not altogether a bad thing. One of the members of the coven and the actress herself are transgendered. The movie tackles toxic masculinity directly and the girls cast a spell on “Testosterone Timmy” (no joke, this nickname was literally bequeathed upon my brother by some of his high school basketball buddies) turning him into the sensitive sort – he refers to himself as cisgender and speaks of heteronormativity in no time!

The cast generally does a good job. Two of the actresses making up the coven (Spaeny and Adlon) appeared in two of my favorite films of 2018 (“Bad Times at the El Royale” and “Blockers” respectively). Both actresses acquit themselves admirably, but I was especially impressed by the cute-as-a-button Spaeny. This is undoubtedly her movie and the elven-looking actress (seriously, somebody cast her as Zelda!) comes to play.

I’m not entirely sure how this was rated PG-13 what with its inclusion of period blood, female masturbation, descriptions of teenage boys hooking up, etc., but I ultimately think young women should see this as it may entertain them and more importantly empower them. It does get goofily “Power Rangers”-ish in the end, but it also draws ties to its predecessor that could make for an especially interesting third installment.

Alec at the Movies: Synchronic/The Empty Man

★★★★

Another week; another double bill – I’m trying to get while the getting’s good. Who knows how much longer theaters will even be a thing? As per usual – don’t go to the movies if you don’t feel safe doing so. If you do go – please wear a mask, socially distance and follow all posted safety protocols. With no further ado, here’s what I saw!

Synchronic

“We want to be very clear: at the time of writing this, we personally wouldn’t go to an indoor theater, so we can’t encourage you to.” These are the words written by “Synchronic” co-director Aaron Moorhead via Instagram back on Sept. 11, 2020 on behalf of himself, fellow director and screenwriter Justin Benson and producer David Lawson. As my wife will tell you, I don’t listen worth a damn … so I went and saw the movie theatrically regardless. And I’m very glad I did – it’s one of 2020’s best.

I know Benson and Moorhead more by reputation than I do their work itself. I’ve heard very good things about “Spring” and “The Endless,” but haven’t seen either of them as of this writing. “Synchronic” is the first film I’ve seen of theirs and it left me longing to backtrack and catch up with their stuff.

Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan star as Steve and Dennis respectively – they’re a pair of best friends and New Orleans-based paramedics. Steve’s a ladies man living single and free; Dennis is married to Tara (Katie Aselton of “The League”) with two daughters on either side of the parenting age spectrum – 18-year-old Brianna (Ally Ioannides from AMC’s “Into the Badlands”) and an infant. The two men begin encountering many cases spurred by a legal street drug substitute called Synchronic. I don’t want to say much else about the plot because I went into the film fairly cold and feel it benefitted greatly from me doing so.

Dornan’s a legitimate actor when he takes a break from spanking bare bottoms with a belt. As good as he is – and he’s very, very good – this is Mackie’s movie. I’ve been a fan of Mackie’s for a good long while. Whether it’s as Papa Doc in “8 Mile,” the male lead in Spike Lee’s misguided “She Hate Me,” the bully boxer in “Million Dollar Baby,” an on edge soldier in “The Hurt Locker” or as Falcon in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the dude always makes an impression. Mackie may very well be doing the best work of his career in “Synchronic.” As a New Orleans native, he seems particularly engaged by and connected with the material.

“Synchronic” is obviously a low budget movie, but what these filmmakers lack in money they more than make up for with unbridled imagination and genuine emotion. This is incredibly assured sci-fi. The movie moved me to tears, which is sort of bummer while masked up.

4.5/5

The Empty Man

“The Empty Man” has been sitting on a shelf since 2018. It’s not a bad movie in the slightest, but it’s also entirely too long (137 minutes seems a tad lengthy for a horror flick). Despite being released by Disney’s 20th Century Studios, the picture still sports a 20th Century Fox studio logo. It’s like the studio didn’t know what to do with the product so they simply dumped it into theaters as Halloween programming during a pandemic. I’m honestly surprised the film was greenlit in the first place – despite being based off a BOOM! Studios graphic novel by Cullen Bunn, it’s not especially commercial. One could argue the result is more art house than grindhouse.

James Badge Dale stars as James Lasombra, a widower who lost his wife (Tanya van Graan) and son in a car accident. James is a former police officer who runs a security store. He’s a lonely sort who celebrates his birthday by himself paying for a Mexican meal with a coupon. He’s paid a visit by Amanda Quail (Sasha Frolova, who’s a good albeit interesting-looking actress – her character resembles some sort of amalgamation of Scarlett Johansson and Noah Schnapp’s Will Byers from “Stranger Things” with a dose of Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros) from “Pulp Fiction” thrown in for good measure), a family friend and the daughter of Nora (Marin Ireland). The girl doesn’t seem distraught per se, but she also doesn’t seem totally with it. Soon thereafter, she disappears. A message is scrawled on her bathroom mirror in blood, “The Empty Man made me do it.” James has to answer questions from Detective Villiers (Ron Canada). Dissatisfied with the work the police are doing, James begins investigating Amanda’s disappearance on Nora’s behalf. His investigation leads him to the shadowy Ponitfix Society fronted by Arthur Parsons (the always reliable Stephen Root).

“The Empty Man” is written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker David Prior. Prior cut his teeth making behind the scenes documentaries for the physical media releases of many of David Fincher’s films. Fincher’s influence can be felt in this final product. Prior, who also co-edited the picture, composes many artfully-constructed frames that call to mind Fincher’s work. He’s leisurely with the pacing (much like Fincher), but doesn’t have the control of his more experienced mentor. Three-quarters of this film are a masterclass in tension and suspense before going off the rails in the final quarter.

Badge Dale is an actor I generally dig (the cat was aces in Michael Bay’s “13 Hours” a handful of years back) and he does admirable work here. He injects this overtly serious picture with some much needed levity and often does it with little more than some expertly timed and employed facial expressions. Badge Dale is good enough that I’d like to see him headline more features. Likewise, Prior shows promise – I’ll anticipate whatever he does next.

3.5/5

The Witches

★★1/2

I remember seeing Nicolas Roeg’s 1990 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “The Witches” on VHS at the sleepover birthday party of a trio of triplets who lived down the road from me. I was 9 at the time. For those of us who weren’t enticed away by the boys’ Sega Game Gear, the picture made quite an impression. Numerous kids bailed on the movie for other reasons – leaving the room crying, upset and terrified. (One of these cats had a similar incident caused by the Rodent of Unusual Size while watching “The Princess Bride.” Perhaps I should’ve hung with a heartier crowd?)

“The Witches” is PG, but it’s an intense PG. There’s imagery therein we weren’t accustomed to seeing. (Go figure – the dude behind “Performance,” “Don’t Look Now” and “The Man Who Fell to Earth” made a kid’s flick that rattled?) I stuck with the “The Witches.” It didn’t freak me out … it intrigued me. I dug the puppets created by Jim Henson (who executive produced) and his team. I was enraptured by Anjelica Huston’s creepy performance.

Fast forward 30 years and now we’ve got Robert Zemeckis’ spin on “The Witches,” currently available for streaming on HBO Max. Zemeckis made some seminal flicks of my and every other ‘80s kids’ youth in the “Back to the Future” trilogy and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” He’s lost a step or twelve since then getting sucked down a motion capture-fueled technological wormhole. (See “The Polar Express,” “Beowulf” and “A Christmas Carol” … or better yet, don’t. Tom Hanks’ dead CG eyes will haunt your nightmares.) Sadly, “The Witches” isn’t a return to form – and strangely it’s technology that often hobbles the flick. (A horrendously rendered CG cat that would make your Nintendo 64 blush from embarrassment is my least favorite element of this enterprise. These technicians seriously fuck up fur texture and then add insult to injury by making the cat wet and brutally botch the water effects.)

“The Witches” tells the tale of Hero Boy (Jahzir Bruno), a young lad who loses his folks in a car accident. He goes to live with his Grandma (Octavia Spencer – easily the best part of this movie and almost anything she appears in. Also, how in the hell is she playing anybody’s grandmother?!!! She was born in 1972! Get with it, Hollywood! Keep employing Spencer, but maybe try slotting her as the lead of a romantic comedy or something?). The boy is shy, sad and reserved at first. Grandma breaks down his walls with her big heart and by dancing to a coupla choice mid-to-late ‘60s and early ‘70s soul needle drops (foremost among them is the Four Tops’ “Reach Out I’ll Be There”).

Just as things start going well for the duo, a coven of witches rear their ugly heads nearby. Grandma, Hero Boy and his pet mouse Daisy (voiced by Kristin Chenoweth) flee to a beachside resort hotel managed by Mr. Stringer (Stanley Tucci) to hide. As luck would have it, the witches (fronted by Anne Hathaway’s Grand High Witch) are staying there too and have nefarious intentions of turning the world’s children into mice via potion-dosed chocolate bars since kids stink to high hell to them otherwise.

A murderers’ row of talent assembled to make “The Witches.” Zemeckis directed. He co-wrote with Kenya Barris (“Black-ish,” “Girls Trip”) and Guillermo goddamned del Toro! It was produced by del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón. I wonder what this movie would’ve played like had del Toro directed it? As is, it kinda reads like Great Value brand Tim Burton. I would love to see the Burton of yore tackle this material.

In spite of all the talent behind and in front of the camera, “The Witches” is a mixed bag. The acting for the most part is only so-so aside from Spencer. Bruno’s a cute kid, but not an especially adept actor. His performance improves once a transformation takes place and he’s providing voiceover only. Hathaway goes BIG and is admittedly entertaining at times. The first iteration of her character kinda reminded me of my high school/college sweetheart. She didn’t have Heath Ledger Joker mouth as Hathaway’s Grand High Witch does, but their faces kinda resemble one another and the poofy blonde wig sealed it. Hathaway’s performance and wigs getter bigger as the movie proceeds. She employs an accent that sounds like a mixture of Melania Trump and Swedish Chef from “The Muppets.” I often had trouble understanding her, which I’m sure is played for humor – mostly it just frustrated me. Tucci is almost entirely wasted. How does a movie waste a talent such as Tucci?!!! I’m assuming he’s here primarily as a favor to Hathaway after having worked with her on “The Devil Wears Prada.”

This complaint was likely lodged against the 1990 version too, but I’m uncertain who this version of “The Witches” was made for – it’s too scary for children and too childish for adults. It often plays like one of those “Stuart Little” movies from the late ‘90s/early aughts and mostly seems like an excuse to make fat jokes at the expense of children and mice alike.