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.

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

★1/2

I remember seeing the original “Borat” movie in theaters in 2006.

I had recently graduated from Indiana University and moved to Jacksonville, Florida to accept a job at a newspaper. I didn’t know anyone there and my father flew into town to hang out with me.

We went to watch the Indianapolis Colts take on the Jacksonville Jaguars and we were really excited. Expectations were high that Peyton Manning would destroy our usually pitiful opponent.

On the Jaguars’ first play, running back Fred Taylor ran for 76 yards. Eventually, the team ran for a franchise record 375 yards and my father and I were taunted by Jags fans leaving the stadium as the Colts were defeated.

(Side note: The radio announcer overhead as we were leaving said, “Looks like another first round playoff exit for the Colts this year.”We ended up winning the Super Bowl that year. So take that.)

Needless to say, my father was depressed. He flew 900 miles to see his favorite team get absolutely destroyed.

So I said to my father, “You need cheering up. Let’s go to a movie.”

He wasn’t in the mood but he went along and we saw “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.”

My father had never heard of British comedian Sasha Baron Cohen and he laughed so hard that he almost fell out of his seat. Seriously, I was afraid that the movie theater staff were going to escort us out for causing a disruption.

“Borat” was a huge box office hit, grossing $260 million worldwide. He was a popular Halloween costume for years to come and people would quote the accented character’s iconic “My wiiiiife!” catchphrase. Eventually, the amateur impersonations would rival only Napoleon Dynamite for their ability to annoy.

What made “Borat” so hilarious was a combination of political satire and shock value. The over-the-top parody of foreigners brought to life the xenophobia in the United States. And a few real-life people, including a group of fraternity brothers and a homophobic rodeo cowboy, showed what some Americans are really like.

Cohen attempted a follow up movie a few years later featuring another one of his characters, Bruno, a gay Austrian fashion reporter. The movie was not nearly as funny and part of the difficulty is that Cohen had become a household name and could no longer trick unsuspecting people with his character. Everyone knew it was a stunt.

Fourteen years later, we finally get a true sequel to “Borat” but people haven’t forgotten the character, making it necessary for the character himself to choose to dress in disguise. Cohen filmed it very quickly and somewhat secretly during the COVID-19 lockdown, although some news reports came out that he had been spotted in character and that a new movie was expected.

Things are much different than they were in 2006. Back then, George W. Bush was president and cell phone cameras didn’t exist (to capture Cohen on the street). Nowadays, real life is so increasingly bizarre and unbelievable that it’s difficult to parody 2020. Donald Trump might be even more “out-there” than the character Borat.

Cohen takes aim at a few modern day targets including anti-maskers, anti-abortion activists, QAnon conspiracy theorists and Rudy Giuliani himself in a climactic appearance that likely has been spoiled by recent news coverage (and quickly I will say that it doesn’t look like Rudy was really touching himself, so the coverage is overblown).

Cohen apparently lived in quarantine with a pair of conspiracy theorists for five days and had to stay in character the entire time. That’s really interesting and I bet a “making of” feature might be more interesting than this actual sequel.

The new wrinkle in this sequel is that Borat is escorted by his 15-year-old daughter played by Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova. Some of the funniest scenes in the movie involve her character and she’s able to trick some unsuspecting subjects where Cohen is unable.

Due to the lack of anonymity, this sequel relies on a written narrative more than the original movie which was often just a collection of skits. And the story in this sequel is a sweet one, worthy of being told.

But in the end “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” isn’t very funny and that’s the true barometer of whether it’s a “great success.”

What was once funny about Borat has now become annoying and it’s difficult to have the same impact on audiences who are no longer surprised.

People are much harder to shock nowadays and Cohen’s pranks just fall flat.

In the end, I think much of comedy comes down to surprising an audience. That’s why sequels to comedies are usually terrible (“Caddyshack 2” “Meet the Fockers” “Zoolander 2” and “Anchorman 2” come to mind).

Everyone that hated the first “Borat” movie will hate the sequel just as movie. But I suspect only about half of the people who enjoyed the original comedy will end up liking this new version.

Rebecca (2020)

It’s not easy remaking an already great movie. But a Best Picture winner at the Oscars? That’s an especially tall order.

Only a handful of Best Picture winners have been remade and technically most of them are new adaptations of a book.

The list includes “Mutiny on the Bounty,” “Ben-Hur,” “All the King’s Men,” “Hamlet” and “Around the World in 80 Days.”

Steven Spielberg has a new film version of “West Side Story” that will be added to this list at some point (release date uncertain due to COVID-19).

And now we have “Rebecca,” a Netflix-exclusive based on the 1938 Gothic novel by English author Dame Daphne du Maurier.

“Rebecca” was turned into a Best Picture-winning feature in 1940 directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier. Hitchcock did not receive a statuette for this win (he was not listed as a producer) and ultimately he never won an Oscar in his career (only an honorary one).

While loved by many classic film buffs, the original 1940 “Rebecca” isn’t among Hitchock’s best works. Most people, including myself, would certainly rank it after “Psycho,” “The Birds,” “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest” and “Rear Window.” I might throw in a few others (I have a fondness for “Rope”).

So why remake this classic? I’m not sure I understand why.

Lily James (“Downton Abbey,” “Cinderella”) and Armie Hammer (“Call Me By Your Name,” “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”) star in the two lead roles in director Ben Wheatley’s new version.

It’s the story of a young woman who falls in love with a rich widower and marries him rather quickly and moves into his enormous mansion called Manderley. The setting itself certainly takes on a life of its own and it’s intricately detailed in the bright colorful updated remake. James is constantly reminded of the memory of her husband’s first wife and the mysterious circumstances surrounding her death.

Not to give away anything about the plot (it really kicks in during the last 30 minutes of this 2-hour film) but the modern remake seems to more of a murder mystery than a psychological thriller like the original.

The real standout in this new version is Kristin Scott Thomas (“The English Patient,” “Only God Forgives”) as the the creepy, possessive housekeeper Mrs. Danvers who manipulates James’ character and seems overly protective of the late wife’s memory.

If you’re comparing this new version to the original, you might be let down, but if you’re looking for a thriller with a beautiful period-piece setting then you could do a lot worse than “Rebecca.”

Tremors: Shrieker Island

★★★1/2

To say I have a lengthy history with the “Tremors” franchise would be an understatement. I’d often watch the original installment after school on stations such as USA or TNT. Mostly I’d tune in for the famed scene in which Burt (Michael Gross) and Heather Gummer (Reba McEntire) let loose on a Graboid with an entire arsenal for breaking through their basement rec room wall or the concluding critter kill where Val (Kevin Bacon) tricks one of those varmints into drilling its way through a cliff face plummeting to its demise.

The movie gained greater respect in my eyes when I spotted its one-sheet on the bedroom wall of Brodie Bruce (Jason Lee) in Kevin Smith’s sophomore feature “Mallrats.” (The movies shared a studio in Universal and producer in the late, great Jim Jacks.) Fictional or not, Brodie was a teenage hero of mine and if “Tremors” was good enough for him it sure as shit was good enough for me. (Fun Fact: “Mallrats” celebrated its 25th anniversary on the day I wrote this piece.)

Fast forward a bunch of years – I’m now married, have a home, have a job, have a dog, have responsibilities. My love of “Tremors” hasn’t faded an iota. My wife Jamie is a devotee to boot. We’ll drop whatever we’re doing and tune into “Tremors” when it’s on premium cable. Everybody has cable movies – hers are “Jurassic Park,” “Apollo 13” and “The American President”; mine are “Tombstone,” “The Rock” and anything starring Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme as I’m on the precipice of passing out. “Tremors” is OUR cable movie. We both delight in the way McEntire closes her eyes when firing two six shooters simultaneously or the way Melvin (Bobby Jacoby) screams, “Burt, you asshole! There’s no bullets in this gun!”

The sad fact of the matter is most of the “Tremors” sequels suck worse than Nickelback. “Tremors: Shrieker Island,” now available on DVD, VOD and for streaming on Netflix, is the seventh installment of the franchise … and believe it or not it’s the second best of the bunch. The only other one I’d recommend is 2015’s “Tremors: Bloodlines.”

Gross once again returns to the role of Burt Gummer. He’s the only cast member to have been in every entry to date. Despite having 125 acting credits, I don’t really know Gross from anything other than “Tremors” and “Family Ties,” and I’d assert Gummer is far more iconic than Steven Keaton. (It warmed my heart to see the Chicago-born Gross switch from an Atlanta Hawks ball cap to a Chicago Cubs one in 2018’s “Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell” and maintain the change here.)

When we happen upon Burt he’s living a life of seclusion on a Thai island looking like an aged version of Tom Hanks in “Cast Away.” Scientists (embodied by Jon Heder, Caroline Langrishe and Jackie Cruz) on a nearby island need assistance when their fellow inhabitants – a group of hunters fronted by the bastardly Bill (badass genre character actor Richard Brake) and his sharpshooter sidekick Anna (Cassie Clare) – generically engineer Graboid game. Burt, the best in the Graboid dispatching biz, reluctantly agrees to aid them despite personal grievances and general malaise.

The plot’s thin and the dialogue is often eye-rollingly bad, but “Shrieker Island” is one blast of a B-movie. The flick’s co-written and directed by Don Michael Paul, who helmed the previous two “Tremors” installments as well as an onslaught of different Universal 1440 Entertainment DTV sequels, i.e. “Jarhead 2: Field of Fire,” “Kindergarten Cop 2,” “Death Race 4: Beyond Anarchy,” “The Scorpion King: Book of Souls,” “Jarhead: Law of Return” and “Bulletproof 2.” He also wrote the awesome and entirely underrated “Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man” way back in 1991. Paul brings fun and style to the proceedings. He apes all sorts of other movies entertainingly – this picture’s carrying a big ol’ torch for “Predator.”

The cast generally comes to play. Gross can do Gummer in his sleep at this point, but by no means sleepwalks through the film. Heder is a welcome presence – he’s likable and not annoying – which says something as I generally haven’t dug the dude outside of his breakout role in “Napoleon Dynamite.” Brake’s a hoot here – he’s like a scuzzy Richard Branson blended with Lance Henriksen’s “Hard Target” baddie. Langrishe, Cruz and Clare are all lovely and acquit themselves well in their roles.

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure – with “Tremors: Shrieker Island” and this man … it’s both.

Alec at the Movies: The Kid Detective/Honest Thief

★★★1/2

I did something I haven’t done in a hot minute yesterday. I took in a double bill … at the movie theater. Lucky me, double the COVID! Jokes aside, don’t go the movies if you don’t feel comfortable 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!

The Kid Detective

I didn’t hear about this one until a week ago while I was on vacation in Myrtle Beach, S.C. (more COVID!). Imagine “Encyclopedia Brown” (if you read the Donald J. Sobol children’s books or remember the HBO series from the late ‘80s/early ’90s) only grown up, burnt out and having developed an alcohol dependency and you’ve got “The Kid Detective” in a nutshell.

Adam Brody is the titular “Kid Detective” AKA Abe Applebaum. He was a celebrated child sleuth (played in his earlier years by Jesse Noah Gruman) who solved mysteries ranging from who stole the proceeds from the high school’s bake sale to who’d been robbing the local ice cream parlor. For his troubles he was awarded the Key to the City and free cones for life. The bloom is off the rose when his assistant – the Mayor’s daughter, Gracie Gulliver (Kaitlyn Chalmers-Rizzato) – disappears and Abe’s unable to help bring her home. He carries this burden into adulthood.

Abe, now 32, maintains the same office he did as a youngster. He has a new assistant, the uber goth, Lucy (Sarah Sutherland, Kiefer’s daughter!). Abe’s folks (Wendy Crewson (it’s always good to see the Mom from “The Good Son” and the First Lady from “Air Force One”) and Jonathan Whittaker) are worried about their son’s drinking and financial stability. The tides appear to be turning for Abe when teenaged Caroline (Sophie Nélisse) hires him to solve the murder of her high school sweetheart.

“The Kid Detective” is the feature directorial debut of “The Dirties” screenwriter Evan Morgan and it’s an auspicious beginning to what I can only hope will be a very fruitful career. This movie is assured, Canadian and Shane Black-ish as shit. It goes darker than it likely earns in the late goings, but it doesn’t stumble much as a result. Sharply written and strongly performed – I could see this becoming a cult sensation in time through streaming and cable rotations. Brody is an actor I’ve always liked and admired all the way back to his early days on Fox’s “The O.C.” He had a bit of a comeback last year with a solid turn in the horror-comedy “Ready or Not.” “The Kid Detective” is a real showcase for his talents that I hope leads to bigger and better roles and projects in the months and years to come … he’s earned ‘em.

4/5

Honest Thief

You’re either into “Liam Neeson:  Man of Action” or you ain’t. “Honest Thief” isn’t gonna waiver your favor one way or another. It lacks the visual dynamism of his collaborations with director Jaume Collet-Serra (“Non-Stop,” “Run All Night”). It lacks the humor and slickness of “The A-Team” and the heart and substance of “The Grey” – two flicks on which Neeson teamed with writer/director Joe Carnahan. It’s gonna make me an outlier, but I preferred “Honest Thief” to any of the “Taken” movies and actually enjoy those pictures in descending order. What “Honest Thief” has is Neeson doing the damned thing … and often, that’s enough.

Neeson stars as Tom Carter AKA the In-and-Out Bandit (Wet Bandits was already taken and this has nothing to do with burgers Animal Style or otherwise). Carter’s managed to earn his nickname by stealing $9 million from small-town banks without physically harming anyone or leaving clues leading to his identity. After meeting grad student/storage facility employee Annie (Kate Walsh), Carter turns his back on a life of crime. She’s charming and funny (referring to her gig as “paid study hall”) – he’s smitten.

After a year together, Carter wants to make an honest (pun intended) go of it with Annie and attempts to turn himself in to two senior FBI Agents – Meyers (Jeffrey Donovan) and Baker (Robert Patrick) – over the telephone. He offers them all of the money – he hasn’t spent a cent of it – in exchange for leniency. The veterans thinking Carter’s a quack hand the case off to junior Agents Nivens (Jai Courtney) and Hall (Anthony Ramos). The youngbloods see a clear-cut opportunity for profit forcing Carter to unleash his “very particular set of skills.”

“Honest Thief” is co-written and directed by “Ozark” co-creator Mark Williams. It’s only the second feature he’s made after directing the 2017 Gerard Butler-fronted family drama “A Family Man,” which I’d never heard of prior to doing research for this review. Williams’ script and style are both pretty rote. It’s fair to say his cast elevates the material. Neeson and Walsh have palpably charming chemistry. Donovan adds personality to the role of dogged investigator by toting a dog named Tazzie with him everywhere he goes. Courtney plays an evil prick with aplomb. Ramos conveys guilt and regret well enough that he’s hugely sympathetic. Patrick isn’t present long, but makes anything better by being there.

“Honest Thief” is a simple story told simply. You’ve been there. You’ve done that. It was just nice to see a potboiler programmer mounted by professionals on the big screen while I still have the opportunity to do so.

3/5

The Opening Act

★★★1/2

Comedian and actor Steve Byrne makes his feature screenwriting and directorial debut with “The Opening Act,” now available on VOD and in select theaters. Byrne, best known for co-creating and starring on the TBS sitcom “Sullivan & Son,” makes a smooth transition to becoming a full-fledged filmmaker.

Will Chu (Jimmy O. Yang) is a nice kid trying to make a name for himself in Steubenville, Ohio’s standup comedy scene. By day he works as an insurance claims adjuster for his unkind and unfair boss, Barry (Bill Burr); by night he’s doing bringer shows. (One of Will’s “bringers” affords Dan Lauria a nice little cameo – he was the Sullivan of “Sullivan & Son.”) Will’s presented a real opportunity by more established comedian Quinn (Ken Jeong, funny in a limited role), when he’s asked to MC for up-and-coming comedian Chris (Alex Moffat of “Saturday Night Live”) and the famed but fading Billy G. (Cedric the Entertainer) in Pittsburgh. Will asks Barry for a Friday off to accommodate the gig – Barry flatly denies the request – prompting Will to quit. Will leaves his girlfriend, Jen (Debby Ryan), behind for the weekend and heads to Pittsburgh for his make or break moment.

“The Opening Act” feels much more authentic than “Punchline” (no comedians are shown using lockers) and hews closer to Judd Apatow’s “Funny People,” though it’s far less polished and far shorter (90 minutes as opposed to 153). It’s a hangout movie first and foremost. And it works because you’ll root for Yang’s Will, who may possibly be too nice of a guy for the comedy world. Yang is an actor I’ve always liked – his Jian-Yang was hilarious on HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” I cared about the safety of his real-life hero Dun Meng in Peter Berg’s “Patriots Day” and gave “Fantasy Island” one star more than I probably should’ve earlier this year due to the sight of Yang and Ryan Hansen feeding hand grenades into a pitching machine. “The Opening Act” is a showcase for Yang and he makes the most of it.

Ably supporting Yang are Moffat and Cedric the Entertainer. Moffat’s Chris is a hard-partying womanizer who attempts to tempt Will to cheat on Jen with a groupie. (Ryan’s Jen is certainly portrayed as kind, supportive and attractive with limited screen time. I wish she were better developed to further cement why Will wouldn’t stray from her other than his inherent decency.) Chris is unsuccessful in this pursuit, but looks out for Will in other respects such as bringing him along for a spot on a morning radio show. Cedric the Entertainer’s Billy G. is a comedian Will grew up idolizing. He’s terse with the young man when he botches his introduction, but is kind and supportive enough to later have lunches with him during which he offers advice and encouragement.

Having a comedian such as Byrne write and direct an inside look into the comedy world lends the proceedings an air of authenticity. Having comedians such as Neal Brennan (playing an eccentric club owner named Chip), Whitney Cummings, Felipe Esparza, Russell Peters, Tom Segura and Roy Wood Jr. on hand doesn’t hurt matters either. Byrne must be easy to work with as “Sullivan & Son” producers Peter Billingsley (Ralphie!) and Vince Vaughn produced this as well. The resulting product is an easy watch too – it’s good-natured and more charming than it is funny. I liked it well enough that I’ll be on the lookout for whatever Byrne does next.

Heartland Horror: The Color Rose/Darkness in Tenement 45/La Dosis

★★1/2

For a long time I had a fickle relationship with horror flicks. I only selectively dug ‘em until I got to college and my buddy, Evansville, Ind.-based filmmaker Jakob Bilinski, taught me the ways of terror. He’s my Sensei of Shock. His enthusiasm for the genre is contagious and I’ve been a fairly hardcore devotee ever since.

It’s almost 20 years later and I’m fairly confident I know what comprises an engaging bit of genre entertainment. This brings me to the Heartland Horror section of the Heartland International Film Festival. I watched three selections from their programming – “The Color Rose,” “Darkness in Tenement 45” and “La Dosis.” I wasn’t granted access to “Hum” and had already seen “Host” on Shudder (seriously, check this one out – it’s one of 2020’s best films). While I found admirable traits in each of the three selections I viewed for this piece, I could make a strong argument that none of these films are quote, unquote “horror” – thrillers, sure – but horror, I think not. There are two “F’s” that are integral to the horror genre in my humble opinion – fun and frights. You gotta have fun and you’ve gotta have frights – if you don’t have at least one of the two … you don’t have shit … or at the very least, you don’t have horror.

The Color Rose:

This was the slickest of the entries I watched. It was also the most fun and felt the most like a horror flick. I dug that it opened with a good-ish Nirvana cover at the very least. Actress-turned-director Courtney Paige makes her feature directorial debut with this story of seven high school girls who start a gang/cult called the Sinners at their Christian school with each of them representing one of the seven deadly sins. They are Grace/Lust (Kaitlyn Bernard), Aubrey/Pride (Brenna Llewellyn), Tori/Wrath (Brenna Coates – Is Brenna that common of a name?!!!), Katie/Greed (Keilani Elizabeth Rose), Stacey/Envy (Jasmine Randhawa), Molly/Gluttony (Carly Fawcett) and Robyn/Sloth (Natalie Malaika). When one of their ranks breaks from the pack and starts ratting them out for their misdeeds, they decide discipline is in order. Things grow more complicated from there on in a fashion that’s reminiscent of “Heathers” and “The Craft” … but not nearly as interesting.

I don’t feel great slagging on a movie that’s directed by a woman, co-written by women (Paige alongside Erin Hazlehurst and Madison Smith) and stars a bunch of mostly promising young actresses. We need more of this in genre filmmaking. I wish the kills had been more graphic and staged with more panache. (This is likely the result of budgetary issues.) The proceedings would feel more like a horror flick this way and less like a Lifetime movie. I also didn’t dig that they incessantly ripped on Fawcett’s appearance as Molly … she’s plenty attractive and the assertion that she’s not may give certain audience members self-esteem issues. There are certainly enjoyable elements of the flick. It’s cool that it goes by more than one title (it’s also known as “The Sinners”), which is a badge of honor for any good piece of exploitation. It was fun to see Lochlyn Munro (most fondly remembered as Cliff from “Dead Man on Campus” – “My name is Cliff, brother of Joe. I got me some crack. I want me some hoes!”) and Michael Eklund (who I just saw and reviewed in “Welcome to Sudden Death”) as a pair of crooked big city cops. There’s also a doozy of a twist I didn’t see coming … kudos on that humdinger.

2.5/5

Darkness in Tenement 45:

The number 45 is plenty scary in and of itself these days. So is the prospect of a deadly virus plaguing and eliminating humanity. Despite these ingredients being cooked into “Darkness in Tenement 45,” the flick was sort of a snooze for me. This movie is slower than Philip Rivers running a football, which is a cardinal sin for a feature running a mere 95 minutes. The picture sports one outstanding performance (Casey Kramer – bringing BIG TIME Nurse Ratched energy to the role of Martha) and one achingly atrocious one (I don’t like harping on child actors, but Nicolas Aleksandr Bolton is capital “B” bad as Tomás.). Writer/director Nicole Groton has said his character and performance were inspired by Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Dogtooth.” If that’s true, she should’ve done a better job of guiding a 14-year-old boy through the role and its complexities. He’s a young enough and good-looking enough kid that I hope and think he’ll bounce back. “Darkness” is Groton’s feature directorial debut. She did a lot right. She did some wrong. She shows talent and promise … these traits will likely be better realized with more money and experience. I hope just hope next time out she makes a movie as cool as this one’s poster.

2.5/5

La Dosis

This Argentinian import is certainly the most assured of these three entries. It takes place almost entirely in a hospital, which is just about the scariest place you can be in 2020. The picture focuses on experienced nurse Marcos (Carlos Portaluppi). Marcos is good at his gig, he gets along with fellow nurse Noelia (Lorena Vega), works long hours and genuinely cares about his patients. Perhaps he cares too much? He will put patients down if he senses their suffering is too grand. A new nurse comes along. His name is Gabriel (Ignacio Rogers). He too is not above putting patients out of their “misery,” but what’s his reasoning?

This too is a feature directorial debut. Writer/director Martin Kraut acquits himself well. The picture is well-acted and sharply shot. I was especially impressed by Portaluppi’s performance. It’s not every day you see a man of his size headline a picture, but it’s refreshing and realistic. In spite of his heft, Portaluppi is a handsome fella with a face that conveys just how dogged, determined and tired his Marcos is.

Part of me wishes “La Dosis” had gone bigger, badder and more grandiose … think Brian De Palma. It’s more character study than horror or thriller. (I think my wife was most terrified by Marcos’ frequent meal of cold, canned peas … spooky!) I don’t know if it says more about me or these movies, but I found this one kinda slow too – and it’s only 93 minutes. Perhaps it’s time I talk to my physician about a Ritalin prescription?

3/5

This year’s Heartland Film Festival will be a combination of drive-in and virtual screenings. For a complete schedule and to buy tickets, click here.

Hubie Halloween

★★★

A lot of folks saw the trailer for Adam Sandler’s most recent Netflix offering, “Hubie Halloween,” heard the voice he was employing and assumed he was promptly getting revenge for the Academy Award nomination he didn’t receive for last year’s “Uncut Gems,” both of which were certainly warranted. I’m happy to report the accent plays better in the movie and the flick itself is not only one of the best of Sandler’s Netflix slate – it’s the best straight-up comedy he’s made in recent memory.

Sandler stars as Hubie Dubois, the laughingstock of Salem, Mass. Hubie’s one helluva a nice guy, but he’s in his 50s, still lives with his mother (June Squibb), rides a bicycle to his job working a deli counter where he’s bullied by a high schooler (Karan Brar), is a virgin and is too shy to ask out Violet Valentine (Julie Bowen – cool to see her and Sandler back together so many years after “Happy Gilmore”), the girl he’s had a crush on since the second grade. To add insult to injury, Hubie’s also tormented by Mr. Landolfa (Ray Liotta), the Hennessey’s (Maya Rudolph, Tim Meadows – sporting the most intentionally hilarious bad hairpiece I’ve ever seen) and an 11-year-old by the name of O’Doyle (Tyler Crumley) … why’s that name so familiar? Hell, even the town’s priest Father Dave (Michael Chiklis) picks on him.

Hubie, as the descendant of someone who stood up for witches in Salem … and paid the ultimate price for doing so … feels it’s his place to protect the town on Halloween. He’s happy to team with local police (embodied by a mulleted Kevin James and Kenan Thompson), but they want nothing to do with him. Armed with his Swiss Army knife of a thermos, Hubie takes to the streets. Salem faces more threats than normal as a patient has escaped from a nearby mental health facility and Hubie’s new neighbor, Walter Lambert (Steve Buscemi), shares a name with a man whose name appeared on a headstone with a birth year dating back to the 1600s … Lambert may or may not also be a werewolf.

“Hubie Halloween” is directed by Steven Brill, who made two Sandler flicks I’m not a fan of (“Little Nicky,” “Mr. Deeds”), but also helmed Sandler’s recent, awesome standup special “100% Fresh” and made his directorial debut with the surprisingly subversive Disney kid pic “Heavyweights.” “Hubie Halloween” is a marked improvement over Brill and Sandler’s previous filmic collaborations, but I suspect this has more to do with Tim Herlihy co-scripting with Sandler. Herlihy was Sandler’s college roommate, a staff writer at “Saturday Night Live” and co-wrote each of the star’s best comedies alongside him – among them are “Billy Madison,” “Happy Gilmore,” “The Wedding Singer” and “Big Daddy.” The two reteamed for “Grown Ups 2” back in 2013 and I’ll be damned if that wasn’t a vast improvement over its predecessor and felt somewhat reminiscent of Sandler’s mid-to-late ‘90s heyday.

You already know whether “Hubie Halloween” is for you or not. This is a 102 minute movie wherein Sandler’s essentially playing an adult version of Canteen Boy and opens the picture by projectile vomiting soup from the side of his bike. My biggest takeaways are as follows. It’s worlds better than I thought it’d be given the trailer. Sandler’s nepotism pays dividends for once (Sadie and Sunny Sandler – Adam’s daughters, play two of Bowen’s character’s three kids (the other is Noah Schnapp from “Stranger Things”) – fare better than their mother, Jackie (who I ripped on hardcore in my “The Wrong Missy” review and who has admittedly improved here albeit in a diminished role). The movie has a message that’s very much worth telling and hearing right now – that no matter how mean or ugly someone is to you if you can respond with kindness you’ve already won. Mostly, I left the movie desperately wanting Squibb’s character’s wardrobe.