Needle in a Timestack

★½

Sometimes a movie comes along with an intriguing concept and a talented filmmaker/cast that simply doesn’t work. “Needle in a Timestack” (available in select theaters and on VOD beginning Friday, Oct. 15 and on Blu-ray and DVD beginning Tuesday, Oct. 19) is one such example.

Nick (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Janine (Cynthia Erivo) are a couple living in marital bliss in the none-too-distant future where time travel is a reality if you’ve got the means to afford it. Nick’s concerned that Janine’s ex-husband and his former best friend Tommy (Orlando Bloom) has the money and motive to implement this technology to trash their marriage. In spite of Nick’s worries not being unfounded, it might be his own jealousy that derails he and Janine’s relationship as opposed to Tommy’s meddling.

As is often the case with this time travel business, these moneyed jaunters can cause phasing. The alterations can bring the dead back to life, turn someone’s pet dog into a pet cat or modify couplings. One of these time shifts reunites Nick with his ex-girlfriend Alex (Freida Pinto) and brings Tommy and Janine back together.

“Needle in a Timestack” (what a sucky title, amirite?) is told as a triptych – one about Nick and Janine, another about Nick and Alex and another about Nick on his own. The movie, which was adapted from Robert Silverberg’s short story by writer/director John Ridley, would’ve been better as a short film. There’s not enough meat on these bones to justify the movie’s 111 minute runtime – it’s boring AF.

It doesn’t help that Odom’s Nick isn’t an especially sympathetic protagonist. He’s a selfish, whiny bitch. I dig Odom as an actor – he was awesome in “Hamilton,” “One Night in Miami…” and “The Many Saints of Newark” – but Ridley’s writing of Nick does the performer no favors. Both Nick and Tommy seem to treat Janine and Alex as possessions. Neither woman nor their relationships to these men are developed enough for me to be emotionally invested in the proceedings.

Erivo is one of my favorite working actresses (she was amazing in “Bad Times at the El Royale,” “Widows” and “Harriet” and on HBO’s “The Outsider”), but the movie’s machinations totally ghost her character. Pinto is lovely to look at, but her Alex is given little to no dramatic urgency. Bloom benefits from having different iterations and motivations to play – he arguably gives the picture’s best performance.

Ridley is a talented writer (he provided the story to David O. Russell’s “Three Kings” and adapted Solomon Northup’s “12 Years a Slave” to the screen), but this is far from his best work. As a director he hasn’t made a movie since the 2014 Jimi Hendrix docudrama “Jimi: All Is by My Side,” which starred André 3000 and received mixed reviews. Also as a director … he’s a talented writer. This dude might be better off directing TV (which he’s done having helmed an episode of the Forest Whitaker-fronted Epix series “Godfather of Harlem”) or traffic for that matter.

“Needle in a Timestack?” More like “Needle in a Timesuck.”

Venom: Let There Be Carnage

★★★

For all the fantastical things going on in “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” (now in theaters) the most fantastical is that we’re supposed to believe Woody Harrelson was a teenager in 1996. This is four years after “White Men Can’t Jump,” three years after “Indecent Proposal” and “Cheers” going off the air, two years after “Natural Born Killers” and the same year as “Kingpin” and “The People vs. Larry Flynt.”

“V: LTBC” picks up right where its predecessor left off. Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is a journalist who’s still inhabited by the titular alien symbiote (also Hardy). He remains broken up with Anne (a slumming, underused Michelle Williams), who’s engaged to all-around good guy Dr. Dan (Reid Scott).

Brock catches a big story when convicted serial killer Cletus Kasady (Harrelson) wants to do an exclusive interview with him. During one of their exchanges Kasady bites Brock in the hand, which draws blood and eventually transforms the criminal into the symbiote-superpowered Carnage. All hell breaks loose and Detective Mulligan (Stephen Graham) holds Brock personally responsible. Mulligan has a history with Kasady’s childhood girlfriend Frances Barrison/Shriek (Naomie Harris). She’s the Mallory Knox to Kasady’s Mickey Knox.

“V: LTBC” runs a scant 90 minutes and at its heart is mostly a romantic comedy between Brock and Venom and/or a comic book-y spin on “The Odd Couple.” Brock’s pissed that Venom keeps breaking his shit and trashing his apartment. Venom’s annoyed that Brock won’t allow him to treat the San Francisco Bay Area as an all-you-can-eat brain buffet. They breakup. They make up. This is the crux of the movie and Hardy as both Brock and Venom makes the proceedings fun(ny) and worth watching. (Hardy received a story credit alongside returning screenwriter Kelly Marcel, with whom he co-founded The Bad Dog Theater Company back in 2010.)

As directed by famed motion capture actor Andy Serkis, “V: LTBC” is reminiscent of comic book movies of the 1990s and early aughts as well as Sam Raimi’s earlier/goofier output. The action and special effects are merely OK. The flick’s better than the likes of “Batman & Robin” (my least favorite movie of all-time) or “Spawn,” but not as good as the Ruben Fleischer-directed original. (He returns as an executive producer.) The vibe it most has is that of a way stripped-down “Spider-Man 3.”

If you dug the first “Venom” chances are you’ll also dig “V: LTBC.” It’s worth seeing for Hardy’s antics and an admittedly awesome mid-credits sequence that’s best left unspoiled. 

Coming Home in the Dark

★★½

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

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

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

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

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

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

Witch Hunt

★½

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Time to Die

★★★★½

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surge

★★★

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apache Junction

★★½

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blue Bayou

★★★★½

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prisoners of the Ghostland

★★½

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review Twofer – Censor/The Last Matinee

★★★½

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

Censor:

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

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

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

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

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

3.5/5 stars

The Last Matinee:

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

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

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

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

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

3.5/5 stars