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Reviews for March 31st, 2023


Directed by Alex Lehmann

      Maggie (Dianna Agron) travels to the Oregon wilderness to reconcile with her estranged father, Lloyd (Thomas Hayden Church), who's convinced that UFOs have invaded his land.

      No, Acidman is not a superhero movie nor is it about a grumpy old man. The title refers to the word that vandals paint onto Lloyd's cabin. In the screenplay by writer/director Alex Lehmann and co-writer Chris Dowling, there's much more to Lloyd than meets the eye. He may seem a bit crazy and delusional at first, but the more that Maggie gets to know him, the more complex, relatable and, above all, human he becomes. The plot synopsis above is only what the film is about on the surface. Beneath the surface, fundamentally, it's about two flawed people who gradually see each other as human beings with compassion and empathy. Maggie and Lloyd are very different in terms of their personality, but they're much more similar than they think when they initially reunite. It's fascinating and genuinely moving to observe the evolving dynamics of their relationship and to watch them grow closer to each other while they find common ground. They not only talk, but also listen to each other and show signs of introspection. Although the film takes place in the middle of the woods, it's not a horror film like most films set in the woods are---there are no monsters or cocaine bears here. There are no villains in the film either unless you count the delinquents who mock Lloyd and vandalize his home. Acidman doesn't become a movie about Lloyd confronting his bullies; he confronts his inner demons while bonding with his daughter instead. To be fair, the sci-fi subplot involving Lloyd's obsession with UFOs isn't even remotely as interesting as the main subplot. Fortunately, the filmmakers don't focus too much on that subplot nor do they veer into any unnecessary tangents. They also avoid schmaltz, melodrama, clunkiness and the use of flashbacks to tell the story, so the screenplay feels organic with just the right amount of exposition.

      Acidman is very lucky to have Dianna Agron and Thomas Hayden Church because they're both talented actors who bring warmth, charisma and emotional truth to their role. For the entire duration of the film, you forget that you're watching two actors; you actually believe that they're father and daughter which is a testament to how natural their performances are. Neither of them under-acts or over-acts. Dianna Agron has a few quietly moving scenes that convey a lot of emotion without words. The film moves at just the right pace and knows when to slow down. Even though you can see the ending from a mile away, it's all about the journey to that end point that truly matters. At a running time of 1 hour and 27 minutes, Acidman is a tender, heartfelt and captivating emotional journey.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Brainstorm Media.
Opens in select theaters and on VOD.


Directed by Jesse Atlas

      Secret agents Valmora (Bruce Willis) and Olivia (Fernanda Andrade) send Alexa (Nomzamo Mbatha) on a mission to retrieve a top secret device that enters the brain to allow others to inhabit their body. Sebastian (Mustafa Shakir), Alexa's husband, died because Adrian (Dominic Purcell) stole that device from him. It's up to Alexa to find the device while inhabiting the body of Mali (Andy Allo).

      The screenplay by writer/director Jesse Atlas and co-writer Aaron Wolfe has a premise that sounds like it could be as fun and exciting like the techno thrillers from the 90's. Unfortunately, it's a case of good ideas, but poor execution. . The witless, stilted dialogue doesn't help matters, either. There are also issues with clunky exposition and not enough "world-building" which just feels lazy and unimaginative. To be fair, Assassin doesn't even remotely aim to be as provocative, suspenseful and exhilarating as Strange Days, a far better example of a techno thriller with a brain, or as wildly entertaining as Face/Off and The Matrix or as brilliant as Dark City. It doesn't even hold a candle to those films. With a more competent screenplay and better direction, it could've been at least as cheesy, dumb and entertaining as Virtuosity or Johnny Mnemonic if it were at least to offer some palpable thrills. Instead, it's just dumb, dull and becomes less interesting as the plot just goes through its tired, tedious motions.

      None of the actors or actresses manage to enliven Assassin with their performance. It's great to see Bruce Willis in his final role, but it's too bad that his final bow happens to be such a forgettable and shallow role. Rest assured, he'll always be remembered for his iconic role in the quotable Die Hard, an action thriller that's now a Christmas classic, or for the cult classic The Fifth Element. The action scenes in Assassin pale compared to the action scenes in either of those beloved action films. At a running time of 1 hour and 28 minutes, it's ultimately an anemic, asinine and lazy action thriller lacking suspense, thrills and excitement.

Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Saban Films.
Opens at Cinema Village and on VOD.

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

Directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein

      Edgin (Chris Pine) teams up with Holga (Michelle Rodriguez) and Simon (Justice Smith), to seek revenge on the nefarious Forge (Hugh Grant) and his sidekick, Sofina (Daisy Head). They go on a mission to steal a tablet and to rescue Edgin's daughter, Kira (Chloe Coleman), from Forge.

      The screenplay by co-writers/directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein along with co-writer Michael Gilio is at its most entertaining moments when it doesn't take its plot too seriously. Fortunately, that's more often than not thanks to the witty banter between Edgin, Holga and Simon. Even the villain, Forge, has a few scenes, although he's not quite terrifying or interesting as a character. Edgin, on the other hand, is quite compelling because he's been through a lot. He lost his wife, he escaped prison, and now Forge has taken his beloved daughter away from him. Of course, just like in every blockbuster these days, there's a MacGuffin: in this case, it's a tablet that Forge possesses. T It's always clear what Edin's mission is and what he and his team has to do to get what they want. Not surprisingly, they have physical obstacles along the way, i.e. fighting dragons and getting safely across from one rocky cliff to another while fire rages below as the bridge collapses into the flames. That latter scene is played for a few laughs which do land without any clunkiness. To be fair, the plot isn't very surprising nor does it break new ground or take any risks for that matter, but it has enough exposition to avoid confusing the audience and avoids being exhausting, dull or tedious like Ant-Man & the Wasp: Quantumania. Fortunately, the film doesn't feels like a video game that tries to bombard the audience with nothing but Spectacle from start to finish. That alone is a remarkable feat for a modern Hollywood blockbuster.

      On a purely aesthetic level, Dungeons & Dragon: Honor Among Thieves has stunning CGI effects and some breathtaking scenery to boot. This isn't as dark, ugly and murky-lookin as the Dungeons & Dragons from back in 2000. The visuals are actually bright and colorful with plenty of eye candy. The music score is also well-chosen and lively, and the pace moves at just the right speed. The film also benefits from a great ensemble cast, especially Chris Pine, Justice Smith and Michelle Rodriguez. Smith is also superb in the recent crime thriller Sharper. Hugh Grant has a lot of fun playing the villain--it's too bad, though, that there aren't enough scenes with him. At a running time of 2 hours and 14 minutes, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is a fun, exhilarating adventure with just the right balance of action, comedy and thrills.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Paramount Pictures.
Opens nationwide.

His Only Son

Directed by David Helling

      God commands Abraham (Nicolas Mouawad) to sacrifice his son, Isaac (Edaan Moskowitz), on Mount Moriah. Two servants and Isaac join Abraham on a 3-day journey while he recalls memories of his beloved wife, Sarah (Sara Seyed).

      His Only Son is a captivating retelling of the Biblical story of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac from the Book of Genesis 22. Writer/director David Helling doesn't waste any time by diving right into the moment when God gives Abraham the command to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. Abraham's journey to Mount Moriah is more than just a test of his faith in God. It's also a journey of self-reflection and reminding him of his love of Isaac. Helling doesn't take any major risks in telling the classic story, but he tells it well without pandering to younger audiences or being too preachy. The flashbacks to Abraham and his wife reveal a lot about their relationship as well as Abraham's mindset as he goes on the 3-day journey. There's no comic relief or anything else that would sugar-coat the story. You'll even find some surprisingly gritty and intense scenes that earn the PG-13 rating; they're not too intense or emotionally devastating, though. In other words, His Only Son effectively balances the light and dark elements while concurrently humanizing Abraham and Isaac. It avoids becoming dull and pedestrian because it remains genuinely engrossing, even if you already know how it ends.

      Nicolas Mouawad gives a convincingly moving and tender performance as Abraham. He provides the film's heart and soul. Edaan Moskowitz, in the role of Isaac, is also superb. The production values are extraordinary, especially given the lower budget. The cinematography, costume designs and landscape combine to create a visually stunning and occasionally poetic cinematic experience. Moreover, the long beards of the characters on-screen look real---that minor detail alone is an impressive feat. At a running time of 1 hour and 46 minutes, His Only Son is an exhilarating, poignant and mesmerizing journey with just the right balance of Truth and Spectacle.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Angel Studios.
Opens in select theaters.

The Line

Directed by Ursula Meier

      35-year-old Margaret (Stéphanie Blanchoud) receives a restraining order for 90 days after she hits her mother, Christina (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), a pianist. She must stay 100 meters away from her mother's house or else she'll go to prison. Her younger sister, Marion (Elli Spagnolo), draws a line to designate the 100-meter border.

      The Line is about a rift between a troubled young woman and her abusive mother. The screenplay by writer/director Ursula Meier as well as co-writers Antoine Jaccoud and Stéphanie Blanchoud jumps right into the meat of the story as Margaret slaps her mother hard causing her to hit her head on the piano and to suffer partial hearing loss. Why did she physically attack her mother? The reason for that doesn't get revealed until later on in a scene with Margaret and Marion. It's a key piece of expositional information that the screenwriters omit for too long which feels frustrating and creates an emotional distance between the audience and Margaret, especially because the audience knows less than Margaret and her family about what led to the attack. Even when you learn what prompted Margaret to attack her, it still doesn't explain why she resorts to violence as a means of solving a problem. Every behavior is learned from somewhere. Where did she learn to be violent? Was she abused as a child? Was she bullied at school? It's not clear. Either way, she needs therapy and to heal from her emotional pain before she can have a healthy relationship. The Line wants you to sympathize with Margaret, but it's hard to do that when she seems so toxic, needy and lacks the concept of boundaries. Yes, she deserves to be happy and to, one day, patch things up with her mother, but there's a long road ahead of her that the film doesn't quite acknowledge. Does Margaret have introspection? Is she truly sorry for her actions and for the consequences of her actions? Without enough of a window into Margaret's heart, mind and soul, the answers to those questions remain unanswered and unexplored. The third act does go somewhere interesting with some nice understated moments, but Margaret's character arc feels too contrived to be taken seriously.

      Stéphanie Blanchoud's moving performance adds much-needed poignancy to the film. Her performance is raw and organic while hinting at Margaret's inner life. It's too bad, then, that the screenplay fails to dig deeper into that inner life because the complex emotions going on in there are far more interesting than anything going on above the surface. The opening fight scene with Margaret and her mother is shot in slow-mo and with opera music that makes them look like they're dancing, not fighting. It's an unconventional way to shoot that scene, but also awkward and unintentionally funny while diminishing the film's realism. Why show slow-mo instead of real time the way that the characters are experiencing that pivotal moment? That said, the cinematography is terrific and the pace moves fast before slowing down a little with some quieter moments. At a running time of 1 hour and 41 minutes, The Line is well-acted, nuanced and understated, but too shallow, cold and underwhelming.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Strand Releasing.
Opens at The Metrograph.


Directed by Jeremy Michael Pereira

      Jessica (Jessica Sula) starts her first day on the job as a cop at a decommissioned police station, the same place where her father, Will Loren (Eric Olson), a cop, saved a few girls from an evil cult led by John Malum (Chaney Murrow) before suddenly turning psychotic and killing his coworkers as well as himself. She hopes to finally solve the mystery surrounding her father's tragic death.  

       The screenplay by writer/director Anthony DiBlasi and co-writer Scott Poiley combines horror, suspense, sci-fi and thrills with mixed results. Out of the three horror films that open this weekend, it's the most intense, scary and gripping. The scenes that generate the most terror are the psychologically terrifying ones when Jessica sees creepy apparitions at the police station. She has a gut feeling that her bizarre experiences at the station have something to do with what happened to her father. How and why they're connected remains the only mystery, but it's clear from the get-go that the evil cult of John Malum is behind it all. In a rather lazy expositional scene, Jessica finds a hidden box with important information that she happens to be looking for. Not surprisingly, a homeless man (Kevin Wayne) and a prostitute (Natalie Victoria) show up at the station and behave strangely. It's obvious that all hell will break loose by the third act, but the filmmakers do a decent job of building the suspense with some jump scares until that moment. Fortunately, the backstory of Jessica's father and the cult isn't confusing or convoluted. That said, the on-the-nose dialogue doesn't leave much room for interpretation, and the film doesn't stop to explore its dark themes or to get to know Jessica better. So, ultimately, Malum doesn't quite rise above a mediocre and gritty B-movie nor does it reach the heights of "elevated" horror like Hereditary. It also lacks comic relief, an essential element in any kind of film.

      If you're looking for a horror film to provide you with blood and guts, Malum delivers the goods and then some. It's very gory which will make those of you with a weak stomach a little queasy, although it doesn't push the envelope like Terrifier 2. The most palpably scary scares come from the combination of lighting, set design and editing to create an eerie, foreboding atmosphere. The dark, dingy-looking police station becomes like a character in itself. The music score, though, feels a little over-active, though, and doesn't trust the audience's emotions enough. Also, Jessica Sula over-acts at times---you can feel the wheels of her performance turning, especially during the intense scenes. At least Malum doesn't have any bad laughs, tonal unevenness or cringe-inducing scenes. At a running time of just 1 hour and 32 minutes, Malum is a lean, gritty and intense horror thriller, but low on surprises and intrigue.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Welcome Villain Films.
Opens in select theaters.

Róise & Frank

Directed by Peter Murphy and Rachael Moriarty

      Róise (Bríd Ní Neachtain) has lived alone since her husband, Frank, died two years ago. One day, a stray dog follows her around and she decides to keep it. She believes that the dog is a reincarnation of her late husband, no matter how hard her son, Alan (Cillian O’Gairbhi), tries to talk sense into her.

      Co-writers/directors Rachael Moriarty and Peter Murphy grasp the concept that comedy is often rooted in tragedy and that hope can be found even within despair. For Róise, that hope comes in the form of the dog that she believes is her husband reincarnated. After witnessing the dog behaving similar to Frank, she names the dog Frank. Everyone else thinks she's crazy, but that doesn't stop her from following her heart. Róise & Frank leaves it up to the audience to decide whether or not the dog is really Róise's late husband. Either way, she's going through something that most people can or will relate to at some point: the grieving processes. Everyone copes with grief in their own unique way. Róise has every right to cope with it through her new dog. So what if she believes in something that others don't? She deserves to be happy and find joy in life again after losing her husband. In a slightly contrived subplot, her creepy neighbor Donncha (Lorcan Cranitch) who flirts with her, but she doesn't want a relationship with him. He retaliates by trying to get the dog taken away from her. That part of the film adds an external conflict that seems unnecessary when there's already plenty of internal conflict going on inside of Róise as she bonds with the dog. It's heartfelt and inspiring to watch how she gradually heals from the emotional pains that come with grief and learns the importance of moving on. Fortunately, Róise & Frank accomplishes this without any moments that feel cloying or preachy. Even the comedy is gentle and witty without going over-the-top or resorting to the lowest common denominator. The sadder moments, too, are understated and restrained. This isn't Hachi: A Dog's Tale or Marley and Me. Most importantly, though, the filmmakers should be commended for not judging Róise. Their compassion and empathy toward her and her emotional struggles grounds the film in humanism and warmth.

      Further grounding the film in warmth and humanism is Bríd Ní Neachtain's moving, nuanced and honest performance. Much of the film's emotional depth comes from her performance rather than the screenplay. Throughout Róise's emotional growth, you can sense that she has an inner life and grasp what she's thinking and feeling even if she doesn't say it explicitly. The performance of the dog, played by a mutt named Barley, is also worth mentioning. He's as wonderful and memorable as Uggie is in The Artist. At an ideal running time of 1 hour and 30 minutes, Róise & Frank is a wise, funny and heartwarming emotional journey.


Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Juno Films.
Opens at Quad Cinema.

Smoking Causes Coughing

Directed by Quentin Dupieux

      Alain Chabat) orders the members of the Tobacco Force, Benzène (Gilles Lellouche), Ammonia (Oulaya Amamra), Mercury (Jean-Pascal Zadi), Nicotine (Anaïs Demoustier) and Menthol (Vincent Lacoste), to go on a team-building retreat. At the retreat, they sit around a campfire and tell scary stories. Meanwhile, Lezardin, an alien, threatens to destroy Earth.

      Writer/director Quentin Dupieux has a knack for making comedies with outrageous humor and wild, zany plots. Smoking Causes Coughing indeed has a wild and zany plot that's unafraid to be silly and goofy. Unfortunately, the laughs are only scattered throughout without any big laughs except in the beginning when someone's face gets splattered with blood. There's some sexual humor, dark humor and offbeat humor. The scary stories that the Tobacco Force tell each other aren't very scary, though. They're amusing at best with some gallows humor reminiscent of Shaun of the Dead, but some of the visual gags are more disturbing and disgusting than funny---and they get repeated over and over. The best gag involves a talking fish that someone cooks. Even if you check your brain at the door, Smoking Causes Coughing isn't entertaining or funny enough as a comedy. Sometimes dumb, lowbrow humor can still generate laughs. It works in Dupieux's past films like Rubber and Mandibles. It works in some Troma films, too. In this case, Dupieux has a bold concept with a lot of potential to be subversively funny, but doesn't take it anywhere interesting nor does he include enough wit like he does in Keep an Eye Out. At least it's not as weak as his least funny film, Deerskin, nor as painfully dull, unfunny and disappointing as Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey.

      The actors seem to be having a great time on-screen and make the most out of their goofy roles. The cheap special effects add some charms of their own. The editing feels choppy, at times, though, and the film becomes too much like a series of vignettes once the Tobacco Force start telling their stories around the campfire. That said, Dupieux keeps the running time under 90 minutes like he does for all of his films thus far, so it doesn't overstay its welcome. At a running time of just 1 hour and 20 minutes, Smoking Causes Coughing is mildly entertaining, witless and sporadically funny.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Magnet Releasing.
Opens at IFC Center.

Space Oddity

Directed by Kyra Sedgwick

      Alex McAllister (Kyle Allen), an engineer, lives with his mother, Jane (Carrie Preston), father, Jeff (Kevin Bacon), and sister, Liz (Madeline Brewer), on a farm, while still grieving the death of his brother. He's determined to travel on a mission to Mars and to help colonize it. He romances Daisy (Alexandra Shipp), who happens to be his insurance agent assisting him with his finances as he prepares for the mission.

      Space Oddity is yet another overstuffed, undercooked and clunky dramedy that's ultimately less than the sum of its parts and that feels like a made-for-TV movie. The screenplay by Rebecca Banner tries to tackle the important, relatable issues of grief, love and the power of the imagination, but it does so while barely scratching the surface and without anything truly insightful to say. Also, the plot meanders too often and feels unfocused as it juggles Alex's plans to join the one-way mission to Mars, his relationship with his sister, and his romance with Daisy. Very few scenes actually ring true. The moments with him and Daisy from the very first time they meet feel corny and contrived. He barely even gets to know Daisy before she becomes his love interest. Their romantic subplot seems like it's straight out of a cheesy Nicholas Sparks romance, and you can see the ending from a mile away. You can feel the wheels of the screenplay turning every step of the way which means that the screenplay sorely lacks realism. There's also not nearly enough comic relief or wit, and Alex's relationship with his parents and sister remain underexplored. Despite how interesting Alex is as a character, the screenplay doesn't allow the audience to get inside his head. That emotional disconnect between him and the audience makes the film a dull experience that merely goes through the motions as it crawls to its sappy ending. It's ok to want to uplift the audience's emotions, especially while dealing with dark themes, but Space Oddity is too afraid to go darker and deeper to begin with or to take emotional risks, so it ultimately doesn't earn its uplift.

      The performances are fine, for the most part, with no one managing to shine or rise above the mediocre, stilted screenplay. Simon Helberg's accent isn't very believable, though, as a Russian worker on the farm of Alex's family. What's the point of giving him a Russian accent if it's not very integral to the plot. Kevin Bacon does his best in his brief scenes, but he, too, is undermined by the vapid screenplay. The cinematography is decent, but nothing exceptional. There are pacing issues: sometimes the film moves quickly, i.e. during the third act, and sometimes too slowly, like in the second act. The running time isn't too long, though. If it were 3 hours, it'd be hard to sit through, at least with such a poorly-written screenplay. At a running time of 1 hour and 32 minutes, Space Oddity is clunky, contrived and sugar-coated.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Samuel Goldwyn Films.
Opens at Village East by Angelika.

Spinning Gold

Directed by Timothy Scott Bogart

      Neil Bogart (Jeremy Jordan), a record producer, founded Casablanca Records in 1973 and struggled with finances before his record label became very successful. He helped to put the band KISS, Donna Summer (Tayla Parx), and Gladys Knight (Ledisi), among others, on the map. Meanwhile, he cheated on his wife, Beth (Michelle Monaghan), with Joyce (Lyndsy Fonseca), the co-manager of the band KISS.

      Spinning Gold is an enormously entertaining biopic of Neil Bogart. The screenplay by writer/director Timothy Scott Bogart follows Neil as he built his iconic company and risked his livelihood to keep it afloat as he went into debt. He believed in himself and didn't give up no matter how many setbacks and failures he experienced. He also had faith that he could turn KISS into a popular band with the right marketing. Fortunately, Timothy Scott Bogart, his son, doesn't paint his father as a saint. Neil Bogart had flaws, i.e., he cheated on his wife and took drugs. Although the film doesn't explore those darker elements unflinchingly, it explores them enough to humanize Neil---much more so than Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody humanized Whitney Houston. Yes, there are many characters, and not all of them get the attention that they deserve, i.e. Neil's wife, but that's forgivable. Spinning Gold has a lot of ground to cover, so it doesn't bite off more than it could chew as it remains focused on the struggles of Neil Bogart. You'll learn a lot about the road to Casablanca Record's success in a way that doesn't feel dry, sugar-coated, clunky or cheesy. There's just the right amount of comic relief, and there are even a few poignant scenes between Neil and his wife which help to ground the film in humanism, a truly special effect.

      In terms of production value, Spinning Gold is very well-edited with camerawork that makes it more cinematic and visually stylish. At least the editing isn't choppy and nauseating like it is in the over-produced, over-edited Elvis The musical numbers are when the film truly comes alive, though, and there are plenty of them, so it's no surprise that the film has a wonderful, toe-tapping soundtrack. Jeremy Jordan gives a fine, charismatic performance. The supporting actors who play the musicians are also terrific and have some moments to briefly shine. The pace moves quickly without any scenes that drag despite a lengthy running time that clocks past the 2 hour mark. At 2 hour and 14 minutes, Spinning Gold is a solid gold hit! It's captivating, exhilarating and genuinely heartfelt.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Variance Films.
Opens nationwide.


Directed by Steve Johnson

      Rose Hepburn (Sophie Skelton), an actress, gets stuck inside a hotel elevator with Daniel Reed (Stuart Brennan), a cameraman who happens to be working on the film that Rose is acting in.

      The screenplay by Chris Watt wastes no time as it skips the first act and jumps right into the moment that Rose walks toward the hotel on a rainy night while on the phone with her sister and enters the elevator. Daniel enters the elevator right after her and, within a minute, the elevator gets stuck. The rest of the film has them conversing with one another and, as you may have guessed it, they don't fall in love. It's clear from the very beginning that Stalker is a psychological horror thriller, so something bad will inevitably happen inside the elevator. The only questions that remain are when, why, how and to whom it will happen. Just when you think that Daniel might be stalking Rose, it could be the other way around. They're both hard to trust. Watts provides very little exposition, though, while only including key information needed to move the plot forward. This isn't the kind of movie that tries to humanize any of its characters or to add extra padding in any way. There's a clever twist that you may or may not be able to predict depending on how closely you're paying attention. The last 20 minutes are so are very intense and veer into torture porn territor. That happens to be around the time the film becomes less of a Hitchockian psychological mindfuck and more of an over-the-top horror B-movie that's just trying to be shocking and disturbing. Director Steve Johnson and screenwriter Chris Watt leave very little to the audience's imagination and resort to spoon-feeding them instead. If you're looking for "elevated" horror, Stalker ain't it--nor are any of the other horror films opening this week. That said, it's better than M. Night Shyamalan's Devil.

      The production values are decent while making the most out of the claustrophobic setting inside the elevator. Sometimes the camera gets up rather close to the actors which heightens the sense of claustrophobia. The performances are fine with neither of the actors giving a weak performance. Also, the gore, when it does arrive, is quite graphic and unflinching. Prepare to cringe with a disgusting image that the camera lingers on a little too long. At a running time of 1 hour and 38 minutes, Stalker is a lean, mean and efficient thriller in the vein of Cellular, Phone Booth and Saw.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Gravitas Ventures.
Opens in select theaters and on VOD.

Summoning Sylvia

Directed by Wesley Taylor and Alex Wyse

      Larry (Travis Coles) celebrates his bachelor party at a haunted house with his three friends, Nico (Frankie Grande), Reggie (Troy Iwata) and Kevin (Noah J. Ricketts). Legend has it that a hundred years ago, Sylvia (Veanne Cox), murdered her son and buried his body beneath the floorboards. After Larry's soon-to-be brother-in-law, Harrison (Nicholas Logan), arrives, they perform a séance to summon the evil spirit of Sylvia.

      Among the three horror films that open this weekend, Summoning Sylvia is the only one that doesn't take itself too seriously and has some fun with its premise. The screenplay by co-writers/director Wesley Taylor and Alex Wyse blends horror, comedy, zaniness, campiness and a little bit of mystery/suspense while avoiding clunkiness, unevenness and cringe. Campiness isn't something easy to describe or exude---if the film were trying too hard to be campy, it wouldn't work. The best way to describe it is like the campiness in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Larry, Nico, Reggie and Kevin have a similar camaraderie, vibe and rapport together as Bernadette, Adam and Anthony do in The Adventures of Priscilla. Summoning Sylvia doesn't have the emotional depth of that classic Australian film nor does it go into dark comedy territory like Shaun of the Dead or The Frighteners. However, co-writers/directors Wesley Taylor and Alex Wyse have a great command of tone which they set very effectively during the first 15 minutes. The dialogue brims with witty banter and tongue-in-cheek humor, especially once Harrison shows up. There's actually a twist regarding the legend of Sylvia that won't be spoiled here, though, but it adds a layer of complexity to the plot that makes it more interesting, surprising and unpredictable. The same can be said about the hysterically funny and delightful musical number at the end.

      Travis Coles, Frankie Grande, Troy Iwata, Noah J. Ricketts and Nicholas Logan are all very well-cast and are clearly having a lot of fun on-screen. They have palpable chemistry together as well as terrific comedic timing. Veanne Cox is also terrific as Sylvia. For a low budget film, Summoning Sylvia has impressively stylish visual effects, cinematography and editing which make it more cinematic without relying too much on its visual style for Spectacle. At a running time of just 1 hour and 14 minutes, Summoning Sylvia is a hilarious, campy and crowd-pleasing delight that's destined to become a cult classic. It's funnier than Cocaine Bear.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by The Horror Collective.
Opens in select theaters.

A Thousand and One

Directed by A.V. Rockwell

      Fresh out of a 1-year prison stint, Inez (Teyana Taylor) spots her 6-year old son, Terry (Aaron Kingsley Adetola), on the streets of New York City, abducts him, enrolls him in school and gives him a new identity with fake documents using the name Daryl. She re-ignites relationship with her boyfriend, Lucky (Will Catlett), Terry's father, as soon as he gets out of prison.

      The screenplay by writer/director A.V. Rockwell follows Inez and Terry over the course of a decade from 1994 to 2005. Inez isn't a good role model as a parent, but she's not a monster nor does she physically abuse him. It's a parent's job to protect their child from harm from themselves as well as others which she tries her best to do. She provides him with a roof over his head, clothes, and food while living in poverty. A Thousand and One has shades of Ken Loach's social realist films like Ladybird, Ladybird with just as much emotional grit. The plot could've turned into a suspense thriller because Inez does break the law by abducting Terry and giving him fake documents, but Rockwell keeps the suspense on the backburner until a major twist later in the third act which won't be revealed here. Instead, the film turns into a poignant character study of a mother and son who become closer as they face a lot of adversities together. They both have a lot of growing up to do, but they're there for each other. The big twist in the second act will compel you to rewatch the film from a whole new light. It adds more depth and complexity to Inez and Terry's relationship while raising some provocative questions.

      A Thousand and One doesn't offer any solutions to the issues that it raises or answers to its questions, but it does allow you to see these troubled people as human beings, warts and all. Bravo to Rockwell for seeing and treating empathetically Inez and Terry as human beings and for letting the audience get to know them. There are no villains here per se, just very flawed and toxic people. Rockwell should also be commended for not sugar-coating or over-explaining anything. She has a great handle on exposition and knows just how much information to provide the audience while trusting their intelligence, emotions and imagination. The last line of the film is refreshingly understated, profound and haunting.

     Teyana Taylor gives a raw, breakthrough performance as Inez. She portrays Inez's strengths and vulnerability convincingly while opening the window into the character's heart, mind and soul. Aaron Kingsley Adetola is superb as Terry, and the same can be said for Aven Courtney and Josiah Cross, the actors who play Terry as he gets older. The cinematography looks exquisite while providing some visual style every now and then, but this isn't the kind of film that heavily relies on style nor does it need to because the story and characters are compelling enough. At a running time of 1 hour and 57 minutes, A Thousand and One is genuinely poignant, provocative and unflinching.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Focus Features.
Opens nationwide.

Trinket Box

Directed by Patrycja Kepa and Acoryé White

      Mike (Acoryé White) and his wife, Ava (Augie Duke), a newlywed couple, move into a new home haunted by an ancient evil that has something to do with a trinket box and their creepy landlady (Sandra Ellis Lafferty).

      The screenplay by co- writers/directors Patrycja Kepa and Acoryé White as well as co-writer Filipe Cisneros opens with a prologue that provides important backstory that explains significance of the trinket, the landlady's dark past and the evil entity's motive. By the time that Mike and Ava move in, the audience already knows that evil lurks right around the corner. It's not a question of "if" or "why", but rather of "how" and "when." When their landlady gives them a housewarming gift, a trinket box, you're already one step ahead of Mike and Ava which makes it hard to relate to them because you're not on the same page as they are when it comes to information that they know. So, you might feel like yelling, "Don't open that box!", but you know that they'll open it, and you'll know what will happen after they do. If the expositional information in the prologue arrived later, the film would've been more gripping and surprising. Trinket Box doesn't offer many surprises , but it does generate a few scenes of palpable Hitchcockian suspense and thrills without pushing the envelope or exhausting the audience. There are some shades of Get Out in the film that make it slightly provocative albeit not quite as profound and poetic as Get Out, an "elevated" horror film. The filmmakers don't leave much room for interpretation, and the ending can be seen from a mile away without taking any risks, but that's okay. Sometimes it's fine to resort to conventionality. At least Trinket Box isn't as underwhelming, sophomoric and contrived as M. Night Shyamalan's Knock at the Cabin nor as scary as the recent horror film Fear, but it's not quite as wildly entertaining, bold and shocking as Barbarian.

      The cinematography and set design are solid and provide some atmosphere which is quite impressive for a low-budget film, but this isn't the kind of horror film that relies heavily on visual style. There are many shots in the dark, though, that are hard to see at times, so the filmmakers let you use the power of your imagination. Fortunately, the doesn't rely on jump scares, shaky cam or blood and guts to entertain the audience---compared to the horror film Malum opening this weekend, too, it's much less scary, gory and intense because it's more of a psychological horror film. This isn't a torture porn film, after all. The performances are fine, especially Sandra Ellis Lafferty who makes the most out of her role as the deceptively sweet landlady. At a running time of 1 hour and 43 minutes, Trinket Box is a mildly entertaining, occasionally scary and provocative slice of psychological horror.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Anchored Lens Productions.
Opens in select theaters.