Directed by: Asif Akbar
Run time: 105 minues
The Lowdown: A lot of people probably think reviewing movies is an easy job. After all, you just have to sit, watch and react, right?
Well, this week, BVB decided to offer a behind-the-curtain glimpse at exactly how the Wizard formulates his thoughts when it comes to analyzing and deciphering a new release. What follows is my raw notes, slightly edited.
First, here’s the IMDb description for Astro, the new hybrid-action-thriller just released by Sony Pictures:
A science-fiction story of a billionaire’s private space exploration program returning to Earth with an abducted extraterrestrial from a newly discovered alien planet.
Sometimes, these kinds of tagline descriptions are all I know about a film before pushing play. In the case of Astro, I’m confident that no amount of space would suffice for an actual description of writer-director Asif Akbar’s latest.
Astro opens in a pretty blonde girl’s bedroom. She’s crying. She misses her Dad.
Whoa! Why don’t copper-skinned, huge-boobed alien women just suddenly materialize in my bedroom?
“I’m here to show you the way,” copper-skinned, big boobs says.
The way to the bed? It’s right there. It’s literally right there!
Whoa. There’s a lot happening in the credits now that copper-skinned, big boobs has whisked the pretty blonde away. It’s five days earlier. There’s some Space: 1999 ship entering an atmosphere. The blonde girl is making out with a dude. Wait a minute? Is that her Dad?! I thought she said she missed her Dad right before copper-skinned, big boobs arrived? Hmmm. Is that the same woman? Hold on. There’s some alien experimenting happening. What the fuck?
Post-credits, we’re back on Earth. There’s the Dad.
Things you think about: That guy is probably my age or a little older. Wow, his tattoos look cheesy. I hope my tattoos don’t look cheesy.
Holy crap, that’s Gary Daniels, B-movie-action-star. Gary Daniels is the Dad!
Space: 1999 ship is back. Man, that’s some bad CGI. There’s the scene of the ship from the credits! Oh! So that was actually a sneak-preview of the movie in the credits. That's odd.
The billionaire appears. It’s like Andy Garcia and Tony Stark had a baby.
Wow, this is Roger Corman-grade cheese.
Gary Daniels says, ‘let’s take a walk.’ Holy shit, they’re literally walking down a busy thoroughfare. Wait a minute. I thought when they showed Gary Daniels’ house it was way out in the middle of BFE?
WTF is happening? We’ve got a near-death experience immediately after Gary Daniels kicks the shit out of six or seven military-trained dudes. His blonde daughter kicks ass too. Suddenly, she’s having an asthma attack and the ghost of her dead mother (a hot-looking Dominique Swain) appears and says, “It’s not your time.” Meanwhile, Gary Daniels just keeps pleading like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall: Breeeathe! Breeeeeathe! BREEEAAATHE!!!
WTF – Gary Daniels’ house just blew up with the sheriff standing next to it.
Cut to a flashback. There’s a military operation in the desert.
This movie is all over the place. Now, we’re 30 years in the past. In a desert. I thought this was a space movie?!
Every time they show copper-skinned, big-boobed alien lady, the camera just sits boob-level.
Lots of talking.
Cut to another flashback, this time way back to the 1940s.
Holy shit, another flashback, but this one means something. Holy shit, the aliens have lived among us since Roswell?! Holy shit, there’s an interplanetary, non-engagement agreement!?! Why are we just learning about this now?
Now we’re back in space.
Now we’re back on Earth.
So, the Space: 1999 ship is in the future? Huh.
The billionaire is back. Now he looks like a bad Al Pacino.
Finally! Some sci-fi shit. A creepy subterranean laboratory. Holy shit, bad Al Pacino just created life by dropping a crystal in an aquarium! Then he made water fly. Oh wait, the crystal absorbed all the water? What? Water transfer technology. That’s a thing?
Oh shit, he just said it’s possible to move a planet close to the sun.
Worst kid actor. Ever.
The billionaire looks like Dean Winchester and bad Al Pacino had a baby.
Finally, Astro appears to be taking place in space.
Gary Daniels, meet space elf. Space elf has Gary Daniels’ DNA? Holy shit, they think space elf IS Gary Daniels, but from a parallel dimension? A star child!?! Bad Al Dean Winchester Pacino tapped into a black hole and discovered a sister planet.
It’s a multiverse! BAP (bad Al Pacino) is taunting Gary Daniels with the possibility of finding Gary Daniels’ parallel-dimension wife. Thank God he was making out with Dominque Swain in the credits and not his daughter.
Meanwhile, back on Earth.
Astro has gone #MeToo. BAP’s creepy, douchey son has been accused of sexual misconduct. Now he’s tweeting: “My Dad and I are off to space with the aliens. We will own you. #Suck it. #Earth.”
Seriously. That’s what he tweeted.
Meanwhile, back in space.
BAP has locked Gary Daniels in a cage on his Space: 1999 ship. Gary Daniels looks like he might explode. He’s so angry.
Wait a minute. There’s an alien-tech-super-soldier program? OMG. That guy has two giant electrodes on either side of his neck. So cheesy. Oh no, Universal Soldier may go fight space elf.
Space elf is telepathic?!? And a star child? Highly evolved. Very speech-y. Lots of exposition. The great war. Blah blah blah. 100 years. Peaceful species. No negativity. Never meant to be found by an evil man. Blah blah blah.
Gary Daniels and space elf. “Yes, you are my son.” Wait, was that a dream? Or a vision? WTF?
BAP killed space elf! Or suspended him in animation. Space elf is in some crazy alien gas chamber freeze machine.
Kickboxer in space! Gary Daniels just straight-up murdered Universal Soldier. He stabbed him in the nuts with a glass shard. Wow.
Actually, now, finally, Astro is actually in space.
Finally, space!!! There’s like 10 minutes left in this movie. Holy shit, they’re going to end with the fucking beginning. Copper-skinned, big-boobed alien lady is back in Gary Daniels’ daughter’s room. And she’s propositioning her. It’s like Morpheus and Neo. “If you take this, all your wildest dreams will come true.”
Fade to black.
FADE TO BLACK?
No, no, no!
What the what the actual fuck? Nothing got resolved. Gary Daniels is frozen in space with space elf, his love child/star child. BAP is still on the loose. Where is Michael Pare? It can’t end now!
The realization hits that the movie is actually over.
What the hell did I just watch?
The Stuff You Care About:
Hot chicks – Yes, just don’t confuse daughter Laura Lee with mom Julie.
Nudity – Brief.
Gore – Space fighting violence.
Drug use – No.
Bad Guys/Killers – How much time do you have for us to unpack all the possible bad guys here.
Buy/Rent -- Rent it.
The Debt Collector (Sony, 95 minutes, Unrated, Video-on-Demand): True confession, I can’t think of a single Scott Adkins action movie that I’ve enjoyed.
The Debt Collector, the latest from stunt professional-turned-director Jesse V. Johnson, is a surprisingly solid buddy action-comedy starring Adkins and Louis Mandylor, the more-talented brother of genre icon Costas Mandylor.
The setup couldn’t be more basic: Adkins owns a dojo that a major drug kingpin wants to buy. He refuses with his words and his fists, setting up a quandary that gets resolved by Adkins agreeing to serve as a temporary ‘collector’ for the kingpin. The recurring gag throughout is that each successive collection job gets more and more violent, which allows both Adkins and Mandylor to show off their impressive hand-to-hand skills.
While I described it as a buddy action-comedy, The Debt Collector has moments of pitch-black perfection that help shade its more sinister intentions, which aren’t revealed until the finale. Along the way, Adkins shows that he’s actually, genuinely funny – like really funny – in his constant back-and-forth bickering with Mandylor.
Throughout the film, Johnson returns to black and white images of cows being herded to slaughter. These scenes begin in an idyllic pasture near a mountain cabin and turn darker as the movie goes on.
Mandylor has a noticeable Bruce Willis circa Die Hard with a Vengeance-vibe that serves him well. Time has been kind to him.
As The Debt Collector picks up steam, introducing Tony Todd as a difficult client, the movie plays like a darker, extended cut of True Romance with a visceral Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid coda.
And, once the black and white footage is explained, mind = blown.
This one should be a must-see for fans of the harder-edged bloody buddy classics of the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Director’s Cut (Epic Pictures, 90 minutes, Unrated, Video-on-Demand): Adam Rifkin is a rare breed of filmmaker in that he’s virtually impossible to pigeonhole as to a specific genre where he excels.
He’s dabbled in horror/comedy (Chillerama), techno-thriller (Look) and most recently, drama (The Last Movie Star).
But Director’s Cut, his collaboration with writer/star Penn Jillette, is something special, both in the scope of its ambition and its thoroughly clever execution.
Director’s Cut is the story of Herbert Blount (Jillette), a small-potatoes financier of a low-budget action film starring Missi Pyle, Harry Hamlin, Lin Shaye, Nestor Carbonell and more actors you will immediately recognize. Blount is obsessed with Pyle, so much so that he decides to re-cut the low-budget action film so as to insert himself on-screen with Pyle as both her partner and primary love interest. Eventually, Blount just says screw-it-all and kidnaps Pyle and begins making his own movie in an abandoned facility where he’s holding her hostage.
While not necessarily a horror movie, Director’s Cut does a good job amping up Blount’s menace, so viewers have no definite idea where his intentions may lead. And, as Blount, complete with a frizzy wig and a God-awful wardrobe, Jillette slays in a performance that could have easily been one-note and overly campy.
Of all the films I’ve seen by Rifkin thus far, Director’s Cut is by far my favorite. It’s inventive, it makes great use of green-screen technology to insert Blount and Pyle into footage that Rifkin has already shot, and I’m just a sucker for the film-within-a-film trope, especially when it’s executed this flawlessly.
To rent or buy the film to watch online, or to order a physical copy of Director's Cut, click here.
Death Wish (MGM, 107 minutes, R, Blu-Ray): In this ultimately unnecessary remake of 1974’s cult classic Death Wish, director Eli Roth and screenwriter Joe Carnahan deliver a surprisingly tepid update on vigilantism with Bruce Willis subbing in for Charles Bronson as Paul Kersey.
In the original, Bronson’s Kersey was a mild-mannered architect whose wife and daughter are targeted by a trio of street punks and brutally beaten with Kersey’s wife dying.
In the update, Willis’s Kersey is now an Emergency Room surgeon with a beautiful wife (Elisabeth Shue) and a daughter about to leave for college. Kersey is hinted to have been a quick-to-fight Irish-Catholic brawler in his youth, but that foreshadowing is never properly brought into play.
Following a birthday dinner with his family, including his brother, played by an underused Vincent D’Onofrio, where a crooked valet attendant overhears Kersey and his family talking about being away from their home for a night, a group of thugs arrives to rob their home only to find mom and daughter home.
Of course, they get rushed to the same midtown hospital where Kersey is working the night shift.
Before long, Kersey is visiting a gun store and watching YouTube videos on how best to maintain firearms. But when he first ventures out into the night, armed and ready, Carnahan’s script foregoes any beginner’s miscalculations and just has Willis, known for a career of playing gun-toting bad-asses, straight up start murdering criminals on public thoroughfares.
I was genuinely shocked to discover that Roth, a gore-is-more expert, never fully embraces the pulp and carnage that a film like Death Wish deserves. Except for a few, brief flourishes, Willis/Kersey advances through a growing body count without Roth’s signature in-your-face, blood and guts bravado.
I was also genuinely surprised to find Carnahan’s screenplay skirting the over-the-top ballet of bullets that first brought him attention with Smokin’ Aces and The A-Team.
This is mother-effing Death Wish, the granddaddy of revenge porn epics, and yet it consistently plays coy or, worse, predictable.
If you love Willis as an action star (and honestly, who doesn’t?), Death Wish is enjoyable enough as a third-tier, direct-to-DVD Die Hard homage.
But the anger, the brutality, the rage that requires a man to go off the rails is nowhere to be found. If that’s the stuff that whets your appetite, you’re better off re-watching Death Sentence, the nihilistic 2007 James Wan-Kevin Bacon collaboration, which was and remains the best imagining of Brian Garfield’s 1972 novel ever filmed.
Gringo (Universal, 111 minutes, R, Blu-Ray): Somehow, when Gringo released earlier this year, it was broadly and completely mischaracterized as a stoner comedy. Far from it., This is one seriously dark character study of corrupt executives, including a wonderfully ignorant Joel Edgerton, whose brother Nash directed, and a deliciously devious Charlize Theron. As Harold Soyinka, the poor schlub who gets no respect from his bosses, David Oyelowo transitions seamlessly from his previous work in more serious fare like Selma and Nightingale, making you believe he’s truly the wrong man in the wrong place throughout. Whether he’s trying to avoid being killed by a merciless drug cartel czar who loves The Beatles, or interacting with Mitch (Sharlto Copley), the ex-mercenary brother of his boss, Oyelowo is a delight. Gringo isn’t an instant cult classic, but it very deserving of a watch.
Thoroughbreds (Universal, 92 minutes, R, Blu-Ray): First-time writer/director Cory Finley makes a splash with Thoroughbreds, his pitch-black examination of white privilege and Mean Girl cruelty. As Lily, the petulant step-daughter of a wealthy control freak, Anya Taylor-Joy continues to amaze in another solid character turn on par with her work in The Witch and Split. As Amanda, the disaffected teen devoid of empathy or emotion, Olivia Cooke shows why Steven Spielberg picked her as co-lead for his Ready Player One. And the late, great Anton Yelchin, in one of his last roles, provides ample support as Tim, a poor drug dealer that the girls take advantage of. The only thing missing from Thoroughbreds is a sharper depiction of wanton teenage nihilism. It’s not Heathers, but it’s a solid entry within that particular subgenre.
The Midnight Man (Shout! Factory, 93 minutes, Unrated, Blu-Ray): Travis Zariwny, the director also known as Travis Z, returns with The Midnight Man, a slice of nostalgic, retro horror that benefits significantly from genre veterans Lin Shaye and Robert Englund in supporting roles.
This is the best effort yet from Zariwny, who previously helmed the 2016 gore-heavy remake, Cabin Fever, and Intruder.
The Midnight Man, which centers around a childhood game akin to Bloody Mary, is much better than expected. It’s deliciously dark and unapologetic, yet maintains a nice subversive sense of humor throughout. The actual creation, the titular Midnight Man, is a great character, an angry disembodied spirit who changes his face by switching different masks to express emotion ranging from a chilling grin to a menacing scowl.
If there’s a misstep to note, it’s likely the overstuffed third act, which gets a little unwieldy and convoluted in its final frames. Still, horror fans, at least in my opinion, would rather watch an overly-ambitious, original idea executed mostly okay than sit through another direct-to-home media, derivative thriller that simply regurgitates familiar tropes without expending any effort.
Devil’s Gate (Shout! Factory, 94 minutes, Unrated, Blu-Ray): Devil’s Gate, the first feature from co-writer/director Clay Staub, stumbles right out of the (ahem) gate by consistently reminding viewers of all the missed opportunities to create a memorable alien/home invasion-hybrid.
While there are moments of strong execution with some way-above-average practical effects, Devil’s Gate is undermined by an undercooked plot that creates more questions than the script can sufficiently answer.
The basic premise is good: Reclusive North Dakota farmer Jackson Pritchard (Milo Ventimiglia) comes under scrutiny following the unexplained disappearance of his wife and young son. A federal investigator (Amanda Schull) and a local sheriff’s deputy (Shawn Ashmore) show up at Pritchard’s farm, which they find rigged with a bevy of complex booby-traps. Pritchard’s cagey responses to basic questions sparks their suspicion, and it’s soon revealed that the wife and child may have been abducted by aliens. In retaliation, Pritchard has kidnapped an alien, which he keeps caged in his basement, apparently as a possible brokering chip to facilitate his family’s safe return.
So far, so good. But Devil’s Gate and Staub fail to provide more than a cursory, surface explanation for what's happening, which is rooted in the existence of a strange marking on the Pritchard property that actually serves as a direct portal between Earth and an alien race, who are apparently just sitting out in space waiting for someone to activate the marking by standing on it.
It defies logic why Devil’s Gate wouldn’t spend more time on the portal and its construction. Why did this piece of property become the landing point for interplanetary engagement? Who created the portal? How does it work? And why would a race of superior beings just be hanging out in rural North Dakota? Haven’t they seen any alien invasion films? You target the sprawling metropolitan cities like New York, not some tiny blip on the map in BFE North Dakota.
Ultimately, Devil’s Gate is too frustrating and too disjointed to provide a satisfactory viewing experience.
South Park: The Complete Twenty-First Season
The Steam Engines of OZ
Satellite Girl and Milk Cow
RWBY: Volume 5
Jericho: The Complete Series
The Invaders: The Complete Series
The Great Silence: 50th Anniversary Restoration
Now on Video-on-Demand:
Monochrome (Gravitas Ventures, 113 minutes, Unrated, Video-on-Demand): The new serial killer thriller, Monochrome, from writer-director Thomas Lawes, is a meticulously-paced thriller about a young woman who disappears to the English countryside to work in anonymity as a servant for wealthy land owners, whom she then murders. It’s interesting, but so slow in pace that it requires a bit more of an investment than most fans of this genre are likely willing to give it.
The Nursery (Uncork’d Entertainment, 87 minutes, Unrated, Video-on-Demand): Sometimes, I receive digital screening links for independent films that I’ve never heard of and know nothing about.
The Nursery, the debut horror film from co-directors Christopher A. Micklos, who also wrote the script, and Jay Sapiro, is one such film. I had no idea what to expect when I hit play, and thankfully, I was very pleasantly surprised by the results.
The Nursery opens with an extended (okay, overlong) introduction, filmed retro-style, like a film that was made in the 1970s, that follows several young girls who are outside playing.
From there, we jump to Ranae (Medline Conway), a young woman traveling to a babysitting appointment. Of course, the house is way out in the middle of nowhere, but the couple who answer the door seem nice enough and not scary in the least. The couple are still dealing with a tragedy but have decided to take time to get out of their house for a night.
Having seen enough horror movies, including House of the Devil, which The Nursery initially called to mind, I knew well enough that crazy shite could occur at any second.
Boy howdy, did it ever.
Shortly after being left alone, Ranae has an…experience…which quickly sucks you in and makes you feel the same increasing level of disquiet and concern as her character on screen. It’s a seriously effed up, brilliantly shot hallucinatory dream sequence that ends with a fantastic jolt. It’s like walking along and suddenly falling down a worm hole. The sequence honestly made me feel like I was on drugs, to the point that I briefly considered pausing the movie to allow some time for my anxiety to quell. That’s saying something.
Throughout the early goings, Micklos and Sapiro do a bang-up job finding interesting angles to shoot from and utilizing different mixtures of light and shadow for maximum impact.
At one point, Ranae is on a video call with her younger brother, who happens to be an expert on the paranormal, when he asks who that is standing behind her. Immediately after, Ranae sees something horrific on the video baby monitor in the bedroom of the child she’s watching.
Eventually, Ranae’s best friend, another girlfriend and her dick-ish boyfriend arrive to keep Ranae company, which sets up a number of equally chilling segments. As Ranae and her friends fight to keep their cool while weird incidents occur around them, Ranae’s little brother discovers through some online sleuthing that spirits can only become dangerous on the anniversary of their death, if they died violently.
About this point, you realize The Nursery is tapping into original territory – Ranae is essentially babysitting a ghost! – which makes the film that much more exciting.
As the angry spirit keeps taunting the group of friends, sending them photos on their cell phones that appear to capture the moment of their deaths in the future, Micklos and Sapiro decide to fully unveil their ghost girl, which isn’t as effective as you might hope. Basically, the ghost girl looks a whole lot like Samara from The Ring and Ringu franchises.
The Nursery eventually falls apart a bit in the home stretch, but BVB still recommends that you check it out. The hallucinatory sequences throughout are stellar and there are a couple of inventive deaths that play like an homage to the brutal slasher era of the 1980’s.
Not to be Overlooked:
The Lodgers (Epic Pictures, 92 minutes, Unrated, Blu-Ray and Video-on-Demand): Brian O’Malley’s wonderfully gothic haunted house chiller The Lodgers is the best example of how to do this genre right since 2001’s The Others. It’s head-and-shoulders above Crimson Peak and its third act, when all the crazy finally comes rushing forth, provides a textbook example of how to ramp up tension and deliver some serious jump scares without sacrificing the carefully-constructed aesthetic of a traditional gothic spookfest, a la Hammer Films during its heyday. BVB highly recommends this one. Just make sure to watch with the lights out.