REVIEW: “8-Bit Christmas” (2021)

I remember it like was yesterday. Waking up on Christmas morning in 1987, glassy eyes and my hair looking like I had just excited a wind tunnel. I hadn’t slept much that night. I never did on Christmas Eve, even during my teen years. Call it a side effect of being a big ol’ kid during the holiday season. But that year was special. It was the year when our parents completely surprised my brother and me with a Nintendo Entertainment System. It’s something we weren’t expecting as we walked into our living room on that chilly December morning.

Our Nintendo was quite the treat and I couldn’t begin to tell you the number of hours we logged on that console. Those with fond memories of the NES automatically have a nostalgic connection to the new Christmas comedy “8-Bit Christmas”. It comes from director Michael Drowse and screenwriter Kevin Jakubowski and chronicles a young boy and his friends as they try to secure a coveted Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas.

Image Courtesy of HBO Max

Based on Jakubowski’s novel of the same name, much of the movie plays like a knockoff of the perennial Yuletide classic “A Christmas Story”. Instead of Ralphie pursuing a Red Rider BB Gun, it’s an 11-year-old named Jake (Winslow Fegley) after an NES. It has the same style of narration. There’s the neurotic yet caring father. It even has its own Scut Farkus (played here with a nice mix of menace and humor by Cyrus Arnold).

But the more you watch, the more you begin to notice that “8-Bit Christmas” has a few of its own unique markings that set it apart from its better and more memorable inspiration. It’s hard to recognize them at first, as it’s so blatantly pulling from “A Christmas Story”. But as it goes, it begins to develop its own identity. It delivers some well-landed lighthearted laughs and ends on a warm and touching note that frankly I wasn’t at all expecting.

Jake’s quest to get his own Nintendo is framed as a story told by his older self to his young daughter. Adult Jake (Neil Patrick Harris) is hearing it from his flustered daughter Annie (Sophia Reid-Gantzert) after telling her she’s too young to get a cellphone for Christmas. He begins telling her the story of certain Christmas in the late 80s when the Nintendo Entertainment System was what (almost) every kid wanted. Annie sours at the thought of listening to her dad blab, but over time gets sucked into the story.

We’re then transport back to 1987, the time of the Trapper Keeper, Lite Brite, leg warmers and Swatches. Jake lives outside of Chicago with his scatterbrained wannabe carpenter dad John (Steve Zahn), his coupon-clipping mom Kathy (June Diane Raphael), and his snarky little sister Lizzy (Bellaluna Resnick). All Jake wants for Christmas is a Nintendo, but as you would expect he runs into all sorts of obstacles.

Image Courtesy of HBO Max

Jake’s parents aren’t interested in getting him an NES and their reasoning is strangely murky. It’s made even weirder by the fact that the Nintendo seems easily available in stores. His folks just aren’t into it, I guess. Later they’re given a little motivation when an advocacy group rises up protesting the violence in video games. So Jake and his eclectic group of friends must hatch their own plan if they’re ever to get a Nintendo for themselves.

“8-Bit Christmas” has its rocky patches and the storytelling can be pretty uneven. And at times it seems handcuffed by holiday movie expectations. But you kinda look over those baked-in tropes that are in nearly every movie like this. Instead, it’s the funny bits that end up standing out. It’s the wackier side characters like psycho rich kid Timmy (Chandler Dean) or Farmer (Max Malas), Jake’s friend and well documented pathological liar. And then there’s the film’s heart which really comes out at the end. Sure, it’s a little sentimental, but who cares. I responded to it which is all I could ask. “8-Bit Christmas” is now streaming on HBO Max.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “Eternals” (2021)

You can count me among the many Chloé Zhao fans out there. The Beijing-born filmmaker has had a short yet prominent career, making a name for herself in the thriving world of independent cinema. Her renown grew even more last year when her film “Nomadland” dominated awards season, taking home Academy Awards for both Best Picture and Best Director. Needless to say, a lot of people became well acquainted with her name.

You can also count me among the many who were surprised by the announcement that Zhao would be co-writing and directing the next $200 million installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In one sense it was interesting to see how Zhao’s distinct artistic sensibilities would fit with a mammoth MCU blockbuster. On the other hand, it felt so at odds with what she has become known for.

While Zhao unquestionably puts in the effort and gives it her all, “Eternals” is a surprising inert and at times downright dull superhero movie that doesn’t really utilize her strengths. Yes, you can see it working hard to be a departure from the staling Marvel movie norm. Yes, you can see its attempts at humanizing its characters in more intricate ways than past MCU films. But Marvel already has a pretty good track record for digging into the humanity of their heroes. Sadly Zhao and Marvel Studios guru Kevin Feige’s efforts to be something new never goes beyond the optics.

Image Courtesy of Marvel Studios

The screenplay comes from the writing team of Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, Kaz Firpo, and Ryan Firpo. Their story spans 7000 years, sloppily hopping back-and-forth across their timeline, resulting in an overly long and overstuffed 157-minute running time. To cover all its ground, the story ends up drowning us in exposition, skimming over things that might have been interesting if given enough time. Instead, stuff like Celestial Seeds, the Emergence, a World Forge, etc. means nothing, and goes in one ear and out the other.

One key problem with “Eternals” is that it is overloaded with characters, and Zhao tries to give each of them some semblance of a backstory. Inevitably all end up feeling shortchanged to various degrees. A few get more attention which helps in terms of depth. Others have their lives crammed into small segments. It’s obvious Zhao is interested in her characters, but too much of their stories are left on the side. Mainly because the film also needs to build its superhero mythology which too often consists of large and often tedious information dumps.

Storywise, the Eternals are a group of ten good-looking cosmic beings who were sent to Earth eons ago by Arishem the Judge to defend the planet against a ravenous species known as Deviants. Their centuries long war ends in 1500 when the last of the Deviants are finally killed. The Eternals then go their separate ways, with each immortal settling and assimilating into different locations around Earth, waiting for Arishem to summon them home. 500 years pass and each Eternal has carved out a life for themselves (more or less). But when a particularly nasty new Deviant suddenly appears in London, it’s clear that it’s time to get the team back together.

Marvel Studios brings in a lot of star power to portray the Eternals and much like the characters themselves, some are much more convincing than others. At the top is Gemma Chan who plays Sersi, an eternal with the weird ability to manipulate matter. Sersi is easily the most complete character and Chan gives a terrific performance full of warmth and compassion. Richard Madden plays Ikaris, a poor man’s Superman and one-time love interest of Sersi. Angelina Jolie plays Thena, a powerful Wonder Woman like warrior who wields weapons made of cosmic energy. She’s haunted by past memories that threaten her and the team. Druig (Barry Keoghan) can control minds and Makkari (Lauren Ridloff ) is the Eternals version of The Flash. Both are two of the movies most intriguing characters but both (especially Makkari) get back-burned.

On the downside you have Salma Hayek who plays the team leader Ajak. I love Hayek and there’s nothing wrong with her performance. But she feels woefully out of place in most of the scenes she’s in. The same can be said for Brian Tyree Henry who plays Phastos, a cosmic inventor (for lack of a better description). His story is the most jammed together and almost feels plucked from another movie. And like Hayek he’s not always convincing, especially on the battlefield. Kumail Nanjiani is Kingo, who shoots balls of energy from his fingers and provides tacked on comic relief. But he inexplicably vanishes during the final act. Then you get Don Lee as Gilgamesh (super strength) and Lia McHugh as Sprite (projects illusions) – both are nice presences but both feel like tag-along characters.

Image Courtesy of Marvel Studios

As the movie predictably brings the former teammates back together, it tries to tell their individual human stories while also building up its cosmic storyline. Surprisingly that leaves little room for superhero action. We do get a couple of set pieces that look fine and checks most of the boxes, but there’s little there that we haven’t seen done better elsewhere. Even the big CGI blowout finale is missing the energy and style of the better Marvel films. Even worse, it has no stakes. Yes, the world is in danger once again. But frankly, I really didn’t care.

As I sat through “Eternals” I couldn’t help but think of how it would have fared better as a Disney+ streaming series. There’s very little here that screams big screen movie and giving the characters and their stories more room to develop would have helped tremendously. Instead we get a rare MCU misfire – a flat and flavorless superhero film full of bold ambitions. But in its efforts to realize those ambitions it cuts too many corners and forgets a key ingredient in all of these superhero movies – fun.

Yet all that, at least we have the post credits scenes, right? Don’t worry, no spoilers here. I’ll just say even they fall short. I would laugh off the shockingly bad mid-credits scene as a stunt if it wasn’t actually happening. And the end-credits scene (which is actually pretty exciting), is so poorly put together that many will immediately pull out the phones and go online just to understand what happened. But what can I say? It almost feels like fitting end for a movie that aims at something new, but completely misses its target. “Eternals” is now playing in theaters.

VERDICT2 STARS

REVIEW: “Escape From Mogadishu” (2021)

Twenty years ago Ridley Scott’s extraordinary film “Black Hawk Down” chronicled both the intensity of the combat and the heroism of the American troops trapped in the war-torn streets of Mogadishu during some of the most violent year’s of Somalia’s civil war. In reality there were many harrowing stories that took place leading up to the events of “Black Hawk Down”. Other nations also came face-to-face with the horrors that ripped the struggling country apart.

“Escape From Mogadishu” is South Korea’s submission for Best International Film at the upcoming Oscars and it tells one such story. Directed and co-written by Ryoo Seung-wan, this thrilling and often absorbing action thriller is based on some pretty spectacular real events. It chronicles the plights of the North Korean and South Korean embassies who found themselves trapped in Mogadishu as it quickly plunged into violent and bloody chaos.

While the action is fierce, one of the film’s most compelling elements is the attention it gives to the politics at play. Not just between the two Koreas, but also between them and the wobbly Somali government. Ryoo Seung-Wan and his co-writer Lee Gi-cheol give a surprising amount of early attention to the testy diplomatic landscape where two nations jostled for position in hopes of gaining status that would expand their impact well outside of Somalia’s borders.

Image Courtesy of Well Go USA

To set things up, in the 1980s South Korea had not yet been approved for membership in the United Nations. The continent of Africa had the most votes at the UN, so in 1987 South Korean diplomats were sent to Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. Their hope was to develop a relationship with the Siad Barre led Somali government and in turn earn votes for UN membership. But at the same time, North Korean diplomats were lobbying members of the Somali government in an effort to block South Korea’s efforts. It essentially led to a diplomatic war between the two rival Koreas.

Jump ahead to 1990. South Korea’s Ambassador Han (Kim Yoon-seok), his intelligence officer Kang (Jo In-sung), and his secretary Gong (Jung Man-sik) try to penetrate the levels of corruption within the Barre regime. Meanwhile North Korea’s Ambassador Rim (Heo Joon-ho) and his volatile second in command Tae Joon-ki (Koo Kyo-hwan) work to undermine any and all South Korean progress.

Amid the political and diplomatic wrangling, Ryoo slips in brief glimpses of the growing unrest in the Mogadishu streets. These scenes are vivid precursors to what’s to come once the armed rebels under the command of General Mohamed Farrah Aidid enter the city. Soon a full-scale war is underway between the violent rebels and what’s left of Barre’s ruthless military. Ultimatums are made to every embassy and bounties are put out for anyone who worked for or with the Barre government. Suddenly UN membership takes a backseat for both the North and South Koreans. “From now on, our goal is survival.

Image Courtesy of Well Go USA

“Escape From Mogadishu” quickly becomes exactly what it’s title suggests as the two small groups of delegates and their families, split by decades of tension between their own countries, must come together if they’re to have any chance to get out of the city alive. And with communications down and no way to contact either Seoul or Pyongyang, it’ll take setting aside and working through their mutual distrust, paranoia, and animosity in order to escape.

Ryoo Seung-Wan nimbly manages both the human struggles and the action. Strong performances and a good attention to detail make for a tense and immersive experience. Meanwhile themes of compassion, sympathy and humanity run throughout the story. And its hard to miss the straightforward commentary that speaks candidly to the bitter national divide between the two Korean nations. Meanwhile, the action sequences impress and include one of the coolest shots of the year – a slick camera trick where we weave in and out of four separate cars in a convoy as they race down the street amid a hail of bullets. I won’t spoil the context but the camera work is lights out.

One place where the movie struggles is with tone. There are some strange yet broadly funny moments early in the movie that feel oddly out of sync especially once you see where the movie goes. And there are times where the action seems a lot more rooted in genre than reality. But those issues hardly tarnish the many things “Escape From Mogadishu does right. You can’t help but be pulled in by this exciting true account with its strong underlying message of unity. And while its ending is never in question, Ryoo steers clear of a conventional finish and leaves his audience with plenty to think about. “Escape From Mogadishu” is out tomorrow (October 19th) on VOD.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” (2021)

Those of us who were around in the late 1970’s through the 1980’s will certainly remember Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, the hosts of the immensely popular television ‘ministry’ The PTL Club. Starting out of a small North Carolina studio, the Bakkers grew their small show into its own international television network. They even launched a 2500-acre theme park and resort. The couple’s lavish lifestyle was enough to rouse suspicion, but it was Jim Bakker’s sex scandals and coverups that eventually brought the powerful hucksters to their knees.

The new film “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” comes from director Michael Showalter working from a script by Abe Sylvia. It’s an adaptation of a 2000 documentary of the same name and sees Andrew Garfield and Jessica Chastain stepping into the roles of the televangelist power couple. The trailers for the film were both fascinating and curious, taking what looked to be a very sympathetic approach to Tammy Faye. While Jim Bakker was clearly a corrupt and contemptible charlatan, Tammy Faye’s hands weren’t exactly clean. So it made sense to wonder if the movie would paint us the full picture or was it up to something else?

Image Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

It turns out “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” goes all-in, not just to gain our sympathies for Tammy Faye, but also in portraying her as one of Jim Bakker’s countless victims. She’s yet another person hoodwinked by Jim’s lust for wealth and power.

But there’s an unavoidable side effect to the movie’s staunch commitment to redeeming Tammy Faye’s image. The filmmakers are so aggressive in their attempts at shielding her from any culpability that they make her into a dimwit. Garfield’s Jim Bakker is so overtly and transparently a fraud to the point of being a caricature. Yet the film shows Tammy Faye standing by him, soaking up the posh amenities, but oblivious to her husband and ministry partner’s glaring corruption? That’s a leap of faith I could never take.

The movie’s two stars make for a captivating pair and there is certainly plenty of juicy material to cover. But “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” rarely gets out of standard by-the-book biopic mode. And in the rare instances where it does, the scenes more closely resemble an extended Saturday Night Live skit. Chastain goes big and gives a performance that’s captivating, a little wacky at times, but easily the film’s biggest strength. She pours herself into the titular character and as much as the Academy loves transformative work, Chastain should be a lock for an Oscar nomination.

The story starts in 1952, before the trademark thick eyelashes caked in mascara. There we see Tammy Faye as a little girl in International Falls, Minnesota. The movie wastes no time hopping to her bible college days in Minneapolis where she first meets and falls for an ambitious young Jim Bakker. Two scenes later the couple are married and starting a traveling ministry spreading their health and wealth prosperity gospel across the Bible Belt.

While in real-life Tammy Faye did more than her share of mangling scripture to lure in donors in an effort to support their opulent lifestyles, the movie paints her as well-meaning bystander. Instead it’s all Jim’s rabid thirst for money and prominence that led to their downfall. Especially after getting a taste of television on Pat Robertson’s CBN network. Before you know it Jim and Tammy Faye form their own TV channel out of a baby blue Charlotte, North Carolina studio – enter the PTL Network.

Image Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

The movie doesn’t go into much detail about how the Bakkers managed to get from TV show hosts, to network owners, to building their own theme park and resort in Fort Mill, South Carolina all by 1985. It’s content with making quick stops along the timeline, each stop showing Jim’s ever-growing self-obsession while Tammy SLOWLY starts to realize the obvious. And of course their empire eventually crumbles in a heap of adultery, drug addiction, and fraud.

There are several other elements that either need more attention or just don’t work at all. There’s Tammy Faye’s undercooked relationship with her stern and unsupportive mother (a really good Cherry Jones). There’s Tammy’s clumsily written and out of the blue affair with her here-and-gone record producer (Mark Wystrach). There’s Vincent D’Onofrio’s wacky impersonation of Jerry Fallwell. And then you have the final 20 minutes that loses steam before ending with an especially strange final musical number.

”The Eyes of Tammy Faye” ends up being a bewildering mixed bag. In their efforts to rewrite Tammy Faye Bakker, the filmmakers leave us nothing but the appearance of humanity. They scrub clean most of her sins, and manage to shift the blame for the ones they do show. So we end up with a portrayal that neglects the very thing that would have made it interesting. It’s a shame because this truly is a showcase for Chastain who’s up to the task but isn’t given the material to match. ”The Eyes of Tammy Faye” opens in theaters this weekend.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” (2021)

2019‘s “Escape Room” was a movie built on a catchy premise but that eventually ran out of gas and ended with one of the most absurd and hard-to-swallow cliffhangers I’ve seen. But with a $9 million budget next to a $156 million box office take, it’s safe to say that green-lighting a sequel was a pretty easy call for Sony Pictures. This time around the budget gets bumped up to $15 million which the movie could reasonably make back during its opening week. Then again, once people get wind of how bad of a follow-up this is, all bets are off.

“Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” was one of the many movies delayed during the COVID-19 pandemic. It finally comes out at a near perfect time; after anticipated blockbusters like “A Quiet Place Part II”, “Fast & Furious 9”, and “Black Widow” have eased many anxious moviegoers back into theaters. Obviously the “Escape Room” movies don’t have the pull of those big-budget franchise films, but you still expect decent numbers. But then I saw the movie.

Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Its laughably bad title aside, “Tournament of Champions” didn’t set especially high expectations. The trailers advertised more of the same which would probably be enough to entice fans of the first movie. But where the 2019 film at least kept your interest most of the way, it’s sequel had me restless by the 15-minute mark and ready to check out at 30. That’s because this thing is inferior to the first film in every way imaginable which is stunning considering it didn’t have a particularly high bar to reach.

Something you’ll quickly notice is the shockingly shallow story that pretends to be interested in the cliffhanger ending of its predecessor but then completely tosses it aside within the first few minutes. We get a brief reintroduction to Zoe (played by the super soft-spoken Taylor Russell) who’s in therapy following the events of the first movie and is still determined to take down Minos, the shadowy corporation revealed to be behind the escape rooms. In case you need a refresher, Minos creates these elaborate (and potentially lethal) puzzle rooms and fills them with unsuspecting victims all for the viewing pleasure of their high-paying clients.

Considering that was the big reveal from the 2019 flick, you would expect the sequel to pick up that plot line and expand on it. Instead the filmmakers are content with just rehashing the previous film’s blueprint – toss people into a new escape room, watch them frantically try to solve a puzzle that opens the exit, someone probably dies, then it’s off to the next room, rinse-and-repeat. That’s this movie in its entirety. Zoe and her manic tag-along friend and fellow survivor Ben (Logan Miller) drive from Chicago to Manhattan to gather proof of Minos’ existence. But within minutes they find themselves lured back into the game, this time with new and far more deadly puzzles.

There are a few new characters who join Zoe and Ben, all previous escape room survivors. There’s a travel blogger, an alcoholic priest, a meathead, and a woman who can’t feel physical pain. Don’t worry about their names because they’re only characters in the literal sense. Nothing about any of them is remotely interesting. There’s no charisma, no discernible personalities, no depth. They just panic, scream at each other, and somehow still manage to solve these convoluted puzzles just in the nick of time. Sure some will die, but their deaths have no impact whatsoever. In fact, some are so freaking annoying I found myself rooting for their demise (sorry Ben).

Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures

One of the only genuine surprises with “Tournament of Champions” is that it actually has four screenwriting credits. That’s pretty amazing considering how little there is in terms of story. Even worse, it doesn’t move anything forward. No big revelations, not even new information worth noting. Just more escape rooms, this time with FAR less compelling players. Sure, the rooms are bigger and more intricate and the production design is pretty impressive. We get an electrified subway car, an Art Deco bank with a deadly laser grid, a miniature beach, etc. But with more complex rooms comes more complex solutions and the amount of conveniences and wild pin-point guesswork used to solve them is unintentionally hilarious (my favorite may be when one character enters a new room for the first time and states “There’s a refrigerator. I bet it’s our exit.”).

If you’re okay with watching a bland group of strangers run around and solve puzzles with some dying in various unimaginative ways, then “Tournament of Champions” may have enough to keep your attention. If you’re looking for a good story, compelling characters, or any reason to care, then you’re probably not going to find it here. Not even a ludicrous plot twist (if that’s what you want to call it) can add a charge to the mostly lifeless story. And that gets back to the biggest frustration. These movies have hinted at a deeper conspiracy and a potentially broader threat. That could be interesting. But at some point you have to start answering the many questions you raise. Then again, another $150 million at the box office could easily prove otherwise. “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” is now showing in theaters.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Evil Eye” (2020)

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My long overdue third taste of “Welcome to Blumhouse”, Amazon’s eight film collaboration with horror producer Jason Blum, is “Evil Eye” from co-directors Elan and Rajeev Dassani. Once again exploring the shared theme of “family and love as a redemptive or destructive force”, this film shows off some good ideas which separate it from the others (so far). At the same time it’s hurt by a paper-thin story that stretches about 45 minutes worth of material into a 90 minutes feature film.

At the heart of “Evil Eye” is a mother/daughter relationship that will undoubtedly resonate with many woman (it did with my wife). Pallavi (Sunita Mani) is a 28-year-old woman living in New Orleans. Her mother Usha (Sarita Choudhury) still lives in New Delhi, India. The two are very close and talk on the phone nearly everyday. The film does a good job developing their relationship through these across-the-world conversations. It also makes sense narratively considering the movie is an adaptation of playwright Madhuri Shekar’s Audible audio drama (Shekar also wrote the film’s screenplay).

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Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Usha first comes across as a bossy meddling mom especially as she lovingly hounds her daughter about getting married. So you would think she would be happy when Pallavi meets her Mr. Perfect, a handsome young entrepreneur named Sandeep (Omar Maskati). Instead she’s quickly suspicious of her daughter’s new beau and his motivations. Her forbearing husband Krishnan (Bernard White) tries to dissuade her from ruining their daughter’s newfound happiness. But Usha grows increasingly convinced that there are some really bad vibes surrounding Sandeep.

A frustrated Pallavi first chalks it up to her mom’s silly superstition. But when Usha shares that she believes Sandeep is some supernatural evil from her past, her sanity is brought into question and her relationship with Pallavi reaches it breaking point. The whole mother/daughter dynamic is the film’s biggest strength, with both Choudhury and Mani maneuvering the emotional complexities with a relatable and heartfelt authenticity.

Unfortunately there’s still a lot of space to fill and sadly it’s not nearly as satisfying. The romance between Pallavi and Sandeep is sweet but soapy and sometimes bogged down by made-for-TV melodrama. Some scenes work but others fall flat, failing to meaningfully move the romance forward. More of the running time could have been spent digging into the characters and building more than just a surface level attraction. Or more time could have been spent on Usha’s past trauma, something that ends up playing a significant part in the story. Instead we get most of it through brief flashbacks that piques our interest only to have it deflated by a rather unremarkable reveal.

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Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios

And couldn’t more be done with the New Orleans setting? Not only is it a place full of its own rich personality, but it too has a wealth of superstitions and spiritual folklore. Instead it’s given no attention whatsoever. In fact you would never guess the location if its name wasn’t stamped on the screen during the opening. Contrast that with the images of Delhi which capture its cultural significance to the story. Perhaps it’s not a big deal, but when a movie struggles to fill its running time, you can’t help but notice the missed opportunities.

Still, there are things to admire about “Evil Eye” – its attention to diversity, how it taps into Indian culture and tradition, Choudhury and Mani’s strong mother/daughter chemistry. At the same time its flaws are equally noticeable, most notably its lack of 90 minutes worth of story. To the filmmakers credit they stretch it as far as they can. But I found my mind wandering as I waited for the inevitable twist. You know, the ones that have come with every “Welcome to Blumhouse” film so far. “Evil Eye” is streaming now on Amazon Prime.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars