REVIEW: “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters” (2013)

I’m not sure how anyone thought this movie was a good idea. Taking Hansel and Gretel from the classic Grimm fairy tale and making them adult witch hunters obviously sounded good to someone. Add a two-time Oscar nominee as the lead, make it 3D, and load it with tons of blood and gore and you have a sure-fire classic, right? Well that’s “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters” in a nutshell. Not the ‘sure-fire classic’ bit, but the rest is an accurate description.

As ludicrous as the concept sounds, “Hansel and Gretel” isn’t the worst movie you’ll watch and forget. That’s mainly because the film has a sense of humor about itself. It’s as if it knows it’s a loud and dumb movie, and it’s perfectly content to be just that. Writer and director Tommy Wirkola attempts to create an odd mix of action, comedy, and horror out of a fairy tale that is pretty gruesome in itself. The problem is the humor only occasionally works. It does lighten the tone at times, but the gags often fall flat. That leaves the action and horror, both of which leave something to be desired.

As I mentioned, Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and his sister Gretel (Gemma Arterton) are all grown up now. They are traveling witch hunters who are summoned to the town of Augsburg to help find some missing children thought to be abducted by witches. The siblings soon find out that something much more sinister is at work when an evil grand-witch named Muriel (Famke Janssen) reveals herself. She has evil plans centered around some goofy Blood Moon ritual that’s requires child sacrifices, a witch’s heart, and other nonsense. Hansel and Gretel quickly find out that saving the day is going to be tougher than they originally thought.

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That’s really all there is to the movie. The main story is pretty bland and the backstory, which attempts to add some depth, really isn’t all that interesting. As I mentioned, there is some humor that occasionally works. For example Hansel is a bad diabetic as a result of his candy/witch encounter as a child. Some of those silly touches do lighten things up a little and offer the occasional chuckle. But they also clash with the more serious tone that we often get.

“Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters” is your common ‘one-and-done’ movie. You’ll watch it once and probably won’t visit it again. That said, it’s really hard to recommend seeing it the first time. I like Renner and Arterton (a lot actually), but they aren’t enough to make this film rise above its material. Again, is it the worst movie you’ll see? Hardly. Does it have a few moments that work? Well, yes. But are there a number of better ways you could spend your time? Most definitely. But you probably knew that the moment you saw the film’s title.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “Hit: The First Case” (2022)

A police detective tormented by a past trauma races against the clock to solve two missing person cases in the awkwardly titled “HIT: The First Case”. On the surface that sounds like a pretty good crime-thriller recipe. But this Teluga-language remake from director Sailesh Kolanu too often plays like a drawn-out procedural rather than a genuine thriller. And its slow boil and surprising lack of action may catch some viewers by surprise.

Rajkummar Rao plays Vikram Rudraraju, an esteemed cop working for the Homicide Intervention Team (also known as HIT). Vikram is known for his keen instincts and his ability to notice every detail of a crime scene. While his skills earn him the respect of most of his department including his chief Ajit (Dalip Tahil), he does butt heads with the ambitious Akshay (Jatin Goswami), a petty fellow detective driven by jealousy (as far as I can tell).

Personally, Vikram’s life is more complicated. He’s haunted by memories from a past case which has his doctor and friend Ritika (Noyrika Bhatheja) concerned. She warns Vikram that the stress of his work combined with his PTSD will do a irreparable harm, even giving him an ultimatum – quit the force or she’ll rule him unfit meaning he’ll lose his job.

Frustrated, Vikram takes an extended leave from his department but rushes back after getting news that his co-officer and love interest Neha (Sanya Malhotra) has disappeared. Along with his partner, Rohit (Akhil Iyer), Vikram makes a connection between Neha’s disappearance and the abduction of a teenage girl named Preeti (Rose Khan).

It takes a while, but Vikram’s investigation eventually begins to heat up. His list of suspects grows to include Preeti’s parents, a suspended police officer named Ibrahim (Milind Gunaji) who happens to be the last person who saw the missing girl, and a divorcee hungry for attention named Sheela (Shilpa Shukla). Vikram intensifies his search for Preeti, hoping that finding her will also lead to Neha.

The story finally starts picking up steam in the second half, but even then it’s not without several head-scratching hurdles. Characters do things that simply don’t make sense, and motivations for certain actions are such a stretch that they’re too hard to believe. Then you have the out-of-the-blue and unconvincing twist/reveal that seems more outlandish the more I think about it. And never mind it ends with a rather shameless plug for a sequel (and I mean it literally says “HIT: The Second Case” coming soon”).

There are a few other nagging issues. Take Vikram’s psychological state which seems to be a significant part of the story in the first act before all but vanishing later. And then there’s Sen’s performance which is almost cold to a fault. We never get to see much beyond his steely, super-serious demeanor. It makes empathizing difficult, and it dulls the movie’s most emotional storyline.

I know I’ve thrown a lot of criticism at “HIT: The First Case”, and it’s not undeserved. But the movie isn’t a total drag. If you’re able to connect with the case then there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy watching the investigation run its course. I actually was engaged enough to stay with it. I was interested in the many moving parts and seeing how the pieces would fit together. Sadly, there’s nothing about the borderline ridiculous conclusion that feels remotely satisfying. And it leaves the movie on a forgettable note. “HIT”: The First Case” is now streaming on Netflix.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “Halloween Ends” (2022)

The end of Michael Myers and the “Halloween” franchise? Oh we’ve heard that before. Perhaps not as blatantly as the pointedly titled “Halloween Ends”, but it feels like we’ve been down this road before. I mean who actually believes that if this latest installment makes good money at the box office and has a high streaming rate on Peacock that we won’t eventually see the pale-masked slasher icon return to butcher a fresh new batch of Haddonfield fodder?

One thing that does seem to be coming to an end is Jamie Lee Curtis’ run with the franchise. This will be the seventh appearance in a “Halloween” film for the beloved scream queen, and going into it you get the sense that the 63-year-old Curtis is ready to step away. That alone makes “Halloween Ends” significant. It’s too bad she isn’t given a better movie to end with. Both she and her character, Laurie Strode deserve better.

Let’s not beat around the bush, “Halloween Ends” is a baffling misfire. It’s a movie plagued by bizarre choices and hampered by vain attempts at subverting our expectations. The movie should have been a slamdunk. Laurie Strode, Michael Myers, one final showdown. That’s an easy recipe for success. Perhaps not the most original idea, but it’s exactly what fans have been waiting and watching for. It’s what this trilogy has been building towards. But that seems like an afterthought for director David Gordon Greene and his trio of co-screenwriters.

Image Courtesy of Universal Studios

Rather than honing in on the two characters who were supposed to be the trilogy’s centerpiece, “Halloween Ends” goes an entirely different route, back-burnering Laurie and especially Michael in order to introduce a new (and uninteresting) angle revolving around a new (and uninteresting) character. Laurie is wedged in here and there, and other than a fleeting glance, we don’t see Michael at all for the first hour. It’s hard to imagine how this looked good on paper. It certainly didn’t turn out good on the screen.

The movie begins with a night of babysitting that goes terribly wrong. Corey Cunningham (Rohan Campbell) is a kind-hearted 21-year-old Haddonfield boy who agrees to babysit a young brat on Halloween night so the parents can go to a costume party. But when a terrible accident leads to the kid’s death, Corey is charged with aggravated manslaughter and becomes pariah to the locals.

Jump ahead a couple of years where Laurie Strode (Curtis) is working hard to assimilate into the Haddonfield community. “It has been four years since I last saw my monster,” she notes. In that time, she has bought a house in the middle of town where she lives with her granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak). She spends her time burning pies in the oven, flirting with Deputy Frank Hawkins (Will Patton) in the grocery store, and writing her memoir. Allyson works at the Haddonfield hospital and has taken a liking to Corey. He’s ridiculed by many of the townsfolk who call him “murderer” and “psycho”. But Allyson sees him as a kindred spirit – someone besides her who understands trauma and its effects.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

I won’t pound out or spoil the details. But the movie misguidedly latches onto Corey and makes his story its centerpiece. He and Allyson grow closer, but the bullying and abuse from the citizens of Haddonfield, especially four entitled high school seniors, begin to take its toll. While all of that is playing out, Laurie gets lost in the background, pondering whether she likes Allyson dating Corey. Meanwhile a wearied and worn Michael Myers lives in a sewer drain waiting for the filmmakers to finally let him off his chain. Sadly they never really do. Michael ends up restricted to being a secondary character. Little about him makes sense in the film, and his lone big moment comes at the end, and feels tacked on rather than meaningful.

In once sense, it’s interesting to see David Gordon Green take some wild swings. And there are plenty of big ideas that might have been interesting if given room to develop. But at times it seems like Green forgets he’s making a “Halloween” movie, much less the final installment in a trilogy and a significant movie for the franchise. Making it worse, characters often act impulsively, and some of their motivations are woefully underdeveloped. And when the kills finally come, only a couple feel remotely memorable.

So what to do with “Halloween Ends”? Do we applaud it for going for something new or deride it for throwing out everything we expected (and was advertised)? Perhaps I could overlook some things if the new direction was compelling and didn’t feel pulled out of a hat. Perhaps I could get onboard if central characters still didn’t get pushed to the side. Perhaps it would be easier to digest if there weren’t so many nagging issues with the storytelling. As it is, “Halloween Ends” feels like a hodgepodge of ideas, some of them good (Haddonfield as a villain, society creating its monsters, the nature of evil, etc), but too many aren’t. Sometimes it’s best just to keep things simple. I wish this movie had. “Halloween Ends” is out now in theaters and streaming on Peacock.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Hellraiser” (2022)

(CHECK OUT my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

In 1987, author Clive Barker gave the horror genre a mighty jolt with his directorial debut, “Hellraiser”. With a healthy lean on the twisted and the macabre, Barker’s terrifying vision rooted its evil in both the supernatural and humanity, with the latter easily being the more wicked and vicious. At a time when the genre was saturated with slasher movies, “Hellraiser” gave horror fans something fresh and unique.

“Hellraiser” spawned one good sequel and eight rather forgettable ones. Now, in keeping with the never-ending horror trend of reboots and remakes, we have a new “Hellraiser”. It’s directed by David Bruckner whose previous film was last year’s terrific “The Night House”. Joining Bruckner from “The Night House” are screenwriters Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski who clearly aim for the same dark and gnarly tone of the original “Hellraiser” film.

But there’s something missing from this well-made yet surprisingly vapid reboot. Visually it certainly looks in line with Barker’s fiendish vision found in his 1987 film. It’s weird, gruesome, an even a bit sadistic – all fun trademarks of the series. But “Hellraiser” 2022 struggles in other areas. There is some clunky plotting, it’s overly long, and it’s hard to make any sense of its rules.

Image Courtesy of Hulu

But most significantly, and what makes the reboot pale in comparison to the original, is the lack of any compelling human villain. The filmmakers attempt to create something close, but it’s no one near as interesting or as black-hearted as Julia (Clare Higgins) and Frank (Sean Chapman). They drove Barker’s film and were its primary evil, with the mysterious Cenobites strategically used in a handful of terrifying encounters. Bruckner leans heavier on the Cenobites while revealing very little about them. They end up frustratingly hollow and zapped of the mystique that made the original Pinhead and company so compelling.

After a brief stop in Serbia, the story kicks off in The Berkshires, Massachusetts where a wealthy socialite and certifiable madman named Roland Voight (Goran Višnjić) is hosting a decadent party at his remote mansion. We quickly learn Voight is a collector of occult artifacts (gulp), and among his most prized pieces is an ornate puzzle box. Now this is not some fancy Rubik’s Cube, but a gateway to another plane of existence. When solved, the box summons mutilated extra-dimensional sadomasochists called Cenobites to ‘collect’ those who have opened their portal.

Jump ahead six years and we meet Riley (Odessa A’zion), a troubled young woman fighting alcohol and drug addiction. Despite the warnings of her concerned brother Matt (Brandon Flynn), Riley is semi-dating a fellow addict named Trevor (Drew Starkey) who isn’t the best influence. Case in point: Trevor convinces her to help him break into some mystery warehouse containing some mystery shipment belonging to some mysterious person. Inside the warehouse they find a single shipping container containing a single safe. And I bet you can guess what’s inside that safe – the dreaded puzzle box.

Image Courtesy of Hulu

To no one’s surprise, the puzzle box is triggered and the Cenobites come calling. From there we’re treated to streams of blood, flayed flesh, and a lot of chains with hooks. But the weirdest twist comes when Riley goes searching for answers about the box. It takes her to Voight’s mansion and a third act that leaves you with more questions than answers. That is if you even ask questions. In a movie like this, it’s probably better that you don’t.

To the film’s credit, it does try to offer today’s horror audiences something unique, in the same way Barker’s film did in the slasher-soaked late 1980s. But aside from some creative gore and a delightfully deranged concept, “Hellraiser” doesn’t do enough to sell the need for a reboot. It’s more lurid than frightening, and even its best moments are easily forgotten.

Then you have the 2022 Cenobites who offer little more than their updated new looks and a lot of otherworldly mumbo-jumbo. Out is the bloody black leather, the chilling entrances, and the memorable lines. These Cenobites are the brooding types and not the sharpest knives in the drawer. Their new look emphasizes peeled skin in elaborate patterns – an interesting choice but not the most convincing one. Suffice it to say, some of the Cenobites look a lot more “real” than others do. That’s pretty tough for a movie that relies so heavily on them. “Hellraiser” is now streaming on Hulu.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “Hatching” (2022)

One of the more surprising horror movies to come out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival was a small Finnish feature called “Hatching”. Hanna Bergholm’s directorial debut plays like a coming-of-age fairy tale – one that explores a number of potent underlying themes but with a nasty edge. It’s a movie that blends several aspects from the horror genre, but does so in a strikingly inventive way that gives it an unnerving identity all its own.

The story revolves around 12-year-old Tinja (wonderfully played by newcomer Siiri Solalinna), a young gymnast who hatches a vicious bird-like creature from an egg she secretly nests in her bedroom. It may sound a little kooky, but once you get ahold of the metaphors at the center of screenwriter Ilja Rautsi’s story, it’s hard not to be drawn in by the movie’s smarts and ambition.

Image Courtesy of IFC Films

Tinja is part of a seemingly happy suburban family of four. Her father (Jani Volanen) is a weirdly detached man with a big smile but little in terms of agency. There’s also her petulant kid brother, Matias (Oiva Ollila) who’s a bit of a pest. But the hands-down ruler of the house is her mother (Sophia Heikkilä), a former figure skater who now runs a popular lifestyle blog called “Lovely Everyday Life” (keep that title in mind). She’s all about painting an image of an ideal family for her followers to covet.

It doesn’t take long to see through the family’s sun-soaked facade. Tinja’s mother treats her father like a fixture for her blog rather than a husband (she’s nonchalantly having an affair with a handyman named Tero played by Reino Nordin). And her father seems content to play his part. The attention-hungry Matias gets loved on while his mother is filming, but is an afterthought whenever the camera is off. That leaves Tinja who faces the brunt of her passive-aggressive mother’s overbearing win-at-all-costs mentality. Tinja’s mom is determined that her daughter be a superstar gymnast regardless of the misery it causes. It all makes for a home-life that’s a far cry from how it’s portrayed.

One afternoon the family is surprised when a crow unexpected flies into their house. After making a royal mess, Tinja is able to catch the bird in a blanket. But rather than letting it go, her mother snaps it’s neck and tells Tinja to dispose of it. Later that night, Tinja (still shocked by her mother’s callousness), hears the crow screeching. She follows its screams into a nearby forest where she discovers an egg. Rather than leaving it, Tinja brings it back home, tucking it cozily under her teddy bear pillow.

The egg begins to grow at an enormous rate and soon its as big as Tinja. When it inevitably hatches, out comes something hideous and terrifying – a bird-like creature with a mysterious psychological connection to Tinja. Effects-wise, the creature begins as an incredibly detailed animatronic puppet created by Gustav Hoegen. But over time, as it begins taking a near human form, the creature is played by actresses in makeup by two-time Oscar nominee Conor O’Sullivan.

Image Courtesy of IFC Films

As the story progresses the tone gets noticeably darker. And as the creature changes it grows more menacing. The psychological chills give way to body horror as the creature takes on new forms. Meanwhile the film’s razor-sharp metaphor really comes into focus as the movie reaches its climax. The creature’s presence is a source of some good frights, but it’s Tinja’s mother who is the story’s true villain. Her actions are as vile as anything we see from the hatchling, and Bergholm uses both monsters to drill home some potent points about domineering mothers, adolescent anxieties, and child abuse in its many forms.

“Hatching” requires a bit of patience and you’ll need to be willing to just go with some things that the movie doesn’t detail. But the payoff is worth it, and the message at the story’s center is strikingly relevant today. I also love the genre nods we get, both narratively and creatively. It all testifies to the skills of Bergholm who turns in a remarkable first feature, marked with boldness and originality. I can’t wait to see what she does next. “Hatching” is streaming now on VOD.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Honor Society” (2022)

Director Oran Zegman and screenwriter David A. Goodman team up for “Honor Society”, a high school coming-of-age comedy wedged right between freshly original and disappointingly conventional. It’s a movie with plenty of its own ideas and a charismatic star who helps the film consistently subvert our expectations. But there are also times where it resorts to the more familiar teen movie formula. That’s when you can see the filmmakers checking boxes and leaning on tropes rather than using them in interesting ways.

While “Honor Society” may not be the most balanced movie, it does have its own distinct personality and allure which keeps you locked in. It all starts with the film’s lead character, Honor Rose, played by a delightfully snarky and devilishly charming Angourie Rice. Honor is an ambitious and determined overachiever in the final days of her senior year of high school. Since her freshman year, Honor has stuck to her own strict and obsessive four-year academic plan with only one goal in mind – acceptance into Harvard. There are no contingency plans, no second choices, no rethinking it if something goes wrong. It’s Harvard or bust, and she’ll trample anyone in her path to get there.

Image Courtesy of Paramount+

The framing of the story is interesting. Basically, Honor is walking us through her story, constantly breaking the fourth wall to let us know how she really feels about what we’re seeing. It’s revealing as we learn she’s not only brutally honest, but also conceited, condescending, and astonishingly self-serving. She’s ready to ditch her small town and leave middle-class life in the dust. And she lets us know she has just the kind of ego to do whatever it takes to make it happen. Rice conveys all of these qualities with jarring clarity, and she gives us a character we are appalled by but also strangely admire. I mean her point-of-view on certain things may be a bit harsh, but they can also resonate.

Essential to Honor’s plan is her perverted guidance counselor, Mr. Calvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) who happens to have Harvard connections. Honor needs him to write her a letter of recommendation and has tried to use his utterly inappropriate feelings towards her to her advantage. But instead of writing her the letter, he informs her that she’s among his top four choices. Only one will get his Harvard recommendation. Of course that is unacceptable for Honor who immediately starts putting together her next course of action.

Honor narrows down her competition to Travis Biggins (Armani Jackson), the hunky captain of the lacrosse team; Kennedy Park (Amy Keum), an eccentric and ignored introvert who wears historical costumes to school; and Michael Dipnicky (Gaten Matarazzo), a brilliant but bullied outcast. Honor hatches several plans to preoccupy the three so that they bomb their mid-terms. But in her efforts to manipulate everyone for her benefit, she unknowingly ends up changing some of their lives for the better.

Image Courtesy of Paramount+

As the plot unfurls more characters are introduced which is where the movie begins to veer towards the conventional. Collectively most feel like typical teen movie types and neither them nor their story angles move beyond that. Some characters fare better than others. But most hit all too familiar beats with very predictable trajectories. And it’s not without its corn and cringe. Take the all too tidy finale that comes right after a smart and surprisingly wicked twist. The sappy and groan-worthy final few moments land with a thud.

But the most stable force from start to finish is Angourie Rice. This should be an attention-getting performance and a star-making turn for the 21-year-old Australian. Regardless of where the story goes she keeps us anchored, brilliantly juggling acting directly into the camera and with other actors. And despite a few tired conventions, there’s still some good material here that let’s Rice take her character to some unanticipated places. That’s when “Honor Society” is at its best. “Honor Society” is now streaming on Paramount+.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS