REVIEW: “Hypnotic” (2023)

Robert Rodriguez’s new mind-bender “Hypnotic” screened as this year’s SXSW Film Festival as a “work in progress”. Now just two months later it’s getting the full theater treatment. I’m not sure what has been added, subtracted, or fine-tuned since its recent premiere. But the theater release we get is a twist-filled, deceptively deep, and wildly entertaining genre film that was constantly exceeding my expectations.

“Hypnotic” is a Robert Rodriguez movie through-and-through, not so much in terms of style and flourish (although we do get some of that), but in a more literal sense. Rodriguez directs, produces, conceived the story, and wrote the script along with Max Borenstein. Rodriguez also edited the movie and shares co-cinematographer credit with Pablo Berron. His fingerprints are all over the film.

Rodriguez came onto the scene in the early 1990s alongside Quentin Tarantino. And while the latter has turned into one of the most heralded and talked-about filmmakers of our time, Rodriguez has often flown a little closer to the ground – under the radar to some but sticking close and staying true to his renegade style of genre filmmaking. The results certainly vary, but I’ve always loved his faithfulness to his interests and his belief in cinema as entertainment first and foremost.

Image Courtesy of Ketchup Entertainment

All of that comes through in “Hypnotic”, a movie that features more cinematic sleight of hand than anything Rodriguez has attempted before. Early on it’ll have you questioning some of his choices, picking apart some of his execution, and wondering if he has gotten in over his head. But then when you’re least expecting it, Rodriguez hits us with an assembly line of reveals and suddenly everything starts coming together. And I for one ate it up.

A somber and wounded Ben Affleck is a near perfect fit as Daniel Rourke, an Austin police detective tortured by memories of the day his daughter Minnie was abducted while the two of them enjoyed an afternoon at the park. That was seven years ago. An unstable 18-year-old named Lyle Terry was charged for the abduction but was ruled innocent by reason of insanity. Minnie’s body was never found and Lyle has maintained he has no memory of committing the crime or disposing of her body. Daniel clings to a sliver of hope that his daughter may still be alive.

In the opening few minutes you’ll swear you’re in for a by-the-book police procedural. After the cops get tipped off about a possible bank heist, Daniel and his partner Nicks (J.D. Pardo) are sent to stake out the place. But things take a trippy turn when a mysterious man (William Fichtner) appears and begins controlling people with nothing more than his words. Chaos ensues, people are killed, the mystery man escapes, and Daniel discovers a clue that seems to have been left specifically for him.

Later Daniel tracks the anonymous tip to a dime-store psychic named Diana Cruz (Alice Braga). She clearly knows more than she’s willing to tell and Daniel is immediately suspicious. But after the mystery man shows up and attempts to kill them both, they begin to open up. Diana reveals the man’s name is Dellrayne and he’s what’s called a hypnotic. What’s a hypnotic you ask? “They’re people with an ability to actually influence the brain over a psychic bandwidth,” she explains. Clear as mud.

We get several more amusing attempts at explaining such as “Telepaths just read the mind. Hypnotics reshape its reality.” At first Daniel doesn’t buy it and brandishes the same amount of skepticism we do. But then Diana puts on a little display and changes his mind. Yep, she too is a hypnotic although not nearly as powerful as Dellrayne.

Image Courtesy of Ketchup Entertainment

I don’t dare reveal any more because what makes the movie so entertaining is watching all the pieces come together. Again, much of what you see early on will undoubtedly have you questioning the story and pointing out holes in its logic. But once Rodriguez starts peeling back the layers things start to click into place and suddenly most of our questions have answers.

The cast is top-to-bottom strong with Affleck wonderfully selling us a dogged father who is both burdened and driven by his pain. He’s a little dry in spots, but it makes sense why. I love seeing Braga getting a well-deserved meaty role. And then there’s William Fichtner, one of today’s best character actors who has shined in films like “Black Hawk Down”, “The Dark Knight”, and “Heat”. Here he brings a quiet menace to the film’s devilishly fun antagonist. Terrific faces like Jackie Earle Haley and Jeff Fahey are icing on the cake.

Clocking in at a brisk and compact 94 minutes, the sleekly made and surprisingly inventive “Hypnotic” resembles an “Inception” inspired thriller with a dab of Alfred Hitchcock and a full helping of Robert Rodriguez. It makes for a tasty meal, especially for fans of genre filmmaking. By the way, stay for the cool mid-credits scene which teases a possible sequel if this one manages to find an audience. Hopefully it does because I’d love to pay another visit to Rodriguez’s delightfully idiosyncratic world. “Hypnotic” hits theaters this Friday.


REVIEW: “Hidden Blade” (2023)

To fully grasp writer, director, editor, and cinematographer Cheng Er’s new period espionage thriller “Hidden Blade” requires at least a working knowledge of the complicated politics of China during World War II (certainly more than I have). His film is built upon a dense and layered story that’s deeply rooted in history and laced with pinches of propaganda. That may sound daunting, but Er’s gifts as a filmmaker and storyteller makes it worth the effort.

Adding to the challenge is Er’s choice to hop back and forth across his timeline. It’s an artistic stretch that can seem frustrating at first, but that ultimately comes together in some pretty clever ways. Er flashes back to 1937 during the bombings of Guangzhou, hops ahead to December 8, 1941 – the day after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and spends most of his time in Shanghai in the days leading up to Japan’s surrender to the Allies on September 2, 1945. There’s quite a bit of time-hopping and it can be disorienting, at least until you get a sense for what Er is doing.

Image Courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment

A strong cast fills out this engrossing story about a select group of Chinese counter espionage agents in Shanghai tasked by the puppet Wang Jingwei regime to root out, interrogate, and terminate fellow countrymen who are secretly working to undermine the Japanese occupation. But covertly working within the group’s ranks were members of the Chinese Communist Party’s underground. These double-agents risked their lives secretly gathering vital intelligence that helped build a stronger and more unified resistance.

A brilliantly understated Tony Leung plays Mr. He (Leung), the director of the counter espionage unit working directly under a Japanese officer (a really good Hiroyuki Mori). Other key members of the group are Mr. Ye (Wang Yibo) and Mr. Tang (Da Peng). Both are stern and business-like agents who do everything from rounding up suspects, to overseeing (often brutal) interrogations, to executing prime targets.

Yet all of the key players remain a puzzle. Knowing that this is a spy thriller, we venture into it with our antennas up, looking for clues as to where each person’s loyalty may lie. But Er does an excellent job keeping allegiances and motivations under wraps, revealing them at just the right time and with just the impact they need.

As we begin to get a clearer picture of who’s who, we’re treated to some riveting confrontations. Some are impeccably written and performed one-on-one conversations where characters seek to prove or disprove their suspicions. Some burst out into full-on violence. Chases, shoot-outs, and one especially exhilarating fight scene are handsomely staged and shot. Just to be clear, “Hidden Blade” is far from an action-heavy movie. But the action we get is first-rate and comes at crucial points in the story.

Image Courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment

As for the overall look of the film, Er gives us one stunning shot after another. The framing, the blocking, the lighting – it all adds to the immersion and shows off a pretty clear noir influence. And while he shoots action exceptionally well, I also love the way Er shoots his characters. Through his camera he’s able to pull so much from his actors, often without them uttering a word. The visuals turn out to be a crucial part of Er’s storytelling. That may sound obvious since most filmmakers consider it important. But here there’s a special emphasis that really enhances the experience.

Sadly Zhou Xun, Jiang Shuying, and Zhang Jingyi aren’t left with much to do in the film’s three female roles. They each give sublime performances that left me wishing the movie had gone deeper into their characters. And again, putting all the pieces of the story together can be more challenging than it needs to be (truthfully, the nonlinear structure doesn’t seem necessary, and I can see it being a frustration for some). But if you toss those two issues aside, it’s hard to find much wrong with “Hidden Blade”. It’s absorbing cinema. And even with its not-so-hidden nationalistic bend, its a beguiling spy thriller with a stylishly sumptuous genre veneer.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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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.