Saturday, July 24, 2021

IN THE EVENT YOU Play ” NEW WORLD “? Beta Impressions From The Frontier

Amazon Games’ upcoming MMORPG New World is in the spotlight as a lengthy closed beta session shows off the action ahead of an August 31st release. New World has changed its vision multiple times over the course of development, and now the question on everyone’s mind is – where is this going to land on release? What kind of player is it for? What kind of MMORPG is it? And perhaps the most important question, is it worth your time at all? Over the course of the beta (and a demo session that took me into an endgame slice with a fully-geared character), I’ve seen some areas with huge potential that are currently underserved in the MMORPG space – and some others that could be intense detriments for the title. Let’s talk about New World!It successfully lands a powerful frontier survival vibe If you’re familiar with survival games that have you punching wood to get a house going, New World delivers on this front initially by giving the player myriad survival pursuits. Hunting turkey on the borders of your established safe zones to raise your cooking skill and create rations is far more engaging than it has any right to be. Hunting down elusive saltpeter deposits in mines and crafting your own shells for your old-timey rifles feels fun. Being able to skill up in everything to your liking is a classic system à la Runescape, and its nice to know you can work up every single crafting and gathering skill if you wish, right down to doing some fishing. Banging together your first batch of gathering tools is actually freaking awesome. Digging up carrots and potatoes feels meaningful. Coming back to your town in the middle of the wilderness to trade feed and talk with your fellow explorers has all the allure of bustling about Disney’s Frontiertown, and I’ve rarely had so much investment into crafting and trading systems in MMOs. I can see potential problems with these aspects later down the line, i.e. do I really want to spend my time in the endgame gathering resources just so I can play the game, but for now, there’s plenty of magic in creating my own food, ammunition, and supplies before I trek out into the wild. It feels gritty, it feels raw, and it feels fresh. Faction PVP can be a lot of fun Territory control and faction-based opt-in PVP not only bring back a bit of realm-vs-realm feel from the glory days of Dark Age of Camelot, but they inject something that many online experiences have moved away from in the last decade – social interaction. That means yes, you are going to see a player named PoopyPants (Yes, this was a real player I saw) cutting down trees and screaming outside of town about the price of silver ore, and your chat feed is going to be inundated with comments that make the infamous Barrens chat look downright erudite. However, it also successfully adds shared social stakes to the experience, even if you choose not to interact at the verbal level with any other players. By funneling players into three different factions, you have an investment in your tribe regardless of how deep you want to take it. If you still just want to solo and bring back a load of furs to trade in town, you can – but the real fun is to be had by grouping up, interacting with others, and eventually taking over some territory as your chosen faction. At the solo, guild, and greater level, having game flow dictated by players instead of the “theme park” experience is a bold choice and more than a bit refreshing. The issue here is how interesting and meaningful are these faction wars going to be in the endgame? While I don’t have the answer to that yet, the prospect of really engaging with other players in a meaningful way in a MMORPG gives me a powerful nostalgia bump and some serious differentiation from many other genre offerings today. On the flip side, if you’re not really interested in territory wars or PvP, other existing MMORPGs might be a better choice. The combat is New World’s biggest weakness In almost every MMORPG, you’re going to be doing a ton of combat. It’s probably the biggest portion of the entire gameplay experience. With limited skill options, awkward animations, and very little excitement, New World’s combat is decidedly dull. Now, there’s something to be said about popping an opposing faction member from a great distance before you engage in a 3v3 skirmish that gets real greasy, but that’s more about the player-to-player interaction than the combat, which can often feel wooden and wonky. While I enjoy systems that attempt to break the genre out of the tab-targeting standard that’s been grandfathered into MMOs for ages, it misses the mark here.  I found it hard to determine if the other aspects of the game that seem enjoyable can carry this particular aspect either, as combat is the core of almost every other pursuit. Even if you’re just spelunking for saltpeter, you’re going to have to fight a ton of various zombie-like creatures, wolves, or bears, and it simply does not feel good. This problem is exacerbated in group experiences, both PvP and PvE, but more pronounced in the latter. Chewing into spongey opponents as a pack with the glaring lack of feedback from weaponry is almost comical, and your options in combat feel extremely limited and lacking. Everything can feel the same Enemies, locations, and activities can become a big bowl of mush without breaking it up with some PvP pursuits. You’ll see many of the same rickety little fishing villages, decrepit farms, and crumbling ruins as you traverse the giant world. Killing some undead buccaneers at level 5 feels the same as it does at level 15, and you’re going to be doing a ton of daily-quest/fetch style activities in order to grind out your faction reputation, like wandering around the aforementioned locations for boxes and killing X undead baddies. It feels intensely repetitive even after only twenty hours of gameplay, so I’m concerned about how that will translate to the endgame – will I still, as an elite member of the Syndicate, still be wandering farms killing undead and picking taters? I mean, I do like picking taters... Travel is rough When you’re just starting, it’s fine that you’re walking everywhere because you don’t have far to go. However, this takes a turn at around level 12, where you’ll find the autorun button and some movies on your favorite streaming platform to be your best friends. The world is large, and traveling it all on foot is a huge pain. Without mounts, and the fact that fast travel is limited by resources, moving around the map is an absolute bore and a chore. I realize there are other meaningful concerns that probably flow into this decision, like the implications of having everyone zoom around in a game that’s attempting to create stakes with territory control and PvP, but this becomes harder and harder to ignore the more you play and get quests on opposite ends of your map. Forging ahead Based on the beta, New World is going to be an interesting but potentially niche addition to the current crop of MMORPGs. However, it seems to really serve players that want to play with small groups of friends for faction skirmishes and that are interested in greater territory control wars with big guild politics and all that. If you’re not interested in that kind of greater pursuit with plenty of social interaction and PvP, the PvE elements by themselves do not seem compelling enough to keep things rolling.  While I love the feeling of crafting my own stuff, slowly increasing the areas that I’m strong enough to explore, and fastidiously upping all my gathering and crafting skills, I can see those charms fading rapidly as the activities become somewhat rote. The dynamics involved in faction wars and territory control seem to be the peppy antidote for the never-ending rock farm in various undead shacks and homesteads. As with other games that lean into this kind of emergent gameplay (RIP Shadowbane), some of New World will be what players shape it into.
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    Archenemy Review: Kinetic, Colorful & Refreshingly Original Superhero Take

    Rating:  8.5/10 Cast: Joe Manganiello as Max Fist Skylan Brooks as Hamster Zolee Griggs as Indigo Paul Scheer as Tango Amy Seimetz as Cleo Glenn Howerton as The Manager Written, Co-Story & Directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer; Co-Story by Lucas Passmore Click here to digitally pre-order Archenemy! Archenemy Review: We’re in an age in which superhero movies and comic book stories remain all the rage on both the big and small screens, but admittedly even as the adaptations remain mostly quality or entertaining, even I’ve felt a bit of the comic book fatigue in my content viewing. So when a film as intriguing, as colorful, as subversive and as original as Archenemy comes along, I’m reminded of how exciting the world of superheroes can be, even if it’s not based on an actual comic book. Max Fist (Joe Manganiello) claims to be a hero from another dimension who fell through time and space to Earth, where he has no powers. No one believes his stories except for a local teen named Hamster. Together, they take to the streets to wipe out the local drug syndicate and its vicious crime boss known as The Manager. The story surrounding Max and his past is one that often feels very unique, with displaced and disheartened heroes having been seen before in the pages of Todd McFarlane’s Spawn and Mark Millar’s Old Man Logan, but never in such a way as Max’s case. He’s not just disheartened by his past but also by being trapped in a world he’s unfamiliar with, and having no one to turn to. Writer/director Adam Egypt Mortimer’s approach to how the world sees Max and how Hamster learns about him is also brilliantly played out through the story as we really are left to wonder for much of the film if he is actually who he says he is or just a poor and delusional man. With his powers taken away from him due to the hole in the universe he punched himself, according to Max, it makes it that much harder for one to believe his tales and though he makes plenty of attempts to prove it to his young follower, it plays out in the “blink and he misses it” formula that works to further test audiences’ judgments on Max. Given the more indie nature of the production, especially in comparison to Marvel and DC’s $150+ million budgets, Mortimer finds a workaround to bringing the world of Max’s home planet to life by utilizing colorful and vibrant comic book-style animation and it works entirely. It not only allows the filmmaker to ensure all of his live-action material looks as stylish as possible with the money he has, but it also creates a shared visual language between animation and the real world that works marvels. Alongside the skillful and well-paced storytelling, there’s also a marvelous sense of humor that runs throughout that prevents the film from plunging into the overly-serious and boringly-dour depths of Zack Snyder’s DC Comics efforts, of which Manganiello has previously been a part of. From the erratic nature of Paul Scheer’s coked up Tango to Glenn Howerton’s deliciously evil Manager, and even Manganiello’s ability to bring some self-aware levity to Max, there’s plenty of moments worthy of chuckles or laughter that keep the proceedings just light enough. The performances in the film also shine, be they comedic or serious, especially in Manganiello, Howerton and sure-to-be-breakout-star Zolee Griggs. Admittedly, Griggs’ Indigo feels somewhat familiar and underwritten at times, a typical big sister doing crime to get her and her brother out of the ghetto and in a better life, but the 23-year-old star brings a real heart and charisma to the character that enlivens her and makes her a compelling center to the story. Archenemy may fall short of some viewers’ expectations with some occasional uneven writing and steadier pace than other comic books outings, but thanks to stylish direction, a unique and intriguing concept, brilliant animation and stellar performances from its cast, it continues Mortimer’s win streak and proves he’s far more than just a horror director.

    The Trial of the Chicago 7 Review: Energetic, Stylish & Powerfully Acted

    Rating:  8.5/10 Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Richard Schultz Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale Michael Keaton as Ramsey Clark Frank Langella as Judge Julius Hoffman John Carroll Lynch as David Dellinger Mark Rylance as William Kunstler Alex Sharp as Rennie Davis Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin Noah Robbins as Lee Weiner Daniel Flaherty as John Froines Ben Shenkman as Leonard Weinglass Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Fred Hampton Written and Directed by Aaron Sorkin The Trial of the Chicago 7 Review: After years of penning a number of incredible films and TV shows over the years, Aaron Sorkin finally stepped behind the camera for the first time with his Oscar-nominated Molly’s Game and established himself as a talent to watch in the director’s chair and now he’s returned with his long-languishing historical drama The Trial of the Chicago 7 exploring the iconic titular court case and while it may have an air of general familiarity, he infuses the script with enough lively dialogue and character work and has assembled a powerful ensemble cast that keeps the affair afloat. What was intended to be a peaceful protest at the 1968 Democratic National Convention turned into a violent clash with police and the National Guard. The organizers of the protest—including Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden and Bobby Seale—were charged with conspiracy to incite a riot and the trial that followed was one of the most notorious in history. Having first established himself as a theatrical playwright before turning to the screen, Sorkin was able to hone in on the necessity of a compelling story and cast of characters requiring few set pieces or spectacle to keep audiences engaged and much as he has with everything from his play-turned-film A Few Good Men to the Brad Pitt-led Moneyball, he once again finds a way to keep the film grounded while moving at a steady and quick pace that keep eyes glued to the screen. The group of characters may be real people, but Sorkin finds a way to bring them to life with incredibly unique voices that feel as though birthed from a combination of meticulous research on his part as well as his own infusion of quick-witted dialogue that is fascinating to watch. The West Wing creator is no stranger to the biographical drama, and there are certainly a number of scenes in the film that feel like inferior recreations of past projects, but he finds a nice balance of dramatization and factual storytelling that is fascinating to watch, while also finding a number of powerful and heartbreaking parallels between the Nixon era and the modern day. The 59-year-old storyteller also continues to prove he’s picked up a number of points from the incredible directors he’s worked with over the years to deliver a great-looking film throughout. The courtroom scenes are shot in a nice retro fashion of slow-sweeping pans, the protest flashbacks and moments involving Abbie Hoffman telling his tale to a captive audience utilize a handheld style that gives the scenes a captivating documentary feel. Though it may have been a shame it took 13 years to bring this story to the screen, one of the brightest things to come from the delay was Sorkin’s ability to build the absolute perfect ensemble cast of stellar performers, both established and on-the-rise. Frank Langella, Eddie Redmayne and Mark Rylance are dramatic heavyweights and continue to prove their worth with their roles in the film, Joseph Gordon-Levitt may prove to be a little too quietly ambiguous but is nonetheless an enjoyable wild card and Sacha Baron Cohen nicely reins in his typically antic-driven nature for a plenty energetic but cool-headed Hoffman, but it’s recent stars Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Jeremy Strong who steal the show. With an ensemble of seven defenders, as well as compelling lawyers and politicians, it’s both understanding and a bit disappointing that Abdul-Mateen II’s fascinating portrayal of Bobby Seale isn’t granted more screen time or dialogue, but what he is given proves to be magnificent to watch and performed to perfection by the Watchmen Emmy winner. Speaking of Emmy winners, Strong may have been around in Hollywood and in the theatre world for the past 12 years, but between Succession and The Gentlemen it’s been great to see him finally getting the appropriate spotlight and his turn as Jerry Rubin feels primed for major award nods at the very least, if not actual victories. The Trial of the Chicago 7 may occasionally suffer from slow pacing or genre predictability, but thanks to a sharply written and timely script, stylish direction from Sorkin and brilliant performances from its awards-worthy ensemble cast, this is a moving and powerful drama that rightly honors its titular subjects while opening audiences’ eyes to the numerous parallels between the past and the present.

    The Kid Detective Review: What Happens When Encyclopedia Brown Grows Up?

    Rating 9/10 Cast Adam Brody … Abe ApplebaumSophie Nélisse … CarolineSarah Sutherland … LucyJesse Noah Gruman … Young AbeWendy Crewson … Mrs. ApplebaumJonathan Whittaker … Mr. ApplebaumPeter MacNeill … Principal ErwinLisa Truong … LisaSophia Webster … JackieDallas Edwards … CalvinTzi Ma … Mr. Chang Written and directed by Evan Morgan The Kid Detective is now playing in theaters. The Kid Detective Review The Kid Detective opens with a montage of 12-year old “kid detective” Abe Applebaum solving cases around his neighborhood and enjoying the spoils of war. When he discovers the missing money from the local ice cream shop, the owner gives him free ice cream for life. Later, he is gifted an office in the middle of town to operate his business where he works with everyone from the Mayor to the local police chief on a variety of simple crimes that earn him nationwide celebrity status. Abe even gets a secretary, a young girl he pays in soda pop. Flash forward some years later and we see Abe, now played by Adam Brody, fighting to get through a single day via alcohol, drugs, and prolonged arguments with his parents. He wanders through a town now devoid of color and littered with vagrants and drug dealers. When he goes to the ice cream shop to get his free scoop, the owner sneers. Even his secretary has been replaced by a woman who dresses only in black and can’t be bothered to answer the phone or fetch water for a guest. We learn that Abe’s glamorous celebrity lifestyle screeched to a halt when he failed to solve the case of the mayor’s missing daughter, an event that also sent the town into a downward spiral. “I remember when this place was the life of the town on Friday nights,” Abe laments while sitting in a crusty old diner. “When did this town get so cynical?” So, it goes with The Kid Detective, a film whose plot hinges on solving a grisly murder but whose main purpose is to explore the simple question: what happens when Encyclopedia Brown grows up? As written and directed by Evan Morgan, in an astonishing big-screen debut, this dark comedy goes deeper than it has any right to and spins a captivating yarn whilst examining everything from the dangers of celebrity worship to the way in which kids in modern society lack proper decorum. “What am I supposed to do, Abe? These kids have no concept of authority,” moans the tired old principal of the local high school where the nerds now distribute the drugs. Indeed, everyone in the film seems lost amidst a world they no longer recognize, where even the ordinary, seemingly innocent teenager harbors some deep, dark, shocking secret. “I was so far ahead of the game and then one day I just woke up behind,” Abe exclaims to his beleaguered client, played with doe-eyed innocence by Sophie Nélisse, before wisely proclaiming, “It’s difficult to accept who you are in the head and who you are in the world.” The Kid Detective follows in the footsteps of quirky film noirs like Rian Johnson’s Brick albeit laced with the dry humor of Chevy Chase’s Fletch. You’ll laugh at Abe’s exploits, such as when he gets stuck hiding in the closet of a suspect and must endure hours of childish antics in a sequence that ends on one of the better smash cuts in recent memory, but also empathize with his person; and Brody does a tremendous job crafting a character who is both likable and oddly detached. The plot unfolds like a well-written novel and culminates with one of those patented last-second revelations that is both shocking and deeply profound. What do we do when our present fails to live up to our past? Now, that’s a great mystery worth solving.

    Bad Hair Review: Hauntingly Original & Incredibly Timely

    Rating:  9/10 Cast: Elle Lorraine as Anna Bludso Zaria Kelley as Young Anna Vanessa Williams as Zora Jay Pharoah as Julius Lena Waithe as Brook-Lynne Blair Underwood as Amos Bludso Laverne Cox as Virgie Michelle Hurd as Maxine Bludso Judith Scott as Edna Robin Thede as Denise Ashley Blaine Featherson as Rosalyn Steve Zissis as Baxter Tannen MC Lyte as Coral Kelly Rowland as Sandra James Van Der Beek as Grant Madison Usher as Germane D. Chanté Adams as Linda Bludso Written and Directed by Justin Simien Bad Hair Review: When he first broke out in 2014 with the incredible Dear White People, Justin Simien became one of my most anticipated new storytellers to watch and when it was announced his second feature would be the horror-comedy Bad Hair, my excitement shot through the roof and though it may not reach the same heights as the former it is nonetheless an absolutely original and wildly entertaining follow-up. In 1989 an ambitious young woman gets a weave in order to succeed in the image-obsessed world of music television. However, her flourishing career may come at a great cost when she realizes that her new hair may have a mind of its own. In crafting his story and the characters residing in it, Simien has developed a unique and truly compelling tale to watch on just its own merit, with the opening 30 or so minutes of the film actually playing out as a really interesting drama of the Black woman’s plight in trying to get ahead in the burgeoning music television industry before diving into the more supernatural elements. Ashe is best known to do, Simien is able to explore every timely theme from racism to sexism to classism with as much a satirically comedic approach as a mature and dramatic one and despite being set in the past, he illustrates just as relevant every beat was in the past as it is in today’s society. Once things take a turn for the scary and supernatural, the writer/director continues to show a strong grasp on the satirical side of things while also displaying a remarkable talent for telling an effective monster story. The evil driving the story forward is an unpredictable and truly original nightmare that frequently rises above its campier B-movie sensibilities to deliver some exciting shocks and chills. The nature of the evil hair and the explanation behind it is actually a very powerful concept that remains tied to the film’s timely thematics while also utilizing some of the best tropes of the horror genre, and is saved for near the end of the film to keep audiences guessing in a really fun and exciting way. In addition to the skillful and stylish direction, Simien has once again assembled an ensemble cast of brilliant talent who all shine in their individual roles, especially on-the-rise star Elle Lorraine in the central role of Anna. The ability she displays of casually shifting from the doe-eyed woman with ambitions to become a major producer in the industry to a domineering figure empowered by her new weave is breathtaking to watch, establishing her as a sure-to-be breakout star. Audiences have certainly seen Vanessa Williams in the villainous role before and she continues to show new brilliant sides to her antagonistic nature that is compelling to watch every scene she’s in. The film’s only real problems lie in some of its depiction of the kills by the titular body part, as the majority of them are stylishly directed or darkly comedic and reminiscent of the best B-movies, but there are a few that feel rather janky and unintentionally hilarious, sapping the energy out of the overall scene. Bad Hair has just as much ambition, social themes and stylish direction as Simien’s Dear White People and though it may fall a little below the bar in comparison, it is nonetheless a wildly intelligent, wonderfully written, darkly hilarious and uniquely chilling treat that shows he has not lost his touch in the film world.

    Love and Monsters Review: A Charming & Wildly Fresh Teen Rom-Com

    Rating:  8.5/10 Cast: Dylan O’Brien as Joel Dawson Michael Rooker as Clyde Dutton Ariana Greenblatt as Minnow Jessica Henwick as Aimee Dan Ewing as Cap Donnie Baxter as Parker Ellen Hollman as Dana Directed by Michael Matthews; Co-Written by Brian Duffield & Matthew Robinson Click here to pre-order Love and Monsters! Love and Monsters Review: 2020 may have brought us a lot of terrible things, both in the world and on film, but one of the brighter things to come from this year is the chance to truly witness the genius that is the mind of Brian Duffield. Beginning with the highly underrated aquatic thriller Underwater and continuing with the explosively charming Spontaneous, the time has now arrived for his post-apocalyptic romantic comedy Love and Monsters, and he has delivered another joyous, energetic and incredibly fresh take on a well-worn genre. Seven years after the Monsterpocalypse, Joel Dawson (Dylan O’Brien), along with the rest of humanity, has been living underground ever since giant creatures took control of the land. After reconnecting over radio with his high school girlfriend Aimee (Jessica Henwick), who is now 80 miles away at a coastal colony, Joel begins to fall for her again. As Joel realizes that there’s nothing left for him underground, he decides against all logic to venture out to Aimee, despite the dangerous monsters that stand in his way. The world has ended a lot of different ways in film and television over the years, ranging from the cartoonish dystopias of Aeon Flux and Ultraviolet to the dramatically haunting The Road and It Comes at Night, and Duffield finds a nice in-between of grounded and outlandish with rockets being shot into space to prevent an incoming asteroid from destroying the planet, the chemical fallout breeding the titular enemy to O’Brien’s Joel and Henwick’s Aimee, as well as the rest of humanity. The resulting post-apocalypse is actually a really interesting and well-thought-out world that feels like the best elements of similar genre fare in the YA novel world without simultaneously feeling like it’s borrowing or stealing from them. Underground clans fearing outsiders and being untrustworthy of members within their own ranks is believable given the situation unfolding in their — and even our — world, but the addition of everyone in Joel’s having a partner and pretty much having sex nonstop is an incredibly funny and unique take. The characters themselves are also a nice change of pace for a more YA storyline, with protagonist Joel’s fear of monsters and initial inability to fight them actually coming from a fairly emotional root instead of a more generic general terror of them, while the evolution of Aimee from the opening flashbacks to her present-day persona offers audiences a new strong heroine that I only wish was granted more screen time. The characters are further elevated by stellar performances from its ensemble cast, namely that of O’Brien, Henwick, Michael Rooker and Ariana Greenblatt. Rooker is no stranger to a barbed-yet-caring father figure of sorts, but he is a joy to watch in every bit of scenery he’s given and the chemistry he shows with the young Greenblatt is sweet and highly effective. The central Maze Runner star has frequently been offered the chance to show off his dramatic chops with the YA adaptation trilogy as well as MTV’s Teen Wolf and disaster biopic Deepwater Horizon, but it feels as though we rarely get to see him show a more comedic and goofily charming persona and he truly shines from start to finish in the role. Henwick’s Aimee feels like a warm and compelling blend of her Colleen Wing from the Marvel Netflix Universe, a character we sadly will most likely never see her as again, and Emily Haversham from Duffield’s own Underwater and she brilliantly taps into her character’s powerful and slightly tragic off-screen backstory as well as her kick ass and commanding on-screen nature. There may be some familiarity in the development of the love story and the plot itself, but with a razor sharp script reminiscent of the best John Hughes movies, some stellar character designs and visual effects and charming performances from its ensemble cast, Love and Monsters is a thrilling and feel-good post-apocalyptic rom com adventure that is sure to delight every kind of audience.

    Honest Thief Review: By-The-Numbers But Plenty Fun Action-Thriller

    Rating:  7.5/10 Cast: Liam Neeson as Tom Carter Kate Walsh as Annie Sumpter Jai Courtney as John Nivens Jeffrey Donovan as Tom Meyers Anthony Ramos as Ramon Hall Robert Patrick as Sam Baker Jasmine Cephas Jones as Beth Hall Co-Written and Directed by Mark Williams; Co-Written by Steve Allrich Honest Thief Review: “Liam Neeson versus [insert enemy here].” It’s the ultimate formula for the action genre since the Oscar nominee found a new niche audience with 2008’s Taken and it’s one that’s delivered such highs as Joe Carnahan’s The Grey, Scott Frank’s A Walk Among the Tombstones and Jaume Collet-Serra’s Non-Stop and though his latest venture, Honest Thief, may not reach the mid-level bars they’ve set, it still proves to be a plenty fun and darkly humorous thrill ride. They call him the “In-and-Out Bandit” because meticulous thief Tom Carter has stolen $9 million from small-town banks while managing to keep his identity a secret. But after he falls in love with the bubbly Annie, Tom decides to make a fresh start by coming clean about his criminal past, only to be double-crossed by two ruthless FBI agents, requiring him to dive back into his criminal skillset to set things right and earn his second chance at life. The story of a seasoned criminal seeking an out from his past or a way to redeem it for a better life is certainly nothing new, but the way co-writers Mark Williams and Steve Allrich establish their world and their characters feels like a rich enough tapestry of interesting-enough characters with charming and likable personalities are compelling enough draws to forgive the unoriginality and predictability of the story. The means in which Tom would rob the banks while avoiding detection is a simple and believable explanation rather than a more convoluted or uninteresting approach, the motives behind his past feel grounded and are movingly told once revealed that it allows audiences to maintain the connection they’ve made with their antihero protagonist, a character type Williams has perfected on Netflix’s Ozark. In addition to the nicely-written characters, one of the film’s real strong points that helps it stand out amongst the crowd of geriatric action-thrillers is the dark sense of humor that pervades the affair. Whether it’s Jeffrey Donovan’s dog-carrying FBI agent, Robert Patrick’s quick-witted Agent Baker, Neeson’s bluntly honest Tom or Kate Walsh’s easy-to-connect-to Annie, the pacing of the film always feels as though it’s steadily moving not just thanks to the action of the film but from much of the levity the cast all bring to their performances, especially the 52-year-old Burn Notice alum. There’s no denying the burgeoning love story between Tom and Annie is the heart of the film and is relatively sweet to watch, but the bond that develops between Donovan’s Agent Meyers and his reluctantly-owned small dog Tazzie brings out some of the best jokes in the film. Much like the story of the film, the action itself is fairly hit-or-miss in its execution, with plenty of pulse-pounding sequences any genre fan is sure to marvel at though many display the smaller budget the film was given. From shoddy CGI fire that could make the filmmakers of the Baywatch remake blush to a few hand-to-hand sequences cutting a little too frequently to hide the use of a stunt double or two, the sequences themselves are mostly enjoyable, even if a little poorly made. One of the real shining lights of the film, to no one’s surprise, is the delightfully wicked performance from Jai Courtney as the villainous corrupt Agent Nivens. Time and time again, the Australian performer has delivered charming performances in every role from the antihero villain Captain Boomerang in Suicide Squad to a less-prepared Kyle Reese in Terminator: Genisys, and from the moment he’s introduced on screen, he chews up every bit of scenery he can with his performance. He walks a fine line between a knowing understanding that what he’s doing is essentially wrong while also believably trying to convince reluctant partner Agent Hall (a warm Anthony Ramos), the audience and even himself, making for a brilliant performance to watch from start to finish. There’s no denying there’s plenty of predictability to Mark Williams’ Honest Thief, but thanks to a darkly humorous script, some exciting action sequences and stellar performances from Jeffrey Donovan and Jai Courtney, as well as strong ones from Neeson and Anthony Ramos, this is an action-thriller sure to please genre fans and those looking for a good popcorn flick.

    Nightstream Reviews: Dinner in America, Bloody Hell & More!

    Nightstream Reviews: Dinner in America, Bloody Hell & more! Though some of the best genre film festivals may have been axed for the year due to the global situation, Boston Underground, Brooklyn Horror, North Bend, Overlook and Popcorn Frights partnered up to bring us Nightstream, a new virtual festival full of exciting titles in everything from the horror to thriller to comedy worlds and ComingSoon.net got the opportunity to check out some of the films in its catalogue. Check out our reviews for the films below! RELATED: [Beyond Fest] Synchronic Review: A Mesmerizing Albeit Heavy-Handed Trip Dinner in America Written & Directed by: Adam Rehmeier Starring: Kyle Gallner, Emily Skeggs, Brittany Sheets, Pat Healy, Griffin Gluck, Mary Lynn Rajskub Rating: 9/10 The punk film genre is one that’s been mostly dead or waiting for the right film to come along and give it a jolt of fresh energy to bring it back to life and after a variety of misguided attempts over the past 20-plus years since James Merendino’s incredible SLC Punk!, Adam Rehmeier is ready to answer the call with Dinner in America and delivers a kinetic, energetic and outright joyous ride. The film follows a punk rock singer seeking an escape and a young woman obsessed with his band who unexpectedly cross paths and begin a journey together across America’s vast deteriorating suburbs. While the plot itself may play out somewhat routine for the coming-of-age genre, there’s a really nice unpredictability that comes from Kyle Gallner’s Simon and Emily Skeggs’ Patty that allows the viewer to still find themselves questioning just what’s coming next in the story of their lives. The two wholly own their characters and bring such an incredible power to depicting the wildly different yet intimately similar personas that is breathtaking to watch, with Gallner truly looking and acting the part of an on-again-off-again addict punk musician with a few wires loose in his head and Skeggs delivers on every cringeworthy and gut-busting moment of her awkward burgeoning punk. With a mostly consistent pace, appropriately quick editing, solid humor and stellar lead performances, Dinner in America is inarguably the best punk film since the Matthew Lillard-starring cult classic. Bloody Hell Directed by: Ailster Grierson; Written by: Robert Benjamin Starring: Ben O’Toole, Caroline Craig, Matthew Sunderland, Travis Jeffery, Jack Finsterer, Meg Fraser, Ashlee Lollback Rating: 9/10 Let’s be honest here, you’re probably a bit weird if you DON’T talk to yourself in some capacity, but what if this extended to seeing a dual version of yourself and having a conversation with them while trying to escape a murderous family. That’s what Alister Grierson and Robert Benjamin explore in their wild, bloody and outright hilarious thriller Bloody Hell, which centers on Rex Coen, a man recently released from prison after his attempt at thwarting a bank robbery goes wrong and as he flees his country in search of a new life, he finds himself trapped in a much more shocking situation he has limited time to escape. Alright, Hollywood, time to listen up because Ben O’Toole is officially done sitting on the sidelines and needs to be cast in more leading roles going forward after this film because he is given the chance to show he can carry a 95-minute movie almost entirely on his back and he absolutely kills it. Whether he’s simultaneously panicking over his situation and calculating how to escape it or laughing at his own jokes or debating whether to throw a table at invasive paparazzi, O’Toole brilliantly taps into the manic and smart-ass nature of Rex and displays so much charisma that the film was already such a thrill hanging on his figuring out a leave from his new imprisonment before we start to learn the reasons behind it. Mixed with a delightfully offbeat tone in its Helsinki setting and solid direction from Grierson, Bloody Hell may not inherently break new ground in its genre but it goes a long way to try with its central gimmick further elevated by a stellar performance from O’Toole. Detention Directed by: John Hsu; Written by: John Hsu, Fu Kai-ling, Chien Shi-keng Starring: Gingle Wang, Fu Meng-po, Tseng Ching-hua, Cecilia Choi, Hung Chang Chu, Hsia Ching-ting, Jessie Chang Rating: 6/10 Video game adaptations are notorious for being the most hit-or-miss genre in the film world, delivering highs such as Detective Pikachu and Sonic the Hedgehog to the lows of the Resident Evil franchise and Uwe Boll filmography, and now Red Candle Games’ Detention is getting its screen due and it falls fairly square in the middle of the best and worst of the bunch. Set in 1962 during Taiwan’s White Terror period, two students are trapped at their hillside high school at night, while trying to escape and find their missing teacher, they encounter ghosts and the dark truth of their fate. The side-scrolling video game was a fairly fresh breath of air in the horror gaming genre, delivering a heartbreaking and moving story through its disjointed narrative but this structure unfortunately isn’t carried over to the film adaptation, which instead settles for a pretty routine and mostly predictable series of events. There was a real air of mystery as to the nature of why the characters of the game are suffering from their disturbing situation, but the film’s opening minutes tries far too hard to establish certain elements of the characters and story that it loses the fun of putting the pieces of the puzzle together and makes it easy for audiences to figure out what’s to come. This all being said, the film does get a number of things right translating the game to screen, including some of its more terrifying imagery and monsters, moody setting and tragic true ending, all adding up to a relatively enjoyable adaptation still miles above most other entries in the genre. RELATED: CS Reviews Fantastic Fest 2020: The Stylist, How to Deter a Robber, Possessor & Bloodthirsty Survival Skills Written & Directed by: Quinn Armstrong Starring: Stacy Keach, Vayu O’Donnell, Spencer Garrett, Ericka Kreutz Rating: 8/10 In a time in which so much of Hollywood is looking to take their stories back to the analog days of the ’80s and ’90s, the film and TV worlds are becoming a bit too over-saturated with similar nostalgia-heavy projects relying on old genre tropes and while Quinn Armstrong’s meta-heavy Survival Skills may be a tad too ambitious for its own good, it is one hell of a blend of old and new school filmmaking. Structured as a lost police training VHS tape from the ’80s, the film follows the “fictional” character of Jim, the ideal police academy graduate who becomes self-aware and disillusioned with his training after encountering a troubling domestic abuse case and takes matters into his own hands. The story is nothing really new for the police genre, a rookie police officer descending into a mental hell early into the job, but the way the film handles it through its decidedly meta narrative, chock full of menacing fourth wall breaks from Stacy Keach even as he tries to keep on his human resource-demanded smile. It’s an energetic, offbeat and thoroughly compelling ride whose only shortcomings arise in some of its more far-fetched self-aware sensibilities. Come True Written & Directed by: Anthony Scott Burns Starring: Landon Liboiron, Julia Sarah Stone, Tedra Jones, Carlee Ryski, Christopher Heatherington Rating: 8/10 Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street shook audiences to their core as they realized they couldn’t trust their own dreams to keep them safe from evil and while plenty of films in the years since have toyed with the concept of dreams and hallucinations crossing into the real world, none have done so to great terrifying or intriguing effect as Anthony Scott Burns’ Come True. The film centers on a teenage runaway as she takes part in a sleep study that becomes a nightmarish descent into the depths of her mind and a frightening examination of the power of dreams. Given his prior work on other ethereal films such as Netflix’s In The Tall Grass and Our House, Burns continues to display a strong grip on the feast of dark imagery behind the camera, with the dreamscapes on display proving to be some of the most beautiful every put to film that, despite obviously being fake locations, feel incredibly practical and mesmerizing to be a part of. The story itself is where the flaws are generally on display, with some of its more ambiguous elements, especially its ending, feeling a little too convoluted and others feeling odd or borderline gross, namely the relationship that forms between the 30-something mad scientist behind the experiment and the supposedly 18-year-old runaway whose reasons for leaving are never expounded upon enough. 32 Malasaña Street Directed by: Albert Pintó; Written by: Ramón Campos, Gema R. Neira, David Orea, Salvador S. Molina Starring: Begoña Vargas, Iván Marcos, Bea Segura, Sergio Castellanos, José Luis de Madariaga, Javier Botet Rating: 6/10 A film touting itself as the Spanish answer to The Conjuring comes with a high bar to reach and a few expectations for its story and scares and much like many genre films in the wake of James Wan’s masterful horror pic, the film goes through a number of motions to set up jump scares and an emotional family drama but can’t quite find the right balance of either to set themselves apart amongst the bunch. The Olmedo family gets more than they bargained for when they move into a suspiciously low-priced apartment in Madrid, circa 1976, and quickly find themselves in a living nightmare. Reportedly based on a true story, the film takes a relatively grounded approach to its series of events, from turning to the police as a child goes missing to losing jobs as caring for family members can only go so far in the eyes of an employer before they must cut the chord. There’s some odd bits of relationship issues amongst the family, namely the rebellious eldest daughter claiming the patriarch is not her father before quickly turning it around halfway through the film, and despite spending plenty of time introducing who these characters are and their personalities, none are really that interesting or entirely likable to get audiences to completely care about them. The scares themselves prove to also be very hit or miss, with Albert Pintó doing an effective enough job of keeping the atmosphere moody and lighting dim to try and effectively set up scares but also utilizes the same formula time and again of turn the camera away, bring it back for something there, rinse and repeat, and it loses its luster really quick and frequently doesn’t even work the first time. RELATED: [Beyond Fest] Saint Maud Review: A Masterwork in Religious Psychological Horror Honeydew Written & Directed by: Devereux Milburn; Co-Story by: Dan Kennedy Starring: Sawyer Spielberg, Malin Barr, Barbara Kingsley, Stephen D’Ambrose, Jamie Bradley Rating: 4/10 Over 45 years later and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre still proves to be one of the most chillingly effective rural South horror films in the genre’s history and though many have tried to reach the same success to varying degrees over the years, most have fallen well short of the mark and Devereux Milburn’s Honeydew proves to be another lackluster effort. Strange cravings and hallucinations befall a young couple after seeking shelter in the home of an aging farmer and her peculiar son. The lead characters of the film are actually a breath of fresh air for the genre as a whole, being twentysomethings on a cross-country trip for something that will be meaningful for their lives rather than simply for the partying and debauchery, and once they’re introduced to Barbara Kingsley’s Karen, the tension is certainly ratcheted up to levels of hallucinatory oddity and absurdity, but the problem is that it doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere and instead wants to revel in its bizarre nature. If executed with more overall originality and far less predictability, this goal could’ve been great, but instead it comes across as a gross and generic offspring of Texas Chainsaw and Midsommar that never quite reaches its ambitious goals. Lucky Directed by: Natasha Kermani; Written by: Brea Grant Starring: Brea Grant, Hunter C. Smith, Dhruv Uday Singh, Kausar Mohammed, Kristina Klebe Rating: 7.5/10 Since its inception, the horror genre has been a home to both those looking to deliver chilling tales to its audiences as well as those looking to tell symbolic stories of the human experience from a diverse crowd of creative talent and with her writing/starring effort Lucky, Brea Grant has certainly tapped into a real terror women face every day and the result is a mostly effective treat. Grant stars as a self-help author who struggles to be believed as she finds herself stalked by a threatening figure who returns to her house night after night and when she can’t get help from those around her, she is forced to take matters into her own hands. From the opening moments to the final credits, Grant’s central character is an endlessly likable heroine, from her subtle sense of humor to crafty ability to fight against her mysterious attacker, and the 38-year-old 12 Hour Shift writer/director also does a fantastic job in the role of allowing audiences to empathize with her and her situation. The film is also rather elevated thanks to its skillful use of the tropes of the home invasion and semi-time looping genres, delivering a number of stylishly shot and thrillingly-paced sequences, but the film’s biggest highlight also brings out its biggest flaw: the nature of the attacker. The identity and thematic symbolism of the attacker is one certainly well-rooted in the real world and in theory is a brilliant concept, but there are moments in the film preceding the revelation that almost make the reveal itself feel somewhat redundant for this theme, something that’s been on display so frequently and more effectively subtly that the ending feels more like a heavy-handed dose of message-delivering than an eye-opening relation. The Night Written & Directed by: Kourosh Ahari; Story by: Milad Jarmooz Starring: Shahab Hosseini, Kathreen Khavari, Elester Latham, George Maguire Rating: 8/10 Hotels are generally supposed to be a nice reprieve for people from the troubles of their home and work lives, giving them a chance to put all responsibilities in the hands of others while they treat themselves to leisure for a short time, but what happens when this turns on you and uses all of your darkest secrets against you? That’s the concept behind Kourosh Ahari’s The Night, a faster-paced and contemporary psychological horror akin to Stephen King’s The Shining, and it’s one that is brought to life in mostly chilling fashion. An Iranian couple living in the US become trapped inside a hotel when insidious events force them to face the secrets that have come between them, in a night that never ends. The story for the film feels very familiar, almost blending Stanley Kubrick’s iconic adaptation of King’s novel and The Vicious Brothers’ Grave Encounters, and though the secrets themselves are actually shocking for the characters, they’re unfortunately a little too predictable for genre enthusiasts and more attentive viewers. Despite this, however, the performances from Shahab Hosseini and Kathreen Khavari are truly powerful and the atmosphere and pacing is very well-executed, with an ending sure to leave audiences’ jaw dropped. RELATED: [Beyond Fest] The Wolf of Snow Hollow Review: Subversive, Offbeat & Quietly Thrilling The Doorman Directed by: Ryuhei Kitamura; Written by: Lior Chefetz, Joe Swanson, Harry Winer; Story by: Greg Williams, Mat McAllester Starring: Ruby Rose, Jean Reno, Louis Mandylor, Rupert Evans, Askel Hennie, David Sakurai Rating: 2/10 Click here to rent or purchase The Doorman! Die Hard clones are pretty unsurprising for the action genre 30 years later, but what makes so many of them forgivable, most notably the Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx-starring White House Down, is that they at least have a sense of humor with their protagonist(s), but unfortunately Ryuhei Kitamura’s The Doorman is missing this key ingredient. A former Marine turned doorman battles mercenaries intent on destroying her apartment building to retrieve precious artwork hidden in the walls. The story borrows from a number of generic action thrillers over the years alongside Die Hard, even fellow clone Skyscraper, the characters are not only uninterestingly written but also blandly performed and the action, the one thing a film like this needs to get right, is limply executed. One of the worst things this film has going for it is the semi-incestuous bond between Ruby Rose’s Ali and her nephew Max, with the teenager, whose performer can’t act to save his literal life, creepily walking in on Ali as she changes into more battle-friendly clothes and gives her really gross and weird looks throughout that may have been an attempt at humor, but is really just another reason to want to turn it off early. 

    [Beyond Fest] The Wolf of Snow Hollow Review: Subversive, Offbeat & Quietly Thrilling

    Rating:  9.5/10 Cast: Jim Cummings as John Marshall Riki Lindhome as Officer Julia Robson Robert Forster as Sherriff Hadley Chloe East as Jenna Marshall Jimmy Tatro as PJ Palfrey Marshall Allman as Jeremy Neville Archambault as Gerry Annie Hamilton as Brianne Kelsey Edwards as Liz Fairchild Written and Directed by Jim Cummings The Wolf of Snow Hollow Review: The werewolf genre has been all but dead for the past decade, with the iconic horror creature generally subjected to being a side character or to more gimmicky films than a straightforward piece, but with The Wolf of Snow Hollow, writer/director/star Jim Cummings has delivered a truly original and compelling new take on the classic monster that is sure to delight genre enthusiasts and general audiences alike. The Wolf of Snow Hollow follows a small-town sheriff, struggling with a failed marriage, a rebellious daughter, and a lackluster department, is tasked with solving a series of brutal murders that are occurring on the full moon. As he’s consumed by the hunt for the killer, he struggles to remind himself that there’s no such thing as werewolves. Very rarely has the werewolf subgenre elected to take a whodunnit approach to revealing just who is the person being transformed into the hairy beast and in doing so, Cummings has found a clever way to properly focus the story more on his quirky and offbeat characters and their relationships with one another rather than generic monster action and it works brilliantly. As much fun as it is to speculate and take guesses as to who might be the one terrorizing the small town, with occasional glimpses even being given as to a potential suspect, the majority of the film’s entertainment comes from seeing the writer/director’s own character John Marshall struggle with everything from a town and department lacking respect for the law to his ailing father, also the chief of police, and his defiant daughter. Though the writing does make it hard to connect to him or sympathize with him in moments as he lashes out at all of those around him, with some of his actions coming across as more mean-spirited than humorous, it does also give viewers a chance to understand the meaning behind the anger. He’s not just another hot-headed jerk solely for the sake of being mean, he has a lot on his mind, including a bothersome ex-wife and a fight with alcoholism, which make it a bit easier to forgive him in moments, even as he spews venom to those around him. While the writing for the characters is already inherently intriguing, they’re all further bolstered by wonderful performances from its cast, most notably Cummings, Riki Lindhome and Robert Forster in his last feature role. Through tragic timing, Forster’s final role has him cast as a man struggling to accept his ailing health and he plays it with a feeling of authenticity, from powerful reflections on his career and its comparison to the case to struggling to traverse the snowy terrain at crime scenes. Lindhome, better known for her work in the world of comedy than anything else, has made occasional appearances in the field of horror before with The Last House on the Left and Pulse remakes and she really shines as Julia, John’s biggest source of support in the department. Normally when offered a character such as Julia, be it a small town setting or big city, it develops into a romantic relationship with the male lead and yet the film offers a more interesting path by allowing her to be simply an independent woman wanting to help a friend and she brings a real warmth to the role that makes her a delight to watch. When we’re not following characters that feel very reminiscent of those penned by Rian Johnson or Wes Anderson, the audience is being treated to a compelling and frequently haunting murder mystery that follows in the footsteps of the early masterworks of David Fincher with just a hint of the beautifully dark world of NBC’s Hannibal. Cummings and cinematographer Natalie Kingston’s artistic eyes proved to be a match made in heaven as they bring a real voyeuristic feel to a handful of scenes and keep the viewer on the edge of their seat and guessing while others create a more intimate feel as we’re treated to some key character moments and performances, all of which add up to a beautiful film from start to finish. Occasional unsavory character moments aside, Jim Cummings has crafted a darkly hilarious, uniquely offbeat and wonderfully engrossing monster whodunnit with The Wolf of Snow Hollow that opens the door for fresh new takes on classic monster horror creatures.

    Eternal Beauty Review: A Charming But Meaningless Exploration of Mental Illness

    Rating:  6/10 Cast: Sally Hawkins as Jane Morfydd Clark as Young Jane David Thewlis as Mike Billie Piper as Nicola Natalie O’Niel as Young Nicola Penelope Wilton as Vivian Alice Lowe as Alice Elysia Welch as Young Alice Robert Aramayo as Johnny Robert Pugh as Dennis Written and Directed by Craig Roberts Click here to rent or purchase Eternal Beauty! Eternal Beauty Review: Exploring the world of mental illness in film is really a tricky balancing act and many have succeeded in telling their tales, such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Shutter Island and Silver Linings Playbook while others drop the ball in misunderstanding how to respectfully depict their central subjects and while Craig Roberts certainly creates charming and fairly sympathetic characters in Eternal Beauty, he unfortunately fails to give them any meaningful story or development to go with it. As she struggles to get her life back on track following being jilted at the altar by her fiancé and falling into a state of despair, schizophrenic Jane (Sally Hawkins) finds new sources of love and live while receiving treatment, changing her life for the better and for the worst. The concept of a broken woman being able to break free from the shackles of her illness solely through the prospect of love is a tale frequently told on the big screen to varying results and Roberts falls very much in the middle in chronicling the life of Jane. The first act or two of the film proves to be a quirky and offbeat delight, one born from the tightrope nature of the viewer deciding whether to sympathize for the protagonist or laugh along with her odd behavior and antics, but as it progresses, it too often can’t decide which it wants the audience to do. From attempted kidnappings of her nephew to appease an unknown voice over the phone to hallucinations of nefarious radio messages, it feels like an honest portrayal of the dangerous and heartbreaking confusion that spawns from the mind of a schizophrenic and yet the story plays such a teeter-totter with both Jane’s state of mind and the events in the story it’s hard to decide where our own minds should lie. Roberts is no stranger to the world of dramedies, breaking out with his performance in Richard Ayoade’s 2010 hit Submarine, but yet it seems like his experience in front of the camera doesn’t carry over behind it when it comes to juggling its two drastically different tones. When it’s clear it wants to be a dark comedy in the vein of Harold and Maude, it works nicely, when it wants to be a powerful exploration of mental illness akin to A Beautiful Mind, it’s devastatingly real, but there’s too much that feels like it can’t decide which it would like to be that results in a relatively disappointing affair. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t positives to the film, however, as Jenkins delivers what could be an Oscar-worthy performance as Jane, never letting her character break even in the slightest and fully committing to the eccentric behaviors that come from her mental illness. She is further joined by an always-brilliant David Thewlis, whose role may prove much more minimal than some may expect or desire but is an absolute delight to watch every moment he gets on screen. While he may struggle with the tonal balancing act of the story, Roberts’ directorial eye is nothing short of beautiful as the 29-year-old Welsh filmmaker delivers a number of stylish and compellingly shot moments throughout the film and utilizing a simple-yet-rich color palette that gives the film a vibrant look even in the most dour of scenes. Though the film may contradict a number of its own messages and add up to practically nothing in the end in the way of character development of compelling storytelling, Roberts delivers a relatively charming atmosphere, some nice offbeat humor and a stellar performance that Jenkins that keeps Eternal Beauty from sinking entirely.

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