BACK ON THE STRIP (USA2023) *
Directed by Chris Spencer
After losing the woman of his dreams, Merlin (Spence Moore II) moves to Las Vegas to pursue work as a magician, only to get hired as the frontman in a revival of the notorious black male stripper crew, The Chocolate Chips. Led by Luther (Wesley Snipes) - now broke and broken - the old, domesticated, out-of-shape Chips put aside former conflicts and reunite to save the hotel they used to perform in while helping Merlin win back his girl. Chips is also one-legged after a car accident.
BACK ON THE STRIP is a comedy about a Las Vegas magician wannabe who loses his girl and wins her back, thus also functioning as a romantic comedy. The Strip could refer to either taking one’s clothes off or the Las Vegas strip. The film also provides some opportunity for mild dirty jokes about big penises though nothing vulgar is shown on screen.
Robin accepts a marriage proposal from another man, with Merlin looking so, so sad. “If he wants Robin back, he has to get the magic back.” This is one of the many corny lines the script is filled with. Amusing at most, not really funny. “Do you expect me to shake my stash every day of the week?” “No you get Sundays off. The serious lines are just as corny. Example: “It does not take a spark to light a flame” “Depends on who’s lighting the flame.” Besides the corniness, the script contains embarrassing jokes, like Merlin jumping up and down trying to get his wig stuck up a tree, showing his ‘shlong’ embarrassing all the guests. And what is the name of the magician in the story? Merlin, of course, if one has not already noticed.
“Awkward, messy and a little painful.” His mother describes Merlin’s first Vegas act to bad sex. The same three words can also be used to describe this film. The film takes almost 30 minutes before the idea of male stripping comes into the story. Before that, the film is all over the place, including showing Merlin as a kid, which might have lost the interest of the audience already. The overused joke about the standing ovation is once again used at the film’s 30 minute mark. Any opportunity for jokes about Luther’s one leg is also missed. Oe expects the film to sprit up once the stripping starts. It does not.
The film stars Wesley Snipes, the once popular star making a reappearance after a long absence including the time he got in trouble with tax evasion. An inside joke or two could have been sneaked into the script to provide some laughs. Tiffany Haddish also has star billing in the film, playing Robins’ mother though she has nothing much to do except provide some voiceover. Kevin Hart has the role of an uptight father in the film.
BACK TO THE STRIP mostly fails to enchant or entertain with its lazy script, co-written by director Spencer and Eric Daniel with and lame performances. The film could be funnier with better comic timing and editing and needless to say, a funnier script with more original jokes. No one really cares too, if Merlin gets back his girl Tobin, which is the film’s major flaw. This is not THE FULL MONTY and certainly not MAGIC MIKE. And if one wants to see a hijacked wedding, best to go see THE GRADUATE again.
BACK ON THE STRIP will be released in theatres this Friday, August 18th.
BAD THINGS (USA 2023) ***
Directed by Stewart Thorndike
BAD THINGS, a sexy horror flick premiering on Netflix, a Netflix original can hardly be called original. The opening sequence sees the corridor of an empty luxury hotel which reminds one right away from a similar scene from Stanley Kubrick's classic horror film THE SHINING. The scantily clad ladies also reminds one of 80’s sexy horror flicks like CRUEL INTENTIONS which is one step before the sexy ladies perform BAD THINGS. One of the first rooms of the hotel shown is decorated in pink. (The film also features Molly Rongwald who was in a film entitled PRETTY IN PINK.) To make things also nastier and sexier, the ladies are also lesbians. The film begins with one of them carrying a chainsaw. But the purpose is not to decapitate or dismember any human being but to remove a tree trunk blocking the car coming into the hotel’s driveway. It does not take a genius to guess that the chainsaw will feature again later on in the movie. One of the girls has inherited the lush hotel from her grandmother, who left it to her, not her mother. The hotel comes along with baggage and one is not talking guests luggage here. The hotel has a history of 4 deaths and a fire that still renders the 3rd floor flooded.
The girls arrive in the dead of winter. The landscape is snow and ice white, which makes the atmosphere more chilling.
For a group of friends in the Northeast, a weekend getaway at a snowy resort sounds like just what the doctor ordered. An opportunity to reconnect, relax, and recuperate among serene, snow-capped mountains and trees. But peace doesn't last long as the ghosts of guests past and relationships long buried come to light. Soon enough, their trip transforms into a psychological tailspin and bloody nightmare, as both long-deceased guests and the space itself come to life, and the group turn on each other in a race to stay alive.
What kind of BAD THINGS do the girls do? The first one is when one shoves her lover all of the sudden, out of the blue onto a piece of furniture. There is no reason for the push and the girl apologizes for doing so.
One thing that stands out in this horror flick are the performances of the relatively unknown cast. They create credible characters and clearly give their characters all they got, despite the rather messy script that occasionally is all over the place. But there are also good anticipation scary moments, like the automatic doors opening and closing without anyone visibly entering or exiting the building or the sight of the dining room filled with people (or ghosts) that suddenly disappear the next moment. Some haunting dialogue too, as says one girl says out of the blue: “When I am tired I do not feel my fingers.”
BAD THINGS also moves fast in its short 90 minutes running time, making it an efficient horror flick that is both fun to watch and to be scared by. The film premieres on Shudder August the 18th, 2023
BIRTH/REBIRTH (USA 2022) ***
Directed by Laura Moss
BIRTH/REBIRTH tells the birth or rebirth of a dead daughter. The birth/rebirth is the result of an experiment a pathologist conducts to her success. It is a re-telling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein classic with a few notable differences.
Firstly it is a female re-telling. All the characters are now female. The doctor is still a doctor but a pathologist. A new character, a mother is involved and the monster is also a female. Secondly, there is more humanizing in the story. All the characters are displayed as human beings with real emotions that matter. Thirdly, the story takes a different direction after the ‘monster’ is created. The monster is also not a monster but a ‘previous human being’.
Rose (Marin Ireland) is a pathologist who prefers working with corpses over social interaction. She also has an obsession — the reanimation of the dead. Celie (Judy Reyes) is a maternity nurse who has built her life around her bouncy, chatterbox six-year-old daughter, Lila (A.J. Lister). When one tragic night, Lila suddenly falls ill and dies, the two women's worlds crash into each other. They embark on a dark path of no return where they will be forced to confront how far they are willing to go to protect what they hold most dear.
Director Moss does her utmost best to make her Frankenstein tale as credible as possible. She invests the first third of the film into examining the 2 characters of her story. She shows a diligent rather worried human being, Rose, just not a crazed experimenter. When the two initially meet, Rose has her nose hit by the door and the following scenes show her with a bleeding nose, which causes the audience to have some sympathy for her. Celie the mother is shown to be a caring yet desperate mother who would do anything to bring her dead daughter to life, regardless. Her desperation into searching for her missing daughter initially also takes some screen time. Director Moss clearly establishes the raison d’être of both women to continue the Frankenstein experiment much further.
BIRTH/REBIRTH is largely a female picture. The two protagonists are female, the experiment is the daughter and the director of the film is also female. Director Moss keeps the female issues at hand, not letting them cloud the main story. Both actresses Ireland and Reyes are totally convincing in their roles. The interaction of the two characters, initially strangers then forced to bond together make a large part of the storyline,
BIRTH/REBIRTH is an impressive directorial debut from Laura Moss (a filmmaker from NYC whose work has screened at Tribeca, Rotterdam, and SXSW+ who has reimagined Mary Shelley’s classic horror myth Frankenstein into credible modern setting with real people with real issues. As believable as it is, the film is more mysterious than scary with the story leading into a different ending that would also only lead to disaster.
BIRTH/REBIRTH opens Exclusively in Theatres on Friday, August 18th.
BLUE BEETLE (USA/Mexico 2023) ***
Directed by Angel Manuel Soto
BLUE BEETLE is the name of three fictional superheroes appearing in a number of American comic books published by a variety of companies since 1939. The film is based on the third, which is connected to the first two, referenced for continuity,
The third Blue Beetle, created by DC Comics, is Jaime Reyes (Xolo Maridueña), a teenager who discovers that the original Blue Beetle scarab morphs into a battle suit allowing him to fight crime and travel in space. Over the years, Reyes became a member of the Teen Titans and starred in two Blue Beetle comic series. In DC Comics' 2011 "New 52" reboot, though this part is totally omitted in the movie.
The film’s storyline largely follows the comic book but with a few changes. His girl friend is different and is human, niece to the villain. In the comic book, his girlfriend is a young sorceress. An alien scarab chooses college graduate Jaime Reyes to be its symbiotic host, bestowing the teenager with a suit of armour that's capable of extraordinary and unpredictable powers, forever changing his destiny as he becomes the superhero known as Blue Beetle.
To the director and scriptwriter’s credit, the film gives positive ideas with regard to Mexican immigrants as well as female issues. The Mexican family for Jaime is shown to be one very close together but falling foul to begin loud, nosy and uncontrollable. In most families, regardless where they come from - Indian, Chinese, Spanish, Italian et al. all share the same traits. But the film makes the audiences more sympathetic and root for the Mexican family. They are seen as overlooked, hard-working and looked down upon. The female slant is strong in the film. Jamie’s grandmother, aka Nana (Adriana Barraza), who steals every scene, hands down, is given a strong voicerous role. The villain is also female (Susan Sarandon) and the mother too, all have their say in the film.
One problem with this film is its originality. Most of what transpires in the film has been seen in one film or another. The transformation of human to blue beetle as well as the transformation of the villain to machine is too similar to the transformer films. The humour in the super antihero film reminds one of the ANTMAN films. And there are also similarities of Jaime learning his superpowers as Peter Parker did in the SPIDER-MAN films. The film also runs a bit long at over two hours and could be trimmed shorter and thus more efficient. The special effects are not too bad.
BLUE BEETLE is from Warner Bros. Both Disney and Warner Bros. have milked their super action hero movies to death just as Disney has made their Star Wars films a total disaster that no one wishes to watch any longer. As such, BLUE BEETLE is expected not to make much money and a sequel is less likely to be made. It is a shame as the film is not that bad, flaws aside. BLUE BEETLE puts a positive look at female and Mexican immigrants, something films have failed to put across as effectively as this one.
BLUE BEETLE opens only in theatres August the 18th.
A LIFE TOO SHORT: THE ISABELLA NARDONI CASE (Brazil 2023) ***½
Directed by Micael Langer and Cláudio Manoel
The murder of Isabella de Oliveira Nardoni was one of the most infamous infanticide cases in Brazil. On the night of 29 March 2008, five-year-old Isabella died from severe injuries after being thrown out of the sixth floor of the building where she lived with her father Alexandre Alves Nardoni, stepmother Anna Carolina Jatobá and newborn siblings in North São Paulo. Investigations concluded that the girl had been physically abused by her caretakers and both were condemned for intentional homicide.
When a 5-year-old girl falls from her father's apartment, her mother then embarks on a quest for justice - and is put under the national spotlight.
The girl was found on the lawn of the multi-storied building. The safety net was cut by a pair of scissors or knife. The father and step-mother claimed that their apartment was broken into by a burglar who had thrown the child from the balcony. The child’s mother was called to the scene, the mother who believed the step-mother and the father, her ex. But upon investigation, it was determined by the police investigators that no one saw the burglar and the step-mother and father had conflicting testimonies. The above facts of Isabella’s death were fed to the audience in the first 15 minutes of the film, making this crime documentary a compelling watch. Who was or were responsible? Directors Micael Langer and Cláudio Manoel up the ante in this suspenseful mystery and though unclear who were responsible, their film documents the painful investigation including the trail that took place.
Investigators eventually found Isabella's blood in Nardoni's car and in his apartment, on a towel and a diaper, her vomit on his T-shirt, footprints of her flip-flops on a bed next to the window through which she was thrown, and traces of nylon from the wire safety screen on his T-shirt. The police also found fragments of the safety screen on a pair of scissors inside the apartment. All the facts are eventually revealed step by step to the audience. The investigators and forest experts determine that though there was circumstantial evidence to suggest that Isabella was thrown to her death from a bedroom window, her injuries were not consistent with a falling death. Only her wrists were broken, in addition to the fact that she was still alive, albeit barely, when she was discovered. The IML (Instituto Médico Legal, or Legal Medical Institute) personnel announced that they found injuries unrelated to the fall on Isabella's body. The injuries suggested that she had been punched and asphyxiated before being thrown out of the window.
On 18 April 2008, both Nardoni and Jatobá were indicted by the São Paulo Civil Police. They continued to claim innocence.
Though non-fiction, the case sends shivers through anyone’s spine. The only thing missing in the doc that still remains a mystery is the real motive behind the murder. A LIFE TOO SHORT: THE ISABELLA NARDONI CASE, a definitely a compelling horror true crime story debuts on Netflix streaming this week.
THE MONKEY KING (USA/China 2023) ***
Directed by Anthony Stacchi
THE MONKEY KING has never failed to fascinate. It is part of Asian culture. The first animated feature of the monkey king I had seen - my parents took me to see it when I was 5 years old - and also the first anime feature to ‘wow' the west during the early animated years was ALAKAZAM THE GREAT, released in 1960. A monkey king who learns the secrets of magic goes on a spree and causes no end of aggravation for the gods, who finally imprison him. In order to make up for all the trouble he's caused, he is sent on a mission to accompany a prince who is the son of the gods on a journey through a land filled with dangers, monsters, cannibals and demons. The new Netflix animated feature THE MONEY KING that opens this week on Netflix follows a similar storyline. THE MONKEY KING is also the title of several other movies and a TV series.
The new Monkey King is a 2023 computer-animated fantasy action comedy film directed by Anthony Stacchi, an animator and special effects artist who worked in films like JAMES THE GIANT PEACH and BACK TO THE FUTURE. The film, inspired by the epic Ming Dynasty classic Journey to the West and produced by Peilin Chou with the famous Stephen Chow as executive producer, features the titular trickster, played by Jimmy O. Yang, who battles the Dragon King (Bowen Yang). It also has supporting voice roles including Jo Koy, BD Wong as Buddha, Jolie Haong-Rappaport, and Stephanie Hsu.
Director Stacchi’s film opens and runs at a frantic pace that might be too fast for younger children to follow. Within the first few minutes of the film, lots of information is decimated to the audience. The earth is in balance with the demons and Gods in their places. Then a monkey is born out of a stone - the monkey king (aka the stone monkey) and all is thrown into disarray. The plot is rather silly as are most of the humour and characters like the Jade Emperor, full of himself, who is given blue eyeshadow and a high pitched girly voice. Unfortunately the goofiness is not as funny as say in the Looney Tunes cartoons or in the Shrek franchise. The goofiness does create a few laugh-out loud laughs or so, but the hilarity could have been brought up a few notches. The animation is colourful and the animation looks frantic, but the action suits the film’s look.
There is no coming-of-age story for this money kid/king who wishes to belong, nor are there any life lessons or messages or social commentary. THE MONKEY KING is clean and simplified animated entertainment that would satisfy if one does not expect too much from one’s entertainment.
THE MONKEY KING was selected as the closing film at the 22nd New York Asian Film Festival, where it had its world premiere on July 30, 2023. It had a preview at the Annecy (France) International Animation Film Festival on June 14, 2023 and opens August 18th on Netflix.
PIGLADY (USA 2023) ***
Directed by Adam Ray Fair
The starting credits and the film’s poster is quick to point out that the film is based on true events and the film shot where the actual events took place.
PIGLADY is loosely inspired by the Susan Monica Murders, and a majority of the film was shot on the property adjacent to where the actual events took place, and where human remains were found eaten by her pigs! From the film’s initial frame, there is an atmosphere of dread and evil.
A group of 4 friends, (two male and two female) while on a Christmas vacation to their family cabin in Southern Oregon, learn of a local rumour of an antisocial woman who allegedly murders people and feeds her victims to pigs.
The other supporting players in the story include two cops who are intent on busting the pig lady. One believes that the pig lady had stolen one of his family’s pigs and poisoned his dog when he was a kid. That is the reason he reveals to his partner for wanting to bust her. Another supporting player is a junkie, a cocaine snorting and weed smoking vagrant who has a trailer parked on pig lady’s property and who is working for her, doing odd jobs. She is aware of his drug habits yet invites him over to her place, leaving the audience wondering what she is intending to offer him. He rightly initially declines the invitation. One other supporting player is a girl at the start of the film who is killed by the pig lady just after giving birth to a new born baby.
Written and directed by Adam Ray Fair, PIGLADY is a low budget horror film much in the vein of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. Both films take place in hillbilly type country and deal with weird and ugly folk that one would wish never to encounter with. Instead of a chainsaw, the pig lady wields a machete, which she has used already to kill the young mother. She can also throw a mean axe.
Every horror film creates suspense from audience anticipation. Director Fair has the junkie finally accept the invite from the pig lady and enters her house. She then offers him coke which he snorts before……. Another tactic used in the film is the appearance of the pigs before the PIGLADY shows up. A lot of anticipation is also created by the appearances of her close by wherever the 4 friends are, whether in their cabin or outside chopping wood.
The dialogue is aimless but one can argue that these are the kind of words spoken by people in the backwoods. The girls talk about the men clinging on to the last of their masculinity while the men are mostly interested in taking a drink or smoking a joint. They are just waiting to be slaughtered by the pig lady. The audience's curiosity is how the pig lady would eventually get her comeuppance.
Director Fair delivers his horror with lots of anticipation, guts and grossness with PIGLADY ending up entertaining in a grotesque and disgusting kind of way.
Gravitas Ventures will release PIGLADY on digital platforms on August 22, 2023. The film has a running time of 1 hour 39 minutes and will not be rated by the MPAA.
STORAGE LOCKER (USA 2022) ***
Directed by Ray Spivey
What evil lurks behind those doors? Those doors behind the storage lockers? Campy as it sounds, this new horror flick going straight to streaming, produced, written and directed by Ray Spivey is exactly what it intends to be, campy horror, and lame as its storyline and premise might be, delivers what one would expect.
A comic book collector Packer Stanley (Avery Mayo) while on a run to buy new collector items, is mugged and the cash he has reserved for his wedding honeymoon stolen. His fiancé ditches him and the small town boy has no alternative but either give up his comic collecting or get more money with his collection, which is what his finance does not want.
Believing that he has broken up with her, he meets two beautiful, mysterious dodgy sisters, Diana and Apollonia, who run a secret collectors society. The sisters had just lost their father in a collector’s dispute. “I would do anything to bring my father back,” one of them says, “You don’t understand. I will tell you a secret.” One can tell that Packer is in for something nasty. The two mysterious sisters own a storage locker facility. Packer ingratiates himself into their business and is inducted into their secret collectors society. The sisters' father Kirby Leto was gunned down five years ago and a rival collector George Fisk is a suspect. George tries to shoot Diana one evening and Packer takes the bullet. Apollonia is a wannabe witch (she is actually learning the trade, believe it or not) and uses a spell to save Packer’s life. She is also developing the magic skills to bring her father back to life. Unfortunately she has created a demonic soul trapped in a small boy's body. The boy grows like the cancer growing through his body and threatens everyone.
To acquire the rarest of the rare, Packer, the obsessed rare comic book collector must battle a demonic presence in the sisters' deadly storage facility. somewhat bumbling protagonist that one can at least feel some sympathy for, as he is totally hapless. Packer is good looking and suave enough to be the film’s hero and the two sisters pretty enough to engage the audience’s attention. Everyone loves a good monster and the film has a solid one. The dark and creepy corridors in the storage locker facility makes also a good scary setting for a horror movie, though not much of the facility can be seen as the camera is always in front of the characters’ faces.
The film, entertaining as it is as horror with a twist of humour, has won numerous awards at the Hollywood Blood Horror Festival including Best Feature & Best Director, and has also screened at other festivals including Shockfest, IndieFest, NY International Film Awards, and WorldFest Houston. Freestyle Releasing releases STORAGE LOCKER on digital platforms on August 22, 2023. The film has a running time of 1:51:52 and will not be rated by the MPAA.
UNTOLD: HALL OF SHAME (USA 2023) ***
Directed by Bryan Storkel
The first 10 minutes of the new doc UNTOLD: HALL OF SHAME immediately draws the viewer immediately into the subject of the steroids/professional athletes scandal. Even if one has not touched steroids, the mystery of the subject and how it has affected the United States and the world of sports is something one cannot hide away from. There is a shot of Victor Conte flexing his muscles, at an older stage in life, not possible if he did not inject steroids in himself.
Victor Conte is nicknamed the Dr. Frankenstein of BALCO Laboratories. Victor Conte Jr. (born 1950 in Fresno, California) is a former bassist with Tower of Power and the founder and president of Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO), a sports nutrition centre in California. He served time in prison in 2005 after pleading guilty to conspiracy to distribute steroids and money laundering. He currently operates Scientific Nutrition for Advanced Conditioning (SNAC Nutrition). He is responsible for the creation and large distribution of THG, also called the Clear (Tetrahydrogestrinone, an anabolic steroid) a largely undetectable steroid used among the athletes in the sports world.
HALL OF SHAME shows two sides of the coin, arguing as well for instead of against the use of steroids. Most may not agree with the arguments. Conte claims all is fair in the new world of steroids and it is a new level field. The pressure and lure to break sports records are factors that cannot be overlooked. It is hard to say ‘no’. “Show me a person not on steroids and I will show you a loser.” Conte confidently claims at the start of the documentary. (Reviewer’s note: Myself, I had taken steroids too in my younger days to build up muscle to look good.)
Who else has served time with respect to steroid use beside Conte? The answer is the track star like Marion Jones, the only athlete imprisoned in connection with the BALCO case after pleading guilty to a perjury charge.
Other users featured in the doc include baseball slugger Barry Bonds, who, as the film informs, was likely headed to be inducted into the Hall of Fame before his sudden explosion of home-run-hitting power. While Bonds has steadfastly denied using PED, the questions have kept him out of the Hall despite his record-setting resume. A sprinter Tim Montgomery, who improved his time in the 100 meters from 9.92 seconds when running clean to a world-record-setting 9.78 is yet another abuser. For Canadians, it seems only yesterday that the news of Olympic winner Ben Johnson was stripped of his gold medal.
HALL OF SHAME also shows the painful process by which Conte got caught by then ORA agent Jeff Notvitzky.
The most impressive feat this doc achieves are the candid interviews director Storkel has obtained from both Conte and Notvitzky both often denying what the other says. The archive footage of all the record breakers that have used steroids also add to the urgency of the doc.
UNTOLD is a series of sports documentary films distributed on Netflix. HALL OF SHAME opens for streaming on Netflix this week.