Stray (2019)

Empty factories are always creepiest at night.

(2019) Supernatural Crime Thriller (Screen Media) Karen Fukuhara, Christine Woods, Miyavi, Ross Partridge, Takayo Fischer, Saki Miyata, Brandon Brooks, Brian Carroll, Jamiah Brown, Kiran Deol, Eunice Chiweshe Goldstein, Alex Hyner, Nicolas Jung, Fahad Olayan, Geoffrey H. Russell, April Lind, Sonia Jackson, Heather Pache, Cecilia Benevich. Directed by Joe Sill


Maybe the most interesting thing about police work is that you never know what you’re going to get when you get on the job. That also may be the most dangerous thing about police work as well.

Detective Murphy (Woods) is getting back to work as a homicide detective after an extended leave of absence. It’s bad enough that her ex-husband Jake (Partridge) is also now her boss but she is immediately called to a grisly murder scene in which a woman has apparently been burned to death, but then the weirdness begins. First of all, the woman isn’t burned – she’s petrified. The body has also been dated as over a thousand years old despite the fact that the victim had been seen just the previous day.

The victim’s daughter, Nori (Fukuhara) is eager to discover what happened to her mother but the victim’s mother (Fischer) is less forthcoming. Murphy’s bad news instincts are on overdrive so she cultivates a relationship with Nori. The two women are linked by tragedies in their immediate past and the two begin to bond. Murphy discovers that Nori has strange psychic powers that manifest when she is emotionally stressed. Not only that but those powers run in the family; her grandmother has them, her mother has them and her estranged brother Jim (Miyavi) has them.

As Murphy chases down the killer it is clear that Nori is the next target and by extension Murphy who has put the girl under her protection much to the dismay of Jake but how does one protect a girl from powers so evil and so strong that they can turn a human being into stone in the blink of an eye?

Sill makes his feature film debut here and it’s really not a bad one. There are elements that really work here and even though this is a low-budget affair, the CGI is actually pretty good. What isn’t as good is the procedural aspects which take a few liberties with logic and common sense.

There are some strong performances here, particularly by Woods who places a deeply wounded and self-medicating burned out cop, a role that normally goes to middle-aged white guys. Adding the feminine factor to the mix (not to mention that Murphy is a total badass) is a welcome deviation from standard crime thriller clichés. The supernatural element isn’t exactly groundbreaking but it does add a nice twist; however, the nature of Nori’s powers are not really clear for the most part and that can be frustrating.

This isn’t a bad film at all and there are some really good moments. Cinematographer Greg Cotton makes excellent use of shadows and darkness and a color palate that goes well with both. While the movie won’t exactly rock your world, it won’t bore you either. Sill definitely someone to keep an eye on and those who like their movies on the eerie side might actually find it a worthwhile pick.

REASONS TO SEE: There is a unique lyricism present here.
REASONS TO AVOID: The police procedural aspect is a little dicey.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fukuhara is best-known in the States for her portrayal of Katana in Suicide Squad.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/2/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.

Insidious: The Last Key

Someone needs a manicure badly.

(2018) Horror (Blumhouse/Universal) Lin Shaye, Angus Sampson, Leigh Whannell, Kirk Acevedo, Caitlin Gerard, Spencer Locke, Josh Stewart, Tessa Ferrer, Bruce Davison, Aleque Reid, Ava Kolker, Pierce Pope, Javier Botet, Marcus Henderson, Amanda Jaros, Judith Drake, Hana Hayes, Thomas Robie, Josh Wingate, Danielle Kennedy, Melanie Gaydos, Patrick Wilson, Ty Simpkins, Rose Byrne. Directed by Adam Robitel


Horror franchises can be very lucrative indeed for a studio. Look at the Friday the 13th franchise for Paramount, the Paranormal Activity franchise for the same studio and the Nightmare on Elm Street and the Conjuring universe for New Line. It’s hard to know where Lionsgate would be had it not for the money generated by the Saw franchise years ago.

Insidious has been part of a renaissance of horror franchises that have taken hold of studio imaginations. For the most part these horror franchises are very cheap to produce and can generate tens and even hundreds of millions of box office profits when all is said and done. They may not be prestige projects or win many awards – or even gain much critical respect – but they are vital to a studio’s bottom line. Insidious has for the most part (especially in the second two of the four chapters to date) followed the story of Elise Rainier, a psychic who is able to communicate with the dead and sometimes venture into a dimension she calls The Further in which the living and the dead can sometimes interact – although it is the supernatural who reign there.

Like the previous installment, this is a prequel. Elise Rainier (Shaye) is at home when she gets a call from a potential client in a small New Mexico town. When she hears the address, immediately it becomes obvious that she is terrified as she abruptly declines to take the job and hangs up.

That’s because the address is her own childhood home, now occupied by a lone man named Ted Garza (Acevedo). As a child (Kolker) and as a teen (Hayes) as her abilities were manifesting themselves, she was tortured by the souls of those who had died in the nearby prison where her abusive father (Stewart) works. He not only doesn’t believe in the supernatural, he thinks his daughter is crazy and whenever she confesses that she has witnessed something supernatural, she is beaten with a cane.

Eventually she runs off leaving her brother Christian to survive alone with his dad but not before she unknowingly allows a terrible entity into this world which ends up killing her loving and supportive mother (Ferrer). Troubled not only by the memories of the abuse she suffered but also haunted by the guilt over her mother’s death, she realizes she can’t find peace until she faces her own demons – literally. So with her assistants Specs (Whannell, who directed the last one) and Tucker (Sampson), she goes to Five Keys to do battle with evil.

There she’ll meet her now-grown brother (Davison) who hasn’t yet forgiven her for abandoning him, and his daughters Imogen (Gerard) and Melissa (Locke) who are both fetching which attracts the attention of Specs and Tucker but also Elise realizes that one of them may have inherited the gift/curse that she possesses.

Elise is one of the most admirable horror heroines ever created. Generally most horror franchises are about the monster and rarely is there a single hero that runs through the series. Insidious is the reverse of that (as is, to be fair, The Conjuring) but in the case of Elise, she is not a young person; Shaye is a rare hero of a certain age group (let’s call it AARP-friendly) who appeals to young people as well as others. She is grandmotherly at times but she kicks spiritual booty when she needs to. There has never been a heroine quite like her and in this film Shaye is at her absolute best.

In fact it’s safe to say that the acting is pretty solid all around. Sure, the two nieces are pretty much interchangeable and Whannell and Sampson occasionally try a little too hard for comedy relief but Davison is a savvy pro who compliments Shaye nicely and Ferrer does a bang-up job as the ill-fated mom. Acevedo also gets kudos for taking a character who has some depth and translating it into performance.

The Insidious series has never been gore-heavy and also quite frankly not really overloaded with scares as well, which makes it a target for some derision in horror fanboy circles. I’ve always appreciated that the scares in the first three movies are well-earned and if there are occasionally an over-reliance on jump scares (or startle scares as I like to call them) when they do go out to get you they generally succeed.

The one thing that keeps this from a higher score in my book is the ending; the final confrontation is a big letdown and is that unusual situation where it should have  gone on longer, even though because this is a prequel you pretty much know the outcome because…well, certain characters HAVE to survive or else the continuity is completely shot to hell. Of course, one of these days a franchise picture is going to shock the living daylights out of us by killing a character who is shown to have survived in one of the earlier films. Perhaps that will cause a paradox that will bring the whole universe to an end – or perhaps just a portion of it, like all politicians. That would be worth it, I’m sure we can all agree.

REASONS TO GO: This could be the best performance by Shaye in the series. In general, the acting is better than the average horror film.
REASONS TO STAY: This installment is a little bit less scary than other films in the franchise. The final confrontation between Elise and the demon is a bit anti-climactic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some disturbing thematic content and imagery, horror violence, scenes of terror and occasional profanity. There are also a couple of scenes of child abuse.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This film is meant to conclude the prequel series for the franchise, leading to sequels that may or may not continue the character of Elise Rainier.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/7/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.



           At first, we thought we’d won. They had come from another dimension through a portal that we thought we ourselves had opened but as it turned out had been opened by them. We called them Demons because of their vicious homicidal nature and because of the resemblance of some of them to the demons of movies and video games.

            Two wars wiped out nearly the entire human race. We bred certain humans as Guardians, warriors with amazing abilities trained to protect the human race from the demon onslaught. One of the bravest of these, Jeremiah Black, had managed to close the dimensional portal at the cost of his own life. The war was won, but eradicating those demons that remained and reclaiming the Earth as our own went on for years.

            Then came the discovery of Sangre the Silent that the remaining demons were evolving into humans and other animals. It was he who led the great Unification, allowing both races to come together, survive together. We repopulated our planet. Generations came and went. The Guardians – now called Hunters – had become the elite force of warrior knights. They were thought to be obsolete and archaic. Their numbers became few.

            Once again we were victims of our own complacency. It had been a hundred years since the last Demon War. Civilization had built up again; the old cities were habited again. The world had caught up more or less to where it had been before all this began. Only the Hunters, their numbers augmented by former Demons converted to human, sounded any sort of warning knell that the portal that had once been opened could be opened again. These were disregarded as the ramblings of old men and paranoids.

            We knew that when their numbers became to great in their home dimension they would come here again. The portal opened in the dead of winter in the Sangre de Christi Mountains. Instead of the animals coming through, it was all Deathknights but mutated. They were still humanoid but they were bigger (about seven and a half feet tall), stronger and even more vicious.

            The Demon Army wiped out most of North America before we even knew they were here. The conventional armies were overwhelmed by the weapons of the new Demons, which were powerful indeed, capable of vaporizing matter and energy alike. The losses were terrible.

            The Hunters, once reviled and ridiculed, became the last hope of mankind. My father had been one; I had just joined, one of their few new recruits when the Demon Army appeared. Now the Third Demon War was in full swing and somehow, we knew it would be the last.

            My name is Moloch and I am a Hunter. I lead a cadre of ten Hunters, all new recruits. We, like most of the Hunters, had chosen a small town on the Yucatan Peninsula to make a stand, to turn the tide of the war. The name of the place was Ixamal.

            Like many towns on the Yucatan, it was surrounded by jungle and somewhat compact in nature. Unlike many towns, it had largely escaped the ravages of the previous Demon Wars because of its remote location. That would not be true this time. When the Hunterelder Agamemnon sent out a psychic call for all the Hunters to gather there, we came; some by conventional means but most by a new technique we had learned since the last Demon War, the ability to fold space and arrive in a new location instantaneously. There were well over a thousand Hunters in Ixamal, lethal killers all. We got suspicious looks from the locals that bordered on outright hatred. That didn’t bother any of us; without a doubt we would earn that hatred soon. Our very presence guaranteed that.

            We were soon made well aware as to why we had been summoned. The Demon Army, numbering well over 500,000 gibbering ravening demons, dripping foul-smelling pus and drool, were on their way. Why they had chosen this spot was occupying much of the Elders’ time; there seemed to be no real reason why the Demons should want to go to Ixamal or even the Yucatan Peninsula, but here they were.

            I had a group of ten Hunters who were my charges. We called ourselves the Orphans because we had divorced ourselves from our pasts, our parents; we’d cut all our ties with anything human because we knew that we would not survive this war. Dead men make formidable warriors; they have nothing to lose. I sat on the doorstep of a dusty cantina and looked at my charges; youngsters one and all. Part of me thought they should all be in school, learning useless information and trying to get laid.

            They were tough and they were hard; we’d seen a lot of battle and none of it was pretty. They’d seen their friends die horribly, ripped into shreds by demonic claws or barbecued by demonic breath. Of course, many had been vaporized by the new demonic weapon that we had yet to find a way to counter. These, so far, had escaped all of those fates, although many had scars to show their worth in battle. They sat around me now, boys pretending to be men, myself a man trying to pretend I didn’t envy them their youth. The things we had seen together…would continue to see.

            One among them stood out. His name was Despiadado and he was my right hand. Taciturn but brilliant in his own way, he was native to this area and he knew the topography well. His counsel had served us well a week past when we ran into a scouting party for the main Army while out scouting ourselves. We manage to herd them into a cenote that he knew about, where we simply used our psychokinesis to push them over the edge into the bottomless pools, where they might have drowned had not their skin been sensitive to water which acted like acid and dissolved them, screaming, into vapor.

            He was calm under pressure and a killing machine in battle. He had a better grasp of his gifts than did most of the boys, and no compunction about using them. While the others showed a whole lot of bravado, Despiadado had more of a quiet confidence in his abilities. He would make a tremendous Hunter, maybe even one of the best ever – if he lived through the night.

            The others waited, like all of us. We had been assigned as reserves, mostly due to our age and inexperience. Haaken was telling a joke to El Verdugo, while Sorrow, Refsingar and Pala gambled quietly in the corner, throwing dice against the wall. I wondered idly if any of us would survive.

            The Demon Army was finally upon us. We awaited our orders as we knew that we would be used to fill in where Hunters had fallen, or where the Army had exploited our weaknesses. Agamemnon was in charge of the Hunters, although Pelennor and Socorro both had equal say by law, Agamemnon was deferred to because of his experience.

            The villagers were escorted to basements and whatever hiding places could be found though if we were overrun they would afford them no shelter. Many of the villagers had fled already and of those, the vast majority would already be dead, killed by Demon scouting parties. Agamemnon, who was descended from Demon stock (some say from Lady Venema herself) had warned against it but as usual, the villagers ignored the experience of the Hunters and had given way to fear. If we had been listened to in the first place, we might have been better prepared.

            Spilt milk, that. What’s done is done and now the Hunters are the hunted. We awaited the first assault in the village, some looking forward to battle with bloodlust, others preparing to do their duty. None look forward to death but all accepted that death would take most or all of us that day. That was as may be, but if we could stop the Demons from whatever goal was theirs, we would die content.

            When the first assault finally came all of the chatter and horseplay in my cadre stopped. We all felt the pain and suffering of those on the front line, and when a Hunter died, a part of our souls died with them. Our expressions were grim. I knew it wouldn’t be long before we were called to the front line, to suffer and die with our brothers.

            Our losses were terrible. We were only a thousand to begin with and we were down to half that number within the first ten minutes. I felt Agamemnon’s call and we were summoned to a barricade on the southern part of town. We relieved a group of more veteran Hunters who were going to the North, where the attack was concentrated.

            Despiadado sidled up to me. “Their attack is well-coordinated but there’s something strange,” he said in a soft voice. “I am not feeling the psychic emanations from the Demons that I do from us, except for one. He is in the rear of the Army and whenever their disintegration weapon is used, I feel the psychic energy coming from him.” I nodded and relayed the information to Agamemnon. I got a very irritated “We’re well aware of that but we can’t pinpoint the single Demon controlling their weapon. We’ve attacked that area several times but we can’t get anyone close enough. Await your orders.”

            Despiadado had picked up the message. He looked at me with clear brown eyes. “I can,” he said softly, “I can kill the demon that’s directing their weapon.” I looked at him critically. “What makes you think so?” I knew he was more sensitive psychically than most. If he said he could pinpoint which Demon was directing the weapon, I believed him. But I would imagine that the Demons would protect the weapon director quite heavily. If we had 10,000 men we probably couldn’t get close.

            “I know the terrain. I could travel almost right next to him.” I shook my head. Transporting right next to a target, taking them out and then returning was difficult at best. Transporting left even the best of us disoriented for several moments, long enough for guards to raise the alarm and even kill the Hunter before he had regained his senses. This didn’t seem like a viable option and I said so, explaining why.

            Despiadado smiled and said “That would be true, but if I had a psychic link with you, the effects could be lessened. You would be the disoriented one, leaving me time enough to kill the bastard and get back.” I considered it. The plan could work, although there were a number of pitfalls. If Despiadado were killed, I would also die. The psychic backlash would fry my brain. Despiadado would also be nearly useless for several hours, too exhausted to fight.

            However, the opportunity was too much to pass. I communicated my intentions to Agamemnon and he sent back a terse “Do it.” From his standpoint, it wasn’t much of a risk – the worst case scenario was that Despiadado and I would die and that was a mere two Hunters. However, if we were successful, that could turn the tide of battle. I nodded to Despiadado and he smiled, closed his eyes and disappeared.

            I could see through his eyes, feel what he felt. He/I arrived in the Demons camp, which was strange and organic looking. There were Squidgens everywhere but they were of no concern. A pair of Deathknights and a Krueger stood in front of tent-like structure that appeared to be made of flesh and bone. Through Despiadado I could feel the psychic presence of the Demon controlling the weapon. I could also feel the disorientation that came from Travelling and I fought it.

            Despiadado didn’t feel it. His sword came out and sang and the Krueger’s head flew off, it’s razor-sharp blade-ended fingers twitching as black blood fountained from its corpse. The Deathknights hesitated a moment and began to draw their own weapons but it was too late. One was stabbed through the heart by Despiadado’s blade and the other took a psychic blast, causing the blood vessels in its brain and heart to explode. It collapsed where it stood.

            There were literally hundreds of other Demons nearby and at the death of the Krueger they began running to the Pavilion. Despiadado didn’t hesitate; he ran inside and there sat the Demon he had come for.

            It was huge, gigantic, maybe 450 pounds of fat, bulbous flesh. It pulsated on the floor, it’s eyes a sickly yellow and there were several hundred of them scattered on the sticky purple flesh of the Demon. A large spiked tail protruded from its anus but other than that it was just a blob. It had no visible means of locomotion nor did it have a mouth.

            And yet it made a loud squealing noise, and it let loose a psychic blast of its own. Despiadado got his defenses up only just barely in time and the pain of the impact of the blast on his shields chilled me to the bone. I sent all my own strength to augment his and he drew his blade and began slicing the animal, for the Demon before him was little more than that.

            The skin was remarkably tough but our blades are sharper than razors. After a few hacks, Despiadado pierced the hide and into the soft tissue below and once that was done it was all over. He continued to parry psychic blasts as the tail swished through the air and the thing’s death screams filled his mind. At last, blood flowing from dozens of wounds, it slumped to the ground, dead. Why hadn’t it just vaporized him? I didn’t have time to answer my own thoughts as Despiadado closed his eyes and Travelled back to the camp, collapsing to the ground. He was covered in the Demon’s foul-smelling blood and his own sweat. He had made it out just in time; the first of the guards had reached the door by the time he had Travelled out.

            I collapsed alongside him, spent. We sat there for several moments, trying to get our bearings. Amontillado and Pala ran up to us. “What the hell? Are you all right?” I nodded, and then smiled. “We’re going to be okay boys.” And I was right. When the creature had died, most of the Demon army was in psychic contact with it. The psychic backlash of its death had killed a good part of their army and our Hunters did the rest.

            We were called heroes for our deeds, although I have to admit I’m uncomfortable with it. There’s no time to celebrate killing a single Demon and winning a single battle. This war is just beginning and it is going to get worse before it gets better but you have to take your victories where you can get them.

            Despiadado was given command of my cadre and I was sent to Ecuador to train new recruits. There are lots of them these days – those who survived the initial onslaught would all be pressed into service. In order to survive, the human race will all have to become Hunters. Perhaps that is for the best, but a part of me mourns. What are we going to give up in order to preserve life? The cost will be high indeed.



Neil Jackson shows Djimon Hounsou that he's a rising star.

(Summit) Chris Evans, Dakota Fanning, Camilla Belle, Djimon Hounsou, Cliff Curtis, Ming Na, Joel Gretsch, Maggie Siff, Neil Jackson, Scott Michael Campbell, Corey Stoll, Colin Ford, Xiao Lu Li, Paul Car. Directed by Paul McGuigan.

It is said there is no limit to the potential of the human mind. It is also true that there is no limit to the human desire to control and exploit anything with the potential of limitless power, and no limits to how far some would go to gain that power.

There have always been humans with special abilities. Telekinetics, called Movers. Precognitives, called Watchers. People who can exert control over others, called Pushers. People who can sense the location of others, called Sniffers. These are controlled by a sinister government agency known only as Division. One of the most fearsome agents of Division is a pusher named Carver (Hounsou).

A mover named Nick Gant (Evans) has been eking out a miserable existence in Hong Kong, far away from Division. He’d watched his father (Gretsch) murdered by Carver ten years earlier. His powers have never really developed properly. His disastrous attempts to influence dice games have landed him deep in debt to the sorts of people who aren’t about installment plans. On the positive side, Division hasn’t really felt a need to go after him seriously.

However, two Division sniffers (Stoll, Campbell) are waiting for him in his apartment after a run-in with some dice players. They’re looking for Kira (Belle), a pusher who escaped from Division’s medical labs with a syringe filled with a formula meant to increase the abilities of the psychically endowed, but usually winds up killing them. In fact, Kira is the only one who has survived the shot and could be the key to Division’s plans of assembling an army of enhanced psy-soldiers.

After the sniffers leave, Nick is visited by a precocious little watcher named Cassie (Fanning) whose mother remains captive in a Division facility, drugged into a stupor. She informs him that the syringe is the means of bringing down Division and to freeing Cassie’s mom. Oh, and the two of them are doomed to die. However, the good news is that the future is constantly changing and Cassie isn’t always accurate. The bad news is that a Chinese gang led by a much better developed watcher (Lu Li) is also aware of the syringe and what it could mean, and they’re gunning to find Kira and her precious cargo. Carver and Victor (Jackson), a mover far more advanced than Nick, have arrived in Hong Kong to personally supervise the operation.

Nick assembles a team of friends and rogue psychics to try and help save himself, Cassie and Kira from what is increasingly looking like a fatal ending. The odds are overwhelming, but the stakes are high…and time is ticking inexorably towards a conclusion.

This is a nice looking movie, which takes advantage of its Hong Kong milieu nicely. There are kinetic action sequences with plenty of CGI lighting effects and wire work. There is also Fanning, who tends to elevate every movie she’s in.

The problem here is that the script is overly complex and hard to follow. I consider myself a fairly savvy moviegoer and I had problems keeping up with who is able to do what and where they stand. The movie is based on a Wildstorm comic series, for which this material is better suited. The world created by McGuigan and the other filmmakers is over-the-top and convoluted, which works in a four-color medium but not so much on the big screen.

Evans, best known as Johnny Storm in the Fantastic Four movies (he must have a thing about comic books), is an attractive enough lead but Nick Gant is essentially Johnny Storm without the libido – or the flames, for that matter. While his powers progress nicely through the course of the film, his character changes wildly without a whole lot of explanation. Either far too much was left on the cutting room floor, or the script was not as well-written as it should have been.

The rest of the cast – many of them veterans of the Hong Kong action movies – range from competent to forgettable. The most surprising of them is Hounsou. He plays the movie’s main heavy with an odd lack of energy or fire. I think he’s going for menacing in a quiet way, sort of like a cobra ready to strike. However, he comes off merely wooden and bored and not nearly an object of fear that he should be.

I tend to be far more forgiving of comic book movies than most because I do love comic books, and I do love movies that are made from them. After 2008 gave us Iron Man, Wanted and The Dark Knight, I was looking for comic book movies to become more of a serious art form. This isn’t the movie that’s going to accomplish that. What McGuigan has crafted, however, is an unnecessarily convoluted but good looking movie that I can recommend with reservations, but looks to fall below the radar of the vast majority of the movie-going audience, and it doesn’t take a watcher to see that coming.

WHY RENT THIS: Exciting action sequences reminiscent of some of the better Hong Kong-made action films. Dakota Fanning is a solid actress who delivers a performance better than this movie deserves. Scenes filmed in and around Hong Kong are fascinating.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Convoluted plot that’s hard to follow. Script occasionally ignores it’s own internal logic. Hounsou isn’t nearly menacing enough as a villain and comes off as surprisingly wooden.

FAMILY VALUES: Somewhat violent, although no worse than most comic book movies. There is also some teen drinking here. Otherwise, suitable for most teens and above.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: In order to deal with the bustle of the Hong Kong locations, director McGuigan decided to film guerilla style, out of peepholes and in the back of vans. In fact, during a scene where Kira is kidnapped at gunpoint with no crew members visibly in sight and no prior advertisement that there would be filming there that day, passers-by didn’t react or move to help.



TOMORROW: Slumdog Millionaire