Review: Lili Taylor, Uzo Aduba, Omar Epps and Rob Zombie headline streaming and VOD titles
In the supernatural thriller “Eli,” Charlie Shotwell plays an 11-year-old suffering from a mysterious disorder which causes his flesh and innards to flare up painfully when he’s exposed to non-sterile environments. Eli’s desperate parents (Kelly Reilly and Max Martini) bring him to a risk-taking doctor, Isabella Horn (Lili Taylor), who detains him in a spooky “clean house” in the middle of nowhere.
As is often the case with these situations, the cure ends up being worse than the disease. Eli’s condition improves, but Dr. Horn’s treatments are excruciating, and her Gothic mansion seems to have literal ghosts lurking around every corner. The only good part of Eli’s day is when a neighbor girl, Haley (Sadie Sink), wanders by and talks to him through the institution’s big windows.
“Eli” was directed by Ciarán Foy, who made the similarly character-driven thriller “Citadel,” about an agoraphobe confronting his fears. This time, though, Foy’s working with a team-written screenplay that takes too long to get to the point. The movie kills too much time with atmospherics and insinuations before finally answering its two big questions: What’s wrong with Eli?; and, what’s the deal with this crazy house?
Foy’s cast is excellent, and he stages everything artfully, using foggy glass and deep shadows to trick the eye. “Eli” has a strong payoff too with a memorably intense final 15 minutes.
But that roaring finish feels like it should come much earlier in the picture. The story ends just when it’s finally going somewhere.
Uzo Aduba gives a fine performance in the otherwise flat “Miss Virginia,” playing real-life education advocate Virginia Walden Ford. The film follows Walden Ford’s early 2000s grassroots campaign, aimed at giving children in Washington, D.C., the opportunity to attend the best schools in their area, rather than being forced by zoning to suffer in failing, crime-ridden institutions.
The school voucher issue is fairly controversial, but “Miss Virginia” screenwriter Erin O’Connor and director R.J. Daniel Hanna have turned it into simplistic and preachy melodrama, with several broadly drawn villains — including do-nothing politicians and predatory drug-dealers — lined up against the heroine and the maverick congressman (Matthew Modine) she sways to her cause.
Aduba’s impassioned speeches about fairness and opportunity are undeniably moving. But the spotlight the film attempts to shine on a complicated subject ends up being blinding, obliterating all nuance.
A combination police procedural and slasher film, “Trick” is notable mainly for how many old horror movie ideas it crams into a single feature. It’s almost as though writer-director Patrick Lussier and his co-writer, Todd Farmer, were trying to make their “Halloween” and “Halloween II” all at once — plus the third, fourth and fifth installments too.
Set in a small upstate New York town, “Trick” is named for a pumpkin-masked monster who keeps returning every Halloween, ever since a houseful of high schoolers got hacked to bits in 2015. Omar Epps plays a police detective who, alongside a local sheriff (played by Ellen Adair), tries to get to the bottom of the mystery before more people die.
Lussier and Farmer fill their film with set-pieces: a daring hospital escape, an elaborate death-trap for the cops, a carnival-style “haunted maze” populated by potential murderers and so on. Some work fairly well; others are too preposterous.
One whopper of a plot-twist briefly gives “Trick” an original hook. But by the end of the picture it’s clear the filmmakers aren’t really interested in exploring any of the potentially interesting sociopolitical implications of their big surprise. In the same “instant franchise” spirit that infests this whole project, they’re just setting up a sequel.
‘3 From Hell’
Rob Zombie’s “House of 1000 Corpses” and “The Devil’s Rejects” were jolting when they arrived in multiplexes in 2003 and 2005. At a time when mainstream horror films were becoming increasingly machine-tooled, Zombie’s return to ’70s drive-in nastiness felt vital, as a reminder that some of the best thrillers make audiences uncomfortable, forcing them to think about what they’re watching — and why.
“3 from Hell” — the belated third entry in Zombie’s “Firefly trilogy” — isn’t as essential. The saga of a thrill-killing family who drive decent people to unspeakable violence reached a natural end with “The Devil’s Rejects,” and there’s not much more to say with the characters of Otis B. Driftwood (Bill Moseley) and Baby Firefly (Sheri Moon Zombie), even with the addition of the always entertaining Richard Brake as Otis’ half-brother Foxy Coltrane.
That said, Zombie’s schtick still works. With its bifurcated structure — which sees the family executing a brute-force prison break in the first half of the film, then dealing with some vengeful Mexican gangsters in the second — “3 from Hell” finds room for plenty of colorful dialogue, references to old movies, gratuitous nudity and gonzo splatter. This one’s really for diehard Zombie fans … provided they weren’t hoping he’d hit them with something new.
New Orleans is an ideal setting for a vampire movie, and director Ashley Hamilton tries to make the most of it in “Gothic Harvest,” a threadbare horror picture about a group of drunken co-eds who get lured into the nefarious designs of a demonic clan. But while the Big Easy atmosphere is strong, the film (written by Chris Kobin) never develops much of a plot.
The movie’s best assets are genre stalwarts Bill Moseley and Lin Shaye, who play, respectively, a shaggy local detective who helps the tourists navigate the city’s underworld, and the matriarch of a demented family. Whenever Hamilton lets these actors ham it up — or whenever the plot pauses for some kind of quirky comic interlude — “Gothic Harvest” shows some personality.
But the more eccentric moments are sparse. Most of this film consists of tedious scenes of partying and violence, with much of the latter being unpleasantly sexualized. Flashbacks and monologues attempt to explain the story’s roots in an ancient feud between vampires and voodoo priestesses, but no amount of lore — or bayou seasoning — can enrich this dull, derivative monster movie.
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