trashfilmguru (Ryan C.):

I take a look at 2014’s “Ouija” for Through The Shattered Lens website.

Originally posted on Through the Shattered Lens:

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I was thinking of sub-titling this review “What To Expect When You’re Expecting Nothing,” or something equally less-than-clever, but it just seemed too damn obvious — I mean, how many of us were expecting 2014’s Ouija to actually be any good?

Let’s face it — Hasbro inking a deal with Michael Bay’s Plantinum Dunes to make a series of movies based on their various board games is probably a pretty stupid idea for a number of reasons — not the least of which is that Clue probably just plain can’t be topped in the “best-board-game-movie-of-all-time” category — but what can I say? While there was no way in hell I was going to spring to see Ouija when it was out in theaters, I added it to my Netflix DVD queue when it came out simply because I like to punish myself from time to time by sticking my head…

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It’s probably bad form to start off a review of one comic with less-than-generous statements about another  comic, but — is it just me, or has Scott Snyder and Jock’s Image Comics series Wytches proven, at least so far, to be a little bit less than what many of us were hoping for?

It’s not that it’s bad by any stretch of the imagination — Jock’s art is certainly solid and the core concept Snyder is playing with is a unique and creative one, but between Matt Hollingsworth’s garish color scheme and several story elements that just aren’t managing to gel together with  any sort of ease and/or flow, it’s certainly fair to say that the book hasn’t managed to live up to at least my own admittedly lofty expectations for it. I have every confidence that it still could, of course, but to this point, I’m sorry to say, it just ain’t happening.

Which brings us to Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook’s new Dark Horse Comics series, Harrow County. I hesitate to say anything along the lines of “this looks to be the series that Wytches is supposed to be,” since only its creators can determine what a book is “supposed” to be at all, but I will say this — one issue in (an admittedly small sample size, I know) it seems like it might be the kind of comic that I wanted Snyder and Jock’s to be.

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Amazing double-page splashes like the one reproduced directly above these very words certainly have no small part to play in the forming of this (fair enough, tentative) opinion, and Crook —who rose to prominence in the pages of B.P.R.D. — is just plain  knocking it out of the park here with his sketchy, creepy, evocative style. He’s drawing each and every page in breathtaking full color (as is Owen Gieni, who’s handling the art chores on the book’s short backup strips), as well, and while his style is comparable in some ways to Matt Kindt’s work on Mind Mgmt, truth be told that’s not even a terribly accurate comparison — it just serves as a handy reference point for folks who want to have some idea of what these spectacular pages sort of look like. More than anything else, though, it’s probably fair to say that Crook’s work is actually pretty damn original — and certainly effective.

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The same can also be said of the story. Bunn is one of those writers that I never know what to expect from — his creator-owned stuff like The Sixth Gun and The Empty Man I generally like a lot, but other projects like Wolf Moon and his run on Marvel’s Magneto monthly started out strong, only to flounder. His DC super-hero work that I’ve sampled hasn’t done squat for me at all. Like Charles Soule, the simple fact is that the guy just writes so much that there’s no way humanly possible for all of it to be good. His resume shows that he’s definitely at home working in the horror genre, though,  and this project seems pretty near and dear to his heart and based on some “things that went bump in the night” during his own rural upbringing, so it’s safe to say that he’s certain to be  bringing his “A game” here.

Dark Horse is billing this book as a  “Southern Gothic Fairy Tale, ” and that seems as apt a description as any — the exact location of the titular Harrow County is never spelled out explicitly, nor is the time period in which the story takes place, but “south of the Mason-Dixon line” and “a good while ago” seem to be fair answers to both queries. It’s the rural enclave’s sins from even further back, though, that form the basis of this tale, as the less-than-good townsfolk murdered an honest-to-goodness witch some years previously who duly swore her revenge on the community — a revenge that may now be coming to pass thanks to some special “gifts” apparently bestowed upon young farmgirl Emmy and the various subtle appearances of restless spirits known as “haints” in the local woods.Oh, and there’s something going on with a haunted tree, as well —

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How do they all tie together? I can’t claim to know for certain, but I have some pretty good guesses — and finding out which of those guesses I’m right about, and which I’m way off-base on, is sure to be part of the fun here. The main thing is, Bunn and Crook have woven a first chapter,  with a sympathetic and involving central protagonist in Emmy,  that makes you want to know more — which is probably the best you can hope for, in all honesty, from any first issue worth its salt.

So, yeah, definitely count me in for the duration — Harrow County doesn’t seem like a place I’d actually want to live, much less find my car broken down in or something, but I’m looking forward to my next trip there in about 30 days already.

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Like many an armchair movie critic, once I decide that I’m gonna review a particular film, I browse the web for some pictures of said film to include within the body of my write-up/rant so that you, faithful reader, aren’t just confronted with a “wall of text” if I’m fortunate enough to have your attention long enough to read whatever shit I’ve decided to blather on about. I usually opt to include four or five images with a standard-length review — sometimes more, sometimes less, but generally I find that four or five spaces things out nicely and gives a review a good “look.”

What’s this boring “behind the scenes” info got to do with Avengers : Age Of Ultron? Simply this : when I did a Google image search for pics related to writer/director Joss Whedon’s latest Marvel Studios mega-blockbuster, it was virtually impossible to tell actual film stills (which I prefer to use) apart from  heavily-airbrushed, digitized promotional art issued by Dis/Mar and/or fan-made photoshop art. Seriously. Try this yourself and tell me I’m not wrong — go to Google image search, type in “Avengers Age Of Ultron” and see if you can tell the difference. Even if you’ve seen the movie, I’m tellin’ ya, in many cases you can’t. I know that all film — yes, even documentaries to some degree — is artifice, but seriously : when you can’t discern an “actual” movie still from a promo mock-up, it seems to me that we’ve silently crossed some sort of line and are in new and uncharted territory. How many actual “sets” were used in Whedon’s CGI “epic”  vs. how much was shot entirely in front of a blue-or green-screen I couldn’t say you with any certainty, but, as with last summer’s Guardian Of The Galaxy, which saw Vin Diesel credited as one of the flick’s “stars” simply for doing the equivalent of animation voice-over work, here James Spader is credited prominently for “starring” as the villainous Ultron despite never actually, ya know, appearing on screen at all.

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Now, if you’re at all familiar with my previous appraisals of so-called “MCU” movies, this is probably the point at which you expect me to launch into some diatribe about what a piece of shit this thing is. It’s no secret that, apart from Joe Johnston’s Captain America : The First Avenger, I really haven’t liked many of these at all. I find them to be dull, predictable, repetitious, uninvolving, way too heavy on spectacle at the expense of characterization, you name it. And while Avengers : Age Of Ultron is certainly guilty of all those things, let me let you in on a little secret even though it may threaten to completely ruin my reputation as a loud-mouthed cinematic contrarian — I really didn’t hate this flick as much as I did the last several Marvel offerings and, in fact, I may not have even hated it at all.

Which isn’t to say that I really liked it either — I’m still getting all that sorted out in my head, but this is by no stretch of the imagination a good movie. Maybe I’ve just given up (finally), accepted these things for what they are, and am willing to make some kind of peace with the fact that the public at large seems to really dig the hell out something that I don’t. It wouldn’t be the first time, and it won’t be the last. But who knows?  Maybe — just maybe — this movie is, in fact, marginally better than the rest of its brain-dead ilk. It’s a possibility I’m willing to at least consider.

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Detailed plot recaps of these things aren’t really necessary, of course, because Marvel movies don’t have detailed plots, but if you must know the basics here they are : Robert Downey, Jr.’s Iron Man, Chris Evans’ Captain America, Scarlett Johannsson’s Black Widow, Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, and  Murk Ruffalo’s Hulk all return as “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes!” to battle a problem of Tony Stark and Bruce Banner’s own creation, a power-mad artificial intelligence “virus” called Ultron that inhabits a bunch of robotic bodies and wants to save the world by — yawn! — destroying it. Newcomers Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and her twin brother, Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) — who can officially appear in Marvel Studios product now that it’s been revealed that they’re not Magneto’s kids and therefore don’t fall under the umbrella of the X-Men properties owned, cinematically speaking, by Fox —switch sides about halfway through the action and join the team, Don Cheadle’s War Machine, Anthony Mackie’s Falcon, and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury all pop up later to varying degrees when the obviously lily-white (okay, and green) makeup of the main team becomes so obvious that even Marvel can’t ignore it anymore, and Paul Bettany gets to graduate from a disembodied voice to an actual character when a variation of the Jarvis A.I. program he’s been dubbing in lines for takes on  physical (albeit android) form as the MCU’s version of The Vision.

The final outcome of the decidedly non-dramatic “drama” here is never, of course, in doubt — one way or another The Avengers are bound to win — but what I at least found somewhat noteworthy is that between the film’s frankly stupid-as-shit first act and predictably bombastic third, Whedon manages to squeeze in a second act that almost threatens to be actually interesting at times.

From what I gather, it’s this second act that a lot of hard-core Marvel fans have problems with, given that The Vision’s origin is basically nothing like its printed-page progenitor, Hawkeye is given a completely different backstory to the one that’s been established for him in the comics, and the Black Widow/Hulk romance that’s introduced here is a wholecloth invention on Whedon’s part. For my part, I felt most of this was rather plausible enough — okay, apart from the origin for The Vision, which is just plain staggeringly dumb — and certainly found this section of the film to be of far more interest than the CGI extravaganza that both precedes and usurps it, but is it enough to make Age Of Ultron something I’d actually watch a second time? I gotta admit, probably not — but at least it kept me from completely tuning it out the first time I saw it.

Of course, in addition to over-reliance on special effects, many of the same problems from the first Avengers flick are still on glaring display here — Johansson is the least-convincing Russian spy ever and exudes a kind of “negative charisma” as The Black Widow that literally sucks out whatever scant traces of life most of the scenes she appears in might have; we get way too many shots of Downey inside his Iron Man helmet; Ruffalo’s facial expressions run the shortest gamut you can possibly imagine (his looks can best be described as “concerned as shit” and “self-pitying plus concerned as shit”); and at the end of the day the only remotely sympathetic character (Tony Stark, incidentally, graduates from “more or less and asshole” to “complete asshole” as events unfold here) of the bunch is Renner’s Hawkeye. But whatever. As far as two-dimensional ciphers go, Hemsworth and Evans at least appear to be having fun as Thor and Captain America, respectively, and I’ll give Spader some credit for sounding suitably menacing and nuts in his “turn” as Ultron.

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In the end, though, Avengers : Age Of Ultron‘s greatest success in an entirely inadvertent one : the Ultron character him/itself is, you see, a pretty effective metaphor for the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole. Think about it — like the robotic bad guy here, these movies exist not so much to be themselves, but to replicate themselves. An astonishing amount of time in this flick is devoted to foreshadowing/set-up for the forthcoming (and apparently two-part) next Avengers extravaganza, which will finally see them  fighting Jim Starlin’s Thanos character for control of the so-called “Infinity Gems.” And you can bet that once that conflagration takes place, it will be loaded with “hints” about the next big Avengers “spectacular” slated to follow it. And whatever that ends up being will probably be weighed down with “spoilers” for the next. And the next. And the next —

And so it goes. Look, I’m not a sucker (at least, I don’t like to think that I am).  I might have found Avengers : Age Of Ultron to be marginally more to my liking than both its predecessor and most of its “sister” films — and it was nice to see Jack Kirby’s name displayed prominently in the credits this time (even if Stan Lee’s, as always, comes first) — but the creative bankruptcy of Marvel Studios as a whole, as well as the overtly cynical nature of their cash-grabbing ways, are as plain to see as ever here. These aren’t movies that even give a shit about being good, they’re movies that are designed to get you to keep on coming back for more. Fans might argue that “well, if they weren’t so good in the first place, people wouldn’t be coming back for more, so you’re negating your own point, asshole!,” but I don’t buy it. All the public really wants from these films is a sort of easily-digestible, not-too-taxing status quo. Marvel has been succeeding at giving them just that in the pages of their comics ever since true visionaries like the aforementioned Mr. Kirby, Steve Ditko, Wally Wood, and (a little bit later) Steve Gerber left the fold and succeeding generations of “fan creators” with no greater ambition than to tell bigger, noisier versions of the same stories they loved as a kid took over. Now the same thing is happening on celluloid, with bigger bucks behind it and bigger audiences consuming it, but the basic hustle remains the same. As “Stan the Man” himself might put it in that nauseating faux-Shakespearian way of his that people insist is “charming” and “fun” : ’twas ever thus, and so it shall remain.

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Let me tell you a little story : a couple years back, I found myself in the midst of a back-and-forth debate on twitter about censorship in general, which quickly (somehow) narrowed down to a debate about censorship centering on cartoons and/or other depictions of the prophet Mohammed, which then (again, somehow) warped, thanks to the other party involved,  into a series of xenophobic and racist rants against any and all Muslims that I parried with relative ease and calmness while said other party was shouting pleasantries like “FUCK YOU ASSHOLE!!!!!” and “ALL MUSLIMS MUST DIE BECAUSE THEY ALL WANT TO KILL US SO WE HAVE TO WIPE THEM OUT FIRST!!!!” (yes, the douchebag saying this crap typed entirely in capital letters — and he usually used a lot more exclamation points that I just did).

Okay, fair enough, mouth-foaming bigots are not, sadly, too hard to find on social media, but after about 20 minutes of me responding to this clown’s vitriol with rational counter-arguments, something funny happened : my tweets no longer were being posted.  I’d type ’em up and they’d instantly disappear — while he just kept on ranting, eventually running out of breath an hour or so later after claiming that I was an accomplice to the downfall of America because I don’t hate Muslims enough, that my parents must be ashamed of me for not sharing his retrograde views, that I’m a traitor to my country who should be locked up and starved at Gitmo, you know the drill. Finally, in a truly creative if nakedly hypocritical twist, my new “friend” said he hoped that a Muslim would behead me. Even though he’d earlier claimed that all Muslims should be immediately deported because, according to him, they all want to  to behead the rest of us.

Of course I had responses ready for all this nonsense (guess you’d have to leave at least one in the country to chop my head off after all, huh, asshole?), but I couldn’t post them. I was “frozen out” of the conversation. And out of twitter in general, as it turns out, for a good few hours. At first I thought  that maybe some overly-zealous twitter employee decided to lock my account but let the other party keep going because he or she was sympathetic to their view and not mine, but when I signed into facebook later, I found that my standard profile image had been replaced with a fairly gross-looking “dick pic,” and later still I discovered that I was unable to access my Yahoo! email because apparently my password was no longer valid.

Don’t get me wrong — I know coincidences like all that shit going wrong at once can happen, but let’s be honest : odds are that our not-so-friendly racist was a guy who had some computer-hacking skills and he decided to fuck with me for “daring” to oppose his bigoted little worldview. And ya know what? I was pretty freaked that it’s that fucking easy for somebody with “mad cyber-skills” to gain access to my personal shit.

Fear not, my little story has a happy ending (unless whoever that other dude was — I can’t remember his twitter “handle” for the life of me and I learned a bit  later, when I tried to look them up,  that  he had deleted all of his tweets and mine — by some chance reads this and decides to mess with me again) : I changed all my passwords for every single site in the world (not so easy to do with Yahoo! when it looked to them like I had changed my email password myself — I was literally on the phone with a company representative for over two hours getting the whole thing straightened out), and have never been bothered again.But I admit, I was really pretty spooked there for a minute — would this character empty my bank account? Charge up a house-full of furniture on my credit cards? Cancel my automatic monthly mortgage payments?

Then I got to thinking — what if I wasn’t nearly as dull a person as I admittedly am? What if I was one of those guys who had six different fake facebook profiles and was using them to conduct various online “dalliances” with a number of women all over the place, unbeknownst to my wife? Chances are, I would nave been seriously fucked then. Let me tell you, I’ve never been so glad to lead a fairly boring life in my life as I was then.

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All of which brings us to first-time director Leo Gabriadze’s Unfriended (a title that was wisely changed at the last minute from its original, Cybernatural). This flick’s been playing for a good few weeks now, but, despite considerable positive “buzz” around it, I just hadn’t gotten around to  seeing it until today. It’s not that I was leery about shelling out for another “found footage” horror flick — regular readers here will know that, unlike a number of other internet critics, I actually don’t consider that particular subgenre to be completely past its prime in the least — it’s more a case that the last much-hyped horror I’d gone to see in the theater, It Follows, was one that I found to be completely underwhelming.  Also, contrary to popular belief, this is hardly the first flick of its kind — a little number called The Den that I reviewed a few months back employs more or less the exact same conceit of telling its story completely from a character’s computer screen. Still, though, what the hell — I got my Saturday errands done early and it was playing reasonably close by, so I figured I’d at least go and see what all the fuss was about.

To make a long story short (since we’ve had one of those already), I’m actually really glad that I did, because even though Unfriended is hardly the breathtakingly original movie many of its fervent partisans claim , it’s still a supremely well-executed slice of contemporary horror that, I’m guessing, probably has even more immediacy to its more youthful “target audience” than it does to a 40-something (just barely, I swear!) like me.

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In other words, in spite of the fact that I might be a little “too old” for this flick, I could still pretty well relate to these six kids (played by Shelly Hennig, Moses Jacob Storm, Renee Olstead, Will Peltz, Jacob Wysocki, and Courtney Halverson) because, even though when I was a kid we actually went to parties and socialized with each other face-to-face on a Friday or Saturday night rather than doing so via skype, most of these characters are archetypal representations of people we all knew (or know, if you happen to be high-schooler yourself) at that ago : the stoner, the jock, the bitchy popular girl, the “stand-up” guy, etc.

Unlike boring old me, though, these kids do all have secrets they don’t want getting out, and when a person or entity claiming to be a classmate of theirs who committed suicide after an embarrassing video of her was leaked onto YouTube shows up and initiates a “live chat” with all of them, she/it begins a deliciously sadistic game of forcing them to reveal those secrets if they want to stay alive.

Admittedly, the idea of a spirit haunting a computer (or something like that) being able to kill people in the real world might be a bridge too far for many to cross, but a quick Google search will reveal that the internet is chock-full of “electronic urban legends” of just this sort — stories about tragedy befalling someone who answered a message from a dead person are all over the place on various forums, and it’s quite obvious that the old “ghost in the machine” horror staple is not only alive and well, but bigger than ever, here in what some of us still quaintly refer to as the “internet age.” By ingeniously melding tales such as this with the still-“hot” topic of “cyber-bullying,” Garbriadze and screenwriter Nelson Greaves have concocted a genuinely memorable and gripping yarn that definitely feels a whole hell of a lot more real than it probably, by all rights,  should.

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Which isn’t to say that Unfriended is perfect, by any means — some of the actors quite obviously struggle during their more anxious character moments, and by the time all is said and done and their dirty laundry is completely aired out no one proves to be especially likable, but what the heck? It goes without saying that most of these kids (I won’t say how many) aren’t gonna survive anyway, so why not reveal them to be a bunch of self-centered, spoiled, entitled little pricks? Anyway, in the final analysis, those are pretty small gripes — Gabriadze has crafted an extremely tense, expertly-paced, highly involving little chiller/thriller here that will leave you glued to your seat and even threatens to be somewhat relevant at times. My pick for 2015’s best horror flick so far.

trashfilmguru (Ryan C.):

I take a look at Marvel’s new “Secret Wars” #1 for Through The Shattered Lens website.

Originally posted on Through the Shattered Lens:

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As my review of DC’s Convergence a few weeks back clearly gave away, I’m not much of a fan of these company-wide “blockbuster” crossover events in comics. I mean, seriously, what’s to like? The main titles are invariably a bunch of useless fight sequences strung together under the flimsiest of pretexts; the tie-in books either have almost nothing to do with said main title or else tie into it too much; the cover prices for everything are jacked up by a buck or two; and in the end, the status quo that we promised would be “forever changed” either isn’t at all, or ends up being pretty much like the old within the space of a few months.

In short, they’re a hustle any way you look at it.

People are wise to this by now, of course, which is why both Marvel and DC have promised that their latest…

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trashfilmguru (Ryan C.):

I take a look at “Empire Of The Dead : Act Three” #2 for Through The Shattered Lens website.

Originally posted on Through the Shattered Lens:

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Okay, if we want to be technically accurate about things, I guess we could say that last month’s opening installment of George Romero’s Empire Of The Dead : Act Three was the “beginning of the end,” since it appears that some combination of editorial decision-making on Marvel’s part and agreement among the book’s creators (specifically, I’m sure, Romero himself) has come about to wrap this four-color epic up a bit sooner than originally announced (after three five-issue “arcs” rather than the previously-mentioned four or five — that’s what selling fewer than 10,000 copies a month does, ya know), but it didn’t really feel like the big wrap-up was imminent until this second issue hit the stands today. Gone is some of the dilly-dallying that had slowed down previous issues here and there, gone are a fair number of the supporting players (although they’re sure to be back), and, most crucially…

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Our semi-regular survey of celluloid horror, exploitation, or whatever the hell else captures my interest from foreign shores takes us this time to Ireland, where in 2014 writer/director Ivan Kavanagh concocted a stylish, intriguing, and sometimes even scary little modestly-budgeted number that I just found on Netflix last night called The Canal (which is also available on Blu-ray and DVD from an outfit uninspiringly billing itself as — I wish I were making this up — Team Marketing). Admittedly, the title didn’t do a whole lot to grab my attention, but the poster looked cool, and sometimes that’s all it takes for me to decide to give something a whirl — and I’m betting the same is probably true for you, as well, dear reader.

Now, maybe it’s simply down to the fact that I went into this with precisely zero expectations, but I think there’s more to it than that, because truth be told I walked away from Kavanagh’s flick genuinely, if quietly, impressed. It’s not some mind-blowing new take on familiar old horror tropes, nor is it some wholly original out-of-left-field modern masterpiece of the macabre, but it is an  entirely well-executed, moody, atmospheric story that doesn’t set the bar too terribly high for itself and therefore succeeds quite admirably in surpassing it. Hmmmm — a movie that’s content with just doing a good job rather than re-inventing the wheel? What a novel idea.

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The reasonably gripping plot centers around a film archivist named David (played by Rupert Evans), a guy who’s progressively becoming more and more paranoid about the extra-curricular activities of his wife, Alice (Hannah Hoekstra), and her work client/”friend”, Alex (Carl Shaaban). To make matters worse, his co-worker, Claire (Antonia Campbell Hughes) has recently come across a reel of old footage showing that David’s house was the site of a particularly brutal murder back in 1902. Seeking to kill two birds with one stone by fleeing from the malevolent entity he’s becoming increasingly convinced still haunts his spread and catch his Mrs. “in the act” at the same time, our by-now-pretty-goddamn-unhinged protagonist tails his two-timing partner to a local canal, where all his worst suspicions are confirmed. Needless to say, when Alice turns up missing shortly after her illicit rendezvous, David is the only  suspect — but was it really him, as ball-busting cop McNamara (Steve Oram) believes, or is there more to this whole “evil presence” thing? David certainly seems to think so, but he’s going to need to prove it fast, or else it’s hello Irish prison — by the way, do they still call ’em gaols over there?

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A series of standout performances help carry the just-above- average material here, particularly from Evans, who really convinces you that he’s becoming unglued. It would be pretty easy to cross the line into pure melodrama in the role of David, but he skillfully manages to avoid that and to be both creepy and sympathetic, in turn, at precisely the right times. The supporting players all do nice work with what they’re given, as well, to be sure, but a top-notch effort in the lead role is what’s required to carry a film of this nature, and that’s exactly what we get here.

As for the guy in the director’s chair, Kavanagh shows a strong eye for shot composition and lighting, and manages to pace his self-scripted yarn very nicely indeed, ratcheting up the tension at just the right times and equally knowing when to dial things back a notch in order to maximize the impact of the body-blows he delivers later. Some of his swings do end up missing, sure, but more often that not he hits the mark, and his is a name I’ll definitely be watching for in future.

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At the end of the day, then,  The Canal may not be the most ambitious new horror flick you’re likely to stumble across in a currently-crowded field of contenders, but it’s definitely one of the more confidently-realized. Both director and cast have a solid grasp of the fundamental “dos” and “don’ts” of the genre, and manage to side-step the easy trap of letting their reach exceed their grasp. This isn’t a film you’re likely to be talking about for years to come, by any means,  but you’ll look back on it the next day and say to yourself “ya know, that was pretty damn good.” If “pretty damn good” sounds alright to you, then you’d be well-advised to give this one a shot.