While there are a lot of films hitting theaters, the Video-On-Demand market has upped its quality tremendously over the last several years. While once a haven for C-list stars to put in consistent work, more of the smaller studios realize that not every one of their films needs a full theatrical release, only to earn a little bit of money on a few small screens. Nowadays, a wide variety of content can be found all the time at home, whether these films feature big-name stars or new, original voices. This month has been no different, as some notable genre releases have made their way to various streaming distributors, and they are all worth your time.
The following features reviews for Mandy, starring Nicholas Cage, Final Score, starring Dave Bautista, Slice, starring Chance the Rapper, and Sick For Toys, starring Camille Montgomery.
Given the gonzo nature of Mandy, a film that has been deemed “incredibly metal,” I’m surprised at the lack of divide in critics on its quality. Regardless, as a fan of director Panos Cosmatos’ previous midnight movie, Beyond the Black Rainbow, I was ready for whatever he planned to unleash here, and Mandy did not disappoint.
There’s not much point delving into the plot, as that’s nearly inconsequential. It’s a revenge tale that involves Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, and Linus Roache. More than that, however, Mandy is all about mood. At a deliberately paced two hours, the film takes time to focus on the atmosphere that surrounds these characters who seem to be trapped in an early 80s fever dream of Pink Floyd or Iron Maiden. Those two groups may be dissimilar, but I think that speaks to the many opposing ideas of the film.
The first half feels like the slow progression into madness. Explicit backstory details are held back in favor of glimpses and limited dialogue that speaks to who Cage and Riseborough’s characters once were. The understanding is that a bond between them is crucial, and if broken, all hell will break loose. This is exactly what happens once Roache’s cult leader character enters their lives. Cage is a force of vengeance in the film’s second half, delivering on what many want in a crazy Cage performance, but it’s informed by what was set up. There’s method to his madness, and the film finds plenty of ways to show just that.
Filmed in a way that delivers visuals you won’t likely forget, with a tremendous doom metal-influenced score by the late Johann Johannsson, Mandy is a film full of emotions that lull you into its hypnotic spell, before turning into a full-on action-horror flick, with chainsaw fights and other madness. It exists on a level beyond what many are used to, but it also shows a director that loves delving into the realm of cinema by his unique means.
Score: 8 out of 10
I had hoped Skyscraper would deliver the thrills of a proper Die Hard knock-off like plenty of action films from the 90s, but it turns out I was looking in the wrong direction. For all the money afforded to a would-be blockbuster starring Dwayne Johnson, the modestly-budgeted Final Score delivers a far better take on one man against many, in a unique location, with hostages on the line.
Dave Bautista stars as Michael Knox, an ex-soldier who has come to London to see family. He takes his niece (Lara Peake) to a football match, only to find himself dealing with deadly terrorists with demands and plans for mass destruction.
Final Score gets few points for originality, but director Scott Mann is working with a script that clearly adores the Die Hard formula. In addition to the low-key charisma that Bautista brings to the role, Ray Stevenson makes for a suitable main baddie. There are also colorful characters including fierce henchmen, an argumentative police chief (Ralph Brown), the humorous sidekick (Amit Shah), and a key role filled by Pierce Brosnan.
Action-wise, the film delivers what it needs to so it can make “Die Hard in a football stadium” work. There’re some solid fight scenes, some literal cliffhanger moments, and even a motorcycle chase.
Bautista may not have climbed to the level of A-list action stars that can lead big blockbusters, but he’s a welcome presence in quality smaller action films like Final Score, which don’t ask for a lot but deliver plenty of entertainment.
Score: 7 out of 10
Following a one-night-only screening, A24 dropped Slice on VOD just as if its star, Chance Bennett aka Chance the Rapper, had done so with a new album. Regardless, here’s a film that seems likely to become a cult favorite in the years to come, even if I didn’t think it quite worked overall on this initial viewing.
Slice works best when you come to understand it’s about the world it’s presenting. There’s a murder mystery that serves as the hook, but more important is how aware you are that the town these characters live in is inhabited by ghosts, witches, werewolves, and presumably other fantasy creatures. The biggest quirk of all is how little the regular humans care about this as if that’s just an easy-to-accept norm.
Writer/director Austin Vesely makes his feature debut here, and it’s clear he wants to accomplish a lot with a minimal budget. The effects, save for a few CG moments, are practically handled with a feel for a homemade type quality. Referencing Thriller would not be too far out of step, given what we see.
Fortunately, the cast seems to get what the film is going for. Along with Bennett, Zazie Beetz, Paul Scheer, Chris Parnell and Rae Gray all shine with what comedic sensibilities they need to bring to this original monster mash. One death scene, in particular, emphasizes just how underplayed the horror element is, working well to add to Slice’s status as a movie for the midnight drive-in crowd.
I wish the overall narrative were stronger, but for a film that wants to march to its own beat, there’s enough to admire for those who are curious. Given his charisma outside of acting, Bennett does well in his leading-man debut, however limited his role may be, but there’s plenty of other things going on within this film’s short runtime to satisfy to some degree.
Score: 5 out of 10
Sick For Toys
Here’s a horror film with plenty of ideas to keep things moving. Director David Del Rio makes his feature debut with this clever thriller based on a story by James Oster, with a script by co-star Justin Xavier, who also stars in the film. Sick for Toys may have low-budget origins, but that’s proven many times over to be just what’s needed for hungry, young filmmakers with ideas and skills with craft to put out there.
To go through the basic setup can be tricky, but the story essentially amounts to what happens when the typical nice guy, Roy (David Gunning), is given a chance be entertained by a seemingly innocent woman, Emilia (Camille Montgomery). The film sets up a grim atmosphere from the get-go, so it becomes a tale of suspense as we see just how far things go during a Christmas-time dinner date.
Even referencing the films Sick for Toys was influenced by would be a bit of a giveaway, but know this is a film indebted to some classic horror films while remaining true to being its own entry into the genre. There’s a lot to admire in the mood of the film, as the stark setting balances in an unsettling way with the time of year and attitudes of some of the characters.
It’s not all bleak, however, at least regarding the visuals, as the film also knows when it’s time to deliver on the carnage. While not overly gory, some bloody surprises take place, sure to add to the fun factor for those who look forward to that sort of thing. Still, Sick for Toys manages to be surprisingly character-focused.
I won’t say every actor is doing top notch work, but one can spotlight Montgomery, who has the trickiest role to play and delivers. This is especially impressive, given the outcome of the story and the places it chooses to go.
Sick for Toys has a bit more complexity on its mind than some may expect, but it’s also a bloody fun time.