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BIG KILL

Producer: Michael Thomas Slifkin
Director: Scott Martin
Writer: Scott Martin
Stars: Scott Martin, Clint Hummel, Christoph Sanders, Jason Patric, Lou Diamond Phillips, K.C. Clyde, Stephanie Beran, Elizabeth McLaughlin, Michael Pare and Danny Trejo
Studio: Archstone

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Fans of old-school westerns might seek out “Big Kill,” a homage to that declining species from Scott Martin, who wrote and directed the movie as well as starring in it (and serving as its co-editor, as well). They might even enjoy it as a harmless throwback to the days when oaters were a studio staple. In reality, though, it’s a turgid, overdrawn piece of macho blarney, much of it with a distinctly clunky feel—John Ford mimicked by inept wannabes. It joins the sole previous feature Martin has contrived in such an auteur capacity, a reviled 2012 World War II flick called “Battle Force.”

The plot focuses on the clichéd figure of the eastern tenderfoot who goes west and finds danger there. He’s Jim Andrews (Christoph Sanders), a widower from Philadelphia who’s ventured into Texas on his way to Arizona, where he hopes to join his brother (K.C. Clyde), the owner of a bar in the thriving mining town of Big Kill, Arizona. Along the way he bumps into a pair of saddle-tramp brothers, Jake and Travis Parker (Martin and Clint Hummel). They’re meant to have the charm of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: Jake’s an inveterate gambler, but a very poor one, while Parker is a compulsive womanizer whose dalliance with a girl in the movie’s prologue has gotten them run out of Mexico by her furious father, a fulminating general played in a virtual cameo by Danny Trejo.

Andrews persuades the duo to accompany him to Arizona as bodyguards, but once they reach Big Kill they find the mine closed and the nearly deserted town dominated by two villainous types—a fellow called Preacher (Jason Patric), who prefers to save and kill in one fell swoop, and a flamboyant gunslinger called Johnny Kane (Lou Diamond Phillips). Both are in the employ of the initially unseen mayor of the place, who owns the saloon presided over by a dominatrix called Felicia Stiletto (Stephanie Beran), but no one claims ever to have known anybody named Andrews. The only other business in town is a general store, whose genial proprietor tells them that the place is now a center for the redistribution of stolen cattle, an enterprise over which the mayor presides in cahoots with the rustlers.

Complications follow from this setup, but outlining them would serve little purpose. Suffice it to say that the screenplay meanders along piling up random incidents—a few killings by Preacher and Kane, Andrews’ romance with the daughter of the general store’s owner, the chance that the town could revive by becoming a railroad hub—before winding up in an excruciatingly protracted series of culminating showdowns in which the Parkers and Andrews must prove their mettle by facing off against Kane, Preacher and their scruffy band of followers. (One of the latter will turn on his employers out of a sense of honor: no points for guessing who it will be far in advance.) The confrontations are accompanied by a score aping Ennio Morricone from Kays Al-Atrakchi, which throughout has been pretty intrusive.

There’s some visual pleasure to be had from “Big Kill”: a few of the vistas have grandeur, and overall Mark Atkins’ widescreen camerawork is commendable. But the picture moves at a snail’s pace, collapsing only after exceeding the two hour mark; Martin, working in the editing room with Tim Tuchrello, was apparently much too reluctant to cut what he’d shot, and the combination of somnolent direction and overly permissive editing ultimately has a deadening effect. The behind-the-scenes crew have worked hard to give everything a proper period look, too, but the town and the costumes lack the weathered, beaten appearance they ought to have. Of course, in that they mirror those in a lot of the weaterns from the fifties and sixties that they’re copying.

As for the performances, Phillips is obviously having fun wearing brightly-colored suits and chewing the scenery, and Patric aims for a grimly seething mood that, frankly, makes one think of what Robert Mitchum could have done—did, in fact–with such a role. Martin and Hummel—who also took the leads in “Battle Force”—want to come across as jokey and laid-back, but instead strike you as desperately aiming for an easygoing Newman-Redford camaraderie that eludes them completely. The other performances are either barely competent or significantly less than that.

If all you’re looking for in a western is an amateurish attempt to recycle old Hollywood clichés, you might find “Big Kill” an amusing bit of nostalgia. But there have been other movies lately—“The Ballad of Lefty Brown” and “The Sisters Brothers” for starters—that have had much more success by tweaking the old formulas rather than just repeating them. Enthusiasm for the old genre isn’t enough, but it’s all Martin and his cohorts have to offer.

GOOSEBUMPS 2: HAUNTED HALLOWEEN

Producer: Deborah Forte and Neal H. Moritz
Director: Ari Sandel
Writer: Rob Lieber
Stars: Madison Iseman, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Wendy McLendon-Covey, Jack Black, Caleel Harris, Chris Parnell, Peyton Wich and Ken Jeong.
Studio:  Sony Entertainment/Columbia Pictures

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One might think that having taken three years to deliver a sequel to 2015’s effects-heavy family movie that makers of “Goosebumps 2” could have come up with something more than a virtual carbon copy of its predecessor. Of course, maybe that’s all the kids who enjoyed the original will want.

Like the first movie, the follow-up is based on the world of R.L. Stine’s “Goosebumps” books but not directly adapted from any one of them. The 2015 picture took off from the idea that the various creatures Stine had devised could be released into the world if the manuscripts of the books were unlocked—which of course they were, leaving the malevolent ventriloquist’s dummy Slappy to lead all the others in an effort to take over the world.

This time around, the catalyst of mayhem is a book Stine supposedly never finished, titled “Haunted Halloween.” The manuscript is found, locked up along with Slappy, in a decaying old mansion in Wardenclyffe, New York, once owned by Stine. The discoverers are a couple of middle-school kids, Sonny Quinn (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and his pal Sam Carter (Caleel Harris), who’ve been hired to clean out the place. They take book and dummy home, and before long Slappy has been reanimated and is causing all sorts of trouble, bringing to life all the ghoulish stuff locals have put out to celebrate Halloween, and more besides.

The key to Slappy’s scheme is to start up the unfinished tower built by Nikola Tesla in Wardenclyffe way back in 1901 (but still in spic-and-span condition), using the power it generates to take his plan worldwide. (Slappy’s not the only one fascinated by the gizmo: Sonny has also built a habitually malfunctioning model of it as a school science project.) By the time this closing segment kicks in, Jack Black has again shown up, unbilled this time, as Stine, encouraging the kids to write the final chapter of the book he was never able to complete.

That ties in with another plot thread, in which Sonny’s older sister Sarah (Madison Iseman) is struggling with writer’s block writing her college admission application; now she’ll be able to finish it without difficulty, since she’s joined forces with her brother to defeat Slappy and done what Stine hadn’t. (Along the way Slappy, who—in another of the movie’s messages—only wants a family of his own, takes revenge on the caddish classmate who broke Sarah’s heart by taking up with another girl.) There’s also Tommy (Peyton Wich), an obligatory bully who targets Sonny and Sam and gets his comeuppance; but he’s a PG-friendly bully who, when he chases the boys on his bicycle, takes care to put on his helmet first. Don’t ride without yours, viewers!

The kids are alright in “Goosebumps 2”—not particularly good actors, to be sure, but about on the level of the youngsters you’d find in a live-action sitcom on the Disney Channel or Nickelodeon. The adults don’t fare so well. The characters are all clueless, of course, but the unlucky actors taking them on do a particularly bad job with them. As the Quinn children’s mother Kathy, Wendi McLendon-Covey mugs brutally, though she comes across as restrained compared to Ken Jeong, who does his usual grotesque shtick as their holiday-crazed neighbor. Then there’s Chris Parnell, as a drug store clerk infatuated with Kathy whom Slappy transforms into his Igor-like assistant. Of them all, he’s probably the one who suffers the greatest embarrassment, although he goes through much of the movie under heavy makeup.

But the human performers, young or old (including Black and Stine himself, who returns for a Stan Lee-like cameo), are of minor importance beside the army of special-effects critters that overwhelm the movie, just as they did its predecessor. Sony Pictures Animation does a pretty decent job with them, although none show much personality except for Slappy, whom Black again voices in a whiny intonation that’s not enough to make up for his lousy puns and bad jokes. Otherwise the movie looks like a made-for-cable kids’ movie, with production designer Rusty Smith and cinematographer Barry Peterson giving everything a chintzy, soundstage feel.

“Goosebumps 2” might pass muster as inoffensive eye-candy for the pre-teen set, but it certainly doesn’t improve on its mediocre predecessor, or bode well for any future installments.