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Hidden Netflix Gems – Bringing Out the Dead

Hidden Netflix Gems is a new feature designed to help readers answer that burning question, “What should I watch tonight?” It will be updated every Saturday before the sun goes down.

Today’s entry is a hidden gem not only in the catalogue of Netflix, but also in that of beloved director Martin Scorsese, one of several underrated masterpieces so often overshadowed by more well-known ones like Goodfellas and Raging Bull. Along with films like The King of Comedy and After Hours, Scorsese’s 1999 film Bringing Out the Dead has been unjustly overlooked for the most part, and deserves more recognition than it has gotten. Sure, you could dismiss it as simply “Ambulance Driver” for its similarity to Scorsese’s breakthrough masterpiece, Taxi Driver, as well as the fact that both films were written by frequent collaborator Paul Schrader, but there is more to it than that. I’m certainly not saying it’s better than Taxi Driver, but it’s certainly different enough to warrant appraisal on its own merits.

The film follows three days in the life of constantly working New York City paramedic Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage), who is so exhausted and depressed that he has begun to hallucinate. His most frequently recurring vision is of a young woman named Rose (Cynthia Roman), who he failed to save from a fatal overdose. Throughout the three days in which we witness his life, Frank is teamed with three different partners, each of whom seem to reflect different aspects of his personality and his viewpoint toward his job. Larry (John Goodman) does his best to not take his work home with him, looking at his work as simply a job by which he refuses to let himself be haunted. Marcus (Ving Rhames) is the polar opposite of Larry, a Christian who views his job as working the miracles of the lord, bringing the dead back to life. Tom Wolls (Tom Sizemore) represents pure, unchained id, a man who encourages Frank to release his own demons through naked aggression aimed at the patients he is meant to be helping.

Along the way, Frank saves an old man named Mr. Burke (Cullen Oliver Johnson), who is ultimately so far gone that he spends his recovery in an intensive care unit, repeatedly flatlining and being revived again. His former junkie daughter, Mary (Patricia Arquette), forms a tenuous bond with Frank, and the two of them find some hope for redemption in each other, though without the expected romantic subplot that would have undoubtedly been exploited in a lesser film. Though Arquette’s performance feels oddly flat and this is not Scorsese’s best film, it is also far from his worst, which makes it vastly superior to the average movie. Bringing Out the Dead is a fascinating look at a profession that is oddly underrepresented in the movies, and the depths of the human soul that profession must regularly plumb.

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Hidden Netflix Gems – Goon

Hidden Netflix Gems is a new feature designed to help readers answer that burning question, “What should I watch tonight?” It will be updated every Saturday before the sun goes down.

I am not particularly interested in professional sports, generally ignoring all games except the occasional Olympics or Super Bowl viewing, but every year or so there is a sports movie that comes along and deeply and unexpectedly resonates with me. Four years ago, there was Darren Aronofsky‘s The Wrestler, a beautiful, heartbreaking film that was easily among my favorite films of 2008; the following year, there was Big Fan, written and directed by The Wrestler writer, Robert D. Siegel. This year, the unexpected sports movie that finds a place in my heart is Michael Dowse‘s Goon, a movie about hockey that mostly ignores the game itself in favor of the fights that so often break out on the ice.

Seann William Scott delivers his best performance yet as Doug Glatt, a sweet, lovable Canadian bar bouncer who is troubled by the fact that he doesn’t have a “thing” that defines him. His father (Eugene Levy) and brother, Ira (David Paetkau), are both doctors, and his best friend, Pat (Jay Baruchel, who co-wrote the film with frequent Seth Rogen collaborator Evan Goldberg), has a public access show about hockey, but Doug feels aimless, searching for his life’s real purpose. That changes one night at a hockey game, when he knocks out a player who climbs into the stands to beat up Pat, who has instigated the fight by being his usual loudmouth self. The fight in the stands garners more attention and applause than the game itself, and Doug soon finds himself recruited as an enforcer for a local minor league hockey team.

As an enforcer, Doug’s job is to injure successful players from other teams, as well as to protect his own teammates by beating up the other teams’ enforcers. It is the sense of being a protector of his team that resonates with Doug and makes him feel like he’s found his calling. It also helps him to earn the love of Eva (Alison Pill), a woman he meets one night in a bar when he knocks out an obnoxious drunk who is hitting on her, and the friendship of his team’s star player, Xavier LaFlamme (Marc-Andre Grondin). Ultimately, though, what the film is building to is a showdown between Doug and his idol, Ross “The Boss” Rhea (Liev Schreiber), a brutal enforcer from the majors who has been demoted for his unsportsmanlike conduct. Though Goon follows the expected beats of a classic sports movie, its formulaic nature does not detract from its quality, and by the time Doug “The Thug” Glatt inevitably faces off against his rival, Scott’s charismatic performance and the film’s surprising likability should have even the most ambivalent viewer ready to cheer.

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Hidden Netflix Gems – Everything Must Go

Hidden Netflix Gems is a new feature designed to help readers answer that burning question, “What should I watch tonight?” It will be updated every Saturday before the sun goes down.

Hollywood has a rich history of well-known comic actors taking on more serious and weighty roles, from Robin Williams to Ben Stiller to Jim Carrey, and now Will Ferrell, in what is probably his very best performance to date. Everything Must Go bears a strong resemblance to Stiller’s work in Noah Baumbach‘s Greenberg, or Adam Sandler‘s in Paul Thomas Anderson‘s Punch-Drunk Love, in its portrayal of a flawed but basically good-hearted man going through difficult times and coming out better for it. The difference between Ferrell and Sandler, of course, is that Ferrell’s comedies generally don’t suck.

Ferrell plays Nick Halsey, an alcoholic who loses his job at the beginning of the film and, after an ill-advised revenge against his boss, Gary (Glenn Howerton), returns home to discover that his wife has left him. Not only that, she has locked him out of the house, frozen their joint bank account, and left all of his possessions out on the front lawn. Nick is understandably upset, and reacts in the defeated way that has apparently become his life’s standard recourse: he buys a lot of beer and camps out in his La-Z-Boy on the lawn for the night. In the morning, having exhausted his beer supply and unable to find his car keys, he borrows a bicycle from his twelve-year-old neighbor, Kenny Loftus (Christopher Jordan Wallace), and heads down to the convenience store for more beer while Kenny keeps an eye on his stuff.

Nick also befriends his new neighbor, Samantha (Rebecca Hall), a beautiful young photographer who has just moved by herself from New York, where her husband is wrapping things up at his company, planning to join her in Arizona as soon as possible. There are hints that their marriage is on the rocks, as when she tells Nick early on that her husband wants to name their unborn baby (with whom she is currently pregnant) Jack, after himself, a practice she thinks is “kind of ridiculous.” I found this especially ironic knowing that the excellent young actor who plays Kenny is in fact the son of the other Christopher Wallace, best known as The Notorious B.I.G. We also meet Nick’s friend and former Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, Frank Garcia (Michael Pena), when he rescues Nick from arrest by virtue of the fact that Frank is himself a higher-ranking officer than the ones sent to Nick’s house on a complaint from his neighbors.

Frank allows Nick to remain living on his lawn for the next few days under the pretense that he is holding a yard sale; after that, if Nick can’t get himself together, Frank will have no choice but to take him to jail. Clearly, this is not a plot-driven film, but that is not to say it isn’t a very well-structured one; the yard sale provides the forward thrust for Nick’s attempt to get his life back on track, and subtle details pay off in unexpected ways throughout. It is to the great credit of first-time writer-director Dan Rush that the film never takes the easy or expected routes, and it also takes its time in developing its characters and their relationships, all of which are nuanced and believable. The approach is well-suited to the author of its source material, the great Raymond Carver, and the film finds a perfect balance between poignancy and humor, both of which are equally effective when employed.

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Hidden Netflix Gems – The House of Yes

Hidden Netflix Gems is a new feature designed to help readers answer that burning question, “What should I watch tonight?” It will be updated every Saturday before the sun goes down.

The term “dark comedy” often seems overused, as relatively few films really strike the balance between truly dark and truly funny, tending instead to fall more on one side or the other. One film that really deserves the title, however, is Mark Waters‘ 1997 adaptation of Wendy MacLeod‘s play, The House of Yes. Blending sharp, clever dialogue and a wonderfully unhinged lead performance by Parker Posey with exceptionally disturbing subject matter and boldly unlikable characters, The House of Yes has to be one of the darkest comedies ever made. At the same time, though, it is strikingly funny.

Posey is “Jackie-O” Pascal, a disturbed young woman with a lifelong obsession over Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and, especially, the JFK assassination. As a child, she once dressed as her namesake for Halloween, complete with fake blood and “brains” made from macaroni. She also has an unhealthy fixation on her twin brother, Marty (Josh Hamilton), with whom she shares a far too close relationship, even for twins. Their mother (Genevieve Bujold), upon meeting Marty’s fiancée, Lesly (Tori Spelling), tells her, “Jackie and Marty belong to each other. Jackie’s hand was holding Marty’s penis when they came out of the womb.” This casual admission of such an unsettling fact to a relative stranger gives the viewer a pretty strong idea of how this unbalanced family came to be the way they are.

Jackie and Marty’s younger brother, Anthony (Freddie Prinze, Jr.), has his share of problems as well, chief among them being his strong desire for the sort of bond shared by the twins. Feeling left out, he makes clumsy advances toward Lesly, heightening her understandable discomfort as she is basically stranded with her bizarre new family during a hurricane. The film’s single location and relatively few characters, as well as its reliance on dialogue and performance above all, make its origins as a stage play obvious, but that doesn’t really hurt its impact. The oddly claustrophobic nature of the single location only adds to the tension of the situation as poor Lesly, who is clearly Marty’s futile attempt to escape from his insane family, struggles to cope with the extreme dysfunction all around her. Of course, Marty can never really escape from the madness of his family, since he himself is such an integral part of it, and the conclusion of The House of Yes is in keeping with the rest of it: relentlessly dark, and at the same time, disturbingly funny.

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Hidden Netflix Gems – Red State

Hidden Netflix Gems is a new feature designed to help readers answer that burning question, “What should I watch tonight?” It will be updated every Saturday before the sun goes down.

I am always excited to see my favorite filmmakers stretch beyond what they normally produce and explore other genres. For that reason, I applaud Kevin Smith for stepping away from the talky, visually underwhelming comedies for which he is known with his latest film, Red State, a nasty, tense, visceral thriller that, while satirical and occasionally funny, is miles away from a comedy.

Red State is a cinematic middle finger to the vicious, hateful Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church, an organization best known for the highly tasteful and respectable practice of protesting funerals in order to garner controversy. Though Phelps is eventually mentioned by name in the film’s narrative, his overt fictional surrogate is one Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), a malevolent, fire-and-brimstone preacher who looks a bit like a more diminutive Kris Kristofferson with eyeglasses. Cooper and his followers regularly hold demonstrations in which they hold up signs offering such charming sentiments as “Anal Penetration = Eternal Damnation.”

As the film begins, it tricks the audience into expecting the kind of lame teen sex comedy that detractors of Smith’s Mallrats or Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back might expect from him. High school students Travis (Michael Angarano), Jarod (Kyle Gallner) and Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun) receive an invitation for group sex from a mysterious woman Jarod met on a sex chat site. Being the horny teen boys that they are, they borrow a car from Travis’s parents and head out to the trailer home of the woman, whose name just so happens to be Sarah Cooper (Melissa Leo). Of course, Cooper is a common name and the boys are way too horny to think twice about it, nor do they seem disturbed by her insistence that they chug a couple of beers before getting down to the “devil’s business,” so of course they are quickly drugged into unconsciousness and wake up in a world of horror. The boys soon find out the hard way that the Coopers hate not only homosexuals, but any type of “deviant” sexuality or immorality, which includes teen boys curious about group sex with an older woman.

One of the things that works so well about Smith veering so sharply away from the type of film for which he is known is how unpredictable the film quickly becomes. We assume from the start of the film that Travis is the main protagonist, but quickly find that no one is safe in this nasty, uncompromising movie. Likewise, ATF agent Joseph Keenan (John Goodman) doesn’t show up until the beginning of the film’s second act, at which point he becomes the main protagonist. Goodman is excellent in the film, but the true star of the show is undoubtedly Michael Parks as Abin. He manages to be hateful enough to boil the viewer’s blood while simultaneously displaying the kind of natural charisma that makes his followers’ hero-worship all too believable.

Throughout his career, Smith has been criticized for a lack of visual style as a director, and he seems to have taken this particular criticism to heart. In some of his later period films, he seems to have been actively trying to step up to this challenge, but this is the first film I’ve seen from him that really knocks the visual style out of the park. This is easily my favorite Smith film since Chasing Amy, a film that Smith claims he made for his gay brother to make up for a shortage of gay characters in romantic comedies, and that same sympathy for issues of civil rights for homosexuals is at the heart of this one. Part torture-porn, part action movie and part satire, Red State is a very mature work for Smith, a film that shows his tremendous growth as a writer and filmmaker without being pretentious about it.

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Hidden Netflix Gems – Sleeping Dogs Lie

Hidden Netflix Gems is a new feature designed to help readers answer that burning question, “What should I watch tonight?” It will be updated every Saturday before the sun goes down.

Bobcat Goldthwait’s second theatrical feature covers territory considered taboo even in pornography (and for good reason), but it does so with amazing tastefulness and sincerity. Let’s get this out the way right off the bat, just as the film does: Sleeping Dogs Lie is about a woman, Amy (Melinda Page Hamilton), who experimented in sexual relations with her dog while in college. This is not to say she regularly had sex with the animal – it was simply one act, on one occasion – and, as the title suggests, the film is really about the repercussions of her decision to share this information with her loved ones.

Amy is very seriously considering marrying her longtime boyfriend, John (Bryce Johnson), who believes that the couple should be completely honest and share all their secrets with one another. After initially hedging with a made-up story about sleeping with her friend Linda (Morgan Murphy), Amy finally decides to tell John her most mortifying secret. The timing couldn’t be worse, as they are at her parents’ home where John is meeting her family for the first time, but is there ever really a good time to hear something like that? Even more unfortunate for everyone involved, however, is that Amy’s troubled, meth-smoking brother, Dougie (Jack Plotnick), overhears the confession, and soon the truth is out to her parents (Geoff Pierson and Bonita Friedericy) as well.

The truly remarkable thing about this film is how tastefully and relatably such repugnant subject matter is handled. Though Amy has done an undeniably disgusting thing in her past, the film’s humor (which is every bit as good as its drama) is never truly at her expense, and there is never any question that we are meant to empathize with her every step of the way. Because of Hamilton’s exceptional, heartbreaking performance and Goldthwait’s intelligent, insightful screenplay, it is never difficult to do so, either. Like the inferior (but still interesting) Lars and the Real Girl, which sensitively explored a lonely man’s love affair with a realistic-looking sex doll, Sleeping Dogs Lie takes a subject that could easily have been mined for nothing but cheap laughs and, instead, uses it to express a profound truth about the human condition: sometimes it is better to lie to the ones you love.

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Hidden Netflix Gems – Humpday

Hidden Netflix Gems is a new feature designed to help readers answer that burning question, “What should I watch tonight?” It will be updated every Saturday before the sun goes down.

This is undoubtedly one of the most insightful films ever made about friendship between straight males. Though it has a rather high concept hook, Humpday is far from gimmicky, instead opting to explore its characters’ relationships in a loose, naturalistic way. Director Lynn Shelton – whose latest film, Your Sister’s Sister, also explores unusual dynamics of friendship and sex – crafts a coherent, thoughtful and very funny film out of directed improvisations centering around a doozy of a “will they or won’t they” proposition.

Humpday is endearingly honest right from the start, as it opens with a scene that should be familiar to anyone who’s ever been in a long-term relationship, especially one that involves living with a partner. Ben (Mark Duplass) and his wife, Anna (Alycia Delmore), lie in bed together, each half-heartedly trying to initiate sex before they both admit, with a sense of relief, that they’re too tired. They are awakened a few hours later by the late-night arrival of Ben’s old college buddy, Andrew (Joshua Leonard, best known as “Joshua Leonard” in The Blair Witch Project), who has continued to live the freewheeling life he and Ben shared in their college days. As the two rekindle their friendship, they discover that each has a certain degree of envy for the other’s life, despite the fact that they wouldn’t actually want to trade places.

Things get more complicated on the second night of Andrew’s stay, when he hooks up with an artist named Monica (Shelton) and invites Ben to have dinner and drinks at her anarchistic, communal home, known as “Dionysus.” It is here that Ben learns of the HUMP! festival, a real-life amateur porn fest that takes place annually in Seattle. As explained by the bohemian artists at Dionysus, it’s more about artistic expression than pornography, and Ben and Andrew joke about the idea of shooting a scene together, despite the fact that they are both straight. In their eyes, this would somehow be a truly unique artistic statement, while also providing an intense and unusual bonding experience for them as friends. When they discuss the idea again in the sober light of day, it becomes a challenge from which neither of them wants to back down; Ben wants to prove he’s not as domesticated as he seems, and Andrew wants to live up to the free spirit Ben believes him to be.

It is fitting that this misbegotten plan begins as a somewhat testosterone-fueled dare, the modern adult male equivalent of sorority sisters being encouraged to make out despite having no real attraction to one another. The eventual porn shoot attempt is brilliantly conceived and executed, a realistic and hilariously awkward sequence that perfectly encapsulates not only the truth of platonic male friendship pushed to its limits, but also the bittersweet revelation that the golden age of that friendship has passed, leaving only fond and funny memories.

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Hidden Netflix Gems – Ladybug Ladybug

Hidden Netflix Gems is a new feature designed to help readers answer that burning question, “What should I watch tonight?” It will be updated every Saturday before the sun goes down.

Frank Perry’s Ladybug Ladybug feels dated in many ways, and not just because it is in black & white; it is a quintessential Cold War paranoia movie, from the era of Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, the only film of its era to make the threat of nuclear annihilation the subject of comedy. While those films are revered to this day, Ladybug Ladybug has fallen unfairly by the wayside, though its unique approach and hypnotic style are definitely worthy of viewing by a modern audience.

Written by Perry’s wife and frequent collaborator, Eleanor Perry, from a story by Lois Dickert, Ladybug Ladybug‘s title comes from the children’s rhyme, “Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home / Your house is on fire and your children are gone.” Based on a real incident, the film examines the course of events following a nuclear attack alarm at a small town elementary school. The alarm is a “code yellow,” which translates to “nuclear attack imminent within an hour.” After some panicked deliberation, the school’s principal, Mr. Calkins (William Daniels), decides to heed the alarm and send the children home. After this, the film follows one particular group of children as they are escorted home along a country road by a teacher, Mrs. Andrews (Nancy Marchand, best known as Tony’s vindictive mother, Livia, on The Sopranos).

We also see several of the schoolchildren camped out in the bomb shelter owned by one of their families, playing the waiting game and gradually evolving into their own small version of society. The way in which they instinctively form hierarchies and begin to govern themselves when left to their own devices recalls William Golding’s brilliant 1954 novel Lord of the Flies, though the savagery portrayed in that book is given far less time to flourish here. Instead of hunting and killing one another, these children discuss their situation with a rationality nowhere to be found in the adult world of Strangelove, for example. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, the children take a vote on whether or not war should be allowed; they all vote against it before concluding that nobody will listen to children.

It’s not all polite discussion, though, as the inherent selfishness of human nature comes out in the children’s refusal to allow their fellow student, Sarah (Marilyn Rogers), into the bomb shelter, claiming there is simply not enough room. The result of this, though ambiguous, implies great tragedy for Sarah, and this tragic ambiguity extends to the film’s ending. Though its political import is a bit heavy-handed, as a narrative conclusion it is striking, poignant and memorable, all adjectives that could be applied to the film as a whole.

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Hidden Netflix Gems – Walking and Talking

Hidden Netflix Gems is a new feature designed to help readers answer that burning question, “What should I watch tonight?” It will be updated every Saturday before the sun goes down. 

Writer-director Nicole Holofcener has been compared to the legendary Woody Allen because of her strong command of character and dialogue, not to mention the fact that her films tend to revolve around brainy people having trouble with their relationships, both romantic and familial. The comparison is apt and certainly not without foundation – Holofcener is the stepdaughter of Allen’s late producer Charles H. Joffe, and she found her first film industry work on Allen films such as Hannah and Her Sisters, on which she was an apprentice editor. However, despite their shared propensity for talky comedic dramas about New Yorkers who are sometimes a bit too smart for their own good, Holofcener’s films display a sensibility that is uniquely hers, as channeled through her favorite actor, Catherine Keener, who has appeared in all four of her films thus far.

Holofcener’s debut feature, Walking and Talking, takes a warm and insightful look at the mixed feelings of Amelia (Keener), a woman in her mid-30s whose longtime best friend, Laura (Anne Heche), is getting married. The news sends Amelia into a sort of “biological clock” crisis in which she confronts her conflicting desires to settle down and find happiness the way other women her age seem to be doing, while still wanting the relative freedom and ease of a single life. As she attempts to navigate this difficulty, she receives advice and moral support from Laura, her fiancée, Frank (Todd Field), and Amelia’s former lover and good friend, Andrew (Liev Schreiber), as well as a therapist (Joseph Siravo). Though she has been ambivalent at best about the prospect up until now, she finally decides to begin dating Bill (Kevin Corrigan), a video store clerk who has been flirting with her for some time now.

Walking and Talking is at its best in its portrayal of this courtship, with Amelia gradually realizing that the man who she has previously considered to be beneath her (she calls him “The Ugly Guy” when speaking of him to Laura and others) just might be a much better match for her than she thought, and in its portrayal of the friendship between Amelia and Andrew. It’s so rare in life to maintain a close, caring friendship with a former lover, but it does happen and, in my experience, it happens very much the way it is shown here. Their scenes together are especially warm and funny, but above all it is the dynamic between Amelia and Bill that makes this film rise above the average comedy. Far from being simply a geek or loser, as Amelia originally sees him, Bill is much smarter, funnier and deeper than she (or we, the audience) first assume; in fact, Amelia comes to realize that he just might be too good for her. Like Bill, Walking and Talking is much more than the sum of its parts, and well worth a look.

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Hidden Netflix Gems – The Boys Next Door

Hidden Netflix Gems is a new feature designed to help readers answer that burning question, “What should I watch tonight?” It will be updated every Saturday before the sun goes down.

The second narrative feature from director Penelope Spheeris – who is perhaps best known for helming the best Saturday Night Live movie of all time, Wayne’s World – is a quintessentially ’80s movie, from its squealing guitar-heavy soundtrack to its fetishization of 1950s greaser attitude. It is also compelling, tense and rather brutal, and though it seems to be reaching for relevant social commentary, it never sacrifices its pure entertainment value for this higher goal. This is a film that knows what it does well and sets about doing just that, without pretension.

The Boys Next Door stars a young, pre-“passion,” Charlie Sheen as Bo Richards, a high school outcast whose only real friend is the even more ostracized Roy Alston (Maxwell Caulfield). After a gripping opening credits sequence featuring pictures and voice-over narration of various well-known mass murderers, including David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz and Kenneth “Hillside Strangler” Bianchi, the pair are introduced playing a childish prank on their high school on the last day of their senior year. Faced with nothing better than a future of low-wage labor at a nearby factory, the two crash and basically ruin a party attended by the more popular kids before hitting the streets of L.A. to try and pick up girls by yelling at them from their car windows, with all the success such a method usually brings. Before long, they vent their sexual and social frustrations in a series of increasingly violent acts that escalate from assault to multiple murders in the span of a few hours.

It is interesting to think of Bo and Roy in parallel to Spheeris’ most famous protagonists, Wayne Campbell (Mike Myers) and Garth Algar (Dana Carvey) from Wayne’s World. Here, as in that film, we have a dark-haired youth (Bo), who is the smarter and less socially awkward of the two, paired with a blonde guy (Roy), of whom he seems to take care in many ways. Relatively early in the film we see Roy having a one-sided conversation with his neglectful, drunken father (Ron Ross) before hitting the town with Bo, who is shown time and again to have a stronger connection to the world of normal, socially accepted people. In its depiction of the frustrations and alienation that lead to extreme, random violence, The Boys Next Door seems to predict some of the most shocking mass murder cases of the past decade or so, from Columbine to Virginia Tech, among others. However, as disturbing as it often gets in its frank depictions of the boys’ unleashed rage, this movie can best be described as a lurid good time; fans of exploitation movies such as The Last House on the Left and Death Wish are especially encouraged to give this one a look.

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