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Movie Reviews: New Releases for Oct. 30

Come Play, Spell, The Donut King


Gillian Jacobs and Azhy Robertson in Come Play - FOCUS FEATURES
  • Focus Features
  • Gillian Jacobs and Azhy Robertson in Come Play
Come Play ***
Alfred Hitchcock’s “refrigerator logic” certainly applies to writer/director Jacob Chase’s horror feature—not because its plot doesn’t make sense when you think about it, but because its ostensible thematic ideas feel ill-conceived. There’s still plenty of satisfyingly creepy style in this story of Oliver (Marriage Story’s Azhy Robertson), a non-verbal boy with autism whose parents (Gillian Jacobs and John Gallagher Jr.) have a marriage that’s struggling, and who finds most of his connection through screens. On the other side of those screens lives Larry, a strange creature who wants to enter our world and make Oliver his friend. That set-up leads to several terrific filmmaking decisions built around Larry’s nature—including the ability to see him only through an electronic device’s camera feature, or Larry’s effect on light bulbs and other electronics—along with a sound design that cranks every loud noise up to 11. It all makes for an effectively creepy little supernatural thriller—until you ponder how the idea of a monster created by our isolated addiction to screens doesn’t exactly jibe with a child who depends upon that technology to communicate. There’s the potential for resonant material about the pressures on parents of special-needs kids, but Chase ultimately proves better at building scares than he does at building emotion. Available Oct. 30 in theaters. (PG-13)

The Donut King **1/2
At least three potentially fascinating documentary topics get mashed up into Alice Gu’s feature, leaving a frustrating case of not actually knowing what this movie is supposed to be about. The title refers to “Uncle Ted” Ngoy, a Cambodian refugee who came to Southern California in 1975, and parlayed his first investment in a donut shop into a multi-million dollar empire. Folded into that narrative is the history of Cambodia’s 1970s war, and how the many other immigrants helped by Ngoy became an American Dream success story of entrepreneurship. But there’s also the evolution of Ngoy’s own story into a darker tale that puts a different spin on the pursuit of wealth. And by the end, there’s an almost completely different story about the different opportunities available to the second-generation children of those Cambodian immigrants, which itself merges into an almost completely stand-alone anecdote about one specific shop’s 21st-century social-media-driven successes. Every time it feels like a specific thematic notion is about to emerge, that idea is either undercut or pushed aside by whatever follows. In the course of providing an intriguing, comprehensive history of Cambodians coming to America, Gu fails to realize that making a movie also means deciding what to leave out. Available Oct. 30 via (NR)

Spell **
As American horror increasingly tries to fold issues of race into its genre formulas, there’s an opportunity both for unsettling insight and for big swings that don’t connect. Omari Hardwick stars as Marquis Woods, a wealthy Black corporate attorney who has tried to leave behind his poor West Virginia roots. But upon the death of his abusive father, he flies home with his wife and kids—only to have a storm take down his private plane, and land him in the “care” of a backwoods hoodoo priestess (Loretta Devine). Director Mark Tonderai and screenwriter Kurt Wimmer aim more for not-for-the-squeamish body horror than subtle scares, though they do get a great sequence out of Marquis’ realization that something he just painfully removed from his body will need to be painfully re-inserted. What they’re aiming for thematically, however, is a notion about not forgetting where you come from, which is handled in a clunky fashion—like Marquis assuring his boss he has no problem taking down a bunch of Black plaintiffs in a class-action suit against their client—before feeling like it’s all-but-irrelevant to the climactic confrontations. Ultimately, Spell feels more than slightly opportunistic, playing at having a social conscience until it’s more narratively convenient to brush it aside. Available Oct 30 in theaters and via VOD. (R)