In director Chris Mul’s pensive supernatural thriller “Astral,” Frank Dillane — a former star of “Fear the Walking Dead” — plays Alex Harmann, a Royal Holloway, University of London student, who becomes obsessed with the concept of astral projection. One of the classmates who helps with his research is played by Damson Idris, best known stateside for his excellent performance as the lead character of FX’s “Snowfall.”
So if nothing else, “Astral” gives fans of American cable TV dramas a chance to hear some familiar actors speak in their natural English accents. Beyond that, this high-toned genre exercise is low on novelty — not to mention jolts.
A spooky prologue introduces Alex’s mother, Claire (Catherine Steadman), who went mad studying astral projection herself while her son was still a boy. “Astral” then jumps to the present day, when the usually disengaged collegian comes to life during a lecture about the methods by which human souls might visit other dimensions.
After a little practice, Alex picks up the knack for letting his spirit fly beyond his body. But like so many before him — his mom included — he discovers that when he returns to this plane, he’s trailed by shadowy demonic figures.
As a horror film, “Astral” closely resembles “Flatliners,” or one of the multiple recent chillers about the myths and menaces associated with the very real phenomenon “sleep paralysis.” First-time feature-director Mul — who also co-wrote the film with his brother Michael — aims for something a little more thought-provoking and less sensational, all the way to the mind-bender of a twist ending.
With scares at a minimum, “Astral” relies heavily on its young cast, who are all likable and charismatic. Dillane and Idris and the others are undoubtedly destined to appear someday in movies and TV shows far more memorable than this one.
Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes
Playing: Starts Nov. 23, Galaxy Mission Grove, Riverside; also on VOD
Everyone involved with the sentimental science-fiction drama “Tinker” — from the cast to the crew to director Sonny Marler — pulls more than their own weight on the project. It’s just not always clear if they’re pulling in the same direction, or if they know where they’re going.
Clayne Crawford plays Grady Lee Jr., a reclusive bachelor farmer in Clay, Ala. (Crawford’s actual hometown), whose life is changed by two near-simultaneous events: his discovery of his late father’s notes on how to build a strange mechanical device; and the arrival of his estranged sister’s 6-year-old son, Kai (Colton Crawford).
Marler (working from a team-written script, based on his own story) takes his time in getting around to what this strange machine does and how it’s connected to Kai. He and the actors seem far more interested in muted, naturalistic character moments, exploring the lives of a handful of broken people in a small southern town.
While those scenes are well-done, they rarely lead anywhere, beyond some bland platitudes about forgiveness and family. By the time the “Tinker” fantasy elements kick in, they seem more like an afterthought than the reason this movie was made in the first place.
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Playing: Available on VOD, Dec. 4
A handful of experienced character actors get a brighter spotlight than usual in “Texas Cotton,” a feather-light small-town crime dramedy that gets too caught up its own remedial mystery plot. What starts out as mild-mannered if somewhat cornpone exercise in local color turns more serious in its second half, for no good reason.
George Hardy (best-known for his role in the bad-movie classic “Troll 2”) plays Sgt. Travis Delmore, a by-the-book veteran of the tiny La Coste, Texas, police force. “Del” frequently runs afoul of his boss, Chief Terry Fellers (Gene Jones, famous for his one scene in “No Country for Old Men”), for holding local politicians accountable … and especially when he suspects there might be a conspiracy afoot involving the mayor, some shady out-of-town interests, and a visiting horticulturist (Lew Temple), accused of poisoning the town’s farms.
Director Tyler Russell and a group of screenwriters have trouble deciding if this movie is a low-stakes slice-of-life that gently pokes fun at Texans, or a sobering study of a good man beset by corruption and complacency. The more comedic intro scenes aren’t especially funny, but they do have some ragged charm, lost when Del becomes more obsessed with cracking his big case.
The cast of “Texas Cotton” is good company, and the location’s a nice place to hang out for an hour and a half. But all these nice folks are worthy of more than such a flat, featureless story.
Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes
Playing: Starts Nov. 23, Arena Cinelounge, Hollywood; also on iTunes
‘12 Round Gun’
Writer-director-producer-star Sam Upton combines “Rocky” with rehab in “12 Round Gun,” a clunky but heartfelt redemption drama. Upton plays Joe Gun, an alcoholic washout boxer who hustles for cash on the streets of L.A., offering quick, makeshift detailing on scratched cars. When his rising pugilist superstar son Tommy gets blinded in the ring by a dirty fighter, Joe’s finally pushed to get clean, put his gloves back on, and get revenge.
Upton showcases his acting chops well in “12 Round Gun,” although a lot of his scenes are stolen by Mark Boone Junior, as an old friend who frames Joe’s recovery as a kind of poet-warrior’s rite. Boone’s character reveals Upton’s main weakness as a filmmaker. Well-made, but uninspired, the film is too enamored of “sensitive macho man” clichés. The characters and story take a backseat to the movie’s message — which is as subtle as a roundhouse punch
‘12 Round Gun’
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
Playing: Available on VOD; screens Dec. 5, Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills
It’s hard to say exactly what’s going on in “8 Remains,” an offbeat suspense picture that has more in common with vintage European art cinema than Alfred Hitchcock — although quality-wise, it’s not up to the level of either.
Maja-Celiné Probst stars as Talli, a young woman who is strangled on her birthday by her dapper lover Damien (played by Gregory B. Waldis). Right before she winks out of existence, time stops, and Talli finds she can slip back and forth in her life — within certain limits — to try and figure out how to avoid her fate.
“8 Remains” has a cool premise, but director Juliane Block and screenwriter Laura Sommer (with dialogue assistance from Wolf-Peter Arand) treat it more as a metaphor than as a storytelling opportunity. For most of the movie, Talli — and the audience — get lost in a dreamland, running from deadly manifestations of one woman’s toxic taste in men.
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Playing: Starts Nov. 23, Arena Cinelounge, Hollywood; also available on iTunes