It Comes at Night Movie Review

It Comes at Night is a bleak, brisk, sometimes effective horror thriller that’s well-acted and filmed. The decision to not overly explain the events causing the characters to be holed up in a house together seems wise. However, when the credits roll, you might find yourself asking it that’s all there is.

Trey Edward Shults writes and directs this tale of a world gone to hell. A nasty and unexplained outbreak has seemingly wiped out a hefty portion of the world’s population. If you become symptomatic, you need to be put down. That’s how we’re introduced to Paul (Joel Edgerton), wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and 17 year-old boy Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) as they do what they have to with Sarah’s ill father.

The family lives in their boarded up home with one entrance/exit. Days are spent rationing food and water. Their sad existence is interrupted one evening by intruder Will (Christopher Abbott), who assumes the house is vacant. He’s seeking shelter for his family – wife Kim (Riley Keough) and their toddler son. The family ends up moving in and for a brief time everything seems ok.

Deserved kudos go out to Shults for crafting a screenplay that doesn’t burden itself with explaining the plague that’s put everyone in that house. This story is more about how the characters function in that claustrophobic existence. Travis is a teenager with attractive young woman Kim all of a sudden present. Paul is always cognizant that you can’t trust anyone beyond family.

Night is a slow burn of distrust and eerie atmosphere that eventually reaches a conclusion you both dread and suspect. Shults is clearly a talented filmmaker, but I can’t deny the feeling that the picture ends up feeling a bit slight and too simplistic. It’s not without its cliches (there’s a family dog that you just know will factor in). There’s a dream sequence over reliance. No fault belongs with the actors who are all solid. Edgerton again proves he can nail an intense performance.

Genre fans will probably find enough to admire here, but Night comes in effective spurts and not a totally cohesive whole.

**1/2 (out of four)

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It Movie Review

It’s deeper and more relatable fears that allow It it’s most effective scares. That is the truth emanating from the Stephen King source material. Yes, clowns are creepy. Yet the other items that frighten our kid cast here are creepier – those of loss, innocence, bullying, and even free will to just be a young teen.

Andy Muschietti’s version of the King classic moves the book’s actions from the 1950s (when the author was a boy) to 1989, making those Stranger Things comparisons apt.  It’s summer in Derry, Maine where the rate of missing persons – especially kids – is astronomical. The prologue shows us how poor little seven-year old Georgie earned his milk carton status. It involves a meeting with demented clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), luring the child into the sewer. Eight months later, Georgie’s older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) is desperately trying to find him. He’s part of a group known as The Losers. They include Beverly (Sophia Lillis), who’s got an undeserved reputation at school for being loose but whose real circumstances are far more terrifying and sad. There’s Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the overweight new kid on the block who coincidentally and humorously is a fan of New Kids on the Block. Richie (Finn Wolfhard from Stranger Things) is the nerd who can’t keep his foul mouth shut. Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) is a hypochondriac, Stan (Wyatt Oleff) is the doubter of the bunch, and Mike (Chosen Jacobs) is the homeschooled orphan. All of The Losers soon experience their own visions of Pennywise and come to realize they must defeat him since no one else seems willing to.

Pennywise’s reign of terror seems to occur every 27 years in Derry, but there’s other issues the kids must deal with each day. Sophia with her abusive dad. Eddie with his overprotective mom. A nasty bully named Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) who’s nearly as dangerous as the title character. Ben having to admit his affection for both Sophia and those five crooners from Boston. And so on. Pennywise (with credit to Skarsgard’s performance) does have his moments of heebie jeebie glory, but they usually come with a simple facial expression and most of them are early on. The clown loses a bit of luster when an over reliance on CGI with “It” comes into play. What remains is the genuine creepiness happening with some of the kids daily lives. That trumps the increasingly milder scares involving Pennywise.

It helps tremendously that the performances of the young actors are all first-rate. Sophia Lillis has a young Amy Adams vibe and Lieberher (who already showed his chops in St. Vincent and Midnight Special) is an effective Loser leader. Stephen King was able to subtly write a coming of age story filled with heart that just happened to have a demented circus freak in the mix. Muschietti and his screenwriters pick up on that with this adaptation to mostly satisfying results.

*** (out of four)

The Big Sick Movie Review

The Big Sick is a pleasing combination of a romantic comedy that feels one part wholly original as it comes from the real life experiences of stand-up Kumail Nanjiani, essentially playing himself. The other part is not without imperfections and that could be called the Judd Apatow part, who produced it. Like Apatow’s best work, there’s plenty of heart, laughs, and observations about the comedy scene. Like even in his best work (and certainly his most middling pictures), it’s a bit too long and occasionally veers into semi-stale territory.

That said, Nanjiani’s creation takes you out of typical genre territory for most of its two-hour running time. Sick was written by its star and wife Emily V. Gordon and it takes a page out of their true life experiences. Pakistani comic Kumail Nanjiani portrays Pakistani comic Kumail Nanjiani, who’s struggling to make ends meet doing night gigs in Chicago while also driving an Uber. One night he’s pleasantly heckled on stage by Emily (Zoe Kazan) and the two hit it off post show. A one-night stand that transpires over several nights occurs – in the sense that they keep saying it’s the last one-night stand. She’s busy in grad school, he’s doing his career thing. Before they know it, they realize they’re in some sort of feeling resembling love yet they dare not say it.

Kumail can’t tell his family of his new whatever he and Emily call it. His background demands that he enter an arranged marriage with a girl of Pakistani ethnicity and his parents (especially Mom) bring a slew of such women to the dinner table every time Kumail comes to dinner. It’s this complication that soon ends the relationship.

The title comes into play when Emily is rushed to the hospital and put into a medically induced coma. Kumail is informed and he soon meets Emily’s folks (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter). Their knowledge of their daughter’s former relationship is the opposite of Kumail’s parents. They know everything and aren’t exactly warm to the idea of Kumail hanging around the ICU.

The Big Sick, more often than not, avoids many typical rom com cliches. Some of this is due to one of the leads not being available for a solid portion of the proceedings. This allows Kumail and Emily’s parents to develop a fascinating dynamic. Veteran performers Hunter and Romano make the best of their parts and their marriage is an interesting one in itself. The screenplay is refreshingly honest in a way that few in the genre manage to be. Kumail is far from perfect in how he handles situations, but not in an overly broad silly way. He’s trying and it’s not easy to balance his cultural leanings and his feelings for Emily. Kazan is charming and vulnerable as Emily, as she slowly realizes the difficulties involved with dating Kumail.

We get a little bit of exploring the stand-up comedy scene as Kumail is trying to land a sought after spot at the Montreal Comedy Festival. There’s nothing terribly new about that aspect of the script (Apatow covered it well in Funny People), but Nanjiani is certainly familiar with it. And that’s what really puts The Big Sick in satisfying territory. Nanjiani and his spouse write what they know – each other. And you root for them to work it all out.

*** (out of four)

Rules Don’t Apply Movie Review

A film focusing on a meticulous and eccentric legend who’s bedded scores of women would seem to be right up Warren Beatty’s alley, but Rules Don’t Apply is a rather big letdown for the director’s first effort in nearly two decades. It’s a passion project for Mr. Beatty that partially focuses on the life of reclusive aviation and movie making billionaire Howard Hughes. Unlike the Martin Scorsese/Leonardo DiCaprio biopic The Aviator, however, Rules isn’t nearly as concerned with historical accuracy and is as much an old-fashioned Hollywood romance.

Beatty plays Hughes circa 1958-1964, a time where his OCD and reliance on pharmaceutical relief had reached massive levels. He’s still running RKO Pictures and flying girls in from all over the country for screen tests. One such prospect is Marla (Lily Collins), a devout Baptist from Virginia who flies into La La Land with her equally proper mother (Beatty’s spouse Annette Bening). She’s never had a drink, never “gone all the way” (as is the common term in this screenplay), and certainly never met a character like Mr. Hughes. Frank (Alden Ehrenreich) is one of Hughes’s many chauffeurs who’s actually yet to meet the man himself. He’s tasked with driving Marla around and they soon begin a courtship, even though Frank is engaged to his childhood sweetheart.

Further complications arise when Hughes (who strictly forbids such interaction between his many employees) gets to know Marla better. The screenplay (by Beatty and his longtime collaborator Bo Goldman) juggles the romance with some of Howard’s business and government dealings as his abnormal behavior continues to increase. We do not see the grotesque and totally shut off character that DiCaprio showed us a dozen years ago in his Oscar nominated role. Rules is much lighter stuff and feels considerably less consequential.

Some welcome comedic hey is made of the many people who wait on Hughes hand and foot, including Matthew Broderick’s assistant and Candice Bergen’s secretary. There’s many familiar faces who pop up in smaller roles (most of them likely just wanted to work with Beatty) and they include Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris, Martin Sheen, and Oliver Platt.

Part of the problem is that while Collins and Ehrenreich are perfectly fine in their performances, their chemistry is adequate at best. A bigger issue is that Rules feels a bit all over the map in plot and tone. The arc of Howard’s disintegration into madness is an odd mix of humor and drama that never gels despite Beatty’s best efforts. It’s also hard to ignore that he’s about 20 years older than Hughes at this particular point in his life, but if anyone can pull that off…

For a director who’s known to be incredibly particular, this one contains only fleeting moments that you’ll remember. The rest, sadly, don’t apply.

** (out of four)

Collateral Beauty Movie Review

David Frankel’s Collateral Beauty starts with a pretentious name and goes downhill from there. It’s a film dealing with weighty subjects in a manner that is borderline offensive and cheats the audience and its talented actors of quality. When you can’t get past an incredibly contrived concept, it makes any semblance of emotional resonance that the screenplay is trying to beat into you fail badly. And it does.

Howard (Will Smith) is an advertising exec who’s mourning the loss of his young daughter. He can’t get past the loss and he’s cut off communication with the world, including his coworkers. There’s three of them that are focused on and they’re all given their own soap opera subplots. Whit (Edward Norton) is a divorcee trying to reconnect with his own little girl. Claire (Kate Winslet) is the workaholic wanting to become a mother. Simon (Michael Pena) is terminally ill and trying to hide his diagnosis from everyone.

The trio make the tough decision to try to push Howard out of the company. In order to do so, the script invents quite a remarkably ridiculous way to do so. You see – Howard writes letters to issues he’s grappling with – Love, Death, Time. When his coworkers are at their wit’s end, they make the puzzling decision to hire an acting troupe to portray those emotions, catch Howard’s reaction to them on camera, and exploit his response for the company’s gain. It’s even more contrived than it sounds. So we have Helen Mirren as Death, Keira Knightley as Love, and Jacob Latimore as Time. Howard also reaches out to a grief counselor (Naomie Harris) who’s experienced similar life issues.

This is the type of picture that some may not want to criticize due to its subject matter. Yet Collateral Beauty deserves scorn, especially because so many other films have dealt with similar themes in far more mature and satisfying ways. There’s not a performance here worthy of praise and that’s remarkable considering the cast. Smith is stuck playing one note throughout and even Mirren (one of our finest actresses) is annoying. No actors could make this dialogue work to be fair. It’s as if screenwriter Allan Loeb took a bunch of sympathy and encouragement cards and self-help manuals, cut them up, threw them in the air, and let treacly word piles form. The result is ugly.

* (out of four)

 

Atomic Blonde Movie Review

Atomic Blonde is set in 1989 and that feels appropriate because it’s a gleefully rated R entry in an action genre that cranked out a lot more of those 30 years ago. It’s unapologetically violent, sexy, and stylish with a pulsating late 80s soundtrack booming all throughout (almost all throughout). It’s additionally uneven at times and confusing, but I didn’t care much because the good outweighs the bad and the bad people look good doing their thing.

David Leitch co-directed John Wick and we see those kind of kinetic fight scenes represented here as well. Charlize Theron is Lorraine, an MI6 agent dispatched to Berlin just days before the collapse of the Wall. While the Cold War is drawing to a close, she’s given the mission of retrieving a McGuffin (a wristwatch in this case) that hides the identities of secret agents.  She’s also teamed up with Percival (James McAvoy), an outlandish fellow agent who may or may not be on her side. Lorraine also gets friendly (very friendly) with Sofia Boutella’s French agent and the scenes between them aren’t something normally found in summer shoot-em-up material.

The story is told in flashback (not exactly an original touch) as Lorraine recounts her sordid Berlin experience to a CIA man (John Goodman) and other government big wigs. The villains change seemingly minute to minute. It’s a screenplay that never tires of double, triple, and quadruple crosses. Trying to piece it altogether at its conclusion may not be worth your time.

That said, certain sequences and the general cool vibe make it worth your while. It also doesn’t hurt to hear George Michael, A Flock of Seagulls and others singing along during the battle ballets. They’re a trip, but the most effective fight scene is a gloriously choreographed number with no music. It might be the finest action set piece using that distinction since Heat.

Theron has proven herself in several genres, but she sure seems comfortable in this one. McAvoy is having a blast as well. Atomic Blonde is shameless in a way that R rated action pics should be when they’re done well enough. And that alone sets it apart in the summer season.

*** (out of four)

Colossal Movie Review

Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal is an entertaining little example of what happens when a major film actress wants to do something a bit different. Anne Hathaway is the star here and what we have here is her giving a strong performance in a genre you might not expect.

She plays Gloria, an alcoholic who’s just been dumped by her boyfriend (Dan Stevens) and is forced to move from their NYC apartment. With no other options, Gloria goes back to her small town childhood home. Barely settling in, she reconnects with  childhood buddy Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) who now owns his family neighborhood bar. Oscar offers her a part-time gig waitressing there and business picks up when the unthinkable occurs. Over in Seoul, South Korea – a Godzilla like creature wreaks havoc to those in its path. The citizens of the town go to the bar in the evening to drown themselves while viewing the unfolding developments. Yet there’s a very strange connection to Gloria and what’s happening thousands of miles away.

It turns out that she basically is the monster. If she stands at a playground at precisely 8:05am, her movements match what the monster does when it appears in Seoul. After making this unexpected discovery, she recognizes that she must use this gift (?) for good. However, those around her don’t necessarily share that sentiment.

Colossal clearly has a bizarre plot. Truth be told, your willingness to enjoy it may directly correlate to just going with it. I was able to mostly because of Hathaway’s commitment to the material. Her boozy Gloria is far from your typical heroine and the actress throws herself into the role (even if her drunken stupors humorously keep her unaware of what’s going on half the time). Sudeikis also has a ball with his complicated relationship with Gloria, which turns out to be quite integral to what’s going down in East Asia.

Once Colossal shows all its cards plotwise, it becomes slightly redundant in the last third. That said, the two leading performances and the film’s sheer weirdness and willingness to embrace that make it far from a waste of time.

*** (out of four)

Snatched Movie Review

Amy Schumer burst onto the film scene two summers ago with Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck. It was a solid vehicle to showcase the comedienne’s raunchy yet intelligent humor. Snatched is the follow-up. It’s occasionally raunchy, but it’s rarely intelligent and it struggles to even fill the 90 minute runtime with memorable material.

The pic also marks Goldie Hawn’s return to the silver screen after a decade and a half. She looks great, but it’s a shame she’s saddled with the overprotective mother role and given little chance to expand it. Schumer is Emily and she’s recently single after her rocker boyfriend dumps her when he realizes the fringe benefits of success. Emily is also unemployed and holding onto two non-refundable tickets to Ecuador for what was to be a romantic getaway with her departed beau. Enter Linda (Hawn), Emily’s mom who lives a quiet life with her cats and agoraphobic son (Ike Barinholtz). Despite her reluctance, mom joins daughter in South America.

While Linda is content to read her magazines and novellas in the hotel room, Emily is looking for some wild vacation times. She thinks she’s found it with a hunky dude who takes her to a rave and then agrees to show her and Linda around the next day. That’s when the pair are indeed snatched.

What follows is a rather surprisingly laugh free experience that is over in about an hour (it takes a third of the 90 minutes to get to the actual snatching). Some familiar faces pop up including Wanda Sykes and a mute yet deadly Joan Cusack as vacationers who assist the nabbed duo. Christopher Meloni turns up as a very poor man’s Indiana Jones.  Barinholtz has a couple funny moments as the bizarre shut-in son.

Yet it’s not encouraging when the bit that made me chuckle hardest involved a tapeworm and is a sight gag that lasts about a minute. Schumer’s stand-up work and her Trainwreck role showcases a refreshing honesty and sexuality that used to be reserved for just the boys onstage and onscreen. There’s nothing about Snatched where the word refreshing is warranted. It’s not necessarily bad, but it is often excruciatingly ordinary and these leads deserve better.

** (out of four)

Dunkirk Movie Review

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk has moments and plenty of them which are simply breathtaking. We expect the director of The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, and Interstellar to serve up a visual treat as he enters the war genre and he does. Yet I didn’t quite anticipate occasional moments of emotional resonance and the tight running time that keeps it moving at a brisk pace. This is an often epic experience in a truncated frame. That decision by the director and his editors allow Dunkirk to capture the fierce urgency of warfare told from three perspectives.

The film recounts the Battle of Dunkirk in Northern France in 1940. The British and their French allies are on the losing side of this particular conflict with the Nazis and evacuation plans are underway. Nolan chooses not to tell the events in a traditional or linear manner. Three stories are highlighted – by land, sea, and air. I list them in that manner because the land piece develops over a week’s time. Our action on the water happens in a day. The air portion is a matter of just an hour.

On land, we meet a number of soldiers desperately searching for escape while trying to help their wounded fellow countrymen. We also listen in on the strategies of the military higher-ups, led by Kenneth Branagh’s sturdy commander.

On the water, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) answers the call to take his own boat to help pick up soldiers from the extraction area. He brings his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and friend (Barry Keoghan) along with him. On their way to their destination, they come upon a lone soldier (Cillian Murphy) who is experiencing shock from a U-boat attack.

In the air, Tom Hardy’s Air Force pilot and two fellow fighters must furiously try to down Nazi planes bombing those waiting in the evacuation region, while keeping an eye on their own fuel.

All of this activity unfolds in just over 100 minutes in a picture you’d expect to run closer to three hours. Character development is at a minimum but that’s not a demerit. Dunkirk captures the hectic nature, uncertainty, and chaos of war. With Nolan at the helm and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema behind the lense, it’s also filled with beautiful imagery on a beach filled with soldiers, on the expansive ocean, and in the clouds. The screenplay gives us just enough focus on its characters to make certain situations emotionally resonant. This especially holds true with the sea portion and Rylance’s determined skipper and Murphy’s battle weary soldier.

The time jumping element is one that would make Tarantino proud. That aspect adds an often fresh perspective to the well-worn WWII genre and its glorious and inglorious tales. By its conclusion, we marvel at personal acts by humans caught up in impossible situations in the fog of battle. In a week, a day, and an hour, Dunkirk expertly shows it.

***1/2 (out of four)

The Fate of the Furious Movie Review

The Fate of the Furious is our eighth – yes, eighth – installment of a franchise that it would have been ridiculous to imagine there being that many entries. We’re a long way from the original 16 years ago that was sort of a drag racing rip-off of Point Break, or Point Brake as I deemed it in my review. That said, a common thread among the series is its willingness to be knowingly ridiculous while weaving in endless monologues about the importance of family.

The formula took on a different tone in predecessor Furious 7, which admirably managed to deal with the death of franchise stalwart Paul Walker in its conclusion. In that sense, Fate ushers in a new chapter. New characters are introduced, old ones are rehashed, and the level of silliness is brought to a level not quite seen before. Yes, cars go fast here. However, part 8 owes more to James Bond flicks when they were less grim (think Roger Moore era with a quarter billion dollar budget).

As I’ve written in previous Furious critiques, plot is secondary but here’s what you need to know: Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) has turned on his team. Sort of. He’s being forced to team up with criminal mastermind Cipher (Charlize Theron), who evades authorities in the air on an invisible plane. See what I mean? Isn’t that the kind of villain 007 might battle in the late seventies? Now on the wrong side of justice, Dominic and Cipher must go against Dom’s “family”, including wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and the familiar players played by Dwayne Johnson (whose goofy character is still good for some funny and bizarre moments), Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Kurt Russell, and more. Part 7’s main villain Jason Statham is more of a team player this time around and even Oscar winner Helen Mirren turns up as his mum. Statham is granted a fight scene towards the end where he has to be delicate with some cargo he’s carrying (you’ll see what I mean). The scene is genuinely humorous and quite well choreographed.

The plot is all an excuse for the massive action spectacles and globe trotting we’ve become accustomed to and we have it here in Cuba, New York City, and Russia. The climactic sequence set on Russian frozen tundra employs the usual expensive vehicles, but we also are treated to tanks and submarines. Remember the ice action in Pierce Brosnan’s Bond flick Die Another Day? Think that, but it’s not embarrassingly awful.

Our Furious sagas rise and fall on the ability for us to check our brains at the Universal logo. By the third act, I’d succumbed once again to its cheesy charms. Maybe one day this series will truly stall like it briefly did in 2006’s Tokyo Drift. Not yet though and that’s some kind of testament to its durability.

*** (out of four)