The Rental Movie Review

Well-known actors crafting nifty little suspense thrillers tinged with horror has become a thing lately (think John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place and Joel Edgerton’s The Gift). Dave Franco gets in on it with The Rental, which is swift in its running time and plentiful with twists that you see coming and some that are nicely rewarding. It also features a quartet of solid performers whose weekend getaway gives them far more than they bargained for.

Charlie (Dan Stevens) finds a swanky vacation house to nab for the weekend with help from his trusted assistant Mina (Sheila Vand). They’re celebrating something going right with their business and it’s good reason to let their hair down with Charlie’s wife Michelle (Alison Brie, the director’s real life spouse). Mina happens to be dating Charlie’s brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White) so he tags along with his puppy. Pets aren’t allowed at the establishment, but that turns out to be the least of their issues. For instance, there might be a psycho around and it’s not safe to be in the shower.

Upon arrival, the foursome confront the property’s caretaker Taylor (Toby Huss). The first problem is a racially tinged one. Mina, who’s of Middle Eastern descent, tried to rent the place and was promptly denied. Charlie had no such trouble. They decide to overlook that and the first night becomes an alcohol and designer drug filled party. This is where the aforementioned “twists” that follow are somewhat predictable in nature. However, the actors have a real chemistry with one another and you’ll want to see where it all leads.

Without venturing into spoiler territory, The Rental isn’t its eventual genre for about two thirds of its brisk 88 minutes. Credit is due to Franco and Joe Swanberg’s script for keeping the audience engaged in the dynamics of the four principals. Of them, it’s Vand who has the best role and she’s quite impressive.

When we arrive at the final third, the build up has been sturdy enough that we care about the fates of the characters as they navigate their way through dense fog and deeply personal conflicts. Franco has crafted a lean and effective directorial debut and its title is worth the price of one.

*** (out of four)

Last Christmas Movie Review

Last Christmas is an example of immense talent behind the scenes and blaring over the soundtrack resulting in a holiday concoction that just does not come together. It tries hard and it has attractive leads. Director Paul Feig has made rom coms successfully with Bridesmaids and shown range with 2018’s twisty humorous thriller A Simple Favor. Emma Thompson lends her writing skills and plays the over top mother to the lead character. And the film’s title is the eponymous 80s Wham! classic which plays frequently, in addition to numerous other tracks from the band and George Michael’s solo career.

This picture should work. My faith that it would did not last long. Emilia Clarke sheds her Game of Thrones image as Kate, an aimless Londoner who immigrated from Yugoslavia with her parents and sister. She spends her days working at a year round Christmas shop run by a quirky store owner who goes by Santa (Michelle Yeoh). In fact, nearly everyone is quirky in this screenplay. Even the homeless people at the shelter where Kate volunteers when she finally starts to have a heart. They’re homeless, but ya know… they’re fun homeless.

Speaking of having a heart, that’s a big plot point and I guess that’s all I can say without going into spoiler territory. Kate’s outlook on life begins to change when she meets the elusive Tom (Henry Golding of Crazy Rich Asians and the aforementioned A Simple Favor). Their potential courtship is interrupted by occasional forays into commentary on immigration, mental health, a bizarre romance between Santa and a customer, and whatever George Michael ballad or uptempo tune fits the moment.

The result is a tonal mess even with the singer’s beautifully toned voice playing. I’m not a Scrooge. Thompson appeared in Love Actually and I ate that extravagant Yuletide offering right up. Despite the heart being in the right place of the filmmakers, Last Christmas mostly left me praying for my time back.

*1/2 (out of four)

Palm Springs Movie Review

Maybe it’s possible that the idea of living the same day over and over again is just something that resonates during these strange COVID-19 times. Or maybe Palm Springs really is a fresh and highly satisfying take on the Groundhog Day concept. I think it’s the latter and what a pleasant surprise.

You cannot have this plot without thinking of the incomparable Bill Murray comedy. The concept has repeated itself in the action and horror genres with Edge of Tomorrow and Happy Death Day. Springs plays with the formula in unexpected ways. Another SNL alum headlines with Andy Samberg as Nyles. He’s the aimless boyfriend to younger Misty (Meredith Hagner) and he’s tagging along to her friend’s wedding in the title town. We realize quickly that something is really off with his behavior. It turns out that he’s already well along the way into his time loop and has been living this day repeatedly. This is the first realization that the screenplay from Andy Siara is playing by a different set of rules by dispensing with the origin story of Nyles’s Groundhog Day. This is a welcome change.

Sarah (Cristin Milioti, tough and sometimes vulnerable and terrific in this role) is the sister of the bride. She’s got character flaws equal to Nyles that aren’t because of the time loop. Yet that quickly changes when she joins him on the endless day. What follows is the duo attempting to figure out just what the heck is happening (the science fiction elements involve a mysterious cave and a goat).

They are occasionally joined in their adventure by another wedding guest Roy (J.K. Simmons, engaging as always) who got sucked into the vortex. It’s also possible that Nyles and Sarah are slowly – very slowly – falling in love. Or is it just that they only have each other in this untenable scenario?

The less said about how the plot rolls along the better. There are genuine revelations that I didn’t see coming, but it all fits into this clever version of a well-worn tale. This is the best Samberg has been on film and Milioti easily equals his work. We see this budding romance develop over many days, albeit the same one. As a credit to the whole team involved, it’s a lot of time well spent.

***1/2 (out of four)

Da 5 Bloods Movie Review

Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods shows the filmmaker in peak form with a sprawling and powerful story of war and the residual results on its soldiers. The title characters are a quartet of African-American Vietnam vets and one who didn’t make it out of the jungle. This is a mix of numerous genres – traditional war movie, treasure hunt, and exploration of racial themes to name three. Throughout his career spanning five decades, Lee has never lacked in grand ambition. When he’s in his element, the end product is something to behold. For the majority of the running time here, that holds true.

Following a prologue showing significant moments in the civil rights Vietnam eras, we meet the four soldiers reuniting in Ho Chi Minh City half a century later. They are Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), and Eddie (Norm Lewis). The reasoning for the reunion is two-fold. Norman (played in flashback by Chadwick Boseman) was their squad leader who perished in battle. He was not just their leader in rank, but a mentor who tremendously shaped their overseas experience and beyond. The four remaining Bloods are there to retrieve his remains, but they are also looking to gather a large quantity of gold buried with him.

Da 5 Bloods is in many ways a concentration about what the group left behind. For Otis, this includes a girlfriend and child. For Paul, it’s no less than his sanity. His PTSD is severe and his character is quite a creation. Sporting a MAGA hat and a host of unresolved issues, his son David (Jonathan Majors) unexpectedly makes the trek to the former Saigon to join his unpredictable dad. The part of Paul is a well-constructed character. Yet much credit is due to Lindo, a veteran actor in the role of his career. Lindo delivers a couple of direct to camera monologues as the gold hunt takes unanticipated turns that are potent and riveting. Those moments will likely garner awards buzz for the performer and it’s deserved.

The supporting cast is impressive with Peters and Majors getting the most fleshed out characters behind Lindo’s. Jean Reno turns up as a Frenchman getting his cut of the gold and Melanie Thierry plays an activist dedicated to ridding the Vietnamese landscape of decades old landmines.

As mentioned, the use of flashback is employed and Lee makes a fascinating narrative decision here. While Norm is shown as his younger self, the four other actors are shown as is in the callbacks to wartime. This is a bit jarring at first, but it turns out to be a wise choice. As the story unfolds, we realize that it’s through the lens of their recollections of their hero Norm. The utilization of Irishman style de-aging or younger actors isn’t necessary.

Lee’s previous pic BlacKkKlansman told a tale from decades ago that resonates in 2020 (perhaps slightly more effectively). Same goes for Da 5 Bloods. Lee is an urgent director and we feel it throughout. With a commanding lead performance from Lindo, a fine score from Terence Blanchard, and a fresh take on the genre (s), Bloods is a vital watch.

***1/2 (out of four)

The Invisible Man Movie Review

Finding its source material from the H.G. Wells novel that spawned a classic from the heyday of the Universal Monsters movies, Leigh Whannell’s take on the subject matter spins a 21st century play to the mix. While the title character wreaks his havoc, it’s the central woman in the story who is truly invisible. This is a horror tale in the #MeToo era and an often potent one at that.

We open with Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) trying to escape her abusive marriage in the middle of the night without being seen. Her husband Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), we discover later, is a controlling and dangerous figure. He’s also a mega rich tech genius (think Tony Stark with far more personal demons). Cecilia manages to flee and stay with an old friend who’s also a detective (Aldis Hodge) and his teen daughter (Storm Reid). Afraid to even walk outside, her fears subside when Adrian is found dead of apparent suicide. The relief is short-lived when an unseen force starts stalking Cecilia yet again and all signs point to the apparently departed husband.

Whannell has been an integral player in the scares genre with his involvement in the Saw and Insidious franchises. He is a stylish filmmaker who knows how to construct a suspenseful setup. We have grown rather wearily accustomed to the jump scares that permeate these genre exercises. They are here, but I will say a couple of them really land the jab. There’s a scene in an upscale restaurant where still or sparkling water becomes an afterthought due to a genuinely surprising moment.

That scene and many others are tremendously assisted by the convincing and freaked out to the max performance of Moss. She conveys her fear of Adrian with wide eyed terror and, eventually, a resolve to change the power dynamic. The screenplay (from the director) smartly doesn’t employ flashback sequences to show her cycle of abuse. Her fear says enough. The two-hour running time is a bit out of the ordinary for this type of material and the final third is somewhat of a letdown when the plot becomes more literal with its explanations. However, with Moss’s work fully in control of her out of control situation, The Invisible Man is a creative modern rendering of a familiar monster.

*** (out of four)

The King of Staten Island Movie Review

Pete Davidson is not your average Saturday Night Live cast member. He is less known for characters he plays and is more known for essentially portraying himself on Weekend Update sketches. That includes warts and all with his much publicized romantic life, struggles with mental health and drug issues, and tragic family history. It is no surprise that Judd Apatow is the director to bring his semi autobiographical story to the big screen in The King of State Island. And the Apatow treatment comes with the high points of his previous efforts. It also comes with the warts and all of his pics that includes an unnecessarily lengthy running time and subplots that don’t really pan out.

The big screen treatment ended up being a misnomer since Island went the Video on Demand route due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Davidson is Scott Carlin, an aimless 24 year old living with his mom Margie (Marisa Tomei) in the borough where it is joked that New Jersey looks down upon. His little sister (Maude Apatow) is an achiever who is moving along to college. Scott’s longtime friend and sort of girlfriend Kelsey (Bel Powley) is a glass half full type in contrast with his constantly half empty outlook. The similarities between Davidson and his character are hard to miss. Scott’s father was a firefighter who died in the line of duty and so did Davidson’s on 9/11. Substance abuse and effects of ADD are prevalent with Scott and, as mentioned, the actor hasn’t been shy about addressing those matters.

One key difference: Davidson has been a pop culture fixture on the famous sketch comedy show for a few years. The man he is playing isn’t accomplishing much of anything. His idea to open a tattoo parlor/restaurant is met with understandable skepticism. Scott’s arrested development is dealt a setback when Margie finds romance after 17 years of being a widow with fireman Ray (Bill Burr). Their courtship elevates his anxieties to a new level.

Apatow, over the past decade and half, has elevated numerous comedic performers to new heights. These include Steve Carell in The 40 Year Old Virgin, Seth Rogen in Knocked Up, and Amy Schumer in Trainwreck. The similarities here are most in line with the latter as Davidson’s known persona is put through the cinematic lens. As an avid SNL watcher, I have found his bits occasionally inspired and frequently a little grating. It is a credit to Apatow and Davidson that Island finds a balance that is primarily satisfying. However, that’s not to say there aren’t issues. Island is too long. A subplot regarding Scott and his buddies and a pharmaceutical heist could have easily been left on the cutting room floor. While it often deftly switches between humorous and serious segments, the tone shifts are not always consistent.

On the bright side, some scenes are quite well done. This includes a night out with Scott, Ray, and some fellow firefighters where his late dad’s angelic legacy is tarnished to his son’s delight. Every time romantic interest Kelsey (with a terrific performance by Powley) is around, it works. I actually found myself wishing Scott had more interest in her because she deserves more screen time.

Ultimately The King of Staten Island is vintage Apatow and that includes the glass being measured in both ways. Thankfully it is full for the most part.

*** (out of four)

Richard Jewell Movie Review

Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell continues his late career spate of no-frills dramas focused on recent events. This is a mostly successful and effective one which recounts the title character’s accusations of being responsible for the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park Bombing in Atlanta. Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray spare no anger (sometimes subtle, sometimes above the surface) at the U.S. Government and the media for their contribution to his suffering. That is where Jewell has generated some controversy due its depiction of one reporter played by Olivia Wilde. Some of that material is indeed problematic, but the film overall is buoyed by a trio of terrific performances.

One of them is Paul Walter Hauser as Jewell. Working as a low-level security guard with deep reverence for law enforcement (he longs to be in that club), Jewell works the event that results in pipe bombs being detonated and he saves lives by discovering the knapsack that the devices are kept in. However, he also becomes the tragedy’s prime suspect. His two biggest investigators depicted here are Jon Hamm’s FBI agent and Wilde’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter. Richard’s support system include his lawyer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) and his beloved mama Bobi (Kathy Bates).

Jewell’s credit as a hero is short-lived as the government and media hone in on him as the potential bomber. Hauser’s performance (he’s been memorable in smaller roles in I, Tonya and BlacKkKlansman) is first-rate as he captures Jewell’s vulnerability and unwillingness to fight the system until it’s almost too late. Credit also goes to Rockwell and Bates. The scenes between this trio give the picture its greatest dramatic heft.

As mentioned, the treatment of Wilde and the FBI as a whole is a bit more complicated. Their story here has been called more fictionalized than the reality. I can only say that Wilde’s reporter in particular is written as more of a caricature. Yet the unfair treatment of Jewell is one that resonates with Hauser’s superb work assisting in a major way.

*** (out of four)

Uncut Gems Movie Review

When the brothers Safdie (Ben and Josh) made Good Time in 2017, the thriller centering on low-life crime figures contained segments that showed the duo was capable of creating something special. Clearly influenced by similar grimy pics in the 1970s, that film gave Robert Pattinson a role that drew him far away from a sullen romantic vampire and is primarily responsible for his current career trajectory. However, I found Good Time better in spots than as a cohesive whole. Their follow-up is Uncut Gems and it’s the “something special” that was hinted at in their predecessor.

In many ways, it stays in the Good Time lane. The setting is again the Big Apple. The characters are again a level of bottom dwelling criminals who aren’t exactly top level at their professions. And like Pattinson, Gems allows a very famous actor to try something different. Here it’s Adam Sandler as Howard Ratner, who owns a diamond store and is a degenerate gambler. In Howard’s universe, there’s not a problem that he can’t seem to make worse.

His family life is in a constant state of chaos as his wife (Idina Menzel) is ready to freeze him out and his brother-in-law (Eric Bogosian) is a loan shark that Howard owes money to. Then there’s his girlfriend Julie (Julia Fox, in her feature debut) who works for him and is a consistent source of stress. Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) is his business associate charged with bringing in celebrities and high rollers to the store. He finds one in Boston Celtics superstar Kevin Garnett, who plays himself and does so memorably.

When Howard gets his hands on a rare Ethiopian opal, it sets off a series of frenzied events. Garnett is obsessed with purchasing the rarity while Howard looks to cash in with it at auction. The hoped for financial windfall means he can pay his off his considerable debts. Yet Howard just cannot help himself as one scheme simply leads to the next one, including betting on his NBA client for large sums of money.

Like Good Time, the pacing here is relentless. For over two hours, the screenplay and direction immerse us in Howard’s out of control daily existence. It’s exhilarating and Sandler deserves a lot of the credit. These days, it’s rare to see the performer in anything other than middling to less than middling Netflix comedies. Seeing him rise to the challenge in more dramatic material shouldn’t come as a huge surprise as we saw it in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love nearly two decades ago. It’s just been a while. Howard is onscreen nearly the entire running time and for good reason. You can’t take your eyes off him.

The lead’s remarkable work is accentuated by his supporting cast. This especially applies to the women in his life as both Menzel and Fox are given notable scenes reacting to Howard’s never-ending foibles. By the time the credits roll, one could argue Uncut Gems has the happiest ending it could have if you really ponder it. This is a tale of addiction in a highly stylized setting where Howard just can’t become the winner he pines to be. His turmoil is interrupted by brief glimpses of happiness and we witness a couple of great ones. In the era that the Safdies are paying homage, Al Pacino or Robert De Niro might have played Howard. Sandler gets the job here and knocks it out the park. It’s something special.

**** (out of four)

Bombshell Movie Review

Charlize Theron’s Megyn Kelly and dozens of other women deal with their own monster in Jay Roach’s Bombshell, a retelling of the Fox News harassment scandal that ended the reign of founder Roger Ailes. The ripped from the headlines tale features outstanding performances, incredible makeup work, and at least a handful of scenes that strike the right chord.

The film focuses primarily on three women in different stages of dealing with Ailes, as played by John Lithgow. Kelly is the star with her own highly successful primetime hour and loads of ambition. Nicole Kidman’s Gretchen Carlson is seeing her career on the downslide. She’s been moved from a top rated morning show to the desert of afternoon programming. Much of this has to do with her rebuffing the advances of Ailes. Carlson is already making moves to hold Ailes accountable while Kelly is conflicted. The fictional and composite character of Kayla (Margot Robbie) is just starting her journey at the network. In many ways, her role is the most fascinating. They say don’t meet your heroes and as a young conservative landing her dream gig, she (and her family) worship at the altar of the Fox logo. When Kayla maneuvers an introduction to Roger, her nightmare begins and a scene where the head honcho “auditions” her is horrific.

Charles Randolph’s screenplay peppers in many characters involved in the sordid saga. This allows for plenty of recognizable faces playing very or semi recognizable figures, including Allison Janney as Ailes attorney Susan Estrich, Malcolm McDowell as Fox CEO Rupert Murdoch, and Richard Kind as loyal defender Rudy Giuliani. There’s also Kate McKinnon as Kayla’s confidante in the bullpen. Yet it’s the quartet of leads that eat up most screen time. Theron’s transformation to Kelly is pretty remarkable. Much of that is due to her performance and capturing her mannerisms, but the makeup work of Kazu Hiro and team must be mentioned. The writing of Ailes is well handled as the script doesn’t shy away from his creepiness. It also doesn’t shy away from his connection to people and that he got to the top of the mountain with his abilities. After all, it’s those traits that sadly allowed many to stay silent for so long. Robbie’s character is the most conflicted. Her eventual face to face with Kelly regarding Roger’s behavior takes an unexpected turn worthy of conversation afterwards.

Perhaps the best scene occurs in 2006 and it involves Rudi Bakhtiar (Nazanin Boniadi). Her harassment comes not from Ailes, but as a direct result of the culture he created. When her incident occurs, we hear her inner monologue while she attempts to navigate her way out of it. We know that so many others heard that voice and Bombshell holds our interest in showing us where those voices led them.

*** (out of four)

The Good Liar Movie Review

Bill Condon’s The Good Liar gathers British acting royalty, but is not a crowning achievement compared to the career highlights of the principals involved. We have Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Helen Mirren in a twisty con artist tale based on a Nicholas Searle novel.

The film tests the limits of whether having these two leads is good enough. For a decent portion of the running time, the answer is yes. McKellen is Roy Courtnay, who successfully bilks investors out of millions along with partner Vincent (Jim Carter). His latest conquest is The Rich Widow Con and that’s Mirren’s Betty McLeish. Roy’s got patience when it comes to lifting her bank account. He attempts to ingratiate himself to her only grandson (Russell Tovey). Roy soon moves into Betty’s drab home. Past victims of his grifts are on his trail. And there’s a bit of mystery whether their partnership will move beyond platonic.

In its first half, The Good Liar is a concoction as bubbly as the wine Betty enjoys during their first date after meeting online. It is a humorous opening credits touch as they chat on the computer. Roy checks the box for non-smoker as he puffs away on a cigarette. Betty claims not to be a drinker with glass in hand. With these two master thespians bouncing dialogue off one another, it’s often a treat. On the other hand, we aren’t seeing anything unseen in the genre before with the exception of the age of the performers involved.

When flashbacks to Roy and Betty’s pasts come into play later, the pic loses its frothy charms and becomes far more serious and considerably more absurd at the same time. I am not confident that the plot mechanisms that rocket into overdrive in the latter portion hold up on close inspection. It’s telling that some of the reveals aren’t worth racking the brain about. There’s no doubt that McKellen and Mirren’s interplay is fun for awhile. When their story ventures into more weighty subjects, it doesn’t feel earned delving into them.

**1/2 (out of four)