Knock at the Cabin Review

Sunshine causes lingering pain and brief moments of delight in M. Night Shyamalan’s Knock at the Cabin, a dark and grim adaptation of Paul G. Tremblay’s 2018 novel. The filmmaker’s weakest tendencies are present but don’t arise as often in the mostly one space setting. Clunky dialogue and bizarre character choices associated with Shyamalan are kept to a minimum. There’s no rapper bafflingly named Mid-Sized Sedan like in his predecessor Old. The apocalyptic theme is hardly new though it generates a respectable amount of tension.

It also gets to the point in scene one. Leonard (Dave Bautista) may look like a bouncer, but he teaches second grade. We learn this as he introduces himself to seven-year-old Wen (Kristen Cui) while she’s catching grasshoppers outside a vacation property in remote Pennsylvania. Wen is the adopted daughter of her two Dads Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge). Leonard insists on forcefully entering the cabin with three associates all sporting old school weapons. They’re not your typical home invaders: nurse Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird) and cook Adriane (Abby Quinn) have kind demeanors like Leonard. Only ill-tempered Redmond (Rupert Grint, all grown up from Harry Potter Weasley fame) seems comfortable breaking and entering.

Dad and Dad don’t welcome their presence and they’re tied up. Eric becomes concussed in the process (hence the sunlight hurting him). The quartet explains that the trio face a gut wrenching choice. They must sacrifice a family member in a short period of time. If they don’t, the world’s population will end in a series of catastrophes. Eric, Andrew, and Wen will survive and everyone else will perish. The hostages are understandably skeptical. Their detainers (who claim they’ve all experienced similar visions of devastation) aren’t afraid to display how serious they are. This includes news footage that shows they might be onto something.

The bulk of Cabin is reserved for us deciding whether Leonard and company are telling the truth. We do get flashbacks of Eric and Andrew’s relationship before and after they bring Wen into their lives. They feel somewhat superfluous yet they are fleeting interludes in the appreciatively brisk 100 minutes. Bautista is playing against type. You would think of him as a teacher in a silly comedy where he displays his bulk. This is far from that and his work is restrained in a positive way. All the performance are adequate. Shyamalan’s track record is spotty with child performances. He is responsible for guiding some great ones (think Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense or Spencer Treat Clark in Unbreakable). Cui’s is on the plus side.

I was a captive audience member for much of the stay. As it continued, I found this surprisingly anticlimactic (especially for something about the Earth maybe ending). Shyamalan has resurrected his career by self-financing his pictures and turning a tidy profit. While that’s admirable, he seems limited by the budget considering all that’s occurring outside the cabin. Like a mid-sized sedan, it’s dependable for awhile until it isn’t.

**1/2 (out of four)

You People Review

You People begins with podcaster Ezra (Jonah Hill) and his cohost Mo (Sam Jay) having a chat about the former’s relationship status. They compare it to the various albums of Drake as far as his moods (looking for love Drake vs. party boy Drake). It sounds like the idea of a conversation you’d have in a movie screenplay before the scribes try for authenticity. Hill and cowriter/director Kenya Barris (creator of sitcom black-ish) rarely get to the authenticity part as this race and family relations concoction feels overly workshopped. There are glimpses in the third act, but what a waste of talent for so much of it.

Ezra’s heart is taken by Amira (Lauren London) after mistaking her for his Uber driver. The couple’s meet cute quickly elevates to an engagement and the meet the parents business complicates the bliss. His are Julia-Louis Dreyfus’s doting Jewish mom Shelley and hubby Arnold (David Duchovny), whose lines are 90% describing 90s rapper Xzibit. Hers are devout Muslim Akbar (Eddie Murphy) and wife Fatima (Nia Long). Ezra’s streaming show is about cultural interactions. Those of the in-laws could fill a season’s worth of content.

The problem is it’s not profound and feels rather tame. A lunch table talk about the ebony and ivory aspects of Forrest Gump is shrimpy in its impact. Same goes for when Ezra is stuck in the car with his future father-in-law as a Jay-Z/Kanye track using a forbidden word comes up. These are sitcom level situations with the humor stuck in bland-ish gear.

A cast filled with familiar faces do add some welcome laughs. Small contributions from Mike Epps as Akbar’s degenerate brother and Molly Gordon as Ezra’s exasperated sister help. Barris and Hill manage to inject a little emotion in the waning moments that could satisfy ardent rom com devotees.

For the most part, You People is listless. The biggest surprise is the term applies to Murphy’s performance. The legend is usually the spark plug even in his mediocre pics. This recalls his lethargic work in Beverly Hills Cop III more than anything else. When that’s the comparison I’m making with his filmography, the heat is off when it comes to his normal firepower.

** (out of four)

A Man Called Otto Review

A Man Called Otto is metaphorically and actually about the title character eventually getting his power back. Otto Anderson (Tom Hanks) is a recent widower just retired. We’re introduced to him as he suspiciously and precisely purchases a length of rope at a local suburban Pittsburgh home improvement store. Otto is a curmudgeon and he would probably tell neighbors to remove themselves from his condominium lawn, but he’s also Tom Hanks so we’re softened to him. It’s a bummer when that length of rope turns out to be what we fear. Not happy about his current situation, he shuts his electricity off as a prelude to suicide.

Then he keeps getting interrupted. The first prevention comes unwittingly from new neighbors Marisol (Mariana Treviño, stealing the show) and Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo). They are parents of two adorable girls with a boy on the way. The husband is a kindly dim bulb. Marisol is not. She’s strong and caring and seems to drive every relationship she’s in even if she can’t drive a car. At first Otto is dismissive of her (though not her cooking).

Another attempt involving carbon monoxide poisoning is thwarted by Marisol. Slowly an odd friendship develops. Their interplay generates the real electricity in the screenplay from David Magee. It was, as many know, adapted from Fredrik Backman’s 2012 novel A Man Called Ove. It was turned into an Oscar nominated 2015 Swedish film.

The genuine emotional connection between Otto and Marisol helps mask that other characters are broad caricatures. There’s silly Jimmy (Cameron Britton), who’s always doing his comically awkward walks nearby. Or the hip hop blaring Real Estate Agent (comedian Mike Birbiglia), who is trying to evict Otto’s long-time friends with health problems. Minimal nuance is involved with these folks – “Real Estate Agent” isn’t even granted a name. I forget if Bratty Dog Walker (her pooch is treated like royalty) has one. There is a cat who is easily more memorable as Otto increasingly seems to have nine lives. Also on the plus side, flashback sequences that show his marriage to Sonya (Rachel Keller) help inform Otto’s condition. His younger self is portrayed by the actor’s real son Truman Hanks.

Marc Forster is behind the camera and what a fascinating filmography he’s had. From directing Halle Berry to an Oscar in Monster’s Ball to Daniel Craig’s weakest 007 outing Quantum of Solace to the effective adaptation of World War Z and Finding Neverland and Christopher Robin, he mixes it up. His main style might be that he doesn’t have much of one (whatever fits the occasion). A silhouetted and overly dramatic later suicide attempt tries to bite off more stylistically than its filmmaker can chew. Forster is mostly content to allow Hanks and Treviño steer the vehicle and that’s welcome. A Man Called Otto is far from perfect yet it has a lot of heart.

*** (out of four)

White Noise Review

Noah Baumbach’s White Noise begins with a professorial dissertation on the American public’s fascination with car crashes in the movies. In the course of the next two hours plus, this adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel careens wildly from genre to genre with divergent tones scraping against one another. That’s not an accident. I think Baumbach made the picture he set out to make.

I can’t speak to the source material though a common thread is that it’s unfilmable. Here we are though I suspect many will concur. Set in the time period when the book was penned, Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) teaches Hitler Studies at a liberal arts college. It’s the kind of higher ed institution where the faculty deem themselves brilliant and every utterance carries the weight of gospel. No matter that Professor Gladney is secretly learning German despite his self professed expertise on their history. The comedic highlight of his work comes in a “lecture off” with a colleague (Don Cheadle) who teaches Elvis Studies to his non-suspicious minded pupils.

Jack is married to Babette (Greta Gerwig). They are each on their fourth marriage with a blended brood of as many kids. Denise (Raffey Cassidy), spawned from a previous Babette nuptial, is worried about strange pills that Mom is taking called Dylar. Her stepdad is mostly oblivious and not just about that. When a train accident spills chemicals near their home, Jack seems more concerned with dinner than evacuation routes. A black cloud from the “Airborne Toxic Event” does set them off on the road where adventures in comedy, noir, relationship dramas, and Spielbergian sci-burbia await.

The real black cloud involves the fear of death. Jack and Babette are practically in a competition about who it frightens most. The screenplay has some dark and demented fun exploring the distractions to not think about The End. I must confess there were times, especially in the first act, where I wondered if the means to this movie’s eventual end was worth it. White Noise is a lot – lots of mood swings, lots of story crammed in. It falters sometimes like its college faculty in thinking it’s sharper than it is. Still those big swings are admirable and the cast is devoted to the many frames of mind. I’m not sure I always bought Driver as the aloof middle aged dad, but he’s terrific at times and so is Gerwig.

This is exhilarating and maddening and both words apply frequently. I rarely wanted to look away – sorta like a car crash though it’s tougher to categorize the sadistic allure.

*** (out of four)

Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. Review

Adamma Ebo’s Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. concentrates on a mission to atone while the screenplay can’t always find a tone of its own. A comedy that wants to dive deeper into its themes, it is served by two dynamic lead turns from Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown. The inconsistency doesn’t always serve them.

Adapting her own short film, Soul struggles to account for its feature length. The concept is simple. Lee-Curtis Childs (Brown) is the pastor of a once booming Southern Baptist megachurch. Wife Trinitie (Hall) is The First Lady. Numerous scandals involving Lee-Curtis’s relationships with young males have dwindled the membership from hundreds to a mere handful. A documentary crew is present to chronicle either a resurrection or their final downfall as they are planning an Easter comeback service.

Will anyone show up? Competition is fierce as another couple (Conphidance and Nicole Beharie) are planning the debut of a rival location on the same Sunday. Many former congregants seem likely to jump ship as Lee-Curtis and Trinitie are desperate to maintain some of them.

In the beginning stages, Honk seems inspired by Christopher Guest’s acclaimed mockumentaries. It doesn’t fully commit to that format in the way that his best works did. A tone in the more serious range rises as it goes along. Lee-Curtis must confront a victim (Austin Crute) who won’t settle like the others and Trinitie must confront their troubled marriage.

The decadence of their lifestyle is the focus of the satire and it makes the Childs an easy and familiarly covered target. The actors playing them almost make this worthwhile anyway. Hall and Brown both have emotional monologues that showcase their power. It’s a testament to their performances that we think legions of their parishioners might turn back up. Trinitie, especially, is a character that could’ve been fascinating given her tortured connection with her potentially irredeemable spouse. She needed more substance than she’s granted. I have no doubt Hall would have excelled at fleshing her out.

One running joke is about how the documentary’s director (never seen) won’t say anything despite prodding from her subjects. Honk‘s maker Ebo, who wrote this expansion, gives voice to a promising premise that feels unfulfilled. It seems like it has plenty to say and never quite settles on how to say it all.

**1/2 (out of four)

Violent Night Review

Nearly everyone is a member of the Naughty List in Tommy Wirkola’s Violent Night and that includes Santa Claus (David Harbour) for a stretch. We meet a more tipsy than jolly St. Nick on Christmas Eve at an English pub. He’s lamenting kids these days on a short break from chimney diving.

By the time he makes it over to Connecticut, he stumbles into a home invasion of the über rich Lightstone family. That includes matriarch Gertrude (Beverly D’Angelo), wine swigging daughter Alva (Edi Patterson) and her wannabe action star beau (Cam Gigandet) and constantly v-logging son (Alexander Elliot). The Christmas vacation turned hostage situation is joined by “#1 son” Jason (Alex Hassell), estranged wife Linda (Alexis Louder), and adorable daughter Trudy (Leah Brady). Named after her ruthless grandmother, she doesn’t yet share the traits of her haughty elders.

While she believes in Santa, Trudy cannot imagine the vicious ex-warrior that he turns out to be until they team up. The bad guys are led by John Leguizamo. He goes by Mr. Scrooge and all his henchmen are given seasonal aliases like Frosty and Candy Cane. Krampus (Brendan Fletcher) is the most sadistic and the funniest. They’re searching for a massive gift: $300 million said to be on premise. When Santa is stranded by his reindeer, he becomes the evening’s John McClane. He says ho-ho-ho, there are machine guns, and we have plenty of makeshift weapons that inflict maximum pain. Trudy is kind of a mini Al Powell to keep the Die Hard references up. She communicates with our very real icon via walkie talkie in what no doubt is a Christmas movie stuffed with carnage.

Violent Night shouldn’t end up on any best of or worst of lists. Harbour lends demented spirit to Mr. Kringle, but the script dampens the overall experience. There’s a brutally humorous twist on Home Alone style pranks in one sequence. A lot of the mayhem unfortunately has a repetitive feel. A tightened runtime of 90 minutes would be a bonus. It clocks in at 112 minutes. You will believe this could’ve been superior though this anus kicking Santa occasionally delivers.

**1/2 (out of four)

Avatar: The Way of Water Review

Avatar: The Way of Water is both visually sparkling and narratively flat. In that sense, James Cameron’s sequel is much like the 2009 original (which happens to be worldwide highest grosser in history). The effects thirteen years ago were revolutionary and kicked off a mostly unfortunate trend of tentpoles getting the three-dimensional treatment. That sense of wonder from Avatar is present occasionally below the surface in a few astounding underwater sequences. Many blockbusters have competed with this franchise in visual splendor and come up short and that includes some shoddy MCU battles. Cameron and his crew can still wow, but subpar writing and a lack of tight editing remains a problem. If you loved the forests of Pandora in part 1 and didn’t want to leave, you’ll likely love lounging in the aquatic action of this follow-up. If your feelings were mixed like mine were, expect a similar reaction.

Former Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Na’vi spiritual leader in waiting Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) are married with four kids as Water begins (it’s set a decade and a half plus post Avatar). Adopted teenage daughter Kiri (voiced by Sigourney Weaver) is miraculously spawned from Sigourney’s scientist in the original. We suspect she might have special powers if she can get over her Jan Brady lot in life. Older brother Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) is the responsible one while second born boy Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) is the rebel. Youngest girl Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) is eight and precocious. The Sully tribe are living a peaceful existence until those mean corporate Earthlings return to Pandora. On their list of plays is total colonization as the home planet is dying.

Due to a memory implant system, Stephen Lang’s villainous Colonel is leading the charge in the guise of a Na’vi big blue boy. He has revenge on his mind since it was Neytiri who arrowed him to death years ago. There’s also a son he left behind that the Sully’s are raising who goes by Spider (Jack Champion). Clad in a loincloth, his character comes off as a cartoonish plot device. He’s got about as much depth as Bam Bam Rubble. The dynamic between Spider and his father is one of a few daddy issues happening. I half expected a sky complected Maury Povich to interrupt and start moderating.

Since Jake is being targeted for his skill in fighting off the Sky People, he relocates his brood to the tropical island of At’wa Attu. They feel out of place among the residents who spend much of their day submerged. The chief of their clan known as the Metkayina is Tonwari (Cliff Curtis). He and his pregnant wife Ronal (Kate Winslet) are skeptical about harboring their guests. It’s in and around the island where some memorable moments happen. The Metkayina share a spiritual connection with the giant mammals swimming below. Lo’ak befriends one of them and it’s a subplot that clicks.

Part 2 relegates Jake and Neytiri to the sidelines for much of its three hours and 12 minutes. A larger focus is on their offspring and how they feel like fish out of water. The filmmaker’s own well-documented fascination with the deep comes in handy with the whale tale portions and beyond. The bulk of its themes, on the other hand, are heavily borrowed from before. Cameron and his tech wizards can enthrall us and exasperate us in this new habitat that questions our humanity.

*** (out of four)

Triangle of Sadness Review

Ruben Östlund’s satire Triangle of Sadness is divided into three parts. Only the concluding one feels right and you have to wade through a sea of spew and poo to get to that material. It tackles familiar themes that are handled in an unsubtle manner. They include the divide between the haves and the have nots, materialistic obsession, the never ending search for Likes, and the fact that you can’t eat just one pretzel stick.

It begins with a couple that’s hardly a model of stability. We meet them while arguing over a pricey restaurant bill. Some of the tension stems from them both being models. Carl (Harris Dickinson) still has to audition while Yaya (Charlbi Dean) is given free rein and costless trips due to her online popularity. One of those perks is boarding a fancy yacht filled with rich folks with filthy morals.

The schooner’s staff is instructed to never say no to its passengers no matter how outlandish their requests may be. The ship’s Captain (Woody Harrelson) drunkenly stows himself in his cabin to avoid them while the rest of the crew don’t have the luxury. In addition to Carl and Yaya, there’s Russian fertilizer magnate Dimitry (Zlatko Burić) and his wife and mistress and a sweet seeming old couple (Oliver Ford Davies and Amanda Walker) who made their fortune in grenades.

A storm is coming just in time for the Captain’s Dinner which finally gets said Captain out and about. The motion of the ocean leads to all manners of leakage in a gross out sequence that might make you gag too.

The final act occurs on an island with a smaller crew of returning cast. That’s when we’re introduced to Abigail (Dolly De Leon), who served as toilet manager on the boat (a job made even worse by recent events). Faced with a Cast Away type of situation, she’s the only one who has what it takes to be a survivor.

De Leon is a breath of fresh air when it is sorely needed in Östlund’s screenplay. She’s by far the most captivating character in the script coupled with the best performance. The prior interplay between Harrelson’s Marxist American and Burić’s Russian capitalist is tiresome. Carl and Yaya’s strained romance is not worth the hearts.

Abigail’s shifting of the power dynamic vs. her former employers (and basically dictators) would have made, I suspect, a fascinating movie. For the amount of time when that’s what Triangle is about, it is. The two chapters that precede it are shakier.

**1/2 (out of four)

Causeway Review

Like the Snow Cone flavor that Brian Tyree Henry’s character prefers, the understated nature of Causeway can occasionally come off as vanilla and a little cold. The debut work from theater director Lila Neugebauer is also accentuated by solid performances all around (Henry’s is a particular standout) and the toned down vibe can also work in its favor.

Lynsey (Jennifer Lawrence) is a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers member recovering from a traumatic brain injury in Afghanistan after an IED explosion. We meet her as she is staying with a warmhearted nurse (Jayne Houdyshell). This first act is handled with a deft touch showing more detail than we typically witness for one’s rough road to recovery.

After significant strides are made, Lynsey returns to her native New Orleans. Her family life is far from ideal as mother Gloria (Linda Emond) forgets which day her daughter is coming back. A brother with a drug problem is talked about but not seen. Feeling restless and anxious at home, Lynsey gets a job cleaning pools that are far nicer than the inflatable one that Mom drinks her cocktails in.

As her nurse learned and her conflicted doctor (Stephen McKinley Henderson) is told, Lynsey’s goal is a return overseas. Her physical recuperation may warrant a waiver being signed. Whether she’s mentally fit to serve is a question her medical advisors and the audience grapples with.

Our eager to redeploy patient meets a kindred spirit in James (Tyree Henry). He’s an auto mechanic introduced to Lynsey after she brings an overheated truck to his repair shop. Like his customer, he’s dealing with his own emotional damage due to a family tragedy. Connecting through shared trauma, Causeway becomes a simple story about a complex friendship. It’s on that level that it succeeds. It does so because of their performances. Those who discovered Lawrence through her first Oscar nod in 2010’s Winter’s Bone will welcome the return to indie drama.

The dramatic stakes don’t feel inflated here. If you feel that not a whole lot happens in the movie, you wouldn’t be mistaken. There are stretches where Lynsey and James are content to just hang (sometimes in a vacationing customer’s pool). Their dynamic is compelling enough that I valued lounging with them.

*** (out of four)

Ticket to Paradise Review

The end credit outtakes of Ticket to Paradise give us a glimpse of the fun George Clooney and Julia Roberts had making it. I have no doubt given the gorgeous setting of Bali (though it was made in Australia). They’ve also played exes before in Ocean’s Eleven and Twelve and seemed to have a ball doing it. Ol Parker’s rom com intermittently succeeds at riding the wave of their star power. It’s got the right stars with the right chemistry and too often the wrong script.

David Cotton (Clooney) and Georgia Cotton (Julia Roberts) have, as far they’re concerned, been blissfully divorced for two decades. They rarely interact but will for the one subject they agree on. That’s their love for daughter Lily (Kaitlyn Dever), who’s just finished college. The graduate is ready for some downtime with wild BFF Wren (Billie Lourd) in Bali-stralia. She soon meets Gede (Maxime Bouttier), a seaweed farmer who pulls her heartstrings. Within a month they’re engaged. Given David and Georgia’s history, breaking up the impending nuptials is on their mind and they jet to paradise to execute the plan.

Sitcom level attempts to do so transpire as our leads try to put some bad juju on romantic Balinese traditions. Dropping in to surprise Georgia is younger beau Paul (Lucas Bravo), a pilot who can’t seem to navigate his girlfriend’s signals. His character is an example of the screenplay’s mediocrity. I never bought the relationship they have as anything more than a plot device to reunite our megawatt headliners. I’m not expecting realism in a rom com, but everyone is underwritten or a caricature here (the talented Lourd’s treatment as the boozy travel companion is another case).

Your enjoyment may hinge on how content you are watching Clooney and Roberts do their thing. A drunken night out features 90s jams like “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” and “Jump Around”. That’s the decade when audiences fell for them. In Paradise, they can only coast so far given the material. This is not an example of them saving their best stuff for later.

** (out of four)