Friday, March 23, 2018
Movie Reviews
Movie Reviews

7 days in entebbe 7 Days in Entebbe (2018) Movie Review

A daring Israeli military rescue fuels true-life thriller 7 Days in Entebbe

If you’ve ever gone through security at Ben Gurion Airport, you know just how seriously Israel takes terrorism. It’s the sort of vigilance required by being a nation surrounded by enemies who historically wish to wipe you from the map. This constant sense of alert in the face of existential threats on all sides is woven into the fabric of the Jewish state’s identity. And it’s led to the events that give the nation its greatest sources of pride — namely its military victories in 1967’s Six Day War, 1973’s Yom Kippur War, and 1976’s high-wire raid at Entebbe.

That last one may be slightly less familiar to some. But it’s not for a lack of representation on screens both big and small over the years. There have been at least four movies that have retold the infamous hijacking of Air France Flight 139 from Athens to Paris and the daring military operation that followed. Just four short years after 11 Israeli athletes were murdered at the 1972 Munich Olympics, a group of armed terrorists, including two German members of the anti-Zionist Revolutionary Cells group and two Arab members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, took control of that plane whose passengers were largely Jewish (the flight’s first leg originated in Tel Aviv). The hijackers eventually redirected the flight to Entebbe, Uganda. There, they were greeted like long-lost comrades by the African dictator Idi Amin. It’s not giving anything away to say that the Israeli military’s subsequent lightning raid and rescue was a defining moment of triumph for the nation. After all, so much could have gone wrong. It’s amazing that so much went right.

That weeklong international crisis is now the subject of director Jose Padilha’s gripping but flawed new thriller 7 Days in Entebbe. While the previous retellings of this story, including 1976’s Raid on Entebbe and 1977’s Operation Thunderbolt, had the slightly chintzy veneer of an Irwin Allen disaster flick reimagined as a daytime soap opera, Padilha’s version has a grittier vibe of sweaty desperation, doom, and misplaced fanaticism. It may still be light years away from a masterpiece like Steven Spielberg’s Munich, but it has an urgent tick-tock suspense that sweeps you up.

Padilha’s film opens with one of the German terrorists, Wilfried Bose (Inglorious Basterds’ Daniel Bruhl) psyching up his nerve in the men’s room of the Athens airport. His partner, Brigitte Kuhlmann (Gone Girl’s Rosamund Pike) counters his jitters with the no-nonsense zealotry of a true believer. Shortly after the plane takes off, they pull out their weapons and storm the cockpit, forcing the pilots to make a pit stop to refuel in Benghazi, Libya, before making way for Entebbe. Once in Uganda, the terrified passengers are corralled into a squalid third-world terminal, where the Jewish passengers are separated from the others — a sickening reminder of the Holocaust.

Meanwhile, back in Israel, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (Foxtrot’s Lior Ashkenazi) and Defense Minister Shimon Peres (Ray Donovan’s Eddie Marsan) debate how to respond. The hijackers want their fellow “freedom fighters” released from Israel’s prisons, which is of course a non-starter for a country with a longstanding policy of never negotiating with terrorists. Still, the sheer number of lives in danger is hard to ignore. The push-pull debate between Rabin and Peres, two longtime frenemies and rivals for power, becomes political and loaded. Each wants to be the hero — or at least not the man behind a failure. Chain-smoking and in shirtsleeves, the two agree to stall for time while they plan an extraction operation sending IDF commandos to Uganda to save the hostages.

The film comes to crackling life during the planning and climactic execution of the raid. And Padilha, the Brazilian director behind 2007’s hi-octane Elite Squad, knows how to stage these white-knuckle sequences, especially when he cuts back and forth between the on-the-ground tactical assault and a modern dance performance featuring one of the commando’s girlfriends. (It’s way more artful and way less pretentious than it sounds.) What gets lost in all the fireworks, though, is a sense of scale — moral scale.

Screenwriter Gregory Burke (’71) lays out the justifications of both sides, humanizing both the victims and the perpetrators. This will probably seem admirably even-handed to some and problematically wishy-washy and cowardly to others. Either way, I wish the film had more of a point of view. It’s possible to sympathize with the plight of the Palestinians without giving a false-equivalency here or painting the hijackers as stock Hollywood villains. There’s room for nuance, and it’s underexplored.

Still, 7 Days in Entebbe is an effective and undeniably thrilling film. The mission, of course, is a success. But this is not a hopeful movie. How can it be when its central problems are still with us more than 40 years later? In the end, this is just one chapter in what was, is, and will in all likelihood continue to be an endless and intractable cycle of violence.

i can only imagine 1 I Can Only Imagine (2018) Movie Review

Dennis Quaid plays an abusive father in this drama based on the background story of the hit Christian pop song recorded by MercyMe.

“I Can Only Imagine,” recorded by the band MercyMe, is the biggest selling Christian pop single of all time. It’s a very nice song. It is not, however, the second coming, which is how the film dramatizing the background story of its composition makes it seem. Like so many faith-based efforts, I Can Only Imagine suffers from a terminal case of self-importance.

The story revolves around the band’s lead singer Bart Millard (J. Michael Finley), who in the film’s opening scene tells fellow Christian performer Amy Grant (Nicole DuPort) that he wrote the song that changed his life in only ten minutes.

“You didn’t write this song in ten minutes,” Grant replies. “It took a lifetime.”

I know what she means. I Can Only Imagine runs less than two hours, but it feels like a lifetime.

The story then flashes back to Bart’s unhappy childhood when he was growing up with his abusive father Arthur (Dennis Quaid) and a mother who left both of them when he was an adolescent. Even as a child, Bart loved music, but his father would have none of it. “Dreams don’t pay the bills,” Arthur tells his son. It’s one of many lines Arthur utters that signify what a miserable son-of-a-bitch he is, along with such gems as “Life hits me, I hit it back harder.” It’s no wonder Bart grew up to be a pop star. Everything his father says sounds like the title of a country song. You can also tell how mean Arthur is by his perpetual stubble. Not a beard, not five o’clock shadow, but carefully groomed stubble that’s always the same exact length. There are male models who don’t pay as much attention to their facial hair.

Bart aspires to a football career so as to please his dad, but an injury sidelines him permanently. Later, when a teacher accidentally hears him singing, she immediately casts him in the lead role of Curley in the school production of Oklahoma! “You have a gift, Bart,” she tells him (this is the dialogue, folks) and seconds later he’s enthralling a packed auditorium with his rendition of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin.”

After graduating high school, Bart leaves his childhood sweetheart Shannon (Madeline Carroll) behind – they meet as children, and their first kiss is accompanied by fireworks going off in the background (I kid you not) – and goes out on the road with his band named for his cute grandmother’s (Cloris Leachman, still going strong at 91) favorite expression. Along the way they pick up a manager (Trace Adkins, displaying a nice comic touch) who shepherds them to Nashville where they lay a big egg. The manager tells Bart that he needs to use his emotional pain for inspiration, so Bart heads home to find closure with his father. But not before asking his bandmates to wait for him.

“So, we’re still a band?” one of them asks. “No, we’re a family,” Bart replies. (Again, I’m just quoting.)

Upon returning home, Bart finds his father a changed man, as signified by his lack of facial hair and a homemade breakfast of frittatas and cinnamon buns. (Obviously, no one who cooks frittatas could possibly be bad.) It seems that Arthur has found God, thanks to a terminal cancer diagnosis. The movie treats this like a major life turnaround, but am I the only one who thinks deathbed religious conversions don’t count? Like someone once said, there are no atheists in foxholes.

Bart and his father quickly form an intense bond, a good thing because the old man dies not long after. Bart’s grief inspires him to write the titular song, which Amy Grant chooses to be her next single. But just as she’s about to perform it live for the first time, she summons Bart from the audience and tells him to sing it instead. “It’s not just the song that’s special, it’s you,” she tells him (that’s about when I threw up in my mouth). Bart performs the song, the audience genuflects, Shannon comes back to him, and Grant is so moved that she gives the song back to Bart so he can record it with his band. It’s a scene so corny it makes vintage MGM musicals look gritty.

The film, directed in plodding fashion by “The Erwin Brothers,” doesn’t shy away from a single predictable emotional beat. But it does shy away from fully depicting the extent of the father’s abuse. Although Bart refers to being beaten as a child, the only moment of violence involves Arthur hitting him over the head with a plate when he’s a strapping young man. The film essentially undercuts its chief message by being coy. By the time I Can Only Imagine ends with Bart seeing his dead father beaming at him from the audience (he looks great, heaven agrees with him), you can only imagine how the movie could have been any worse.

Production: Lionsgate, Erwin Brothers Entertainment, South West Film Group, Mission Pictures International, LD Entertainment, City on a Hill
Distributor: Roadside Attractions
Cast: J. Michael Finley, Madeline Carroll, Trace Adkins, Priscilla C. Shirer, Cloris Leachman, Dennis Quaid, Brody Rose, Tanya Clarke, Jason Burkey, J.R. Cacia, Nicole Duport
Directors: The Erwin Brothers
Screenwriters: Jon Erwin, Brent McCorkle
Producers: Mickey Liddell, Pete Shilaimon, Daryl Lefever, Cindy Bond, Kevin Downes
Executive producers: Travis Mann, Jon Erwin, Andrew Erwin, Raymond Harris, Scott & Holley Ellis, Bill Herren, Tony Young, Scott Brickell, Simon Swart, Michael Flaherty
Director of photography: Kristopher S. Kimlin
Production designer: Joseph T. Garrity
Editors: Brent McCorkle, Andrew Erwin
Composer: Paul Mills
Costume designer: Anne Redmon
Casting: Beverly Holloway

Rated PG, 110 min.

josie Josie (2018) Movie Review

‘Game of Thrones’ star Sophie Turner plays the mysterious title character, opposite Dylan McDermott’s reclusive loner, in a thriller directed by Eric England.

From the voiceover drawl of Dylan McDermott’s loner to the edge-of-town motel where he meets Sophie Turner’s femme fatale, the genre pieces are set up so clearly in Josie that they border on parody. Working from Anthony Ragnone II’s Black List screenplay Huntsville, director Eric England stirs up a modicum of mystery surrounding the central duo, but the tension quickly devolves into an empty tease.

At various moments throughout the movie, Turner and McDermott suggest something far more complicated and messy than the noir-tinged exercise that unfolds. McDermott conveys a sense of self-imposed exile as Hank, who lives a quiet life with two pet tortoises (providing the drama’s only persuasive emotional hook). Even on the tranquil lake where Hank likes to fish, that quiet is sometimes disrupted by visions of a frightening-looking man in prison orange (Micah Fitzgerald).

Hank doesn’t realize how lonely he is until new neighbor Josie arrives. An ultra-mature high schooler who lives on her own and whose explanation for her situation changes depending on who she’s talking to, Josie draws Hank out of his isolation. As he responds to her coolly seductive friendliness and Lolita poses by the pool, Hank’s wariness turns to attraction, setting off alarms for nosy neighbor Martha (a very good Robin Bartlett) and her obnoxious husband (Kurt Fuller). It’s clear as day that there’s a dark agenda behind Josie’s every move, Turner communicating thorough condescension coiled beneath the surface composure and flickers of sympathy.

While she’s playing Hank like a country fiddle, Josie also gets friendly with Marcus (Jack Kilmer), a callow classmate of hers. At every opportunity, Marcus and his boorish buddy (Daeg Faerch) aggressively hassle Hank, who works at their school as a security guard. Through no fault of Kilmer and McDermott, the animosity between their characters is, like Hank’s job, a head-scratcher — until it becomes clear that it’s a necessary ingredient in Josie’s scheme.

The setting for much of the action is a motel somewhere in the South (played by the San Fernando Valley midcentury landmark the Pink Motel, whose many screen appearances include the Netflix series GLOW). England and DP Zoe White conjure an outsider vibe from the location, but mainly it feels like a stylistic statement, not an expression of something deeper about the characters who converge there. (In the realm of contemporary American noir, the recent Jon Bernthal starrer Sweet Virginia uses a motel setting far more expressively.)

Under the direction of England, who has worked in horror (Contracted) and black comedy (Get the Girl), Ragnone’s self-consciously screenwriterly writing never fully comes alive. What might have been a haunting story of reckoning is instead an inert march to a grim twist, the intended wallop lost in the narrative mechanics. “There’s all kinds of stories,” the voiceover narration unhelpfully intones. This is definitely one of them.

Distributor: Screen Media Films
Production companies: Waterstone Entertainment, Coalition Group, Traveling Picture Show Company, Boo Pictures
Cast: Sophie Turner, Dylan McDermott, Jack Kilmer, Micah Fitzgerald, Lombardo Boyar, Daeg Faerch, Robin Bartlett, Kurt Fuller
Director: Eric England
Screenwriter: Anthony Ragnone II
Producers: Luisa Iskin, Johnny Wunder, Kevin Matusow, Jeff Kalligheri
Executive producers: Carissa Buffel, Steven Chester Prince, Fouad Mikati, Karam Abulhusn, Candice Abela Mikati, Stephen Bowen, Christian Bishop, Dustin Duke Dlouhy, Lauren Russell, Ash Sarohia
Director of photography: Zoe White
Production designer: Rebekah Bell
Editor: Paul Matthew Gordon
Composer: Raney Shockne

87 minutes

demon house Demon House (2018) Movie Review

Zak Bagans, of TV’s ‘Ghost Adventures,’ tells the story of the haunted house that messed him up.

A professional ghost-hunter buys a house said to be a portal to Hell in Demon House, a feature-length spinoff of cable TV’s Ghost Adventures series. Hoping to get to the bottom of the “Ammons House” lore — and to capture any proof of a haunting on camera — Zak Bagans reports he got more than he bargained for. Or as he puts it, “This is the case that really fucked me up.” Though the story itself contains enough to intrigue a skeptic, Bagans’ tendency to tart things up with horror-movie techniques makes this a movie to scare true believers, not win new ones over. It should fare much better on small screens than in theaters.

Harking back to the days when celluloid showmen would promote their wares by, say, taking out insurance policies lest any audience member should die of fright, Demon House begins with a warning that may actually be sincere. It warns, among other things, that “demonologists believe that demons can attach themselves to you through other people, objects and electronic devices.” So “view at your own risk.”

In his grimly serious Midwestern accent, Bagans prefaces the story by telling us of a dream he had, in which he was visited by a 12-foot-tall goat-man who breathed black smoke in his face. He woke up with sore lungs, and in the events to come, others will mention similar figures without knowing of Bagans’ dream. Spoooooky.

Immediately after that, he heard of the house in Gary, Indiana, where Latoya Ammons and her family claim to have experienced all sorts of haunted-house phenomena. Bagans bought the place sight unseen, and got his crew together to go investigate.

By now Ammons has relocated to Indianapolis, and won’t talk to Bagans for fear that he, having just visited the house, might have brought ghosts he’ll unwittingly transfer to her new home. An uncle tells part of the story he says he witnessed, and Bagans offers some pretty low-rent reenactments.

Our first few interviewees don’t inspire a great deal of confidence, partly because of the film’s goofy presentation. But an increasing number of outside observers back the family’s account up — like the Child Protective Services caseworker who, meeting with the family in a hospital, watched a presumably possessed 9-year-old boy walk backwards up a wall to the ceiling.

Bagans takes a pause to explore the possibility of a hoax here, but quickly moves on to first-hand exploration of the house. Crewmembers behave erratically inside, and Bagans himself experiences a couple of outbursts of anger he can’t explain. Then a cameraman goes seriously loopy, with aftereffects that last long after he has returned to the crew’s hotel. As usual with this sort of ghost-hunter project, we meet men with sensors: Dr. Barry Taff gets lots of strange magnetic readings in the house. Taff, along with a slew of other people involved, will go on to have serious and verifiable health effects or accidents shortly after their visits.

Finally, Bagans does something he admits “sounds stupid”: In order to “accelerate the situation,” he screws plywood over all the windows, enters the house and has himself boarded in. He spends the night inside alone, and while nothing kills him, he comes out with enough weirdness to justify the effort.

None of the audio and video evidence seen here is so dramatic that a hardened disbeliever can’t wave it away, but those who want to believe, will. Whether they’ll think Bagans solved the problem when he finally demolished the problematic bungalow, who can say; but given that the place was infested with black mold and other non-supernatural problems, it almost certainly didn’t hurt.

Production company: Scarecrow
Distributor: Freestyle Releasing
Director-screenwriter-executive producer: Zak Bagans
Producers: Michael Dorsey, Joseph Taglieri
Directors of photography: Chris Scarafile, Jay Wasley
Editors: Michael Dorsey, Uri Schwarz, Joseph Taglieri
Composer: Mimi Page

95 minutes

tomb raider ver3 Tomb Raider (2018) Movie Review

Upon arrival they do not find King Kong but, alas, someone far smaller and less photogenic, mercenary Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins), whose goons lord it over a gang of poor souls unfortunate enough to have been dashed upon the rocks there. Jungle chases, shootouts, rides down rapids toward a towering waterfall and much more await our heroine, who, it can be said without undue spoilage, finally reunites with dear old dad (Dominic West), who’s thus far been able to avoid detection by Vogel.

The script by Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastir Siddons is very much a connect-the-dots affair, unburdened by the need for subtlety, subtext or deep characterization — how many times we hear the father go all soft and call his daughter by her pet name “Sprout” cannot be tabulated. The comic book-worthy dilemma is that Vogel, sensing vast riches and untold powers, is determined to open up the tomb of the evil Queen Himiko, who was buried alive therein 2,000 years before, whereas Croft is convinced that only disaster will result from her disinterment.

This disagreement triggers a final act of videogame-like action inside an extensive cave complex with numerous moving parts, the sort of thing gamers take great pleasure in negotiating. Here, of course, it’s all entirely fixed and laid out and entirely predictable, with unsurprising fates awaiting all the central characters. Most assured of all, of course, is the safe return of Lara to London, where a sequel will no doubt start if box-office returns for this one warrant it. (For the record, the 2001 Lara Croft: Tomb Raider pulled in $274.7 million worldwide, while the dreadful 2003 sequel, Lara Croft: The Cradle of Life, fell off dramatically with a $156.5 million global take, making quick work of the franchise’s first incarnation.)

When all the one-dimensional supporting characters and familiar action moves fall by the wayside, the one thing left standing is Vikander. Slim and not tall, she doesn’t cut the figure of a muscled powerhouse, but here she fully embodies physical tenacity and grit, along with absolute determination not to give in or up. The film strains credulity even for a vid-game fantasy by letting the leading lady recover awfully quickly from bad injuries, but other than that Vikander commands attention and is the element here that makes Tomb Raider sort of watchable.

Production companies: Square Enix, GK Films
Distributor: Warner Bros./MGM
Cast: Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Walton Goggins, Daniel Wu, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Derek Jacobi, Hannah John-Kamen
Director: Roar Uthaug
Screenwriters: Geneva Robertson-Dworet, Alastir Siddons; story by Evan Daugherty, Geneva Robertson-Dworet
Producer: Graham King
Executive producers: Patrick McCormick, Denis O’Sullivan, Noah Hughes
Director of photography: George Richmond
Production designer: Gary Freeman
Costume designers: Colleen Atwood, Timothy A. Wonsik
Editors: Stuart Baird, Michael Tronick, Tom Harrison-Reed
Music: Tom Holkenborg
Casting: Susie Figgis

Rated PG-13, 118 minutes

gringo ver3 Gringo (2018) Movie Review

Charlize Theron and Joel Edgerton throw David Oyelowo to the wolves in Nash Edgerton’s biz-crime comedy.

An earnest businessman learns that pharma bros can’t be trusted in Nash Edgerton’s Gringo, a vaguely Elmore Leonard-ish crime comedy that takes place mostly in Mexico. Or perhaps that should read “in Mexico,” as the cliche-friendly fictional land seen here contains not a single citizen who can be trusted, from hotel clerks up to the requisite tyrannical drug lord. Throw in a businesswoman who invites sexual harassment as a way of getting what she wants, and you have a movie that certainly meant to be edgy, not offensive. It’s often not quite either: a sometimes amusing, sometimes draggy and overstuffed affair that always relies on its talent-rich cast to carry the day.

David Oyelowo plays Harold, a Nigerian immigrant who has become a midlevel exec at a pharmaceutical company run by college friend (make that “friend”) Richard (Joel Edgerton). Richard and co-worker/lover Elaine (Charlize Theron) are planning a merger with another big drugmaker, which will put Harold out of a job. But they keep him in the dark, taking him with them to Mexico to facilitate a meeting with — well, now that you mention it, there’s probably no reason for them to bring Harold along, except that the screenplay needs a kidnapping plot.

That’s because Richard and Elaine, whose company developed a medicinal-marijuana pill called Cannabax, have been selling buckets of the stuff to the aforementioned drug lord, an off-the-books racket that Harold knows nothing about. Why someone who presumably has an unlimited supply of organic weed would want to peddle their pills is never explained. But our kingpin Villegas (Carlos Corona), also known as the Black Panther (sorry, King T’Challa!), is deeply unhappy when the Americans try to stop their illegal arrangement in preparation for the scrutiny that accompanies big mergers. He wants the formula for their pot pill, and is under the mistaken impression that Harold is the man who can give it to him.

Trouble is headed Harold’s way, but before it gets there, he finds out about his bosses’ plans to wreck his career. Harold flees their luxury hotel and stages his own kidnapping, hoping the company will fork over a ransom he can keep. Then the actual kidnappers come.

Further complications arise when Harold learns that his wife (Thandie Newton) is leaving him — she’s sleeping with Richard, which will eventually make Elaine quite upset. And down the hall from Harold in the dive he’s holed up in, two youngsters from America (Amanda Seyfried and Harry Treadaway) are on a vacation that, for the boy, is secretly a drug-running mission involving the very pill that Harold’s company manufactures. Screenwriters Matthew Stone and Anthony Tambakis pile on the dramatis personae and the inconvenient happenstance here much as Stone did in 2002’s Big Trouble, and that film’s “shouldn’t I be laughing more?” factor applies here as well.

Pushed to the extremes of credibility, most of the characters would be one-dimensional throwaways if not for the actors behind them. Oyelowo keeps Harold’s desperate pleas for his life from looking like a racial caricature; Seyfried makes her character Sunny encouraging but not idiotically optimistic. Of the two moustache-twirling villains, Theron is considerably more fun to watch than Edgerton, though the script makes it hard to turn Elaine into an actual person instead of a male exec’s boardroom wet dream. After she realizes how Richard is betraying her, Elaine has a couple of scenes that make one wonder if a movie seen solely through her eyes might be much more compelling.

But the spirited performances are dampened by Edgerton’s direction and the cutting of three credited editors. The picture feels much longer than its 110 minutes, and isn’t helped by Eduard Grau’s cinematography, which is either unusually drab or was very badly served by projection at Lincoln Square Cinema’s preview screening in Manhattan.

The movie’s action gets a boost, credibly or not, when Richard calls in his brother (Sharlto Copley), a former mercenary who thinks he can retrieve Harold without costing the firm a bundle. This reformed hitman doesn’t really belong in the picture. But sequences built around him occasionally offer a surprise laugh, and are therefore welcome.

Production companies: Denver and Delilah, Blue-Tongue Films
Distributor: Amazon Studios
Cast: David Oyelowo, Charlize Theron, Joel Edgerton, Amanda Seyfried, Harry Treadaway, Thandie Newton, Sharlto Copley
Director: Nash Edgerton
Screenwriters: Anthony Tambakis, Matthew Stone
Producers: A.J. Dix, Nash Edgerton, Beth Kono, Anthony Tambakis, Charlize Theron, Rebecca Yeldham
Executive producers: Trish Hofmann, Matthew Stone
Director of photography: Eduard Grau
Production designer: Patrice Vermette
Costume designer: Donna Zakowska
Editors: Luke Doolan, David Rennie, Tatiana S. Riegel
Composer: Christophe Beck
Casting director: Carmen Cuba

Rated R, 110 minutes

strangers prey at night ver3 Strangers: Prey at Night (2018) Movie Review

A family is terrorized by three masked home invaders in this sequel to the 2008 horror film hit.

Take the 2008 horror film The Strangers, add two more potential victims and you essentially have its long-belated, completely unnecessary sequel. Replicating the tropes of its predecessor to a slavish degree, The Strangers: Prey at Night pretty much wastes all its inspiration on its punning title. It’s as rudimentary as slasher films go, and although it may not be fair to make the comparison, that will no longer cut it after Get Out proved that the horror genre is capable of a lot more than mechanically depicting people getting stabbed to death.

The first film at least showcased a claustrophobic intensity with its single setting of a house being invaded by three masked crazies. The sequel dissipates the impact by having its sacrificial lambs, a family of four, getting into trouble at a seemingly abandoned trailer park where they’re intending to stay the night. It’s a typical family unit, consisting of harried parents Cindy (Christina Hendricks) and Mike (Martin Henderson), their jock son Luke (Lewis Pullman, son of Bill) and surly teenage daughter Kinsey (Bailee Madison), who naturally doesn’t stop complaining or looking at her phone.

The mundane setup is merely a prelude to the main event, which, as with the first film, begins when a young woman knocks on the door and asks for someone who isn’t there. Seems innocent enough, until she does the same thing a few minutes later. As Scooby Doo would say, “Ruh roh!”

When the teenagers take a late-night walk around the deserted environs, as kids are prone to do in slasher films, they enter an abandoned trailer and discover a dead body. They immediately head back to their folks who, much to the audience’s derision, decide that now would be a perfect time to split up. Mike and Luke set out to investigate the situation — sans weapons or cellphones, natch — while Cindy and Kinsey go back into their trailer only to discover that all of their phones have been destroyed.

That’s when the perfunctory hell breaks loose, as the family members find themselves besieged by the same anonymous masked strangers who terrorized Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler 10 years ago. The murderous trio — Dollface, Pin-Up Girl and The Man in the Mask — don’t say very much. But they carry some very large knives. As if to make up for their lack of personality.

Director Johannes Roberts, who scored a surprise hit with last year’s low-budget shark thriller 47 Meters Down, stages the violent mayhem with proficiency but little stylistic flair. Several characters get dispatched, or nearly dispatched, in an order inversely proportional to their likeability. Suffice it to say that Hendricks, who at this point in her career truly deserves better material than this, may not have stuck around the set long enough to enjoy craft services.

This is the sort of exasperating horror pic that whips audiences into a frenzy. Not because they’re having fun, mind you, but rather because the characters behave so stupidly and self-destructively that yelling profanity-laden advice to the screen becomes a bonding exercise.

The dialogue is risible, rarely rising above the level of, say, “Leave us alone!” Screenwriters Bryan Bertino and Ben Ketai (the former wrote and directed the original) nod to the film’s predecessor in numerous ways. Those who recall the most chilling line from The Strangers, “Because you’re home,” will appreciate this one’s equally punchy rejoinder, “Why not?” And fans of 1980s horror flicks, which this film closely resembles, will enjoy the ironic use of the classic power ballads “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and “Making Love Out of Nothing at All.” Both songs were written by Jim Steinman, so he, if not audiences, will have something to cheer about.

Production companies: Fyzz Facility, White Comet Films, Rogue Pictures, Bloom
Distributor: Aviron Pictures
Cast: Christina Hendricks, Martin Henderson, Bailee Madison, Lewis Pullman, Damian Maffei
Director: Johannes Roberts
Screenwriters: Bryan Bertino, Ben Katai
Producers: James Harris, Wayne Marc Godfrey, Mark Lane, Robert Jones, Ryan Kavanaugh
Executive producers: Trevor Macy, Bryan Bertino, David Dinerstein, Jason Resnick, William Sadleir, Alex Walton, Alastair Burlingham, Charlie Dombek, Ken Halsband, Brett Dahl, Jon D. Wagner
Director of photography: Ryan Samul
Production designer: Freddy Waff
Editor: Martin Brinkler
Composer: Adrian Johnston
Costume designer: Carla Shivener
Casting: Lauren Grey

Rated R, 85 minutes

juggernaut Juggernaut (2018) Movie Review

A man returns to his British Columbia hometown to investigate the supposed suicide of his mother in Daniel DiMarco’s Canadian thriller.

A prodigal son returns to his British Columbia hometown after the suicide of his mother in Daniel DiMarco’s neo-noir thriller Juggernaut. Heavy on gloomy atmospherics, the pic boasts strong performances in its violent tale of sibling rivalry and buried family secrets. Despite some overly familiar plot elements, the Canadian thriller marks a strong debut for its writer-director as well as an impressive showcase for Jack Kesy (Claws, The Stain) in his first cinematic starring role.

The charismatic actor plays Saxon, who at the story’s beginning arrives as the remote town in which he grew up after finding out that his mother committed suicide. His recovering alcoholic father Leonard (veteran character actor Peter McRobbie, who scared the bejesus out of audiences in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit) has cleaned up his act and become a minister. And his older brother Hank (Supernatural) has become a prosperous businessman, the owner of the local prison, who thinks of himself as having single-handedly rescued the town’s fortunes.

Saxon hasn’t come back to repair his fractured relations with his relatives. Rather, he’s convinced that his mother didn’t actually kill herself and is intent on getting to the bottom of what really happened to her. Needless to say, he butts heads, both literally and figuratively, not only with his father and brother but also with various townspeople whom he suspects know more than they’re letting on. Saxon is so angry that even a seemingly innocuous conversation with his mother’s insurance agent quickly proves combative.

“Have I done something to offend you?” the insurance man asks Saxon after receiving a barrage of insults. “Your existence offends me,” Saxon replies.

The slow unraveling of the mystery proves less compelling than the characters’ interpersonal dynamics, including the attraction that develops between Saxon and Amelia (Amanda Crew, Silicon Valley), his brother’s schoolteacher girlfriend who finds herself drawn to the troubled sibling.

DiMarco’s screenplay too often lacks subtlety; the boy’s father delivers a sermon titled “What Makes a Man Good” that seems far too on-the-nose about the movie’s themes. The dialogue proves heavy-handed more often than not. When the minister later observes about his sons, “Them boys have been on a collision course since birth,” the line inevitably feels scripted.

Nonetheless, Juggernaut accumulates an undeniable raw power thanks to such elements as its bleak setting, evocatively captured in Patrick Scola’s dark-hued cinematography; the jittery, strings and percussion-heavy musical score by Michelle Osis; and the excellent performances. Kesy infuses his portrayal with a simmering undercurrent of violence that proves unnerving, with Cubitt matching him in intensity as the businessman who may not be as respectable as he appears. And McRobbie, always a compelling screen presence, delivers just enough shadings to his character to make it clear that when it comes to his warring children, the apples haven’t fallen far from the tree.

Production companies: Mad Samurai, Stainproof Media
Distributor: LevelFILM
Cast: Jack Kesy, Amanda Crew, David Cubitt, Peter McRobbie, Ty Olsson, Stephen McHattie, Philip Granger
Director-screenwriter: Daniel DiMarco
Producer: Matthew Cervi
Executive producers: Ben Silverman, Dave Valleau, Jason Upton, Rich Mento
Director of photography: Patrick Scola
Production designer: Jennifer Morden
Editor: Rob Grant
Composer: Michelle Osis
Casting: Rich Mento

105 minutes

wrinkle in time ver7 A Wrinkle in Time (2018) Movie Review

Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of the classic children’s novel boasts a starry cast including Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling and Chris Pine.

Only the faintest glimmers of genuine, earned emotion pierce through the layers of intense calculation that encumber Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time. Disney’s lavish adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s fantastical 1962 book (there were four sequels) about a girl’s journey through multiple dimensions to find her long-missing father may provide enough distractions to keep kids in the lowest double-digits age range interested. All the same, DuVernay’s first big-budget studio extravaganza after breaking through with Selma and the great documentary 13th feels cobbled together with many diverse parts rather that coalesced into an engaging whole. Even if this is widely consumed by the target audience, it doesn’t charm or disarm.

The film centers on 13-year-old Meg (Storm Reid), who has a black mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a white father (Chris Pine) — the latter a scientist who’s been missing for four years — and a mixed-race 6-year-old adopted brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe). Then there’s the trio of benevolent, diverse and other-worldly overseers (Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling) who evidently have nothing better to do wherever they come from than to facilitate Meg’s inter-galactic search for her dad and to utter endless self-esteem-raising platitudes like “You can do this!” and “You are a warrior!”

Although Meg is very bright, like everyone else in her family, she hasn’t been the same since Dad disappeared. Little Charles Wallace, who’s always referred to by both names, is a real smarty pants (he has all the best lines, and McCabe does a nice job with them) and exasperates Meg. Meg also has an ever-attentive and cute would-be boyfriend, Calvin (Levi Miller).

When the three women — Mrs. Which (Winfrey), Mrs. Whatsit (Witherspoon) and Mrs. Who (Kaling) — suddenly materialize much in the manner of the Good Witch from the North in you-know-what, Meg is enlightened about the existence of something called the tesser, a warp in time and space that might enable her to find her father on the other side, where he’s suspected to be trapped. Charles Wallace and Calvin are not about to be left behind, and so the journey begins.

What comes thereafter is, unfortunately, not anywhere nearly as eventful, enchanting or musically beguiling as its old Hollywood precursor. The challenging events facing the inter-galactic explorers, both stemming from the book and dreamed up by scenarists Jennifer Lee (Disney’s screenwriting queen ever since Frozen) and Jeff Stockwell (The Bridge to Terabithia), mostly feel rote, arbitrary rather than organic and, in the end, uninteresting; when in doubt, they always find another platitude.

The three “Mrs.” characters, who change makeup and wardrobe styles incessantly, are unequally balanced: Witherspoon has far more dialogue and screen time than the others and before long becomes annoyingly overbearing; Winfrey kind of floats through much of it making banal pronouncements, such as, “If we do not act soon, darkness will fall across the universe”; and Kaling has unfairly little to say or do.

The film is most tolerable when it remains centered on the three kids, their bickering and their underlying “there for you” inter-dependency. Meg is appealing because you know that behind her reticence lies a smart and resourceful girl who will one day be able to fully assert herself without having to be told every five minutes that, “You just have to have faith in who you are.” Calvin remains too blandly “nice” to be an interesting character but fills the bill as eye candy for younger teen girls, while Charles Wallace is, by the film’s modest standards, something of a hoot as the preternaturally sharpest kid in the neighborhood, be it on Earth or elsewhere.

As the pic jumps from one unidentified world to another, there are certainly sights to behold — a flying dragon, weird and gorgeous landscapes, the Mrs.’ constant makeup and wardrobe changes and an encounter with a character played by Zach Galifianakis whose utterances are about as amusing his name, Happy Medium. But after impressing so with her earlier work both in features and documentaries, what’s disconcerting here is DuVernay’s inability to forge a strong or supple visual style. Most scenes are dominated by far too much cutting between shots that bear no spatial relationships to one another, to the point where the compositions look arbitrary; it all seems manufactured rather than crafted, with scenes played and over-edited to visually busy but indifferent effect.

As a result, one’s engagement with the likeable enough characters starts flagging in the final third as the air escapes the balloon. On top of that, the bromides about the primacy of family and being true to yourself are signaled, but not earned.

Production company: Whitaker Entertainment
Distributor: Buena Vista
Cast: Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Storm Reid, Levi Miller, Deric McCabe, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Michael Pena, Zach Galifianakis, Chris Pine, Andre Holland, Rowan Blanchard
Director: Ana DuVernay
Screenwriters: Jennifer Lee, Jeff Stockwell, based on the novel by Madeleine L’Engle
Producers: Jim Whitaker, Catherine Hand
Executive producers: Doug Merrifield, Adam Borba
Director of photography: Tobias Schliessler
Production designer: Naomi Shohan
Costume designer: Paco Delgado
Editor: Spencer Averick
Music: Ramin Djawadi
Visual effects supervisor: Rich McBride
Casting: Aisha Coley

Rated PG, 110 minutes

death wish ver2 Death Wish (2018) Movie Review

Bruce Willis steps in for Charles Bronson in Eli Roth’s remake of the vigilante fantasy.

Michael Winner’s 1974 Death Wish, sometimes laughable and sometimes offensive, did have one undeniable virtue: It spoke of its time and place, a New York City terrorized by crime and on the verge of collapse. In reusing some of that film’s ingredients (and, more importantly, its name), Eli Roth and screenwriter Joe Carnahan could have done the same thing, manifesting the rages and fears that afflict the country we live in right now. Instead, they offer a cheap and dishonest Death Wish that (references to social media notwithstanding) is interchangeable with get-tough knockoffs that have flooded cinemas for decades. Though armed with enough gore and pandering violence to enjoy some success with moviegoers who haven’t yet been burned by star Bruce Willis’ many recent flops, this generic attempt at a franchise reboot deserves to be killed.

The lies start before viewers get inside the theater. Though the killing spree we’re about to see has nothing to do with self-defense and everything to do with generalized anger, the film’s poster goads us by putting the words “How far would you go to protect your family” above the title. There’s no question mark, because it isn’t a question. What, you wouldn’t stalk the streets gunning down thugs? Guess we know what kind of dad you are.

This revision of the story offers Willis’ Paul Kersey as a well-off surgeon. This may be slightly more believable than casting Bronson as a paper-pushing real estate developer. But really, you know the movie just put “Dr.” in front of Kersey’s name so that, after a third-act gunfight, it could show Willis gritting his teeth and stitching up his own nasty wounds.

Kersey is basking in the glow of his perfect family — his daughter, Jordan (Camila Morrone), was just accepted to NYU; wife, Lucy (Elisabeth Shue) is about to get her Ph.D. — when his birthday dinner plans are interrupted. He’s called in to do a shift at the hospital, leaving Lucy and Jordan to go home instead of to their favorite restaurant. There, the burglars who thought they’d have the house to themselves await. These are not the nihilistic street freaks of the original film (Jeff Goldblum made a regrettable screen debut as their leader), but garden-variety thieves, one of whom is too horny to behave. After he threatens to rape Jordan, the women attempt to escape and both are shot. Lucy is killed; Jordan is left in a coma.

Paul responds appropriately: He grieves his wife, hovers lovingly over his daughter’s hospital bed and diligently bugs the two detectives (Dean Norris and Kimberly Elise) assigned to investigate the crime. While Paul’s brother Frank (Vincent D’Onofrio) responds with suspiciously hotheaded outbursts — is the film clumsily trying to make us suspect that Uncle Frank, unemployed and in debt, was involved in the robbery? — Norris’ Detective Raines insists that they will catch a break in the case, if only the Kerseys can be patient.

A badly conceived scene with Lucy’s father sets Paul to thinking about vigilantism, and soon he’s visiting his local gun merchant. The issue of permitting and background checks comes up, and the film makes trenchant observations about our nation’s broken gun policy. Just kidding. Paul gets his gun the old-fashioned way, by taking it from a gang-banger in the emergency room. And after a quick training montage, he’s ready for action.

He dons a hoodie and goes looking for trouble, far from the cushy part of town where he lives (this remake is set in Chicago, not New York). He witnesses a carjacking and shoots at the perps — wounding them, then walking over to finish them off in cold blood. A bystander films the incident, not catching Paul’s face, and news of the “Grim Reaper” goes viral.

Paul’s subsequent adventures are engineered to make viewers cheer, not question the wisdom of his mission; and at first they not only have nothing to do with finding his wife’s killer, they threaten to get him killed and make his daughter an orphan.

Only via a risible script contrivance does Paul’s crime spree eventually point him toward those killers. He begins hunting the men one by one, giving Roth an opportunity or two to indulge his lust for big-screen torture. The one-man investigation starts off wildly improbable and gets worse from there; meanwhile, the mundane shoe-leather work of the actual police detectives is leading toward the conclusion that Paul’s the Grim Reaper.

What fodder there may be here for subtext (allusions to Paul’s abusive father, for instance) is abandoned before it threatens to actually mean something. Contrast that with the 1974 film (and the novel it was based on), in which a man with conventional left-leaning politics is driven by personal trauma to transform. A time of Trumpist racism, incoherent gun policy, fear of police, etc., would be fertile subjects for mainstream films that use genre metaphors to address real national debates. That’s something this Death Wish doesn’t even try to be. Something has gone very wrong in Hollywood when one longs for the moral nuance of a Charles Bronson exploitation flick.

Production company: MGM
Distributor: MGM
Cast: Bruce Willis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Elisabeth Shue, Camila Morrone, Dean Norris, Kimberly Elise
Director: Eli Roth
Screenwriter: Joe Carnahan
Producer: Roger Birnbaum
Executive producer: Ilona Herzberg
Director of photography: Rogier Stoffers
Production designer: Paul Kirby
Costume designer: Mary Jane Fort
Editor: Mark Goldblatt
Composer: Ludwig Goransson
Casting directors: Mary Vernieu, Marisol Roncali

Rated R, 106 minutes

hurricane heist ver3 1 The Hurricane Heist (2018) Movie Review

‘xXx’ director Rob Cohen stages a robbery during a Category 5 storm in this genre mashup starring Maggie Grace, to be released in U.S. theaters March 9.

When watching a disaster-thriller hybrid such as The Hurricane Heist, you can almost hear the bro-tastic Hollywood pitch sessions that spawned this kind of high-concept enterprise: “It’s Heat meets Twister!” “The Bank Job meets The Perfect Storm!” “Fast Five, but it’s set during Katrina!” “It’s Sharknado, but instead of sharks, there’s $600 million in cash and a bunch of actors speaking with questionable Southern accents!”

The latter probably comes closest to describing action veteran Rob Cohen’s dumb and mildly fun mashup, which has the xXx and The Fast and the Furious director doing what he does best: making people, cars and various inanimate objects come crashing together at extremely high velocities. What he doesn’t do very well is concoct a good story or create characters that resemble real people, which is why Heist can also be a bit of a chore.

Still, you’ve got to give Cohen some credit for staging an entire movie against a backdrop of torrential rain and 150 mph winds, although he should have invested more in a good script and less in all the computer-generated pressure systems. Released in France a few weeks before its U.S. rollout, Heist won’t score big at the box office, though it may attract viewers who prefer to see their B-movies on the big screen rather than on the cinematic dumping ground that has become Netflix.

Written by Scott Windhauser and Jeff Dixon, from a story by Anthony J. Fingleton and Carlos Davis, Heist kicks off with a traumatic incident that takes place in 1992, in which two young Alabama brothers see their father crushed to death by a water tower during Hurricane Andrew. It’s an event that will haunt them for the rest of their lives — and just in case you didn’t get that, at the end of the scene Cohen has a cluster of ominous storm clouds digitally morph into a giant screaming skull.

25 years later, Dixie boys Will (British actor Toby Kebbell) and Breeze (Australian actor Ryan Kwanten) have grown up to become polar opposites. Will went to school and turned into a daredevil weather expert (he has a “Ph.D. in synoptic meteorology”), while Breeze has blossomed into a whiskey-guzzling womanizer who has taken over his dad’s towing business. But when another superstorm (named Tammy) descends on their fictional town of Gulfport, threatening to tear it apart, both of them will be put on the same righteous path.

That’s one plotline. The other entails the robbery of $600 million in greenbacks from a U.S. Treasury facility located just outside city limits. How that happens requires a suspension of disbelief about as powerful as Hurricane Sandy. To simplify things, let’s just say the crime involves a pair of seriously goofy computer hackers (Ed Birch, Melissa Bolona); a cellphone tower; machine guns that shoot poisoned darts; an industrial paper shredder; and a crooked, shotgun-wielding sheriff (Ben Cross) — although everything actually hinges, for some reason, on a broken backup power generator.

The heist is masterminded by corrupt Treasury employee Perkins (Ralph Ineson), who seems to have intricately thought out every single step — including bringing a change of clothes so he can slip into a villainy overcoat about halfway through the movie — yet somehow manages to lose track of the one person who can thwart his plans: fellow agent Casey (Maggie Grace, playing things straight), who will eventually team up with Will to try and save the day.

As the characters converge and the tempest takes over, Cohen delivers a few gonzo set pieces, most memorably a face-off at the center of town where rip-roaring winds turn a pile of hubcaps into weapons of mass destruction. Otherwise, Casey and Will seem to have an awful lot of time to drive around and recite their traumatic backstories (how big, exactly, is Gulfport?), though whatever sparks fly between them are quickly put out when the levee breaks and the whole shebang gets flooded over.

In the last act, over-the-top digital effects blow away any vague remnant of verisimilitude that Heist tried to establish, with a closing chase sequence that has the hurricane surrounding our heroes like the Jell-O molded Red Sea in Cecil B. Demille’s The Ten Commandments. There’s a point in many movies where the CGI crosses the credibility line and there’s no turning back. In The Hurricane Heist, that pretty much happens in the first scene, but the finale is just too ridiculous to swallow.

Tech credits are nonetheless accomplished for a purported $35 million budget, with locations in Bulgaria doing a decent job standing in for parts of coastal Alabama. Dialogue tends toward the eye-rolling variety and performances feel uneven across the board, with the actors using a menagerie of accents, including some dubious Deep South ones, as they shout above all the pounding rain and thunder.

Production companies: Signature Pictures, RSVP Entertainment, Foresight Unlimited
Distributor: Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures
Cast: Maggie Grace, Toby Kebbell, Ryan Kwanten, Ralph Ineson, Melissa Bolona, James Cutler, Ben Cross
Director: Rob Cohen
Screenwriters: Scott Windhauser, Jeff Dixon, from a story by Anthony J. Fingleton, Carlos Davis
Producers: Karen Baldwin, William J. Immerman, Michael Tadross Jr., Danny Roth, Damiano Tucci, Rob Cohen, Mark Damon, Christopher Milburn, Moshe Diamant
Executive producers: Byron Allen, Carolyn Folks, Jennifer Lucas, Terence Hill, Mark Borde, Chris Charalambous, Mark DeVitre, Carlos Davis, Anthony Fingleton, Alastair Burlingham, Charlie Dombek, Tamara Birkemoe, Jenna Sanz-Agero, Christopher Conover, Norman Merry, Peter Hampden, Namit Malhotra, Greg Gavanski, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross
Director of photography: Shelly Johnson
Production designer: Kes Bonnet
Costume designer: Irina Kotcheva
Editor: Niven Howie
Composer: Lorne Balfe
Casting directors: Nancy Foy, Kate Dowd

Rated PG-13, 100 minutes

love simon ver2 Love, Simon (2018) Movie Review

Based on a YA novel, Greg Berlanti’s new film is the first major-studio-backed romantic comedy with a gay teen protagonist.

With critical darling Call Me by Your Name, foreign standouts BPM (Beats Per Minute) and A Fantastic Woman and underseen indie beauties like God’s Own Country and Princess Cyd, 2017 was a hearteningly good year for queer cinema. Of course, those are all art house items — which, in the multiplex-littered landscape of American movies, means limited box-office potential.

Enter a different beast entirely: Love, Simon, a sweet, slick, broadly appealing YA adaptation (Becky Albertalli’s 2015 novel was called Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda) touted as the first major-studio-backed romantic comedy with a gay teen protagonist.

The movie was directed by Greg Berlanti (the prolific writer-producer behind Dawson’s Creek, Brothers & Sisters, The Flash and more), penned by a pair of This Is Us scribes and produced by the people who brought you The Fault in Our Stars. In other words, it’s an expertly carved chunk of cheese. But taken on its own, limited terms, Love, Simon is also a charmer — warm, often funny and gently touching, tickling rather than pummeling your tear ducts.

Historically, the LGBT films that have raked in the most money are the ones that boasted attention-grabbing hooks (“gay cowboy movie” Brokeback Mountain) or conformed to certain gay narratives the public was comfortable with (dying of AIDS in Philadelphia; South Beach flamboyance in The Birdcage). How Love, Simon fares commercially will, in part, be a test of whether Americans outside urban “bubbles” are interested in stories of ordinary gay folks looking for love.

If any LGBT-themed pic has a shot at conquering red-state hearts — a long shot — it may be this one; aside from a relatively chaste same-sex kiss and a reference to “butt sex,” it’s a very wholesome PG-13. And while there inevitably will be grumbles from those who would have preferred a grittier portrayal of the gay adolescent experience, Love, Simon’s vanilla-ness is also what makes it culturally significant, and even slightly subversive. The film looks and sounds like so many other mainstream, John Hughes-nostalgic high-school-coms you’ve seen on both big and small screens, just with one difference: The hero is gay. It’s as if Berlanti is daring audiences to find anything objectionable in what amounts to a thoroughly family-friendly queer film.

Love, Simon should also attract LGBT teens starved for onscreen representation, while older gay viewers will likely wish there had been a coming-out movie this buoyant back in their day.

“I’m just like you, except I have one huge-ass secret,” 16-year-old Simon (a winning Nick Robinson) tells us via voiceover in the opening minutes, as he eyes a studly groundskeeper wielding a leaf-blower (paging Dr. Freud!). Simon lives with his parents (Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel) and younger sister (Talitha Bateman) in an affluent Atlanta suburb. Mom is a therapist and bleeding-heart liberal, while Dad is a jovial guy’s guy — sensitive enough, but not above the occasional casually homophobic comment. At one point, he refers to another man as “fruity,” and you can see Simon straining not to flinch; the film nails the fleeting terror of moments like these, when loved ones disappoint.

At school, Simon rolls with a close-knit crew: childhood bestie Leah (13 Reasons Why’s excellent Katherine Langford), soccer player Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) and artsy new girl Abby (Alexandra Shipp). Their repartee is the weakest element of the screenplay, marred by the sort of glib, self-conscious cutesiness typical of dialogue written for kids by adults.

The movie doesn’t probe why a teen with as solid a support system as Simon’s would have such a hard time coming out today; it accepts the character’s concealment of his homosexuality as a simple fact of his existence, as if to suggest that the closet will be full no matter how much society evolves. Meanwhile, Berlanti draws you in with brisk pacing and breezy humor, populating Simon’s world with amusing supporting characters such as a perky vice-principal (Veep’s Tony Hale), an exasperated drama teacher (Insecure scene-stealer Natasha Rothwell) and out-and-proud classmate Ethan (Clark Moore). If the movie’s schematic portrayal of the school’s social ecosystem — jocks, theater geeks, cheerleaders, etc. — feels dated, there are sly modern touches, like the way Ethan snaps back at the bullies who target him, tearing into them with withering wit and regal pride.

Love, Simon’s plot thickens with the appearance of an anonymous blog post in which a fellow student reveals, under the pseudonym of “Blue,” that he’s gay. Stirred by a sense of solidarity and hungry for connection, Simon creates a new email address, picks his own alias and replies. Thus begins a kind of epistolary friendship — and then, perhaps, more — between the two young men, who share their yearnings and frustrations in feverish confessional notes. The movie conveys the relief, and release, of this online relationship, as well as the obsessiveness: In one brilliant shot, Simon is seen firing off a message to Blue with one hand as he sits in class, his fingers flying along his phone keyboard under the desk while his eyes remain locked on the teacher in front of him.

Simon soon sets about trying to figure out whom he’s been communicating with. Berlanti deftly milks the mystery, pulling us into Simon’s suddenly charged interactions with every “suspect,” and showing each of those characters, one after the other, as the Blue of Simon’s fantasies. Is it popular kid Bram (the dazzlingly charismatic Keiynan Lonsdale)? Friendly Waffle House waiter Lyle (Joey Pollari)? Pensive pianist Cal (Miles Heizer)?

The possibility of romance opens up Simon’s world, allowing him to ponder a future in which he has nothing to hide. In one exuberant sequence, he imagines college as a musical number choreographed to Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” an ensemble clad in colored tees busting out moves as Simon tries to pick up the rhythm.

But when obnoxious classmate Martin (Logan Miller) discovers Simon’s secret, he blackmails Simon into helping him woo Abby. Things get complicated since Nick also has a crush on Abby, Leah may be nursing feelings for Simon, and Simon still doesn’t know the identity of the boy he’s in the process of falling in love with. It’s not spoiling much to say that the protagonist’s coming-out doesn’t go as planned.

The film veers toward the tiresomely formulaic when navigating the tangle of drama between Simon and his friends that dominates the third act. It’s in this stretch that Berlanti’s TV roots show most conspicuously: The storytelling beats grow more dully conventional; the movie’s flow stiffens into an accumulation of “moments” (Garner’s heroic-parenting scene has the misfortune of arriving so soon after Michael Stuhlbarg’s incomparable one in Call Me by Your Name); and Rob Simonsen’s otherwise fine score turns syrupy. Happily, the director pulls things together for a romantic climax that’s at once swoony and refreshingly restrained.

Robinson (Jurassic World; Everything, Everything) underplays nicely — and fittingly, for a character experiencing seismic emotional shifts but determined not to be noticed. Below-the-line contributions are polished, and pop music is used shrewdly throughout (The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” is deployed to particularly lovely effect).

You may wish, as I did, that Berlanti had cracked the sitcom-ish surface from time to time, allowing a bit of darkness into a story that’s as much about the claustrophobia of the closet as the satisfaction of self-acceptance. But whereas his feature debut, the West Hollywood-set The Broken Hearts Club: A Romantic Comedy (2000), felt a bit facile in its light-hearted take on contemporary gay life, the steadfast sunniness of Berlanti’s new film registers as deeply purposeful. Sometimes pushing things forward requires tact, simplicity and optimism. Love, Simon understands that, and so much the better.

Production companies: Fox 2000 Pictures, New Leaf Literary & Media, Temple Hill Entertainment, Twisted Media
Distributor: Fox
Cast: Nick Robinson, Katherine Langford, Jennifer Garner, Josh Duhamel, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Alexandra Shipp, Logan Miller, Keiynan Lonsdale, Joey Pollari, Tony Hale
Director: Greg Berlanti
Writers: Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker, based on Becky Albertalli’s novel
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda
Producers: Isaac Klausner, Wyck Godfrey, Marty Bowen, Pouya Shahbazian
Executive producer: Timothy M. Bourne
Director of photography: John Guleserian
Production designer: Aaron Osborne
Costume designer: Eric Daman
Editor: Harry Jierian
Music: Rob Simonsen
Casting: Denise Chamian

Rated PG-13, 109 minutes