Saturday, September 22, 2018
Movie Reviews
Movie Reviews

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Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively play suburban-mom BFFs, one of whom goes missing, in Paul Feig’s cheeky neo-noir.

After helping redefine what funny women could look like, sound like and do onscreen, Paul Feig takes a left turn with the seductively mounted but underwhelming neo-noir-comedy A Simple Favor. A twisted tale of toxic female friendship, the film offers its share of pleasures: eye candy in human, sartorial and real-estate form, as well as the unmistakable flair of a director and performers who know their way around a piece of pop entertainment. But the result leaves you scratching your head. The mystery isn’t how or why one of the main characters disappears halfway through; it’s what drew Feig to the project to begin with.

If you squint hard enough, you can almost see it. As much as any working American filmmaker, Feig adores women: He’s given us two glorious female-fronted farces, Bridesmaids and Spy, and one solid one, The Heat; his Ghostbusters reboot didn’t work, but was so filled with affection for its actresses that one was tempted to give it a “thought that counts” pass. And in A Simple Favor, there are plum parts for Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively, appealing stars whom Feig guides smoothly through the plot’s sudden swerves and swings.

But the movie never sheds its aura of talented people trying to class up cheap material. Adapted by Jessica Sharzer (Nerve) from Darcey Bell’s 2017 novel, A Simple Favor pulls from a plethora of sources — Gone Girl, Rebecca, Gaslight, Double Indemnity, Diabolique — some of which the screenplay literally name-checks; it’s less homage or even pastiche than a bargain-basement mash-up of various superior inspirations.

Feig works hard, for the first 40 minutes or so, to put his imprint on it all, an effort bolstered by Kendrick’s reliably excellent timing as a perky Connecticut helicopter mother who befriends Lively’s gorgeous mean-girl mom. Yet despite some giggles and delicious touches (Rupert Friend as a bitchy designer? Yes, please, and thank you), the tongue-in-cheek tone and satirical targets feel tired: Something-rotten-in-the-state-of-suburban-Mommyhood themes have at this point been unpacked ad nauseum, and dysfunction-lurking-beneath-carefully-curated-lives narratives all but exhausted. Movies and TV series have gone there, again and again, from Desperate Housewives to Big Little LiesBad Moms and far beyond.

Maybe that’s why A Simple Favor, in its second half, stops trying to wring new comic juice from the story, instead sticking to a fairly standard missing-person thriller template. Feig gives it polish and pace, but there’s little he can salvage in terms of genuine surprise or sense of purpose.

Stephanie (Kendrick), a widow raising a grade-school-age son, Miles (Joshua Satine), is the kind of manically enthusiastic mom who volunteers for every role at every school event — eliciting eye-rolls from a Greek chorus of fellow parents (including underused scene-stealers Andrew Rannells and Aparna Nancherla). When she’s not busy making everyone feel inadequate, Stephanie vlogs, chirping away to her “followers” about fresh-baked cookies and gazpacho.

Emily (Lively), whose son Nicky (Ian Ho) is in Miles’ class, is Stephanie’s opposite: a glamorous career woman — she has a fashion job in Manhattan — with a dashing husband, Sean (Henry Golding, deploying his suavity to less potent effect than in Crazy Rich Asians), and a parenting style that could charitably be described as minimalist. When she invites Stephanie over for a drink one afternoon, Stephanie practically trips over herself. (One of the film’s truest — if hardly earth-shattering — insights is that the allure of the Cool Girl is eternal; high-school social dynamics survive long after high school is over.)

The two women start hanging out regularly at Emily’s sleek modern mansion, downing martinis and swapping secrets. Or, rather, Emily expertly extracts Stephanie’s big secret (and it’s a doozy), softening her voice and narrowing her eyes in a masterful simulation of sincerity; you get why the prey stumbles right into the predator’s trap.

These scenes are the most compelling, and not just because of the shivery Sapphic subtext that, with a single kiss, Feig cheekily turns into text. The actresses make a fun odd couple, Lively’s casual hauteur bringing out Kendrick’s well-honed screwball fidgetiness. Emily is amused by Stephanie, and turned on by the power she has over her, while Stephanie is just tickled this rebel goddess is giving her the time of day. We know the friendship is a sham, but we want to see more.

Unfortunately, the movie has other plans. One day, Emily calls Stephanie asking for the “simple favor” of the title: to pick up Nicky from school and watch him for a few hours. When Emily never returns, Stephanie goes into detective mode, digging around Emily’s past and vlogging about her missing “best friend.” She also gets, ahem, much closer to Sean. Is Stephanie more like Emily than she, or we, thought? Who was Emily, really, and was her life as fabulous as it seemed? More pertinently, do we care?

Lots happens from that point on — there’s a corpse in a lake, a creepy Christian sleepaway camp, Jean Smart in full crazy-lady drag and a pile-up of double-crosses — but a nagging sense of “so what?” lingers despite the considerable craft behind and in front of the camera. Most striking is the film’s failure to make Stephanie’s transition from goofy goody-two-shoes to bold badass much fun — an indication of Feig’s difficulty weaving the comedic and noir elements into a satisfying whole.

The director does keep things looking sharp (DP John Schwartzman fills his frames with light and color, a purposeful, if not wildly original, visual counterpoint to the the narrative nastiness) and sounding chic (lots of vintage French pop). A Simple Favor also tosses around a worthwhile idea or two about contemporary female identity — how women are pigeonholed into roles that stifle their complexity. But the movie never achieves that tingly, naughty blend of humor and danger it seems to be aiming for; one wonders what Francois Ozon or Pedro Almodovar might have done with this material.

That said, it’s a testament to Feig’s gifts that, as with Ghostbusters, the final impression isn’t that he wasn’t up to the task — but that he was probably too good for it.

Production company: Feigco Entertainment
Distributor: Lionsgate
Cast: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Andrew Rannells, Linda Cardellini, Jean Smart, Rupert Friend, Eric Johnson, Dustin Milligan, Bashir Salahuddin, Joshua Satine
Director: Paul Feig
Screenplay: Jessica Sharzer (based on the novel by Darcey Bell)
Producers: Paul Feig, Jessie Henderson
Executive producers: Mike Drake, Paris Kasidokostas Latsis, Jason Cloth
Director of photography: John Schwartzman
Production designer: Jefferson Sage
Editor: Brent White
Costume designer: Renee Ehrlich Kalfus
Music: Theodore Shapiro

Casting: Allison Jones, Ben Harris

Rated R, 116 minutes

 

Harold Cronk’s inspirational drama continues the story of Louis Zamperini after he returned home after the war and experienced a spiritual crisis.

There’s a reason that Angelina Jolie’s screen adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling Unbroken left out most of the material covered in the book’s second half. It just isn’t very interesting. While the true-life wartime experiences of Louie Zamperini, who survived 47 days on a life raft in the ocean and then spent two years undergoing torture at a Japanese POW camp, made for gripping drama, what transpired after he got home does not. That’s the chief take-away, at least, from the modestly budgeted sequel, Unbroken: Path to Redemption, directed by Harold Cronk (God’s Not Dead).

After a quick montage featuring newspaper clips and archival footage recounting Zamperini’s story, from his setting records as a runner in high school to competing in the 1936 Olympics to his travails during World War II, the film begins in 1950 with Louis (Samuel Hunt) revisiting Japan for the first time since the war ended. He’s brought to see former Japanese soldiers convicted of war crimes, but he’s mainly interested in one man. “Where’s ‘The Bird’?” Louis asks, referring to Mutsuhiro Watanabe, his sadistic chief tormentor during his captivity.

The story then flashes back to Louis returning to his California hometown after the end of the war, where it becomes evident that he’s embittered by his experiences and suffering from PTSD. He also seems to have lost his faith in God, telling a priest that he wasn’t saved by a miracle but rather the atomic bomb. Louis begins drinking heavily, even while touring the country at the request of the military to use his celebrity status to sell war bonds. And he frequently suffers from hallucinations, including frightening appearances by Watanabe (David Sakurai). An army shrink (Gary Cole) recommends treatment in the form of “narcosis therapy,” which involves taking enough barbiturates to sleep 15-20 hours a day, an offer Louis declines.

When Louis marries the lovely Cynthia (Merritt Patterson) shortly after they meet while he’s vacationing in Miami, it briefly looks like his life may turn around. But he continues his downward physical and emotional spiral, with his depression and drinking becoming even more severe after an injury derails his chance to compete in the next Olympic games.

It’s only when he’s dragged by Cynthia to a 1949 revival meeting featuring Billy Graham (played by grandson Will Graham, who unfortunately doesn’t have his grandfather’s charisma) that Louis experiences a spiritual epiphany. It all happens very quickly, but we know that it does, because Louis suddenly sports a beatific smile. It’s then revealed that his trip to Japan wasn’t motivated by a desire for revenge but rather to reassure his former captors that he bears no grudges.

The movie delivers an inspiring message about the power of faith and forgiveness, which is its obvious raison d’etre. But it does so in the sort of formulaic, cliched and simplistic manner that afflicts so many inspirational films. The director’s weaknesses as a filmmaker are manifestly evident, especially in the clumsily rendered flashback and fantasy sequences, many involving “The Bird,” that are more laughable than frightening. It doesn’t help that Zamperini’s story, while certainly moving, feels all too familiar here in the pic’s unimaginative depiction of the sort of post-traumatic stress suffered by many war veterans. Other than the unique circumstances depicted in the original Unbroken, there’s little here to differentiate his plight from so many others’.

Hunt, who more closely resembles the real-life Zamperini than Unbroken‘s Jack O’Connell, delivers a solid performance, and the film does a good job of evoking its mid-1940s time period. But it never comes alive as drama, with its most moving moments, ironically, coming in the epilogue featuring footage of its real-life subject who went on to become an inspirational speaker.

Production companies: Universal 1440 Entertainment, Matt Baer Films, The WTA Group
Distributor: Pure Flix Entertainment
Cast: Samuel Hunt, Merritt Patterson, Bobby Campo, Vanessa Bell Calloway, David Sakurai, Gary Cole, Will Graham
Director: Harold Cronk
Screenwriters: Richard Friedenberg, Ken Hixon
Producers: Matthew Baer, Mike Elliott
Executive producers: Cynthia Garris, Dave Mechem, Bill Reeves, Erik Weir, Luke Zamperini
Director of photography: Zoran Popovic
Production designer: Mayne Berke

Costume designer: Diane Crooke
Editor: Amy McGrath
Composer: Brandon Roberts
Casting: Nancy Nayor

Rated PG-13, 98 minutes

After David Kim (John Cho)’s 16-year-old daughter goes missing, a local investigation is opened and a detective is assigned to the case. But 37 hours later and without a single lead, David decides to search the one place no one has looked yet, where all secrets are kept today: his daughter’s laptop. In a hyper-modern thriller told via the technology devices we use every day to communicate, David must trace his daughter’s digital footprints before she disappears forever.

Twentieth Century Fox

The Hate U Give is a smart, soulful YA story with a great cast

Type: Movie; Genre: Drama; Release date: 10/19/18; Performer: Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, KJ Apa; Director: George Tillman Jr.; MPAA: PG-13

What does the next generation of storytellers look like in 2018? If YA movies have been smeared with a wide, beige-colored brush for too long, The Hate U Give feels like the welcome crest of a new wave: not bland chronicles of sparkle-skinned vampires or dance-squad rivalries but real, often painfully relevant tales about race and justice and millennial identity.

At 16, Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) should be too young to know what code-switching means, but it’s she how lives, even if that’s not the name she calls it by. At home, she has to be ready to recite the tenets of the Black Panthers’ 10-point program for her father on command; at her elite private high school, she’s compelled to be the model minority, the girl who studiously avoids the slang and streetwear her white classmates coopt so breezily.

She also shouldn’t have to watch the life bleed out of her childhood best friend, Khalil (Algee Smith) after a routine traffic stop goes wrong. Her dad (Russell Hornsby), an ex-convict turned community activist and dedicated family man, has drilled her in how to respond to the police since she was nine years old: Cooperate, stay calm, always keep your hands where they can see them. But she can’t save Khalil, and when he dies, the careful wall she’s built between her two worlds starts to come apart.

Working from Angie Thomas’ bestselling 2017 novel, director George Tillman Jr. (Soul Food, Notorious) occasionally stumbles into a clumsy or schematic moment, but his movie never feels like a lecture, and Starr isn’t an example or symbol for a movement; she’s a girl made achingly real by Stenberg, whose vulnerable, visceral performance carries nearly every scene. She has help from a uniformly great supporting cast, including Regina Hall as her fiercely protective mother, Issa Rae as an activist lawyer hoping to get her to testify, and Common as the police-offer uncle with his own take on black and blue lives.

To the deep confusion of her dad, Starr also has a white boyfriend (Riverdale’s KJ Apa), and her interactions with him and her friends at school offer some of Hate’s best lessons in what it means to understand someone else’s skin. (It allows for some of the best one-liners too, especially in one memorable exchange on prom night). If Tillman ties it all together a little neatly, he’s already served up a message that feels too fresh and important to dismiss — not of hate but of hope, and faith that even if sharing these stories can’t magically fix what’s broken, telling them still matters.

Nicole Dove/Focus Features
The moody but airless The Little Stranger is a period chiller without the chills

You’ve probably seen dozens of gothic thrillers like Lenny Abrahamson’s The Little Stranger before. Once the wee-hour staples of late-night TV, they’re like the mothball-scented ghosts of horror movies past. Set in drafty, cobwebby estates usually somewhere in the damp English countryside and populated with ensembles of damaged eccentrics harboring dark family secrets, these classy-but-not-too-classy ghost stories were all about mood, atmosphere, and doors that creak and slam as thunder claps outside. There was even a great studio once built almost entirely out of them — Britain’s venerable Hammer Films, whose output seemed to consist of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing going mano a mano in a death match to see who could convey more frosty malevolence. But in the decades since the genre’s decline, the genre has proven hard to replicate, especially in our more explicit, in-your-face age of jump-scare Blumhouse fright flicks. Even the great Guillermo del Toro couldn’t quite get the formula right with 2015’s Crimson Peak.

The Little Stranger is too airless and derivative, with too many stretches of dullness, to resurrect the dormant genre. Only a few interesting performances occasionally jolt it back to life. You would think that a claustrophobic chamber piece like this one would be tailor-made for a director like Abrahamson, who brought an almost excruciating sense of suffocating dread to 2015’s Oscar-nominated Room. Yet the hairs on the back of your neck never stand up and salute the way you want them to. It’s a chiller that’s far too stingy with its chills.

The always shape-shifting and never uninteresting Domhnall Gleeson stars Dr. Faraday, a country physician who, shortly after World War II, returns to the small rural English village he grew up in. The place has less than idyllic memories for him. But there was one place that always possessed a sort of magic – Hundreds Hall, the sprawling estate where his mother worked as a maid in a staff that was just as sprawling. The place was the home of the well-to-do Ayres family, who had lived there for 200 years and whose seemingly charmed lives made him feel like a working-class kid with his nose enviously pressed against the manor’s leaded glass windows, dreaming of what it might be like to live there and breathe its rarified air. But times have changed now. Hundreds Hall is a crumbling ghost of its former self. And so are its inhabitants.

Charlotte Rampling, the clan’s imperiously frosty matriarch with a scowl that could melt glaciers, is being forced to sell off parcels of land to keep Hundreds Hall afloat. And her two children — Will Poulter’s shell-shocked and disfigured war veteran Roderick, and Ruth Wilson’s too-clever-to-be-cheery Caroline (who seems just as scarred as her brother, only on the inside) — seem miserable and stuck out of some sense of familial obligation. When Faraday pays his first visit, he seems genuinely shocked that this once-impressive family and its home have fallen into such decline. Still, something keeps pulling him back beyond professionalism. It’s as if, to him, the place never lost its luster. Roderick hints at curses and premonitions, but Faraday initially dismisses them as the paranoid ramblings of a tortured soul. But then, the first of several unfortunate events unfolds during a dinner party, involving a little girl and dog that inexplicably goes berserk. Part doctor, part confidant, and part wannabe suitor of the doomed Caroline, Faraday gets sucked into the Ayres’ dark and mysterious orbit.

As in Roger Corman’s classic 1960 Edgar Allan Poe adaptation, House of Usher, the Ayres’ estate becomes a character in its own right. The spacious rooms with their fading carpets and threadbare furnishings often seem to have more to do than the actors. And with the exception of Poulter, who’s becoming more and more exciting to watch with each new role, it’s also the most interesting one. It’s certainly more alive than the start-stop romance between Faraday and Caroline, which is more the fault of Lucinda Coxon’s withholding screenplay than either of the performers.

As the film slowly progresses, we’re meant to wonder whether Hundreds Hall is merely a house of depressives lamenting their dying way of life or is there something more sinister and supernatural at work? But the title more or less answers that question. There’s no denying that Abrahamson’s film has atmosphere to burn. Still, by the time its restrained and unsatisfying climax rolls around, it becomes clear that ghost stories like this one need to either be ice-in-the-veins chilly or as red-hot as a glowing fireplace poker – and The Little Stranger is too polite to grasp for either extreme. It’s more or less room temperature from beginning to end.

A demonic spirit stalks the cloisters of a secluded abbey in Corin Hardy’s horror film starring Demian Bichir and Taissa Farmiga.

The Conjuring films and their spinoffs are about the closest thing we have to a Hammerverse, so it’s fitting that the latest installment of Warner Bros.’ lucrative horror franchise skitters across to Transylvania for a Dracula retelling in all but name.

Directed by Corin Hardy, off the back of his stylish Irish debut The Hallow a few years ago, The Nun is set largely in a Romanian castle that’s avoided by the local villagers like the plague. It’s best reached by horse-drawn buggy, even though the film takes place in 1952. The pic’s rural setting allows it to play like a 19th century Gothic while also alluding to events in James Wan’s 2013 original, set a couple of decades after this one. That connective tissue is most obvious in the presence of the title character, last seen terrorizing Enfield in 2016’s The Conjuring 2, who gets an origin story here in a fright-night special that could well ride the credentials-bolstering banning of its trailer to heavenly business when it opens Thursday.

Written by Gary Dauberman (It, the Annabelle films) from a story he cooked up with producer Wan, The Nun isn’t quite as frightening as that publicity triumph would suggest. And in jettisoning the focus on family of the previous films, it gives us characters whose interactions with each other feel less than detailed, and who are more archetypal than real. But it’s good clean fun nevertheless, and the set pieces expertly supply the tension-and-release satisfactions of the genre, starting with a particularly horrific prologue that ends with a young nun (Charlotte Hope) throwing herself from a window.

The Vatican sends a team to investigate the apparent suicide, led by Father Burke (Demian Bichir), a demon hunter haunted by an earlier, unsuccessful exorcism. Joining him is Sister Irene, a young novitiate played by Taissa Farmiga, the younger sister and spitting image of Vera, in a piece of metafictional casting that seems to hint at a connection between her character and the elder Farmiga’s Lorraine Warren (glimpsed here in an unnecessary flashback to the Conjuring sequel) that somehow never materializes. Nominally, the mission’s aim is to determine if the ground remains consecrated, but the bishops in Rome (including an amusingly cast Michael Smiley, a holdover from the director’s first film) know more than they’re letting on.

Introduced riffing on the Bible’s omissions in front of a classroom of schoolgirls, Farmiga makes for an appealing, hiply modern heroine, while the disconnect between Father Burke’s accent and his surname fails to prevent Bichir from committing gamely to a type we’ve seen before, even though the character turns out to be so ineffective as to be almost superfluous. They’re joined by Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), a French-Canadian farmer on vacation in the Romanian highlands (for reasons only explained at the end, in a nod to the shared universe that feels thoroughly tacked on). Frenchie discovered the dead nun while delivering food to the abbey — computer-generated for the wides and otherwise shot discreetly — but that hasn’t dampened his aggressive flirtatiousness, and it’s only stoked when he learns that Irene hasn’t yet undertaken her vows.

Once the three cross the castle’s threshold, cinematographer Maxime Alexandre earns his keep with one jump-inducing whip pan after another, underlined by the cavernous, vocals-heavy score from Abel Korzeniowski — an old hand at this sort of thing after three seasons of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful. The tenebrous visuals are also aided by Jennifer Spence’s interiors, which consist of evocative variations on a dank, dark, cobwebbed theme.

The film’s cat-and-mouse second half contrives to split the characters up, with Frenchie back at the pub getting an earful from the superstitious townsfolk and Father Burke stuck in an antechamber, taunted by a forbidding abbess who transforms into the ghost of the boy he couldn’t save. Sister Irene, for her part, gets a history lesson from the sisters whose prayers are the only thing keeping evil inside the four walls the Church has safeguarded for centuries — but whose prayers may not have been enough. Editors Michel Aller and Ken Blackwell do their best cutting between the three leads, though the pacing feels particularly sluggish during the sections with Burke, who kills time in the same location, poring over manuscripts that eventually shed some light on the demon nun Valak.

Valak (a returning Bonnie Aarons) is the new pic’s ace. There’s something deliciously creepy about an icon of service made sinister; about seeing the cowl curdled. Which makes it ironic that, like its predecessors, this is the rare Hollywood blockbuster in which members of the clergy are presented unambiguously as heroes. Sister Irene, Father Burke and Frenchie eventually reunite for an underground confrontation that plays out like a sequence from a Mummy movie, complete with flaming torches and even the odd quip, courtesy of the roguish Bloquet. But it’s Farmiga who emerges as the film’s plucky beating heart, in a breakout performance good enough to make you forget her uncanny likeness to big sis.

Production companies: Atomic Monster, New Line Cinema, The Safran Company
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Taissa Farmiga, Demian Bichir, Jonas Bloquet, Bonnie Aarons, Charlotte Hope, Michael Smiley, Ingrid Bisu, Sandra Teles, August Maturo, Jack Falk, Lynnette Gaza
Director: Corin Hardy
Screenwriter: Gary Dauberman
Producers: Peter Safran, James Wan
Director of photography: Maxime Alexandre
Production designer: Jennifer Spence
Costume designer: Sharon Gilham
Editors: Michel Aller, Ken Blackwell
Music: Abel Korzeniowski
Casting: Rich Delia, Liliana Toma, Rose Wicksteed

Rated R, 96 minutes

Shane Black upgrades the 20th Century Fox franchise with a new cast and a new monster in this Toronto Midnight Madness world premiere.

It’s been just over 31 years since the original Predator was unleashed on domestic screens, becoming a box office hit and, despite some initial critical grumbling, an action film classic. Part of what made the Schwarzenegger starrer work was director John McTiernan’s insistence on the old Val Lewton rule that the less you see of the monster, the better. For the first half of the movie, the characters and the audience had no idea what was out there picking off a squad of soldiers one by one — just that it was a total badass with camouflage capabilities and a nice collection of human skulls. Only in the penultimate scene did we finally get a look at the predator’s face, and oh what a face it was.

Taking up the reins of the franchise after a few underwhelming sequels and an even more problematic handful of tie-ins with the Alien movies, writer-director Shane Black strays rather far from the original film — in which he co-starred as a bifocaled trooper who literally gets turned inside out — but he also takes things in a fun direction. Beyond adding a definite article to the title, Black applies a more-is-more approach to the material, revealing the extraterrestrial hunter in the very first sequence, then doubling down on the number of predators and corpses we see on screen, introducing a bigger, badder species and even a pair of predator pitbulls.

It’s a totally gonzo method that mostly pays off because of all the snappy dialogue, gross-out gags and tongue-in-cheek camaraderie of the cast, with Boyd Holbrook proving to be a capable lead and Trevante Rhodes, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Jane and Olivia Munn providing worthy, and often funny, accomplices. Whether fans and newbies will fully embrace this reboot when it hits theaters next week is hard to say (a recent contoversy involving a castmember who was a registered sex offender may not help matters), but it certainly played well enough as the Midnight Madness opener in Toronto, where the audience seemed to lap up every last liter of blood.

Using humor and gore as his lethal weapons, Black — who co-wrote the screenplay with veteran genre junkie Fred Dekker (Night of the Creeps) — kicks his film off like the first movie as an alien spaceship crashes in the middle of the jungle, right when a U.S. military sniper, McKenna (Holbrook), is trying to take out a gang of narcos. While the predator seems to have disappeared, McKenna manages to walk away with some of its state-of-the-art alien technology, which he ships off to his boy-genius son, Rory (Jacob Tremblay), back home in the States.

Soon enough, McKenna is apprehended and brought in for questioning, where he discovers that the predator who crash-landed has been sedated in a government lab. A biologist (Olivia Munn) then shows up on the scene to provide her expertise, just as McKenna is about to be shipped off to prison with a band of Section 8 outlaws nicknamed “The Loonies” (played by Rhodes, Key, Jane, Alfie Allen and Augusto Aguilera). The gang provides plenty of comic relief during their introductory sequence, until the predator eventually wakes up and starts doing damage, only to be taken out by another, bigger and more sadistic predator.

“It’s some kind of interstellar cops and robbers,” is how one character tries to explain what the hell is happening, but narrative logic doesn’t really matter as long as Black keeps on upping the body count — there seem to be more decapitations in this movie than in the entire franchise combined — while dishing out one joke after another, the majority of which stick their landings. And while the other Predator films tried to remain dark and tense, tossing in a decent one-liner here or there, Black’s movie is so cleverly over-the-top that it’s easy and pleasurable enough to watch, though never exactly scary or suspenseful.

If things tend to get carried away during a loud and rowdy finale, there’s still one hilarious late bit involving Key’s and Jane’s characters, while a closing nugget sets up the possibility for a sequel. Whether the world actually needs one, and whether this reboot was necessary at all, is probably a question worth raising, but at least Black’s take on it is to never take it too seriously while keeping us duly entertained.

Tech contributions are solid in all departments, particularly the designs for the brand new predator-on-steroids who leaves so many mutilated bodies in his wake. A playful score by Henry Jackman (X-Men: First Class) maintains a playful tone while making a few nods to the original.

Production companies: Twentieth Century Fox, Davis Entertainment
Cast: Boyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes, Jacob Tremblay, Keegan-Michael Key, Olivia Munn, Alfie Allen, Augusto Aguilera
Director: Shane Black
Screenwriters: Fred Dekker, Shane Black, based on characters created by Jim Thomas, John Thomas
Producers: John Davis, Lawrence Gordon
Executive producers: Bill Bannerman, Ira Napoliello
Director of photography: Larry Fong
Production designer: Martin Whist
Costume designer: Tish Monaghan
Editors: Harry B. Miller III, Billy Weber
Casting director: Sarah Halley Finn
Composer: Henry Jackman
Visual effects supervisor: Jonathan Rothbart
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Midnight Madness)

Rated R, 107 minutes

Robert Redford as “Forrest Tucker” in the film THE OLD MAN & THE GUN. Photo by Eric Zachanowich. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Robert Redford goes out on a high note in The Old Man & the Gun

Type: Movie; Genre: Crime, Drama, Comedy; Release date: 09/28/18; Performer: Robert Redford; Director: David Lowery

Robert Redford stars as compulsive real-life bank robber Forrest Tucker in writer-director David Lowery’s latest.

If Robert Redford sticks to his pledge that he is now retired from acting, he is going out on a very good note with The Old Man & the Gun. This warm and gritty tale of compulsive real-life bank robber Forrest Tucker, who escaped from prison 16 times over the course of a long career that only ended when he was in his late 70s, is first and foremost a story about a man who loved his work. This sentiment could certainly be applied to Redford as well, and writer-director David Lowery makes a point of filming it in a 1970s style that vividly recalls the actor’s heyday playing outlaws and other rascally characters. Longtime fans of the actor will savor this enjoyable character piece, so Fox Searchlight’s main challenge will be to entice some younger viewers to come appreciate old-timers’ still-vital talents.

Lowery’s adaptation of David Grann’s New Yorker article about Tucker’s unique career concentrates on the criminal’s late period in 1981, which was merely a continuation of what he had been doing since he was a teenager. He still robbed banks, by this time with a couple of fellow senior citizens played here by Danny Glover and Tom Waits in a self-styled “Over-the-Hill-Gang,” never carried a loaded gun, was polite and even personable in his robbery techniques (“He was such a gentleman,” one bank manager tells the police afterwards) and clearly enjoyed his work, arguably too much so.

If this sounds a bit like Hollywood glamorization of a career criminal, so be it, especially when the old man is played by Redford, whose full head of hair, alert mental antenna and nimbleness would put to shame many men decades his junior. His buddies in crime certainly give off the air of wanting to call it a day.

But the seductive craftiness with which Tucker approaches and then charms farm widow Jewel (Sissy Spacek) over a diner meal makes you warm to this old dog who is still convincingly in the game, and it’s okay to side with him because he’s so considerate of the bank employees he inconveniences when divesting them of their holdings. “I’m just making a living,” he insists.

Of course law enforcement is not interested in the good character of this habitual criminal, and one Texas lawman, John Hunt (Casey Affleck, returning to work with Lowery again after A Ghost Story), takes a particular interest in stopping the old man in his tracks. But Tucker effectively vanishes from sight for a period, partly through mild disguise but mostly, at this point, in the company of Jewel, who is beguiled by the man from the start and delightfully startled to be pulled into a late-age romance, the full nature of which is downplayed in the film.

Nonetheless, the relationship between the two attractive seniors fills the film out with a distinctive allure; their surprise and delight in what they’ve found with each other is palpable, and so lively is the rapport between Redford and Spacek that it makes one regret they’d never worked together before.

All the same, Tucker can’t be pinned down for long and he and his cohorts continue their spree from Texas to the East. By now, the robber has grabbed the national spotlight, with one broadcaster challenging his pursuer Hunt by saying, “Here’s hoping time doesn’t catch up with them before you do.”

The film serves up a nifty compendium of its hero’s prior escapes, including one amazing one from San Quentin, but it’s not all fun and games, as he’s finally apprehended and sent to prison once again. While there, Tucker sends Jewel a letter describing his 16 escapes and wittily leaves number 17 blank, setting the stage for the final act.

The film makes plenty of mileage from trading on the charm of a good bad boy, and Redford’s long experience in playing such roles serves him beautifully here; he knows by now he doesn’t have to push his attractiveness to be ingratiating. His work here is natural, subtle, ingratiating and doesn’t miss a trick. In a montage indicating Tucker’s criminal career, there’s a quick clip of Redford in his 1960s physical glory playing an escaped convict in The Chase, which is just enough to sharply remind viewers of the man’s earlier self.

Stylistically, Lowery was shrewd to realize that making the film look gritty and rather rough was critical to preventing the feeling that it was glamorizing Redford and the character. He and cinematographer Joe Anderson therefore shot on film in Super 16 and roughed up the look a bit. What emerges is a film that physically resembles something like The Friends of Eddie Coyle from 1973, a perfect fit for a story like this.

The score by Daniel Hart and a vast selection of well-chosen musical excerpts add greatly to the persuasive mood.

Venue: Telluride Film Festival

Opens: September 28 (Fox Searchlight)

Production: Conde Nast Entertainment, Sailor Bear Film, Identity Films, Tango Productions, Wildwood Enterprises

Cast: Robert Redford, Casey Affleck, Danny Glover, Tika Sumpter, Isiah Whitlock Jr., John David Washington, Tom Waits, Sissy Spacek, Elisabeth Moss

Director: David Lowery

Screenwriter: David Lowery, based on the New Yorker article by David Grann

Producers: James D. Stern, Dawn Ostroff, Jeremy Steckler, Antony Mastromauro, Bill Holderman, Toby Halbrooks, James M. Johnston, Robert Redford

Executive producers: Patrick Newall, Lucas Smith, Julie Goldstein, Tim Headington, Karl Spoerri, Marc Schmidherny

Director of photography: Joe Anderson

Production designer: Scott Kuzio

Costume designer: Annell Brodeur

Editor: Lisa Zeno Churgin

Music: Daniel Hart

93 minutes

 

(L to R, Foreground): Lukas Haas, Ryan Gosling and Corey Stoll in FIRST MAN. On the heels of their six-time Academy Award®-winning smash, “La La Land,” Oscar®-winning director Damien Chazelle and star RYAN GOSLING reteam for Universal Pictures’ “First Man,” the riveting story of NASA’s mission to land a man on the moon, focusing on Neil Armstrong and the years 1961-1969.

In Damien Chazelle and Ryan Gosling’s First Man, the Oscar race begins

Type: Movie; Genre: Biography, Drama; Release date: 10/12/18; Performer: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy; Director: Damien Chazelle

If you find a formula that works, why mess with it? That philosophy applies to a lot of things in life, but also apparently to Oscar season. After all, two years ago, Damien Chazelle made a deafening awards-campaign splash when he unveiled his retro-modern musical La La Land at the Venice Film Festival. But before he had a chance to enjoy a celebratory glass of champagne at Harry’s Bar, he hopped on a plane to Colorado and introduced its U.S. premiere at the Telluride Film Festival. We all know how that went. He won the Oscar for Best Picture – well, for a couple of minutes at least. This week, he decided to follow the same playbook with his technically dazzling Neil Armstrong biopic First Man. On Aug. 29, the film wowed audiences at Venice, unofficially kicking off the long march to the Academy Awards, and two nights later, slightly bleary-eyed, he stood in front of a packed house in Telluride no doubt hoping for a little deja-vu, albeit with a slightly happier ending.

First things first: Chazelle’s new film is about the early days of NASA and the fits and starts that led up to Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, uttering the famous words “one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind.” That thumbnail may immediately bring to mind easy comparisons to, say, The Right Stuff or Apollo 13. But First Man isn’t quite like either of those films. It’s very much its own thing – part harrowing and exhilarating space epic on a grand canvas and part intimate character study in miniature. And while both of those elements are stunning, especially when you consider just how early Chazelle is in his career as a director, the character sections are slightly less successful.

Let me be clear, I think that the movie is a remarkable cinematic achievement on a ton of different levels. And it has moments of cosmic visual grandeur that rival Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. But Armstrong, who shunned excessive personal credit and really any sort of publicity at all, was always an inherently unknowable man. Maybe the most enigmatic and mysterious true American hero this country has ever produced. And First Man, as great and enthralling as it is, never convincingly solves the mystery of Armstrong. It presents theories and interesting psychological conjecture (namely the wounds left by the death of his baby daughter to cancer) about what made the astronaut tick, but I’m not certain they paint the full picture. Armstrong was a riddle and to try to demystify that riddle the way that Chazelle and writer Josh Singer have doesn’t always feel fully convincing. It’s a sketch portrait of a cipher.

Still, First Man couldn’t arrive at a better time. It’s a stirring reminder of a more high-minded era in our nation’s history when we led the world by the boldness of our ambition. Or, in the words of John F. Kennedy which are quoted in the film, doing things not because they are easy, but because they are hard. It’s amazing Armstrong’s mission ever got as far as it did in the first place, especially when you lay your eyes on the cramped interiors of NASA’s rattling rocket ships loaded with analog dials and minute computing power. Armstrong and his fellow astronauts were high-test guinea pigs. Chazelle captures with eerie adrenaline and dread just how dangerous these death-defying missions were. But then, after these space craft pierce the atmosphere and a quiet stillness takes over, the act of space exploration takes on an almost transcendental sense of grace. It’s amazing to witness how thin the line is between claustrophobic chaos and expansive serenity.

Chazelle’s La La Land leading man, Ryan Gosling, plays Armstrong as a sort of buttoned-down, bottled-up early ‘60s brainiac square. He’s a wizard of cool control and clear-headedness who’s at home in the cockpit of a test plane or a rocket, but quiet and withholding with his wife (an excellent Claire Foy) and children. Especially after the death of his daughter Karen. The Gemini program, followed by the Apollo missions, seem to be an escape for him – a way to run away from the world. He’s more at peace in space than he ever seems to be on terra firma. Armstrong’s team of astronaut pals and colleagues (which include Jason Clarke, Patrick Fugit, and Corey Stoll, with Kyle Chandler back at Mission Control) can’t seem to reach him – and neither can his wife.

Where the film really comes alive, though, is when it leaves the ground and soars into the heavens with all of its terror, beauty, unpredictability, and majesty. You’ve never seen a movie that captures space flight with this degree of authenticity. It’s literally out of this world. As he makes the seemingly impossible possible, Gosling’s Armstrong is a man obsessed with pushing the boundaries of what mankind is capable of with stoicism and nary a degree of ego. And Gosling lets you see past his fantastic performance into the character’s humanity and humility — into his soul. Here’s hoping these two keep working together for years to come.

There are literally dozens of moments in First Man that I’ll be replaying in my head and thinking about for a while (I can’t wait to see it again), like the violent, anxiety-inducing opening sequence when Armstrong manning an X-15 tries over and over again to rip through the Earth’s atmosphere, or when he makes those fateful first steps on the lunar surface in the summer of 1969 and finds a brief respite of absolute quietude. I suspect that some will find the film’s closing moments to be a bit too downbeat, too unresolved and untriumphant with respect to the triumph that came before it. It feels like the coda of a ‘70s New Hollywood film in a way. But make no mistake, Chazelle and Gosling have achieved something remarkable with First Man, even if that first man is the last man we feel we truly know.

Frank (Keanu Reeves) and Lindsay (Winona Ryder) take off to the least expected place in DESTINATION WEDDING.
Photo credit: Robb Rosenfeld / Regatta

Type: Movie; Genre: Romantic Comedy; Release date: 08/31/18; Performer: Winona Ryder, Keanu Reeves; Director: Victor Levin; MPAA: R

Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves are better than Destination Wedding deserves

Destination Wedding has all the basic signposts of a Hollywood production — big stars, scenic locations, a cameo from a real and very displeased-looking mountain lion — but it might easily have been a play; there are no speaking roles for anyone outside its two leads, and almost everything that happens could be transposed to an empty stage and two chairs set side by side.

All Winona Ryder’s high-strung Lindsay and Keanu Reeves’ beardy, misanthropic Frank need is a space to talk (and talk) — about JD Power & Associates, wine corks, the human condition, the pronunciation of Paso Robles. She’s the ex-fiancée of the feckless groom; he’s the older, semi-estranged half-brother. Neither of them particularly wants to be at this wedding, or in any situation even tangentially involving celebration or social interaction. Their meet-cute in an airport lounge on the way to the ceremony in San Luis Obispo almost immediately morphs into loathe at first sight, but there’s no question they’ll be together by the last frame. Who else would have these two loons?

The script, by writer-director Victor Levin (Survivor’s Remorse, Mad About You) comes on like a rom-com David Mamet freight train; its verbal turns are so wildly overwritten that all the actors can really do is hold on to the wheel well, racing through reams of ratatat dialogue. But Ryder and Reeves surrender to it gamely, and sprinkle a sort of movie-star pixie dust over the too-muchness of the text. (Once ethereally, impossibly beautiful, they are also now merely gorgeous enough to almost make you buy that two people this clever, successful, and good-looking could possibly be so miserable.)

If Ryder has to mug her way through Lindsay’s twitchy mannerisms, and both are forced to endure one of the most uncomfortable sex scenes ever committed on a California hillside, at least they each get to relax into a smoother sort of Nick-and-Norah rhythm by the movie’s midway point. And that’s all we really want from Wedding, in the end — to follow their journey, not the Destination.

Neal Preston/Warner Bros.

Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper make (mostly) beautiful music in A Star Is Born

Type: Movie; Release date: 10/05/18; Performer: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga; Director: Bradley Cooper; MPAA: R

It’s one of those pop-science facts that always gets repeated, probably because it sounds so tragically, romantically cool: By the time their light reaches earth, thousands of stars in the sky have already died. And it does feel like an apt metaphor for Bradley Cooper’s Jackson Maine the first time we see him onstage. At fortyish, he’s the kind of mid-career musician who’s already graduated to legend, playing his dusky blues-rock anthems to sold-out stadium crowds who sing every word right back to him. But there’s no joy in it for him anymore, if there ever was; the minute the show is over he heads straight to his chauffeured car to be alone with the bottle that’s always waiting for him.

We’ve seen this movie before, of course — four times now and counting — so we know it’s not A Star Is Bored. Jackson is only minutes away from meeting the young unknown who will make him believe in everything again: Ally (Lady Gaga), a plucky part-time cater-waiter with a pair of sanitary gloves in her pocket and a song in her heart who just happens to be performing at the L.A. drag club Jackson stumbles into in search of more numbing alcohol. He’s enchanted; she’s flattered and confused. By the next morning, at least one of them has fallen a little bit in love.

Gaga’s serious-actress transformation for her first major film role will undoubtedly lead the conversation, and she certainly deserves praise for her restrained, human-scale performance as a singer whose real-girl vulnerability lands miles away from the glittery meat-dress delirium of her own stage persona. And the original songs (most of which Gaga and Cooper share full or partial credit for) are memorably, sturdily melodic —though not the conspicuously flat dance-pop Ally moves toward as her career swerves closer toward the mainstream.

The movie also has some great unexpected supporting turns, including Dave Chappelle as an old Tennessee friend of Jackson’s and Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s Rat Pack-dreamer dad. Their characters read much realer and more textured than the ones designed to move the plot along, like Ally’s smooth, ruthless manager Rez (Rafi Gavron), a textbook music-industry Machiavelli.

But it’s Cooper, in his directing debut, who ultimately has to carry the film from both sides. He’s talked in interviews about working to drop his voice to a deeper register, and his Jackson is a sort of drawling, denim-clad cowboy-poet very much in the mode of Kris Kristofferson’s iconic 1976 iteration and Jeff Bridges’ Oscar-winning turn in Crazy Heart — an archetype whose familiarity lives somewhere between sincere tribute and Marlboro Man cliché. (He also works in shades of Sam Elliott, who appears in a few pivotal scenes as his much-older brother–slash–manager, and maybe some other Sam too: the late, great Shepard).

Behind the camera, Cooper has clearly pledged allegiance not to the 1937 or 1954 Stars but to the naturalistic New Cinema style of his ’70s predecessor, all long highways, canyon light, and sun-flared closeups. His camera works with a kind of feverish intimacy, closing in as Ally’s profile rises and Jackson stumbles back toward the bottle. That closeness also becomes a bell jar that descends over the film, keeping the audience locked into the couple’s growing unhappiness (and by extension the airless, lonely disconnect of fame).

The run time clocks in at well over two hours, which is longer than it strictly needs to be; though there’s also something gratifying about a major Hollywood production that meanders the way this movie does, without forcing a jazzy excess of new characters and conflicts on the narrative.If the ending is telegraphed from miles away, and the central romance feels more like a gorgeously patina-ed imitation of life than the real thing, maybe that’s because Star is less a story now than a myth — not so much reborn as recast and passed on to the care of the next generation.

Oscar Isaac (left) stars as Peter Malkin and Ben Kingsley stars as Adolf Eichmann in OPERATION FINALE, written by Matthew Orton and directed by Chris Weitz, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film.
Credit: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures © 2018 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.  All Rights Reserved.

Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley on the unbelievable true story of Operation Finale

Type: Movie; Genre: Drama, Historical; Release date: 08/29/18; Performer: Oscar Isaac, Ben Kingsley; Director: Chris Weitz; MPAA: PG-13

It took 15 years after the end of World War II for one of its most notorious criminals to face justice. Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi official and architect of the Final Solution, fled from Germany to Argentina after the war ended, where he lived in hiding for more than a decade — until a group of Mossad agents found him, captured him, and brought him to stand trial in Israel. Eichmann’s public trial exposed his crimes to the world, but the harrowing story of his capture has gone largely untold.

That capture is the center focus of Operation Finale, Chris Weitz’s taut spy thriller (in theaters now). Ben Kingsley stars as Eichmann, with Oscar Isaac playing the Mossad agent Peter Malkin, who not only grabbed Eichmann but convinced him to agree to stand trial. It’s a crazy-but-true spy story, complete with ticking clocks and undercover missions, but more than that, it’s a psychological face-off between Malkin and Eichmann, as the agent matches wits with one of history’s most unassuming but cold-blooded villains.

“One of the things he would do was he would disarm bombs,” Isaac says of Malkin. “And here he was presented with the most complex bomb of all, which was Adolf Eichmann’s mind.”

For Kingsley, the film presented a chance to shine a light on a lesser-known part of Holocaust history. The Oscar-winning actor is no stranger to films about the Holocaust, and over the years, he’s played Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal in HBO’s Murderers Among Us, Itzhak Stern in Schindler’s List, and Anne Frank’s father Otto in an ABC miniseries. He prepared for those roles by meeting with Holocaust survivors, and it was that experience he drew on for Operation Finale — particularly his friendship with Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, who died in 2016 and whose picture he carried with him on set.

“I had occasion when I was last with Mr. Wiesel to say to him that the next film that was appropriate to his story, I would dedicate my performance to him,” Kingsley says.

One of the things Kingsley took away from his conversations with Wiesel was the responsibility to show Nazis not as cartoonish villains but as real human beings who were capable of committing atrocities. Operation Finale explores Eichmann’s bloody history, but it also shows his everyday life in Argentina, and Kingsley plays him with an unsettling ordinariness — from kissing his wife to raising his children.

“The tragedy is that the Nazis were human beings,” Kingsley says. “And I think to demonize them, to play them as a B-movie villain, to play them as some Marvel comic baddie would do a terrible injustice to the history and to the victims of the Holocaust. We have to present these people as men and women and honor the 6 million who were not killed by lunatics, madmen, and subhumans. They were killed by a culture, a military machine, and a distorted language that was absolutely dedicated to their extermination. And I’m afraid that’s a terrible truth to accept, but it was carried out by people who ate their sausage and sauerkraut, drank their beer, petted their dogs, kissed their wives, and tucked their children into bed. It’s a terrible thought, but I’m afraid it’s true.”

And although Eichmann was captured in 1960, the film’s themes of hatred and prejudice feel as timely as ever.

“We were down in Argentina in period costumes, and then we turned on the TV and Charlottesville’s happening,” Isaac says. “You’re seeing Nazi flags and fascists walking the streets, and it horribly becomes very clear that we’re not making a movie about the past, we’re making a movie about what’s happening right now. People have been enabled by the rhetoric of those in power and inflamed into hatred. It’s really a testament to Ben Kingsley’s performance that he [doesn’t play Eichmann as] a monster. He’s a human being. It’s a reminder that it’s not some mythical, faraway thing, but something that can easily happen, and even to people that aren’t seemingly evil.”