The Bloody Carnage of ‘The Hunt’ Works Best When You Can Actually Recognize the Human Beings in the Game

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CREDIT: Universal

Starring: Betty Gilpin, Hilary Swank, Ike Barinholtz, Emma Roberts, Justin Hartley, Glenn Howerton, Amy Madigan, Ethan Suplee, Macon Blair, J.C. Mackenzie, Wayne Duvall,  Reed Birney, Teri Wyble, Sturgill Simpson, Jim Klock, Usman Ally, Steve Coulter, Dean J. West, Steve Mokate

Director: Craig Zobel

Running Time: 90 Minutes

Rating: R for Pretty Much Every Suddenly Explosive Way to Die That You Can Think Of and A Bunch of Sarcastic Profanity

Release Date: March 13, 2020

At first glance, The Hunt looks like it could be a terrible case of bothsidesism. But in fact, it is actually operating in too much of a valley of extremes to really be about the miscalculation of the scale of political differences. Instead, this is a story of conspiracy theories and misunderstanding blown out of proportion to terrifying, blackly comic heights. In a spin on the ever-popular 1924 short story “The Most Dangerous Game,” a group of self-castigating liberals have captured some so-called “deplorables” and set them some loose to be hunted as sport. (Trump’s name is never mentioned, but the use of “our ratf—er-in-chief” makes clear the context we’re operating in.) These marks have been chosen because they’re exactly the sort of people who like to propagate the conspiracy theory that elites who run the world have been secretly capturing and hunting people for years.

The script, credited to Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof, operates on the premise of “What if the worst things that political opponents accuse each other in this current climate turned out to be true?” The results, as lavishly staged by director Craig Zobel, would include a baroque series of impalings, short-range shotgun blasts, limbs ripped apart by explosions, and car tires rolling over heads. The mayhem is admirably relentless, but it’s a bit too cartoonish for a movie that wants to be about real characters with genuine pain. The hunted do say some pretty awful things, but hardly enough to justify getting a round of bullets blasted into their brains. And it’s certainly worth noting that since we focus on them and they’re the ones in a state of vulnerability, they serve as our point of identification. Anyone threatened with immediate death suddenly starts to look very, very human, especially in relation to the hunters, who mostly come off like a bunch of caricatures who are prone to tout superficial accomplishments like how Ava DuVernay liked one of their social media posts. For the most part, they do not register as actual people so much as agents of self-parodic vengeful chaos. (At least It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia‘s Glenn Howerton, for one, can make a meal out of that task.)

Easily the most human of anyone in this melee is the deplorable played by Betty Gilpin. She’s shifty and resourceful enough to make you wonder if she really deserves punishment of any sort for whatever she’s guilty of, or even if she’s actually guilty of whatever she’s been accused of. The frustration that’s all over her face says, “I don’t care who you are at this point. I’m just going to do whatever I have to do to survive.” That’s kind of the fundamental, elemental appeal of a piece of exploitation like this: just who are we when faced with an outrageous, deadly situation? Too often, The Hunt‘s answer is, “A ridiculous gathering of stereotypes,” but often enough, its alternative answer is “It’s complicated. We don’t really know.”

The Hunt is Recommended If You Like: Bloody mayhem, satirical exploitation of stereotypes, mixed social messages

Grade: 3 out of 5 Deplorables

‘The Grudge’ Just Won’t End, and That’s Fitfully Fascinating

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CREDIT: Allen Fraser/Sony/Screen Gems

Starring: Andrea Riseborough, Demián Bichir, John Cho, Betty Gilpin, Lin Shaye, Jacki Weaver, Frankie Faison, William Sadler

Director: Nicolas Pesce

Running Time: 94 Minutes

Rating: R for Dismemberment, Fire, Drowning, Stabbing, and Gunshot Wounds

Release Date: January 3, 2020

In the spirit of experimentation, I have decided that my first movie review of 2020 will be in the form of an acrostic. The letters I will be using will be those in the title (not including the “the”), that title being The Grudge, the remake of a remake (or perhaps the latest remake of the first version) about the ghostly curse that lingers in a house where an anger-filled murder has occurred. This time, it takes the form of a multi-murder mystery in which those investigating the deaths at 44 Reyburn Drive run the risk of becoming infected by the grudge themselves.

Great cast! I mean, just look at that list. That’s at least half a dozen folks that could carry a horror movie (or any movie) on their own, and here they are together. Do they elevate the material that’s on the page? Yes, and it could use some elevating.

Repeating the formula is the name of the game here, but not the Grudge formula (or not just the Grudge formula). If you’re hankering for a return to J-horror remake glory, chances are you’ve got The Ring on your mind, and so does, it would seem, The Grudge 2020, as Detective Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough) is most concerned about protecting her son from the effects of the curse that she is experiencing.

Upside-down is how you’ll be looking during one particularly grisly moment involving Lin Shaye. It’s also how you’ll be feeling when things turn metaphysical and conversations discuss how supernatural curses go hand-in-hand with time distortion.

Digits (i.e., fingers) get hacked off. In general, writer/director Nicolas Pesce is not shy about bodies becoming pummeled, ripped apart, and decayed. It’s this movie’s most effectively visceral technique.

Generosity, and a fair bit at that, is probably required to give this umpteenth entry in a long-running, occasionally ponderous franchise a chance. An effective atmosphere is met, and frankly, that is a must that must be met in this sort of challenge.

Ending… it looked like it was going to be conclusive, which wouldn’t have been a good fit for the endless hopelessness inherent in this premise. But then there’s a fakeout, and instead of a punch in the gut, you leave with more of a whoosh.

The Grudge is Recommended If You Like: Diving into the infinite reboot loop while allowing some room for hope

Grade: 2.75 out of 5 Hands Popping Out of Hair

Movie Review: ‘Stuber’ Sends Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista Running L.A. Around With Their Heads Cut Off

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CREDIT: Karen Ballard/Twentieth Century Fox

Starring: Kumail Nanjiani, Dave Bautista, Natalie Morales, Betty Gilpin, Mira Sorvino, Iko Uwais, Jimmy Tatro, Karen Gillan

Director: Michael Dowse

Running Time: 105 Minutes

Rating: R for Explosive Police Detective Work and a Visit to a Strip Club

Release Date: July 12, 2019

Humor hits different people in different ways, so while it’s theoretically possible that some viewers may find Stuber hilarious, I must be honest and admit that I found it tiresome almost immediately. It all starts, or fails to get into gear rather, with that title. Stuber looks completely meaningless, and it essentially is, as so many nicknames are. The “Stuber” in question is Stu (Kumail Nanjiani), a big box employee who also works on the side for a ride sharing company that offers the perfect opportunity for an unremarkably simple portmanteau. Is this one big 90-minute long product placement vehicle for Uber? Eh, who cares, we’ve got bigger problems to deal with.

Anyway, Stu finds himself picking up a passenger who keeps him on retainer over the course of one very long day. That would be Dave Bautista as Vic, an LAPD detective who’s supposed to be taking some time to relax because his boss told him that a big drug case is being taken over by the feds and also because he’s temporarily blind from laser eye surgery. So of course Stu and Vic don’t see eye-to-eye, as that is how unlikely buddy comedies work. Alas, everything’s too loud and predictable to be endearing. Although at one point some guy does get his face blown up by a propane tank, a moment that kind of shocked me back to life. So overall, that’s about a minute worth of fresh material.

Stuber is Recommended If You Like: Action Comedies That Don’t Know When to Quit

Grade: 2 out of 5 Uber Stars

Movie Review: ‘A Dog’s Journey’ is Overflowing with Human Melodrama

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CREDIT: Joe Lederer/Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment

Starring: Josh Gad, Kathryn Prescott, Dennis Quaid, Marg Helgenberger, Betty Gilpin, Henry Lau, Abby Ryder Fortson, Ian Chen

Director: Gail Mancuso

Running Time: 108 Minutes

Rating: PG for Emotional Neglect and a Car Crash

Release Date: May 17, 2019

Movies centered around dogs sound all well and good, but what we perhaps are not always as cognizant of as we should be is that these flicks often need human stories happening around the pooches. It might be natural to ask, “If I love dogs, will I love A Dog’s Journey?” Well, it turns out that is not the most relevant question, because what really matters here is your taste for melodrama.

A sequel to A Dog’s Purpose, A Dog’s Journey is an extension of the narrative but also a re-do, running through the exact formula set by the original: a soul with the inner voice of Josh Gad lives a full dog life, dies, and then gets reincarnated as a new breed with a new name, but with the memories of the past lives intact. “Purpose” has been dropped from the title, because this time the pooch (who consistently knows him/herself as “Bailey” despite all the new monikers) learns his mission right from the start. His original owner Ethan (Dennis Quaid) informs Bailey that he must stay by the side of his step-granddaughter CJ (Ant-Man‘s Abby Ryder Fortson as a youngster and Kathryn Prescott as a young adult) as she navigates a rough and painful life.

And oh boy, does CJ have a tough upbringing, often comically so. Her mother Gloria (GLOW‘s Betty Gilpin) is chronically absent and frequently antagonistic to her family members. At one point, CJ comes right out and tells her, “You are literally the worst mother in the world.” Gilpin is impressively committed, but Gloria comes off as little more than a caricature. While there may be bad parents just like her in the real world, her behavior is so bizarrely motivated that it always feels like she and CJ are acting like they’re in a soap opera when everything else around them suggests verisimilitude. The ostensible appeal of a canine-based movie like A Dog’s Journey is the dog’s askew interpretations of human behavior. Those zingers are present and occasionally worth a chuckle, but the majority of the plot is overwrought human tragedy. That’s generally exhausting, though occasionally it thankfully enters the territory of self-parody.

A Dog’s Journey is Recommended If You Like: A Dog’s Purpose, Unabashed melodrama, Believing that your loved ones can be reincarnated

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Boss Dogs

Movie Review: Rom-Com Deconstruction Goes Down as Easy as a Cupcake in the Frothy and Insightful ‘Isn’t It Romantic’

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CREDIT: Warner Bros.

Starring: Rebel Wilson, Liam Hemsworth, Adam DeVine, Priyanka Chopra, Betty Gilpin

Director: Todd Strauss-Schulson

Running Time: 88 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Stereotypically PG-13 Rom-Com Behavior

Release Date: February 13, 2019

Do romantic comedies offer any applicable lessons for our own lives? Or are they all just toxic fantasies and at best valuable only for the escapism they offer? Isn’t It Romantic would like us to believe that even the most unrealistic rom-coms can provide inspiration for how to navigate our love lives. It’s a lesson that its main character Natalie (Rebel Wilson) would be wise to take to heart (and ultimately of course, she will). An architect living in an accurately smelly and sweaty New York City, she has been raised to be cynical about the genre, and fairly enough, she calls out its most destructive tropes: from the female co-workers who are mandatory rivals to the gay best friend who has no personal life of his own. But her cynicism blinds her to the existence of potential true love around her, partly because she does not believe that most guys would be interested in a “normal” girl like her. She is someone who would clearly benefit from saying “yes” more often, even if what she says yes to is living out an over-the-top stereotypical rom-com. Somehow, that experience leads to self-acceptance and fully listening to the people who truly appreciate her.

Nat is transported to this fantasy world when she hits her head while getting mugged in a subway station. She finds herself in a suspiciously fragrant version of NYC in which just about everyone is a little too open to the possibility of random meet-cutes. For her, that means a whirlwind romance with Blake (a never-better Liam Hemsworth), a client of hers who speaks almost exclusively in Buddhist aphorisms. And for Nat’s best friend and co-worker Josh (Adam DeVine), that means falling into the embrace of Isabella (Priyanka Chopra), the improbably employed “yoga ambassador.” It turns out that the rom-com storyline at play here is actually “best friends realize they were supposed to be together all along, almost before it’s too late,” and chances are pretty high that the corresponding happy ending will come to fruition. But the real raison d’etre of this whole affair is for Natalie to separate the chaff from the wheat of what rom-coms have to offer. Yes, they might be unrealistic and sometimes even toxic, but that is no reason to be miserable and reject love in our own lives. Isn’t It Romantic deconstructs to remind us why these silly, frothy stories are still worth telling.

Isn’t It Romantic is Recommended If You Like: Enchanted, They Came Together, Rebel Wilson and Adam DeVine’s chemistry in Pitch Perfect

Grade: 4 out of 5 Mornings After