B.J. Novak Heads Down to Texas to Orchestrate Some Vengeance

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Vengeance (CREDIT: Patti Perret/Focus Features)

Starring: B.J. Novak, Boyd Holbrook, Issa Rae, Dove Cameron, J. Smith-Cameron, Isabella Amara, Ashton Kutcher, Lio Tipton, Eli Abrams Bickel, John Mayer

Director: B.J. Novak

Running Time: 108 Minutes

Rating: R for A Few Bursts of Language and Violence

Release Date: July 29, 2022 (Theaters)

What’s It About?: New York-based journalist Ben Manalowitz (B.J. Novak) would really love to host a podcast that gets people talking. If you’ve ever met someone whose response to listening to Serial was “I could do that!”, then you know the kind of guy we’re dealing with here. As serendipity would have it, he gets a call from the family of Abilene Shaw (Lio Tipton), an old hookup of his. They inform him that she’s died of an overdose, as they’ve confused him for a serious boyfriend, so he suddenly finds himself flying down to Texas for the funeral. Abilene’s brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook) suspects that there’s more to the story, so he recruits Ben into his plan to track down who’s really responsible and deliver some Lone Star-style vengeance. And so, Ben now has his podcast premise: a probing examination into the American opioid crisis through the lens of conspiracy theories that are more comforting than the truth.

What Made an Impression?: If that synopsis has you screaming, “This sounds like the most insufferable movie ever!!!”, I can see where you’re coming from. But those alarm bells should be tempered by the creative guiding hand of Novak, who writes, directs, and stars. But maybe you’re worried that even a self-aware version of this story would still be pretty insufferable. Understandable! But here’s the thing: it’s all played pretty sincerely. This isn’t satire, but rather, an engrossing tale of a messy tragedy. Ben certainly starts off a little condescending, but he allows himself to be drawn into Abilene’s family. They have their fair share of Deep South middle-of-nowhere quirks, but they also have access to modern amenities, so they know what’s what in the 21st century. (If you were looking for something more mean-spirited, you can at least relish John Mayer’s self-mocking cameo as himself.) Ben is won over by the clan, and he eventually gets drawn in enough to realize that Abilene really doesn’t seem like the type of girl who would have OD’d and that her death indeed warrants further investigation.

In a very strongly cast movie, the one performance in Vengeance that really blew me away was a career-best turn from Ashton Kutcher as local record producer Quinten Sellers. He could easily have more clients in a bigger city, but he’s an idealist who doesn’t want to see talent go to waste in this little town. Ben is all ready to dismiss him as a flim-flam man, but Quinten wins him over with a stunning monologue about how writers are the translators of life. (I was inspired quite a bit as well!) I’ve never seen Kutcher’s charm put to such profound use before, and it’s kind of intoxicating.

While most of Vengeance is disarmingly openhearted, it ultimately barrels forward to a sour, ugly conclusion befitting its title. That doesn’t negate all the hope-filled moments that preceded it, but it does cast a pall over the optimistic scenes. I’m not going to dismiss the whole movie for that questionable swerve, but it is worth noting that it’s stuck in my craw despite my generally satisfied experience.

Vengeance is Recommended If You Like: Looking past stereotypes

Grade: 4 out of 5 Whataburgers

This Is a Movie Review: Shane Black’s Version of ‘The Predator’ Has Some Interesting Ideas, But It Could Have Benefited From a Few More Drafts

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CREDIT: Kimberley French/Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally posted on News Cult in September 2018.

Starring: Boyd Holbrook, Olivia Munn, Sterling K. Brown, Jacob Tremblay, Trevante Rhodes, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen, Augusto Aguilera, Yvonne Strahovski

Director: Shane Black

Running Time: 107 Minutes

Rating: R for Plenty of Blood and Even More Guts, Tourette’s-Style Profanity, and Predator Sex References

Release Date: September 14, 2018

The Predators from Predator aren’t really predators. They’re sportsmen, hunting for the thrill of it instead of for sustenance. If there’s one thing that The Predator wants you to know, it’s this. And also that “The Predator” is a cool name, so it doesn’t really matter that it’s not accurate. This edition is filled with ideas, most of them more high-minded than the title character’s etymology. That is to be expected, considering that writer/director Shane Black (who acted in the 1987 original) has made his career on somewhat self-aware and slightly askew takes on the action genre. But by his standards, the ideas on display here are a little undercooked.

It turns out that some Predators may not be entirely motivated by killing. In fact, there is now at least one rogue Predator who is interested in helping earthlings survive. That is the idea driving the plot, as Army Ranger sniper Quinn (Boyd Holbrook) procures some valuable Predator tech that multiple parties are interested in retrieving. But this film’s most compelling idea is its definitive stance that spectrum disorder is the next step in human evolution. Boyd’s son Rory (Jacob Tremblay), who gets his hands on his dad’s discovery, is somewhere on the spectrum. His condition is not especially debilitating; it mainly manifests itself in an aversion to loud noises and an aptitude towards accurately interpreting alien devices. He becomes a person of interest to all sides in this struggle, and it is a fairly rewarding avenue for this story to take.

But the issue is, for as much as The Predator wants to grapple with these weighty concepts, the majority of its substance consists of cheeky jokes and action set pieces, which are only sporadically satisfying. There is plenty of energy from a motley crew of military prisoners, like Keegan-Michael Key’s aficionado of “Yo momma” jokes and Thomas Jane’s Tourette’s spouter. But getting in the way of it all are inconsistent explanations about how to dispatch Predators. Do you shoot them in the head? Wear them down with multiple hits until they finally start to fall? Do you need to get their armor off? Sometimes each of those options works, but other times they don’t. Also, there are these Predator dogs that are actually kind of cute but I’m not sure what their purpose is. And that’s pretty much how this whole film goes: it’s pretty cool, but I’m not entirely sure what its purpose is.

The Predator is Recommended If You Like: The Hulk Dogs from Ang Lee’s Hulk

Grade: 2.75 out of 5 Predator-Human Hybrids

This Is a Movie Review: Mother of Mercy, Is This the End of ‘Logan’?

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This review was originally published on News Cult in February 2017.

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen, Boyd Holbrook, Stephen Merchant

Director: James Mangold

Running Time: 135 Minutes

Rating: R for Relentless, Vengeful Bodily Harm and a DGAF Attitude to Language

Release Date: March 3, 2017

Logan marks the ninth time that Hugh Jackamn is donning the muttonchops and adamantium claws to play indestructible X-Man Wolverine. At this point, for general audiences and fanboys alike to care, there simply MUST be something new to offer this go-round. Both of Wolverine’s previous solo films kind of fulfilled that dictum, but 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine otherwise totally missed the mark, while 2013’s The Wolverine felt too inconsequential. Logan ain’t having any of that. Set in a semi-apocalyptic near future, the film streamlines the muddled continuity down of the X-universe to its essence and gets right down to business.

Logan and an unstable, nonagenarian Professor X (Patrick Stewart, relevant as ever) are tasked with transferring the preteen Laura (Dafne Keen) to safety. In this future, mutants have mostly died out and no new ones have been born for two decades (the reason for this is revealed in a quick bit of exposition, so keep your ears peeled), but Laura displays abilities very reminiscent of our title character, suggesting that the mutant gene may not have died out completely. What we have here is a classic Western story structure about transporting human cargo. This makeshift family treks along dusty Oklahoma highways in search of a supposed Eden, avoiding the evil scientist forces that constantly plague this world’s heroes.

In a first for the franchise, Logan is rated R, and it does not shy away from earning that rating. With Wolverine’s penchant for slicing his enemies to smithereens, this potential was always there. And this is not just bloodlust for the sake of it. Logan does not have any new powers in this iteration, but he does deploy them in unprecedented fashion. Rendered sick by the same culprit that killed off the rest of mutantkind, there is greater vulnerability to his carnage. His earlier appearances have not lacked for thrillingly hardcore action, but with his healing power, the stakes have never been as high as they are in Logan. Every thrash of his claw becomes profoundly cathartic.

Logan works primarily as an acting showcase for Jackman, Stewart, and Keen. This entry just solidifies the Aussie’s performance as one of the most iconic bits of casting in cinema history. Stewart plays the telepathic leader in a key that I would have never anticipated. I am not entirely sure it all works, but it is undoubtedly riveting, and I admire Stewart for venturing into such dangerous territory. Keen is a spitfire and a revelation. It takes a special breed of 11-year-old to go toe-to-toe with a hairy beast, and she’s got what it takes. All signs point to Jackman hanging up the claws for good after this entry, and if this means that Keen can inherit the mantle, we are in good hands.

Logan is Recommended If You Like: The berserker scene from X2The Hateful EightThe Nice GuysLooper

Grade: 4 out of 5 Decapitations