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

Movie Review: ‘Late Night’ Brings Some Diverse Casting, But Not Diverse Storytelling Ideas, to the Workplace Comedy Genre

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CREDIT: Emily Aragones/Amazon Studios

Starring: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, John Lithgow Denis O’Hare, Reid Scott, Hugh Dancy, Max Casella, Amy Ryan, Paul Walter Hauser, John Early, Ike Barinholtz

Director: Nisha Ganatra

Running Time: 102 Minutes

Rating: R for Comedy Writers Talking as They Do

Release Date: June 7, 2019 (Limited)/Expands Nationwide June 14, 2019

Late Night stars Mindy Kaling (who also penned the script) as Molly Patel, the new hire at a talk show’s previously all-male, all-white writers’ room. But the real kicker isn’t so much the push for a diversity hire as much as it is Molly’s professional background, or lack thereof. She previously worked as an efficiency expert at a chemical plant and made it into her new gig through the most contrived of circumstances. I could complain about how unlikely Molly’s journey is, but I actually don’t care about the unlikelihood. The most improbable version of this story possible is perfectly fine so long as it is also some combination of funny, unique, and insightful. Alas, it is not really any of those things.

CREDIT: Emily Aragones/Amazon Studios

The setup isn’t the problem. In addition to the Molly angle, there’s also the matter of this show being hosted by a woman, the legendary (i.e., relic) Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson). Late Night tries to say something meaningful about how even a woman can reinforce the good ol’ boy status quo. But Katherine’s mistreatment of her staff transcends gender and race. And ultimately the social commentary amounts to little more than a red herring. This is mainly the story of the odd couple friendship that develops between Katherine and Molly, which is nice enough, but it struggles to be resonant within a rather scattered, shallow approach.

Late Night is Recommended If You Like: Watching old middle-of-the-road late night talk show clips

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Monologue Jokes

This Is a Movie Review: ‘The Oath’ Offers a Caustic Vision of Thanksgiving in an America Built on Loyalty Above All Else

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CREDIT: Topic Studios/Roadside Attractions

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

Starring: Ike Barinholtz, Tiffany Haddish, Billy Magnussen, John Cho, Nora Dunn, Chris Ellis, Jon Barinholtz, Meredith Hagner, Carrie Brownstein, Jay Duplass

Director: Ike Barinholtz

Running Time: 93 Minutes

Rating: R for the Profanity of Thanksgiving and Surprisingly Potentially Lethal Violence

Release Date: October 12, 2018 (Limited)

I do not pledge allegiance to The Oath. Nor do I pledge anti-allegiance to it. That lack of fiery passion might be antithetical to a movie that is all about getting everyone riled up, but I need to be honest about how I really feel. And besides, I believe that The Oath ultimately advocates taking a breath and having more measured reactions to potentially explosive situations.

Is the America of The Oath the America that writer-director Ike Barinholtz is worried his country is turning into? He stars as Chris, alongside Tiffany Haddish as his wife Kai, with the two of them united in their disgust at The President’s Oath, an act that requests that Americans declare their allegiance to the president. Barinholtz and Haddish are both known for playing unpredictable balls of energy, but they both tone it down quite a bit here. Perhaps it is best to think of Chris and Kai as what the typical Barinholtz and Haddish characters would become if they settled down in the suburbs and had a young daughter. They are still plenty wound-up, though, Barinholtz especially, as Chris is a news junkie who despairs at every story that pops up on his screens. I suspect that Barinholtz is not quite so constantly on edge in his personal life and that he allows himself the catharsis of freaking out in his work. (If my presumption is wrong, then I sympathize with his friends and families.)

The fallout of the Oath on Chris and Kai and their extended family plays out on Thanksgiving, that hallowed day of controversial conversations between loved ones breaking down along predictably political lines. The Oath ups the ante by throwing government officials, firearms, and general creeping paranoia into the mix. Barinholtz is clearly influenced by a current administration that values loyalty above ethics, but he keeps his warning timeless by avoiding giving a name to anyone in charge. This breakdown in trust in society could happen any time, The Oath argues, and maybe wacky black comedies are the best thing we have to make sense of that.

The Oath is Recommended If You Like: Black comedy stage plays about squabbling families, Grounded political dystopias

Grade: 3 out of 5 Breaking News Alerts

This Is a Movie Review: Three Teenage Girls Make a Sex Pact, But It is the Parents of ‘Blockers’ Who Are Behaving Badly

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CREDIT: Quantrell D. Colbert/Universal Pictures

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

Starring: Leslie Mann, John Cena, Ike Barinholtz, Kathryn Newton, Geraldine Viswanathan, Gideon Adlon

Director: Kay Cannon

Running Time: 102 Minutes

Rating: R for Girls Talking About Sex Without Any Shame, Butt Chugging and the Like, and a Concerning Amount of Drug Use

Release Date: April 6, 2018

What to do with a movie that has a really great message but that plays fast-and-loose with any sense of realism? You take the good, you take the bad – the facts of life! I didn’t go into this meaning to name-check a classic ’80s TV theme song, but as it popped into my head, it just felt remarkably right. At its core, and at its best, Blockers emphasizes the fact that teenage girls have sexual desires and treats that truth as matter-of-factly as it deserves to be treated. This isn’t some “girls can be gross, too!” twist on a “boys will be boys” classic. The sex here approached with maturity and it is often romantic. Any grossness in Blockers is due to insecurity or lapses in plausibility.

Have sex pacts ever occurred in real life? If so, I hope they are as supportive and sweetly motivated as the one in Blockers. On the occasion of her senior prom, Julie (Kathryn Newton) announces to her lifelong friends Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan) and Sam (Gideon Adlon) her intention to lose her virginity tonight to her boyfriend. Sensing an opportunity for a shared anniversary, Kayla and Sam declare that they are in as well. They may not be in as serious a relationship as Julie is, but they’ve got guys who they like well enough and who have the necessary equipment. But when Julie’s mom Lisa (Leslie Mann), Kayla’s dad Mitch (John Cena), and Sam’s dad Hunter (Ike Barinholtz) catch wind of the pact, they are not going to stand idly by as their girls become women.

It is distressing that these parents have such regressively protective attitudes, though it is encouraging that they are presented as the ones so clearly in the wrong. And what’s more, their motivations are more complicated than not trusting their daughters. Lisa is a single mom who has raised Julie alone her whole life. She is struggling through deep-seated separation anxiety, worrying that Julie getting closer to her boyfriend means she will attend college thousands of miles away, which means that she could disappear forever. Director Kay Cannon and her team of screenwriters handle this unflinchingly, and I wish they would have devoted even more time to it. Hunter, meanwhile, knows that Sam is gay and is worried that her friends are forcing her to do something she doesn’t really want to do. Originally introduced as a deadbeat screw-up, he ends up coming off as the most open-minded of the trio, though the film does lose focus a bit on that tack for the sake of gags. Mitch is really the only one who comes as the stereotypically overprotective parent, and though Cena does imbue him with a fair amount of sweetness, he feels out of place in what the film is ultimately saying.

Blockers’ message that teenage girls should be allowed to make their own sexual decisions, especially if they are with boys (or otherwise) who they like and respect, is indisputably valuable. While it may be underlined a little too obviously, perhaps it is a message that needs to be repeated. It is also heartening to see a group of supportive teenage female friends on screen. Julie, Kayla, and Sam have their stark differences, but their loyalty runs deep. That well of positivity offsets a bit the parents’ surplus of bad behavior, which stretches the bounds of credulity a bit too much. Seriously, Blockers, you’re plenty funny without having to resort to butt chugging beer. That is to say, this is a movie that is much more sure-footed when it comes to romance (somehow making licorice the perfect food for declaring love) than when it swerves into the territory of illegal behavior.

Blockers is Recommended If You Like: Superbad and other Judd Apatow productions, particularly if they feature insecure parents, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Clueless

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Sex Pacts

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House’ is a Minor Addition to the Watergate Canon

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CREDIT: Bob Mahoney/Sony Pictures Classics

This review was originally posted on News Cult in September 2017.

Starring: Liam Neeson, Diane Lane, Marton Csokas, Tony Goldwyn, Josh Lucas, Michael C. Hall, Ike Barinholtz, Tom Sizemore, Julian Morris, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Kate Walsh, Maika Monroe, Bruce Greenwood, Brian d’Arcy James, Noah Wyle

Director: Peter Landesman

Running Time: 103 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for FBI Agents Yelling When Suspected of Leaking

Release Date: September 29, 2017 (Limited)

Former FBI Associate Director Mark Felt has been portrayed or parodied in plenty of movies and TV shows, his presence an easy source of tension, frequently cloaked in the shadows of intrigue and mystery. When Hal Holbrook set the template for all Felt performances in All the President’s Men, he literally remained in the shadows. Of course, for decades, the role was not “Mark Felt” but “Deep Throat,” the pseudonym for the informant who provided The Washington Post with key details about the Watergate scandal that led to Richard Nixon’s resignation. Now that Felt (here played by Liam Neeson) has been revealed as Deep Throat, a fascinating film about the man behind the informant is ready to be made, but The Man Who Brought Down the White House is too erratic and overstuffed to be that film.

The story of the Watergate break-in and its fallout is familiar to basically every American who has lived during the last 45 years. It is an ur-scandal, providing a lens through which all governmental scandals – really all public scandals – are interpreted. We don’t need Mark Felt to re-tell that story, and yet it does. To be fair, seeing everything through Felt’s perspective – the channel through which all information in this affair goes through – is fascinating, but not so fascinating to make the familiar exciting again.

As far as I can tell, Mark Felt’s main purpose is to draw back the curtain on all the hoopla that springs up around any person who exists anonymously for so long. There is plenty of material to mine for a rich domestic drama. Felt’s wife Audrey (Diane Lane) is alcoholic and shares much of the stress he’s under, but her story seems like it could be that of any FBI agent’s wife and not Deep Throat’s specifically. The film’s other major point is that for all the good Felt did as an informant, he was not exactly a hero through and through. He was as guilty as (perhaps more so) anyone else in the FBI who violated American citizens’ civil rights. But save for one compelling scene snuck in at the end, that aspect is merely glossed over.

The major shortcoming of Mark Felt is all it attempts to stuff into just a little more than an hour and a half. Every name in the impressively sprawling cast list brings their bona fides, but nobody has the space to carve out a memorable character. Mark and Audrey reunite with their daughter (Maika Monroe) at a hippie commune in a third act twist that plays like it is so supposed to put everything that came before in perspective but mostly feels like it comes out of nowhere. If Mark Felt makes any cogent point, it’s that you always need folks like Woodward and Bernstein to compile everything together cogently and lucidly.

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House is Recommended If You Like: Watergate completism

Grade: 2 out of 5 (Nonexistent) Secret Files

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Snatched’ is a Miscalculated Vacation in More Ways Than One

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

Starring: Amy Schumer, Goldie Hawn, Ike Barinholtz, Wanda Sykes, Joan Cusack

Director: Jonathan Levine

Running Time: 97 Minutes

Rating: R for Sloppy Partying and Surprisingly Deadly Slapstick

Release Date: May 12, 2017

Amy Schumer’s acting instincts dictate that she make her characters immature to the point of straining as much credulity as possible. She has no time for the trope of the professionally successful, but emotionally unstable woman. Instead, everything spirals out of control for her all at once, although that implies that things were ever in control in the first place. For Snatched’s woman-child protagonist Emily Middleton, the latter is almost certainly not the case. After losing her job and her boyfriend, she crawls back into the warm embrace back home with mom Linda (Goldie Hawn), where she can spill ice cream on her shirt and whine like a teenager. This is the Platonic ideal – or Platonic nadir, as it were – of a Schumer performance. How Emily was ever able to move out on her own is a mystery.

Linda’s troubles are much less extreme and thus more relatable. In the decades since separating from her husband, she has never gone back to dating, or even really left the house for that matter. So when her daughter insists that they travel to Ecuador together, she is unsurprisingly hesitant, partly because she is so scared to let loose, but perhaps even more so because she knows better than anyone that following Emily only leads to trouble. Even if the premise were not right in the title, it would be clear so quickly that she is the type of person who would skip right into a kidnapping scam. That Emily and Linda survive mostly unscathed makes them either improbably lucky or impossibly superhuman; both options are exhausting after an hour and a half.

While Schumer commits too hard to being pathetic, there is fun to be had among the supporting performances, where caricatures can be more functional. Wanda Sykes gets the majority of the zingers as an outgoing fellow traveler who recognizes the very real dangers of kidnapping, despite her tenuous grasp of statistics. As Sykes’ platonic life partner, Joan Cusack is weirdly perfectly cast in a completely silent role. And Christopher Meloni is the biggest highlight as an adventurer in way over his head, demonstrating that joie de vivre is often essential to making incompetence sing on screen. Schumer could take some pointers from him, though I suspect she enjoys being stuck in the muck.

Snatched is Recommended If You Like: Women behaving just as badly as men-children, Gene the Chef from Wet Hot American Summer

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Tits Out