THE HUNT (2020)

March 12, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Let’s face it. It was a brilliant marketing strategy. In the wake of mass shootings, the release date of this film was delayed when its subject matter was deemed controversial, even scandalous The film’s new marketing slogan became, “The most talked about movie of the year is one that no one’s actually seen.” Of course, it wasn’t really true, as very few were actually talking about it. But that’s what made it genius marketing … they created interest amidst controversy that has since proven unnecessary. Director Craig Zobel (Z FOR ZACHARIAH, 2015) has delivered the least controversial, non-polarizing film of the year. It basically laughs at extremes on the left and right, and reminds us how laughing at something can often take away its power. And regardless of your “side”, you’ll find some laughs here.

If you’ve seen the trailer, you know that the premise has a group of liberal elites hunting a hand-selected group of social media-active MAGA deplorables. It’s a twist on Richard Connell’s 1924 short story “The Most Dangerous Game”, although the modern day rich aren’t hunting for sport, but rather for political affiliation – gun lovers and climate change deniers. That may sound politically charged, but in fact, it plays as more comedy than comeuppance. Sure, the violence is over-the-top and often quite graphic, but this is a skewering of both red and blue.

Preventing the project from falling into B-movie muck is a standout performance from Betty Gilpin (“Glow”) as Crystal. She’s a Rambo-type who speaks (with a southern drawl) only when necessary, and seems to have learned a lot while serving in Afghanistan. Most of the time she looks like she has “a pinch between her cheek and gum” (a tip of the Stetson to Walt Garrison), and she also hums to herself and tosses down some unusual facial expressions. This is a seriously oddball performance that is the film’s highlight.

One of the best sequences of the film comes quite early as the dozen or so ‘deplorables’ slowly wake-up and find themselves gagged in a field. A container of weapons leads to an early massacre that allows the filmmaker to tease us with numerous familiar faces taking turns as the heir-apparent lead. Some of the faces that pop up include Ike Barinholtz, Wayne Duvall, Ethan Suplee, Emma Roberts, Christopher Berry, Sturgill Simpson, Kate Nowlin, Amy Madigan, Reed Birney, Glenn Howerton, Hannah Alline (flight attendant), and Usman Ally.

Of course we know this is headed to a showdown between Crystal and Athena (2-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank), the ringleader of the hunting party. A fight scene reminiscent of the KILL BILL movies (sans Samurai swords) takes place at Athena’s “manor”, and it is stunningly staged and executed. Unfortunately this scene also highlights the mostly inadequate dialogue that exists throughout the film. Some of the quips click, but many fall flat – surprising since the co-writers Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof have previously collaborated on “Watchmen” and “The Leftovers.”

Blumhouse Productions keeps cranking out these offbeat genre films, and this one likely benefits from a misplaced scandal, and it strives for self-importance by comparing itself to George Orwell’s “Animal House” and with an obscure reference to TEARS OF THE SUN (2013). It’s not at the level of last year’s gem READY OR NOT, and it missed the opportunity to make some political points, but it’s a hoot to watch and as an added bonus, Hilary Swank teaches us the proper way to make a grilled cheese sandwich!

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A CROOKED SOMEBODY (2018)

October 4, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The lust for fame is really just a plea for acceptance. In director Trevor White’s film, the lead character, Michael Vaughn, wreaks of desperation for acceptance … from the public, from his associate, and mostly from his Pastor-Dad. Unfortunately, the path Vaughn chooses is simply the first of many bad decisions. In fact, the film is really a chronicle of the downward spiral of Michael Vaughn’s bad decisions.

Rich Sommer (Harry Crane in “Mad Men”) plays Michael Vaughn, a psychic who tours the country peddling his book and his “act”. And yes, it’s an act. It’s such an act, that it could be considered a scam. However, Michael focuses on connecting the living with their beloved dead ones, so his (sparse) audience is filled with those who want to believe he is legitimate. His assistant-associate-accomplice-would be and one time lover is played by Joanne Froggatt. Her job is to prevent Michael from becoming despondent over the lack of book sales, and also to be his audience-plant when a session gets stalled.

The bulk of the story revolves around Nathan (Clifton Collins, Jr), a man who believes Vaughn has connected to a man Nathan killed. In trying to clear his conscience, Nathan wants Vaughn to use his talents to help Stacy (Amanda Crew), the now-grown daughter of the man Nathan killed. Instead of focusing on “helping” those involved, Vaughn seizes the opportunity to put himself in the spotlight … gaining notoriety as the psychic who helped solve a long-ago murder case. And no, this isn’t the final bad decision Vaughn makes. He manages to make things much worse.

Real life married couple Ed Harris and Amy Madigan play Vaughn’s parents – the one’s he so wants to win respect from. The script from writer Andrew Zilch offers some pretty decent on screen tension, though it strains a bit too much in places – even with a worthy and relatable central idea. It’s human nature to desire acceptance (especially from loved ones) … though it takes a flawed personality to strive for fame and celebrity (especially at the cost of core values). Here’s hoping you don’t see too much of yourself in Michael Vaughn.

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RULES DON’T APPLY (2016)

November 23, 2016

rules-dont-apply Greetings again from the darkness. Few films can match this one for pedigree. Actor/Director/Producer/Writer Warren Beatty is a 14-time Oscar nominee (won for Best Director, Reds, 1982) and Hollywood legend. Screenwriter Bo Goldman is a 3 time Oscar nominee, and has won twice (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Melvin and Howard). The cast includes 4-time Oscar nominee Ed Harris, 4-time Oscar nominee Annette Bening (Beatty’s wife), and other Oscar nominees: Alec Baldwin, Amy Madigan, Candice Bergen, and Steve Coogan. The all-star production also features Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (a 5 time Oscar nominee), Co-Editors Leslie Jones and Billy Weber (both Oscar nominees), and two-time Oscar winner, Costume Designer Albert Wolsky. It’s Mr. Beatty’s first time directing since Bulworth (1998) and first time acting since Town & Country (2011). Being such a filmmaking icon, he attracts some of the most talented folks in the industry whenever he decides to work.

Of course, this isn’t a career retrospective and there are no brownie points won for surrounding yourself with the cinematically decorated elite. It still comes down to the movie, and unfortunately, this one is never as exciting, entertaining or funny as it seems to think it is.

Rumors of Warren Beatty making a Howard Hughes movie have bounced around for decades, and it appears this is as close as we’ll get. The director himself plays the billionaire, and the story mostly revolves around the time the enigmatic man (Hughes, not Beatty) was most involved with Hollywood and the movie business. Much of the dialogue and the majority of the scenes involving Hughes emphasize (and enhance?) the man’s idiosyncrasies that bordered on mental instability. Beatty mostly plays him as a mumbling and shrugging goofball who dines on TV dinners and is frightened of children.

The best parts of the movie don’t involve Hughes, and instead feature the youngsters trying to make their way in his convoluted organization. Lily Collins (Phil’s daughter) plays Marla Mabrey, a wanna-be starlet committed to her staunch religious upbringing – said beliefs incessantly reinforced by her distrusting mother (Annette Bening). Her driver is Frank Forbes played by Alden Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar!), and his own agenda involves convincing Howard Hughes to invest in a real estate development project on Mulholland Drive. As expected, sparks fly between the young actress and the equally conservative young visionary, and we find ourselves engaged with them – in good times and bad.

The two youngsters have some nice screen chemistry that multiple times is brought to a screeching halt by the inclusion of yet another cockamamie Howard Hughes scene – most of which feel more like Beatty’s desire to be on screen rather than an extension of the story. These intrusions prevent any real flow to the film and actually bog down the most interesting aspects of the story. In fact, the disruptions cause us to spend more time “spotting the celeb” than caring about the characters. The list of familiar faces that pop up include: Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Taissa Farmiga, Alec Baldwin, Matthew Broderick, Chase Crawford, Martin Sheen (as Noah Dietrich), Oliver Platt, Steve Coogan, Dabney Coleman, Paul Sorvino, and even Candice Bergen (as Hughes’ secretary).

It’s easy to see the nostalgia and fond memories that Mr. Beatty has of this late 50’s – early 60’s era in Hollywood. It was all about glamour and the magic of what’s on screen. The real Howard Hughes story is at least as interesting, if not more so, than the history of Hollywood, but the cartoonish aspects of the billionaire here don’t hold up to such previous works as The Aviator, or even Melvin and Howard.

These days, the Howard Hughes Hollywood legacy is barely a blip – a few recall Jane Russell’s close-up or the aerial battles of Hell’s Angels, while fewer know the RKO Studios story. Warren Beatty’s movie legacy is much more than a blip; however his latest adds little to the legend.

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