REVIEW: “Hubie Halloween” (2020)

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It’s that time of the year again. You know, the time when we get the next film from Adam Sandler’s lucrative contract with Netflix. The two first came together in a four-movie deal in 2014. They extended their partnership in 2017 adding two more films into the mix. So far every movie Sandler has made for Netflix has received (and rightfully earned) the dreaded ‘Rotten‘ tag from review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Yet they remain popular with subscribers which is why Netflix once again extended their deal earlier this year – four more movies, $275 million.

“Hubie Halloween” is Sandler’s sixth film for the streaming giant and it brings with it many of the things you’ve come to expect: cheap gags, lowbrow humor, and a cast full of Sandler’s buddies who soak up most of the film’s budget. Within the overloaded cast of characters and cameos you’ll find Ben Stiller, Julie Bowen, Ray Liotta, Steve Buscemi, Michael Chiklis, Kenan Thompson, Dan Patrick, Maya Rudolph, Tim Meadows, Rob Schneider, and Shaquille O’Neal among others. Many of the usual suspects, a few new ones.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

What’s frustrating is that “Hubie Halloween” is built on an entertaining premise – a Halloween comedy that’s part spoof and part lighthearted romp. And having a gentle, kind-hearted simpleton as the chief protagonist in a town full of bullies could be something sweet, timely, and funny for the whole family. At times it seems like that’s what “Hubie Halloween” wants to be. But then it (unfortunately) remembers it’s an Adam Sandler movie and in comes the vomit jokes, the fart jokes, the urine jokes, the innuendos and entendres. And the longer it goes the less you see of its once promising charm.

Sandler plays Hubie DuBois, a Halloween loving local from Salem, Massachusetts, “America’s Unofficial Halloween Capitol“. For some reason Sandler (who co-wrote the script with frequent collaborator Tim Herlihy) decides to speak with a weird and annoying voice, his jaw locked and muttering in a way that can at times be hard to understand. Is he trying to give Hubie a speech impediment? Is he somehow trying to equate Hubie’s speech with his IQ? Regardless, Sandler’s Hubie sounds more like a grown man impersonating a 6-year-old than a character speaking naturally. But I digress…

It turns out that benevolence is a rarity in Salem, a town with a bully problem since the 1600’s. It’s a place full of mean-spirited punks including a pestering pack of juveniles who hurl more than insults at Hubie. There are Hubie’s co-workers who scare him every chance they get for their own wicked enjoyment. Two of his old classmates (Meadows and Rudolph) insult him relentlessly. And the town’s bully-in-chief (Ray Liotta) hounds Hubie for no discernible reason whatsoever.

The lone exceptions are Hubie’s mother (June Squibb), a well-meaning old maid with a penchant for crude t-shirts, and Violet (Bowen), an attractive single mother who has been in love with Hubie since they were in first grade (don’t ask, just chalk it up to living in a place where kind men are in short supply). Oh, and there is Mr. Lambert (Buscemi) who just moved in next door. He seems nice other than boarding up all of his windows and telling Hubie “If you ever hear some commotion coming from my house, it’s nothing to be concerned about. So you don’t need to come over and check on me. In fact, it’s important that you don’t.” Sounds normal.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

Evening approaches and as the self-anointed ‘Halloween Monitor’ of Salem, Hubie grabs his trusty Swiss Army Thermos (yes, that’s a thing) and begins patrolling the neighborhoods making sure people are following safety protocols and observing proper candy etiquette. From there the story unfolds into a series of forgettable encounters between Hubie and the townsfolk. There are a few decent jokes sprinkled in, but most of the scenes are little more than Sandler goofing around with his pals. Meanwhile a half-baked horror mystery plays out in the background as an uninteresting masked “terror” starts abducting citizens. Whatever.

There’s more that you could break down and analyze but there’s really no point. You’ve seen and heard most of this stuff before. The big positive (if you want to call it that) is that “Hubie Halloween” is easily among the more tolerable films out of Sandler’s Netflix efforts. It’ll find its audience as most of his film’s usually do. But the few moments of amusement and a fun premise isn’t enough for the rest of us. “Hubie Halloween” is now streaming on Netflix.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars

REVIEW: “Human Capital” (2020)

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With “Human Capital” director Marc Myers takes a swing at Stephen Amidon’s 2004 novel which has already been adapted once by Italian filmmaker Paolo Virzi. Myers pulls a little bit from both in crafting a dense story full of interconnected storylines and shifting perspectives. Along with screenwriter Oren Moverman, Myers maneuvers us through this thorny morality tale with mostly positive results.

“Human Capital” starts at a fancy restaurant where a waiter (Dominic Colon) phones his wife during a smoke break. At closing time he clocks out, hops on his bicycle, and heads home. As he rides under the street lamps we hear the growing hum of a car engine. An SUV coming from behind clips his bike sending him hurdling into the ground. The vehicle stops for a second then speeds off into the night while the man lays unconscious.

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Photo Courtesy Vertical Entertainment

Jump back a few days and we meet Drew (Liev Schreiber) dropping off his daughter Shannon (Maya Hawke) to see her boyfriend Jamie (Fred Hechinger). While there Drew meets the boy’s parents for the first time – the chilly, detached Carrie (Marisa Tomei) and her snotty financier husband Quint (Peter Sarsgaard). Drew, a down-on-his-luck realtor, smells an opportunity and persuades Quint to let him buy into a hot new hedge-fund. The problem is he doesn’t have the required initial investment of $300,000. With an almost blind assurance, Drew lies on his SEC forms and finagles a high-interest loan for what he considers to be a sure-thing. We know it’s not.

From there we rewind again, this time following the same timeline but from Carrie’s perspective. The once aspiring actress turned disenchanted trophy wife has relished her life of privilege but now finds herself desperate for some kind of fulfillment. And then the movie bounces back once more, this time following Shannon. Her angle reveals more about her relationship with Jamie while also introducing Ian (Alex Wolff), a troubled young man who captures Shannon’s eye.

All three story threads are woven together by the opening hit-and-run. At first things seem predictable and the culprit looks pretty obvious. But as the three stories intersect, new drops of information make it clear that things aren’t so cut-and-dry. Before long it festers into smug elites versus the modestly upper class while the true victim, a working class waiter, is almost forgotten and essentially relegated to being a plot device. Unfortunately it’s not just the characters who seem indifferent to the victim, but the film itself. You could argue that’s kind of the point, but it still leaves the movie feeling cold.

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Photo Courtesy Vertical Entertainment

The undercooked ‘whodunit’ aspect aside, the story of “Human Capital” is pretty engaging in large part thanks to a stellar cast. In a rare leading role, the often underrated Schreiber is convincing at every turn. Sarsgaard is ideal playing an unscrupulous slime who sees people as capital that he can move around for his own self-benefit. Tomei does a good job with a character who’s boxed in by the script pretty early on. And Hawke (a “Stranger Things” breakout) is a natural – mopey, impulsive and unpredictable. And I haven’t mentioned the always good Betty Gabriel. She plays Drew’s second wife and easily the most sympathetic character outside of the hit-and-run victim.

It’s easy to see where “Human Capital” could have done more with the class disparity theme. Then again countless movies have been plowing the same ground for a few years now. I think the movie works best as a look at unbridled selfishness, the ripple effective it can have on families, and what people are willing to do to protect their own interests. Most of that comes through the film’s array of characters who didn’t really need a crafty narrative hook or half-baked mystery to be compelling.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “The Hunt” (2020)

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For the sake of clarity, this is not a review of 2012’s “The Hunt”, the superb Danish drama starring Mads Mikkelsen (you can find that review HERE. No, instead this is the 2020 one, you know the self-proclaimed “most talked about movie of the year“. In reality the self-hype is wildly exaggerated. To be honest, I don’t know anyone who is talking about this movie. But I guess you grab publicity wherever you can.

Actually “The Hunt” did have a few people talking late last year when right-leaning critics denounced the movie’s portrayal of rich liberal elites hunting conservatives for sport. Much like the pro-incel nonsense hurled at “Joker”, this too was baseless outrage. But it went away quick, especially after the film was shelved following a pair of deadly mass shootings.

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PHOTO: Universal Pictures

But now it’s back, finally receiving its big screen release. It turns out “The Hunt” isn’t a movie worth fussing over. In fact it’s pretty bad, sometimes in a good way but most often not. It’s definitely not the movie the political heads painted it as. It also isn’t nearly as clever or insightful as it desperately wants to be. At times it’s weirdly entertaining and laugh-out-loud funny. But it’s mostly a vulgar mush of satirical comedy and graphic grindhouse gore. And any message it might have is all but lost.

The story is as simple as this: a group of wealthy, big city, liberal elites (led by Hillary Swank) kidnap twelve working class “deplorables”, release them into a remote clearing, and then begin hunting them for sport. But one, a tough-as-nails military vet (Betty Gilpin), turns the table and fights back. The script is from Nick Cruse and Damon Lindelof, supposedly inspired by a 1924 short story. It more closely resembles “The Hunger Games” meets “Hard Target” but in the form of a bad Saturday Night Live sketch.

The paper-thin story builds its characters solely off of stereotypes and extremes. The idea is to poke fun at the inane division that makes up America’s current political climate. Obviously it’s a big part of the satire, but at some point you would like at least a little character depth. They try to slap some on at the end but it’s meaningless. And it doesn’t help that everyone talks like profane brain cell-challenged buffoons. I don’t know if it was an effort to ensure a hard R-rating (the exploding heads and flying viscera had that covered) or just lazy writing.

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PHOTO: Universal Pictures

The film is directed by Craig Zobel and its a far cry from his last picture, 2015’s excellent “Z for Zachariah”. Here it’s hard to tell if he’s taking anything seriously or just whizzing through the motions. He does maintain a brisk pace and the film’s 90 minutes seemed to fly by. That’s a good thing because it wouldn’t take much downtime to start poking holes in the story. I think Zobel knows that so he keeps our attention diverted the best he can.

The idea at the core of “The Hunt” is a worthy one. We could certainly use a clear-eyed reminder of how toxic and sectarian our political discourse has become. I’m just not sure this is the movie to do it. The film never sells us on its convictions and often times it seems more interested in being a hyper-violent gorefest. Sure, we get gags about gun control, climate change, racial politics, immigration, and nearly every other issue of the day (I’ll admit some of them are pretty funny). But the filmmakers seem more dedicated to blood-letting than storytelling and by the end the satire is barely visible.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars

REVIEW: “Harriet” (2019)

HarrietPOSTERIt was in 1849 that Harriet Tubman escaped slavery in Maryland, fleeing 100 miles to the relatively safe city of Philadelphia. She was just 27 years-old. But instead of staying put Tubman returned thirteen times, rescuing approximately 70 slaves including members of her own family. And that’s just a part of her inspiring life story. So how is it she’s just now getting the big screen treatment?

“Harriet” is the long overdue biopic of the slave turned abolitionist who became the most well known conductor on the Underground Railroad. The film comes from director Kasi Lemmons who co-wrote the screenplay with Gregory Allen Howard. The powerful and resonant historical truths behind Tubman’s life energizes the film both dramatically and emotionally even though the movie often travels down more conventional paths.

The film opens in Maryland where young newly married Harriet (then going by her real name Araminta “Minty” Ross) is living as a slave with her parents and siblings. The movie chronicles her eventual break for freedom and 100-mile trek to Philadelphia where she meets abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom, Jr.). Soon she makes the first of several trips back to lead other slaves, including her family, to freedom.

Some have called “Harriet” a star-making vehicle for Cynthia Erivo and they’re not wrong. The British actress, singer, songwriter broke out in 2019 in “Bad Times at the El Royale” and she was the best thing in “Widows”. Here she is given her meatiest role yet and once again proves herself to be among the most exciting new actresses on the big screen. In “Harriet” her role demands a certainly physicality which she nails. But it’s her emotional range that stands out even when the material spins its wheels.

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Photo: Focus Features

Sadly too much of “Harriet” seems rooted out of Hollywood and built upon a more modern day sensibility. Often the historical account is tossed aside for a more contemporary crowd moment. Take a scene where Harriet takes a bite out of a room full of fellow abolitionists. Included in the group is none other than Frederick Douglass who is given the third degree for being out of touch with the plight of slaves down south. The entire scene feels false.

Even Harriet’s visions, which are historically accurate, are not presented in a convincing way. These scenes make her more like an empowered biblical prophet than the Harriet Tubman from history books. Throw in a dab of fairly generic chase scenes and a bland, one-dimensional slave owner antagonist (Joe Alwyn) and you have your conventional Hollywood stew.

Yet shining through the haze of studio formula is Erivo who puts the entire movie on her back. Her performance captures the spirit of Harriet Tubman which has shamefully been missing from the big screen. This may not be the definitive Tubman biopic she deserves but the movie honors this important historical figure and hopefully will inspire people to look deeper into her true life story and incredible accomplishments.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “Honeyland” (2019)

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Hatidze lives alone with her bed-ridden mother among the ruins of an old village in a remote part of Northern Macedonia. We watch her climb high into the rocky hills, maneuvering along the edges to a section seemingly carved out of the cliffside. She chisels away at the rock face with a quiet confidence soon uncovering what she came for – bright yellow honeycomb dripping with their golden nectar. Hatidze goes to work, careful not to harm a single bee and only taking a portion of their labors. And the bees don’t bother her either. It’s a perfect synergy between man and nature.

“Honeyland” from directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov is a documentary that both celebrates that synergy and explores what can happen when it is disrupted. With over four hundred hours of footage condensed to an 87 minute film, you can’t help but wonder if we’re getting the full picture. But what the filmmakers do give us is an invigorating slice of humanity fraught with identifiable feelings that transcend location, culture or status.

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© 2019 Neon Pictures All Rights Reserved

Hatidze is the film’s focus and there’s more to her than the dying art of wild beekeeping. She’s a very capable woman, adept at sustaining a home for her and her mother despite no electricity, indoor plumbing or running water. Early on she ventures into the capitol city of Skopje to sell the honey she has collected. Hatidze is a surprisingly shrewd businesswoman and you get the sense she enjoys bartering with the local street merchants. She takes the money she earns to buy the barest of necessities along with the occasional splurge (this trip it’s a hair coloring kit).

Her quiet, structured ecosystem is rattled when a vagabond couple shows up in a raggedy flatbed truck pulling a camper full of chickens and children. Close behind them is their 150 head of cattle. This noisy cluster of chaos plants down in the ruins with Hatidze. She tries to be a good neighbor, even taking a liking to a precocious middle child. But when the father learns there is money to be made selling honey, he gets some bees of his own. Eventually his greed and his family’s growing dysfunction upends any chance of a peaceful ‘neighborhood’.

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© 2019 Neon Pictures All Rights Reserved

Cinematographers Fejmi Daut and Samir Ljuma take a very fly-on-the-wall approach, always in observation mode even in instances when you wish they would intervene. Practically all of these instances involve the rambunctious children and their inattentive parents. But Daut and Ljuma’s spectator perspective also allows for the capturing of organic, heartfelt moments. Take Hatidze soulfully pondering what her life would be like if she had married, had a son, and lived elsewhere. Or her brief but pained expression after finding her newly discovered beehive had been pillaged by the father.

The movie pulls up just short of branding the intruding family as the villains. In many ways you can sense their desperation and they are ultimately just trying to survive. But unquestionably our sympathies lie with Hatidze who watches as her once harmonious way of life is turned on its head. Metaphorically, the loud and unruly invaders could represent a host of things. But it’s the shattered relationship between a lonely beekeeper and nature itself that provides the more potent and personal sting.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Hustlers” (2019)

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“Hustlers” is a movie both speaking to and benefiting from the current social and political climate. You see it touching on a number of current hot button issues that too few films are willing to tackle. At the same time just addressing issues doesn’t make a movie great yet it seems to be enough for some. And apparently some have even heralded “Hustlers” as a modern-day “Goodfellas”. Talk about getting carried away.

Exaggerations aside, “Hustlers” is a fairly basic crime drama that plays around with some good ideas but ultimately can’t quite get out of its own way. Wading through the movie’s excesses to get to the meatier story moments can be a chore. And fully embracing its supposed strong view of women as it hypocritically gazes at its stars’ assets makes it a hard sell. In a nutshell, this is weird and frankly shallow view of female empowerment.

“Hustlers” is written and directed by Lorene Scafaria and inspired by a 2015 article in New York magazine. It follows a group of cash-strapped strippers who begin hustling white and wealthy Wall Street brokers. The scam sees the strippers seducing their target, drugging them, and then maxing out their credit cards before they come to. It’s an icky scheme that seems to have the movie’s stamp of approval (at least up to a point).

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Set in 2007, Constance Wu plays Destiny, the central character and the movie’s conscience. She’s a young woman who goes to work at a strip club called Moves in order to make money to take care of her grandmother. The star act at Moves is Ramona (a game Jennifer Lopez) who is a mother hen to the other strippers and who takes Destiny under her wing.

Wu and Lopez drive the story forward and their characters are the only ones who keep the movie afloat. Wu is really good outside of the strip club but feels out of place during the club scenes (partly by design but not entirely). Lopez falls right into her role and gives an intensely convincing performance. Strangely the script shortchanges her character of some much deserved depth. We get small snippets of her personal life but that’s about it.

The rest of the cast feels completely interchangeable and pasted into the script. Cardi B plays a lewd, foul-mouthed professional lap-dancer who up and vanishes after the first act (It’s essentially a glorified cameo). Lili Reinhart shows plenty of zest but is tagged with a lame and endless vomit gag (after about the third upchuck a lady near me in the theater uttered “Okay, enough of that. It’s not funny“). Reinhart deserved better.

It was fun seeing Julia Stiles again. She plays a journalist interviewing Destiny in 2014 about the events seven years earlier. The bulk of the story is told within the framework of the interview where Destiny talks about first meeting Ramona and what led to their crimes. We learn that after the financial crisis of 2008 the strip club loses much of its high dollar clientele. This means less money for the ladies so Ramona, Destiny and their crew put their plan in motion.

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When Scafaria allows for more personal moments with her characters the movie hits its sweet spot. She also has a good sense of sisterhood and there are many times when that bond between the friends is palpable. But it doesn’t help to have such an over-reliance on slow-motion montages many of which resemble shots from a hip-hop video. It all begins to feel repetitive which is big reason the movie loses steam in the second half.

“Hustlers” is a hard movie to figure out. In many ways it champions the crimes of its high-heeled hoods and works hard to justify them. To a lesser effect it attempts to bring some degree of culpability (eventually) mainly through Wu’s character. She’s essential and without her few scenes of internal moral conflict this movie would be nothing more than a seedy fable built on the message ‘two wrongs make a right‘.

The wild acclaim for “Hustlers” got me thinking. Have we become so hungry for strong female-driven movies that we’ve lowered our standards and are willing to embrace certain films just because they check specific boxes? It’s an interesting question that should be rendered moot as more female-led stories are finally allowed to be told. It’s past time for that. But in the meantime “Hustlers” shouldn’t get a pass.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

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