REVIEW: “Hillbilly Elegy” (2020)

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When J.D. Vance’s memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” came out in 2016 it was almost instantly thrust into the divisive political arena. To no surprise many partisans from both sides of the aisle had dramatically different reactions to book. But at it’s heart Vance’s memoir was a deeply personal work. It was a therapeutic release derived from his first-hand experiences growing up among three generations of a troubled Appalachian family. The poverty, the physical and verbal abuse, the cyclical nature of his family’s plight – just some of the things that clearly left their mark on Vance.

Director Ron Howard teams with screenwriter Vanessa Taylor in adapting “Hillbilly Elegy” for Netflix. Their film is told from Vance’s point-of-view, both from his teen years (where he’s played by Owen Asztalos) and as a college student (played by Gabriel Basso). Howard and Taylor nimbly maneuver along the two timelines, frequently crossing over in an effort to capture where J.D. came from and what he’s trying to escape.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

The performance many will be talking about/debating comes from Amy Adams. She plays J.D’s mother Bev, a woman known more for her history of drug abuse and failed relationships than for being a loving and responsible parent. Adams gives an undoubtedly big performance, sometimes sucking all the air out of a scene. But that’s more to do with the writing and directing than the actress. Adams is fully committed and convincing. But Bev lacks the complexity the film wants her to have mainly because far to little time is spent fleshing out any redeemable qualities. We’re given light strokes but hardly anything that evokes sympathy.

Glenn Close is given a much more rounded character. She plays J.D.’s tough-skinned, tough-tongued grandmother who makes it her job to keep the family together. Close goes big in a few scenes herself, but she’s also given quieter moments that add dimension and clarity to her character. It’s a bit startling how much Close resembles Vance’s real-life Mamaw (we see her picture during the end credits). Her transformation and performance both help form a character who ends up saving numerous scenes from getting out of hand.

The story attempts to cover a lot of ground, settling mostly in the family’s hometown of Middleton, Ohio. The early images of a once bustling town drying up and dying really resonates. As does the terrific production design from Molly Hughes and the set decoration from Laura Belle and Merissa Lombardo. They create very real and lived-in spaces while offering a vivid portrait of struggling low-income living. “Whatever better life my grandparents had been chasing up Route 23 they never caught it“, says J.D. in narration.

While J.D.’s teen years show us a good kid surrounded by heartbreak and hopelessness, his college scenes reveal a young man working hard to break out of his family’s mold. J.D. works three jobs while attending Yale Law School and has beautiful and supportive girlfriend named Usha (played by the 36-year-old Freida Pinto who can still easily pass for a college student). But when those inseparable family bonds (specifically his mother’s demons) tempt to pull him back in, J.D. is forced to make some life-defining choices.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

It’s here that Howard and Taylor wrestle with the idea of family obligation and expectation. We know what J.D. should do regardless of how difficult it would be. But it clashes with his deep-rooted sense of family duty which gives us one of the film’s more well-developed conflicts. Does he remain a product of his raising or does he pursue the better life that is waiting for him at Yale. Or the bigger question – is it possible to do both?

“Hillbilly Elegy” isn’t the easiest material to cover but Howard gives it his best. It’s a gritty, coarse and intense family drama that works really hard to sell itself. Unfortunately there are a few loose threads and narrative oversights that hold it back. Keeping us almost exclusively behind J.D.’s eyes doesn’t always work either. Both performances, young and old, can be a little dry and you’ll often find yourself more invested in the characters around him. It doesn’t squash the things “Hillbilly Elegy” does right, but it does leave the film feeling like a missed opportunity. “Hillbilly Elegy” opens November 11th in select theaters and premieres on Netflix November 24th.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “His Room” (2020)

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At a pivotal point in “His Room” a character has a sobering revelation. “Your ghosts follow you. They never leave. They live with you.” It’s a powerful line that gets to the heart of this scintillating new horror thriller from first-time feature filmmaker Remi Weekes. “His Room” is an exciting debut that teases you with some of the horror genre’s most well-worn tropes only to surprise you with its big ideas and potent real-world relevancy.

Wisely snatched up by Netflix prior to its Sundance premiere, “His Room” is one of the craftiest horror movies of 2020. It’s a thematically bold genre film that takes an unexpectedly sharp look at the immigrant experience while delving into themes of grief, denial, racism, and survivor’s guilt among other things. Weekes (who also wrote the screenplay) embraces horror elements but doesn’t rely on them. Instead, the terror in his film is as much true-to-life as it is supernatural. And some of the most frightening scenes happen outside the walls of a seemingly haunted council house.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

The film is anchored by two sublime performances from Sope Dirisu and Wunmi Mosaku. They play Bol and Rial, a Sudanese couple who in the film’s opening moments are attempting a harrowing escape from their war-torn homeland. Their journey is perilous – dodging gunfire in cramped buses, long rides in the backs of pickups, and taking a small boat across the turbulent sea that ends up claiming their young daughter’s life. They’re picked up and brought to the United Kingdom but not before a heavy emotional toll had been taken.

After being detained for an unspecified length, Bol and Rial are granted refugee status and given a ramshackle house in a council estate outside of London. Though stared at by neighbors, ridiculed by local kids, and treated as second-class citizens at every turn, the couple are determined to turn their new place into a home. Bol is the more optimistic and resolute. He quickly buries everything from their past and pours all of himself into adapting. Rial finds it harder to let go and struggles to conform to their new way of life.

It’s all vividly captured when Bol comes home to find Rial has prepared a classic Sudanese meal. The romantic dinner is spread across a blanket on the floor to flickering candlelight. “Wonderful” Bol says as he sits, “but maybe next time we can use the table.” He then springs up and goes into the kitchen bringing back silverware. “All I can taste is the metal” says Rial. Bol dismissively replies “You’ll get used to it.” Its an eye-opening scene that highlights the fracture between this husband and wife.

Meanwhile both Bol and Rial begin hearing noises in the walls, mostly when they’re alone and mostly at night. Each of their encounters slowly grow more terrifying. Before long the couple are plunged into their own hellish purgatories, each hearing and seeing very different things. Bol refuses to budge and slowly begins to unravel as the hauntings intensify. Rial is convinced that a devilish witch has followed them from Sudan and brought with it a horde of malevolent spirits. But as Weekes digs deeper we begin to wonder, was it really a witch who filled their walls with ghosts?

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

That may sound like standard haunted house fare, but as connections are made particularly in the film’s chilling yet gripping finish, it’s clear that Weekes has far more on his mind than bumps in the walls and creepy figures in the shadows. And he surprises with his sure-handed visual approach whether it’s the penetrating closeups or his effective use of lighting. There’s also one wickedly surreal scene that I won’t spoil but that really leaves a mark without feeling jarring or self-indulgent.

“His House” is easily one of the best filmmaking debuts of the year and another reminder that there is more to the horror genre than cheap gimmicks and jump scares. It’s a technically, narratively, and thematically rich movie with an earnest affection for its genre but with much, much more going on under its surface. It’s a nice grab for Netflix and hopefully great exposure for one the year’s best horror features.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Honest Thief” (2020)

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Despite all of the uncertainty in 2020 one thing is for sure. No crummy pandemic is going to keep us from getting our annual Liam Neeson shoot-em-up action thriller. While I always get a kick out these films on a very loosely entertaining level, this year’s Neeson escapism is more welcomed than usual. Not only does it give us something new to see on the big screen, but it comes at a time (especially here in the United States) where ‘escaping’ the divisive and vitriolic news cycles is something many of us can appreciate.

So does all of that mean Neeson’s latest “Honest Thief” is a great film? Well “great” is a bit of a stretch. But it is exactly the kind of movie you would expect it to be and it delivers precisely what it advertises. In many ways these Neeson films have become their own genre. Obviously some of them are better than others and this one lands solidly in the middle. Fans of the previous flicks will have fun with “Honest Thief” while those hungry for something fresh shouldn’t expect to find it here. Me? I had a good time with it, flaws and all.

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Photo Courtesy of Open Road Films

The 68-year-old Neeson plays Tom, a former Marine (aren’t all of his characters ex-military of some kind) who has taken up robbing banks across the country. The FBI has tagged him the In-and-Out Bandit (a name Tom abhors), but he’s not one of those bad thieves. No, his safecracking and bomb-making talents are never used to hurt people (well, not physically). He sneaks into well-scouted banks during the dead of night, avoids the security systems, breaks into the vault, grabs the cash and skedaddles without a trace. Oh, and he hasn’t spent a dime of the $9 million he has stolen. See! A thief with principles!

But that’s not why the film is called “Honest Thief”. Tom moves to Boston and since you gotta store all that loot somewhere he rents a storage unit from a grad student and recent divorcee named Annie (Kate Walsh). The two share a flirty scene of not-so-convincing love at first sight and within moments we’re hit with the “One Year Later” card. Now the two are in a committed relationship even planning to move in together. Tom can’t stand the thought of keeping his big secret from Annie any longer. So he decides to come clean, first to the feds and then Annie. There’s your honest thief folks.

Tom calls the FBI, agreeing to confess and turn in the $9 million in exchange for a minimum sentence in a prison near Boston. FBI agents Nivens (Jai Courtney) and Hall (Anthony Ramos) are sent to check out his story but instead they steal the money for themselves and attempt to erase Tom from the equation. Things unravel and one dead agent later, Tom finds himself framed for the murder and on the run from the Bureau and from the two crooked G-men intent on covering their tracks. But once Nivens and Hall make Annie a target, let’s just say it may be time for Tom to pull out his “very particular set of skills“.

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Photo Courtesy of Open Road Films

From there the movie becomes a cat-and-mouse game across Boston, complete with fisticuffs, shoot-outs and several entertaining chase sequences. Director and co-writer Mark Williams bumps things along at a snappy pace, creating a fair amount of tension and raising the stakes just enough to get by. Jeffrey Donovan is a nice presence playing an FBI agent who shares a mutual respect and a mutual distrust with Tom. And of course you have the rock-solid Neeson, a seasoned actor working in his comfort zone who by now can do these roles in his sleep.

There’s no denying that “Honest Thief” uses genre tropes galore. You see them in the characters, in plot points, even in some of the action. And while the romance at the film’s center is incredibly sweet, you can’t help feeling that much of what would have given it heft happened in that “one year later” window. Still, Neeson has once again delivered what his film promised – light, breezy entertainment for fans of these fun getaway thrillers. I completely understand if these films have ran their course for others. Me? I’m still enjoying the ride. “Honest Thief” is now showing in theaters.

VERDICT- 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

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