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

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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

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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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REVIEW: “The Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw”

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Who knew back in 2001 that “The Fast and the Furious” would not only spark its own franchise but that it would spawn seven sequels (so far) and collectively make well over $5 billion (again so far). And considering how often they churn out installments did the really need to branch off into spinoff territory?

The current Hollywood model for franchises says “YES”. So that leads to the first Fast and Furious Presents film “Hobbs and Shaw”. For those of you out of the loop, Luke Hobbs (the beefy Dwayne Johnson) is a federal agent who gets the job done and leaves a trail of mass destruction in the process. Deckard Shaw (the more dapper Jason Statham) is special forces-turned-mercenary with a strong dislike for Hobbs.

What if something happened that forced these two meat-headed tough guys to put aside their differences and team up? That’s the stuff of a good spinoff, right? Well that something comes in the form of the Snowflake virus. You know the drill – a deadly virus that if released would quickly spread and wipe out the earth’s population (why do these scientists just keep inventing these things?).

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Enter the movie’s wildcard (and welcomed new ingredient) Vanessa Kirby. She plays Hattie Shaw (that last name ring a bell?). She’s an MI6 agent who retrieves the virus from some meanies before running into their boss Brixton Lore (a really fun Idris Elba). He’s a cybernetic-enhanced terrorist working for the shadowy outfit Eteon. Hattie escapes by the skin of her teeth which prompts Lore to frame her for the killing of her team and theft of the virus.

Hattie goes off the grid while Hobbs and Shaw are brought in to track her down. And all three are being hunted by Lore and his high-tech band of baddies. If you’ve seen any of the more recent Fast & Furious movies you know the blueprint of this one – humongous action set pieces linked together by small segments of story. To the film’s credit, it does offer a nice slice of pathos in the final act built upon the franchise’s long-running theme of family.

One of the biggest reasons these movies have worked is because they know exactly what they are. I think “Hobbs and Shaw” may be the most self-aware F&F movie yet. It’s constantly riffing on itself and especially its two lead characters. Much of this is done through the snappy comedic chemistry between the slab of granite Johnson and the more buttoned-up Statham. Their constant witty banter pokes fun not only at their characters but also the roles these actors often play. And both guys have more than enough charm and charisma to pull it off.

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But again, the testosterone-driven action and humor could have worn out its welcome if not for the movie’s ace in the hole – Vanessa Kirby. In last year’s “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” she grabbed our attention with her seductive and mysterious presence. We still get some of that, but this role gives her a lot more to do. Her character is always smarter and in many instances tougher than any of the barking alpha males she shares a screen with.

And of course there is the action, the franchise’s true bread and butter. There is no shortage of it in “Hobbs and Shaw” and it’s often as exhilarating as it is preposterous. Director David Leitch showed his action movie chops with his 2014 debut “John Wick”. Some of that style seeps its way into this film particularly in the hand-to-hand fighting. But it’s the crazy over-the-top set pieces (often involving vehicles) that are the most fun. It’s just a shame that so many of the signature action moments were given away in the trailer.

In a nutshell, “Hobbs and Shaw” is exactly what you should expect it to be – funny, violent, predictable and utterly preposterous. But if it were anything else I would have been disappointed. It’s essentially a story of two frenemies who go about things differently but who are cut from the same cloth. Now add a ton of wit, even more eye-popping action, a fun Idris Elba, and a fabulous Vanessa Kirby and you have a summer blockbuster that’s just begging to be your new guilty pleasure.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “The Head Hunter” (2019)

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I’ve written this before, but I’ve always loved watching a filmmaker work with a shoestring budget yet still tell their story and capture their vision. “The Head Hunter” from director, co-producer, co-writer, and editor Jordan Downey stands as a shining example. Said to be made for $30,000 with the tiniest of cast and crew, his film is a brilliant accomplishment.

Set in medieval times, “The Head Hunter” stars Christopher Rygh who quite literally carries the load on his shoulders. He plays a character known only as Father, a warrior tormented by the death of his daughter by an unseen monster. “I always thought I could protect her” he painfully mutters in a brief memory flashback. It’s literally one of the few lines of dialogue in the entire picture. We never see his tragic loss, only the painful aftereffects.

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He spends his days as a creature of habit, piddling around his remote cabin awaiting the sound of a distant horn that summons him to kill a beast. Afterwards he mounts the heads of the slain on his wall, not as a trophy but as a reminder that the monster who killed his daughter is still out there. It fills the emptiness inside of him with the only thing that can – a deep-seeded hunger for revenge. And neither he or his daughter can rest in peace until the beast is put down.

During the film’s first half we watch this grief-stricken father grimly go about his day. But within his routine are nuggets of information. We learn he gets paid for his work but has no interest in the money, only vengeance. We watch him concoct grotesque healing potions. We see him make poignant visits to his daughter’s grave. It all leads to the second half where his blood-thirst flirts with madness.

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“The Head Hunter” can be best described as pure visual storytelling. Downey and cinematographer Kevin Stewart (who also serves as co-writer and co-producer) put a heavy emphasis on atmosphere. Their fantastic use of lighting, shadows, and camera perspectives feed into the film’s dark and sometimes macabre vibe. Portugal provides most of the location shots, some of which are nothing short of stunning.

Without question “The Head Hunter” is a bleak and at times gruesome movie. Yet within this rich slice of fantasy horror is a subtle meditation on grief. The story is a tragedy of sorts placed within a relentlessly harsh and despairing world. And the filmmakers stick with this vision. Clocking in at a lean 72 minutes, they avoid the temptation to pad the run time with pointless and frivolous filler. This keeps the film tight, focused, and utterly enthralling.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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