REVIEW: “The Intruder”

 

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I willingly admit to first being drawn to “The Intruder” for no other reason than watching a wild-eyed, crazy Dennis Quaid. He did a great job selling a nutty, unhinged madman in the trailer. He turns out to be even more convincing (and as a result more fun) in the movie itself.

“The Intruder” is a psychological thriller in the strictest of terms. It doesn’t try to be anything more and it never strays from its genre path. Director Deon Taylor moves the story at a slow boil, moseying his way towards the climax that we all know is coming. Taylor doesn’t try to be too clever or overthink. On one hand that keeps things focused and streamlined. On the other hand it leaves very little room for surprise.

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Michael Ealy and Meagan Goode play Scott and Annie Howard, a well-to-do San Francisco couple who buy a palatial estate in rural Napa Valley. The previous owner Charlie (Quaid) reluctantly sells the house despite it being the only home he’s ever none. But following the death of his wife to cancer he puts the house on the market and prepares to move to Florida to be with his daughter.

Scott and Annie’s hopes of leaving the city and finding a quite place to start a family runs into a snag. Charlie just can’t seem to let go of the house. He begins popping up uninvited and takes a particularly creepy liking to Annie. Scott, a bit of a big city snoot, quickly senses something is off with Charlie. Annie, more empathetic and in this case absurdly naïve, feels sorry for Charlie and sees him as sad and harmless.

You can probably see where things are heading. Charlie’s behavior gets weirder and more intrusive, Annie remains oblivious while Scott gets angrier. It all leads to a third act climax that can be fun but predictable.

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The story is written by David Loughery. Interestingly Loughery’s first screenplay was for “Dreamscape”, a 1984 sci-fi thriller also starring Quaid. Here his script works best when he’s giving the actors room to perform. Quaid benefits the most and he knocks it out of the park. He’s peculiar, eerie and at times uncomfortably convincing. Without question he is given the best material (minus some weird and on-the-nose gun and hunting commentary).

I can see “The Intruder” moving too slow for some audiences and not taking enough chances for some critics. I didn’t have a problem with either. Instead its biggest problem is its utter lack of surprise. Nothing will catch you off guard. Nothing will feel new or fresh. Yet it still manages to be reasonably fun in large part due to Quaid and a role he really sinks his teeth into. The question is will he be enough to win over enough moviegoers?

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “I Feel Pretty”

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Amy Schumer puts aside her raunchy comedy shtick for “I Feel Funny”, a movie that aims for the PG-13 crowd while offering them very little in return. It’s a conflicted movie that wants to have its cake and eat it too. It spends a lot of time getting us to laugh at the very thing it’s trying to support before stamping a disingenuous and moralizing self-esteem message on the end.

Schumer plays Renee Bennett, a young New Yorker, insecure about her appearance, who manages the website for a high-falutin’ cosmetic company. Her ‘office’ is crammed into a basement in Chinatown but her dream job is working in the fancy corporate headquarters on 5th Avenue. Problem is Renee doesn’t fit the shallow runway model physical profile the company is looking for.

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But in a goofy turn of events Renee smacks her head at a fitness gym (one of many lazy weight jokes we are supposed to be laughing at). It results in her seeing herself as a gorgeous knockout. Not because of a meaningful change in self-esteem, but because she genuinely sees something in the mirror that no one else does. Of course this leads to a steady flow of gags hinging on confusion and miscommunications.

Her delusion leads her to unwittingly gain an overflow of self-confidence. It results in a job promotion although for reasons her bump on the head won’t allow her to see. You can probably guess where things are heading. Our sad sack protagonist is launched into a world of pomp but it’s all built on a paper-thin foundation. The story goes exactly where you expect it to and ends with a message statement at odds with much of what has preceded it.

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Schumer gives it a good go but just isn’t that funny. Part of it is the sub-par material which treats her character like a punching bag before begging for sympathy in the end. But Schumer is just as inconsistent. Mildly amusing in scene, trying way too hard in the next. Fairly sympathetic one minute, strikingly insincere the next. The supporting characters are just as sporadic. A weird squeaky-voiced Michelle Williams performance doesn’t quite land while Rory Scovel is really good as Renee’s timid love interest.

“I Feel Pretty” is a movie with a message – a genuinely good message. And we are constantly getting whiffs of it throughout. Unfortunately it’s buried in a tonally challenged film with an glaring identity crisis. Despite not being a fan of Schumer’s other films I was frequently rooting for the one. Sadly I spent just as much time frustrated at how widely it was missing it’s mark.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars

REVIEW: “Isn’t It Romantic”

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I’m starting to wonder if there are enough of these ‘character bumps their head, wakes up to some wacky side effects, then has a life-changing epiphany’ movies to qualify as a genre? Probably not, but the latest one “Isn’t It Romantic” is certainly not the first movie to build itself around this narrative gimmick.

To be honest this was not something I originally planned to see. I’m not all that high on either Rebel Wilson or Liam Hemsworth and the film’s trailer was pretty cringy. But then I began reading good things about it. Suddenly its attempt at spoofing the romantic comedy genre sounded a little more intriguing. It does start promising but begins to chug in the middle before becoming more or less the very thing it’s satirizing.

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Any issues I have with “Isn’t It Romantic” can’t be traced to Wilson who gives a sincere and sympathetic performance. It’s hard not to feel for her character Natalie. She’s a young New York architect with self-esteem issues who seems content with the hapless hand she has been dealt. She’s taken advantage of by her co-workers and even her company’s new billionaire playboy client (Hemsworth). The one exception is Natalie’s best friend Josh (Adam DeVine) who is clearly smitten with her but (of course) she’s oblivious to it.

Enter the big bump on the noggin that knocks Natalie out cold. She wakes up in an alternate reality with hunky guys galore and all of them head-over-heels for her. Tops on the list is Hemsworth’s snobbish and studly Blake, now a airheaded dolt. Several other weird anomalies leads Natalie to conclude she is trapped inside a romantic comedy.

Director Todd Strauss-Schulson gets as much mileage as he can out of his rom-com parody. It works best in the film’s first half where everything is still nice and fresh. Anyone who has watched their fair share of romantic comedies will get a kick out of several gags that poke fun at many of the genres most overused tropes. And Wilson does a good job falling into the wackiness of the whole concept. Hemsworth is equally good as the good-looking goofball, reminding me of the role his brother Chris played in the not-so-great 2016 “Ghostbusters” reboot.

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But the second half doesn’t fare quite as well. Strauss-Schulson takes a handful of jokes and milks them dry. A cringe-worthy gay sidekick and a constantly obscured f-bomb top that list. And then there is what I alluded to above, the movie becoming what it’s spoofing. You can actively see the movie working to differentiate itself from the standard romantic comedy norm, but at the same time it very much ends up feeling really similar – silly, a little sappy, and utterly predictable.

“Isn’t It Romantic” is a decent entry into the head bonk genre. It’s not a terrible movie, but it’s far from being the sharp-witted satire that it very well could have been. It’s a movie that leans heavily on its central conceit but doesn’t really see it all the way through. That’s a shame because the cast certainly seems game. It’s the material that let’s them down in the end.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

REVIEW: “If Beale Street Could Talk”

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Barry Jenkins became a household name with his 2016 Best Picture winner “Moonlight”. Despite the film’s universal acclaim, I could never get in sync with its storytelling rhythm and felt it dropped off significantly in its second half. That’s certainly not the case with his follow-up feature “If Beale Street Could Talk”.

Adapted by Jenkins from James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, “Beale Street” has a very distinct voice. It’s a movie filled with longing and not just between two lovers. There is also an ever-present longing for hope, peace, equality, justice. This longing is in every frame of Jenkins’ soulful film and you see it burning in the eyes of nearly every character we encounter.

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Jenkins begins his film by introducing us to Tish who is 19 and Fonny who is 22. Their opening gaze makes it clear that these inseparable childhood friends have fallen in love. They are two black kids in early 1970s Harlem with plenty of societal hurdles and a deck stacked against them. But in this early moment their love is all they see. In a very poignant way their simple yet central romance is the catalyst for everything else the film has to say.

The young couple’s world is turned upside down when Fonny is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. He is sent to prison while Tish discovers she is pregnant with their child. Jenkins elegantly maneuvers back-and-forth on his timeline, braiding together their challenges during Fonny’s incarceration with touching looks back at their lives as a couple subtly framed as memories more so than flashbacks.

Jenkins shows off an impressive knack for drawing a ton out of his characters, not just through his dialogue but even more so from his camera. Take relative newcomer KiKi Layne who plays Tish. She brings a heartbreaking innocence and vulnerability to her character. Layne’s earnest portrayal conveys an inherent goodness in Tish which Jenkins wisely locks in on. He does the same for Stephan James as Fonny. He’s gentlemanly and sincere; so full of life and love yet slowly being drained of hope with each passing day behind bars.

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Then there is the stellar supporting cast led by Regina King who is winning every award she’s nominated for. She plays Tish’s mother Sharon, a realist but also a loving encourager determined to help Fonny despite there being no easy road to justice. Colman Domingo is superb as Tish’s father, also a realist and equally compassionate, yet forced to help the kids in his own unique ways. Both performances offer up some of the year’s best supporting work.

I should also mention Brian Tyree Henry who appears in a key sequence midway through. He plays Fonny’s old friend Daniel who just got out of prison for a crime he also didn’t commit. In a bit of on-the-nose foreshadowing, Daniel shares his experience with Fonny almost like a prophet warning us of what’s to come. Obviousness aside, Jenkins allows their conversation to play out, probably a hair too long, but still in the way it needed to. And within the framework of their conversation, every word they express feels authentic and honest.

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Perhaps the most magnetizing sequence sees Tish and her parents inviting Fonny’s family over to break the news of her pregnancy. It’s tense and contentious from the start eventually bringing out thoughts of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”. The scene is almost undone by Fonny’s belligerent and over-the-top mother (possibly Jenkins’ attempt at channeling Baldwin’s negative perception of religion). Still, you find yourself glued to every character and every exchange.

Barry Jenkins clearly has something to say about racial injustice, not just of the past but also how it still resonates today. It forms an ominous cloud that hangs over his entire film. But at its deepest core “Beale Street” isn’t a loud, angry social lecture. It’s an aching love story lusciously shot by Jenkins favorite James Laxton and accompanied by one of the year’s best scores from Nicholas Britell. The tragedy is in how this love is forever effected by a cold, prejudicial system. Tish’s burdened father once says “These are our children, and we gotta set them free.” This becomes our longing as well.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “It Comes At Night”

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“It Comes At Night” has some intensely personal roots for its writer and director Trey Edward Shults. The film’s genesis can be found in Shults’s sorrow following the death of his father. After ten plus years of estrangement fueled by his father’s addictions, the two reconciled on his deathbed. Shults began writing “It Comes At Night” two months later as a way to cope with his grief.

Shults’s familial connection to his film is not unlike his previous movie, 2015’s “Krisha”. In it we witness a character’s relapse and ultimate breakdown – something inspired by a real-life family incident. In “It Comes At Night” the opening scene is the emotional release point for Shults. It shows a daughter giving words of comfort to her dying disease-stricken father. Shults has stated these are the words he shared with his dad.

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We quickly learn the infected man’s name is Bud (David Pendleton) and the consoling daughter is Sarah (Carmen Ejogo). The disease’s effects on Bud are obvious – nasty boils, milky eyes, pale skin, the works. Sarah’s husband Paul (Joel Edgerton) and their son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) take Bud outside, Paul shoots him and then burns the body. For the remainder of the film’s running time this disturbing mercy killing haunts this family, especially 17-year old Travis.

The film tells us very little about the epidemic, how it started, or even how its contracted. Frankly all that stuff is unimportant. Instead we are dropped into this already contaminated and chaotic world. And despite the impressions left by the trailers, the tension and suspense is drawn more from what lies within the characters than what may be lingering outside in the night.

Paul and his family live in a boarded up house deep in the forest. Their closed-off lives are shaped by survivalist protocols and justifiable paranoia. Their feelings of isolation and security are broken when their home is discovered by a man named Will (Christopher Abbott) who is seeking supplies for his family. A hesitant Paul agrees to take in Will, his wife Kim (Riley Keough), and their young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner). For a time a sense of social normalcy returns, but ultimately the human responses to fear and anxiety are too much to shake.

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It would be easy to see this as a conventional horror film – a deadly virus, a cabin in the woods, a spooky red door at the end of a hall, and the ominous title. But there is a surprising psychological depth that transcends any genre expectations. There are a handful of jump scares and the shadowy claustrophobic setting is indeed creepy. But the film’s true intensity comes from its cliché-free handling of the inner demons gnawing away at these characters.

“It Comes At Night” is many things. It’s an unconventional horror picture. It’s a deep emotional treatment of loss. It’s a troubling, unorthodox coming-of-age story. The cool thing is how well Trey Shults packages all these things together without an ounce of conflict. It is a meticulously paced and tightly focused story that does a good job utilizing its stellar cast. It is unshakably bleak – maybe too much so for some, but if you can get in tune with its unique rhythm and are willing to dig deeper under it’s surface, you’ll find more to this film than the trailers would have you believe.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Isle of Dogs”

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There isn’t much middle ground when it comes to Wes Anderson movies. As is often the case, his films either work for you or they don’t. They definitely work for me. My wife, not as much. But it’s not because she doesn’t try. I’m pretty sure I’ve shown her every Anderson flick and we usually have some pretty good discussions after each viewing. Deep down I like to think she actually has an untapped appreciation.

But we’ll leave that for another time. Wes Anderson movies are special because without fail they always feel refreshingly different from anything else in theaters. His latest film is no different. From the very first frame of “Isle of Dogs” we know we are watching an Anderson picture. The stop-motion animation (ala 2009’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox”), the slightly offbeat music, and the almost instant deadpan humor are unquestionably Andersonian. It instantly fits right into his spectacular comic movie catalog. So why am I hesitant to fully embrace this film in the same way I have his others?

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Now don’t get me wrong, “Isle of Dogs” is another fascinating Anderson experience that (like most of his films) begs for multiple viewings to fully appreciate the richness of the visual and thematic language. Once again we find the filmmaker creating and inhabiting another wacky quasi-real place within his own wacky quasi-universe. Japanese culture lends its influence to Anderson’s fictional city of Megasaki City but that’s as far as the similarities go. Anderson doesn’t work within the real world. He only borrows from it and speaks to elements of it.

In “Isle of Dogs” the conniving cat-loving Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) runs a dystopian not-to-distant-future Japan with an iron fist. Exploiting a dog flu virus outbreak, the authoritarian mayor banishes the entire dog population to Trash Island. Among the dogs is Spots (Live Schreiber), the best buddy to the mayor’s nephew and ward Atari (Koyu Rankin). But Atari will have none of it. He sneaks away and flies a rickety mini-plane to Trash Island to find his canine companion.

After crash landing Atari is taken in by an eccentric pack of pups led by the reluctant Chief (Bryan Cranston). The rest of the group is voiced by a fun assortment of actors including Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and Jeff Goldblum as the scene-stealing gossip of the group. They venture across Trash Island to find Spots while back home a youth protest against the Mayor’s doggie decrees is led by a foreign exchange student named Tracy (Greta Gerwig), one of many outcasts found throughout the story.

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As the movie moves forward you can’t help but be smitten by the superb animation and art direction. The vivid detail in both the backgrounds and the characters (both human and hairy) are quite stunning. And so often it’s the gorgeous yet quirky visuals that spur some of the film’s bigger laughs. But normally it’s Anderson’s dry, offbeat, deadpan humor, cleverly balanced throughout his movies, that carry them. Here it isn’t nearly as pronounced. In fact, in the final act it’s fairly sparse. And as the pieces all-too-neatly fall into place, I found myself not knowing how to feel about the ending.

In some ways how Anderson tells his story is more fascinating that the story itself. “Isle of Dogs” is a technical delight both visually and in its use of sound. The huge and talented cast offer up superb voice work and they all meld seamlessly into Anderson’s handsomely idiosyncratic world. It’s another reminder that Wes Anderson is a meticulous master of his craft. Yet from a story standpoint I can’t help but feel ever so slightly conflicted. And whether looking at it as a message piece soaked in political metaphors or simply as a story about a boy and his dog, I still left with the same uncertainties. Maybe I just need to give it another view. Or maybe I’m just too much of a cat person.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars