In case you were wondering if there was anything new to be done with Mary Shelley’s most famous character, along comes Stuart Beattie’s I, Frankenstein to inject some supernatural silliness into the durable Promethean tale. If only the director had bothered to make his movie as freewheeling and ridiculous as his screenplay, he might have actually cooked up something worth watching.
Aaron Eckhart stars as the creature, a combination of body parts stitched together from various dead people and brought to life by Dr. Frankenstein. When the scientist realizes that he can’t control his experiment, he tries to kill it, only to have the monster survive and slay Frankenstein’s wife out of revenge. The doctor soon freezes to death while attempting to hunt down his creation, who pays his respects to his “father” by burying him on his family’s estate.
As he’s finishing the burial, the creature is attacked by demons, and is then quickly saved by a group of gargoyles. He’s taken to meet the gargoyles’ queen, who dubs him “Adam” and explains that her people are locked in an endless war with the demons. Their conflict controls the fate of mankind, even though the human race remains blissfully unaware of the battles being waged around them.
Centuries later, a particularly nasty demon named Prince Naberius (Bill Nighy) has come up with a master plan to reanimate all of his defeated minions and overwhelm the gargoyles. In order to do this, he needs to get his hands on the notebook of Dr. Frankenstein, which makes Adam, who has the documents, the only thing that stands in the way of humanity’s destruction.
This is a gloriously wacked-out and rather creative plot, and it’s a shame that the movie doesn’t embrace its more outrageous aspects. Instead of allowing for laughs, it’s a dull, FX-laden eyesore that aims for weighty subtext when it could have been a sweet rush of over-the-top action. Visually, the film plays out in near constant darkness, and the murkiness combines with the steadfast seriousness to create a tiring experience.
The plot hinges on whether or not Adam possesses a soul — a question that persists because he was created by man and not God — and while spoiling the ending would be a breach of reviewer etiquette, it is safe to say that I, Frankenstein doesn’t have much of a brain and is completely missing a funny bone.
There’s a good reason why film critics get branded as insufferable cynics; when you’ve seen the same old tale told time and again, a certain sense of weariness starts to fester inside as you start to realize just how rare it is for a filmmaker to find the true soul of a story. This is where writer/director Ron Krauss falters while telling the admittedly inspirational true story of a pregnant, destitute teenager who ended up at one of Kathy DiFiore’s Several Sources Shelters for expectant mothers after years of abuse and neglect in her own deeply dysfunctional home. And that’s a shame because former Disney starlet Vanessa Hudgens is quite obviously looking to expand her horizons as an actress here, but neither the script nor the direction is there to back her up.
The first time we see 15-year-old Agnes “Apple” Bailey (Hudgens), she’s standing in front of a bathroom mirror and attempting to summon the courage to make the biggest leap in her young life. Scissors in hand, she commences to cleave off her cascading locks, and storms out of the dingy inner-city apartment of her drug-addicted mother (Rosario Dawson). Before long, Apple is standing at the front gate of the sprawling New Jersey home where her wealthy father (Brendan Fraser) lives. A Wall Street financier with his own successful firm, he’s never been a part of his daughter’s life, and now he has started a new family. Try as he might to help Apple get back on her feet, his skeptical wife rightly perceives that she is pregnant and scoffs at the idea of welcoming the troubled teen into a home with two impressionable young children. Though they eventually agree to let Apple stay on the condition that she gets an abortion, the willful girl refuses to comply.
When an accident on the streets lands Apple in Newark City Hospital, kindly priest Frank McCarthy (James Earl Jones) introduces her to Kathy DiFiore (Ann Dowd), a benevolent soul who has transformed her own home into a shelter for pregnant teens. Now in a somewhat stable environment for the first time in her life, Apple finally has the opportunity to focus on bettering herself while preparing to welcome her child into the world. Meanwhile, Apple’s scornful mother and remorseful father both begin to show their true colors.
The story of Apple is one of incredible courage, hope, and compassion. For that reason, it’s difficult to dismiss the picture outright. Still, the fact remains that Krauss lacks the filmmaking talents to do this story justice. The direction in Gimme Shelter is so artless that, if not seen on a big screen, it would be indistinguishable from a Lifetime Movie of the Week (all it needs are convenient commercial fades between scenes), and the writing is so mediocre that we’re consistently kept at arm’s length from the drama unfolding. The majority of the information that we glean about the young girls at the shelter comes during a scene in which they sneak into the main office and bond while sharing the tragic details of their files. It’s a lazy means of streamlining the storytelling, and feels especially contrived coming on the heels of a film like Destin Cretton’s similar — and far superior — Short Term 12, which allows its characters to grow in such an organic way that we genuinely feel as if we’re getting to know them. And though a more apt comparison could be made to Lee Daniels’ Precious, the resemblance between those two movies does no favors to Gimme Shelter either, since it only highlights Krauss’ utterly pedestrian approach to his material.
Of course, had the performances in Gimme Shelter been truly phenomenal, it might have been easy to overlook certain shortcomings in other areas. But while Hudgens makes a noble effort to evoke the optimism in this badly damaged teen, few of the other characters are written with the kind of arc that would earn our sympathies. The sole exception may be Fraser as Apple’s father — a man who has done well for himself, yet clearly regrets the decision he once made not to be a part of his daughter’s life. Along with the reliable Dowd, Fraser turns in an affectingly earnest performance that might have been more poignant had the rest of the film measured up. Meanwhile, the dramatic momentum grinds to a halt once Apple arrives at the shelter, leaving Dawson to pick up the slack by making us wonder just how far the girl’s resentful mother will go to drag her daughter down into the abyss. Even once we’re fairly certain that Apple has endured the worst of it, however, Krauss still falters by ending the film with her making an illogical, incoherent choice that’s insulting to the many girls who would not have survived the same ordeal on their own. By that point, most of us will have already recognized Gimme Shelter as the missed opportunity that it is, either embracing it for its uplifting intentions or dismissing it for failing in more ways than it succeeds.
Director Alain Guiraudie’s offbeat psychodrama Stranger by the Lake unfolds entirely in one picturesque locale — a body of inland water in France, with banks that function as a cruising hot spot for gay nudists. Protagonist Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) routinely turns up at the site to pick up random men. As the story opens, Franck crosses paths with two new acquaintances. Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao) is a sad-sack, middle-aged bisexual man who strikes up a platonic friendship with Franck and nurtures a latent attraction to him, while Michel (Christophe Paou) is a tall, muscle-bound, and hirsute gay Romeo who becomes one of Franck’s lovers. The drama takes an unforeseeable twist when Franck accidentally observes Michel drowning a male partner in the lake late one evening — though Michel doesn’t realize that Franck is watching. Curiously, though, in lieu of reporting the crime to the police or confronting Michel, the knowledge of the homicide intensifies Franck’s desire to have sex with him. As they copulate day and night, Franck wonders (along with us) if he will become Michel’s next victim, especially when Michel invites Franck to join him for an erotic swim after dark with no one watching. A snaky police inspector named Damroder (Jérôme Chappatte) turns up after Michel’s lover’s body is retrieved from the water, and begins asking questions.
At least on a surface level, the basic ingredients for this movie may seem one-dimensional and exploitative. It has enough hardcore sex and nudity to qualify as a gay porno film, as well as startling bursts of graphic, bloody violence. Yet it is far better than these grind-house elements would suggest. The whole scenario poses a key question that the movie never explicitly limns, one that instead lingers gently beneath the surface: What impulses would compel Franck to deliberately put his life and safety in the hands of someone who may be a homophobic serial killer? Is he suicidal, masochistic, crazy, or a little bit of all three? The answer lies closest to a masochistic impulse — the film uses the Franck/Michel pairing to travel inside of the areas where extreme lust and suicidal danger overlap. Now that homosexual couples are more widely accepted in mainstream society, how can a male lover get the same degree of erotic charge from verboten activity that he would have, say, 50 or 60 years ago? The answer, as these particular men have defined it, seems to involve aggressively pushing as close to the life/death boundary as possible and embracing a high-adrenaline, tightwire situation. By the end of this picture, the outcome of the Franck/Michel relationship scarcely even matters: Death, fear, and intense eroticism build to a climax and hang in the air, inseparably entwined. The casting of Paou particularly helps Guiraudie to achieve this sensation for the audience. With his barrel chest, sinewy muscles, greasy mop of black hair, handlebar mustache, and fixed, eerie leer, Michel resembles nothing so much as some sort of malevolent Greek god, dredged up from the underworld to fell Franck with an act of sexually fueled annihilation. In this sense, the movie takes on some of the same qualities as one of the bacchanalian myths; Michel could easily have been a creation of Euripedes.
One should note that the dynamic evident in the Franck/Michel pairing is one of two very different takes on gay attraction that the movie hands to us; we also get the unconsummated Franck/Henri relationship, which paints romantic chemistry between men as a kind of warm, chaste courtship, buoyed by loquacious and witty banter. The two male pairings in this movie contrast neatly with one another, allowing Guiraudie to explore various types of attraction.
On its own strange terms, the film is successful and oddly affecting thanks to the skilled artistry on display, but it is also difficult to imagine actually recommending the picture to anyone. Though beautifully made, it’s such a voyeuristic, lurid, angry, depressing experience that the average viewer will walk away appreciating it far more than really enjoying it.
Finnish documentarian Jessica Oreck’s Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys follows an indefinite period in the lives of a family of reindeer herders in Northern Finland, adjacent to the Arctic Circle. Much has already been made in the press of the fundamentalism of Oreck’s approach. She’s a direct-cinema purist and, true to form, omits all fanfare and exposition to give us one of the most matter-of-fact onscreen chronicles of grassroots husbandry in memory. Some critics have favorably likened Aatsinki to Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash’s sheepherding documentary Sweetgrass (which also lacked voice-overs), but such comparisons are sophistic and insulting to Oreck. That was a pretentious, boring, and vulgar travesty; Aatsinki is in many ways the film Sweetgrass should have been — a suitably languorous yet engrossing trip through a world that most of us are only vaguely aware of. In terms of what Aatsinki achieves, it feels like a descendant not of Barbash and Castaing-Taylor, but of the grand dame of observational documentaries, Ulrike Ottinger, especially her 1992 opus Taiga. Oreck is working on the same skill level as Ottinger, and like that German pioneer, she keeps enabling us to look beyond the immediate into the infinite.
At its core, then, the film offers a profound existentialist riff, a poignant meditation on the nature of our existence as a species. In the aforementioned reindeer herders — with their ritualistic, instinctive behavior and working practices — Oreck perceives a unique window into mankind’s proximity to the animal kingdom out of which it evolved. Just as we may look at the caribou, milling about in herds, and ponder what they are up to, so the conspicuous absence of soundtrack elaboration regarding the humans leaves beguiling enigmas surrounding them. Consider, for example, a brutal late-film sequence wherein several of the herders pin down terrified reindeer calves and trim their ears with razors. Does this have a purpose? Undoubtedly so, although the lay viewer will find it indecipherable; it’s as alien to most of us as the behavior of the animals themselves. And at other times, we sense uncanny parallels between the species, as in a scene in which a herder boards a snowmobile and tracks a wolverine relentlessly through the snowbound fjords.
On a similar note: There are also elegantly conceived, zen-like sequences involving the human participants that purposefully contain no action — in which the herders sit alone, staring into the distant sky. Emptiness hangs in the air, and vast unspoken questions linger about the purpose not simply of these individuals, but all of us. One wonders, rightly, if some metaphysical significance to these lives actually exists. Perhaps not, Oreck seems to be saying; perhaps all of the activities that we use to fill our time on Earth are simply handy distractions. Yet the film also gives us the impression that these herders are in some way less pretentious than those of us who claim to be more sophisticated — the herders are more genuine, that is, by living and functioning in closer proximity to the natural world and the divide between Homo sapiens and other species. When we get long, meditative shots of trees fossilized by ice, caught beneath dusk-enshrouded pastel skies, Oreck seems to be exhorting her viewers to embrace and appreciate the creation that ensconces us, as these herders have.
In terms of its scene and shot composition, then, Aatsinki feels impeccably conceived and gauged — the rare documentary that transcends the ostensible boundaries of its subject. Some observers have gently taken Oreck to task for her refusal to provide anything beyond a faint semblance of a human narrative here. Within the confines of direct cinema, it’s true that other recent directors have traveled further in this direction: Consider Swedish filmmaker Linda Västrik, for example, with her 2013 masterpiece Forest of the Dancing Spirits. In the case of Oreck’s film, however, such narrative threads would feel like serious miscalculations by working against the documentary’s brooding, nihilistic undercurrents.
Devil’s Due is more fun than some of the more recent installments in the Paranormal Activity franchise, though it’s not up to par with The Last Exorcism Part II. The former statement isn’t much of a compliment, and the latter is just kind of sad.
This found-footage film opens with a young man sitting handcuffed and bloodied in a police station while he is questioned about his involvement in a violent crime of some sort; a quoting of Biblical text indicates that, in this movie’s version of the apocalypse, Satan plans on having a veritable litter of Antichrists. There is no mystery here: The gates of Hell have already opened, hope has been abandoned, and there is no chance of a happy reunion between footage and filmmaker.
While the lack of pretense in found-footage flicks is usually a plus (has any such movie since The Blair Witch Project caused us to wonder if things might actually work out?), Devil’s Due is only found footage-ish, despite appearances and advertising. True, the vast majority of the film has been recorded by proud newlywed and excited future papa Zach McCall (Zach Gilford). And yes, CCTV footage from the police station, as well as a supermarket where Satan-baby mama Samantha (Allison Miller) eats raw meat straight from the container, would indicate that the audience is watching a consciously edited collection of footage. However, when the conclusion very clearly implies that this isn’t the case, viewers will wonder just what it is they’ve been subjected to for 89 minutes, aside from a movie that wasn’t very good.
Also problematic is the complete lack of logic on the part of the characters. While certainly not unexpected for the genre, there is a line between reasonable suspension of disbelief and situations that would not happen without significant chemical impairment or extraterrestrial intervention. The overprotective, irrepressibly considerate husband would simply not ignore the obvious discomfort of the beautiful, diminutive woman he clearly adores as a taxicab drives them deep into the bowels of an unknown country, outside of tourist attractions and into the realm of drugs, thugs, and prostitutes, just for the promise of adventure and a single free drink at the off-the-beaten-path locale suggested by an unknown taxi driver.
Beyond problematic and over the line into uncomfortable is the rather xenophobic premise that the Antichrists seem to prefer privileged, white American parents preselected for them by poor, predominantly dark-skinned men from other countries. Beyond problematic, past uncomfortable, and straight on until “please just stop” is the terrifying possibility that a multitude of Satan’s progeny on Earth indicates a sequel.
The main character in the animated caper film The Nut Job is Surly (voiced by Will Arnett), the kind of squirrel who only looks out for number one. He can’t be bothered to help the animals who live in a collective in the park, in no small part because he and their leader, Raccoon (Liam Neeson), have never gotten along. With support from his only friend, a silent rat named Buddy, Surly cases a nut store and plans on stealing the goods. When Raccoon announces that there isn’t enough food to feed the park animals over the winter, levelheaded squirrel Andie (Katherine Heigl) begs Surly to help her.
This premise — squirrels try to empty the inventory of a nut store so they have enough to eat for the winter — would seem to be a solid story. However, Peter Lepeniotis’ movie abandons the tropes of the heist flick, replacing them with a weirdly Ayn Rand-flavored subtext. It turns out that it’s Andie who has to learn a life lesson, namely that acting in your own self-interest is superior to answering to authority figures. On top of that, the filmmakers satirize the entire concept of selfless heroism via the character of Grayson (Brendan Fraser), a do-gooder whose attempts to save the day turn into slapstick-heavy failures.
All of that wouldn’t seem so bizarre if only the screenwriters had managed to get in a few laughs, but the main joke in the film seems to be the number of times the characters say the word “nuts” — they utter it more than Scorsese gangsters drop F-bombs. The picture’s best idea, which remains sadly underdeveloped, is that the nut store is nothing more than a front for human thieves plotting their own heist on the bank right next door. While the movie tries to work up some momentum as the animals constantly sabotage the criminals’ plans inadvertently, the screenwriters aren’t talented enough to juggle this concept with everything else.
The voice actors never get a chance to make an impression, because they’re never given anything funny to do. Arnett, Neeson, Fraser, and Heigl are wasted, with only Maya Rudolph, voicing a dog named Precious, managing to elicit a few smiles; yet even her shtick feels like a pale imitation of Dug, the talking dog from Up.
There’s nothing problematic about the film’s content, and in that regard it will give some people exactly what they want from a movie aimed at kids. However, if you’re the kind of viewer angered by lazy writing or hearing “Gangnam Style” for the 27-millionth time, The Nut Job is sure to offend.
Hirokazu Koreeda's Like Father, Like Son observes several months in the lives of two radically different Japanese families, initially unacquainted with one another, but who are mutually thrust into a bizarre, devastating situation that courts only sticky solutions. Masaharu Fukuyama and Machiko Ono star, respectively, as Ryomo and Midori Nonomiya, a married couple raising their only child, six-year-old son Keita (Keita Ninomiya), in an upscale apartment. Ryomo is a driven businessman from a conservative Japanese family, Midori a quiet, affectionate, stay-at-home mother. They love their little boy, although Ryomo puts undue pressure on Keita to succeed, despite the child’s still-tender age. Then shattering news threatens to tear the household to pieces: The country hospital where Midori delivered Keita phones the couple and informs them that its employees may have erred six years prior by accidentally confusing the birth parentage of Keita with that of another infant. DNA tests confirm the parents’ gravest fears: The child they’ve come to know and love isn’t their biological offspring, but the son of Yukari and Yudai Saiki (Yôko Maki and Rirî Furankî, respectively), a working-class couple in a nearby town; they gave birth in the same hospital at the same time and have blindly spent years raising the Nonomiyas’ little boy, named Ryusei (Shôgen Hwang), along with their other children. The families meet and consider taking action against the hospital, but such recourse is tangential to the most critical question: how to adjust their interfamilial behavior. Should the couples go on as before, pretending — for the sake of the sons they have raised — that nothing has shifted? Or should they attempt to swap children and begin again from ground zero? And if they choose the latter option, what psychological and emotional ramifications will accompany that decision for parents and sons?
This dilemma will likely seem more alien to Western audiences than it will to the average Japanese person. To many viewers in North America and Europe, where adoption and surrogate parentage are run-of-the-mill, retaining custody of the children and treating them as one’s own would be the obvious, de facto response to such a crisis. But beneath its veneer of contemporaneity, much of Japanese society still rests on a foundation of ancient, unyielding strictures woven around the concept of blood lineage. To more traditional adults, such as Ryomo, the notion of raising another family’s offspring isn’t simply inconceivable, but reprehensible, even sacrilegious — making the news that arrives from the hospital not just upsetting, but a grave personal assault. Koreeda’s most commendable achievement in this picture involves keeping these indigenous distinctions, these intangible limitations that hang loosely in the air, fully visible throughout the drama. Whereas other Asian imports, such as Lee Chang-dong’s drama Poetry, risked indecipherability, Like Father never does. Here, when one of the characters conducts him or herself in a way that seems foreign in the West, we understand the origin of the behavior.
The saga is inimitably Japanese in another peculiar but magnificent respect: It feels alinear. In the place of a traditional Hollywood narrative with its A-B-C progression and credibility-straining, rote denouement, Koreeda gives us an intentionally nebulous meditation that drifts languorously through its characters’ lives, swimming in behavioral observations that float in and out of frame. Each insight, in turn, adds a piece to a giant mosaic of futility — though we can articulate exactly how and why each psychological response transpires, we can’t even begin to propose an answer to the central crisis at hand — which feels wholly appropriate.
As in his prior masterpiece, 2008’s Still Walking, Koreeda has a poet’s eye for human nuance. There are two sequences in this picture as masterfully observed as anything he’s ever done — each of which uses a motif of still photography reminiscent of Edward Yang’s Yi Yi. One devastating scene from late in the film has Ryomo reviewing, for the first time, the candid snapshots that Keita has taken on the family’s digital camera, and by extension, discovering a part of himself that he never knew existed. Another has the two families impulsively posing together for a group picture; in the blocking of the image, we can see the differences not merely between the clans — one rigid and ascetic, one loose, emotionally free, and unrestricted — but between traditional and more modern Japanese conceptions of family.
In those two scenes lies the real message of the film. They illustrate the fact that — although the writer/director narrows his focus to two families caught up in a devastating plight — this personal saga also provides a window into a broad, sweeping, and positive social transformation impacting the entire country, one that is remaking Japanese perceptions about how family is defined. In this sense, the movie bears thematic comparison (and some resemblance) to Patrick Wang’s 2010 LGBT drama In the Family. That was a fitfully well-made but overrated picture; it had its heart in the right place and began admirably, but descended into cornball, movie-of-the-week tripe. Like Father is, in some respects, the film that Family should have been — unlike Wang, Koreeda embraces ambiguity and uncertainty, and doesn’t feel pressured to force his characters and situations into predetermined, clichéd molds.
This is a profound and remarkable work, and like Still Walking, it reasserts Koreeda’s place among the ranks of the world’s greatest living directors — vis-à-vis Kiarostami, Saura, Leth, Tarr, Weerasethakul, Sokurov, and de Oliveira. He is an international treasure, and Like Father provides ample evidence of that fact.
Sir Alfred James “A.J.” Munnings (1878-1959) held court as one of the most successful and prolific British painters of his era. Munnings rose from a working-class background and established himself as a charter member of the Newlyn School colony — a clique of artists based in a fishing village near Penzance, Cornwall, who celebrated a natural, outdoor aesthetic reminiscent of Barbizon in France. In many circles, Munnings has since been excoriated for his lifelong eschewing of modernism and contemporaneity on the canvas. It might not even be a stretch to tag him as the Thomas Kinkade of England — a journeyman hack who was devoted to reproducing, ad nauseam and sans any innovation, subjects of personal obsession such as equines and gypsies.
Director Christopher Menaul and scribe Jonathan Smith's onscreen evocation of Munnings in the biographical drama Summer in February — an adaptation of Smith’s 1995 novel — not only reinforces one’s sense of the artist as a peon, but won’t win him any fans on a personal level either. As played by Dominic Cooper (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), Munnings comes off here as a vain, egotistical, loudmouthed boor who rained misery and suffering on those who drifted into his circle, particularly Florence Carter-Wood (Emily Browning of Sleeping Beauty), a tender-spirited young artist. The drama depicts Florence accepting his hand in marriage not long after making his acquaintance, despite her soul-mate ties to military officer Gilbert Evans (Dan Stevens) and Evans’ reciprocal longing for her. Eternal triangle, indeed: The marriage wreaks havoc on the lives of all concerned and erupts into the anticipated tragedies.
This is a fine, interesting story to tell and the three young leads are more than capable of clearing the bar in terms of dramatic performance, but Smith is not a born screenwriter (this is his first time at bat) and he keeps flubbing on the fundamentals. We get the requisite emotional sweep throughout, thanks to Benjamin Wallfisch's histrionic score, but the inner-connectedness of the characters' actions seems conspicuously absent, their motivations lost to us. The examples are almost too numerous to mention. In particular: It isn't sufficient for Smith to convey in a single expository line of dialogue that Carter-Wood is emotionally and psychologically unstable; we need to understand how and why she is damaged, and climb inside of her delusions about herself and her external relationships in order to accept her rejection of Evans’ hand and headlong rush into nuptials with Munnings. As presented here, and coupled with Munnings’ insufferableness, the engagement and subsequent wedding seem not merely illogical but baseless and insane. Neither can we comprehend Alfred's insistence — once he and Florence have married and moved to another city, far from Newlyn — on their moving back to Penzance and being closer to Gilbert's social circle, which seems like a lame excuse to set up the drama's final conflicts and tragedies. It isn't enough to reason that Munnings is a born abuser; his sadism needs to be rooted in something specific, some twisted aim that he hopes to accomplish in a deviant manipulation of Florence and Gilbert, or a grandiose self-deception that pushes him headfirst into masochism. As a result, when Gilbert eventually threatens to leave the area and Alfred pleads, “Don't go! I need you! Florence needs you!” we have no idea which of his own needs he's talking about.
What does deliver to a surprising degree — effectively saving the movie from being a complete misfire — is the gently stirring, low-key love affair between Gilbert and Florence, which, to Menaul and Smith’s credit, goes all but undeclared for much of the film’s first hour. One finds oneself swept up in the magnetism of the lovers’ bond, and it was a prudent decision on Smith’s part to use Florence’s artistic maturation as a literal manifestation of her adoration of Gilbert. The production design and cinematography (by Sophie Becher and Andrew Dunn, respectively) are also sumptuous; Dunn’s work actually invites comparison to Sten Holmberg's contributions to Kjell Grede's artist-colony drama Hip Hip Hurrah! (1987). Like Holmberg, Dunn finds a cinematographic equivalent for the en plein air style of the painters whose lives he is dramatizing, and that’s a commendable and magnificent accomplishment. It’s a shame that these assets are all but drowned out by the movie’s many faults; the strengths should exist at the service of a more mature and effective motion picture.
Mutt-and-Jeff comedic teams have been a part of cinema history since Laurel and Hardy, and that dynamic of two completely dissimilar people annoying each other is at the heart of Tim Story’s buddy comedy Ride Along. Sadly, the script, which is credited to four different people, never gives his game actors anything all that funny to do.
Kevin Hart stars as Ben, a school security guard madly in love with his beautiful girlfriend Angela (Tika Sumpter). The biggest obstacle to their relationship is Angela’s very protective brother James (Ice Cube), a lone-wolf cop who hates that she’s dating a loser. However, when Ben gets accepted to the police academy, James pretends to give the young man a chance by taking him on a ride along. While the big brother plans on making Ben’s day a living hell by responding to annoying calls, the prospective cadet stumbles onto clues that lead to the master criminal James has been investigating for years.
Hart has one gear as a comedian, and it’s faster than any sports car you can dream of. He plays motormouths who act full of themselves in order to compensate for their short stature. That can wear thin quickly without strong material or an engaging onscreen partner. On the plus side, Ice Cube is an expert comedic straight man. His fierce glare, commanding presence, and ace timing mesh perfectly with Hart, and together the two remain watchable even when they aren’t doing or saying anything memorable or amusing. Despite having four screenwriters, 95 percent of the movie feels improvised. That doesn’t mean it feels natural and in the moment, but that the actors knew their dialogue was terrible and Hart was allowed to just ramble.
Director Tim Story fails when he tries anything other than just putting the camera down and showing his two leads. A pair of action set pieces at the end of the film are edited in such a way as to make both comprehensibility and humor impossible, and there’s a rather unforgivable continuity error in the opening sequence when a shoot-out and foot chase that starts at night turns on a dime into a car chase that’s transpiring in broad daylight.
Ride Along is a programmer — a film that is exactly what it claims to be, that fills a need in the moviegoing marketplace. There’s nothing wrong with it, but there’s also no particular reason to make an effort to see it, either.
Having previously achieved notoriety as the duo behind Israel’s first horror movie (2010’s Rabies), filmmakers Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado shift gears to pitch-black comedy in their sophomore feature Big Bad Wolves. Though it goes without saying that a picture focusing on the torturous interrogation of a suspected pedophile and child killer isn’t for all tastes, Keshales and Papushado make this grim fable utterly compelling thanks to a richly textured screenplay, strong performances, and a unique talent for pushing the boundaries of good taste. A perceptive tale of moral corruption, Big Bad Wolves isn’t as interested in exploring the motivations of its deeply damaged characters as it is ironically depicting the tragic fallout of their reprehensible crimes. Depending on your tolerance for such blatant button pushing, this ferocious little gem will either have you howling mad or cringing with uncomfortable approval.
When a little girl goes missing during a game of hide-and-seek, police detective Miki (Lior Ashkenazi) and his partner Rami (Menashe Noy) drag prime suspect Dror (Rotem Keinan) to an abandoned warehouse for “questioning.” Meanwhile, a young boy hides nearby and uses his cell phone to capture the brutalization of the accused killer on video. Unfortunately for parents of the missing children, Miki’s questionable method of coaxing a confession only leads to his demotion after a video of the abuse goes viral. But now the entire community is convinced that mild-mannered religion teacher Dror is to blame for the crimes, and he is promptly asked to take an absence from work.
The case soon heats up again, however, when the headless body of another young girl is found violated in the woods, prompting the victim’s grieving father Gidi (Tzahi Grad), a former Israeli intelligence officer, to try and get a confession at any cost. But Miki gets to Dror first, doing his best to coax answers at the end of a loaded gun. The situation becomes complicated when Gidi unexpectedly gains the upper hand in the scenario, and ties Dror up in the basement of a secluded house where no one can hear his screams. Though at first complicit in the torturing of Dror, Miki also faces Gidi’s wrath by attempting to reign him in. Now Gidi won’t stop torturing Dror until he gets a confession. But just then there’s a knock at the door, and the fragile balance of power in that dark basement is upset. Will Gidi get his confession, and if so, will Miki still be alive to hear it? As the stakes grow increasingly higher, the only thing that’s certain is that whoever manages to survive this grim scenario will certainly have the scars — both mentally and physically — to prove it.
For a film with such a simple premise, Big Bad Wolves succeeds in raising some intriguing questions about our capacity for violence and our willingness to give ourselves over to it under extreme circumstances. From the moment we first see Dror being dragged into that dingy warehouse, it’s apparent that Miki is convinced beyond a doubt he has the killer in custody. But why? By refusing to reveal precisely how Miki has come to that conclusion, yet repeatedly playing up the rogue cop’s certainty, Keshales and Papushado leave us searching for clues that would implicate Dror. Not surprisingly, those clues are few and far between. By withholding the truth about Dror and refusing to offer up the evidence that has Miki convinced of his guilt, Keshales and Papushado create a compelling dynamic that draws us ever deeper into the story. Later, just when we suspect that we have started to get a handle on both men’s motivations, the introduction of Gidi causes those assumptions to shift right under our feet. And as the plot develops and new characters are introduced, the screenwriters continue to confound our expectations of who these characters are and what they are capable of.
Balancing that kind of swelling tension with a mean streak of dark humor is no simple task, but Keshales and Papushado are more than up to the job. As writers they seem acutely aware of just how far the audience will be willing to let them go in such a scenario, and as directors they guide the cast down that narrow path with bold authority. Each of the characters (including a mysterious Arab on horseback and that unexpected visitor later on), no matter how minor, serve a distinct purpose, and the means by which the filmmakers connect them shows an attention to detail that keeps us fully immersed in the story.
Likewise, from the stylized opening credits accompanied by a masterfully suspenseful score that recalls the work of Bernard Herrmann, Keshales and Papushado quickly establish an atmosphere that’s full of dread. When the action moves into that dank basement, the sense of claustrophobia thrown into the mix is perfectly complemented by the growing realization that there is no escape from the horrors to come. For some that will be precisely the appeal of the film; for others, it will no doubt be the aspect that sends them racing for the exit. Yet while some may argue that Big Bad Wolves has little purpose other than to titillate, few can deny that Keshales and Papushado have crafted one of the most caustically wicked mysteries in recent memory.