August 2022 Roundup
Samuel Goldwyn Films // Directed by Thomas Daneskov // Starring Rasmus Bjerg, Zaki Youssef, Sofie Gråbøl, Bjørn Sundquist
Billed as a comedy thriller, Thomas Daneskov’s Wild Men sought to shine a comedic spotlight on the male midlife crisis. The story focuses on Martin (Bjerg), a family man who escapes his home life to live at one with nature in the Norwegian mountains and woodland. Whilst struggling to survive longer than a week and robbing convenience stores for sustenance, he encounters Musa (Youssef), an injured drug smuggler, and the pair embark on a journey across the wilderness pursued by the police and Martin’s wife, Anne (Gråbøl). What should have been an endearing, rib-tickling jaunt ends up as an interesting idea that never truly embraces its potential, it never really settles into itself to allow it to become engaging or alluring. There isn’t a lot wrong with the performances, and, whilst Rasmus Bjerg is very decent in the lead role, it’s Bjørn Sundquist who is the standout character as the grizzled detective set on solving the mystery despite his colleagues' many deficiencies. Wild Men is certainly a pretty movie thanks to the majesty of Norwegian nature, sadly it isn’t a particularly humorous or thrilling one, a point that is doubly frustrating given the middling overall take on the male midlife crisis at the heart of the narrative. Of course, there are gags and moments that work but disappointingly these are few and far between in a movie that promised much but delivered little.
Universal Pictures // Directed by Jordan Peele // Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Steven Yeun, Michael Wincott, Brandon Perea, Wrenn Schmidt, Barbie Ferreira, Keith David
From the mind of Jordan Peele comes Nope, the director's third effort following his excellent one-two punch of Get Out and Us. Here, we follow the Haywoods, OJ (Kaluuya), and Emerald (Palmer), a sibling pair of horse wranglers who become deadset on capturing undeniable footage of the strange phenomenon in the skies above their isolated ranch. At the same time, ex-child star and current amusement park owner Jupe (Yeun) attempts to profit from the “bad miracle” in the sky despite a traumatic event in his childhood that thematically links to the present happenings (the latter being the more interesting and least developed story). Firstly, it’s important to note that Nope is primarily a science fiction movie with horror trappings, as Peele leans away from his previous horror-oriented movies - sure, there’s enough horror here to satisfy genre fans but it takes a backseat as does the searing social and racial commentary that Peele is so adept at telling (it’s still there but more subtle this time). Nope is certainly interesting, there’s a solid sense of mystery in the movie’s first half that’ll keep you guessing before the big twist is revealed, but the majority of questions raised are left deliberately unanswered which leaves an overall feeling of pointlessness to the movie. Now, not everything needs a concrete answer, but it seems pretentiously ambiguous in this case. Unsurprisingly, there are some great ideas here, but narratively Nope is messy - subplots and threads feel unconnected at times, and the duelling storylines never fully merge satisfyingly. Indeed, the best scene in the movie (involving Gordy the chimp and a sitcom scene-gone-wrong) suffers from simply feeling shoehorned in - it's thematically linked and whilst the message within the scene is admirable, the execution, however, felt lacking. The performances, too, are a mixed bag. Kaluuya brings an understated intensity to his role of OJ - the struggling trainer reeling from family tragedy and responsibility - and Brandon Perea’s Angel - a tech store wiz tasked with assisting in capturing footage of the phenomenon - is likable whilst Keke Palmer’s constant manic energy is draining and not entirely enjoyable. Nope certainly isn’t all negatives, as mentioned, the first half provides an engaging mystery before it loses its way soon after. Visually it’s a treat (thanks to Hoyte van Hoytema’s sprawling cinematography) and there are some superb sequences and moments to feast your eyes on throughout. The score from frequent Peele collaborator Michael Abels, also, is solid. There’s plenty to admire in Nope but the overall delivery felt convoluted and disjointed - it threatened to be great but never really got close.
20th Century Studios // Directed by Dan Trachtenberg // Starring Amber Midthunder, Dakota Beavers, Michelle Thrush, Stormee Kipp, Julian Black Antelope, Bennett Taylor, Dane DiLiegro
What would happen if you plopped a Predator into the Great Northern Plains of North America in 1719? Prey, that’s what would happen. The fifth installment in the iffy Predator franchise, directed by Dan Trachtenberg, takes an original swing with its premise after 2018’s crushingly crap The Predator. Rather than beefy military men, the Predator is tasked with facing off against skilled Comanche warriors, and a tribe with a defined hierarchy where the women stay home, and the men go hunting - however, Naru (Midthunder) wants to flip that notion and join the fight…she has the tools but does she have the talent? Prey goes to great lengths to show that brains are far more important than brawn when it comes to tackling an intergalactic monster, an idea not overly dissimilar to John McTiernan’s back in 1987’s original Predator, and this really allows the movie and characters to shine. Prey is far more focused and satisfying than The Predator, taking the franchise back to basics, taking the simplicity of the original, and imbuing it with solid characters and arcs. Amber Midthunder is great in the lead, her smarts feel authentic as much as her struggles do, and Dakota Beaver’s Taabe, Naru’s brother, also stands out in his debut feature role. Whilst the movie does focus primarily on its human characters, their personal trials, tribulations, and growth, there is more than enough action and blood for the Predheads out there. This (more primitive) Predator is more than a match for his adversaries and is allowed some solid moments to shine and wreak havoc. With a cool runtime of one hundred minutes, Trachtenberg employs some taut pacing that slowly escalates the further into Prey we go, and, whilst the French trapper subplot threatened to drag the movie down, Trachtenberg balances the narrative threads confidently to create a cohesive throughline. It’s also worth noting that, whilst there are nods and riffs on franchise tropes and phrases, there is nothing that feels exploitative or eye-rolling…crucially. Prey is able to stand toe-to-toe with the best of the franchise (basically Predator and 2010’s Predators) and provides an excellent prequel story with some intriguing connections as well. Sometimes less is more and simple is safer, but when the execution is as good as it is with Prey, I’ll take that more often than not.
Orphan: First Kill
Paramount Players // Directed by William Brent Bell // Starring Isabelle Fuhrman, Rossif Sutherland, Julia Stiles
2009’s Orphan was a moderate success that has attained a reputation for its fresh twist and an unconventional killer in “Esther”/Leena (Fuhrman). It must be said, however, that any questions around the necessity for a prequel are valid especially given the thirteen-year gap between the original and its successor, Orphan: First Kill. Here, after slaughtering her foster family, Leena escapes from the Estonian psychiatric facility that housed her and assumes the identity of a missing American girl - a masquerade that somehow manages to fool nearly everyone, including Allen (Sutherland), the father of the missing girl, and, for a short while, Tricia (Stiles), the mother. From here on, First Kill adopts a fairly generic narrative that really never threatens to dive out of its comfort zone. Over a decade later, Isabelle Furhman returns to the role of Esther to play an even younger version of our villain than before (Furhman was ten in the original…), though, despite William Brent Bell’s best efforts, the transition back doesn’t look particularly good and the need to ensure forced perspective and scale only ensures janky editing and pacing. Furhman, on the other hand, seems to be relishing her return to the role and provides the majority, if not all, of the movie's highlights. As an audience, however, we know who Esther really is which makes much of First Kill feel rather insignificant - we know that Esther isn’t a child so why not provide us with an interesting study into the character and her hormonal disorder hypopituitarism rather than convoluting an already established backstory, and, essentially retreading the events of the first movie? When the twist comes (and it is admittedly decent), it's played out in such a way that belies the cleverness behind it originally, complete with poorly-judged ableist slurs galore and the abysmal attempt to have us sympathise and side with the psychotic family killer. At the risk of sounding overly negative, First Kill does rack up a decent body count whilst proving the title of the movie to be untrue, and manages to connect certain threads to the original that felt satisfying. There isn’t an awful lot more to say in praise of the movie - Julia Stile’s Tricia is an awful character and the less said about Matthew Finlan’s Gunnar, the better. For a movie that wasn’t a runaway success or even a cult classic, Orphan was solid enough to stand alone on its own merits - and that now feels especially valid given how shallow, inconsequential, and mediocre First Kill is.
Universal Pictures // Directed by Baltasar Kormákur // Starring Idris Elba, Iyana Halley, Leah Sava Jeffries, Sharlto Copley
If every film description included “Idris Elba fights a crazed lion”, then the world would be in a far better state than it is. Alas, that is not the case and only Baltasar Kormákur’s Beast can lay claim to that distinction. Kormákur’s survival thriller sees Elba’s Nate Daniels and his teenage daughters, Meredith (Halley) and Norah (Jeffries), fighting to survive as a game reserve visit goes horribly awry when a vicious, bloodthirsty lion makes his presence known. Written by Ryan Engle (Rampage, The Commuter), Beast is a pacy animal, one that doesn’t take too much time in getting to the hunter/hunted situation but also one that feels lacking. For its premise and Jurassic Park-lite delivery, Beast suffers from a real lack of thrills. Granted, there are some effective sequences and attacks, but, had the movie leant more into the tension that the situations afforded, it could have been extremely solid. Instead, Beast focuses on the Daniels’ family history and issues in ways that feel overly melodramatic, and not entirely logical given that they are literally on a psychotic lions menu. Whilst this subplot allows for some nicer moments towards the end, it's hard not to wish there was less dialogue throughout and more atmosphere building. Beast also addresses the issue of illegal poaching, and, whilst there’s not a lot of depth given thematically, there are some satisfying moments that arise from this storyline. In a rare moment, Idris Elba isn’t on top form, burdened with a ropey screenplay and a dodgy accent, he’s been far better elsewhere recently than here. Given the budgetary constraints, the lion (who has good reasons for being an…angry as he is) looks simply fine but is effective enough as an antagonist - there’s no way I would fancy going toe-to-toe with that machine. The natural plains of Africa are captured beautifully by DoP Philippe Rousselot and Steven Price’s score compliments the visuals pleasingly meaning Beast isn’t a bad movie to absorb from an audio-visual standpoint (some of the editing though…), it’s just lacking a real sense of urgency and peril - Beast does save the best showdown until last so it at least goes out on a higher note. The ingredients were there for a taut, atmospheric thrill ride, however, Beast ends up being rather tame by all accounts.
Sony Pictures Releasing // Directed by Jessica M. Thompson // Starring Nathalie Emmanuel, Thomas Doherty, Stephanie Corneliussen, Alana Boden, Courtney Taylor, Hugh Skinner, Sean Pertwee
Jessica M. Thompson’s The Invitation promised the allure of a suspenseful supernatural gothic horror with a dash of romance (Twilight? Well…). What we actually got was something markedly different. Yes, the movie bathes itself in said gothic vibes but that’s really all I can muster from what was offered by the premise. Nathalie Emmanuel’s Evie, reeling from the recent loss of her mother, accepts an invitation from a newly-discovered relative, Oliver (Skinner), to fly to England to attend a family wedding and to meet the family she never knew she had. Once she arrives, she finds herself in a world of untold riches, lavish décor, and, of course, there's something sinister behind it all. The Invitation is a movie that starts off with a weak narrative that only gets worse as we wade through twists and revelations that, ultimately, aren’t particularly thrilling or well delivered culminating in…martial arts and…well, sigh, you’ll have to find out for yourselves. It’s best to say that The Invitation is certainly more of a visual experience than anything else, it seems Thompson was hoping audiences would be too distracted by the production and costume design to notice the rickety screenplay and Mills & Boon romance played out between Evie and the Lord of the Manor, Walt (Doherty). Poor Nathalie Emmanuel, she tries here to make something with the character of Evie and the hokey romance, but she can’t prevent the movie from its inevitable fate. Evie seemingly decides to become a different person at certain points of the movie, forgetting/ditching all of the traits she had displayed in the earlier parts of The Invitation - and that isn’t down to trauma or situation, believe me. The overacting from, well, seemingly everyone is intrusive, and its hard to ignore the idea that more subtlety would have helped the movie somewhat - the one bright spark being the always reliable Sean Pertwee as the domineering butler. The horror on display is also sorely lacking despite a well-executed prologue which contained the movie’s one effective jump scare that threatened to give the audience hope. The Invitation is an exercise in negative restraint, it never dares to really challenge its audience or deliver real moments of tension, instead, it falls back on safety and convention. Despite its B-movie sensibilities and inspirations, The Invitation is soulless, unremarkable and just not very good. This is one invitation that would be disposed of rather quickly.
Amazon Studios // Directed by Julius Avery // Starring Sylvester Stallone, Javon Walton, Pilou Asbæk, Dascha Polanco, Moises Arias
Sylvester Stallone returns to the superhero genre with Samaritan, an original genre flick directed by Julius Avery (Overlord) and dropped directly on Prime Video. Stallone takes on the role of garbage man Joe Smith, but Sam (Walton), a young boy living in neighbouring apartments, suspects he is actually Samaritan, a legendary superhero who has been presumed dead for 25 years following a fiery altercation with his nemesis, erm…Nemesis. Another production disrupted by COVID-19, Samaritan looked to be a gritty, heavier take on the genre given the marketing, however, it’s those aspects that are sadly lacking from it. Sure, the fictional location of Granite City is rundown, grey, and subject to a lot of rain clearly, and Stallone’s character is grizzled and weathered, but Samaritan feels restrained more than anything - the 12A/PG-13 rating more than likely is the reasoning behind this. The action throughout is decent but it’s nothing remarkable (the heavy editing throughout the sequences doesn’t help matters) given the dour nature of the protagonist and his surroundings - it feels as if Avery shot the action in a more graphic way before seeing it edited down for rating purposes. Stallone, though, appears to be having fun in a role not too dissimilar from his turns as the older Rocky Balboa (in terms of delivery and being an aging icon), he is afforded some cheesy one-liners to throw out and his presence elevates the movie (thankfully). Around him, the cast are simply fine, unsurprisingly Pilou Asbæk is cast in a villainous role and Javon Walton is decent enough as the streetwise Sam, a kid desperate for Samaritan to be alive so he can learn from his hero. No one really stands out here, and, along with the visuals, it’s all rather vanilla (save for some of the worst deaging I’ve seen). The overall story is generic and predictable with little to get the heart pounding, and, whilst the third act reveal was welcome, it would probably have been better served being revealed earlier in order to provide a more interesting narrative angle. As it is, what we have is a by-numbers superhero flick that feels like a missed opportunity in the genre. Stallone is game for the task but Samaritan lacks any real intensity leaving it feeling more than a little humdrum.