Films I Neglected To Review: The Hunts Continue
By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 12/19/20 02:07:30
Please enjoy short reviews of "Audrey," "Breach," "Education," "Fatale," "Hunter Hunter," "The Last Blockbuster," "Modern Persuasion," "Sister of the Groom" and "Skylines."
With her combination of talent, beauty and social consciousness that continues to reverberate nearly thirty years after her passing, there is no question that Audrey Hepburn was and always will be one of the greatest stars in the history of cinema. Based on the available evidence found in her new documentary, "Audrey," filmmaker Helena Coan would clearly agree with that assessment. Using a wealth of film clips, behind-the-scenes archival footage, interviews with family, friends and colleagues and the voice of Hepburn herself cadged from old interviews, the film takes a look at her entire life from her days as a teenager volunteering for the war effort to achieving worldwide stardom through such iconic films as "Roman Holiday" (for which she won the Best Actress Oscar) and "Breakfast at Tiffany's" to essentially walking away from stardom in order to focus on her family and to use her name to help call attention to the suffering of others throughout the world. Hepburn, as she demonstrated in interviews and her own attitude towards stardom, never took herself too seriously but the flaw of Cohan's film is that it paints her in such reverential tones throughout that there are times when she comes across more like an untouchable saint than as an actual person. The film also makes the odd choice to create the idea that Hepburn spit the bit on Hollywood entirely after doing "Wait Until Dark" in 1967 to pursue more noble endeavors, even though she made occasional appearances in films during that time that go unmentioned--granted, only true completists would want to hear anything about a gumdrop like "Bloodline" but an Audrey Hepburn documentary that fails to even mention such late-career classics as "Two for the Road" and "Robin and Marian" is a bit of a dubious proposition, to put it mildly. As a basic primer for those going into it with little more than a general awareness of who Hepburn was, "Audrey" is a perfectly adequate overview of her life and work. Those looking for something a little deeper and more incisive, on the other hand, will have to look elsewhere.
"Breach" is another one of those slapdash projects that Bruce Willis has chosen to squander his still-undeniable screen presence on over the las few years--a painfully derivative retread of genre themes with a script that Michael Dudikoff might have objected to back in the day in which he contributes just enough to the proceedings to assure that he collects (notice that I did not use the word "earns") his paycheck. The one difference this time is that its borrowings are so overt that some viewers with weird senses of humor might find them mildly amused by the sheer shamelessness of it all. A couple hundred years into the future, Earth is a mess and a few dozen massive interstellar arks filled with people have set off to a habitable faraway planet dubbed "New Earth" to begin again. The only people who will be awake for the duration of the trip are a group of maintenance people, including the two-fisted, hard-drinking guy-with-skills Clay (Willis) and Noah (Cody Kearsley), who is sort-of stowing away in order to be with his pregnant girlfriend, who is one of the sleeping passengers and is also the daughter of the ship's tough-as-nails admiral. Alas, some do not want the ship to arrive at its destination and a parasite-like creature is let loose on board that infects people, eventually turning them into goopy zombie-like creatures who then go on to spread things on to others.
So yeah, those who have seen such films as "Alien," the John Carpenter version of "The Thing" and large swaths of the David Cronenberg and George Romero filmographies may notice a couple of points of similarity between those films and the stuff on display here. How similar, you may ask. There is actually a part in which a flamethrower-wielding Willis gets a look at a bizarre and slimy creature and remarks "You gotta be fucking kidding me." Alas, unless you are only there to tally up the points of similarity, there is no other real reason to watch "Breach" at all. The screenplay is a lazy compilation of thin characters, boilerplate dialogue and scenes lifted entirely from other, better films and director John Suits (whose oeuvre includes such forgettable programmers as "The Scribbler" and "Pandemic," not to mention that Die Hard car battery commercial featuring Willis) somehow figures out a way to make it all boring beyond belief. As for Willis, all he really does for a good chunk of his screen time is grumble at the other characters while constantly nipping from his flask--his work here is so vague and unformed that even the flask-sipping looks forced and unconvincing. He has clearly done worse movies than this before but "Breach," along with his other recent string of films--ones that were going straight-to-VOD even if there was no pandemic--does nothing but offer evidence of an actor who clearly does not give a shit any more. If her doesnít, why should anyone else?
Following a pair of good-but-uneven installments, Steve McQueen's landmark "Small Axe" series comes to a powerful conclusion with its final film, "Education." Over the course of the five films chronicling life among England's West Indian immigrants from the late Sixties to the early Eighties, two institutions--the police and the school system--have come to task for their repeated failures within that community and it is the sins of the latter that are the focus here. Set in the early Seventies, the film stars Kenyah Sandy as Kingsley, a 12-year-old boy who harbors dreams of being an astronaut. However, he is a bit rambunctious and struggles with his reading at times, things which might have been focused on with an aim towards helping had he been white but which only get him labeled as a troublemaker. Finally, Kingsley and his mother (Sharlene Whyte)--who is constantly stressed out from working a number of low-paying jobs to get by--are informed by his headmaster that, based on the result of an IQ test, he is being sent away to a school for special needs children. Unfortunately, the institution proves to be little more than a badly-run warehouse for undesirable children--one where the teachers run the gamut from incompetent to racist to absent--to mark time before entering a world where only the most menial of jobs await them. While Kingsley's parents are simply too busy and tired to fully grasp what is happening with their son, their eyes are eventually opened by a group of local activists who are determined to expose the inequities of the system and ensure that kids like Kingsley get a shot at a real education instead of just being cast away because of who they are.
Like nearly all of the other "Small Axe" films, "Education" runs just over an hour in length but it is so densely packed, both in terms of narrative and in the history that it wants to present, that most filmmakers would struggle to get it all in at even double the running time. Here, McQueen and co-writer Alastair Siddons have found just the right approach for telling this story of the inequities of a broken educational system that also serves as an unfortunate reminder that things have not changed as much over the past half-century as one might have hoped. In brief but resonant exchanges, they illustrate what passed for an educational experience for kids in that situation could expect (in one especially brutal piece, an especially dense teacher badly sings all of "House of the Rising Sun"--accompanying himself with equally awful guitar work--and then adds insult to injury by insisting that the famed American folk song was actually written by the Animals) as well as the ways in which such shoddy treatment was allowed for so long--the parents were either too busy to notice or entirely too aware of their immigrant status to speak up--until local groups decided that things had to change, not just to give these kids an education at all but to give them one that gives them as full of a sense of their own history as the white kids receive on a daily basis. In a way, that is the driving force behind the "Small Axe" series as a whole--to shine light on important stories of the sort that too often get let out of the official historical accounts--and in its fierce determination to bring this about, "Education" puts a fitting capper on what has proven to be one of the major film events of 2020.
"Fatale" marks the latest lurid thriller from director Deon Taylor, whose previous efforts have included the likes of "Traffik," "Black and Blue" and the deliriously idiotic "The Intruder" and as brain-dead as those were, there is a pretty good chance that this one may be his dumbest to date. Although everything seems okay on the surface, wealthy Los Angeles businessman Derrick (Michael Ealy) has a nagging suspicion that wife Michaela (Kali Hawk) is cheating on him. In response to this, he takes advantage of a bachelor party trip to Vegas to put away the wedding ring and have a one-night stand with Valerie (Hilary Swank) before guiltily returning home the next day. That night, someone breaks into Derrick's home and tries to kill him and when the police arrive, Valerie turns out to be the lead investigator on the case. At first, she appears to be having fun making him sweat a little bit by making vaguely insinuating comments to Derrick while Michaela is within earshot. It soon becomes clear that Valerie is covering up a number of past traumas of her own and when the case of the break-in takes several unanticipated turns, she decides to take advantage of the situation to take care of her own problems in ways that find Derrick sinking deeper and deeper into trouble.
The ads for "Fatale" are clearly positioning it as a sort of riff on "Fatal Attraction" with additional angles involving race and the abuse of power by police in a desperate effort to make it seem more edgy and contemporary. To give David Loughrey's screenplay a little bit of credit, it follows this path for about the first third before shifting in a different direction altogether. Unfortunately, the new direction proves to be just as dopey as the original one and it doesn't really matter in the long run because the whole thing shifts back towards the "Fatal Attraction" template in the final stretch anyway with a sledgehammer approach that makes the excesses of its predecessor seem restrained and dignified by comparison. Although virtually none of what transpires works to any extent--there are Shannon Tweed direct-to-video brawls from the 90s made with more style and flair than Taylor can begin to muster here--the most bewildering aspect to the film is easily Hilary Swank's participation in a project that would have seemed beneath her back when she was coming off "The Next Karate Kid" and not as the possessor of two Best Actress Oscars. Whether she picked this project as a lark, as an easy paycheck or as a way to ensure that "The Hunt" was not her professional low moment for 2020, I cannot say but while it is sort of amusing to see her jumping head-first into unadulterated trash for a few minutes, it soon becomes more depressing to see her talents squandered on something as idiotic as this.
"Hunter Hunter" is one of those films that are best appreciated when you go into it knowing as little as possible, so I will try to be as circumspect as possible when describing writer-director Shawn Lindenís uncommonly effective film. Set in the 1990s, the film centers on Mersault (Devon Sawa), his wife Anne (Camille Sullivan) and their 13-year-old daughter Renee (Summer H. Howell), a family living in a remote cabin in the Manitoba wilderness and making an extremely meager living as fur trappers. It soon becomes apparent that they do this primarily because of Mersault's constant need to prove himself as a man and his inability to fit in with society as a whole and Anne is growing increasingly resentful about how she and Renee are having to pay the price for Mersault to pursue his own needs. Tensions become increasingly fraught when their traps are being attack by something that is eating their captured prey and leaving them with virtually nothing. They suspect that a large wolf that had previously targeted the area has suddenly returned for more. Soon, Mersault leaves one morning to go out in search of the creature to kill it for good and then.
Well, to even hint at where the story goes from this point would be monstrously unfair to the number of dramatic traps that Linden has carefully strewn about to ensnare the audience and so I will give no more specifics. Suffice it to say, Linden does a very skillful and effective job of setting up the idea that we are watching another drama along the lines of "Leave No Trace" involving rugged individualists pursuing their obsessions without sparing much of a thought for loved ones who did not exactly sign on for a life of constant hardship, danger and discomfort, only to seriously pull the rug out from under viewers in ways that are surprising while still playing fair. The performances are also quite strong, especially Sullivan, who expertly presents Anne as someone who is absolutely sick and weary of the lifestyle that has been more or less forced upon her but who expertly uses all of the lessons that she has been forced to learn along the way when she is convinced that she and her family are being threatened. That is especially true during the climactic moments, a truly jaw-dropping sequence that avoids simply devolving into an exercise in grisly excess (though many may feel otherwise) because her character has been established so well beforehand that when she eventually does what she, it feels like a logical extension of her behavior and not just a gross bit of business. "Hunter Hunter" is grim and unsparing throughout--perhaps too much so for some--but those who can handle it will be rewarded with a unique, powerful and well-told story that is worth seeking out.
"The Last Blockbuster" is a well-intentioned but bizarrely off-key documentary that wants to celebrate the now-obsolete concept of the neighborhood video store and the concept of cruising the aisles in search of the hot new releases, old favorites and, perhaps, some weirdo gem that you accidentally stumbled upon along the way. Great idea but filmmaker Taylor Morden blows it right out of the gate by putting his focus on celebrating Blockbuster Video, the massive corporate chain of rental outlets (9000 strong at their mightiest) that destroyed the competition from small mom-n-pop stores, offered up a throughly homogenized approach to the experience that offered stores that felt like dentist offices and which eschewed seamier and stranger selections to prioritize extra copies of the big new releases and then dug its own grave with a serious of unfortunate business moves (and not, as many have surmised, solely because of the arrival of Netflix). After spending the first portion of the film charting the corporation's rise and fall, most of the rest of the film is focused on one of the very last Blockbuster Video shops still in existence, in the small town of Bend, Oregon, and the valiant efforts of its dedicated manager, Sandi Harding, to keep it going long after the rental business has ceded to streaming. She is an undeniably genial presence and you do root for her to succeed in her endeavor, especially when most of the other remaining stores close and hers finds a weird new life as a tourist destination for visitors to experience something that, in many cases, was on the wane before they were born. However, considering all the real damage the Blockbuster did, both to its competition and to the film industry in general, seeing Morden and his collection of talking heads (including Kevin Smith, Adam Brody, Paul Scheer and--sigh--Ione Skye) waxing nostalgic about it is a deeply jarring experience. Yes, the ever-acerbic Troma head Lloyd Kaufman does turn up to briefly curse Blockbuster for the way that it sidelined independents like him with their restrictive policies but there is not enough of that to offer an acceptable balance to the rest. "The Last Blockbuster" has the right idea but the wrong focus and the end result is a weird wallow in nostalgia for mediocrity--it is like ostensibly doing a documentary on the history of barbecue and then spending three-fourths of the running time pining for the glory days of the McRib.
When I say that "Modern Persuasion" resembles one of those romantic comedies churned out wholesale by the Hallmark Channel that took a slight detour on its way to its release, it is not so much a criticism as it is a simple observation--even the film's star, Alicia Witt, has been a familiar presence in the network's product over the last few years. In this film, which does indeed happen to be a very vague modern-day reimagining of Jane Austen's "Persuasion" (the kind that throws in just enough references to satisfy Austen fans but not enough to require mentioning her in the credits), she plays Wren, who is pretty much the Platonic ideal for a Hallmark-style heroine--beautiful in a non-threatening way, super-smart, capable and working in a glamorous job but, it is implied, still unfulfilled in life because she is somehow still without a fella to call her own. The publicity firm that she works for is angling to snag a hot new tech company as a client but when its president, Owen (Shane McRae), comes in to hear the firm's pitch, it turns out that he is actually the old college boyfriend whom she was inspired to spurn years ago by her rich aunt (Bebe Neuwirth), who advised her to put her own future career ahead of any concerns about love, especially with a hunky slacker type. Sure, a couple of other potential suitors turn up as well but even those who have never read Austen before will be able to figure out where this is going practically from the outset, though fans might be amused by a couple of the updates provided in the script by Jonathan Lisecki (who co-directed with Alex Appel) and Barbara Radecki)--instead of quoting the works of the great Romantic poets, the star-crossed lovers cites the lyrics of The Smiths. There are a couple of mildly amusing lines and Witt makes for an engaging heroine (perhaps too engaging to be believable as someone as socially awkward as her character is supposed to be) but the whole thing is just kind of dumb, though in a reasonably inoffensive manner. It is the kind of movie that you can put on while wrapping presents and feel assured that no matter how busy you might wind up getting, you can do so without running the risk of getting too lost or confused as a result.
Imagine someone trying to make a film in the style of Noah Baumbach, only with characters so virulently unpleasant and annoying that even he might find them to be an especially insufferable collection of extremely bitter pills. That is the dubious promise supplied by "Sister of the Groom," a stunningly bad and stridently unfunny comedy that offers unlucky viewers the chance to spend 92 minutes in the company of some of the most annoying and relentlessly self-absorbed characters to grace any film in a while. Leading the pack is Audrey (Alicia Silverstone), an embittered woman whose current bad patch--her career as an architect has stalled and she still resents the aftereffects of delivering twins left on her stomach more than a decade later--is not improving when a last-second date change means that she has to spend the weekend of her 40th birthday traveling with her husband, Ethan (Tom Everett Scott) to her family home to see her twin brother, Liam (Jake Hoffman), getting married to Clemence (Mathilde Ollivier), a New Age-style French sexpot who is fifteen years younger. Before long, Audrey learns that Liam has given Clemence their late mother's ring (understandable), that the two plan to tear down the family home and build a new place (less so) and that not only have they hired Audrey's ex-boyfriend to design the new place instead of her, they have also invited him to the wedding. Needless to say, Audrey and Clemence do not hit it off and the weekend soon devolves into a war of wills that includes shocking revelations, tearful recriminations and a couple of things that I believe fall under the heading of outright felonies.
The problem with "Sister of the Groom" is not the fact that practically all of the characters are unlikable to some extent--there have been any number of great comedies that have been populated with such people. However, those films also took the time to actually be funny and it is here where writer-director Amy Miller Gross comes up painfully short. Gross never comes close to finding the right tone at any point and as a result, scene after scene misfires in strange and increasingly grotesque ways. Rather than come across as a woman who is allowing something that is none of her business to keep her from dealing with her own problems, Audrey's outsized reaction to the plans of her brother and his bride-to-be make her feel more like a spurned lover than anything else, leading the proceedings a queasy undertone of the kind not experienced since that one Folgers commercial. To make matters worse, the things that she does in order to sabotage the proceedings--including learning a deeply personal secret of Clemence's and then immediately blabbing it to Liam in the hopes that it will break them up--are so far beyond the pale (and I haven't even gotten to the aforementioned felonies) that even when Clemence responds in kind, it still feels as if Audrey is getting off way too easily. As for Silverstone, she is still an eminently likable performer and is therefore all wrong for the part of Audrey, a role that requires someone who can convincingly summon up the required degree of flintiness. "Sister of the Groom" is a real mess--one so throughly grim and despairing (even despite the thoroughly unconvincing happy ending) that after watching it, I found myself going to IMDb to double-check that "Amy Miller Gross" was a real name and not a heretofore unknown nom de plume for Lars von Trier. I should have known that it wasn't--his films, bleak and unsparing as they are, usually contain at least a couple of laughs in them.
Released in 2010, the low-budget sci-fi thriller "Skyline" offered up a relatively by-the-numbers alien invasion story that, aside from a fairly nutty finale, was routine enough that when a sequel, "Beyond Skyline," unexpectedly turned up in 2017, I never quite got around to catching up with it. Now comes the third entry in one of the more unexpected film franchises of the era, "Skylines," and it would appear that I probably should have done a refresher on the first two entries because it is one of those sequels that not only assumes that you have seen them but that you have seen them within the last 15 minutes. As near as I can make out, Rose (Lindsey Morgan), a young woman who has both human and evil alien DNA, has been lying low ever since she froze during an attack on an alien ship that resulted in the deaths of thousands. Nevertheless, the military, still fighting the creatures after 15 years, takes her into custody and offers her a chance at redemption--lead a team of soldiers to the alien world to steal a MacGuffin with the power to turn the tide of the battle for good. Meanwhile, back on Earth, a doctor (Rhona Mitra) is desperately working against time to find the cure to a mysterious virus that has been generated to kill off all alien-human hybrids in anticipation of a final push for the conquering of Earth. At least I think so--please don't quiz me on this.
While the opening scenes will probably leave other newcomers to the series as confused as I was, once the basic story is set up, the film mostly shifts into yet another variant of such familiar classics as "Aliens" and "Starship Troopers"--sometimes blatantly so--and while it is all done in a reasonably slick manner by writer-director Liam O'Donnell (especially considering what I understand to be yet another comparatively low production), it is the kind of thing that most genre fans will have seen done many times before--including this week alone if they come to it after sitting through "Breach" and "Monster Hunter." In addition, all the Earthbound scenes involving the search for a cure to the virus are painfully boring, almost entirely unnecessary and ends up robbing the main story of its momentum at a number of points. And yet, even though the film as a whole is not especially good and not exactly worth watching for anyone other than the "Skyline" completists who are evidently out there somewhere, it does manage to liven things up from time to time with some nice bits of business--an amusing line of dialogue here, a weirdly striking visual there. These moments donít exactly save the proceedings and I am fairly certain that I will have forgotten them all, along with pretty much everything else surrounding them, long before a potential fourth installment comes around. However, they do help it all go down in a relatively painless manner and at this point, such considerations will no doubt be appreciated.