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Mini Reviews (August 2018)

Under the Tree, The Darkest Minds, Monolith, Puzzle, Slender Man, The Spy Who Dumped Me

Under the Tree (August 2/18)

Under the Tree details the violence and chaos that ensues after neighboring families battle it out over a large tree, with the movie also follow Atli (Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson) as he attempts to reconcile with his girlfriend (Lára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir's Agnes) in the wake of a sudden breakup. Filmmaker Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson delivers a promising opening, revolving around Atli and Agnes' split, that gives way to a somewhat underwhelming midsection rife with uninvolving, unbelievable sequences, as Sigurðsson, working from a script written with Huldar Breiðfjörð, proves unable (or unwilling) to transform any of the battling neighbors into three-dimensional figures - which makes it exceedingly difficult to work up an ounce of interest in or sympathy for their ongoing disagreements. (This is especially problematic in the case of Edda Björgvinsdóttir's Inga, as she comes off as an unconvincingly nasty individual with few plausible behavioral traits.) It's clear, then, that Under the Tree is at its best when focused on the comparatively engrossing exploits of Steinþórsson and Jónsdóttir's respective characters, to such an extent as one can't help but wish that Sigurðsson had jettisoned the other stuff and focused purely on the pair's trials and tribulations. Any such good will is completely and totally obliterated by a third act that includes, among other things, the mean-spirited murder (and stuffing) of a family pet, which certainly ensures that Under the Tree's closing stretch is unable to make the impact that Sigurðsson is obviously going for - thus confirming the movie's place as a fairly useless drama with little of interest to say.

out of

The Darkest Minds (August 2/18)

Based on a novel by Alexandra Bracken, The Darkest Minds, which transpires in a world where youths have been afflicted with powers ranging from innocuous to deadly, follows Amandla Stenberg's Ruby as she escapes from a punishing government facility and joins up with three other affected teenagers (Harris Dickinson's Liam, Miya Cech's Zu, and Skylan Brooks' Chubs) en route to a supposed sanctuary for their kind. It's immediately apparent that filmmaker Jennifer Yuh Nelson has no loftier goal than cranking out yet another generic, teen-centric dystopian drama (along the lines of The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner), as The Darkest Minds suffers from a run-of-the-mill quality that's woefully prevalent in all its various attributes - with the less-than-engrossing atmosphere compounded by Nelson's inability to wholeheartedly develop the movie's sci-fi universe (ie it feels as though whole chunks of the book have been omitted from Chad Hodge's screenplay). The affable work from the various actors is subsequently rendered moot, and it's clear, too, that the midsection's episodic bent ensures that The Darkest Minds grows less and less interesting as it progresses - although, to be fair, Nelson at least does manage to pepper the proceedings with a handful of admittedly compelling interludes (including a thrilling and unapologetically over-the-top third-act sequence involving a psychic battle between the picture's two factions). By the time the frustratingly open-ended conclusion rolls around, The Darkest Minds has certainly confirmed its place as a fairly disposable entry within a long-since-played-out genre - with the potential for future installments looking unlikely, to say the least.

out of

Monolith (August 8/18)

Monolith follows Katrina Bowden's Sandra as she and her small son (Krew and Nixon Hodges' David) embark on a trip to a relative's house within a state-of-the-art new SUV, with the movie detailing the terror that ensues after David is left trapped in the seemingly impenetrable automobile after a crash. It's a decent setup that's employed to terrifically terrible and flat-out interminable effect by filmmaker Ivan Silvestrini, as the movie suffers from, at its core, a central protagonist that couldn't possibly be less interesting or sympathetic - with Bowden's flat, one-dimensional performance certainly amplifying the various problems with the somewhat detestable character. The viewer's inability to work up an ounce of interest in Sandra's exploits paves the way for an often shockingly dull midsection, as Silvestrini places an ongoing emphasis on his so-called hero's increasingly frantic efforts at freeing David from the car - with the almost episodic nature of these attempts certainly elevating the already-dull atmosphere. It's ultimately rather apparent that Monolith's spare premise demands a far more dynamic and personable presence than Bowden, given that so much of the narrative is devoted to her dogged (yet tiresome) escapades around the stranded title object (eg Sandra tries breaking into the car with a wrench, Sandra must avoid the advances of a wolf, etc, etc). The needless third-act fake-out, included solely to pad out the already endless running time, no doubt, ultimately confirms Monolith's place as a seriously useless piece of work, which is too bad, surely, given the somewhat palpable potential afforded by the seemingly can't-miss setup.

out of

Puzzle (August 10/18)

Based on the Argentinean film Rompecabezas, Puzzle follows meek housewife Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) as she discovers a passion for solving jigsaw puzzles and subsequently connects with an eccentric millionaire (Irrfan Khan's Robert) - with the movie detailing Agnes and Robert's efforts at preparing for a puzzle-solving competition. (There's also an ongoing emphasis on the impact Agnes' increasingly assertive attitude has on her husband and two teenage sons.) Filmmaker Marc Turtletaub has infused Puzzle with an exceedingly subdued feel that proves an effective complement to Polly Mann and Oren Moverman's quiet and somewhat uneventful screenplay, with the movie, at the outset, benefiting substantially from Macdonald's incredibly sympathetic and charming work as the mousy central character. It does become increasingly clear, however, that there's perhaps just not enough material here to sustain a feature-length running time, as the story's unapologetic slightness is pushed to its breaking point during a progressively erratic midsection - thus ensuring that Puzzle, as it moves forward, suffers from a decidedly hit-and-miss feel that's generally more the latter than the former. The spinning-its-wheels effectively (and demonstrably) dulls the impact of the picture's third-act revelations, which is too bad, certainly, given that there's a palpable kernel of a good idea here (and Macdonald's consistently captivating performance undoubtedly deserves better than this).

out of

Slender Man (August 15/18)

Inspired by an internet meme, Slender Man follows teenage friends Wren (Joey King), Hallie (Julia Goldani Telles), Chloe (Jaz Sinclair), and Katie (Annalise Basso) as they summon the title demon and are subsequently forced to fend for their lives. It's apparent right from the get-go that Slender Man doesn't have much of a story to tell or even, as becomes clear, a reason to exist, as the movie, directed by Sylvain White, progresses at a plodding, frequently interminable pace and boasts few sequences designed to alleviate the pervasively underwhelming vibe - with the arms-length feel compounded by David Birke's aggressively uneventful screenplay. And although White has peppered the meandering narrative with a handful of admittedly creepy images and sequences - there is, for example, a decent third-act interlude detailing one survivor's spooky walk through a hospital - Slender Man is predominantly dominated by long, dimly-lit stretches in which characters attempt to figure out what's happening to them. It doesn't help, certainly, that large swaths of Slender Man seem to transpire within the minds of the rapidly-dwindling protagonists, and there does reach a point, perhaps inevitably, wherein the viewer begins to crave a more grounded, reality-based atmosphere. By the time the endless climax rolls around, Slender Man has undoubtedly confirmed its place as one of 2018's most pointless and incompetent horror efforts - with the abrupt, meaningless finale only perpetuating that feeling.

out of

The Spy Who Dumped Me (August 15/18)

The Spy Who Dumped Me follows best friends Audrey (Mila Kunis) and Kate McKinnon (Morgan) as they're caught up in an international conspiracy thanks to the former's CIA operative boyfriend (Justin Theroux's Drew), with the narrative detailing the offbeat pair's ongoing efforts at extricating themselves from an increasingly deadly and violent situation. Filmmaker Susanna Fogel does a superb job of immediately drawing the viewer into the proceedings, as The Spy Who Dumped Me kicks off with an unexpectedly engrossing action sequence that fares better than one might've anticipated - with the movie, past that point, segueing into an admittedly overlong yet consistently entertaining narrative. It's clear, ultimately, that the picture benefits substantially from the two stars' affable work and their palpable chemistry together, while Fogel and David Iserson's somewhat episodic screenplay is rife with compelling (and frequently funny) set-pieces focused on Audrey and Kate's bumbling exploits. (There is, for instance, a very amusing bit involving the duo's clumsy efforts at stealing a car.) It's a little disappointing to note, then, that The Spy Who Dumped Me's second half suffers from a meandering quality that wreaks havoc on the movie's momentum, and it's apparent, too, that the climax isn't quite as effective (and thrilling) as its preceding segments (ie the weird Cirque du Soleil finale is more bizarre than it is exciting). There's nevertheless no denying that, for the most part, The Spy Who Dumped Me comes off as a better-than-expected contemporary caper, with the obvious decision to eschew improvised shenanigans certainly playing a key role in the film's success.

out of

© David Nusair