Mini Reviews (January 2017)
Satanic, Lion, The Art of the Steal, The Birth of a Nation, Emelie, The Bye Bye Man
Satanic (January 4/17)
Astonishingly tedious from beginning to end, Satanic follows four friends (Sarah Hyland's Chloe, Steven Krueger's David, Justin Chon's Seth, and Clara Mamet's Elise) as they decide to tour a series of true-crime occult sites in and around the Los Angeles area - with horror ensuing as the one-dimensional protagonists inevitably run afoul of a real-life satanist. It's almost impressive just how uninvolving Satanic remains for the duration of its punishing runtime, as director Jeffrey G. Hunt, along with scripter Anthony Jaswinski, proves hopelessly unable to draw the viewer into the deliberately-paced and thoroughly meandering narrative - with the movie's hands-off atmosphere compounded by a total lack of compelling or sympathetic central characters (ie they're all just so bland). The directionless bent of Jaswinski's screenplay paves the way for a midsection that's rife with irrelevant and inconsequential detours, and it does, as a result, become increasingly clear that the filmmakers simply don't have enough content to sustain the movie's 85 minutes. There reaches a point, then, at which the viewer is left with little to do aside from wait for the far-from-likeable characters to start croaking, although it's worth noting that Hunt even manages to bungle this seemingly foolproof aspect of the proceedings - as each and every one of the film's deaths occur offscreen. The appreciatively grim conclusion does little to allay the otherwise interminable atmosphere, to be sure, and it's ultimately difficult to recall a more misguided and downright torturous low-budget horror flick (ie this really is bottom-of-the-barrel stuff).
Lion (January 11/17)
Based on a true story, Lion follows five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) as he inadvertently climbs aboard a closed train and, days later, finds himself thousands of kilometers from home without a way to get back - with the movie subsequently detailing Saroo's eventual adoption by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman's Sue and David Wenham's John) and, decades later, his decision to track down his birth family. There's ultimately little doubt that Lion works best in its low-key yet surprisingly compelling first half, as filmmaker Garth Davis places an emphasis on Saroo's episodic exploits on the streets of Calcutta and, eventually, his rescue by the aforementioned couple - with the inherently fascinating nature of these scenes heightened by Pawar's impressive turn as the affable central character (ie Saroo, in his hands, is just such a sympathetic figure). The movie's momentum does take a palpable hit, however, once the focus shifts to the adult Saroo (played by Dev Patel) and his efforts at finding his family, as the protagonist's largely internal struggles (eg should he embark on a search, how does he search, etc, etc) results in a second half that feels, for the most part, like it's spinning its wheels. The strong work by the various performers - Kidman hasn't been this good in quite some time - generally compensates for the palpable unevenness, while the feel-good climactic stretch ensures that Lion concludes on a decidedly positive note (which, though not enough to compensate for the erratic midsection, at least confirms the movie's place as an interesting story told relatively well).
The Art of the Steal (January 16/17)
An extremely run-of-the-mill comedic caper, The Art of the Steal follows a disbanded crew of criminals - led by Kurt Russell's Crunch Calhoun - as they agree to collaborate one more time for a final heist. It's a tired premise that's employed to energetic yet consistently uninvolving effect by Jonathan Sobol, as the writer/director proves unable (or unwilling) to infuse the well-worn narrative with wholeheartedly compelling characters or innovative plot twists - which, naturally, paves the way for a substance-free atmosphere that grows less and less interesting as time progresses. (It's worth noting, at least, that the movie, which runs an appropriately brief 90 minutes, moves at a brisk, propulsive pace.) And although Russell delivers as charismatic and engrossing a performance as one might've anticipated, The Art of the Steal's pervasively familiar, goofy vibe can't mask a storyline that's increasingly concerned with setting up the Ocean's Eleven-esque climactic reveal - with Sobol delivering a second half that seems to exist only to fuel the various revelations that dominate the finale. (And it doesn't help, certainly, that the explanation for how everything was accomplished consumes a good chunk of the film's third act.) It's ultimately clear that The Art of the Steal's very mild success - ie the whole thing is basically watchable - is a result of its uniformly affable performances, although it's equally apparent that the movie, for the most part, comes off as a fairly disappointing endeavor that just isn't able to live up to its potential.
The Birth of a Nation (January 18/17)
Inspired by true events, The Birth of a Nation follows slave Nat Turner (Nate Parker) as he begins to orchestrate an uprising after discovering the deplorable condition under which his fellow slaves toil. It's clear right from the get-go that filmmaker Parker, working from a script cowritten with Jean McGianni Celestin, isn't looking to deliver a subdued historical drama here, as The Birth of a Nation boasts (or suffers from) a decidedly larger-than-life feel that's reflected in its myriad of attributes - with, especially, Parker's often comically over-the-top directorial choices perpetuating the movie's less-than-subtle atmosphere. Parker's heavy-handed approach makes it awfully difficult to connect to the plight of the film's various characters, although, to be fair, it's hard to deny the visceral impact of a few key sequences contained within the midsection. (There is, for example, a fairly powerful interlude in which Nat and his master, Armie Hammer's Samuel Turner, visit a plantation where slaves are treated worse than animals.) It's obvious, too, that The Birth of a Nation's inability to wholeheartedly grab the viewer's interest is compounded by an overlong running time and needlessly deliberate pace, which, in turn, ensures that the movie's action-heavy final stretch is simply unable to pack the punch that Parker has clearly intended. (Parker's Christ-like treatment of his protagonist certainly doesn't help matters.) The Birth of a Nation's ultimate failure is nothing short of a colossal disappointment, as the film's searing true-life origins could (and should) have paved the way for a electrifying, engrossing piece of work.
Emelie (January 18/17)
Emelie follows Sarah Bolger's title character as she arrives at the home of Joyce and Dan Thompson (Susan Pourfar and Chris
Beetem) to babysit their three children (Joshua Rush's Jacob, Carly Adams' Sally, and Thomas Bair's Christopher), with problems emerging as it becomes increasingly clear that Emelie has plans for more than just a quiet night at home. There's little doubt that Emelie is at its best in its surprisingly tense and accomplished first half, as director Michael Thelin does a superb job of establishing the various characters and the progressively ominous atmosphere in which they find themselves - with the better-than-expected atmosphere perpetuated by Bolger's strong turn as the mysterious, sinister central character. (The young actors playing the three children don't fare quite as well, unfortunately.) The progressively episodic bent of Rich Herbeck's screenplay paves the way for a decidedly erratic midsection, as the bulk of the narrative, past a certain point, seems to revolve entirely around Emelie's efforts at messing with her young charges (eg she forces the oldest to eat a boxful of cookies, she allows the kids to paint on the walls, etc, etc). It's clear, then, that the movie, which also contains a seriously unpleasant sequence in which a hamster is fed to a snake, slowly-but-surely transforms into a hopelessly by-the-numbers horror thriller, with the viewer's dwindling interest ensuring that Emelie palpably runs out of steam long before arriving at its anticlimactic finale - thus cementing the film's place as a promising yet half-baked endeavor that surely would've worked better as a short.
The Bye Bye Man (January 18/17)
Based on a story by Robert Damon Schneck, The Bye Bye Man follows three friends (Douglas Smith's Elliot, Cressida Bonas' Sasha, and Lucien Laviscount's John) as they move into an old house and subsequently stumble onto a legend involving the malevolent title character - with the film subsequently detailing the trio's efforts at defeating the spooky apparition (and its menacing dog). Filmmaker Stacy Title does a fantastic job of immediately luring the viewer into the proceedings, as The Bye Bye Man opens with an impressively engrossing prologue detailing the murder of several circa 1960s suburbanites by Leigh Whannell's well-dressed Larry. From there, however, the movie morphs into a typically underwhelming horror effort that's rife with underdeveloped characters and a central villain that never quite coalesces into an entirely convincing antagonist (eg what does he want, exactly? and what's the deal with that train?) The less-than-engrossing atmosphere is compounded by an ongoing emphasis on is-it-real-or-is-it-just-in-their-heads type elements, while the heroes' requisite investigation into the title creature's past ultimately leads nowhere and contributes heavily to the movie's spinning-its-wheels vibe. And although the film admittedly does conclude with a better-than-expected final stretch, The Bye Bye Man is, for the most part, unable to overcome its place as a cheap, watered-down exercise in pointless PG-13 horror.