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Mini Reviews (August 2018)

Under the Tree, The Darkest Minds, Monolith, Puzzle, Slender Man, The Spy Who Dumped Me, Papillon, Dragnet, The Happytime Murders, Three Identical Strangers

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

Papillon (August 17/18)

Based on true events, Papillon follows Charlie Hunnam's title character as he's sent to prison on a remote island and immediately begins concocting an escape plan - with the narrative detailing Papillon's continuing endeavors and his newfound friendship with fellow inmate Louis Dega (Rami Malek). Director Michael Noer does an effective job of initially establishing the time and place in which Papillon transpires, with the decidedly familiar bent of the movie's storyline, at the outset, allayed by the inherently fascinating subject matter and effectiveness of Hunnam's central performance. And while Noer has peppered the narrative with several standout sequences (eg a fairly exciting shower fight), Papillon segues into a padded-out and leisurely-paced midsection that slowly-but-surely begins to test the viewer's patience - with the movie's already-tenuous momentum eventually obliterated by a long interlude detailing the protagonist's solitary confinement. It's a striking stretch that's nevertheless unable to wholeheartedly justify its extreme length, and there's little doubt that the movie, beyond that point, suffers from a plodding feel that grows increasingly oppressive as time progresses (ie virtually everything here feels needlessly drawn out, ultimately). The plot's impressively grim bent ensures that Papillon's second half generally remains watchable, at the very least, although it's ultimately rather apparent that the movie could've benefited from a more judicious round of editing - which is a shame, certainly, given the obvious care (and authenticity) with which much of the proceedings have been infused.

out of

Dragnet (August 18/18)

Based on the Jack Webb radio and television program, Dragnet follows by-the-book police officer Joe Friday (Dan Aykroyd) as he and his new laid-back partner (Tom Hanks' Pep Streebek) must put aside their differences to solve a series of murders. It's clear immediately that Dragnet isn't exactly rife with appealing, attention-grabbing elements, as the movie, directed by Tom Mankiewicz, suffers from a palpably plodding feel that's compounded by an continuing emphasis on the central characters' tedious investigation - with Aykroyd and Hanks' competent yet far-from-stellar work here certainly not alleviating the pervasively dull atmosphere. (Having said that, Hanks' predictably loose and goofy performance is, at least, responsible for the movie's few amusing moments.) The ensuing lack of momentum ensures that Dragnet wears out its welcome long before arriving at its anti-climactic finish, and it subsequently goes without saying that the movie's 106 minute running time often feels much, much longer (ie there's simply nothing propelling the narrative forward, ultimately). And although the movie boasts an unusually strong supporting cast (which includes, among others, Christopher Plummer and Dabney Coleman), Dragnet, in the end, can't help but come off as a total misfire that wastes the palpable potential inherent in its premise (ie a buddy comedy with Aykroyd and Hanks should be nothing less than a 1980s classic).

out of

The Happytime Murders (August 23/18)

An almost astonishingly misbegotten endeavor, The Happytime Murders follows puppet private eye Phil Philips (Bill Barretta) as he and a human detective (Melissa McCarthy's Connie Edwards reluctantly team up to solve a series of killings. It's a decent premise that's employed to consistently (and increasingly) unwatchable effect by filmmaker Brian Henson, as the director, working from a patchwork script by Todd Berger, delivers a laugh-free, erratically-paced disaster that's rarely (if ever) as fun as intended - with the Henson's scattershot approach paving the way for an almost episodic midsection that misses far more often than it hits. And while the novelty of the setup carries it in the short term - the concept of puppets and humans coexisting within a seedy landscape is inherently promising, for sure - The Happytime Murders' continuing emphasis on an investigation that couldn't possibly be more tedious triggers its slow-but-steady descent into total irrelevance (ie the hard-boiled shtick grows old awfully quickly). Henson's efforts at compensating for the pervasively stale atmosphere fall hopelessly flat and, worse, smack of utter desperation, as the picture's been suffused with jokes and cameo appearances that, although designed to cultivate and perpetuate a fun, irreverent feel, are ultimately as misguided and unfunny as everything else within the proceedings. The end result is a fairly disappointing trainwreck that could (and should) have been so much better, and it's certainly impossible not to wonder what drew McCarthy and her talented costars to such an ill-conceived screenplay in the first place.

out of

Three Identical Strangers (August 28/18)

Three Identical Strangers tells the undeniably fascinating story of three man who discovered, in their late teens, that they were actually born triplets, with the movie detailing the siblings' instant celebrity afterwards and the surprising (and much darker) direction their tale eventually takes. Filmmaker Tim Wardle does an exceptional job of immediately drawing the viewer into the proceedings, as Three Identical Strangers boasts an irresistibly fast-paced and engaging opening stretch that's heightened by the brothers' enthusiasm and palpable charm - with the fun-loving atmosphere persisting right up until Wardle begins dropping one unexpected bombshell after another. There is, in particular, a seriously surprising twist around halfway through that changes the picture's entire tone, and though Wardle handles the shift from lighthearted to grim and sinister quite well, Three Identical Strangers' second half is, as a result, somehow not quite as compelling and engaging as all that has preceded it (and this probably has something to do, ultimately, with the decision to take the emphasis off the brothers themselves). The heavy emphasis, in the movie's third act, on a rather tedious investigation ensures that Three Identical Strangers concludes on a fairly underwhelming note, with the end result a typically erratic documentary that probably would've worked better as a segment on 60 Minutes.

out of

© David Nusair