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Bigger Predators, Nuttier Nick Cage—Your Week in Movies

Hope Madden Hope Madden Bigger Predators, Nuttier Nick Cage—Your Week in MoviesPhoto still from "Mandy," via IMDb.
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Oscar contenders, predators, South African Clint Eastwoods, social satires and a movie more unhinged than an unhinged Nic Cage—whew! Quite a week at the box office! Here’s the skinny on your options.

The Predator

by Hope Madden

Shane Black loves him some 80s, doesn’t he? The over-the-top machismo, the sentimentality, the tasteless and insensitive one-liners—the writer/director revels in every opportunity to splash those (and some blood and entrails) on the screen as he reboots The Predator.

This is the sixth installment, if you count the Alien vs. Predator films, so Black has his hands full finding a fresh perspective. First things first: a damaged, hyper-masculine male lead who uses humor to mask his pain. Enter Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook, Logan).

A US Army sniper, McKenna and his men are in Mexico after some baddies and some hostages when a predator ship crashes. McKenna faces off with the nasty before making off with some of his gear. Then he’s in a bar/post office in Mexico. Then he’s in custody.

How did he go from A to B to C? Never mind that! There are predator dogs this time!

There are a lot of those odd gaps in action logic, but since when is narrative clarity the point of a Predator movie (or a Shane Black movie, for that matter)? In many ways, Black is the ideal candidate to reawaken the sport-hunting franchise.

He clearly loves it, and he should, having played the small role of Hawkins in the 1987 original. Black takes pointed but affectionate shots at the source material and celebrates much of what made it (and most of Schwarzenegger’s 80s output) so fun.

Holbrook is a serviceable lead that Black quickly surrounds with a team of soldiers (Trevante Rhodes, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Jane). What kind of bunch are they? Rag and tag!

Olivia Munn jumps in as a scientist who drops f-bombs, Jacob Tremblay is inarguably cute, and Sterling K. Brown (characteristically mesmerizing) plays the villainous military dude.

The story touches on humanity’s path to extinction, as well as our own evolution. That last part leads to some questionably respectful commentary on folks on the Autism spectrum. (Folks with Tourette’s can expect the same level of respect you might find in an Eighties action film. Or a Norm MacDonald interview.)

The FX are good. Not War for the Planet of the Apes good, but way better than the Aquaman trailer that rolled pre-film. The action is fun and sometimes imaginative, but the rest of the film is largely lacking in imagination.

There’s a lot of coasting going on in The Predator. A lot of boxes being checked—sometimes checked with flair, but they’re still the same old boxes.

Grade: C

White Boy Rick

by Hope Madden

Detroit’s economic blight has offered a powerful backdrop to many a film—Only Lovers Left Alive and Don’t Breathe spring to mind. But for White Boy Rick, this decrepitude does not simply serve a fictional horror. It created a real one.

Rick Wersche Sr. peddled guns to Detroit lowlifes. Feds preyed upon his 14-year-old son with an offer: become an FBI informant or the old man goes to prison. Things escalated, Rick Jr. made some questionable decisions (as teens are wont to do), the Feds took advantage, and by the time he was 17, White Boy Rick was facing a lifetime prison sentence with no hope for parole. This for his first conviction, a nonviolent crime.

Making his acting debut, Richie Merritt cuts a believably affable street kid. He’s like a puppy, a mutt, with moppy hair and a bad teenage mustache. The characterization helps to clarify how he so easily ingratiates himself into dangerous gangs, or why he’s trusted by the same, but it’s a tougher sell when Rick turns kingpin.

Bel Powley nails the role of sister and more obvious victim of the family’s circumstances, while both Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie are a hoot in small roles. But it’s Matthew McConaughey who most impresses.

McConaughey hits not one false note as the self-deluded optimist, Rick Sr. All resilient façade and pathetic underpinnings, desperate to create a healthy future for his family even as his own illicit gun sales compound Detroit’s problems, Rick Sr. is a study in contradictions. McConaughey approaches the task with nuance and empathy, and the result amazes.

In its best moments, White Boy Rick laments the circuitous nature of poverty and urban decline. When it’s really on point, it even illuminates the infrastructure that perpetuates the tragedy.

In its off-moments, though, it tries too hard to present Rick Wersche Jr. as a good kid who didn’t deserve his fate. There is no doubt that Wershe did not deserve his fate, nor did countless other nonviolent felons convicted during the U.S.’s dubious war on drugs. But there’s something about the way director Yann Demange (’71) differentiates the white boy from the rest of the criminals that is unsettling.

The racial dynamics of the film lack much of the nuance afforded the family drama. Demange invites us into the world that’s so appealing to Rick Jr.—a lure that’s far more compelling than just money—but he can’t follow through.

It’s too bad, because as a showcase for performances, White Boy Rick excels. It just can’t entirely decide what it wants to accomplish with its story.

Grade: B

Mandy

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

A hallucinogenic fever dream of social, political and pop-culture subtexts layered with good old, blood-soaked revenge, Mandy throws enough visionary strangeness on the screen to dwarf even Nicolas Cage in full freakout mode.

Opening with bits of a Ronald Reagan speech about traditional values and a knock-knock joke about Erik Estrada, director/co-writer Panos Cosmatos drops us in 1983 as Red (Cage) and Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) live a secluded, lazily contented life somewhere in the Pacific Northwest.

That contentment is shattered by a radical religious sect under the spell of Jeremiah (Linus Roache), who takes a liking to Mandy when the group’s van (of course it’s a van!) passes her walking on a country road.

Jeremiah’s followers return to abduct Mandy but only leave Red for dead, a move they won’t live long to regret.

Like Cosmatos’s 2010 debut Beyond the Black Rainbow, Mandy is both formally daring and wildly borrowed. While Black Rainbow, also set in 1983, shines with the antiseptic aesthetic of Cronenberg or Kubrick, Mandy feels more like something snatched from a Dio album cover.

Cosmatos blends ingredients from decades-spanning indie horror into a stew that tastes like nothing else.

Horror of the late 60s and early 70s saw hippies terrorizing good, upright citizens, perpetrating cult-like nastiness. Thanks to Charles Manson, society at large saw the counterculture as an evil presence determined to befoul conventional, Christian wholesomeness.

With Mandy, it’s as if the 70s and 80s have collided, mixing and matching horror tropes and upending all conceivable suppositions. In this case, zealots consumed with only the entitlement of their white, male leader wreak havoc on good, quiet, earth-loving people. The 70s gave us some amount of progress, civil justice and peace that the 80s took back under the guise of decency.

The fact that Red wears a 44 on his tee shirt and calls one baddie a “snowflake” shouldn’t be disregarded as coincidence.

But that’s not what you want to know. You want to know this: How bloody is it? And how insane is Nic Cage?

It’s plenty bloody (sometimes comically so), and though Cage is methodically unhinged, what Cosmatos is dealing makes Nic seem damn near understated.

Neither area disappoints, although the dreamlike pace leading up to the violence and the vividly Heavy Metal-esque visuals — including some animation and an end credit shot– exacerbates the feeling that you, and quite possibly the characters, are only hallucinating all of this lunacy.

Mandy offers a commitment to vision above all.

Surrender to it.

Grade: A-

A Simple Favor

by George Wolf

Stephanie is a suburban single mom who keeps an “oopsie” jar for swearing and volunteers for everything at her son’s elementary school.

Emily is passionately married, drops frequent f-bombs and has a painting of her vajayjay hanging in the living room.

But a play date for their sons leads to an unlikely friendship in A Simple Favor, a crazy fun mystery with plenty of surprises up its sassy sleeveless number.

The first may be seeing the director is Paul Feig, who made his name with blockbuster comedies such as Bridesmaids and Spy.

So, he’s doing dark thrillers, now? Nope, he’s doing a satirical comedy with strong women, nice diversity and a pretty sharp bite.

Perky Stephanie (Anna Kendrick — perfect) and glamorous Emily (Blake Lively — ditto) share martinis and secrets until Emily turns up missing. Steph provides case updates on her Mommy vlog (“cookies and origami” help to ease the strain!) while spending more and more time watching Emily’s son and “comforting” her husband (Henry Golding from Crazy Rich Asians).

You’ll guess some of what comes next, but there’s plenty you won’t, unless you read Darcey Bell’s source novel. Screenwriter Jessica Sharzer (Nerve) shapes it for the big screen as a Gone Girl for the gaslight age, where ridiculousness is a default setting, all information is equally true/false and irony is a security blanket never far out of reach.

There are plenty of black comedic laughs to be found here, as well as clever plot twists and knowing nods to the expectations that come with roles of “wife,” “mother,” “career woman” and “friend.”

The running time starts to feel bloated by the third act, and the film flirts with joining the mundane fray it had been so giddily rising above. But it rallies for the win with a satisfying finale of comeuppance and LOL updates on how some characters have moved on.

A Simple Favor is not what the trailer makes you think it is — which turns out to be the perfect setup for a film with plenty of head fakes that lead to mischievous good time.

Grade: B+

The Wife

by Hope Madden

You guys, Glenn Close has never won an Oscar. That’s insane, right?

She’s been nominated six times — Albert Nobbs, Dangerous Liaisons, Fatal Attraction, The Natural, The Big Chill, The World According to Garp — but never won. I get the feeling she’s looking to change that.

Björn Runge’s big screen adaptation of Meg Wolitzer’s novel The Wife sees Close as Joan Castleman. Joan’s husband Joe (Jonathan Pryce) has just won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The film shadows the Castlemans as they receive the news, celebrate the win and head to Stockholm to receive the award.

Through flashbacks we’re privy to the relationship between young Joe (Harry Lloyd) and Joan (Annie Starke—Close’s daughter) as it develops.

Close is perfect — steely brilliance, her character a wily manipulator of situations whose growing intolerance of her life threatens to crack the polished surface that has adorned this marriage for decades.

The entire film — and every sacrifice, struggle and misery of Joan’s life — plays out on Glenn Close’s face. Close ups reveal not only the resignation and resilience of Joan’s life, but the depths of Close’s talent for communicating her character’s essence. Everything you need to know about Joe, about marriage, about being a woman, and about Joan’s particular misery is etched on Close’s countenance. The rest of the film just verifies what you’ve learned.

Nearly equal to Close is Starke, who not only looks the part but whose characterization easily communicates the same studied behaviors Joan will eventually develop into a masterful façade.

Jane Anderson’s screenplay tends to overstate, which is unfortunate. The simple interplay between Close and Price—jubilantly nailing the narcissist whose selfishness cannot be contained—more potently unveils and reveals than any clear-cut narrative scene ever could.

Not that you’ll remember the needless extras: flashbacks illustrating an early pattern of sacrifice; parties and ceremonies depicting Joe as an attention whore incapable of recognizing his wife’s anguish; the slippery biographer (Christian Slater) or mopey son (Max Irons) clamoring for attention.

What you’ll remember is Close, delivering, as is her way, a tour de force performance that may finally land Close her own glittering acknowledgment.

Grade: B+

Five Fingers for Marseilles

by Rachel Willis

How does one make a film that’s uniquely South African yet still feels like an American western? Director Michael Matthews and writer Sean Drummond answer that question with the stunning Five Fingers for Marseilles.

From the beginning, Matthews evokes Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars trilogy. Four boys stand facing each other, hands at the ready, waiting for a sign to fire their slingshots. When it comes, Tau, The Lion, stands victorious. It’s a scene that sets the tone for a film that not only calls up classics like Leone’s, but also Yojimbo.

Tau is described as ruthless and mean, but he’s also filled with an anger that makes him reckless. In apartheid-era South Africa, small enclaves such as Railway – a district within the city of Marseilles – are at the mercy of their oppressors. As Tau and his friends argue about how to resist the police that fleece them, he insists on using more than sticks. His brother, Zulu, demands he exercise caution.

However, when a friend is threatened with brutality, Tau’s anger leads to a careless decision. When he flees the scene of his crime, he not only leaves behind his friends but his responsibility. Those left behind suffer because of “The Lion”‘s heedless anger.

Decades pass before Tau returns to Railway. The town seems the same though apartheid has ended. Police still shake down the citizens, but another sinister element has also descended on the town, a gang led by a fearsome man known as The Ghost. Though Tau seeks to return untroubled, he is inevitably called to his former role as protector.

It’s a familiar story, and the political backdrop of a South Africa trying to find its way after apartheid lends itself well to the retelling. As Tau, Vuyo Dabula is a perfect representation of the man with no name. Though he is The Lion, a man with a past full of brutality, he seeks to start anew as Nobody. It’s the sinister nature of the world around him that draws him back into a world of ferocity and lawlessness.

There are few villains as perfect as Sepoko, also known as The Ghost. Every moment Hamilton Dhlamini is on screen, the tension escalates. The masterful score only magnifies this malevolent figure.

With desolate landscapes, brutal violence and characters with questionable moral compasses, Five Fingers for Marseilles is not only a magnificent Western, but an exquisite film.

Grade: A

 

Also opening in Columbus:
American Chaos (R)
A Boy. A Girl. A Dream (R)
Sailaja Reddy Alludu (NR)
Seema Raja (NR)
Unbroken: Path to Redemption (PG13)
U Turn (NR)

Read more from Hope and team at MADDWOLF and listen to her weekly film podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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