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Review: The Hunt

Betty Gilpin, lethal badass, in The Hunt. [Image from the movie’s Facebook page]

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Imagine you wake up without any knowledge of where you are and you’re at the mercy, it seems, of some elitist pricks who guzzle expensive champagne while they escort you to some undisclosed destination. You’re bound and basically unable to defend yourself, but somehow make it to first-class asking what the fuck is going on. The response to that? A shot to the eye, and a descent into death while another passenger, also clearly kidnapped, lies unconscious on the ground.

That passenger winds up to be Emma Roberts who emerges with 12 other people in a forest and before you can say “What” you’re under fire from all directions, racing to some kind of cover holding nothing but a weapon and the hope you may survive. The bloodshed is cartoonish, and arrives like a stampede of bulls in Pamplona, decimating pretty much all of the captives. In another part of the forest, another woman, Crystal (Betty Gilpin) makes her way to a gas station. An elderly couple (Amy Madigan and Reed Birney) hold shop… and prove Crystal’s fears — she’s a part of someone’s deadly game of cat and mouse. However… Crystal isn’t going down without a fight, and she is here to kick some serious [censored] ass.

The Hunt is inappropriate for all the right reasons. It calls out practically everyone while gleefully wreaking havoc on everything around its perimeter that has a pulse. It might be perhaps a bit broad in positing its contempt for both the alt-right and the liberal left, but it manages to sneak in some sly commentary on how a chat thread, once viral, might get blown up much farther than its intent and may decimate a person’s career. [In a way it is a warning to anyone dependent on social media and chat groups; you never can tell where that joke or meme you sent might land, so a word of caution, and chat away, safely.]

References to The Purge, Bacurau, and Kill Bill are all over the place but don’t detract from the overall enjoyment of this popcorn movie. I especially enjoyed an extended sequence involving Gilpin and none other than Hilary Swank (clearly on board and on the joke) as they perform balletic fight scenes in what has to be the most gorgeous kitchen ever. Seriously, I wanted them to take it outside, and please not ruin the cutlery or the fireplace. Their exhausted conversation is probably the best part of the film, delivered with deadpan humor in all the right places.

In short, The Hunt might not be a serious movie with a powerful message, but with all the madness around you, it’s almost daring you to get offended and then go on social media to rant and rave. See it for what it is — a star-making vehicle for Betty Gilpin –, and forget about it later.

Reviews: Disappearance at Clifton Hill, CROOKED HOUSE, and After Midnight

Working out childhood trauma is always a good topic for a character who has narrowly escaped some uncertain fate as a child. It essentially tills the soil for the adult version to tackle later this event with better, if imperfect, tools and perhaps solve the lingering puzzle that’s been haunting in the background ever since. Albert Shin is a director unknown to me, but his hand on the genre is pretty atmospheric in presenting a horrific event that marks the childhood of a young girl who later, as an adult (played by Tuppence Middleton), buzzes around a mystery like a buzzard seeking a dead body whose disappearance went cold. Instead of letting it go, she clings on to the idea that she can somehow come to terms with the boy’s disappearance and dives further into the murky waters of the seedy town where the incident took place, only to find her own sanity begin to unravel. Shin doesn’t quite have a full grasp of the entire genre per se, bringing an extended circus sequence that doesn’t quite fit in with the tone of the picture. Some of the acting is also a bit hammy, if at all to drive the point home that yes, this is a bad place with bad people. However, Disappearance at Clifton Hill manages to emerge mostly unscathed; as a thriller it holds itself well, has some nifty twists and turns, and maintains that frosty, cold atmosphere that has now become a staple of the genre in which shadows loom long and mistrust is everywhere, like a ghost.

The murder mystery has experienced a renaissance as of late with one successful adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel leading to a second. On the heels of that we were served with Knives Out, a murder mystery with social undertones that managed to make it onto several critics’ “best of 2019 lists and almost made mine had I not seen a few that won by a narrow margin. Crooked House came out in 2017 right on the heels of Murder on the Orient Express, but its release on internet platforms muddled its performance, and to be frank, seeing it nearly two and a half years later, it feels mostly inert. That is not a surprise; there have been several disappointing Agatha Christie adaptations done over the years, so another one is just a casualty of a project not quite working. The story is quite similar to that of Knives Out for those who have a sharp eye at narration, but Knives Out manages to use the concept and go to other directions with it and keep the story fresh, exciting, and above all, interesting. You won’t find that here despite the large ensemble cast headed by Glenn Close. Crooked House is basically dead on arrival. It’s as if the stance chosen by the director was to make an already flimsy story even weaker by inert direction, cardboard performances, and questionable events that seemed to have lifted in order to force the viewers into gasp mode once the killer was revealed.

It really pains me when I see as movie made for pennies within the indie community that I can’t recommend. That movie is someone’s project, someone’s idea of a story, and here I come, the Big Bad Reviewer, watch the entire thing (twice, may I add), cringe with every scene being offered, and give it a bad review. However, not everyone in the indie scene is made to make a good product and After Midnight, a film by Jeremy Gardner and Christian Stella, is the result. The story concerns Hank and Abby (Gardner and Brea Grant), a couple living the life in the backwoods of America. They are, apparently, happy, Except that by the end of the extended scene in which both express their love, she has left the house, leaving a cryptic note, and left Hank in stasis, unable to move on. So unable to move on that the entire movie features a flashback sequence to when he and Abby were happy and in love every five minutes. Once is okay, but when your story has to venture into horror and we are still in washed out colors and puppy dog stares I started to wonder when the mess would start.

Spoiler alert.

Reader, it does start, but not in the way you would believe and I can’t believe I had to write a second paragraph to explain why. Any kind of horror involves a mood. We know that something bad has to happen, or at least, that there is a sense that something is not quite alright from the onset and is about to get slightly worse as proceedings follow. That never happens in After Midnight. Hank has a business; we never see him in that business. Hank goes to a bar to down some beer and the scene falls flat on its face when he meets a buddy (Henry Zebrowski) who is munching on peanuts. For some reason the camera decides to cut in, twice, on Zebrowski as he chews peanuts and almost chokes on a mouthful. Does this advance the story? No. Neither does a stop at a sheriff’s friend (played by Justin Benson, one half of the other directing duo who brought The Endless, another example of terrible horror). Finally, the horror arrives: someone (or something) is stalking Hank at night, leaving him terrified and shaken. While that should amp up the horror level, Gardner and Stella never change the tone and leave it as bland as an extended flashback into present scene when the much missed Abby decides to come back. And while I don’t want to reveal to the audience how this entire fiasco gets resolved, let’s just say, I might never listen to Lisa Loeb’s Stay (I Missed You).

Bad, bad film-making, terrible storyline, an incredibly cheesy guy in a monster suit, and flat acting: this is what in essence you will get if you sit back and watch all 75 minutes of the interminable After Midnight.

You were warned.

FRENCH INVASION, PART DEUX

 

4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

Finnegan Oldfield and Francois Damiens in Thomas Bidegain's Les Cowboys.
Finnegan Oldfield and Francois Damiens in Thomas Bidegain’s Les Cowboys.

French cinema has long since separated itself from the sunny, colorful effervescence of New Wave and is riding high on not just its New Intensity, bringing forth some truly twisted stories, but also its reconfiguration of films deemed “American”; i. e. action, crime, and complex thrillers. In 2015 alone they released three films via Rendezvous with French Cinema that later were released earlier this year on VOD: SK-1 (a.k.a. Serial Killer 1), La French, a.k.a. The Connection (their own take on The French Connection), and the profoundly disturbing Next Time I’ll Aim for the Heart, barely seen here, and a complete must-watch for lovers of dark crime stories.

In a previous post I mentioned that no less than five movies were playing in New York City at the same time — something I haven’t seen in a long time, and I pay attention to releases — and reviewed three of them: Cosmos, by Andrzej Zulawski; Diary of a Chambermaid by Benoit Jacquot, and finally, Michel Gondry’s coming-of-age movie Microbe et Gasoil.

Les Cowboys is Thomas Bidegain’s first directorial effort, and it’s a darn good one. [He wrote A Prophet, Rust and Bone, parts of Saint Laurent, the upcoming Neither Heaven Nor Earth (screened at New Directors / New Films earlier this year, releasing next month), and the superb Dheepan, a film still playing in the nation, and a must-watch.] Borrowing from the concept that made John Ford’s 1956 masterpiece The Searchers such a compulsive watch and transposing it to modern times, he places a regular French family in an American setting: the rodeo. Of course, this is not a true rodeo per se but more of the likes of a dude ranch where people can play dress up and speak in truly awful Western accents while looking cool. Francois Damiens, the versatile actor I’ve seen in Playing Dead, Suzanne, and Tip-Top (of which the last only had an actual release in the US) plays Alain Ballard, the head of the family who attends such an event whose daughter, who’d been dating a Muslim boy that may have become radicalized, disappears from plain sight, never to be seen again.

Alain’s search to find his daughter (despite her letters that she does not want to be found and is happy to be where she is) takes an extreme left turn that no one paying attention will see coming. It’s such a shock that when I saw this film last October at the New York Film Festival the audience audibly gasped. From there on, the story continues on, bringing a shift of perspective and introducing some tangential characters, such as John C Reilly’s appearance as an American who may be of some help to Alain’s son Kid (Finnegan Oldfield, of Bang Gang, A Modern Love Story), and a Muslim woman who finds herself in a strange land being scrutinized by others who see her as little more than subhuman.

Les Cowboys is a complicated mystery. It stands out because it seems of the zeitgeist as people experience the ugliness of Islamophobia. It’s an intricately woven narrative that doesn’t overstay its welcome, and through clever twists and turns, peels away at the onion until we finally reach its center and find the lost pearl. And no — I haven’t spoiled a single frame of this marvelous movie.