True to form, Labor Day weekend arrives with not much to talk about (though I have Sundance thoughts on one new release – Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul). If anything, seeing Jaws in IMAX should be the main priority, but there are some smaller options out there. This set of reviews includes a hostage thriller, a Stallone superhero movie, an update on an old horror tale, a post-WWII action film, an animal-based drama, and a buddy comedy. The following features reviews for Breaking, Samaritan, The Invitation, Burial, Gigi & Nate, and Me Time.
The Setup: When Marine Veteran Brian Brown-Easley (John Boyega) is denied support from Veterans Affairs, financially desperate and running out of options, he takes a bank and several of its employees hostage, setting the stage for a tense confrontation with the police.
Review: The power of the threat of violence is a big part of Breaking, a ripped-from-the-headlines story focused on the plight of Brian Brown-Easley. Boyega is excellent as a Marine and war veteran pushed to the edge due to financial issues related to the poor service of Veteran Affairs. This comes in addition to the mental scars he’s suffered. I’ve already mentioned violence, but that’s not coming at the hands of Brian; it’s the looming threat of the forces beyond his control.
Brian may be holding two bank managers (Nicole Beharie and Selenis Leyva) hostage inside of a Wells Fargo, threatening to blow up the whole building if he is not given his proper dues, but this is the same man who does not dare end a sentence without saying thank you, let alone apologizing to these civilians every step of the way. The man is no sociopath, but director Abi Damaris Corbin is still looking to generate discomfort in the viewer.
As noted, Boyega is terrific here, along with Michael K. Williams (in his final performance) as a sympathetic hostage negotiator. Both actors are playing characters knowing the possible outcomes for a black man that has pushed himself into a situation like this. Between the lack of patience in this scenario and the rhetoric surrounding the treatment of veterans, this is very much a film looking to highlight known issues.
Fortunately, Breaking is not too showy when hitting its major beats. For all the ticks Brian may have, Boyega shows plenty of restraint, only going bigger when the film requires certain moments to land with more of an impact. Lasting as long as it needs to, the choice to show how unorganized this situation can be regarding the police/news response may be irritating but also sits in the space of plausibility.
While a little too lacking in frills to be the next Dog Day Afternoon, Breaking does plenty with its suspense and emotional underpinnings to work as a thriller and a compelling commentary.
Where To Watch: Now playing in select theaters.
The Setup: Thirteen-year-old Sam Cleary (Javon “Wanna” Walton) suspects that his mysterious and reclusive neighbor Mr. Smith (Sylvester Stallone) is actually a superhero thought to be dead, hiding in plain sight. With crime on the rise and the city on the brink of chaos, Sam makes it his mission to coax his neighbor out of hiding to save the city from ruin.
Review: Now and again, people not wanting to rely on the major comic brands throw their hats into the ring to deliver a superhero film of their own. These are generally in a smaller budget range and, at their best, can offer something exciting and grittier than the norm. Samaritan is in a zone that fits for today as well as the 90s era of comic book movies. It’s not particularly good, but it has interesting questions on its mind and digs into some messy fun in its final stretch. A shame it just couldn’t deliver on all that it set up.
For his part, Stallone is fine here. It’s not exactly a film where he gets the chance to stretch his abilities, but even as an actor who operates well within a specific range, there’s not as much introspection on display as I would have liked to see. Is he having fun? Sure. Could the film have explored his character’s position through a dynamic other than a young fan badgering him to bring back the old days? Easily.
I understand having a gateway character, but this is such well-worn territory that it was difficult to latch onto the needs of a young boy meeting his hero when I was far more intrigued by how Samaritan works and the nature of the powers held by him and his archnemesis (named Nemesis).
Introducing Granite City and the sources of evil that inhabit it, I wanted to know more about what they were all about. Pilou Absæk is an effective character actor who is also quite tall and imposing. This film should be using more of that to its advantage. Instead, we merely get his basics and wonder how he could fight an indestructible man for more than five seconds. Of course, if the film gave us more to understand about Stallone’s role, perhaps these are areas that could be worked out.
Director Julius Avery (Overlord) can direct a film. Some areas in Samaritan reflect what I’ve seen from him in the past. The story, however, never quite finds the rhythm for how to best comment on its ideas. It’s not without merit, but I’m not sure I saw maximum effort from this brooding hero.
Where To Watch: Now streaming on Prime Video.
The Setup: After her mother’s death and having no other known relatives, Evie (Nathalie Emmanuel) takes a DNA test and discovers a long-lost cousin she never knew she had. Invited by her newfound family to a lavish wedding in the English countryside, she’s at first seduced by the aristocrat host but is soon thrust into a nightmare of survival as she uncovers twisted secrets in her family’s history.
Review: This is the sort of late-August Screen Gems release that would have benefitted from really going for it. As a twist on Bram Stoker’s Dracula (modern setting, with a young black woman as the main character), there’s a version of this film that fully embraces its sense of campiness that comes with an R-rating (The Invitation is rated PG-13). It’s not that a harsher rating makes a film better, but the intent certainly becomes clearer absent the cuts made to maximize box office potential.
As it stands, The Invitation is watchable. Relying on a fish-out-of-water approach to a gothic tale of creepy relatives from another country, Evie’s story remains engaging, even as it becomes more and more predictable. Perhaps it’s due to the notion that there will be a payoff. Never mind the frequent jump scares attempting to sour the experience, the film is still waiting to unleash its turn to the vampiric side of things.
Naturally, once the film drops the game being played to reveal the truth of the matter, there’s more fun to be had. However, even in this section of the film, there’s this notion of hoping the characters actually explore the dark side of things, as it seems more interesting. Vampires have long held the interest of moviegoers, so why not dabble in characters actually wanting to submit to being a full-time creature of the night?
Of course, suppose The Invitation simply wanted to create a scenario involving Evie the Vampire Slayer. In that case, that’s all well and good too, but the film (based likely on budget) only has so many ways to dig into this concept. There’s a spirit here that makes Jessica M. Thompson’s directorial effort not entirely throwaway. Still, the movie never quite establishes greater stakes.
Where To Watch: Now playing in theaters.
The Setup: Set during the waning days of World War II, a small band of Russian soldiers are tasked with delivering the crated remains of Hitler back to Stalin in Russia. En route, the unit is attacked by German “Werewolf” partisans and picked off one by one. An intrepid female intelligence officer (Charlotte Vega) leads her surviving comrades in a last stand to ensure their cargo doesn’t fall into the hands of those who would hide the truth forever.
Review: There’s a fun grindhouse story baked into this WWII thriller, yet Burial is not out to turn this into a fun romp. Instead, we watch a reasonably serious approach go down, and it’s all too willing to stay in that zone once the potential of a horror twist goes away. Sure, there are the horrors of war to be concerned with, let alone a psychological aspect that informs characters in the film’s first half, but the struggle to keep every idea afloat ends up dragging the movie down a peg.
However, this is still a neat little flick concerning a small group doing all they can to deliver the remains of Hitler to Stalin. I don’t see stories like this all the time, and while there’s no sense of self-awareness, there is an appropriate amount of tension, along with a prolonged action finale, to really keep things interesting.
With a clear conflict, director/writer Ben Parker makes sure to deliver from a technical standpoint. Produced at what must be a fairly modest budget, Burial still looks pretty great, using the country locations to capitalize on the atmosphere. From a production design standpoint, there’s lots to admire about how this film manages to commit to the time period while still serving as a gripping thriller pushing historical fiction in a clever way.
Given the bookends of the film, which serve as a clear stance on fascism, even while providing glimpses at directions that could have been taken, the choice has been made to respect the messaging. Brutal as it may be, Burial wants to show it understands evil and hopes this intriguing survival tale is a good display of what it is to fight back.
Where To Watch: Available in theaters and on VOD starting September 2, 2022.
The Setup: The story of Nate Gibson (Charlie Rowe), a young man whose life is turned upside down after he suffers a near-fatal illness and is left a quadriplegic. Moving forward seems near impossible until he meets his unlikely service animal, Gigi — a curious and intelligent capuchin monkey. Although she is trained to assist Nate with his basic needs, Gigi helps Nate find what he needs most: hope.
Review: From the world of good intentions, here’s the story of a boy and his monkey, based on a real relationship. Gigi & Nate would serve as a swell coming-of-age drama about rebuilding oneself if this movie was all about what its first half delivered on. That’s not the case, however, and that’s unfortunate.
Taking its time to establish the characters, with a supporting lineup that includes Marcia Gay Harden, Jim Belushi, and Diane Ladd, director Nick Hamm seems to have a winning (if a bit sentimental) film on his hands. But then, right in the middle of the film, is a rude, middle-aged white lady picking on our hero in a grocery store. She starts going on a tear about animal rights, and the film becomes all about a message – placing people in need that have found help through their service animals against animal activists.
Whether or not there’s a stance that needs to be taken is beside the point, as the film does next to nothing to humanize the cause against Nate and his capuchin. Frankly, the movie just becomes less good. The relationships built between Nate and his parents, siblings, and Gigi suffer as the viewer is forced to watch cartoonishly evil adversaries try to have their way. There’s a time and place for stories like this, but this was not that place, given what was working as a straightforward drama.
I could have gone along with the easygoing story of two individuals coming together for inspired reasons. Instead, I got a load of monkey trouble that wasn’t worth it.
Where To Watch: Available in theaters starting September 2, 2022.
The Setup: With his family away, a stay-at-home dad (Kevin Hart) enjoys his first me-time in years by reconnecting with an old friend (Mark Wahlberg) for a wild weekend that may upend his life.
Review: Credit where it is due – Kevin Hart and Mark Wahlberg make for a better pairing than Hart and Harrelson, as seen in the previous Netflix dud, The Man From Toronto. That’s faint praise, however, as Me Time is a bad film. Playing on an R-rating that affords this Jon Hamburg comedy the chance to go big and broad, it wastes nearly every opportunity to build any great set pieces based around these buddies getting into wacky shenanigans.
Not helping are the character choices. Hart playing the overworked stay-at-home dad feels like a sketch premise, but it’s dragged the full 90 minutes, so we can watch everything go out of control in various ways that never feel connected. Meanwhile, this is my least favorite version of Wahlberg – self-confident and too cool for it all. The fact that he’s named “Huck Dembo” is about the only clever thing about him.
Even when looking past the characters, why must there always be some sort of ridiculous crime boss plot inserted into these kinds of movies? The idea of creating a race against time through the threat of physical violence is such an odd touch to these modern comedies. It’s only made worse by having perfectly acceptable, alternate plotlines involving Hart’s wife, played by Regina Hall, let alone the ridiculous circumstance involving the giant turtle featured on the film’s poster.
Regardless of my gripes, I’m sure this will be another highly watched film according to Netflix’s invisible metrics. I can only hope that allows Hart to make better choices for whatever ridiculous high concept is being cooked up for him next.
Where To Watch: Now streaming on Netflix.