The wall has been unblocked, and, for better or worse, theaters in America are now open. I have no idea if I’ll be seeing New Mutants any time soon, but I still have a regular batch of reviews based around what’s out there on various streaming platforms, as well as theaters, and some drive-ins. This week’s reviews include a survival thriller, a British horror-comedy, a gorilla-centric biopic, a look at early 20th-century racism, a coming-of-age story, and a classic noir. The following features reviews for Centigrade, Get Duked, The One and Only Ivan, The 24th, Words on Bathroom Walls, and a retro look back at The Hitch-Hiker.
The Setup: Set in 2002 and based on a true story, Centigrade focuses on a young American couple, Naomi (Genesis Rodriguez) and Matthew (Vincent Piazza), who pulled over to the side of the road, while driving through the arctic mountains of Norway, and are now buried underneath layers of snow. To add a further complication, Naomi is eight months pregnant. With dwindling supplies, these two will have to keep from fighting in favor of working together to figure out how to survive and hopefully escape their frozen prison.
Review: In terms of premise, the concept of being stuck in a location and needing to find a way to survive goes about as far as the filmmaker’s imagination. As I understand it, this story is essentially an amalgamation of a few stories. That’s not really an issue, but it can account for the numerous dramatic events that take place during this film. It’s a shame, however, that director Brendan Walsh can only conjure up so much suspense in a movie that needs to the stakes to feel dire.
As the title suggests, the temperatures outside of the car are low, serving as at least part of the reason why the thought isn’t to immediately break a window and dig their way out. At the same time, while told of the repercussions of opening a window, that threat never quite registers. Even the basic presence of these characters, beyond lapses in judgment, doesn’t seem to properly register life or death. Perhaps I’m suggesting something too dramatic, but the level of despair wasn’t catching on for me.
Not helping was an issue I found similar to hurt my experience watching Open Water way back in 2004. In that film, a couple who go scuba diving are left behind in shark-infested waters. The problem there – while realistic, I found the couple to be very annoying as characters. Centigrade doesn’t quite get to that level, but I also can’t say I was endeared to Matthew and Naomi. For what it’s worth, Rodriguez has the more challenging role and does the best she can with it.
For 85 minutes, there’s a tense situation presented, yet the film doesn’t quite register as genuinely terrifying. Not that I expected a full-on thrill ride (these are just people stuck in a car), but Walsh doesn’t quite find all the ways needed to deliver a tight, claustrophobic work of suspense. There are some nice touches, but the film left me a little cold.
Where To Watch: Available in Theaters, Digital, and On Demand, August 28, 2020.
The Setup: Four city boys, including three delinquents and one goody-two-shoes, are sent/forced out on a character-building camping trip in the Scottish Highlands that emphasizes team-building, among other positive qualities. Unexpectedly, the boys soon find themselves trying to escape a mysterious huntsman (Eddie Izzard), while the police trail behind, providing no help whatsoever.
Review: This is not the first comedic riff I’ve seen on The Most Dangerous Game, but it’s at least the most entertaining version I’ve seen since maybe Severance. There’s a real sense of chaotic energy felt throughout this film, which I give credit to writer/director Ninian Doff, whose music video background informs the movie by way of slick visual choices, music cues, and the spirited performances from both the younger cast members, as well as the older ones.
While not quite the accomplishment that is Attack the Block, Get Duked does take the vibe and some of the class-based satire from that film and shoves it into the woods (the film’s original title was actually Boyz in the Wood). As we watch these supposed hoodlums having fun with each other, calling out the craziness of their situation, and finding ways to go toe-to-toe with their would-be attackers, I couldn’t help but be caught up in the fun being had in this film.
It helps that the dynamic of the boys is fun. They may be troublesome, but Samuel Bottomley, Rian Gordon, Lewis Gribben, and Viraj Juneja do the job in creating a group of teens who can hold the screen. Having Izzard, Kate Dickie, and others around to be in on the joke of the film helps as well. When you can build comedic moments around things ranging from shocking violence to cosmic coincidences, it only helps to like the glue that is holding those parts together.
It doesn’t hurt to not the role hip-hop plays in this film, as Doff’s background is in music. For this film, thanks to a number of inspired sequences, including one infused with hallucinogenics, there’s a lot of ways the film essentially pumps up the viewer’s excitement amidst the madness on screen. That’s an interesting level of control in making something valuable out of a film serving as a thriller, comedy, and social commentary all in one.
Where To Watch: Available on Amazon Prime Video, August 28, 2020.
The Setup: A gorilla named Ivan (voiced by Sam Rockwell) lives in an enclosure at Big Top Mall, where he performs circus tricks for his owner Mack (Bryan Cranston) in front of a live audience, alongside other animal performers. When a new baby elephant arrives (Brooklyn Prince), Ivan finds himself having to confront his past using his abilities to paint, eventually leading to thought of being freed from captivity.
Review: The most interesting thing about The One and Only Ivan is how it functions as a biopic. In this case, the subject is a gorilla as opposed to a (random example) white guy with a disability, but the structure is about the same. We get a sense of who Ivan is, what his talents and limits are, an understanding of the tragedies in his life, and an eventual drive towards his ultimate accomplishment. There’s no inherent shortcoming in that structure, but it is up to the film to make that enjoyable.
Fortunately, it is interesting, as well as well-meaning, and the kind of heartwarming that is fitting for the family audience this Disney+ release was designed for. The fact that I have less to say about the special effects involved to bring this animal characters to life is not because they are not impressive, but because it all feels par for the course at this point. Yes, the work was done to incorporate various animal characters (who all have celebrity voices, which also include Angelina Jolie, Danny DeVito, and Helen Mirren, among others), but there’s a low-key charm to how singular this whole thing feels, given Ivan’s location.
Based on a true story, which was turned into a novel, I’m aware some details are added, but I’m more aware of the alteration of Cranston’s character. As one would expect, the reality of the situation paints Mac as a less than genuine person. Staying true to this would give the film a darker spirit, but I don’t fault Disney for not trying to drive the intended audience away by giving into more ugliness. Instead, there’s actually nuance to look at by making Mac more sympathetic in his intentions, despite brushing up against being a stern taskmaster (though not cruel to his animals).
This all makes for a suitably entertaining package of a film that can easily be enjoyed on a family movie night, or wherever. The voice cast does their job, and I’m always happy to hear Rockwell bouncing around somewhere, even if Ivan never quite dances. For 90 minutes, The One and Only Ivan puts on a nice show.
Where To Watch: Available on Disney+.
The Setup: A docudrama recounting the events leading up to and showing the Huston Riot of 1917. The all-black Twenty-Fourth United States Infantry Regiment was put through brutal violence and abuse at the hands of police officers, only to form a mutiny that lasted two hours, leading to the largest murder trial in history.
Review: Kevin Willmott has had a good run with Spike Lee for the past several years, which includes an Oscar win for BlacKkKlansman. I’d already be interested in seeing a portrayal of this moment in American history, but I can’t deny being more interested based on Willmott’s work as a director here. I just find it unfortunate that the film doesn’t find a better way to show the story of these men beyond repeating the same beats until the inevitable confrontation and conclusion.
There is an interesting gateway into the film by way of Boston (Trai Byers, who co-wrote the screenplay with Willmott). As a light-skinned soldier, he’s treated differently by everyone, which further complicates the struggles of watching this group deal with a town making things as terrible as possible. However, beyond a few other black characters (most notably a terrific Mykelti Williamson), there’s not much of a chance to get into the humanity of these characters.
Even with a romantic subplot, the presence of certain standout characters on both sides of corruption, including the evil policeman and the tough but warm presence of Thomas Haden Church as Colonel Norton, I still could shake the feeling that I needed more. As it stands, the film comes off as the kind of history lesson that is useful but serves more as a statement explaining a dark chapter of America that white people should feel guilty about.
Now, I don’t believe films like this are not useful. Just the other day, there’s already been another event to further give backing to the Black Lives Matter movement, which no doubt plays into what this film is attempting to tackle. At the same time, seeing so much brutality without the sort of flare or skill needed to better showcase those elements yet still preserve a sense of life to go with it, means having a film that can seem powerful, yet still feel empty.
The heavy-handedness is almost outdone by the harrowing moments seen in the riots, let alone the sense of tragedy found in the final endpoint for these characters. As there is plenty of skill on display, The 24th gets the credit where it is due. Still, even with the baked-in relevance that comes with a film like this, these men of honor only accomplish so much cinematically.
Where To Watch: Available at Virtual Cinemas, on Digital, and On Demand.
The Setup: Based on a YA novel, Adam (Charlie Plummer) is a witty and introspective young man who is diagnosed with schizophrenia during his senior year in high school. A violent event forces him to change schools, where he chooses to keep his illness a secret until he can enroll in culinary school, as cooking is a way for him to stay focused. At this new school, he meets the intelligent and outspoken Maya (Taylor Russell), and the two fall for each other. Over time, however, the efforts Adam has gone through to keep his condition a secret will find a way of coming out.
Review: When it comes to these sorts of coming-of-age stories, there tends to be some kind of additional hook to go along with the quirky character types and the romantic element. In this case, Adam’s schizophrenia is brought to life in the form of three imaginary friends (AnnaSophia Robb, Devon Bostick, and Lobo Sebastian), who each represent different emotional states. That’s a clever touch, even if it makes the film feel like it rides hard on a gimmick to achieve a way of standing out.
It’s important to note this, as Words on Bathroom Walls is fine. It gets by on the strength of its lead performers, with support from Andy Garcia as a wise priest and Molly Parker as Adam’s mom. The overall story is not only reasonably predictable but unfortunately reliant on holding back information from the audience to make certain reveals land harder (this is basically the entire reason for the typically great Walton Goggins to feel so unattached throughout the film).
Still, Plummer’s performance is strong enough. He was terrific in Lean on Pete, and this film finds a different way to capitalize on his skills by having him play into his mental illness, without taking it to the kind of level that seems more geared towards showing off. Similarly, Russell plays well as the sort of character that is slowly allowed to reveal more layers, which bonds the two as people who are more connected than they may seem. It’s just a shame there was no way to get around an ending that feels far too squeaky clean when all is said and done.
The poster for this film seems like an over-exaggeration of the romantic aspect of this feature. As it actually stands, Words on Bathroom Walls works as a character drama with enough quirk to make for a decent enough YA adaptation.
Where To Watch: Available in Theaters.
The Setup: Ida Lupino’s classic film noir is about two men, Roy and Gilbert (Edmund O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy), heading out on a fishing trip, only to pick up a hitch-hiker, Emmett Myers (William Talman), who reveals himself to be a psychopathic killer on the run from the cops. Forcing the men, at gunpoint, to drive him to Mexico, Emmett makes them aware he plans to kill them once they arrive, but insists on toying with them throughout the journey. Based on a true story, the film was advertised once as 70 minutes of suspense.
Review: Right off the bat, I have to say I viewed this film as part of a recently released box set of Lupino’s films. It features a new restoration that has it looking better than ever. I should know, as I’ve only ever seen the cruder versions of this film, which has been available in the public domain forever. It’s necessary to point out, as the film is very well made and a lot stronger than some may think, if they’ve only ever seen a rundown version of the film.
The premise is straightforward, but there is so much accomplished by establishing this dynamic early on and letting the film ratchet up the tension with Emmett’s efforts to mess with his hostages. Talman has a great character actor face, complete with a dodgy eye he uses to his advantage. It makes for a sinister level of cruelty on his part, as we certainly feel for these two guys who have inadvertently ended up in such an extreme situation.
With minimal setup, enough can be gleaned from how all of these men behave, and even the details about why Emmett is the way he is only do so much compared to his facial ticks and the dialogue he uses towards the others. This is stripped-down filmmaking at its finest when it comes to a crafty crime thriller, but actress-turned-director Lupino shows even more going on in terms of seeing this film as a study of masculinity.
That’s a neat touch given how untraditional a film noir The Hitch-Hiker is. Rather than surround these characters with a claustrophobic city, we are looking at the southwestern desert and small villages. The nighttime is balanced heavily by the blinding heat, and yet the isolation still remains vital. Even the question of what life means is continuously challenged by two separate parties fighting for it in different ways.
There’s a lot to like about a film like this, and with a runtime of just over an hour, anyone interested in mystery thrillers of the past can have a great time seeing how this one plays out.
Where To Watch: Available on Amazon Prime Video, Vudu, and Kanopy.