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The Hunt (2020)

hunt_ver2Has there been a movie with worse luck than The Hunt? It was originally scheduled to be released in late August 2019 and was postponed after the back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton. Its studio, Blumhouse, pulled the movie out of sensitivity and rescheduled it for March, trying to draft off some of the latent controversy once President Trump caught wind of its liberals-versus-conservatives battle-to-the-death premise and tried to make political hay from it. The marketing highlighted quotes from political figures and writers and asked audiences to judge the controversy for themselves. Flash forward, and the new release date was pretty much the last weekend of theatrical action in 2020. Thanks to the worldwide spread of COVID-19, very few people ventured out from the safety of their socially distant homes to the movies, and it’s only become more dire since. Now just about every wide release has been scuttled from the release date from March into the middle of the summer, and who knows how long this may carry on for. The Hunt may be the last new theatrical movie for the foreseeable future. Thankfully, Universal made their theatrical releases available on demand (this may be an irreversible new reality of distribution) and I watched The Hunt at home. I home hunted, and I’m glad I did. If you’re a fan of Ready or Not and You’re Next, then The Hunt and its shocking violence, demented humor, and political satire might prove appealing.

A group of strangers wakes up gagged in a field. They’re given weapons and then the hunt is on from an unseen force. Crystal (Betty Gilpin) is trying to make sense of where she is, what is happening, and how she can escape into safety and who she may be able to trust.

c7f31a20-4d03-11ea-9bfd-a9714bb423baI was consistently laughing throughout The Hunt and amused at its breakneck twists and turns. It’s a film that lets you know very early that it’s willing to go to some dark and twisted places. It throws a lot of characters immediately into the grinder, as you go from following one person who is ultimately slain to another person who eventually meets the same fate, and it creates a desperation of trying to find an anchor. It also makes it feel like anything can happen at any time, that whatever might seem normal could really be hiding a dangerous reality. It’s the kind of movie that isn’t below throwing a grenade down someone’s pants. It has definite satirical sights but that doesn’t stop it from being an enjoyable dark and thrilling little movie. Once we settle on our main heroine, the new joy becomes her ability to see through the facades of different scenarios and fight back, again and again. It’s a wonderfully executed setup of giving us a very capable fighter who is constantly underestimated and then watching her opponents toppled. Each new scenario gives us someone to root for and a new mini-boss to foil. The film becomes a series of escalating payoffs tied to the smartest person making others pay for their mistakes.

I always thought the anger that conservative pundits, and Trump, assailed The Hunt with was misplaced considering that, given the premise, it seemed very much like the liberal elites were the villains. For most of the first act, this is the case, as we’re dropped right into the mix and left to learn on our own much like the hunted conservative characters. We are put in their shoes and don’t even see who may be hunting them until 15 minutes in. For the opening of the movie, it’s like the beginning of the Hunger Games. What is this crate? Why is it filled with weapons? What’s the deal with the pig? It’s a game that you’re trying to learn the rules of while bullets are whizzing by heads, and sometimes splattering into them too. Unquestionably, our allegiance is with these vulnerable people trying to make sense of this madness and survive. We see their humanity. When they do finally encounter their predators in disguise, the liberals can barely conceal their contempt and prejudices. If anyone is actively rooting for the predators after the first act, then they haven’t been paying attention or were too far gone with empathy.

However, the movie does start to take a turn the longer we spend with the hunted conservative characters, all but one not given official names (the list on IMDB cites names like Staten Island, Yoga Pants, and the parenthetically-enabled, (Shut the F*** Up) Gary). They begin to play into the same overblown prejudices and negative stereotypes of their across-the-ideological-aisle peers. As The Hunt continues, it becomes more and more apparent that screenwriters Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse (HBO’s The Leftovers) have crafted a political satire that takes aim at both sides (more on this specific aspect later). Eventually the real target reveals itself to be extremism and how it can cloud one’s judgement and ability to see other people on human levels. There’s a late scene where a conservative figure confronts the liberal designer of the Hunt, and they get into a circular argument over which side is responsible for the creation of this death game. It’s a hilarious blame game but also emblematic of what happens when people try to play on the same level as conspiracy theorists who distort reality to their pre-selected biases. Sometimes in politics you need to fight fire with fire and sometimes that extra oxygen only makes things worse.

11hunt-superJumbo-v2Now The Hunt does have an issue with its “both sides are to blame” approach and that’s the false equivalency of the danger of right-wing and left-wing conspiracy clans. Right-wing militants are the ones saying Sandy Hook was a hoax with crisis actors, that Jade Helm was a military plot to take over the states, that scientists are in a cabal to bring down the petroleum industry, and cooping Americans up from COVID-19 to damage Trump, that immigrants are bringing crime and disease into the United States, and other such nutjob ideas. While left-wing extremists can be callous and have their own science denial problems (GMOs, vaccines), they aren’t the ones taking arms, storming federal buildings, sending pipe bombs in the mail, killing anti-Nazi protestors with cars, and shooting brown-skinned strangers in a Wal-Mart parking lot. One of these two ideological sides seem far more likely to support dangerous extremism than the other, especially with a man in the Oval Office who seems to wink and nod at these reactionary elements in approval. While the “both sides are bad” approach to satire allows The Hunt and its filmmakers more ground to market their movie to a wider audience sick of extremism, it’s also a dubious false equivalency that deserves to be called out.

Betty Gilpin (Netflix’s GLOW, Stuber) is the star of the movie and a force of nature. She’s capable, cunning, disarmingly physical and perceptive, and she creates wonderfully bloody havoc. She is a delight and her one-upping her opponents never gets old. She is no-nonsense and blunt, and her efficiency is admirable and highly entertaining. Gilpin is a surprise in badass mode, but she makes it her own with style. A late Act Three fight is brutal as it goes from room to room, smashing everything in sight. It goes on for so long that the fighters start to get fatigued, pleasantly reminding me of the excellent fight choreography of 2017’s Atomic Blonde. It’s a satisfying final confrontation and doesn’t find a contrived way to hold back her formidable ability.

106072660-1565465049545the-hunt-gal-1-5d407ec97db7c-1croppedThe Hunt might have been cursed with bad luck but it also might have the distinction of being the last new movie in theaters in what is proving to be an increasingly challenged year of content delivery. It’s certainly not going to be a film for everyone despite its aim at centrism. I was entertaining by the script’s constant knack for surprises and upending my expectations, of laying out dominoes and then laying waste to said dominoes. Gilpin is a star in the making and a terrific lead. It’s a movie that can get people talking by the end, debating its satirical messages, but it can also just be a fun, nasty little movie that will make you hoot in delight with each violent twist. I’m glad The Hunt could finally be judged on its own merits rather than the presuppositions of others. There might be a lesson in there somewhere.

Nate’s Grade: B

Freedom Writers (2007)

Add this to the feel-good genre of true-life teacher-makes-a-difference movies. It is suitably well acted and uplifting and doesn’t necessarily pander even if it does hit all the expected stops of the genre. These kids have grown up in an area heavy with gang affiliations, and the film earns extra credit for dealing with the heavy reality of gangs better than most any other teacher-in-urban-setting flick. Hillary Swank relies on her mega-watt smile to communicate her character’s perseverance and idealism and does a fine job along with a strong supporting cast including Imelda Staunton as the doubtful, pessimistic, dismissive principal. Freedom Writers clings to the us-vs.-them model and builds a believable underdog tale that actually could inspire a few future educators out there. This film is cozy and familiar but it also made will skill and care.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Black Dahlia (2006)

Hey, I got an idea. How about we make a Black Dahlia movie and hardly involve anything having to do with the notorious Black Dahlia murder? I’ve got an even better idea; let’s center the action around a love triangle involving cops who are, say it with me, too close to the case. And then we’ll have a wacked out rich family where the mother (Fiona Shaw, God bless her) gives a performance that isn’t three-sheets-to-the-wind drunk, she is staggering, cataclysmically, powerfully, off-the-wall drunk. Watching her sway and sneer and hiccup is like watching Daffy Duck in this Brian DePalma mess. The central actors feel too young for their parts (the best actor is Mia Kirshner, seen briefly in an audition reel as the soon to be eviscerated Elizabeth Short), and the ending is an insipid caper to an ongoing, unsolved murder mystery. The Black Dahlia is appallingly boring and yet also appallingly dimwitted, but it does occasionally look good thanks to the technical proficiency of its director. DePalma has had a very up and down career. Consider this one of his valleys.

Nate’s Grade: D

The Reaping (2007)

Forgive me father for I have sinned… I think The Reaping is not a terrible movie. Now, that would be damning praise in most circles, but when it comes to the notoriously implausible and awful genre of religious-based horror, well then “not terrible” is worthy of being brandished in the film’s ad. All of my fellow critics need to take a step down from the pulpit and see The Reaping for what it is: mild harmless fun.

Katherine (Hilary Swank) is a professor at Louisiana State who specializes in debunking claims of religious miracles. “38 miracles and 38 scientific explanations,” she says matter-of-factly. Katherine has something of a grudge against the Big Guy, being that she used to be a minister before her husband and daughter were murdered on an overseas missionary trip. Doug (David Morrissey) has a case only that only Katherine can crack. In the sleepy town of Haven, along the Louisiana Bayou, is being beset by Old Testament style plagues. The river has turned to blood and the Bible-beating townsfolk are itching to blame a little blonde girl (AnnaSophia Robb) who they feel could be the spawn of Satan.

The Reaping starts off with tiny amounts of promise and intrigue because of Swank’s character. She?s a globetrotting spiritual investigator and a skeptic that an audience can get behind. She has a checkered history and Swank uses glances and moments to make her seem convincing. The Reaping isn’t complicated when it comes to its spiritual message. It’s all about renewal of faith, and I?m not exactly certain how all the pieces add up but that’s the gist. The Reaping isn’t too deep when it comes to thoughts of any kind, but that doesn’t mean much from a genre that requires a healthy suspension of rationale thought.

As a horror movie The Reaping relies on routine jump scares and the occasionally jump cut to a dream or a flashback in Africa with a lot of loud, abrasive sound effects to jolt the viewer. The plagues themselves are kind of weak, especially when plagues of maggots and frogs are seen as being so contained and limited. For maggots, we see a grill loaded with fish now covered in maggots. We never get any other anecdotes of what may have been reaped by the maggot plague. The frogs fall for about ten seconds and only in one part of the swamp. These pathetically isolated incidents don’t do much to ratchet up any scares and they certainly belittle the powerful wrath of the Almighty. Then again, maybe God is trying to tell people in unorthodox ways to eat less meat, thus the ruined fish and diseased cows. The plagues lack some oomph when they just happen to a handful of people, especially when it comes to lice or boils. I think the small-scale plagues really say, “We blew our budget on that river of blood, but hey, that was pretty cool right?”

I don’t think I’ll ever utter these exact words again but here goes. The Reaping is a rather so-so movie that is mostly redeemed by an implausible and foreseeable twist ending. Yes, as horror and supernatural thrillers are go, twist endings seem pretty common place and often times forced, like the studio is dictating that they need something just a little extra to fool the audience into thinking they got their money’s worth. We as a movie watching society are so attuned to twist endings now that we can sniff them out like bad CGI. Twists generally become worked into the advertising campaign. The Reaping has some last-second turns to it, and even though I had my suspicions, I was quite pleased the movie walked the path it did. In fact, I would even go as far to say that it turned a spiritually thin schlocky horror movie into a moderately enjoyable spiritually thin schlocky horror movie. This is far from a good movie, but as a dumbed down genre flick it will be like home cooking for the right audience. Now, I cannot defend the gaps in logic brought about by the twists in The Reaping, and you will be spending the rest of your day coming up with a new problem every minute (the line ?some people just don’t wanna go to heaven? takes new life). The film takes one step too far with trying to up the ante. Just know that the upcoming crisis in Katherine’s life has been solved by a little thing called Roe vs. Wade.

Director Stephen Hopkins has some stinkers to his resume, chief among them 1998’s abominable Lost in Space, so he will take kindly to having his latest film deemed “not terrible.” Swank struts around in a tank top in the balmy South, gets knee-deep in blood, and convincingly sells this nonsense as only a two-time Oscar winner can. The scares are clunky and the story is rife with lots of explaining for a 90-minute movie built around the simple concept that the devil is nasty. The Reaping will play best for fans of the religious horror genre as well as those willing to lower their expectations. This isn’t a good movie, but then again, it’s not terrible.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Million Dollar Baby, much like its fledgling female boxing character, has come out of nowhere and made a considerable deal of noise. This little homespun film directed by Clint Eastwood didn’t have the glitz and sheen of other awards friendly movies, but now it seems that Eastwood?s own baby may clean up come Oscar time. Can Million Dollar Baby tackle the enormous hype surrounding it? Yes and no.

]Frankie (Eastwood) is a hardened boxing trainer too concerned for his fighters’ welfare to allow them to fight in championship bouts. He’s the kind of cynical old man that enjoys pestering a priest and causing him to unleash an F-bomb. Frankie and his longtime friend Scrap (Morgan Freeman) run a rundown gym and talk un-sentimentally about their older days as prize fighters. Then along comes Maggie (Hilary Swank), a 32-year old waitress who’s got nothing to believe in except her possibility as a boxer. She wants Frank to train her into the champ she knows she can be. He refuses saying he doesn’t train girls. She’s so determined she won’t take no for an answer. Frank finally agrees, especially after some help from Scrap, and starts to teach Maggie everything she needs to know to be a star pugilist. The two begin to open up to each other emotionally and Maggie seems destined to become a force in the ring.

Million Dollar Baby‘s greasiest attribute is its trio of knockout performances. Swank owns every second of this movie. She’s unremittingly perky, conscientious but also dogged, stubborn, and irresistibly lovable. Swank embodies the role with a startling muscular physique and a million dollar smile. Her performance is equal parts charming and heartbreaking. Maggie’s the heart of Million Dollar Baby and Swank doesn’t let you forget it for a millisecond. Come Oscar time, I’m sure she will be walking onstage to grab her second Best Actress Oscar in five years.

No one does grizzled better than Eastwood, and maybe no other actor has made as much of an acting mark by squinting a lot. Million Dollar Baby is probably his best performance to date, though for a good while it sounds like Frank has something lodged in his throat (pride?). Frank has the greatest transformation, and Eastwood brilliantly understates each stop on the journey until landing in a vulnerable, emotionally needy place.

Freeman once again serves as a film’s gentle narrator. There isn’t a movie that can’t be made better by a Morgan Freeman performance. His give-and-take with Frank feels natural and casual to the point that it seems improvised on the spot. Freeman unloads some great monologues like he’s relishing every syllable, chief among them about how he lost his eye. It’s wonderful to watch such a great actor sink his teeth into ripe material and deliver a performance that may net him a long-awaited Oscar (I think he’s due, and likely so will the Academy).

For whatever reason, Eastwood is hitting a directing groove in his twilight years. First came Mystic River, an ordinary police whodunnit made exceptional by incredible acting. Now Eastwood follows up with Baby, an ordinary sports film made extraordinary by incredible acting. Hmmm, a pattern is forming. The cinematography is crisp and makes great use of light and shadow to convey emotion. Eastwood’s score is also appropriately delicate and somber. The boxing sequences are brief but efficient.

Million Dollar Baby is a very traditional story that is at times surprisingly ordinary. Maggie’s the scrappy underdog that just needs a chance, Frank’s the old timer that needs to find personal redemption, and Scrap?s the wise old black man. Once again, an old curmudgeon takes on a rookie and in the process has their tough facade melt away as the inevitable victories pile up. Million Dollar Baby is a very familiar story but then again most boxing tales are fairly the same in scope.

What eventually separates Million Dollar Baby from the pack is its third act twist. You think you know where Eastwood’s film is headed, especially given the well-worn terrain, but you have no clue where this story will wind up. The plot turn deepens the characters and their relationships to each other in very surprising ways. You may be flat-out shocked how much you’ve found yourself caring for the people onscreen. It almost seems like Eastwood and company have used the familiar rags-to-riches underdog drama to sucker punch an audience into Million Dollar Baby‘s final 30 minutes. We’re transported into an uncomfortable and challenging position, and Eastwood won’t let an audience turn away.

Million Dollar Baby is not the colossal masterpiece that critics have been drooling over. For one thing, the group of antagonists is not nearly as textured as our trio of leads. They’re actually more stock roles that further enforce the ordinary story of Million Dollar Baby. Maggie’s trailer trash family is lazy unsupportive batch of stereotypes. The evil female boxing champ just happens to be a German who doesn’t mind playing dirty. One of the boxers at Frank’s gym is an arrogant showboat just waiting to be nasty while the teacher’s back is turned. Million Dollar Baby excels at showing depth and humanity with its lead trio, yet it seems if you aren’t in that circle you’re doomed to wade in the shallow end.

Eastwood shows that great acting and great characters you love can elevate a common framework. The package may be similar to a lot of films before about scrappy underdogs, but Million Dollar Baby lacks comparison in its genre when it comes to its enthralling acting and characters. The father-daughter bond between Frank and Maggie is heartwarming. The final reveal of what her Gaelic boxing name means may just bring tears to your eyes. The results are a very fulfilling movie going experience, albeit one that regrettably may not live up to such hype.

Million Dollar Baby has been showered with heapings of praise and become a formidable Oscar contender. The story treads familiar waters but its outstanding acting and deep and humane characters elevate the material. The film can’t match the hyperbole of critics but Million Dollar Baby is an ordinary but greatly satisfying ride led by compelling acting. The film hums with professionalism and seems to just glide when everything comes together magnificently, particularly in that last 30 minutes. Eastwood is hitting an artistic stride and it’s actually exciting to see what Clint will do next. Million Dollar Baby may not be a first round knockout but it definitely wins by decision.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Core (2003)

I knew about 15 minutes in that The Core was not going to take its science too seriously. Aaron Eckhart, as a hunky science professor, is addressing military generals and essentially says, “We broke the Earth.” He tells them that because the Earth no longer spins (don’’t think about it, you’’ll only hurt yourself) the electromagnetic shield will dissipate and the sun will cook our planet. And just to make sure people understand the term “cook” he sets a peach on fire as an example. At this point I knew The Core was going to be a ridiculous disaster flick with its tongue firmly planted in its cheek.

Earth’’s core has stopped spinning and horrific disasters are starting to be unleashed with anything from drunken bird attacks to lightening strikes in Rome. I always love how in disaster films Mother Nature always instinctively goes after the monuments, the landmarks, the things of cultural importance. The United States government hires a ragtag group of scientists and NASA pilots to journey to the center of the Earth and jump-start our planet. Of course everything that can go wrong on this fantastic journey will eventually go wrong.

The Core is so improbable, so silly, that it ends up being guilty fun. If you let go, ignore the incredible amounts of birth imagery (the sperm-like ship tunneling through to get to the egg-like core), then the very game cast will take you for a fun ride.

There’’s a scene where the government approaches kooky scientist Delroy Lindo to build the super-ship that will take them to said core. When asked how much he thinks it’’ll cost Lindo laughs and says, “”Try fifty billion dollars.”” The government responds, “”Can you take a check?”” I was pleasantly reminded of an episode of Futurama where the space-time continuum is disrupted and time keeps skipping forward. The old scientist and a Harlem Globetrotter (it was a very funny episode) theorize that to create a machine to stop this problem they would need all the money on the Earth. Flash immediately to the two of them being handed a check that says, “All the money of the Earth.” Richard Nixon’s head, in its glass jar, then says, “Get going, you know we can’t spend All the Money on the Earth every day.”

The assembled cast is quite nice. Hilary Swank assumes a leadership role quite nicely. Eckhart is suitably hunky and dashing. Stanley Tucci is very funny as an arrogant science snob. Tcheky Karyo (the poor man’s Jean Reno) is … uh, French. I don’’t think anyone would believe that these people were the best in their fields (only in movies are scientists not old white men but hunky and sexy fun-lovin’ folk).

Director Jon Amiel (Entrapment) seems to know the preposterous nature of his film’s proceedings and amps up the campy thrills. An impromptu landing of the space shuttle in an LA reservoir is a fantastic action set piece, yet is likely the reason the film was delayed after the Columbia crash. The cornball science and steady pacing make The Core an enjoyable, if goofy ride. The film does run out of steam and goes on for 20 minutes longer than it should.

The Core is pure escapist entertainment without a thought in its head. And in dire times of war and harsh realism blaring at us every evening, there’’s nothing wrong with a little juicy escapist fair. Buy a big tub of popcorn and enjoy. Does anyone else wonder if we broke the Earth just after its 5 billion year warranty was up?

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Gift (2000)

Sam Raimi is a slick director and is maturing smoothly. The Gift is a nice ensemble pot-boiler in the South. Cate Blanchett gives a remarkable performance that was, as most were that were nominated, better than Julia. Keanu Reeves finds a role he can actually excel with in that of a wife beating redneck – he’s actually quite scary in it. Giovanni Ribisi gives the best performance of his career as a mentally challenged mechanic. The film coasts on some good atmosphere and direction by Raimi, but it is too easy to figure out the final turns in the end. And yes, Katie Holmes does get naked briefly in the movie. Enjoy, Internet.

Nate’s Grade: B

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