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Movie Reviews: New Releases for Aug. 5

Bullet Train, Luck, Thirteen Lives, Prey, I Love My Dad and more

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Brad Pitt in Bullet Train - SONY PICTURES
  • Sony Pictures
  • Brad Pitt in Bullet Train
Bullet Train **
It has been nearly 30 years since cinemas were bursting with Tarantino copycats, convinced that motor-mouthed underworld types + plenty of violence = $$$ and an unlimited cachet of cool. It wasn’t true then, and it still isn’t. Director David Leitch (Deadpool 2) and screenwriter Zak Olkewicz adapt Kōtarō Isaka’s novel set on a Tokyo-to-Kyoto high-speed train where several characters—a conscientious snatch-and-grab man (Brad Pitt); a pair of hired killers (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry); a mysterious young woman (Joey King)—are among those wreaking havoc over a briefcase full of cash, and its connection to a scary crime boss. Pitt is predictably entertaining, as he always is when given funnier stuff to do, leading a solid cast that’s full of energy. But it’s the kind of energy generated by filmmakers who are almost smugly certain of how awesome their material is because of how much stuff they’re throwing at the audience. It’s a movie that feels like one of Bill Hader’s old Stefon routines on Saturday Night Live: “This movie has everything: flashbacks, celebrity cameos, Thomas the Tank Engine, swearing children, sword fights, a snake.” For every moment when Bullet Train is funny, there are half a dozen when it’s just sweaty. Every circuitous narrative path to a big revelation just feels like you’re watching the people behind the camera smirking at each other going, “See what we did there? Pretty cool, huh?” Available Aug. 5 in theaters. (R)

Easter Sunday **1/2
There’s an episode of The Office built around Michael Scott’s failed attempts at being in an improv group, perpetually insisting that there should be a gun in every scene to make it exciting. That misguided sensibility is part of what makes this comedy so frustrating. Comedian Jo Koy plays a very thinly-disguised version of himself as Joe Valencia, a Filipino-American stand-up comic and struggling actor, who takes a trip from Los Angeles to his family home in Northern California with his teenage son (Brandon Wardell) for Easter weekend. The emotional anchor to the story involves Joe responding to the eccentricities of his extended family, just as he’s on the verge of a career breakthrough that would require him to caricature his ethnic identity—and most of that stuff works fairly well in focusing on the cultural specificity of obsessions with Manny Pacquiao, karaoke and the field of nursing. But then there’s an extended subplot involving Joe’s cousin (Eugene Cordero) being in debt to gangsters, and it always feels like a flop-sweaty attempt to inject more “consequence” like a big car chase and a life-or-death finale. As a comedy, it’s a bit clunky, but at least very earnest, and gets the human comedic adrenaline shot of Tiffany Haddish (as an old flame of Joe’s now a police officer). As a gangster caper … well, Michael Scott’s classmates were right. Available Aug. 5 in theaters. (PG-13)

Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song ***
Here’s how you know when a single song is a worthy subject for a feature-length documentary: After it’s played dozens of times over the course of two hours, you’re still not sick of it. Directors Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine are a little more expansive than that, offering a comprehensive biography of Leonard Cohen beginning with his transition from poet and novelist to songwriter in the 1960s, through all the twists and turns of his 50 year career. But the focus is on the improbable trajectory of his long-gestating song “Hallelujah”: his American label burying the release of the 1984 album Various Positions that included the original recording; the John Cale version that folded in some of Cohen’s alternate verses; the roles that both Jeff Buckley and the Shrek soundtrack played in expanding the audience so that it practically became a standard. The details are generally fascinating, and the filmmakers make use of a wide range of archival interviews, including several with journalist and Cohen fan Larry “Ratso” Sloman. Eventually the film moves back to more conventional bio-doc rhythms, addressing Cohen’s unique spiritual journey and his third act as a live performance stalwart in his 70s after years of semi-seclusion. It's still at its best exploring what it was about “Hallelujah” that touched so many hearts, making it the kind of song that you can listen to again and again and again. Available Aug. 5 in theaters. (PG-13)

James Morosini and Patton Oswalt in I Love My Dad - MAGNOLIA PICTURES
  • Magnolia Pictures
  • James Morosini and Patton Oswalt in I Love My Dad
I Love My Dad ***
It’s the cringe-iest of cringe-y high concepts, and even if it doesn’t entirely pay off with the desired emotional hook, it’s still executed nearly to perfection. Patton Oswalt play Chuck Green, a divorced dad whose long history of lies and parenting failures has inspired his adult son, Franklin (writer/director James Morosini), to cut Chuck out of his life entirely. Seeking an entry point for communication, Chuck creates a fake online identity as a young woman—and becomes the virtual object of Franklin’s affections. Morosini takes a big risk by making Franklin a recent discharge from an inpatient mental-health facility after attempted self-harm, which could have curdled Chuck’s catfishing into something potentially life-threatening. But Morosini also plays Franklin’s emotional fragility and need for connection just right, while his directing instincts—including turning Franklin’s text exchanges with “Becca” (Claudia Sulewski) into imagined in-person encounters, bypassing much of the tedium of on-screen texting—handle all of the most awkward moments. The key, though, is Oswalt’s performance, finding something sympathetic in a perpetual screw-up just trying to keep his con going. It’s tough to find the arc that shifts Chuck’s selfishness, but it’s entertaining enough watching all the bizarre scheming, and the rationalizations that can still lead people to hurt the ones they claim to love. Available Aug. 5 in theaters. (R)

Luck **1/2
The involvement of John Lasseter in Skydance Animation features brings along a whole mess of issues, including the extent to which this feels like an attempt to capture some Pixar magic—and the extent to which it succeeds or fails. Sam Greenfield (Eva Noblezada) is an 18-year-old product of the foster-care system who is now facing solo life as an adult, and struggling with her life-long conviction that all her luck is bad. Then she encounters Bob (Simon Pegg), a black cat who inadvertently leads Sam into the world where luck of all kinds is made. Director Peggy Holmes and the writing team get off to a promising start, with detailed character design—a scar on Sam’s left eyebrow as a constant reminder of her unluckiness—and some lively set pieces capturing what it feels like to go through life perpetually dealing with screw-ups. But something about the Land of Luck material just never clicks, despite the ingenuity of the Rube Goldberg-esque transportation system. None of the characters prove particularly memorable, and the journey towards what should be the emotional catharsis—Sam learning the purpose of her life-long struggles—just seems to trickle out rather than landing a gut punch. It’s a perfectly nice story with a perfectly nice message, and one that feels like early-2000s Pixar would have let it marinate longer until it was really ready to go. Available Aug. 5 via Apple TV+. (PG)

Prey ***
Franchise extensions don’t generally inspire much hope for original thinking, so credit to screenwriter Patrick Aison and director Dan Trachtenberg for taking this Predator prequel in an interesting direction that still delivers basic genre satisfaction. In 1719 North America, young Comanche woman Naru (Amber Midthunder) is trying to be taken seriously as a hunter like her brother Itsee (Harlan Blayne Kytwayhat) and the other males of her community. But she gets more than she bargained for when the latest threat in the woods takes the form of one of those dreadlocked, mandible-faced killer extraterrestrials (Dane DiLiegro). There’s another new threat, coincidentally, in the form of French fur trappers, and the filmmakers allow the metaphor—a strange, threatening new arrival with superior technology—room to breathe without underlining it. The cultural context for the story also includes the idea of a female not being viewed as a genuine threat—either by the Predator, the French or Naru’s own people—and Midthunder makes the most of that simmering disrespect with a strong physical performance. Bottom line, though, is that Prey proves pretty fun as a survive-the-alien-invasion adventure, particularly when it focuses on Naru’s intelligence and resourcefulness as key components in her chances to best her foes. Action movies with a message go down much easier when the action actually works. Available Aug. 5 via Hulu. (R)

They/Them **1/2
I should not hold it against veteran screenwriter John Logan’s debut directing feature that he seems unconcerned with interrogating the genre he’s working in, but it feels like too much of a missed opportunity to overlook. It’s set at a “conversion camp,” where several queer youth—including non-binary teen Jordan (Theo Germaine)—are set to spend a week under the initially benign-seeming supervision of Owen Whistler (Kevin Bacon). Oh, and there might also be a masked killer on the loose. Logan finds his strongest material in the increasingly-cruel “therapies” to which the campers are subjected, most disturbingly in Jordan’s one-on-one session with Owen’s wife (Carrie Preston). This is, however, ultimately a slasher movie set at a camp in the woods, but despite a casual reference to Friday the 13th, Logan does virtually nothing with the specifically reactionary nature of ’80s serial-killer horror movies, and what to do with the “final girl” trope when you’re dealing with gender nonconforming people. It’s a potentially interesting notion that the horrors of tearing down a human psyche are worse than the on-screen murders, but the choice renders the slasher material dull and rushed. They/Them takes a compassionate approach the emotional damage caused by trying to “cure” queer kids; it just feels a bit unsteady about connecting that idea to the pop-culture iconography of a masked killer in the woods. Available Aug. 5 via Peacock. (R)

Thirteen Lives **
See feature review. Available Aug. 5 via Amazon Prime. (PG-13)