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Film Reviews: New Releases for Aug. 25

Gran Turismo, Retribution, The Hill, Vacation Friends 2, Golda and more


Liam Neeson in Retribution - LIONSGATE FILMS
  • Lionsgate Films
  • Liam Neeson in Retribution
Golda ***
I’m trying to imagine the reaction to Golda of people who weren’t having any of Oppenheimer’s “my God, what have I done” character study, because that’s virtually the entirety of director Guy Nattiv’s feature. It covers the month of the 1973 Yom Kippur war, as Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (Helen Mirren) wrestles with the responsibility for her choices—delaying preemptive action when intelligence suggests an attack from Egypt and Syria is imminent; approving specific military operations; attempting to wrangle assistance from U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (Liev Schreiber)—even as she endures treatment for cancer. Mirren’s performance proves perfectly solid, perhaps at its best when Meir grumpily deals with the fact that she’s not treated with the same respect as male predecessors. But the centerpiece sequences involve the bold choice to present military actions exactly as Meir would have experienced them—through radio transmissions, anxiously awaiting indication of victory or defeat. Nattiv commits fully to “heavy hangs the head that wears the crown” material, and it gets a little overwrought in sequences like the one where Meir has a hallucinatory nightmare about receiving terrifying phone calls. Material like this will inevitably feel to some like it’s far too generous to people making life-and-death decisions; it’s still compelling trying to get inside the head of those who make them. Available Aug. 25 in theaters. (PG-13)

Gran Turismo ***

See feature review. Available Aug. 25 in theaters. (PG-13)

The Hill: The Rickey Hill Story **
It’s hard not to feel like some “inspirational” movies would be better if they weren’t trying so hard to be inspirational. This fact-based drama tells the story of Rickey Hill (Colin Ford), born with a degenerative spinal disorder and that placed him in leg braces for most of his childhood, but determined to pursue his dream of being a baseball player, contrary to the wishes of his minister father (Dennis Quaid). The screenplay hits plenty of underdog-sports-movie buttons on the way to Rickey’s tryout for a grizzled big-league scout (Scott Glenn), leaning heavily into the father-son conflict with some interesting ideas about overly-narrow perspectives on interpreting “God’s plan.” But it also feels like director Jeff Celentano came to the set after watching The Natural 10 times in a row, making sure every possible moment includes golden magic-hour cinematography and a mix of sentimental/triumphal background music from composer Geoff Zanelli. It all gets most frustrating during Rickey’s tryout, as ex-baseball player/current announcer John Smoltz is tasked with repeating the hardships Rickey has had to overcome—and that we’ve just watched—several times in a row, as though there were an Oscar category for Best Gilding of the Lily. Throw in a lot of blandly functional performances, and a blandly functional romantic subplot, and mostly you’re left with a movie where being inspirational is mistaken for being persperational. Available Aug. 25 in theaters. (PG)

Retribution ***
Liam Neeson has spent so much of the past 20 years playing interchangeable growling badasses that it feels improbably satisfying when he’s just a guy in a crazy situation. In this remake of a 2015 Spanish thriller, he’s Matt Turner, a banker based in Germany who winds up trapped in his car with his two kids (Jack Champion and Lilly Aspell) when he receives a call that the vehicle has been wired with a bomb that will detonate if any of the passengers get out. The premise could have played out like a considerably less propulsive variation on Speed, pivoting on a “distracted businessman who ignores his family” character arc between Matt and his wife (Embeth Davidtz, reunited with Neeson 30 years after Schindler’s List). Fortunately, director Nimród Antal keeps the action moving crisply, while Alberto Marini’s script offers just enough curve balls to keep things interesting. It’s even compelling when it stops dead in its tracks for several minutes, thanks largely to Noma Dumezweni’s terrific performance as a police inspector radiating simple, controlled confidence. It ultimately feels like the story chickens out on its subtext involving corporate greed, especially when using student protests for a set piece. But I’ll take a sturdy genre piece that allows Neeson to show off more than the same old particular set of skills. Available Aug. 25 in theaters. (PG-13)

Vacation Friends 2 - 20TH CENTURY STUDIOS
  • 20th Century Studios
  • Vacation Friends 2
Vacation Friends 2 **
The original 2021 Vacation Friends wasn’t particularly good, partly because the filmmakers didn’t seem to understand that the central conflict—between normies Marcus (Lil Rel Howrey) & Emily (Yvonne Orgi), and their agents-of-chaos counterparts Ron (John Cena) & Kyla (Meredith Hagner)—needed to be served up without too many other extraneous distractions. So what did they learn for the sequel? Apparently, to add even more extraneous distractions. This time around, Marcus invites Ron and Kyla to join them on a Caribbean trip that will also involve Marcus having an important pitch for his construction company with a potential hotel-company client, which naturally means that chaos ensues, mostly in the form of Kyla’s shady ex-con dad Reese (Steve Buscemi) dropping in. There’s the hint of a good idea in the boisterous Ron becoming nervous and insecure around his father-in-law, and Cena seemingly has boundless comedic energy. But the elaborate plot involving Reese’s entanglement with drug dealers simply distracts from the Marcus/Ron dynamic, as does dragging along the original film’s hotel manager Maurilio (Carolos Santos) as Ron and Kyla’s nanny, or assuming we care at all about Marcus and Emily’s plans for parenthood. The clash between a Type-A personality and enthusiastic anarchy is what a movie like this is selling, and it keeps refusing to look for it in the most obvious place. Available Aug. 25 via Hulu. (R)

What Comes Around **
It’s certainly possible that Scott Organ’s play The Thing With Feathers had more emotional intensity and basic plausibility in its theatrical incarnation, but it feels like there’s a whole lot missing in this mix of Organ’s adapted screenplay and Amy Redford’s directing. In a sleepy mountain town, almost-17-year-old Anna (Grace Van Dien) meets older guy Eric (Kyle Gallner) in an online chat room, and their flirtation promises to turn into an actual relationship when they meet in person—except that Anna’s single mother Beth (Summer Phoenix) has some fairly serious objections. Organ’s narrative takes some provocative twists and turns, most of which are not possible to address in a non-spoilery way. But what follows from some of those twists and turns simply doesn’t make sense within the constraints of an 84-minute running time, including a montage that fails to make a convincing case for Anna more or less shrugging off a fairly significant revelation. It doesn’t help that the casting stacks the deck right off the bat, with Gallner’s version of Eric coming off as so immediately creepy that it’s almost impossible not to suspect that something is up. And the actual thematic point of this story doesn’t seem to go any deeper than the choice that was made in selecting the new title for this movie version. Available Aug. 25 in theaters. (NR)

You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah ***1/2
Any year with Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. in it was already going to be a great year for adolescent girl coming-of-age movies, but this adaptation of Fiona Rosenbloom’s 2005 novel keeps the magic happening from a surprising source: Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison production company, and a breakout lead role for Sandler’s daughter. Sunny Sandler plays Stacy Friedman, a 7th-grader whose dream of a perfect bat mitzvah goes into a tailspin when she starts feuding with her life-long best friend Lydia (Samantha Lorraine). Director Sammi Cohen and screenwriter Alison Peck have plenty of fun with the story’s cultural specificity—including Sarah Sherman as the quirky rabbi teaching the young Hebrew school students—and the awkward push-pull of the relationship between a soon-to-be-teen and her parents (Adam Sandler and Idina Menzel), fluctuating between childlike silliness and teen seriousness. Mostly, it’s a wonderful showcase for the young Sandler, who steals the show with effortless charisma and a sense for how to represent the cusp of adulthood in all its discovery, mistake-making, humiliation and elation. The narrative has the wisdom to apply rom-com tropes like the climactic run through the streets to what is essentially a soro-mance between BFFs, but the reason it all works is a central performance filled with joy and earned on talent, not merely nepotism. Available Aug. 25 via Netflix. (PG-13)