Michael Compton covers popular movies as the film critic for the Daily News.

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'2 Hearts' too hokey for its own good

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"2 Hearts" has its heart in the right place. It's too bad it's a film that relies way too much on clichés and tropes, ultimately asking the audience to suspend disbelief in ways that are physically impossible.

"2 Hearts" is essentially two Nicholas Sparks movies rolled into one with parallel love stories taking place throughout the film. In one story a Cuban exile with a medical condition named Jorge (Adan Canto) meets a flight attendant named Leslie (Radha Mitchell) and the two quickly develop a romance.

At the same time, a young college student named Chris (Jacob Elordi) develops a friendship with a classmate named Sam (Tiera Skovbye)  - a friendship that the young man soon realizes is much more.

Both stories unfold in a rather predictable manner, with Chris serving as the narrator (a decision that really hinders the pacing of the film).

To the credit of the four leads they all do an adequate job with the material they are given. Even though "2 Hearts" is based on a true story, the screenplay consistently feels like it is stretching the lines of credibility.

It all builds to a narrative decision that is so jarring it undermines everything before it. It's not just a misstep it is a colossal attempt to cheat the audience that the decision is unforgivable.

At that point nothing else that happens in "2 Hearts" matters because the curtain has been drawn back and the wizard has been exposed as a manipulative fraud. 

It's unfortunate because "2 Hearts" had the potential to work, but this end result is nothing more than a glorified Hallmark Channel movie of the week.

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"War with Grandpa" mildly enjoyable kid fare

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"The War with Grandpa" is the kind of family film that in non-pandemic times would have slipped in, and out, of theaters with very little fanfare.

But in a market place where family films are skipping theatrical release and going straight to streaming, "Grandpa" gets added attention - only heightened by a cast that includes Robert De Niro, Uma Thurman, and Christopher Walken (no really).

Those names are enough to peak any filmgoers curiosity, but is this a family film for the whole family?

I'll concede I am not the target audience for "Grandpa," but it did manage to exceed my low expectations - to a point.

In "Grandpa" De Niro plays Ed who decides to move in with his daughter Sally (Thurman) and her family. At first Sally's son Peter (Oakes Fegley) is happened to have his grandpa move in. The mood quickly changes when Ed moves into Peter's room, relegating Peter to the attic. 

Determined to get his room back, Peter wages war on Ed concocting a series of pranks with his friends designed to convince his grandfather to move out.

"The War with Grandpa" was directed by Tim Hill, who has plenty of experience with family films. And for a while Hill manages to keep things moving along at a zippy, although predictable, pace.

The best moments come early, when "Grandpa" focuses on its respective leading characters friendships. Scenes with Peter and his friends in the school lunch room and scenes with Ed hanging out with his friends (Walken and Cheech Marin) have an easy going charm that at least allowed me to invest in the characters (and wonder why everyone from De Niro to Thurman to Jane Seymour agreed to be in this film).

But once the 'war' actually begins, "Grandpa" gets repetitive and unoriginal - coming off like a second rate "Home Alone" rip-off. It all builds to a final act that includes a message that is totally out of place.

If "Grandpa" could have delivered more low key moments and less juvenile slapstick I think it could have been a pleasant surprise. As it is, it's a film that children will likely enjoy - but parents will quickly lose patience with.

"Rent-a-Pal" a creepy and effective thriller

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"Rent-a-Pal" is the kind of film that really has stayed in my mind since my initial viewing.

That's because writer/director Jon Stevenson has crafted an effective and creepy psychological horror - a film that understands how to blur the lines of reality and create a tone that leaves the audience anxious to see what will happen next.

"Rent-a-Pal" takes place in the early 90's with David (Brian Landis Folkins) a lonely bachelor who is still living at home so he can care for his mother Lucille (Kathleen Brady) who is suffering from dementia.

David desperately wants to find a partner, so he goes to a video dating service to find the right companion. While at the dating service he discovers a strange VHS tape called "Rent-a-Pal." This tape is an interactive experience in which the viewer has a chance to become virtual friends with a charming young man named Andy (Wil Wheaton).

David is instantly drawn to the tape, with the obsession building to a disturbing crescendo.

Stevenson has essentially created a film that plays off people's fears of dying alone. We sense David's isolation from the early moments, an awkward guy who even when he does meet the perfect match - a young girl named Lisa (Amy Rutledge) who makes a living as a caretaker - he is unable to truly commit to the relationship.

Folkins is fantastic in the lead. He manages to be sympathetic to a point, but when things start to dial up his shift is believable and pretty scary.

Wheaton is a lot of fun too in a role that is basically on a TV screen, but offers so much more. With his big cheesy smile and almost comical over the top "reactions" to the view Wheaton gives a performance that is so layered that I appreciate his performance more upon reflection than in the moment. 

"Rent-a-Pal" is a bit of a slow burn, with Stevenson's screenplay building to an explosive final act. Fortunately, even as the fireworks start to fly the creepy unease that has built throughout remains. It all adds up to a film that understands that loneliness can be scary - in more ways than one.

RZA delivers a solid action flick with "Cut Throat City"

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There are a lot of familiar elements in play in "Cut Throat City," a post-Katrina heist film directed by the Wu Tang Clan's RZA. It manages to work for the most part thanks to a strong cast, some good direction from RZA and a script that mixes the action with a bit of social commentary.

"Cut Throat City" tells the story of four friends (Shameik Moore, Demetrius Shipp Jr., Keean Johnson, and Denzel Whitaker) from New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward who seem to have their futures mapped out.

When Hurricane Katrina leaves their neighborhood in ruins the friends turn to a local gangster (rapper T.I., who is outstanding in a small role) who presents them with a chance to make some quick cash. But the heist of a local casino doesn't got as planned, leaving the friends on the run with everyone from the gangster and other criminal element to a determined young cop (Eiza González) trying to track them down.

This is RZA's third film that he has directed and you can see a confident eye behind the camera that understands how to stage the action and has a good eye for pacing. "Cut Throat City" checks off all the boxes you would expect in a heist film, but does it in a way that feels fresh and exciting.

It helps that the audience gets to know these characters with "City" doing a nice job of making the relationship between these four friends feel natural and realistic.

The cast helps to create that realism with Moore and Shipp, Jr. the standouts. There is plenty of support, maybe too much in a film that feels a little overstuffed. In addition to T.I. and González you get Ethan Hawke as a local councilman, Terrence Howard as a criminal known as the Saint, and Wesley Snipes as a father of one of the young men. Hawke, Howard and Snipes are all good, but Snipes character kind of drags down the narrative a bit.

And there lies my small quip with "City," which adds some scenes that could have easily been left on the cutting room floor and overstays it's welcome a bit at the end. Still, there is enough here that if you are a fan of smart heist films you should appreciate what RZA and the cast have done here.

"The Burnt Orange Heresy" a fun heist pic

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It's pretty easy to sum up "The Burnt Orange Heresy." It is a good old fashioned heist film chocked with memorable characters, some nice twists and just some solid story telling.

Based on a novel by Charles Willeford, "The Burnt Orange Heresy" tells the story of an art critic named James Figueras (Claes Bang), who is hired by a wealthy art dealer named Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger) to steal a painting from a reclusive artist named Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland).

Joined by his new lover interest Berenice Hollis (Elizabeth Debicki), James heads to Debney's home to meet up with artist under the guise of an interview. But the plan to steal his art hits a snag when James starts to realize that everything is not as cut and dry as he expected.

Director Giuseppe Capotondi does a nice job of creating a film that is both visually engaging and full of tension and drama.

It helps to have a cast that really brings the material to life.

Bang is solid in the lead role, but it's his three co-stars who battle to see who can steal the film. Debicki, who will play Princess Diana in an upcoming season of "The Crown," continues her string of outstanding work that has her destined to become a star.

Sutherland brings a grizzled confidence to Debney that really makes his scenes with James and Berenice pop. But it's Jagger who seems to be having the most fun. He's barely in the film, but his presence is felt throughout - including some key scenes in the final act that build to a fantastic pay off.

Jagger's presence alone is enough to recommend "The Burnt Heresy," but fortunately this is a solid heist film that has plenty of tricks up its proverbial sleeve.

Despite good intentions "Words on Bathroom Walls" falls short

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"Words on the Bathroom Walls" is a sincere misfire.

Based on a novel by Julia Walton, it is a film that is trying to say something about teenagers that deal with mental illness but the message gets lost because of a weird tone that can't decide how it wants to present the message.

In "Bathroom Walls" Charlie Plummer stars as Adam, a soon to be senior who dreams of going to culinary school to become a chef but is battling personal demons - specifically schizophrenia.

When he is expelled from a public school after an incident, his mother (Molly Parker) sends him to a Catholic School to finish out his senior year. Adam just wants to lay low, keep his illness a secret and fit in, but he meets a student named Maya (Taylor Russell) and there is an instant attraction.

As their romance deepens, he becomes more and more guarded about his illness. And just when it looks like he has the illness under control, things spiral out of control - leaving Adam with no one to turn to.

"Bathroom Walls" is at its best when the focus is on the relationship between Adam and Maya. Plummer and Russell (who many might remember from last year's wonderful little film "Waves") have great chemistry that really makes it easy for the audience to invest in their journey.

Unfortunately, their relationship is overshadowed by Adam's personal demons - which are handled with kid gloves in the film. It's a movie that makes the wrong decision of trying to depict the chaos inside Adam's head by having AnnaSophia Robb, Devon Bostick, and Lobo Sebastian play three distinct characters he battles with in his head. It's a gimmick that never really works, feeling like it was borrowed from Disney's "Inside Out."

This feels like something that would have played better in a book than a feature film, creating some awkward shifts in tone that undermine what "Bathroom Walls" is trying to say. Parker, Walton Goggins and Andy Garcia try to add some depth to the material but it never hits the right notes.

By the time it builds to a rather cringe-worthy finale, it is clear that director Thor Freudenthal and screenwriter Nick Naveda have earnestly tried to create a family film that deals openly with mental illness but they just failed to hit the mark.

"Tesla" a bizarre bio of renowned inventor

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If you ever wanted to see inventor Nikola Tesla's life story through the eyes of Baz Luhrmann than "Tesla" is the movie for you.

Reuniting with his "Hamlet" co-stars Ethan Hawke and Kyle MacLachlan, writer/director Michael Almereyda has crafted a modern spin on the enigmatic inventor that feels gimmicky and a bit pretentious.

Hawke plays the title character, who is presenting as a brooding loner trying to realize his dream of introducing the world to his revolutionary electrical system. Every time it looks like Tesla's invention is going to take footing his rival Thomas Edison (MacLachlan) is right there to block his path, until Tesla makes a breakthrough that changes the course of history - the alternate-current motor.

I was a fan of Almereyda's modern take of "Hamlet" (with "To be or not to be" delivered in a Blockbuster), but his attempt to modernize Tesla's story never clicks. From the opening scene when the film's narrator and Tesla's love interest Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson) tells the story using slide show presentations and referencing google it's clear we've entered some bizarre alternate world. But that world gets even weirder when one character pulling out and iPhone and continues to get so weird that by the time Hawke does a karaoke version of Tears for Fears "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" that "Tesla" has completely jumped the rails.

Hawke tries to make it work the best he can with a quiet intensity that at least makes the lead character interesting. MacLachlan plays Edison like a version of Evil Dale Cooper from "Twin Peaks" which is kind of fun, but only adds to the absurdity.

For anyone looking for a film to provide insight on Tesla, you won't find it here. If you just want a night of "Moulin Rouge"-esque craziness, then "Tesla" is the inventor bio pic you've been waiting for.

"The Old Guard" a fresh spin on the superhero movie

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In a summer that was supposed to feature "Black Widow" and "Wonder Woman 1984" fans of superhero films will finally get their fix with the arrival of "The Old Guard" on Netflix.

"The Old Guard" proves to be a fresh spin on the genre - with Charlize Theron leading the way and "Love and Basketball" director Gina Prince-Bythewood showing a keen eye with some well-staged action sequences.

Theron stars as Andy, the leader of a group of immortal mercenaries who have fought to protect the world for centuries. When the group is compromised, Andy looks to eliminate the threat - turning to the newest immortal (KiKi Layne) to help in the battle.

With the exception of "Aeon Flux" Theron has done a good job of finding action films that are layered. That is the case with "The Old Guard," which has a lot more going on than one might think at first glance. It's a film that is full of action - with Prince-Bythewood consistently keeping the fights moving along, but also allowing these characters time to develop.

Theron is the heart and soul of "Old Guard," but the entire cast is solid. Layne shows she can match Theron as a strong female superhero, while Matthias Schoenaerts and Chiwetel Ejiofor also give performances that have more going on than in your typical superhero film.

By adding a human element to the action, "Old Guard" gets the audience invested enough to not only care about these characters now - but leave them wanting more. There is certainly franchise potential here, with "Old Guard" serving as a possible origin story for these characters. 

I definitely wouldn't remind a chance to revisit Andy and her team. Hopefully that becomes a reality and "The Old Guard" is just the start of something fun and special.

"You Should Have Left" void of suspense

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"You Should Have Left" is a reunion of sorts for Kevin Bacon and writer/director David Koepp - who teamed up for the very disturbing, but every effective "Stir of Echoes."

Returning to those horror roots and teaming with the Blumhouse production company, it would seem that "Left" had all the makings for another solid entry in the horror genre. Those looking for lightning to strike twice will likely be disappointed however, with "Left" a cliche ridden haunted house film that lacks the same creativity and suspense of "Echoes."

Bacon stars as Theo, a middle age man married to a much younger actress named Susanna (Amanda Seyfried). Their relationship is strained by Theo's jealousy and lack of trust, but also collapsing under the baggage of his first marriage - which ended with the mysterious death of his wife.

Looking to keep the marriage together for the sake of their young daughter (Avery Essex), the family takes a vacation to a huge home in the secluded Welsh countryside. The isolation only builds tension, as Theo grows more and more paranoid - convinced that the house is inhabited by some other entity.

"You Should Have Left" opens with a standard jump scare before a nice sequence that sets up the uncomfortable tension between Theo and Susanna. It gets the film off to a promising start, suggesting the same psychological terror that worked so well in "Echoes."

That good will quickly fades when the movie shifts to the home, with Koepp using every trick in the book to build suspense. You get a lot of shadows, a lot of long spooky halls and more cheap jump scares that are predictable and lacking any tension.

Sure some of it is visually appealing, but it comes off as a low rent attempt to recreate the isolation of "The Shining."

Bacon tries hard to make it work, with a performance that requires him to slowly lose grip with reality as he wrestles his personal demons. Seyfried is fine too, but her character is relegated to an afterthought to all of the haunted house tropes that pile up in the second half.

It leads to a rather predictable conclusion, one that wants to emulate the same level of audience shock as the conclusion of "Stir of Echoes." "You Should Have Left" is unable to reach those heights, ultimately proving to be nothing more than a standard horror film that we've seen done many times before - and usually done better.

Powerful and timely "Da 5 Bloods" is one of Spike Lee's best

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For more than 30 years Spike Lee has proven to be a filmmaker that is willing to use movies as a way to speak on hot button issues.

And while Lee hasn't always hit the mark, when he does it has resulted in some powerful cinema - "Do the Right Thing," "Malcolm X," "Get on the Bus" and "Blackkklansman" to name a few.

His latest film "Da 5 Bloods" is right up there with "Do the Right Thing" and "Malcolm X" as one of Lee's best works of his career. It's a powerful film that like "Malcolm X" feels more like a time capsule with a message that resonates today.

"Da 5 Bloods" tells the story of four African American Vietnam veterans - Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) - who return to Vietnam in present day to search for the remains of their fallen squad leader Norman (Chadwick Boseman).

Finding Norman's remains isn't the only thing the four friends are back in Vietnam for. There is also a chance to recover a lost shipment of gold that was briefly in their platoons possession but was lost during the battle that killed Norman.

Paul's son David (Jonathan Majors) joins the four men on their quest, which becomes as much about wrestling with the scars left behind from the war as it is about finding Norman and the treasure.

In "Da 5 Bloods" Lee takes the way Hollywood has depicted the Vietnam War in films like "Platoon," "First Blood," and "Apocalypse Now" (including a scene that will mirrors the last film's iconic scene) and combines it with the elements of a heist picture to create a powerful statement about racial injustice and inequality.

It's a cinematic history lesson, with Lee bringing the struggles of these men into the spotlight - while showing how much those struggles are still in the forefront today.

The film features powerful imagery throughout, with Lee's lens allowing us to peer into this world unfiltered, building to an explosive final act that only drives home "Da 5 Bloods" powerful message.

The cast is outstanding as well, but it's Lindo who really stands out in a performance that is Oscar worthy. His work here is extraordinary, with Lindo so effective that we really feel and understand the pain and emotional scars from his time on the battlefield - and how returning home only led to more battles.

Lindo's performance alone makes "Da 5 Bloods" well worth your time, but fortunately the film offers so much more. It offers us a chance to see Lee at the top of his craft, creating 2020's first true Oscar contender.

"Space Force" brings some laughs at lift off

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Editor’s note: With movie theaters closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, Micheal Compton’s reviews will focus on films available for streaming or on demand.

"Space Force" reunites Greg Daniels, the creator of the American version of "The Office" and that series star Steve Carell.

It's a reunion that plenty will welcome, but be advised approach the first season of this Netflix series with tempered expectations. "Space Force" may seem like a home run on paper - with Carell leading a loaded cast and a ripped from the headlines premise - but the laughs don't exactly blast off. Instead it's a series that seems to still be finding its way in the first season, battling through the growing pains while showing some glimpses of what it could (and should) be going forward.

Carell stars as general Mark R. Naird, selected by the president to lead the newly formed Space Force. Naird agrees, uprooting his family (Lisa Kudrow as his wife Maggie and Diana Silvers as his high-strung teenage daughter Erin) to a remote Colorado base where he tries to balance his personal life and professional life.

"Space Force" will likely draw comparisons to "The Office," with Carell's work here sure to be compared to Michael Scott, but it reminded me more of Daniels other NBC comedy "Parks and Recreation." Like that series, "Space Force" is at its best when it gives the supporting cast time to shine.

The biggest laughs come from John Malkovich as Naird's right-hand man, Dr. Adrian Mallory - who is there to put a little science into the general's decisions. Their clashes are the highlights of season one, with Carell and Malkovich effectively playing off each other.

"Space Force" gets some other things right too. Ben Schwartz basically does a variation his Jean-Ralphio character from "Parks and Recreation" as Space Force's media advisor, while the late Fred Willard provides a few bittersweet moments as Naird's absent minded father.

A subplot involving a young doctor (Jimmy O. Yang) and an aspiring astronaut (Tawny Newsome) provides some fun moments, while Don Lake nearly steals every scene he is in as Naird's wise-cracking secretary.

But there is still a lot for "Space Force" to work through. A lot of the home life doesn't work quite as well as intended, with Kudrow's character never quite meshing in the first season, while attempts at satirizing the current political climate tends to grind episodes to a halt.

The result is a season that feels like Daniels and Carell are still trying to find their way. There is enough in season one to at least merit a season two, but the good will won't likely last unless there is some improvement.

Hopefully "Space Force" can follow in the footsteps of "The Office," and learn from its early mistakes to create something a little more memorable.

"Coffee and Kareem" lacks laughs

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There is a lot of talent available in the new Netflix comedy "Coffee and Kareem."

Unfortunately that talent is saddled in a screenplay that feels like it has been sitting on a shelf for about 30 years - and has not aged gracefully at all. It's a comedy that relies way too much on low brow, below the belt humor without trusting its talent to elevate the material.

In "Coffee and Kareem" Ed Helms stars as James Coffee, a well-meaning but bumbling police officer in Detroit who is in a budding relationship with single mom Vanessa (Tariji P. Henson).

While Coffee and Vanessa are falling in love, the relationship is complicated by her 12-year-old son Kareem (Terrence Little Gardenhigh), who clearly doesn't want Coffee around.

Coffee tries to arrange an afternoon to get to know Kareem better, but it completely backfires when Kareem tries to hire guys to take out his new nemesis - only to inadvertently uncover a crime syndicate that leaves Coffee, Kareem, and Vanessa on the run.

"Coffee" was directed by Michael Dowse, whose previous film was the Dave Bautista, Kumail Nanjiani comedy "Stuber." Like that film this is essentially a buddy comedy with a lot of chaos and bloodshed mixed in with the laughs.

The problem here is Shane Mack's scripts have very few laughs, with most of the comedy relying way too much on crude language and no real humorous situations.

Helms is playing pretty much the same character from "The Office," while Henson is way too talented to be this underused. Gardenhigh shows promise in his feature film debut, but his character lacks the nuances needed to make this unlikely partnership work.

The cast also includes David Alan Grier as Coffee's superior and Betty Gilpin as an overly intense narcotics detective. They get more laughs out of their respective roles than the two leads, especially Gilpin - who attacks her role with delight and provides the film with its best moments.

Gilpin brings life to a comedy that never really clicks - is never as clever as it thinks it is.

"Wendy" tepid retelling of classic tale

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It's been eight years since director Benh Zeitlin burst on the scene with the beautiful cinematic experience "Beasts of the Southern Wild."

Now we finally get the follow-up "Wendy," based loosely on the "Peter Pan" story. Like "Beasts" "Wendy" is a beautiful looking film told through the innocent eyes of children, with a hypnotic score and impressive look. But "Wendy" lacks the same magic as its predecessor, a film that feels like Zeitlin is trying to catch lightning in a bottle again.

The film is told from the perspective of Wendy (Devin France), who - along with her brothers - disappear on a train one night with a young boy named Peter (Yashua Mack).

Peter whisks the trio away to a mysterious island where time seemingly stands still and the children run the island with youthful glee.

But Wendy soon learns the island has its secrets, and everything is not what it seems to be.

Watching "Wendy" it is clear that Zeitlin has a gift for creating impressive cinematic poetry that really puts the audience inside this world. Sturla Brandth Grøvlen's cinematography is spectacular, with every frame bursting with life and color.

France is also quite good in the title role, in a performance that commands the screen nearly as much as Quvenzhané Wallis did in "Beasts." France makes you care what is happening even when the film seems to go astray.

And that tends to happen a lot -as the screenplay lacks focus. The tone is also off, with "Wendy" way to dark at times for a film that is about holding on to childhood innocence.

By the time "Wendy" reaches its final act - and a familiar character surfaces - it's apparent that Zeitlin's film is all style and very little substance, a "Peter Pan" story that never takes flight.

"The Hunt" a bloody mess

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For a film that was shrouded in enough controversy that it's original release date was delayed,  Blumhouse's latest "The Hunt" proves to be a bloody mess.

Part splatter film, part social satire - "The Hunt" provides too much of the former and not enough of the latter, mistakenly thinking gore is just as shocking as statements on today's current political environment.

From the beginning it is apparent "The Hunt" is not nearly as clever as it thinks it is. Twelve strangers (including Emma Roberts and Ike Barinholtz) wake up in  the middle of nowhere and soon realize they have been kidnapped and are now being hunted by liberal elitists.

As the hunt intensifies and the group's numbers dwindle, a quiet woman with a military background named Crystal (Betty Gilpin) emerges as the one person perhaps capable of surviving and turning the hunters into the hunted.

"The Hunt" is essentially a spin on "The Most Dangerous Game," with liberalist elitist versus the "deplorables" substituting the idea of the rich versus the poor.

Director Craig Zobel could have taken this idea to create some intriguing statements on the divide and how it is driven by social media. Instead he takes the easy way out, with the gore starting from the opening moments and splattered throughout - almost to the point of desensitizing the audience. It's a shame that Zobel didn't bring the same sensitivity here that he did to the underrated "Compliance," which really understood how to handle its terrifying true story of a woman unlawfully strip searched in her work place.

"The Hunt" is gloves off from the start. I wasn't really shocked or appalled by what happens on screen. Mostly, I was just disgusted by the poor film making and lack of story development (when the film finally does try to set up some background it comes way to late to care).

About the only thing that keeps "The Hunt" interesting is Gilpin's intense hero - a female Rambo-type who always seems to be one step ahead of the people that are hunting her. Gilpin brings an intensity to her performance that at least keeps the audience interested in her plight - even when everything else around her is a giant dumpster fire.

We care about Crystal enough that when she finally goes one on one with the head of the hunting party (Hilary Swank, the second best thing about "The Hunt") it is at least mildly satisfying.

If "The Hunt" had focused more on that dynamic and less on trying to be this grand statement on political correctness then maybe it would have worked. As it is, "The Hunt" is the kind of mess that will probably leave most of its audience wondering what all the fuss was about.

"The Traitor" a sweeping crime epic

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"The Traitor" is a sweeping crime epic that gets the audience sucked in with a violent opening act, only to turn into a compelling court room drama.

Anchored by strong work from Pierfrancesco Favino, it's compelling throughout - a story I was unfamiliar with going in, but completely engaged from start to finish.

"The Traitor" is based on the true story of Tommaso Buscetta (Favino), the man in the middle of a war between Sicilian mafia bosses who in the early 1980s opted to become informant after members of the crime family gun down his sons.

Working with a determined judge named Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi) Buscetta sets out to bring down the men responsible for those deaths, while maintaining his dignity and honor.

Director Marco Bellocchio has crafted a 150 minute epic that begins as a competent mafia film in the first half before evolving into an explosive courtroom drama. There are several intense scenes where Buscetta is allowed to face some of his former colleagues, resulting in some intense exchanges that really heighten the drama.

"The Traitor" reminded me a lot of "The Irishman," in the way it is reflective about how this man's decisions ultimately cost his family a chance at a normal life.

Favino is the perfect anchor for this material, asked to remain calm and calculated throughout the chaos. He gives Buscetta a coolness, even as he struggles to be honorable. The fact that the character comes away with some of that honor speaks volumes for how sympathetic Favino truly makes Buscetta.

"The Traitor" does feel a little of the weight of its heightened run time, but there it's worth the audience's patience because it's a film we rarely see any more - a character study that really allows the audience to get to know the character.

"Greed" is satire lacking bite

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"Greed" is an interesting concept in search of a better movie.

Director Michael Winterbottom reunites with his "The Trip" films co-star Steve Coogan to create a satire about the capitalism, specifically in the world of high fashion, that is never quite the sum of its parts. Despite a terrific cast and some really great individual moments, it's a film that sputters along when it should zip.

Coogan stars as Richard McCreadie, a self-made billionaire who is looking to bounce back after a government investigation slows his financial momentum. McCreadie decides to celebrate his comeback with a lavish party off the coast of Greece. 

He plans to use this party as a chance to also announce that his biography that details his rise to the top, and commissions a writer named Nick (David Mitchell). But the more Nick digs up, the more he starts to realize that McCreadie cut a lot of corners on his way to the top.

Coogan is so good at playing a slimy character that he is the perfect choice for McCreadie, easing into the role effortlessly. Isla Fisher, as McCreadie's ex-wife, and Shirley Henderson, as McCreadie's mom, are both good in supporting roles, but Mitchell is too low key to be the film's moral compass.

Winterbottom's direction is spotty too. For every scene that works - the film features a lot of cameos, with singer James Blunt getting the best moment, and there is a great sequence that explains exactly how McCreadie made his money in a rather shady manner - there are stretches that feel off. The decision to film it partially as a mocumentary is the biggest culprit, bringing the pace of the film to a slog.

At times it's hard to figure out exactly what Winterbottom, who also co-wrote the film, is trying to say here. (And apparently even Winterbottom realized this because the film ends with a lengthy lesson on the imbalance of power in the fashion industry that feels more like a lecture that an organic extension of what we've just witnessed).

And there lies the problem with "Greed," it's a movie that hints at its potential, but never reaches those heights - resulting in a disappointing satire that lacks bite.

"Emma" a delightful update of Jane Austen classic

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"Emma" is an absolute joy. Or perhaps I should say an Anya Taylor-Joy.

This latest adaptation of the Jane Austen novel is a lavishly looking film anchored by Joy's sharply precise work as the title character. 

That character is Emma Woodhouse, a young socialite in England in the 1800s who has sworn off love for herself - although it hasn't stopped her from playing matchmaker among family and friends.

Her latest "project" is Harriet (Mia Goth), a well-meaning, awkward young girl at a boarding school who is smitten with a local farmer (Connor Swindells), but Emma is convinced is better matched for either the prominent Mr. Elton (Josh O'Connor) or the mysterious Frank Churchill (Callum Turner).

Emma's well-meaning plans quickly go awry, as she discovers the more she tries to make a match the more she makes a mess of things. Her failures provided plenty of entertainment for long time acquaintance Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), who perhaps knows Emma better than she knows herself.

Anyone familiar with Austen's work - whether it is reading her novels or seeing the multitude of films that have adapted her work will know what's coming here. We've seen "Emma" in many incarnations, including two films released close together - a more straight forward adaptation starring Gwyneth Paltrow and the more modern "Clueless" with Alicia Silverstone. While this "Emma" is straight forward, like "Clueless" it proves to be much more relatable to contemporary audiences (Emma certainly feels like she could fit right in with the way social media acceptance shapes people's lives and relationships). It's a credit to director Autumn de Wilde and screen writer Eleanor Catton that they find a way to give this a modern spin while staying true to the source material.

de Wilde also brings a visual flair, with the set design and cinematography full of pastel colors that accentuate the cheeriness of this material.

Goth conveys Harriet's awkwardness quite well, while Flynn proves to be solid as Emma's worthy adversary. There's also a few fun moments with Bill Nighy as Emma's father.

But the success of this update all comes back to Joy. The 23-year-old actress has built a resume built around some dark work - "Split," "The Witch," and "Thoroughbreds" to name a few. In "Emma" we get to see a lighter side of Joy - which is a welcomed change of pace. Joy shows she has delightful comic touch and can hold her own in material that doesn't always seem life or death.

Joy's charming work is fresh and exciting, giving "Emma" it's much needed jolt that sets it apart from other Austen adaptations.

Contrived script sinks "The Photograph"

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"The Photograph" is an appropriate title for the new romantic drama starring LaKeith Stanfield and Issa Rae.

Writer/director Stella Meghie has crafted a gorgeous looking film with two strong leads and a hypnotic score, but it all gets undermined by a story that relies way too much on contrived plot devices and romantic cliches - leaving this stylish romance painfully thin of substance.

Stanfield plays Michael, a reporter who is doing a story on a Louisiana fisherman (Rob Morgan). During the course of the interview, the fisherman tells Michael a story about a woman that made a profound impact on his life that he hasn't seen for more than 30 years.

Michael goes looking for this woman, now a famous photographer, only to learn from her daughter Mae (Rae) that the woman has recently passed away. As Michael and Mae talk, they start to sense an attraction - with a relationship developing.

While Mae and Michael explore their feelings, the story is intertwined with flashbacks of the relationship between the photographer and fisherman - creating a relationship that seems to parallel the modern day couple.

Meghie's eye for the material is impressive. The cinematography is exquisite and the jazzy score creates a mood and vibe the perfectly fits these characters. Rae and Stanfield have instant chemistry that make their relationship believable, while Chelsea Peretti and Y'lan Noel are effective in the flashbacks.

But Meghie's script completely destroys all the good will. It feels like two or three movies fighting with each other with the flashbacks throwing the pace of the film off. The biggest problem with the script is how convenient everything is - with conversations had, or a lot of times not had, just to manipulate the direction of the plot. There are several moments in "The Photograph" where a single conversation could have caused the rest of the plot to come crashing down like a house of cards. It makes these characters that are otherwise fleshed out, feel two-dimensional and manipulated pawns.

Rae and Stanfield deserved a better script. The audience deserved better too, because "The Photograph" certainly has the look - but it's looks prove to be quite deceiving. 

Oscar predictions

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Here is complete predictions for the Academy Awards

Best Picture: 1917

Best Actor: Joaquin Phoenix

Best Actress: Renee Zellweger

Supporting Actor: Brad Pitt

Supporting Actress: Laura Dern

Director: Sam Mendes

Original Screenplay: Parasite

Adapted Screenplay: Jojo Rabbit

Cinematography: 1917

Costume Design: Little Women

Editing: Parasite

Makeup: Bombshell

Production Design: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Score: Joker

Song: I'm Gonna Love Me Again

Sound Editing: 1917

Sound Mixing: 1917

Visual Effects: 1917

Animated Feature: Toy Story 4

Documentary: American Factory

International Film: Parasite

Animated Short: Hair Love

Documentary Short: Learning to Skate in a Warzone

Live Action Short: Brotherhood

"The Song of Names" a well-intentioned misfire

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On paper "The Song of Names" - an adaptation of a Norman Lebrecht novel - seems to have all the ingredients in place to make a compelling drama.

It's an interesting story, with two very capable leads - Tim Roth and Clive Owen. Yet, "Names" never really clicks the way it should - resulting in a film that is a well-intentioned misfire.

"Names" begins with a violin prodigy named Dovidl disappearing right before his first public performance. 

Flash forward to 35 years later and the prodigy's childhood friend Martin (Tim Roth) is still haunted by what happened to Dovidl. Martin finds a glimmer of hope when judging a young violinist who Martin is convinced performs in a way that could only have been taught by his old friend.

This leads Martin on a quest across Europe, determined to find his friend.

Director François Girard fills in the blanks by flashing back and forth between present day and when the two men first met - as we not only learn how they became friends, but how Dovidl became a child prodigy.

By jumping back and forth "Names" lacks the tension needed for the audience to care about how this mystery is resolved.

Sure some of the individual moments are intriguing, but the parts never add up to a satisfying whole.

Roth is solid as Martin, while Owen does well when he finally arrives in the back half of the film. But their acting is not enough to lift up a script that lacks the dramatic chops needed to make this film work.

Somewhere in the transition from book to film "Song of Names" lost its effectiveness - making it a mundane but rather forgettable experience.

Guy Ritchie returns to gangster roots in "The Gentlemen"

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After tackling King Arthur and Aladdin, writer/director Guy Ritchie returns to his cockney-gangster roots with "The Gentlemen" - an all-star crime caper that is exactly what you would expect from the man behind "Snatch" and "Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels."

For fans of those films, there is a lot to like here in "The Gentlemen." It may not quite live up to the bar they created, but it's still a bloody fun time with the cast making it all go down like a smooth pint of whiskey.

"The Gentlemen" stars Matthew McConaughey as Mickey Pearson, a highly successful drug lord in England looking to sell his empire and retire with his wife Rosalind (Michelle Dockery).

On the verge of a big payday that will make that retirement a reality, Mickey is approached by a rival named Dry Eye (Henry Goulding) who wants to take Mickey's empire for himself.

A power struggle ensues, bringing in everyone from Mickey's right-hand man Ray (Charlie Hunnam) to a sleazy journalist (Hugh Grant) looking for his own payday to a strict boxing coach (Colin Farrell) trying to help some of his students pay back a debt.

Ritchie gives the cast a lot of red meat dialogue to chew on and pretty much everyone gets their respective moment. McConaughey plays his role with nice intensity, while Dockery is delightful in a role that is a far cry from her "Downton Abbey" days.

Goulding is also very good, proving that is much more than a romantic comedy leading man, while Grant continues to build an interesting resume at the back end of the career - following up "Paddington 2" with another character that is the exact opposite of his "Notting Hill," "Four Weddings and a Funeral" days.

"The Gentlemen" does start slow, with Ritchie sometimes getting a little too happy with his own dialogue (and probably the ability to swear and be ultra-violent, something he couldn't do with Disney), but it builds a rollicking final act that has a quite effective payoff.

I'm not sure if "The Gentlemen" will win over anyone not already a fan of Ritchie's gangster work, but for those who are - there is more than enough here to leave the theater satisfied.

Oscar nomination predictions

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The crazy short awards season hits high gear Monday morning with the announcement of the Academy Award nominations.

It's always tricky to figure out what will make the final cut and with voting pushed up this year it should be even trickier. Then again, maybe it won't. A lot of spots seemed to be locked in with only a few places open for surprises.

Here is how I see the top six categories shaping out when nominations are announced:

Best Picture

1917

The Irishman

Jojo Rabbit

Joker

Little Women

Marriage Story

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Parasite

Could Surprise: Ford v Ferrari, Bombshell, Knives Out

Best Picture is usually hardest to figure out because it can be anywhere between five and 10 films. History suggests that it will be eight to nine films though, so I will go with eight for my projections (with "Bombshell" number nine if forced to choose).

"Hollywood," "Irishman," "Parasite," "Jojo Rabbit," and "1917" feel like locks. "Marriage Story" feels the safest of the next tier, with "Little Women" and "Joker" probably next in line. Those are the two I think are on the fence.

Best Director

Bong Joon-ho (Parasite)

Sam Mendes (1917)

Todd Phillips (Joker)

Martin Scorsese (The Irishman)

Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood)

Could Surprise: Taika Waititi (Jojo Rabbit), Greta Gerwig (Little Women), Pedro Almodóvar (Pain & Glory)

Four spots are firmly secure - Joon-ho, Mendes, Scorsese and Tarantino. Waititi has a real shot with a DGA nod. Gerwig definitely has a loud group of support on social media, while Almodóvar is exactly the kind of potential nominee that produces surprises in this category historically.

But I'll take Phillips riding the momentum of its lead actor to garner the last spot. Truth be told, I'm rooting for it just to watch the outrage on twitter. It would be glorious.

Best Actor

Antonio Banderas (Pain & Glory)

Leonardo DiCaprio (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood)

Adam Driver (Marriage Story)

Taron Egerton (Rocketman)

Joaquin Phoenix (Joker)

Could Surprise: Christian Bale (Ford v Ferrari), Eddie Murphy (Dolemite is my Name), Adam Sandler (Uncut Gems), Jonathan Pryce (The Two Popes)

This is such a loaded year for best actor that Murphy, one of my favorite performances of 2019, is likely gonna get pushed out due to the competition. DiCaprio, Driver, and Phoenix feel like the certainties. Egerton has gotten a lot of momentum in the last few weeks, so he should slip in. I'll take Banderas in the last spot because he's never been nominated and this is exactly the kind of role that the Academy likes to recognize.

Best Actress

Cynthia Erivo (Harriet)

Scarlett Johansson (Marriage Story)

Saoirse Ronan, Little Women

Charlize Theron (Bombshell)

Renée Zellweger (Judy)

Could Surprise: Lupita Nyong’o (Us), Awkwafina (The Farewell)

Again it feels like three people fighting for the last spot. Nyong'o and Awkwafina would not surprise me, but I will take Erivo playing a historical figure (exactly the kind of showy role the Academy loves) to take the final spot.

Best Supporting Actor

Jamie Foxx (Just Mercy)

Tom Hanks (Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood)

Al Pacino (The Irishman)

Joe Pesci (The Irishman)

Brad Pitt (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood)

Could Surprise: Anthony Hopkins (The Two Popes), Shia LaBeouf (Honeyboy)

What a stacked lineup. I'll take Foxx since he got a SAG nomination by Hopkins or LaBeouf are definitely in the mix too.

Best Supporting Actress

Laura Dern (Marriage Story)

Scarlett Johansson (Jojo Rabbit)

Jennifer Lopez (Hustlers)

Florence Pugh (Little Women)

Margot Robbie (Bombshell)

Could Surprise: Shuzhen Zhao (The Farewell)

This feels like a safe bet for the five nominees, with Zhao or maybe(?) Nicole Kidman the only potential surprise.

Gerwig offers new spin on "Little Women"

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Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women" has been adapted for the big screen plenty of times, yet here we are again this time with Greta Gerwig serving as director/writer.

Gerwig brings the same voice to "Women" as she did her previous film "Lady Bird" - finding a fresh way to premiere the familiar tale.

Working with her "Lady Bird" star Saoirse Ronan, Gerwig takes the story of four sisters Jo (Ronan), Megan (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh) and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) growing up in post Civil War America. While the world still sees traditional roles for the sisters, they are all eager to find their way and their voice.

Jo aspires to be a writer, while Amy has dreams of being an artist. Beth wants to be a musician, while Megan is content with being a housewife and mother.

Gerwig uses Jo to tell the story, with her writings serving as the framing device to shift the story back and forth in time (Gerwig actually borrows as much from Alcott's sequel as she does "Little Women.")

That decision is a bit jarring, especially in the first hour. But Gerwig eventually finds a balance and "Little Women" finds its footing.

Ronan is a good choice of Jo, capturing her character's headstrong independence. Watson is also fine as is Pugh, with Laura Dern, Meryl Streep and Timothy Chalamet also solid in supporting roles.

The cast helps get "Little Women" through that rocky first hour, but once Gerwig's story finds its footing it really takes off and - like its lead character - finds its voice.

This may not be on par with some of the other versions of "Little Women" (the 1994 film remains my favorite), but is is still a solid - and ultimately entertaining - new spin on the beloved tale.

Adam Sandler shines in "Uncut Gems"

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Adam Sandler is a good actor.

The problem with Sandler's career is there has been so many films where it seems like he is just coasting by that we sometimes forget how good he can be.

His talent is on full display in "Uncut Gems" - a tense, high-wire act from from Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie that is a ball of intense chaotic energy.

The chaos is needed to capture Sandler's rather chaotic character - Howard Ratner, a New York City jeweler who always seems to be on the edge of having his entire world collapse. Howard is barely able to stay one step ahead of his bookies. His home life is also a mess, with Howard estranged from his wife (Idina Menzel), living with a younger woman (Julia Fox) and barely there as a dad for his children.

After a chance meeting with NBA superstar Kevin Garnett, Howard comes up with a plan that he thinks will fix everything - wagering his future on a recent acquisition that he plans on using to help finance a series of debts that will finally get him out of the red for good.

But, like everything else in Howard's life, nothing goes as plan - forcing Howard to scramble for survival.

Like their previous film "Good Time" the Safdie brothers have taken a rather unlikable character and putting him on a roller coaster that the audience is allowed to experience firsthand. The tension is there from the opening scene and doesn't let up throughout the film's 135 minute run time, with the Safdies constantly bombarding the audience with the same kind of frenzy that Howard is experiencing it.

None of this would work if Sandler wasn't up to the challenge. He shows he is more than capable of engulfing this character, in a performance that rivals some of his best work (a scene with Garnett where he explains why he gambles is as good as any individual scene in any film this year).

This is the Sandler I wish we would see more of, an actor willing to go outside his comfort zone and take chances.

He clearly takes the chance here, rewarding the audience with an uneasy character study that is definitely one of the cinematic gems of the holiday season.

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