Ready or Not

"Ready or Not"  

‘Ready or Not’

Not-so-blushing bride Grace (Samara Weaving) is more than ready to marry Alex (Mark O’Brien). But is she ready to face his stuffy, monied family, the scions of the Le Domas gaming fortune? Set in the world of richies and rituals, this slick slasher flick hinges around a marital game night, a midnight initiation every wannabe-Le Domas has to endure. If the newbie pulls the hide-and-seek card, the family hunts them until death or dawn. It’s a blood pact they keep with the ghost of their benefactor, which they wholeheartedly believe will keep their good fortune intact.

“Ready or Not” is “The Most Dangerous Game” with notes of “Rosemary’s Baby” and the sassy, snarky ‘tude of “Heathers.” Grace is Veronica in a wedding dress: a street-smart and sarcastic smoker who has to outwit, outplay and outlast a bunch of privileged buffoons obsessed with status. They’re not croquet mallet-wielding mean girls, but rather her in-laws wielding antique pistols and crossbows, and the same whiff of class warfare is undeniable.

But the script, by Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy, errs a bit too far on the side of sardonic to be taken seriously as true social satire. Horror requires a certain amount of sincerity for the audience to fully buy in, and there’s hardly a trace in this incredibly ironic screenplay, which invites the audience to laugh rather than scream. Although it gestures at female empowerment with Grace as a thoroughly modern Final Girl and offers a unique spin on “off with their heads” for whiny 1-percenters, the heavy layers of irony both in script and performance never allow the subversive ideas to emerge fully formed. Chuckling at female servants accidentally shot in the face just doesn’t jive with either of those implicated themes.

However, co-directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett elicit some memorable performances from the family members, especially Nicky Guadagni as Aunt Helene, who emerges as the supporting breakout star, glowering like no one has ever glowered before. Competing with her for the most quivering coif is Henry Czerny as Grace’s increasingly hysterical father-in-law, while Adam Brody sets the tone with his signature smirkiness as reluctant brother-in-law Daniel.

While the mocking tone mostly undermines any trenchant commentary, thanks to Weaving’s eye-rolling, primal-screaming, evil-giggling performance, the strongest impression “Ready or Not” leaves is of the cathartic, transformative female rage at the center of it all. The rage is what keeps Grace alive. The sprawling estate itself, a representation of exclusionary greed, rips at her flesh, and though bloodied and battered by this bloodsport, her sheer survival is her resistance against the gaping maws of the demented tradition. Ready or not, here she comes.

(R, 2 ½ of 4 stars, 1 hr. 35 min.)

– Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service

‘Angel Has Fallen’

The “Has Fallen” series, “Olympus,” “London” and now, “Angel Has Fallen,” is a curiously enduring franchise. But it seems the character of Mike Banning, a foul-mouthed Secret Service agent played with a lumpy gruffness by Gerard Butler, has filled the void of the everyman action hero, displaced by those with superpowers and elegant martial arts skills. Mike’s just a guy with a wife and kid who happens to be incredibly enthusiastic about stabbing people. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned in this series, it’s always bring Mike to a knife fight.

In the “Has Fallen” mythology, Mike has become a cipher, a character around which a filmmaker can project the paranoid political fantasy of the week. Antoine Fuqua threw him into “Die Hard in the White House” against North Korea in “Olympus,” while Babak Najafi plunked him into an international terrorist attack by a nefarious Middle Eastern group in “London.” So naturally, the only place to go is home. “Angel” director and co-writer Ric Roman Waugh plops Mike into his own “Three Days of the Condor,” a conspiracy thriller in which the U.S. government has turned on him.

This time, it’s our hero who has fallen, the “guardian angel” to President Trumbull (Morgan Freeman, the only returning costar). After a drone attack on the president during a fishing trip, Banning wakes up cuffed to a hospital bed, framed to take the fall for the hit. Indicted and imprisoned, then kidnapped by the very mercenaries who did try to kill the president, Banning has no choice but to go rogue (as per usual).

The tone of “Angel” is far more somber than the wise-cracking “Olympus” or the frothing, jingoistic “London.” The weight makes the film strangely dull at times. But some moments in this outsize take on the “The Fugitive” hit a real nerve, such as a shootout in an office building where young bearded white men in tactical gear pump thousands of rounds into drywall and office furniture. Banning is our fantasy for those very real scenarios: a strong, resourceful, yet exceedingly normal man of action.

What’s truly daring is that Waugh, with co-writers Robert Mark Kamen and Matt Cook, actually address all the brain injuries Mike must have suffered in the gleefully unhinged splatterfests of the first two films. He’s been scamming doctors for pain pills and even admits he’s got a lot to address, personally (but in, you know, a very tough, masculine way).

At the heart of the “Has Fallen” franchise is the affection between men, and Butler has always shared the best chemistry with his male costars. That spark in “Angel” comes from Butler’s scenes with Nick Nolte, as his father, Clay, a veteran living off the grid. It’s Clay’s older, wiser perspective that pushes Banning take stock of his life. And surprisingly, the tough guy is willing to grow and change, along with the franchise itself, even if it is as goofy and violent as it always has been.

(R, 2½ of 4 stars, 2 hr.)

– Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service

‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’

Director Richard Linklater brings his manifest empathy for character to Maria Semple’s smart and funny bestselling novel, with a splendid performance by Cate Blanchett in the title role added into the mix.

The film is not without its problems, but its focus on the power of a mother-daughter bond and what can befall creative people when they no longer create generates considerable emotion by the close.

Blanchett, attached to the project before the director got involved, burns up the airwaves as Bernadette Fox, a wonderfully eccentric, wildly verbal individual who both talks and thinks on a different level than everyone else.

When we first meet Bernadette, in the kitchen of her house in Seattle, she and her husband, Elgie (Billy Crudup), and precocious teenage daughter, Bee (newcomer Emma Nelson just nailing it), seem like the perfect modern family.

Here’s Bee, all glee and enthusiasm, telling her parents that what she wants as a long-ago-promised reward for great grades is a family trip to Antarctica.

Yes, the response from the adults is muted, but there could be lots of reasons for that. But the key one, as it turns out, is that Bernadette has a problem with people. She doesn’t like to be around them and their “incessant yammering and boring small talk,” not even a little bit.

Bernadette especially doesn’t like living in Seattle, and the visual symbol of her detachment is the pair of dark glasses she always wears. Bernadette has bonded with her daughter, forming a wonderfully conspiratorial us-against-the world connection with Bee that is fun to eavesdrop on.

Like any good heroine, Bernadette also has a bête noir, officious neighbor Audrey (an expert Kristin Wiig), who lives and dies for the sensitive Galer Street School and its goal of “global connectitude” and who is always on the lookout for “the right kind of kindergarten family.”

It’s Audrey’s insistence that Bernadette get serious about containing the out-of-control blackberry bushes that threaten to overrun her home that gets things rolling plot-wise, but that turns out to be the merest beginning of a whole string of antic and unexpected events.

While this sprightly material is expertly and entertainingly presented, “Bernadette” is not as deft when the plot turns more serious and Elgie begins to genuinely worry about his wife’s mental health.

Though it’s key to the novel, the way that situation is presented feels all wrong in movie terms. The kind of endearing eccentric Bernadette epitomizes has been celebrated in films since forever (1938’s Oscar-winning “You Can’t Take It With You” is an early example) and that makes this kind of tut-tutting, especially from her husband, hard to buy into.

Given the film’s title, it’s no spoiler to say that at one point Bernadette flat out disappears, but in some ways, as we find out, she’s been in flight from aspects of her life for quite some time.

(PG-13, 3 of 4 stars, 1 hr. 44 min.)

-- Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

 'The Peanut Butter Falcon'

There is a great moment in "The Peanut Butter Falcon," which picked up the Audience Award this year at South by Southwest, that sums up how and why the movie works.

Zak, a young man with Down syndrome (played by Zack Gottsagen, who also has Down syndrome), is stuck in a nursing home, an inappropriate place for someone his age. (Sadly, that sort of placement by the state happens all the time.)

He decides run away to attend a school for potential professional wrestlers run by the the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), a local-talent wrestler whom Zak adores.

Along the way, Zak meets Tyler (Shia LaBeouf, rocking a serious Southern accent), a down-on-his-luck fisherman who has made some misguided life choices and is on the lam. They're wandering around the North Carolina coast, both a little over their respective heads. When they encounter each other, eye-to-eye honesty commences.

nsion. No pity. Just two dudes trying to figure out what's next. And also maybe what to eat that night.

The words "Mark Twain" have been thrown around a bit regarding "The Peanut Butter Falcon," and the film isn't shy about the comparison — the author's name comes up. There's a raft and everything. And there are definitely characteristics of a fable or fairy tale in this film.

But there's also a bracing emotional realism here. Both Zak and Tyler are men whom fate has screwed over. Zak doesn't have any family left, and neither does Tyler. The latter's life went south after his brother died, while the former's existence is life-wastingly dull.

It would be a shame if this film was celebrated more for how and why it was made (indeed excellent) than for the film itself. It is a small, lovely work with excellent, all-in performances from Gottsagen and especially LaBeouf, who is becoming a more interesting and nuanced actor as he gets older.

And nothing is more refreshing than seeing an actor like Gottsagen appearing as just another person trying to get by using what he has to work with.

Which is to say: normal.

(PG-13, 3 of 4 stars, 1 hr. 33 min.)

– Joe Gross, Austin American-Statesman

'The Farewell'

Writer-director Lulu Wang’s autobiographical drama “The Farewell” delves into complex realities like family dynamics, cultural differences and terminal illness with elegant simplicity.

One of the best movies of the year, it heralds another new phase in the rapidly morphing career of Awkwafina, the rapper who broke out as a comedic actor in last year’s blockbuster “Crazy Rich Asians” and warrants awards consideration for her finely nuanced lead turn in “The Farewell.”

Billed as “based on an actual lie,” the Sundance Film Festival hit is largely based on Wang’s personal experiences. Awkwafina plays Billi, a Chinese-American woman who emigrated to the United States with her father Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and mother Jian (Diana Lin) when she was 6 years old. An aspiring writer and former pianist based in New York City, Billi maintains close ties to her family back in China, especially her beloved grandmother, Nai Nai (the endearing Zhao Shuzhen).

So, Billi is aghast when she learns that her grandmother has been diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer and given just a few months to live. But she is even more horrified when she learns her parents, uncle and aunt have decided to follow Chinese custom and keep the poor prognosis a secret from Nai Nai.

With the relatives scattered around the U.S., China and Japan, the family decides to gather one more time back home in Changchun, China, in honor of Nai Nai but under the guise of wedding Billi’s cousin Hao Hao (Han Chen) and his new fiancé, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara). Despite her parents’ warnings to stay in New York since she isn’t adept at hiding her emotions, the adoring granddaughter can’t stay away and surprises everyone by flying to China. But when Billi arrives, she discovers she isn’t the only one grappling to conceal her sadness.

Although it would be illegal in the USA, the family conspires with doctors, radiology techs and each other to keep Nai Nai in the dark about her condition, reasoning that it is their duty to carry the emotional burden for her – just as she did for her own father when he was terminally ill. With her American upbringing, Billi struggles with lying to her grandmother, even as she keeps the rejection of her Guggenheim Fellowship application a secret from her kin.

Told in Mandarin with English subtitles with an all-Asian cast, “The Farewell” serves as both specific look into a certain cultural perspective and a universal story anyone who has ever considered the difficulties of dying can appreciate.

(PG, 3 of 4 stars, 1 hr. 38 min.)

– Brandy McDonnell, The Oklahoman, Oklahoma City


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