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Thursday, October 6, 2022

Movie Reviews: New Releases for Oct. 7

Hellraiser, Amsterdam, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry and more

Posted By on October 6, 2022, 7:00 PM

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Amsterdam *1/2
See feature review. Available Oct. 7 in theaters. (R)

Hellraiser ***
Horror filmmakers have leaned heavily on trauma as allegorical subtext (and often flat-out text); director David Bruckner and screenwriters Ben Collins & Luke Piotrowski revive Clive Barker’s franchise with a flip towards the collateral damage in the lives of damaged people. Riley (Odessa A’zion) is a young woman trying to maintain her recent sobriety when her boyfriend (Drew Starkey) convinces her to assist with a robbery that lands them in possession of a certain mysterious puzzle-box with connections to a supernatural force. The Cenobites include more than the familiar Pinhead (Jamie Clayton), and the inventively horrific design of the other flayed and pierced figures lends a spark to the visual design, which otherwise feels a bit flat in Bruckner’s direction. Yet while the various tortures inflicted upon the Cenobites’ victims might grab plenty of attention, the filmmakers are ultimately more interested in Riley’s discovery of how much her actions hurt others, like her perpetually-worried brother (Brandon Flynn), with an underlying note regarding how these creatures’ eternal pursuit of more extreme sensations connects with addicts chasing a high. A’zion’s performance is strong enough to carry through familiar genre tropes like the inevitable “Google search” scene, towards a discovery that sometimes, pain is something you just have to be willing to feel. Available Oct. 7 via Hulu. (R)

Luckiest Girl Alive ***
Mila Kunis with an edge—á la Four Good Days—is kind of my jam, apparently, as evidenced by the particular energy she brings to Jessica Knoll’s adaptation of her own 2015 novel. Kunis plays Ani Fanelli, who has carefully constructed what looks a flawless life: an impending marriage to the scion (Finn Wittrock) of a wealthy family, a successful job writing for a women’s magazine, a workout-perfect body. But that image masks a traumatic history, including surviving a school shooting, and memories are being stirred by a filmmaker’s plan to make a documentary about the incident. The structure alternates between Ani’s present and her high-school years (played by Chiara Aurelia), slowly revealing more horrifying events (TW: sexual assault) and the reasons why Ani was initially connected to the shooters. Yet while the mystery component drives the narrative’s forward momentum, Luckiest Girl Alive really pivots on the effectiveness with which Kunis conveys Ani’s roiling self-loathing, and how it manifests in her treatment of herself and others, built on an undeserved sense of shame. She gets a few showy scenes, and director Mike Barker underlines things a bit too heavily at times with lines delivered straight to the camera and cathartic “you go, girl” moments that feel a bit false. But it generally feels all-too-real to watch Kunis portray a woman finding the power to speak her truth, which so many people in her life seem to think it’s better not to air “dirty laundry.” Available Oct. 7 via Netflix. (R)

click to enlarge lyle.jpg
Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile **1/2
This adaptation of a 1960s picture-book series by Bernard Waber combines two different stories, but it feels more like it combines multiple different movie components—a little musical, a little Paddington, a little One Froggy Evening—in a way that’s more muddle than magic. Would-be entertainer Valenti (Javier Bardem) discovers singing baby crocodile Lyle (Shawn Mendes) in a pet store, and thinks the critter will be his ticket to the big time. But after Lyle’s epic stage fright crushes Valenti’s hopes, the man flees, leaving Lyle to be found in Valenti’s Manhattan brownstone by new owners the Primm family: anxious middle-schooler Josh (Winslow Fegley), his dad (Scoot McNairy) and stepmom (Constance Wu). Each of them has a problem that Lyle manages to solve in about five minutes of song and/or adventure, which is just one of the ways the story feels rushed and careless in its treatment of the human characters. Everything is built around the notion of “catchy tunes and a good-hearted CGI crocodile,” and admittedly, both of those things work well; the songs by the Benj Pasek & Justin Paul (La La Land) get the toes tapping, and the animation work on Lyle is great at emphasizing his gentleness through downcast eyes and body language. The script by Will Davies (How to Train Your Dragon) always just seems to be scrabbling for an emotional hook, with a courtroom finale and triumphant “aha!” moment that feel kind of appropriate in a sense of throwing everything at the wall to see what might stick. Available Oct. 7 in theaters. (PG)

The Redeem Team **1/2
Slick, engaging and only moderately informative for anyone who’s already a basketball fan—in other words, the target audience—Jon Weinbach’s documentary succeeds mostly as a particular celebration of the late superstar Kobe Bryant. The principal subject is the 2008 U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team, made up like those since 1992 of NBA stars like Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul, but with the particular pressure of atoning for the flame-out of the 2004 Athens team. That back-story involves a lot of table-setting, not just of the 2004 team but basically the entire history of American men’s Olympic basketball, which is going to lead to a lot of finger-drumming for those already well-acquainted with that history. Things get more interesting once Weinbach starts with the behind-the-scenes footage and interviews addressing how this particular group of superstars came together under a new focus on long-term team-building by executive Jerry Colangelo, and the motivational strategies of coach Mike Krzyzewski. And it is enlightening to note the effect Bryant had upon joining the team, especially at a time when his reputation was at low ebb. Still, there’s a lot of push and pull between the desire not to alienate non-fans and provide new nuggets for the hard-cores—and considering the amount of time spent on the former, it feels particularly weird that the movie assumes everyone watching already knows that Bryant is no longer with us. Available Oct. 7 via Netflix. (NR)

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry *1/2
At the peak of the streaming-content era, it feels ridiculous to encounter a feature-film adaptation of a novel that clearly could have worked only as a mini-series. This version of Gabrielle Zevin’s 2014 bestseller spans more than a decade in the life of A.J. Fikry (Kunal Nayyar), a misanthropic widowed bookstore owner on a New England island whose life is changed by two new arrivals: Amelia (Lucy Hale), a small publisher’s newly-hired sales rep who makes occasional visits; and Maya, an abandoned infant whom A.J. decides to adopt. Much sweet-natured drama ensues, set whenever possible against lovely fall colors and other picturesque small-town scenes to approximate that cozy-read feeling. But while the performances are all reasonably engaging, Zevin’s own adaptation for director Hans Canosa rockets through every possible opportunity for real emotional resonance, leaving a whirlwind of nothing. How does fatherhood change A.J.’s perspective during the almost instantaneous passage of a few years? What’s going on in Amelia’s head that she swings so abruptly from about to break up with A.J. to accepting his marriage proposal? Why does it take an hour for it to be evident that the pregnancy of A.J.’s sister-in-law (Christina Hendricks) resulted in a miscarriage? The movie just keeps throwing character bullet-points at us, hoping that we can play catch-up in the crucial link between “what happened” and “why we should care.” Available Oct. 7 in theaters. (PG-13)

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