Film Reviews: New Releases for April 5 | Buzz Blog

Thursday, April 4, 2024

Film Reviews: New Releases for April 5

Monkey Man, The First Omen, Wicked Little Letters, Girls State, Scoop, Exhuma

Posted By on April 4, 2024, 10:32 AM

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click to enlarge Dev Patel in Monkey Man - UNIVERSAL PICTURES
  • Universal Pictures
  • Dev Patel in Monkey Man
Exhuma **1/2
For a movie with not one but two killer ghosts in its narrative, Jang Jae-hyun’s supernatural horror tale winds up feeling kind of skimpy in the thrills department. It involves the collaboration between two experts in paranormal phenomenon—shaman Hwa-rim (Kim Go-eun) and “geomancer” Sang-deok (Choi Min-sik)—when it appears that a curse is afflicting a Korean family, and that the solution is exhuming the corpse of an ancestor. The two entities that are ultimately released ultimately feel like parts of two completely different stories, each with its own resolution, although both are connected to the history of Japanese aggression in Korea. And while that history isn’t necessarily too confusing for an American audience to get a handle on, neither is it particularly enlightening in terms of the creatures’ respective motivations. Jang spends a lot of time on various rituals and spells mean to offer protection from the monsters, but not enough of the actual good stuff that happens when that protection breaks down. It’s solid creepy fun when that stuff does kick into high gear, including a ticking-clock tension surrounding the threat to an infant. The slow burn here is just a bit too slow, as Jang packs 135 minutes with sub-plots and bits of character business while missing the opportunity provided by two killer ghosts. Available April 5 at Century 16 South Salt Lake. (NR)

The First Omen *1/2
Here we have our second movie in the space of a month about an American novitiate relocating to an Italian orphanage where there might be a conspiracy involving creepy pregnancies—but at least Immaculate had the good sense to lean into its cheesy nun-sploitation. Here we find ourselves in 1971 Rome, where Margaret (Nell Tiger Free) has been assigned to a local Catholic orphanage, and is scheduled to take her final vows; unfortunately, those plans might be complicated by the possibility that one troubled young girl (Nicole Sorace) is targeted for demonic plans. For about a second-and-a-half, The First Omen suggests a subtext putting it in the company of the original Exorcist, one connected to counterculture youths’ rejection of conservative institutions. Sadly, the screenplay goes nowhere interesting with that idea, trudging through the first 90 profoundly non-scary minutes before dropping the revelations that should be obvious to anyone who has ever seen a movie before. There’s a bit of effective body horror in the climax, drawn-out though it is, but there’s a big difference between the kind of movie that treats dark convent corridors and Latin choral chanting as signifiers of genuine evil, and the kind of movie that treats those things as signifiers as a movie that wants you to giggle at them as much as it wants you to shudder at them. Available April 5 in theaters. (R)

Girls State ***1/2
Filmmakers Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss open their companion piece to 2020’s Boys State with what initially feels like a cheeky admonishment not to compare the two subjects—until it becomes clear that the differences between them is a huge part of what the film is addressing. Like Boys State, the subject is a week-long camp for high-school students focused on politics and governance—this one in Missouri—with a focus on seven of the 500-plus participants. The 2022 Missouri Girls State is taking place concurrently and on the same campus as the 2022 Missouri Boys State, which inspires some of the young women to question the differences between the programs. It also happens to be taking place just days before the Supreme Court Dobbs decision that would overturn Roe v. Wade, and the specter of that impending decision permeates nearly every conversation as the participants share their own beliefs, run campaigns and decide mock court cases. The principal subjects are all engaging and interesting, each in her own way, but McBaine and Moss understandably come to focus on Emily, a conservative-leaning student with a passion both for politics and journalism. Her evolution is subtle but compelling, helping Girls State address not only political divisions and how they can be overcome, but also how Boys State feels like a role-playing game for high-achieving résumé-packers, while Girls State presents its participants with real-world lessons in how for them, active participation in politics could be a matter of life and death. Available April 5 via AppleTV+. (NR)

Monkey Man **1/2

Early in co-writer/director/star Dev Patel’s action film, someone drops a reference to John Wick—and even if we all know that’s the key it’s meant to be operating in, it’s just a huge mistake to set up that expectation if you can’t follow through. Patel plays an unnamed man who spends his time alternately engaging in underground prize fights and trying to work his way into an organization that will allow him access to the people responsible for the death of his mother when he was a child. There’s actually a decent genre twist on the vengeance-seeking premise at the outset, as our hero seems not remotely badass enough to pull off his plan. That also means there’s a lot more dead space between the fight scenes, including a screenplay that keeps flashing back to the motivating incident in ways that only remind you how ruthlessly efficient the John Wick movies are by comparison, and references to Hindu legend that never feel entirely organic. Patel proves to be a solid action hero, and it’s certainly a unique component to have our hero assisted by an army of ass-kicking trans women. But Monkey Man simply proves lackluster and clunky in its storytelling, the kind of movie that literally needle-drops The Police’s “Roxanne” when showing someone the protagonist hopes doesn’t have to sell her body to the night. John Wick would know better. Available April 5 in theaters. (R)

Scoop **
“What is this movie about” is generally one of the most simplistic questions you can ask about a movie, but in the case of Scoop, I’m forced to ask it, even after having watched it. Nominally, it follows the events leading up to the 2019 BBC Newsnight interview between journalist Emily Maitlis (Gillian Anderson) and Prince Andrew (Rufus Sewell) to address the scandalous connections between the Prince and child sex-trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. The central character is actually Newsnight’s booking producer Sam McAlister (Billie Piper), and the screenplay Geoff Bussetil and Peter Moffat (based on McAlister’s memoir) tries to build some concern for whether the hard-working single mother will get her proper credit for pulling off the booking coup. But that dramatic hook isn’t nearly compelling enough, and there are many other sub-plots pushing and pulling for attention: the existential economic threats to journalism; the spin-doctoring efforts of Prince Andrew’s inner circle; the behind-the-scenes negotiations for whether the interview will take place at all. It’s always tricky wringing engrossing cinema out of journalistic efforts, and this mix of Frost/Nixon and She Said does offer director Philip Martin the opportunity for a few creative aesthetic choices, like the gunfighter staredown between Maitlis and Andrew as their interview commences. It just ultimately feels like there’s simply a bunch of stuff happening, circling a horrifying real-world news story, that still leaves you wondering, “but what is this movie about?” Available April 5 via Netflix. (TV-14)

Wicked Little Letters **1/2
Director Thea Sharrock and screenwriter Jonny Sweet lead off their fact-based dramedy with one of those cheeky “this story is more true than you’d think” title cards, which can be a tip-off to a story that knows its quirks might not otherwise be taken seriously. But how seriously this movie wants to be taken is a question that remains unanswered. In the 1920s British seaside town of Littlehampton, spinster Edith Swan (Olivia Colman) begins receiving anonymous vulgar letters—and suspicion naturally falls on her next-door neighbor, tart-tongued recent Irish immigrant and widowed single mother Rose Gooding (Jessie Buckley). The filmmakers wisely don’t turn this into a whodunnit, revealing the background for the letters at around the halfway point, which allows more freedom to explore the strong performances. There is, however, a disconnect between the clear subtext involving rigidly gendered societal expectations and the often-goofy comedic tone, with inept constables and various broadly-rendered supporting characters. And it feels odd that Wicked Little Letters wants to thrash conservative attitudes toward gender, yet casts a Black actor (Malachi Kirby) as Rose’s lover and a South Asian (Anjana Vasan) as a “woman police officer” while never once directly addressing race. The result is often entertaining, but a story that keeps pulling its punches, like someone who tells caustically satirical jokes then keeps following up with “just kidding.” Available April 5 in theaters. (R)

About The Author

Scott Renshaw

Scott Renshaw

Scott Renshaw has been a City Weekly staff member since 1999, including assuming the role of primary film critic in 2001 and Arts & Entertainment Editor in 2003. Scott has covered the Sundance Film Festival for 25 years, and provided coverage of local arts including theater, pop-culture conventions, comedy, literature,... more

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