Category Archives: Now Showing

READY OR NOT

Producer: Bradley J. Fischer, William Sherak, James Vanderbilt and Tripp Vinson
Director: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett
Writer: Guy Busick and Ryan Christopher Murphy
Stars: Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Mark O'Brien, Henry Czerny, Andie MacDowell, Melanie Scrofano, Kristian Bruun, Elyse Levesque, Nicky Guadagni, John Ralston, Liam MacDonald, Ethan Tavares, Hanneke Talbot, Celine Tsai and Daniela Barbosa
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures

C

It doesn’t take a genius to discern that Guy Busick and Ryan Christopher Murphy’s script for “Ready or Not” was inspired by Jordan Peele’s surprise smash “Get Out,” substituting class for race. But the movie’s combination of horror, dark comedy and social commentary, while a substantial improvement over directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett’s previous effort, the dreary found-footage “Rosemary’s Baby” clone “Devil’s Due,” is nowhere near as deftly handled as it was in Peele’s film.

The goofy story—and be aware that the following précis contains spoilers, so proceed with caution should you wish to see the film blissfully ignorant of its plot—revolves around the wedding of Grace (Samara Weaving), a young woman brought up in a foster home, to clean-cut Alex Le Domas (Mark O’Brien). He’s part of a well-to-do family whose fortune was founded on board games but now has exploded via ownership of sports franchises. The Le Domas clan is headed by Tony (Henry Czerny) and his wife Becky (Andie MacDowell), who live in the opulent estate where the ceremonies are about to occur.

Among the guests are the other family members. The most grotesque of the bunch is Tony’s surly sister Helene (Nicky Guadagni). But also present are Alex’s rather dissolute brother Daniel (Adam Brody) and his wife Charity (Elyse Levesque), along with their sons Georgie (Liam MacDonald) and Gabe (Ethan Tavares); and his drug-addict sister Emilie (Melanie Scrofano) and her cowardly husband Fitch (Kristian Bruun). Also on hand are servants, several maids but most notably the devoted family butler Stevens (John Ralston), who seems to be obsessed with classical music, especially Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.

The Le Domases are none too receptive to Grace, with Tony and Helene most obviously hostile, Becky apparently on the fence, and Daniel most accepting. It’s not their attitude that’s really problematic, though: it’s a tradition they have—that newlyweds must participate in a game on their wedding night, which will be determined by the bride’s choice of a card from a mystical box that, Tony explains, has been the key to the clan’s fortunes since it was acquired in the nineteenth century. By chance (or perhaps not), the card turns out to be hide and seek, under the rules of which the bride must hide and the family members must find her—and kill her before dawn. If they don’t, Tony explains, they will all die horribly, victims of a Satanic curse associated with that wealth-bringing box.

So begins the long night’s journey into day, a cats-and-mouse pursuit in which many will die (starting with the maids, two of whom are accidentally dispatched by the addled Emilie) and concluding with a literally splashy bloodbath. Along the way Grace’s bridal grown becomes saturated with gore as she tries to elude the family members who—save for Alex, who tries to help her escape, and Daniel, who is of two minds about the business, sporadically exhibits what in this context passes for mercy.

Of course you’re not meant to take this nonsensical business seriously, especially since it’s played like a parody of creaky old melodramas, with the cast encouraged to put across the mood of breathless dementia at the highest possible pitch. Czerny, Guadagni and Ralston embrace the style most enthusiastically, though the others aren’t far behind, and Weaving conveys both the tremulousness of poor Grace in the early stages of the chase and her steely resolve as she, though reluctantly, does whatever it takes to survive (she even—horror of horrors—punches a kid out cold at one point, though it must be admitted that there’s provocation). In the early scenes she even adds a suggestion that Grace might just be a bit of the gold-digger the family assumes she is.

All of this is done up in full-bore Grand Guignol style, not only from the performance standpoint but in terms of setting. Andrew M. Stearn’s production design is extravagant, to say the least—the interior of the Le Domas mansion is as tackily flamboyant as you could wish—and Brett Jutziewicz’s widescreen lensing gives the visuals a lush, glossy look.

But even with the cast giving their all, the effort of Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett (along with editor Terel Gibson) to keep things moving at a furious pace, and a score by Brian Tyler italicizing the gruesome shocks, “Ready or Not,” while an efficient genre piece, can’t help running down as the ridiculous twists and turns pile up en route to a drawn-out finale and a limp punch-line. (A sequence in which Stewart pursues Grace on the estate grounds, for instance, is cruelly overextended, as well as sloppily choreographed.)

This may satisfy viewers wanting a tongue-in-cheek gorefest with a smidgen of social commentary, but it lacks the edge and subtlety of “Get Out,” its obvious model. It’s also worthy of wondering why “The Hunt” has been—even if temporarily—shelved while this movie, which carries a similar theme, hasn’t elicited equally vociferous criticism from the likes of Laura Ingraham and the folks at Fox and Friends. Could the Fox connection (even if the ties between the various divisions of the former Murdoch empire are now severed) be one of the reasons?

THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON

Producer: Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa, Christopher Lemole, Tim Zajaros, Lije Sarki and David Thies
Director: Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz
Writer: Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz
Stars: Shia LaBeouf, Zack Gottsagen, Dakota Johnson, John Hawkes, Bruce Dern, Thomas Haden Church, Jon Bernthal, Wayne DeHart, Jake "Thr Snake" Roberts, Mick Foley and Yelawolf
Studio: Roadside Attractions

B+

A picaresque journey from Virginia to Florida with some unlikely traveling companions, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is a small film with a big heart. It is also notable for a casting choice that gives it special distinction, though one hopes that it’s one that will become less extraordinary in the future.

It involves Zack Gottsagen, who plays Zak, a young man with Down Syndrome who has been placed in a nursing home in Richmond because the state has no other facility in which he can be housed. Gottsagen actually has the condition.

Frustrated after spending years in the home in spite of the kindness shown him by sympathetic nurse Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), Zak engineers his escape with the help of his cantankerous roommate Carl (Bruce Dern, as usual delightfully crabby), though it leaves him clothed only in his underwear. His aim is not merely freedom, but the fulfillment of a dream to study pro wrestling at a Georgia school run by his idol Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), a grappler whom he’s watched obsessively on old video tapes.

Meanwhile Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a fisherman struggling to make ends meet since the death of his brother Mark (Jon Bernthal, seen only in flashback), falls afoul of his nasty rival Duncan (John Hawkes), and retaliates by releasing the guy’s catch of crabs. He then flees in his rusty old boat, with Duncan and his minion Ratboy (Yelawolf) in pursuit.

What Tyler doesn’t know is that Zak has hidden himself under a tarp on the boat. And when he does discover the young man, he’s not at all pleased. But he reluctantly takes the young man under his wing, teaching him to swim and shoot a gun along the way, and they develop a fraternal bond.. Traveling by boat, raft, and on foot, they proceed down the Virginia and Carolina coasts, but not entirely alone: Eleanor catches up with them and creates a threesome. But of course there’s always the danger that Duncan and Ratboy will show up as well.

In his chance meeting with Eleanor at a general store, Tyler mentions that the young man she’s seeking might be living his own version of a Mark Twain story like Huckleberry Finn, and that’s precisely what “Falcon” is; and while it might not match its model (what movie could?), it’s a genial modern variant. It too is episodic, making room for vignettes along the way, the best probably being an encounter with a pistol-packing blind man (Wayne DeHart), who insists on baptizing them before giving them provisions to continue their odyssey.

The essence of the tale, however, is the relationship that develops between Zak and Tyler, and as played by the open-faced, enthusiastic, utterly committed Gottsagen and LaBeouf, who morphs with considerable nuance from the surly young man of his first scenes to the caring fellow of the final act, it’s a touching one. This is the story of Tyler’s redemption as well as Zak’s engagement with the world, and LaBeouf makes it credible. Johnson’s Eleanor has less shading than her eventual companions, but the actress endows her with the necessary sweetness.

The movie culminates, of course, with the trio’s arrival at the wrestling school, which is hardly the thriving enterprise that Zak expects. But Salt Water (an engagingly crusty cameo by Church) proves as open to his would-be student’s charms as Eleanor and Tyler, and enlists others—played by Jake “The Snake” Roberts and Mick Foley, elder statesmen in the pro wrestling world—to help Zak realize his dream, though the outcome avoids the note of easy triumph one might anticipate.

Directed in a gentle, unfussy manner by first-timers Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, who wrote the script with Gottsagen in mind, “Falcon” boasts a production design (by Gabrael Wilson) that captures the seediness of the surroundings without overemphasizing it, and naturalistic cinematography by Nigel Bluck, and moves at unforced but not languid pace thanks to the editing by Kevin Tent and Nathaniel Fuller. The music by Jonathan Sadoff, Zachary Dawes, Noam Pilekny and Gabe Witcher is supportive, not intrusive.

“The Peanut Butter Falcon”—the title comes from the name Zak chooses for his wrestling persona—is a lovely tale of an unusual friendship, one that earns your affection rather than demanding it.