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HOT SUMMER NIGHTS

Producer: Bradley Thomas, Dan Friedkin and Ryan Friedkin
Director: Elijah Bynum
Writer: Elijah Bynum
Stars: Timothee Chalamet, Maika Monroe, Alex Roe, Emory Cohen, Thomas Jane, Maia Mitchell, William Fichtner, Rawann Gracie and Shane Epstein Petrullo
Studio: A24 Films

C-

Presumably it was all the attention Timothée Chalamet got for “Call Me By Your Name” that induced A24 to disinter this earlier effort by first-time writer-director Elijah Bynum, a period piece set in the summer of 1991. The talented young actor plays a teen who gets involved in the drug trade—and romance—with dire results, for his character and for viewers. “Hot Summer Nights” is a throwback to the genre of kiddie noir that attracted some members of the so-called Brat Pack in the eighties—pictures like “Blue City” with Judd Nelson and “Out of Bounds” with Anthony Michael Hall. The idea’s no better now than it was then.

Chalamet plays, with greater intensity than the role really deserves, Daniel Middleton, who’s so devastated by the death of his father that his mother packs him off to stay with an aunt on Cape Cod for the summer. Neither wealthy enough to hang with the real summer people nor a townie, Daniel feels out of place until he’s virtually adopted by the local bad boy, a hunky fellow with the unlikely name of Hunter Strawberry (Alex Roe). Hunter is the chief purveyor of weed in town, and especially with the summer folk as customers, he has a substantial clientele.

Taking Danny, as he insists on calling him, under his wing after the kid hides some weed for him when a cop gets too close, Hunter teaches the teen the tricks of his low-tech trade and makes him a junior partner. Danny even takes a puff on his first reefer and immediately collapses in ecstasy. No wonder he becomes such an energetic salesman.

Danny’s apparent good fortune continues when, at the drive-in one night (it always seems to be showing “Terminator 2”), his car becomes the refuge of choice of beautiful McKayla (Maika Monroe), a girl with a bit of a reputation who’s left her current boyfriend’s car in a huff. She asks for—actually demands—a ride home, and Danny eagerly complies. Over time the two will develop a romantic connection, which causes somewhat of a problem, because McKayla’s surname is Strawberry, and her brother is a protective guy. No wonder they keep the relationship secret. As it happens, she also objects to her brother’s business operation, which means that Danny has to conceal his involvement in it from her.

His success in the trade leads Danny to think big, and his attempt to expand their territory—and their supply—leads to an arrangement with Dex (Emory Cohen), a hood who can provides lots more weed to push. Despite their increased profits, however, the boy isn’t satisfied: though he knows that Hunter is unconvinced and that Dex will be very displeased, he decides to expand their trade to include cocaine—which will take him out west for a meeting with drug lord Shep (William Fichtner). It does not turn out well, and a big finale involves guns, speeding cars and death, all against the backdrop of Hurricane Bob hitting the Cape. (What with this and “The Equalizer 2,” hurricanes seem to be a motif this month.)

But of course in this instance, the storm isn’t just a convenient backdrop: it’s a climactic meteorological metaphor for the melodramatic maelstrom that Bynum has been working to build up over the course of the movie’s overextended two hours. The novice filmmaker and his cohorts on both sides of the camera work hard to create a steamy atmosphere and a brooding sense of impending disaster. But though he draws sensitive performances from Chalamet and the rest of the cast—Monroe, Roe, and Thomas Jane as the policeman father of a girl (Maia Mitchell) Hunter takes up with in particular—and production designer Kay Lee and cinematographer Javier Julia help fashion a sultry mood, the movie becomes overall an ostentatiously stylized farrago of coming-of-age clichés and crime-movie tropes.

The dialogue is a significant drawback. Even at its best it’s humdrum, but too often the pulpishness is ludicrously overripe. Cohen, who’s done good work in the past, is totally defeated by the loopy lines he’s compelled to recite (and the trite characterization they reflect), and veteran Fichtner’s single scene, played in a drug-induced haze, is unintentionally hilarious. Even worse is the fact that the movie is drenched in what seems like omniscient voiceover narration spoken by a childish voice. The speaker is revealed at the close—he’s a neighborhood kid (Rawann Gracie, though the words are spoken by Shane Epstein Petrullo). Maybe the device is intended as a misguided homage to “Days of Heaven,” but it makes little sense here, especially since the identity of the boy comes entirely out of left field, and at the close his observations take a pretty tasteless turn for the me-too age.

The narration also points toward the wildly variable tone Bynum brings to his overwrought material. Apparently intent on using every device he’s even seen in a movie, he and editors Jeff Castelluccio, Tom Constantino and Dan Zimmerman indulge in frantic montages at the drop of a hat, but especially in the last act frequently slow things down to a crawl as characters engage in self-indulgent monologues about past secrets, often interrupted by quick inserts cutting back to earlier events. Then there are the weird “interview” excerpts with townspeople that are tossed into the mix toward the start to provide backstory. These are frankly inexplicable from any logical standpoint, and from a narrative perspective are simply lazy.

Bynum is equally extravagant in his musical choices. Much of the footage is slathered with pop songs from the sixties and seventies, though even here he opts for eclecticism: one of the parts of the hyperkinetic opening montage is accompanied by a bit from the finale of Schubert’s Third Symphony.

So “Hot Summer Nights” is of interest as a relatively early example of Chalamet’s undeniable talent, and he is in fact very good; unfortunately, the film itself is a soggy, meandering mess.

SKYSCRAPER

Producer: Beau Flynn, Dwayne Johnson, Rawson Marshall Thurber and Hiram Garcia
Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Writer: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Chin Han, Roland Moller, Noah Taylor, Byron Mann, Pablo Schreiber, McKenna Roberts, Noah Cottrell and Hannah Quinlivan
Studio: Universal Pictures

C-

Mash together “Die Hard” with “The Towering Inferno,” add an extra helping of absurdity to the mix, and you have the recipe for “Skyscraper,” which can only be described as a live-action cartoon that can only be justified in terms of providing a massive adrenaline rush. The formula certainly worked at the boxoffice for Dwayne Johnson before, and probably will this time as well; but though one can appreciate a Looney Tunes short, this would-be summer blockbuster clocks in at more than an hour and a half, and that’s way too long for nonsense of this kind. The Warner Brothers featurettes, moreover, were funny; this lumbering behemoth is a pretty humorless affair, except for the unintended laughs the ludicrous excesses and general cheesiness are likely to provoke.

You have to hand it to the makers, though. Knowing that a big chunk of the target audience will be found in China, where this sort of mindless spectacle has become a major draw (especially since the dialogue can be completely disposable—indeed, the line that’s spoken most often is “Turn around!”—always delivered by someone to a person he has a gun trained on), they’ve situated the action in Hong Kong (though doing the actual shooting in Vancouver), and filled many of the under-the-title roles with Asian actors. So even if the picture were to whiff in America, its revenues abroad should cover the costs.

The plot contrived by director Rawson Marshall Thurber is an extremely simple one. Will Sawyer (Johnson) is a security expert who has lost a leg in a bungled SWAT-like rescue attempt shown in a phony-looking Minnesota-set prologue, but gained a wife as a result of the tragedy—the ex-military nurse Sarah (Neve Campbell) who saw him through rehab. They have darling twin kids (McKenna Roberts and Noah Cottrell) , and the whole family is ensconced in a lovely Hong Kong apartment in The Pearl, the world’s tallest building, which is about to be opened for business by steely-eyed mogul Zhao (Chin Han). On the recommendation of old FBI buddy Ben (Pablo Schreiber), Will’s been tapped to perform the final security check on the Pearl.

Things quickly go awry as—we soon learn—no one can be trusted. An army of thugs led by nasty Kores Botha (Roland Møller) bypasses the building’s elaborate security systems to set it afire, trapping Zhao and his entourage in the penthouse. The reason, we learn, is to compel the businessman to hand over a list of the sleazy investors Zhao had persuaded to put money into the venture, whose names he now plans to reveal unless they stop pressuring him. (A more ridiculously elaborate scheme could hardly be invented; surely a simple kidnap-and-torture would have worked just as well—in fact better, as it turns out.)

In any event, despite the suspicions of the singularly inept Hong Kong cops (headed by stone-faced Byron Mann) that Will might be involved in the plot against Zhao, our intrepid hero escapes them, climbs a tall construction crane beside the Pearl, crashes his way into the building and undertakes to save his wife and kids. His farfetched feats are applauded vociferously, when they occur on the building’s ledges as they often do, by a crowd of observers down on the street, who are periodically shown cheering him on (obviously to encourage the audience to respond in similar fashion). No points for predicting how things turn out.

It’s hard to believe that such a smoldering lump of action hokum could have been cobbled together by Thurber, who penned the clever “Central Intelligence” and tapped into Johnson’s gift for self-deprecating humor so well in it. His script is not only riddled with plot holes but plagued by a total lack of suspense, with the villainous character of one person, for instance, obvious from the first moment the slimy-looking actor appears onscreen, though it’s supposed to come as a shocking revelation near the close. He also made a terrible error in inserting a pointless sideshow involving a bunch of high-tech mirrors atop the Pearl, which are apparently there only to allow him to stage a flamboyant battle scene at the close where the combatants don’t know where each other really are. It’s a pity the gambit was done much better in “John Wick: Chapter 2,” let alone “The Lady from Shanghai.”

The failure of that culminating sequence isn’t just the result of lazy screenwriting, though; its sloppiness is also proof of Thurber’s inadequacy as an action director. He’s done reasonably well in the past helming smaller-scaled comedies, but the big moments of danger and derring-do here fall flat, being poorly conceived and clumsily choreographed. Robert Elswit’s unimaginative cinematography and the almost desperate editing of Mike Sale and Julian Clarke don’t help, of course, nor does the generally chintzy CGI work that’s integrated with Jim Bissell’s plastic-looking production design (including, of course, the Pearl itself). But the ultimate responsibility lies with Thurber, who must also have approved Steve Jablonsky’s utterly generic score.

Thurber might also have chosen—and used—his cast more ably. Johnson goes through the standard action-hero paces with his accustomed likability, and has a few good moments with his prosthetic leg (clearly a device meant to make his deeds even more remarkable, though it actually just italicizes how incredible they are). But he’s duller than usual here, with his fights scenes messily staged and shot and his interaction with the kids sappy. And while it’s nice to see Campbell back in circulation after too long a hiatus, her fight scenes are no better than Johnson’s, and she’s reduced to mere damsel-in-distress mode too often. (One can’t help but giggle in the scene in which she must walk across a wooden plank to save her son, still wearing her high-heeled, fashion-plate boots.)

The remaining performers are instantly forgettable. Møller makes a boring villain, not a patch on Alan Rickman’s memorable Hans Gruber or any of the other wonderfully over-the-top bad guys in movies of this ilk, and Hannah Quinlivan, as his slinky henchwoman, vies with Mann in trying to get through their scenes without moving a facial muscle.

“Skyscraper” is such a bust that you might well wonder whether Thurber first wrote it as a spoof of the genre—a kind of “Airplane!” on the stairwells—but then recast it as a straightforward action flick, perhaps at the behest of his investors. If so, they treated him no better than Zhao’s did.