ANGEL HAS FALLEN
In the new action thriller Angel Has Fallen, Gerard Butler plays Secret Service agent Mike Banning for the third time, having already portrayed this gruff, dyspeptic, über-violent patriot in 2013's Olympus Has Fallen and 2016's London Has Fallen. Considering those were two of the more painfully awful studio releases I've suffered through this decade, director Ric Roman Waugh's second sequel, I presumed, had nowhere to go but up. And blessedly, Angels Has Fallen is indeed less noxious than its predecessors. For a full 20 minutes.
As I'm tired of repeating (and you're perhaps tired of reading), Butler is the film star whose appearances I dread more than anyone else's. Given the Scottish performer's one-note grimness, unmissable self-regard, and distractingly mush-mouthed attempts at American accents, I generally spend the majority of Butler's screen time staring helplessly at my auditoriums' exit signs. Yet it turns out that when he's not playing God's Gift to Us All – which is what Butler's presence suggests in about 95 percent of his movie roles – he's not altogether bad, and Waugh's follow-up has the good sense, at least at the start, to make Mike Banning recognizably human.
An introductory, bait-and-switch action sequence effectively establishes Banning's bad-ass bona fides. Before long, though, we also see him seized by migraines and popping pain pills, with a doctor's visit revealing that our theoretically indestructible agent is both an exterior and interior wreck, likely due to the spine-cracking abuse endured in his previous world-saving adventures. It's hardly the last 10 minutes of Captain Phillips. But Angel Has Fallen's view of Mike Banning – and, by extension, Gerard Butler himself – as fallible is supremely refreshing, as are the early scenes of the agent enjoying domestic tranquility with his wife (the lovely, much-missed Piper Perabo), infant daughter, and best friend of many decades, the latter of whom winds up being the movie's chief villain.
This, by the way, is the complete opposite of a Spoiler given that said best friend is played by Danny Huston, a character actor who oozes such malevolence, and who has been cast as devious turncoats so many times before, that his latest offering doesn't even bother to treat Huston's treachery as a surprise. (There's also another, just-as-predictable mole lurking amidst Angel Has Fallen's White House staff, but I'll keep his identity secret for those two or three viewers who might not instantly surmise it.) Regardless, Waugh's film ambles along adequately enough up to and including its first major action set piece, which finds the U.S. president (Morgan Freeman), Banning, and roughly two dozen fellow agents attacked by a swarm of artillery-laden drones during a fishing trip. The drones' approach from afar is giddily effective (“Are those bats?”), and despite the somewhat cheesy CGI effects, the explosive repercussions of the onslaught – with all but Banning and the prez killed – are so implausibly yet enjoyably over-the-top that my jaw practically dropped … and not, for once, because of how ludicrous this particular Has Fallen release was proving to be.
That, however, was where the movie's opening 20 minutes ended, and from there on out, nearly everything I detested about the previous Mike Banning flicks came back in full force. To be fair, Angel is far less xenophobic and grossly 'Murica First than the Olympus and London entries. While the Russians prove to be the ultimate bad guys, their nasty dealings take place entirely off-screen, with the sky-high pile of corpses here composed merely of Americans employed by the Russians. (In this series, that's actually a sign of progress.) Yet following that fateful fishing trip, with Banning framed for the plot to assassinate the president, Waugh's thriller quickly turns into a sub-moronic take on The Fugitive, with Butler – no longer showing any signs of internal or external weakness – in the Harrison Ford role and Jada Pinkett Smith as Tommy Lee Jones. Given Butler's immediate return to auto-sneer and Pinkett Smith's relentlessly bland dialogue, this is nowhere near as much fun as it might sound. But then again, nothing in this ridiculous enterprise is: not the arrival of Nick Nolte as Banning's estranged father, a forest-dwelling hermit who evidently spent millions on home security; not the palace intrigue at the White House, a building apparently void of security systems and employees with half a brain; not the endless car chases and shoot-outs and scenes of smoke billowing from newly destroyed edifices, the ones in the final minutes boasting perhaps the lamest green-screen effects the millennium has yet produced.
And just when I thought Angel Has Fallen couldn't possibly get more unpleasant, the film scarred me with an image I unfortunately won't be forgetting any time soon. Naturally, now that Banning has a wife and baby girl, they have to be put in mortal jeopardy, which happens after a couple of gun-toting goons unexpectedly show up in the Bannings' kitchen. Perabo, pro that she is, mimics her fear effectively. That baby, though, looks absolutely horrified, shrieking with arms outstretched 10 feet to the left of the door through which the assailants enter. Such a reaction could only have come from some off-screen individual purposefully eliciting the child's panic – ripping the head off her doll, maybe, or slapping her real-life mother – and it made me want to punch whomever it was that caused the infant's spontaneous reaction for the sake of cheap sympathy. That poor kid has her whole life to be traumatized by Gerard Butler movies. She shouldn't have been forced to start as a 10-month-old.
READY OR NOT
If you accidentally walked into directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin's and Tyler Gillett's Ready or Not five minutes before the end credits, you might understandably think you'd just missed a riotous, thematically resonant horror comedy that knew just how much verbal and visual outlandishness it could get away with. What you'll actually have missed, though, is an initially promising yet deeply confused horror comedy that, until its final five minutes, can't settle on a tone, or even a blend of tones.
The juicy set-up finds Samara Weaving's Grace a new bride who, mere hours after her nuptials, finds herself goaded into playing hide-and-seek with her extended clan – ultra-wealthy descendants of a board-game magnate who have convinced themselves that if they don't execute the young woman before dawn, their family fortune, and perhaps their very souls, will vanish. While this sustaining metaphor for the rich maintaining their status on the bloodied shoulders of the poor is pretty obvious, it's still a solid metaphor for use in a violent retribution thriller, and Weaving is a sensationally empathetic heroine, navigating the family mansion's creepy passageways and Grace's even creepier in-laws with escalating incredulity and bluntly profane levelheadedness. But with the exceptions of Mark O'Brien as the groom and Adam Brody as Grace's subtly anguished brother-in-law, the other performers – among them Andie MacDowell, Henry Czerny, Kristian Bruun, Melanie Scrofano, and Julie Walters lookalike Nicky Guadagni – are pitched way too high to be believable as figures of terror, amusement, or some combination of the two. (At times, the strained comic banter and overt slapstick suggest an extended SNL take on The Purge.) And while Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett are clearly going for laughs, the minor ones we're given are routinely nullified by the truly hideous physical and emotional cruelty inflicted on Grace. Weaving does everything right, yet the realism of her pain is so incongruous with the movie's lunatic scenario and frequent hamminess that you're left not knowing how to feel; instead of chuckling, I spent most of the film's 90 minutes either wincing or merely staring at the screen with a raised eyebrow and a quiet muttering of “Wha-a-at?!” Admittedly, the sight of Grace looking increasingly haggard yet incensed in ratty sneakers and a torn wedding gown has a vicious kick to it, and those last five minutes are a figurative and nearly literal scream. Even then, though, the overall effect of Ready or Not is diminished by an easy climactic punchline that pretty much trashes all the character honesty its lead has worked in vain to provide. Grace deserved better than this clan. Weaving deserves better than this movie.
If the faith-based melodramas of Alex and Stephen Kendrick have taught us anything that can't be gleaned from biblical study, it's that you'll want to bring tissues – not for yourself, but for the characters on-screen, because these people simply can't stop bawling. The latest sermon in celluloid from the creators of Fireproof, Courageous, War Room, and other pushy yet modestly effective pro-Christian weepies, Overcomer follows high-school teacher and basketball coach John Harrison (played by director/co-writer Alex) as layoffs force him to also coach the school's cross-country team and its sole competitor Hannah (Aryn Wright-Thompson), a parent-less, kleptomaniac teen with asthma. Hannah's health condition, to say nothing of the Kendricks' naturally manipulative leanings, led me to rightfully expect at least one scene in which the girl, having lost her inhaler, collapsed from oxygen deprivation. Happily, such a moment never transpires. (Which made me wonder why asthma had to even enter the equation, but whatever … .) Plenty of other, equally shameless contrivances do, though, and if you find yourself unsurprised that the patient whom Harrison accidentally visits at the hospital just happens to be a deeply devout reformed drug addict who just happens to be a long-lost relative of Hannah's, then clearly this ain't your first time at the Kendrick brothers' rodeo.
Yet when I could ignore the almost-constant crying – Coach cries, Coach's wife cries, Hannah cries, Hannah's grandmother cries, Hannah's long-lost relative cries – Overcomer probably stands as my favorite of the siblings' releases to date, marginal though that praise might be. (The film is certainly preferable to 2015's War Room, in which the lesson learned by lead Priscilla C. Shirer – who plays the school principal here and, astoundingly, doesn't cry – was that the woman needed to forgive her emotionally abusive ex-husband for cheating on her.) The gentle humor is largely winning, the odes to the power of faith are presented with less aggression and more simple sincerity than usual, and the non-professional acting, overall, is just earnest enough to be charming. Plus, as disorienting as it is to enter a movie universe in which every teenager in sight follows their replies to adults with a “sir” or “ma'am,” it's rather touching to see a Leave It to Beaver-style community embrace all of its citizens regardless of race or class. Though not necessarily sexual orientation, as the one Overcomer figure singled out for comic ridicule just happens to be the school's flamboyant drama coach who just happens to be there for Hannah's big come-to-Jesus speech and sees it as a model of peerless acting potential. Here's hoping the Kendricks' next project doesn't find them indulging in a cinematic sermon documenting the "sins" of Oscar Wilde, 'cause it would go on for days.
THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON
As The Peanut Butter Falcon already boasts one of my favorite movie titles of 2019 (and of several preceding years), it was certainly too much to hope that writer/directors Tyler Nilson's and Mike Schwartz's dramedy would be one of my favorite movies of the year, too. Saints be praised, though: It very much is, even though nearly everything about it initially screamed “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” Zack Gottsagen, a 35-year-old actor with Down syndrome, plays Zak, a 22-year-old with Down syndrome and aspirations for a pro-wrestling career, who escapes his state-mandated stay in a southern senior-living facility by slipping through a window wearing only his tighty-whities. Shia LaBeouf plays Tyler, an unlicensed crab fisherman on the run for torching his competitors' business. The men accidentally meet, form an alliance, and consequently escape their threatened captors – Zak's a kindly social worker played by Dakota Johnson, Tyler's a threatening fisherman played by John Hawkes – by floating down river on a makeshift raft, just like Mark Twain's Huck and Jim. Imagine, if you can, all the ways this potentially precious, manipulative, insulting, and offensive material could have gone wrong. Now imagine the complete opposite of that. That, amazingly, is The Peanut Butter Falcon.
I went back and forth on publicly comparing Nilson's and Schwartz's film to Tom McCarthy's marvelous 2003 indie The Station Agent, partly because I didn't want to be seen as comparing dwarfism to Down syndrome, and partly because I didn't want to compare Gottsagen and LaBeouf to Peter Dinklage and Bobby Cannavale. (Although she's as endearing as always, Johnson also isn't any real threat to The Station Agent's Patricia Clarkson.) But I kind of adore The Peanut Butter Falcon with the same heartfelt fervor that I love McCarthy's movie – another tale of three misfits who find each other and, against all odds and reason, form a family. From Gottsagen's first seconds on-screen, it's clear that his writers/directors (who wrote the script with him in mind) aren't going to subject their lead to undue mawkishness, sentimentality, or humiliation. They trust him to be a fully alert and confident tragicomic actor, and Gottsagen rewards them, and us, with a portrayal as thrillingly specific – affecting, hilarious, thoughtful – as it is inspiring. The bigger surprise, in truth, may be that LaBeouf totally equals his co-star. While viewers of Lars von Trier's 2014 Nymphomaniac will likely remember the nudity, it's been ages (maybe since 2003's Holes?) that LaBeouf has also seemed emotionally naked on-screen, and his haunted, longing performance here as damaged goods badly in need of a brother may mark the actor's finest work to date. LaBeouf and Gottsagen are magical together – their no-doubt carefully scripted dialogue seeming to be beautifully improvised – and they're aided by gentle, un-rushed filmmaking that establishes locale, time of day, cultural climate, and even backstory with uncommon grace. (The details of Tyler's past tragedy, with Jon Bernthal seen in flashback, are handled with particularly exquisite care.) Adding Johnson's earthy, luminous naturalism and first-rate turns by Hawkes, Thomas Haden Church, the apparently (and hopefully) eternal Bruce Dern, and a number of non-professionals who would give lifelong character actors a run for their money, The Peanut Butter Falcon – its title the planned-for nom de guerre of Zak's wannabe wrestler – is indie-flick Heaven. It doesn't come from Marvel or DC, and it's still the superhero movie of the year.