Summer at the cineplex brings with it blockbuster franchises and potential tentpoles. The holiday season brings broad comedies and Oscar bait. Labor Day weekend brings bupkis. And the third weekend in October? That's when studios traditionally throw everything else at the wall to see if anything sticks, and almost none of it ever does.
In recent years, as many as eight debuting releases have all landed on this particular autumn weekend – not that any of us likely remembered their titles after a month or two. So before proceeding, allow me to express a bit of gratitude for only having to see five this time around. There ain't gonna be a lot of gratitude forthcoming.
In order of bearability … .
ONLY THE BRAVE: By a considerable margin, the weekend's strongest outing proves to be director Joseph Kosinski's salute to the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a team of 20 select firefighters based in Prescott, Arizona, who valiantly battled the state's Yarnell Hill Fire of 2013. If you're planning to see Only the Brave and don't recall how that devastating blaze played out, I'm not going to be the one to remind you – though I will suggest sneaking in a fistful of tissues alongside your covertly smuggled candy and soda. But while the movie hardly supplies a Happily Ever After, I at least left happy that, as opposed to a lot of recent real-life-disaster pics, Kosinski's sobering and affecting action drama didn't at all emerge as blindly worshipful (Sully), needlessly sentimental (Patriots Day), or completely pointless (Deepwater Horizon).
Structurally, nothing that happens deviates from the norm, with the introductions to Josh Brolin's crew leader, Miles Teller's newbie recruit, Jeff Bridges' fire chief, and others leading to rather by-the-book sequences of training, early missteps, and later triumphs in between domestic crises and barbecues. (Ken Nolan's and Eric Warren Singer's screenplay also features a healthy helping of cute, especially after Teller's and Taylor Kitsch's former antagonists become devoted roomies and host a sleepover for Teller's toddler daughter.) Yet if the on-screen conflagrations are impressive in their realism and matter-of-fact detail, they're still outmatched, in those regards, by the central performers, who paint vivid portraits based on mere brushstrokes.
Teller's recovering addict has moments of subtle heartbreak comparable to those in the actor's auspicious Rabbit Hole debut, and I would've been perfectly content to see an entire film devoted to the shared sizzle of Brolin and Jennifer Connelly, whose relationship feels charged with erotic heat and churning pain in ways that few screen marriages ever do. (Among the exemplary cast, only Andie MacDowell seems uncomfortable, probably because she's been given next to nothing to play.) Koninski's film is so well-acted, casually observant, and offhandedly funny that when the Hotshots leave for the climactic fire – you'll know tragedy looms when Brolin calls the mission “no big deal” and tells Connelly he'll “probably be home for dinner” – you may feel a reflexive tightening in your gut, not wanting the end to come for any of the characters, or even for the movie itself. By the finale, I was a wreck. I also felt honored to have spent two hours in Only the Brave's heroic company.
TYLER PERRY'S BOO 2! A MADEA HALLOWEEN: Considering Perry's previous Boo! was released a scant 12 months ago, I think it can be safely said that his sequel is a bit of a rush job. But offhand, I can't think of a follow-up that's felt more rushed than this one, given the plotline that's a campground-based replica of its predecessor, the line flubs that somehow made their way into the finished product, and the god-awful looping – on at least a half-dozen occasions – in which Madea's “damn”s are awkwardly switched to “darn”s. It's as though Perry were presenting his PG-13 feature and its cleaned-up version for airlines and Walmarts simultaneously. (Why on Earth would the writer/director, or the studio releasing his film, be so timid about a few scattered “damn”s? This is, after all, the same movie that finds Perry's crass stoner Joe brazenly propositioning a 17-year-old and telling a fellow octogenarian, “Put your teeth in – you ain't goin' to work tonight.”) I also left with the distinct impression that, for numerous sequences, there wasn't even a working script – just vague directives from Perry suggesting improvisations that most of the cast members were too inept to pull off. The outrageous overacting by the original film's frat boys and teen girls was bad enough. Here, though, their hyperactive mugging made me wish I had purchased a large bucket of popcorn either to chuck at the screen or to quickly empty and place over my head in shame for being there.
But God help me: I laughed. I laughed hard. Not nearly as often as I would've liked, given that so much of the movie focuses on the excruciating antics of those hatefully stupid kids. (During the rare moments in which they're not yammering or shrieking, Perry simply plops his camera down in front of them while they drink and dance and flirt, and they can't even do that convincingly.) Yet although Madea has been saltier and funnier in previous adventures, she's still a frequent hoot here, particularly in the five to 10 seconds right before she freaks out. (Perry's tentative, increasingly panicked sashay away from a Grim Reaper figure is a true classic.) Cassi Davis, as the pop-eyed Aunt Bam, and Patrice Lovely, as the barely comprehensible Hattie, are as endearingly inane as they were the last time around. And while Perry's Madea may bring in the crowds, it's Joe who keeps us the most consistently entertained, with his riotous, anti-P.C. rants so subversive that the shock of his humor is nearly bracing. I doubt I'll soon remember much about Tyler Perry's Boo 2! A Madea Halloween, but I can't imagine ever forgetting Joe's demand to his house-dress-wearing sister: “Shut up, sir.”
SAME KIND OF DIFFERENT AS ME: Last weekend, I saw a trailer for director Michael Carney's inspirational drama and was immediately taken aback, because I was certain the film had opened (in other markets) ages ago. But then the preview ended with “Coming February 2017,” and I thought, “Oh-h-h-h … it's that kind of movie …” – meaning the kind of long-delayed title so throwaway and forgettable that its studio couldn't even bother to update its date-of-release mention in their advertising. In truth, it might've been better for everyone had the film never been released – everyone, that is, except viewers who somehow haven't had their fill of cloying dreck in which an impoverished black man suffers so a privileged white man can learn a lesson. The white man in Same Kind of Different as Me is Ron Hall, an art dealer so initially oily and eventually earnest that he's inevitably played by Greg Kinnear. The black man is Denver “Suicide” Moore, a homeless ex-con so initially crazed and eventually lyrical that he's inevitably played by Djimon Hounsou. And beyond the aggressively on-the-nose casting, there was more about this tale of accidental friendship – adapted from a bestselling nonfiction – that made me want to retch, including the staggering condescension, the golden-hued cotton-field and KKK flashbacks, and Denver's climactic speech that earns him a standing ovation … at a funeral. (This newly revered homeless man, though, is still obviously surrounded by bastards, considering that when we return to the upstanding Denver several months later, not one of those moved and inspired funeral attendees has bothered to offer him a job.)
If, however, you can make it through this generically well-meaning, deeply offensive saga that should forever end Hollywood's oft-repeated “white savior” and “magical Negro” narratives, there are a few perks. One is the admirably unlikable portrayal by Jon Voight, our current standard-bearer for huffy, red-faced bigots. Another is Renée Zellweger, who may no longer much resemble the Zellweger of yore, but whose unforced decency makes it easier to deal with Hounsou's hamminess and Kinnear's lethargy. And while, overall, he does more wrong than right, Carney at least delivers a few scenes – Zellweger giving a homeless woman a makeover, Zellweger receiving very bad news and wordlessly sharing it with Hounsou – that are unexpectedly lovely in their blessed quiet. Would that the whole movie were a silent one.
GEOSTORM: Not long after Dean Devlin's environmental-disaster flick opens, we're told that in 2019, the effects of climate change led to a worldwide crisis so catastrophic that the American government spearheaded a planet-saving plan. So barring some unfathomable shakeup in our current administration, we're clearly in the realm of fantasy. Then again, as the mastermind behind that plan turns out to be Gerard Butler, it's not as though vérité was ever on the filmmakers' agenda. You know those guys who can't stop wishing they were still in high school even though it's been more than 20 years since they graduated? I'd bet anything Devlin is one of those guys, because for his feature-film directing debut, the screenwriter of Independence Day has tried to make a movie just like it, complete with pricey visuals, casual demolition of global landmarks, jokey banter, romantic subplots, and guilt-free delight at the deaths of untold thousands. Oh yes, and the miraculous survival of an irrelevant dog. But Geostorm isn't Independence Day. It isn't even the wretched Independence Day: Resurgence. It's more like Independence Day director Roland Emmerich's The Day After Tomorrow, only with Gerard Butler, which makes it so much worse.
Granted, there's some unintentional amusement, from the casting of Cuban actor Andy Garcia as the president to the lightning bolt that strikes an Orlando arena theatre and causes the whole venue to explode. But while this gaga tale of a weather-controlling device falling into malevolent hands did make me chuckle a lot – Jim Sturgess, as Butler's baby brother, has a baby-brother version of Butler's stubble! – I never once chuckled at the jokes. Or rather, I did, because the whole freakin' movie is a joke, with its nutball narrative, risible dialogue, cheesy effects, and embarrassing sentiment all vying for worst-in-show honors. Let's not kid ourselves, though: That eternal vacuum of talent and charisma Gerard Butler, as usual, has the title all sewn up. Remember when Denise Richards played a Bond-movie nuclear physicist in The World Is Not Enough? She's now officially America's second-least credible scientist.
THE SNOWMAN: When Darren Aronofsky's impassioned, inventive, borderline-insane mother! received its notorious “F” from CinemaScore last month, it was disheartening yet understandable, as the film was clearly way too outré for mass-audience appeal. But The Snowman, which concerns a Swedish serial killer whose lawn Frostys are his trademark, apparently received a “D,” and I'm sorry – I just don't get it. Aronofsky's flawed yet wildly ambitious film is deemed an epic fail, but this laborious, clunky loser gets a passing grade?
Heaven knows the opening credits inspire confidence, because beyond Let the Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy director Tomas Alfredson, the gifted participants include executive producer Martin Scorsese, Marty's longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and actors Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Toby Jones, and Chloë Sevigny. Yet beginning with Fassbender's protagonist being named Harry Hole – he's an alcoholic detective, and not, as you may have presumed, a gay-porn star – nearly everything about this adaptation of Jo Nesbø's novel is ludicrous. Given the desolate beauty of cinematographer Dion Beebe's images, you keep waiting for something, anything, to also grab you intellectually or emotionally. All we get, however, are incoherent narrative strands, breathtaking contrivances, and soulless portrayals (Fassbender makes the act of smiling look positively torturous), with the climactic reveal somehow both utterly obvious and completely nonsensical. You may have heard how excruciating it is to watch Val Kilmer in this thing, considering the clearly disoriented performer looks awful and sounds worse, his badly dubbed dialogue making him a vocal dead-ringer for Ted Levine in The Silence of the Lambs. But I'm not sure he's more atrocious than the crazy tonal inconsistencies, or the hilariously convenient thin ice at the finale, or J.K. Simmons' laughable attempt at a European dialect … . (Also, and not for nothing: Snowmen are not scary.) Geostorm is ghastly, and it's still not as terrible as this. Midway through, Ferguson's cop tells Harry Hole, “You can't force the pieces to fit.” Had she convinced a producer of that, maybe we all could've been spared this unholy mess.