Movie Review ~ Barbarian

The Facts:

Synopsis: A woman staying at an Airbnb discovers that the house she has rented is not what it seems.
Stars: Georgina Campbell, Bill Skarsgård, Justin Long, Matthew Patrick Davis, Richard Brake, Jaymes Butler, Kurt Braunohler
Director: Zach Cregger
Rated: R
Running Length: 102 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: There’s a clever bit of marketing surrounding the release of the new horror film Barbarian. Along with the traditional trailer that blessedly gives away precious little, 20th Century Studios is also running a robust digital campaign. Ads showing preview audiences watching the film and reacting are nothing new regarding reeling in interested viewers, but this pushes hard on the shock and awe that await. It’s a bold strategy because if the movie doesn’t deliver, then there’s lost trust between the studio and ticket-holders that Hollywood can’t buy back in the future. Lucky for Barbarian’s filmmakers and even more fortunate for us, writer/director Zach Cregger has gifted brave viewers an Energizer Bunny of nail-gnashing scares. Just when you think its best hand has been played, the real terror begins.

Creeger’s film could easily start with a title card reading, “It was a dark and stormy night,” because that’s the first thing we see as a car pulls up in the rain in front of an innocuous house. Tess (Georgina Campbell, All My Friends Hate Me) ignores calls from someone named Marcus as she goes over the details of accessing her Airbnb. There’s trouble, though. When she tries to get her key from the lockbox, it’s missing. Noticing a light inside, she knocks until Keith (Bill Skarsgård, Eternals) opens the door. It appears they’ve both booked the rental home through different services, and after awkward interplay that graduates into friendly introductions, it’s decided Tess will sleep in the bedroom while Keith will take the couch. They’ll figure things out the next day.

Oh, but I wish I could tell you more than that! I would like to expand on why Tess is in town and analyze why she doesn’t heed many warning signs to find new lodging the next day. I want to get into what the neighborhood looks like in the bright sunlight after the rain stops and what Tess finds when she hunts for more toilet paper in the basement. I’d really like to get into Justin Long’s character and how he fits into the story, not to mention discuss why he’s visiting the city and the same pristine house Tess and Keith got double booked into. Mostly, I’m intrigued to find out your thoughts about a flashback that explains a lot while saying little. I won’t say anything, though, because to spoil absolutely any of Creeger’s ingenious surprises and stunners would shortchange you of an extremely scary (and satisfying) freak out.

Do me a favor, and trust me when I say that knowing too much about Barbarian going in will dim its bright light just a little bit. Having seen it, I confidently feel it has substantial replay value and look forward to watching it again. There’s no getting back that first watch, and you’ll be grateful to let things play out on their own without waiting for the expected to happen. The marketing team involved with Barbarian has kindly kept a solid lid on the proceedings, and while the trailer may have hinted at what’s going on, it’s withheld more than it’s shown. 

Still an actor as he begins to dip his toe into directing, Creeger has enlisted a strong cast as well as friends and family (like wife Sara Paxton) to fill out voice-over roles. Campbell, Skarsgård, and especially Long (Lady of the Manor) are all incredibly game to play along with Creeger’s twisted turns, and the film works as well as it does because this trio takes it so seriously. The cast could have played elements of the third act toward one extreme, but thankfully the actors handle it with the right amount of intensity, so it doesn’t go over the top. Between this and the upcoming House of Darkness, Long is on a roll, playing a particular kind of doggedly caddish character you start to root for even when you know you shouldn’t. As in 2021’s Wildcat, Campbell knows how to work with unflappable female characters, breaking through any coldness around their edges and finding their warmth. 

It’s not a spoiler to say that Barbarian is front-loaded with enough material where you could see options open for further films should the movie become a hit. Beginning, ending, tangential side-to-side, Creeger has wisely written his movie to be a bit amorphous so that it can stand on its own but could easily be pulled into another direction should the studio want more. If they’re as briskly paced and razor-sharp as this film, I’ll gladly book another stay at this horror home.

Movie Review ~ Breaking

The Facts:

Synopsis: When Marine Veteran Brian Brown-Easley is denied support from Veterans Affairs, financially desperate and running out of options, he takes a bank and several of its employees hostage, setting the stage for a tense confrontation with the police.
Stars: John Boyega, Michael Kenneth Williams, Nicole Beharie, Connie Britton, Olivia Washington, Selenis Leyva
Director: Abi Damaris Corbin
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 103 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  When an actor becomes so well associated with an established franchise, it can be challenging to break away and create an independent track of their own. Audiences are so used to finding one thing they like and sticking with it that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for actors to shed those preconceived ideas of their range even before they try to expand it. Daniel Radcliffe, Robert Pattinson, and Kristen Stewart are great examples of actors who have starred in movies with loyal fan bases yet have found ample work outside their franchise safety nets because they’ve chosen projects wisely. One could argue that Tom Holland represents the opposite end, a star that excels in his one lane but struggles to free himself of these confines when he tries something new.

First gaining attention in 2015 with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, John Boyega has had several opportunities to travel outside the galaxy of this established entity but hasn’t quite landed the proper role to date. Supporting roles in 2017’s Detroit and 2018’s Pacific Rim: Uprising were fine distractions between the final two Star Wars films but never afforded Boyega the leading man role he was ultimately after. After seven years, Boyega now has a significant part to tag on his resume, and the wait was worth it. Tackling a real-life story ripped from recent headlines, Breaking is a mighty movie boasting all-in performances from its talented cast. 

Former Marine Brian Brown-Easley (Boyega) has recently disputed with the VA over his disability check, which he depends on to pay his rent. He also made promises to his young daughter, who lives with his ex-wife (Olivia Washington, The Little Things), and has other daily life costs to consider. The $850 he is owed might not seem like a lot to the VA, but it makes all the difference to Brian. That’s how he winds up walking into the Atlanta Wells Fargo Bank and slips a note to Rosa (Selenis Leyva, The Place Beyond the Pines) telling her he has a bomb. He doesn’t want any of the bank’s money, he only wants the VA to return the money they took, and the matter will be solved.

Holding Rosa and bank manager Estel (Nicole Beharie, Miss Juneteenth) hostage as swarms of police gather outside, Brian calls the local news station to ensure his story is told. Talking to a reporter (Connie Britton, Promising Young Woman) and a hostage negotiator (Michael Kenneth Williams, Assassin’s Creed), Brian’s story comes out in pieces, and everyone learns more about the man behind the threats. Rosa and Estel understand Brian’s plight but also see the tensions rising around them. They work to diffuse a rapidly escalating standoff while tactical teams unfamiliar with the human behind the crime take their stations. 

Director Abi Damaris Corbin has much responsibility with Breaking in telling the story of Brian Brown-Easley.  What happened on that day in the Wells Fargo Bank and what led up to that event. Some eyewitness accounts are used, but the information is culled from those who knew Brian and could speak to the man he was before that fateful day. Corbin has a good partner in her leading man, providing Boyega a grand stage to do powerful work that calls to mind a young Denzel Washington. There’s a depth to the work and burrowing into the mind of Brian that is hard to achieve, but Boyega goes for it and succeeds with compassion and confidence.

A trio of terrific supporting performances aids Boyega throughout. I was so used to Levya playing a scheming prison inmate in Orange is the New Black; watching her be so vulnerable as a shell-shocked bank teller was a fantastic eye-opener. You’ve been living under a rock if you haven’t seen (and liked) Beharie in some movie or television show over the last decade, and she doesn’t fail to cultivate more emotional sincerity here, either. For his final film role, the late Williams (who passed away in September 2021) is as on target as ever, sliding right into his hostage negotiator role and attempting to buddy up with Brian without coming on too strong. Williams was always a highlight of any project he worked on, and that’s the case here.

While reminiscent of Dog Day Afternoon, Breaking perhaps can’t sustain its energy as well as that earlier film. Even at 100 minutes, the movie does get a little saggy in the middle and starts to drag as it tries to pick up steam into its devastating final act. That’s too bad because it starts with such fire and purpose, but when it begins to circle back on itself and become repetitive, you know something is off in the narrative editing. It’s ultimately worth it for the performances and story being told and to witness Boyega getting the level up he’s been looking for – he’s earned it.

Movie Review ~ Maneater

The Facts:

Synopsis: Jessie and her friends’ idyllic island vacation turns into a gruesome nightmare when they become the target of an unrelenting great white shark. Desperate to survive, she teams up with a local sea captain to stop the vicious man-eater before it strikes again.
Stars: Nicky Whelan, Trace Adkins, Jeff Fahey, Shane West, Branscombe Richmond, Zoe Cipres, Kim DeLonghi, Porscha Coleman
Director: Justin Lee
Rated: R
Running Length: 89 minutes
TMMM Score: (4.5/10)
Review:  Not that they’ve ever truly gone away, but 2022 appears to be the year of the shark film. Over the past nine months, three fin flicks have been released, primarily direct to streaming. My heart couldn’t bring me to take on The Requin and Shark Bait, but I caught The Reef: Stalked and was disappointed to see such a creative vacancy at play. It’s as if no one watches the bad entries and learns from the mistakes. Poor storylines and crummy effects will always equal a lousy experience. Even a hardcore fan like me will eventually abandon all hope of getting a decently made shark thriller.  

Dog-paddling behind these three stinkers is Maneater, another sun and sand set creature feature that spends far too much time above the water and not nearly enough under it where the scary stuff takes place. Now, I will give the movie some credit. It opens with a bang. That is to say, it has someone jump in the water only to be eaten almost instantaneously by a mammoth shark. The effects and camera work in this bloody demise felt like something good was on the horizon. Unfortunately, director Justin Lee can’t top that opening, falling back on overbaked acting from his cast and the mere suggestion of a deadly predator to get the job done.

After her fiancé breaks up with her, Jessie (Nicky Whelan, The Wedding Ringer) decides to go on their Hawaiian honeymoon anyway and brings a group of friends along for emotional support. While everyone is partying it up, day-drinking, and enjoying their vacation, Jessie tends to sidle up to the bar, blankly staring into space. Only her best friend Sunny (Porscha Coleman, the most likable character) bothers to swing by and ask, “Are you OK?” This line of questioning will be a recurring theme throughout the movie, with people asking Jessie if she’s OK. Mostly, she’ll mumble “yes,” but occasionally, she’ll launch into her tale of heartbreak, and it’s then you’ll hope a shark will swim up and eat her. Perhaps a booze cruise to a private beach island with a charter boat will shake her out of her funk.

While this pity party rages, brusque Harlan (Trace Adkins, Apache Junction) has lost his daughter to a vicious shark attack and demands justice for his child from the overworked local law enforcement. Unhappy no one is heeding his warning about a deadly shark in the vicinity, he sets out on his boat to track down the shark himself. The timing is perfect because Jessie and her friends have become stranded on their tiny island, unable to get in touch with the skipper, unaware the shark has snacked on him and the first mate. 

Through an abundance of bad decisions and stupid conveniences, Jessie’s group goes from 6 to 1. The shark was almost an afterthought during this period. Lee either takes the Spielberg route of not showing the shark or doesn’t seem to mind hokey stock footage. By the time Harlan motors up to help, Jessie makes an about-face from wimpy to warrior to help the Quint-like figure end the shark’s shenanigans.

It feels strange to say it, but perhaps there is too much character development in Maneater. Is that possible? There’s an early scene with Jessie and friends on the boat with the skipper having a group share about their lives. Coming off more like an acting exercise than actual scripted dialogue, it’s an odd moment to plunk down as the movie tries to gain momentum, dragging it to a halt instead of propelling it forward. It shows that the acting isn’t all that bad (trust me, you’ve seen worse) and that there are actually a few you may root for along the way. 

With the upcoming Fantastic Fest announcing major programming to bring audiences the most entertaining shark movies from around the world and an IMAX / RealD 3D re-release of the all-time classic JAWS, shark movies will still be swimming around for a while. Here’s hoping that filmmakers do their homework moving forward, learning from the bad decisions of the past to avoid the similar watery fates of movies like Maneater. It’s better than a few other shark movies I’ve sat through, but that’s not saying much.