The Hunt (2020)
★★ / ★★★★
Make no mistake that “The Hunt” is provocative only on the surface: liberal elites kidnap supporters of the right-wing to be hunted and killed for sport. Twenty minutes into its cheeky violence and mayhem, I found myself still looking for good reasons for its existence. Trigger words like “deplorables” and “snowflakes” are thrown about like candy, but its ideas are not explored in meaningful ways. Here is a picture with energy but little substance, daring to take on a political stance but only willing to slap the wrists of both liberals and conservatives instead of hammering a rusty nail into their skulls. Satire-lite almost always never works in the movies.
It is a shame because Betty Gilpin is highly watchable as a hunted southerner whose mission is to kill every single person running the sick game. Her interpretation of Crystal is athletic and efficient in action; she may not be a talker but she is smart and quick-witted; and she is able to offer a few surprises when others attempt to get to know her. Although a formidable heroine, the screenplay by Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof surrounds Crystal with boring characters—enemies and allies alike—who are meant to be murdered just as swiftly as they’re introduced. (Familiar faces include Emma Roberts, Justin Hartley, Glenn Howerton, and Ike Barinholtz.)
The point, I guess, is that we are supposed to be shocked or horrified by the rather quick deaths, but when every single one is meant to have the same fate, it is inevitable that the approach suffers from diminishing returns. Despite the film’s ninety-minute running time, the middle section lags and drags. The joke surrounding the idiom, “Never judge a book by its cover” is highly repetitive to the point where we can figure out how a scene will work out exactly based on a new face’s overall appearance. How’s that for irony?
The mixture of satire and cartoonish violence does not work in this instance. I think it is due to the fact that nearly every aspect is given a tongue-in-cheek approach. And so we never take the material seriously. The thing is, the most effective satires tend to take the viewer on a wild rollercoaster ride. Slower moments, for example, allow us to stop and consider messages behind the obvious. The best ones inspire us to look within, to recognize and admit our own hypocrisies.
During its anti-climatic climax, when not feeling sorry for someone of Hilary Swank’s caliber simply chewing scenery in this mediocrity, I stopped to consider that perhaps director Craig Zobel shaped the movie with non-stop action precisely because he recognizes that there is nothing much to bite into. We are inundated, distracted by movement and loud noises. Discerning viewers will see through the charade. This is not to suggest, however, that “The Hunt” is without potential. The screenplay is still undercooked and reluctant. With a bit of daring, it could have turned into an entirely different beast worthy of buzz, controversy, and perhaps even censure from all sides of the political spectrum. I would rather have seen that movie.
★★ / ★★★★
The fantasy-comedy “Little” begins with an exclamation point. As a smart and financially successful but extremely unpleasant—to say the least—leader of a tech company, Regina Hall nails the role of Jordan Sanders despite appearing on screen for less than fifteen minutes. We are immediately made to understand why her employees attempt to clear out the moment they hear her voice screeching from the parking lot. Although her ruthlessness is played for big laughs, it is apparent there is more to the character than a caricature who must learn a valuable lesson by the end of the story following her unexpected—if not karmic—magical physical transformation to her pre-teen years. But the screenplay by Tracy Oliver and Tina Gordon, the latter directing the picture, fails to construct a consistently razor-sharp comedy. There are significantly more laughs to be had at the workplace than at school.
As pre-teen Jordan, I enjoyed Marsai Martin’s enthusiasm for the role. She delivers her lines with effervescent personality, she isn’t afraid to trust the physical comedy, and she shines during a few of the more dramatic moments that the plot demands. Her role, however, is not supported by strong writing—which will be quickly apparent to those who felt or considered themselves to be outcasts in middle school. For those of us who belong in this group, this is a time of our lives that involves pain, insecurity, and humiliation. While the screenplay acknowledges this on the surface, it is seemingly afraid to dig deeply into specifics.
Being bullied is introduced: for not looking a certain way, for not wearing the right clothes, for not fitting in with the popular group. But there is more to it than that—within and outside the scope of the film. I argue that the more interesting avenue to have explored would have been being shamed or ostracized for being smart or intellectually curious. The movie, after all, opens at a talent show where Jordan attempts to communicate her love for science in the form of a physics demonstration. She hopes that showing them who she is, she would gain a modicum of social acceptance.
Thus, the work is guilty for delivering safe comedy, unapologetic, at times brazen, for traversing paths that have been traveled hundreds of times prior. Original or fresh ideas are few and far between; when we do come upon them, they are not delved into. An example involves Jordan’s assistant, April (Issa Rae—her luminous smile uplifting the room without fail), who has a great idea for a game app but her confidence is not as great as her idea. It would have been a more rewarding experience had the writing focused more on the parallels between pre-teen Jordan and April. Instead, we get forced humor like a visit from Social Services in which characters are forced to stutter and come up with lies. Similar scenes are not only unfunny, they are a waste of time.
There are also instances when the filmmakers forget their intended target audience. Obviously, children would wish to see the picture. About a third of the movie unfolds at school. And yet there are questionable scenarios like a striptease. There are one too many awkward humor like a child touching an adult body in a sexual way. Sexually suggestive dialogue is also present. Yes, an argument can be made that there is indeed a way to insert these things in a family film. But they must not always be front and center. They must be done in a subtle way so that adults recognize them and children remain none the wiser. Subtlety is not in the film’s toolkit.
Race You to the Bottom
★★ / ★★★★
This indie drama reminded me of a weaker version of “2 Days in Paris” because right from the get-go, I had this feeling that something was going to go wrong. It’s about the breakdown of a bisexual man (Cole Williams) and a heterosexual woman’s (Amber Benson) romantic relationship as they travel through California’s wine country. Both of them have boyfriends who they willingly cheat on and that alone did not make me want to embrace these characters. Still, I wanted to give the film a chance and I’m glad I did because there were moments when I actually thought that the interactions between Williams and Benson were genuine. The fluidy of sexuality is definitely at the forefront and it was tackled in a legitimate manner. But I thought some of the gay stereotypes are jarring: Williams is a self-loathing pseudointellectual who likes to sleep around and seduce other men. I did not like his character at all because all ever thinks about is himself; he doesn’t have a filter especially when certain conversations move toward a more sensitive territory. However, I did like Benson (as usual) because even though she’s sarcastic and (at times) drowning in her own delusion, she’s sensitive and not afraid to be vulnerable. This is one of those pictures that could’ve benefited from a longer running time. In this case, seventy-five minutes is not enough to paint complex characters that the audiences can ultimately invest in. I would also like to note that it was nice to see Justin Hartley and Philipp Karner here as Williams’ target of seduction. For the longest time, I kept being distracted from the story because I knew I’ve seen them in other films before but I didn’t know exactly where from. There were some nice ideas here that could’ve used some more development in both writing and execution. Otherwise, it’s not too shabby.