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Schultz reviews: "Don't Let Go" and "The Peanut Butter Falcon"

Schultz reviews: "Don't Let Go" and "The Peanut Butter Falcon"

Carl Schultz

“Don’t Let Go” Distributed by OTL Releasing, 107 Minutes, Rated R, Released Aug. 30:

Although they’re known primarily for low-budget horror and exploitation pictures such as “Paranormal Activity,” “The Purge” and “Insidious,” Blumhouse Productions also occasionally turns out more compelling dramatic fare. Their pictures “Whiplash,” “Get Out” and Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” have become highly successful both critically and at the box office, and have even earned Academy Award recognition.

Trending somewhere between the two extremes is the studio’s new movie “Don’t Let Go,” released Aug. 30.

In “Don’t Let Go,” a grieving Los Angeles police detective, emotionally devastated by the murder of his troubled brother’s family, prays for a second chance to save their lives . . . and is astonished when he begins to receive phone calls from his late niece, with whom he was especially close. Even more perplexing, his niece purports to be calling from the week prior to the murders, and seems unaware of the tragedy.

At first suspecting he’s suffering from PTSD-caused hallucinations or an emotional breakdown, the detective eventually concludes the calls are authentic and that his prayers have been answered. And working with his niece, both across and against time, he feverishly endeavors to solve his family’s murder . . . before it occurs.

Originally titled “Relive” and premiering at the Sundance Film Festival this past January under the title “Don’t Let Go” despite similarities to the 2000 supernatural mystery “Frequency” becomes a neat and compact little chiller, sort of a cross between “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “The Haunting,” a combination of hard-nosed police procedural, psychological drama and ghost story.

But really putting the picture across is the authentic and genuinely moving performance by acclaimed actor David Oyelowo as the grieving cop. Despite a tendency toward over-emoting during a handful of scenes — probably unavoidable, considering the nature of the character’s situation — the British-born Oyelowo keeps his performance on-target throughout, anchoring the fantastic elements of the picture squarely in a foundation of reality: The audience goes right along with the time-travel conceit, inch by sometimes-harrowing inch.

Matching Oyelowo scene-for-scene is the wonderful Storm Reid as his niece. Last seen almost singlehandedly saving the pretentious 2018 Disney fantasy “A Wrinkle in Time” from complete disaster, the 16-year-old Reid is both persuasive and lovable in her role here. The young actress’s chemistry with the grieving Oyelowo is unquestionable, and ultimately the reason for the viewer’s emotional investment in the picture’s fantasy elements. It's easy to see why the uncle's bonded with the niece — she’s intelligent, articulate, mature and personable, and young Reid inhabits the character fully.

As a bonus, “Don’t Let Go” is highlighted by heartfelt and elegant performances by a supporting cast of familiar and reliable character actors, including Byron Tyree Henry as the brother, Mykelti Williamson as the detective’s partner, and Alfred Molina as their supervisor.

Written and directed by Jason Aaron Estes, the writer behind the forgettable 2017 horror sequel “Rings,” “Don’t Let Go” belies its modest $5 million budget with superb production design, clever touches and cinematic sleight-of-hand which threaten to distract the viewer from occasional lapses in continuity and other reminders of the picture’s Blumhouse Chamber of Horror genealogy. The director briefly loses the narrative thread during the picture’s third act, but recovers the momentum in time to deliver a rousingly effective finale.

“Don’t Let Go” has been released to only 922 theaters across North America by Blumhouse Productions’ BH Tilt label and Universal Pictures subsidiary OTL Releasing in the hope that favorable reviews and strong word-of-mouth will merit a wider release pattern.

The picture is earning mediocre reviews from the critics, including an approval rating of just 46% from Rotten Tomatoes against a slightly higher rating of 50% from Metacritic, indicating a mixed or average reception. Rotten Tomatoes notes the picture’s uneven writing and formulaic approach to the subject matter . . . but in a picture this well acted and produced, you might not mind.

“Don’t Let Go” is rated R for violence, bloody images and language concerns.

“The Peanut Butter Falcon” Distributed by Roadside Attractions Pictures, 98 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released Aug. 9:

It all started with a seminar.

In 2011 filmmakers Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz were participating at a camp for disabled actors. During their class, the two met Zack Gottsagen, a young actor with the genetic disorder Down syndrome. Gottsagen expressed an interest in working with Nilson and Schwartz, a notion which intrigued the filmmakers. And together, the three went to work.

After Nilson and Schwartz produced a proof-of-concept video with the young actor — a screen test to help producers imagine an idea, and to verify the feasibility of a concept — the two filmmakers received funding to develop a feature starring Gottsagen.

Using the dynamic of Gottsagen’s desire to become a professional actor and translating it into a disabled man’s dream to become a professional wrestler, the filmmakers interpolated the concept into “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” a revised modern retelling of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

In “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” Zak, a young man with Down syndrome, is lost in the mental health system and placed reluctantly in a North Carolina limited care facility for retired people, but longs to someday become a professional wrestler. Inspired by endless viewings of videotapes of his idol, a larger-than-life professional wrestler who calls himself The Saltwater Redneck, Zak dreams of escaping his retirement home confinement and making his way to the Redneck’s Florida school for wrestlers in order to facilitate his unlikely ambition.

Nearby at the same time, a troubled young man named Tyler aspires to employment as a professional fisherman, but finds his own ambitions thwarted by his inability to obtain a professional license. Trying to earn food money by selling another fisherman's catch, Tyler is tracked down and beaten for his theft. In retaliation, Tyler sabotages and destroys some of the other fisherman’s equipment, and needs to go on the run when the fisherman vows mortal revenge against him.

After stealing a boat and narrowly escaping the murderous fisherman, Tyler finds a stowaway aboard: Assisted by his elderly and sympathetic roommate at the retirement home, young Zak has managed an escape of his own. Establishing an uneasy partnership together, Tyler and Zak agree to travel together in the direction of The Saltwater Redneck’s Florida school for professional wrestlers. And with vengeful fisherman and a dedicated social worker on their trail, the two set off, enjoying life’s adventures, living off the land and learning life’s lessons.

From this unlikely scenario, Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz have crafted together one of the warmest and most original American pictures since the Coen brothers’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” in 2000. Starring Gottsagen as Zak, with Shia LaBeouf as Tyler and Dakota Johnson as the devoted social worker on Zak’s trail, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is charming both audiences and critics alike with its unique blend of comedy, drama and tragedy, using as a soundtrack a collection of some of the finest regional gospel and folk recordings this side of the Smithsonian Institution.

In its unlikely, convoluted, roundabout, ambling way, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” might be the most spiritually-accurate and undoubtedly one of the most accessible translations of Mark Twain ever put onto film. More than the picture’s Tyler and Zack, more than Mark Twain or his characters Huck and Jim, more than comedy or drama or pathos, this is a movie about America.

Released by Roadside Attractions, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is earning superb reviews from the nation’s film critics, including an approval rating of 95% from Rotten Tomatoes and 69% from Metacritic. Rotten Tomatoes notes in delivering its verdict that the picture is “a feel-good adventure brought to life by outstanding performances,” and that it “finds rich modern resonance in classic American fiction.”

Placed into a limited release in only 17 theaters in major cities on Aug. 9, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” has expanded its release pattern into 1,249 theaters across the country. Even in less than half the number of theaters of a major Hollywood release, the picture is earning excellent revenues, bringing in nearly $6 million in box office receipts during its first three weeks in release.

“The Peanut Butter Falcon” is rated PG-13 for thematic content, language throughout, some violence and scenes depicting smoking.

 

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