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Schultz reviews: "Hunter Killer," "The Oath," "The Old Man & the Gun" and "The Sisters Brothers."

Schultz reviews: "Hunter Killer," "The Oath," "The Old Man & the Gun" and "The Sisters Brothers."

Carl Schultz

schultzcarlschultz@aol.com

 

“Hunter Killer” Distributed by Summit Entertainment, 121 Minutes, Rated R, Released Oct. 26:

 

In “Hunter Killer,” during a political revolt in present-day Russia, an American nuclear submarine with a rookie captain is sent to rescue the deposed Russian president from captivity and transport him to safety.

 

What seems at first to be a more economical rehash of the 1990 megahit “The Hunt for Red October” is actually an update of old World War II submarine dramas such as “Destination Tokyo” and “Run Silent, Run Deep,” combined with a few of the Cold War thrillers of the 1960s.

 

Good special effects augment and enhance an unlikely plot which contain few surprises and frequently leaves common sense behind. U.S. Department of Defense footage of actual nuclear submarines is used liberally to lend verisimilitude to the proceedings, but often doesn’t match up with the studio-created effects, and sometimes violates the illusion.

 

Still, the picture is fairly enjoyable in a popcorn-munching sort of way, and contains some good performances, especially from Scottish actor Gerard Butler, slimmed down from his noticeably beefy appearance earlier this year in “Den of Thieves” and using abrupt American cadences as the unsmiling, no-nonsense skipper of the title submarine. Gary Oldman follows up his Academy Award-winning role as Winston Churchill in last year’s “Darkest Hour” by chewing up some scenery here as a borderline-hysterical member of the U.S. Joint Chiefs.

 

Rap artist Common, with roles in the current “Smallfoot” and “The Hate U Give” also playing in the county’s theaters, is becoming more prolific as an actor than as a musician, although his performance here as a Pentagon-bound admiral is uncharacteristically wooden.  

 

Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist appears in one of his last roles, as the rescued captain of a Russian submarine obliged by circumstances to work in tandem with the U.S. skipper in saving the world. During their scenes together, the two submarine commanders often exchange long, meaningful gazes, leading the viewer to imagine they’ve either fallen in love or are communicating telepathically, an ability which would’ve been useful to Robert Mitchum and Curt Jurgens in 1957’s “The Enemy Below.”

 

Written by Arne Schmidt and Jamie Moss and directed by Donovan Marsh, “Hunter Killer” is rated R for adult situations, violence and language concerns.

 

“The Oath” Distributed by Roadside Attractions, 93 Minutes, Rated R, Released Oct. 12:

 

The dystopian future has become the most wheezy and overworked cliche in modern film.

 

In this week’s banal “The Oath,” Americans of the near future are strongly advised to sign an Oath of Loyalty, not to the country but to its leader, a conservative president with totalitarian leanings. On the eve of the date the Oath is required to be signed, a family gathering for the Thanksgiving holiday debates the controversial oath from multiple sides of the political spectrum.

 

Some of us might be old enough to recall a time when the word “comedy” suggested laughter. That’s apparently no longer true. A number of modern comedians seem to subscribe to a notion that any reaction provoked by a nominally comedic situation — whether shock, anger, agreement, irritation or laughter — is a viable indication of the success of a routine’s outcome.

 

“The Oath” is plainly meant to satirize the present political situation in the United States, specifically the partisan struggles between conservative and liberal factions of the government. In fact, the picture does favors for neither side of the debate — characters on both sides are presented as shrill and unreasonable, even reactionary, and profane besides. Comedian Ike Barinholtz, the writer, director, and star of “The Oath,” should’ve learned years ago that an F-bomb is no longer automatically hilarious to the audience, and often is just simply in bad taste.

 

Among the supporting actors, Nora Dunn and Chris Ellis, like their characters, seem confused and unsure of what’s going on. Jon Barinholtz, the director’s brother, at least is allowed to exercise his method acting training by playing Ike Barinholtz’ brother. And what in the world could the talented John Cho have been thinking when he signed onto a movie, which requires he spend most of his screen time unconscious?

 

In the end, only Tiffany Haddish as Barinholtz’ patient and sensible wife is able to acquit herself with some dignity, with a dramatic performance, which seems to have started out as comedic one ... although this offensive and poorly-written diatribe could’ve used a little of Haddish’s patented brand of comic truth-telling. The actress must've owed somebody an enormous favor to have agreed to participate in this mess.

 

“The Oath” is rated R for language, adult situations and violence. You’ll probably want to skip this one entirely.

 

“The Old Man & the Gun” Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures, 93 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released Sept. 28:

 

In a 1975 interview, Robert Redford noted that in the years following his breakthrough success in the 1969 western “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” most of the movie roles he was offered required the actor to play variations of the Sundance Kid character — laconic, amiable but sharply competent in high-tension situations. And in the years since the legendary success of the 1969 picture, Redford has resisted repeats of that characterization  — until now. 

During the bank robbery scenes in “The Old Man & the Gun,” Redford even dons a droopy Sundance Kid-like mustache, giving us some notion of how that character might’ve appeared had he survived that horrendous volley of gunfire at the end of “Butch Cassidy” and lived on to rob banks throughout the American midwest during the 1980s.

 

In fact, in “The Old Man & the Gun,” there are echoes of almost every character Robert Redford has ever played, from the earnest eagerness of the young con man in 1973’s “The Sting” to the diligent research of newspaper reporter Bob Woodward in “All the President’s Men” in 1976 to the soulful individuality of the middle-aged baseball rookie in 1984’s “The Natural.” The new movie even includes a brief clip from 1966’s “The Chase,” Redford’s sixth film in a motion picture career which began in 1960 and includes some 58 pictures.

 

Proclaimed by Redford to be his final film appearance, in “The Old Man & the Gun,” an elderly career criminal and jailbreaker organizes a highly-successful series of bloodless bank robberies. As one diligent police detective begins to put together the pieces and solve the crimes, it becomes more and more apparent that the bank robber’s motive is not money.

 

Based on David Grann’s 2003 magazine profile of the real-life bank robber Forrest Tucker — who by his own admission “escaped from prison 18 times successfully and 12 times unsuccessfully — ”The Old Man & the Gun” might be one of the most amiable and easygoing comedies in recent years.  

 

Starring the perfectly-cast 82-year-old Redford in a career valedictory as Tucker, the picture also includes vastly enjoyable contributions from Sissy Spacek as Tucker’s late-life romantic interest and Casey Affleck as the man who somewhat reluctantly hunts him down.  If “The Old Man & the Gun” does not contain the best or most career-defining roles of the triad of actors involved, the picture at least plays to their individual strengths and presents them in parts, which explain their critical accolades.

 

Redford’s scenes with Spacek especially contain a gentle playfulness and courtly grace rare in motion pictures today, and absent entirely from the actor’s many pairings with actress Jane Fonda in classics like “The Chase,” “Barefoot in the Park,” and “The Electric Horseman.” Even during their most recent collaboration in last year’s “Our Souls at Night,” Redford and Fonda played their scenes together with a sort of pointed urgency, as if both were competing in an acting contest and trying to race each other to the end of the scene.

 

By contrast, Spacek and Redford together seem to know and appreciate the undefinable star quality they generate together, and want to slow down a little and enjoy it. Their smiles seem genuine, and their scenes together contain legitimate movie magic. Why didn’t somebody put these two people together earlier?

 

Likewise, Casey Affleck’s minimalist, barely-there acting style suits the picture well. In his third project with writer-director David Lowery after the underrated “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” in 2013 and last year’s “A Ghost Story,” Affleck reveals more with his silences and facial expressions than with his dialogue.  

 

As a police detective crossing the age-40 threshold, Affleck’s character has resigned himself to advancing age. But when he catches a scent of a crime spree initiated astonishingly by an incorrigible 74-year-old juvenile delinquent, he’s equal parts dogged in his pursuit and inspired by the youthful audacity of his quarry. The senior citizen bank robber makes the middle-aged cop feel young again.

 

Affleck’s first scene with Redford, a coincidental encounter in the men’s room of a diner, contains a sort of delicate hilarity: The cop and the robber know each other, but can’t reveal too much. Plainly both relish the chase, the interactions and professional challenges and the spontaneous encounter, and seem to almost want to prolong the experience. Affleck especially can’t stop smiling at the older man’s genial outrageousness. The scene is a classic of sustained comedic farce, as fragile as a souffle. And the actors carry it off beautifully.

 

Robert Redford’s final picture is a flawed masterpiece. David Lowery’s direction often seems to be resisting an urge toward cuteness and unnecessary cinematic stylistics, relying too strongly on intertitles to explain information, which should’ve been included in either the narrative or the dialogue. Additionally, Danny Glover and Tom Waits are wasted in small roles, and the fourth-billed Keith Carradine has less than 5 seconds of screen time and precisely one line of dialogue.

 

Still, “The Old Man & the Gun” is a wonderfully enjoyable comedy, one of those pictures, which seems to sneak up on the viewer to deliver a host of unexpected surprises. The movie doesn’t contain too many big laughs, but you’ll be smiling constantly through a 93-minute running time you’ll wish was longer. This is a movie that’ll stay with you for a while.

 

“The Old Man & the Gun” is rated PG-13 for scenes of lawlessness, a car chase, some minor violence and one F-bomb.   

 

“The Sisters Brothers” Distributed by Annapurna Pictures, 121 Minutes, Rated R, Released Sept. 21:

 

Although the title, and the trailer, suggest the movie might turn out to be a whimsical sendup of film westerns, “The Sisters Brothers” turns out to be a plodding revisionist western saga with existential overtones, and some black comedy elements thrown in for completists.

 

Brothers Ira and Charlie Sisters are itinerant outlaws in the 1851 Oregon Territory, hired by a wealthy land baron to track and murder a former employee he claims absconded with some valuable property indeed: The wanted man turns out to be a chemist who’s discovered a formula, which makes gold a cinch to locate and collect. And instead of augmenting the baron’s already considerable wealth, the chemist wants to use the formula to finance a utopian society he seeks to establish in Texas.

 

“The Sisters Brothers” bears some comparison to the similarly-themed “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” from 1948, and benefits from a characteristically strong performance from John C. Reilly as Ira, the older and more forward-thinking of the Sisters brothers. Ira longs to leave the business of death-dealing, and settle down to a quieter and more secure life as a shopkeeper.

 

In case you haven’t noticed, John C. Reilly is become something like the Gene Hackman of this generation — a character actor extraordinaire who’s persuasive in just about any role he attempts, from drama to comedy, and from musicals to farce. In “The Sisters Brothers” Reilly sketches another fascinating portrait, as a man who aspires to put down roots, but is compelled by a sense of family loyalty to keep watch over his younger brother.

 

Joaquin Phoenix plays Charlie, the younger of the brothers. Impulsive, unpredictable and volatile, Charlie imagines himself to be the brains of the partnership, but is in constant need of rescue and protection as a result of a strong attraction to the wild life in the frontier saloons the brothers encounter. Phoenix’ performance is studied and charismatic as always, but the actor is never quite able to inhabit his character enough to show the audience what makes Charlie tick.

 

Jake Gyllenhaal contributes an interesting supporting performance to the picture as John Morris, a detective also employed by the cattle baron to locate the chemist. More refined and contemplative than the brothers, Morris eventually finds himself being drawn into the utopian vision of his quarry. Gyllenhaal’s fey characterization is reminiscent of Marlon Brando’s performance in 1970’s “Burn!”

 

“The Sisters Brothers” also features Riz Ahmed as the chemist hunted by both the title characters and their competitor, a nearly unrecognizable Carol Kane as the Sisters mother, and the Dutch actor Rutger Hauer, billed in the final credits with a “special participation of” distinction, appears as the wealthy baron who employs the various trackers.

 

Co-written (with Thomas Bidegain) and directed by the French filmmaker Jacques Audiard, “The Sisters Brothers” is slow-going and ponderous at times, and contains realistic and very graphic violence. But if you stick with it long enough, the picture begins to straighten itself out at about the halfway point, and really starts to zing toward the end ... although when it’s over you might find yourself scratching your head and wondering, “What was the point?”

 

Released on Sept. 21 to only four theaters in major cities, distributor Annapurna Pictures bolstered by a warm critical response increased the picture’s circulation to 27 screens on Sept. 28, 54 on Oct. 5, 129 on Oct. 12, and 1,141 on Oct. 19. Audience response has been tepid: “The Sisters Brothers” after five weeks in release has earned a little less than $2.1 million in box office receipts, against a budget of $38 million.

 

“The Sisters Brothers” is rated R for violence, thematic elements, language concerns and scenes of drinking and sexuality.

 

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