Arts + Scene » Screens

Gift and Re-gift

A smart thriller and a Marvel misfire




THE GIFT. I first became aware of actor Joel Edgerton when he starred opposite Tom Hardy in Warrior (2011), a brother-versus-brother fighting movie that, so far, hasn't gotten nearly the praise it deserves. After that introduction, I went back and checked out Animal Kingdom (2010), an Australian crime family saga that, despite style and guts, left me cold. Since then, I've encountered Edgerton in a number of big-budget Hollywood movies of varying quality, ignorant that all the while he was cooking up this smart, mean, stylish little thriller.

Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robin (Rebecca Hall) are recently relocated to from Chicago to southern California, not far from where he grew up. He's a thriving corporate shill, doing some sort of sales job for some sort of high-tech corporate security firm. They've followed his promotion to their new digs, although there are signals that they left Chicago to put some unpleasantness behind them. Despite that, they seem happy with each other, with their high-end but practical European cars and their newly acquired mid-century glass house on a hill.

While Simon starts at his new office, Robin gets the house in order and works from home for the design company she's left back in Chicago. One weekend, on a shopping trip for housewares, the two of them run into Gordo (Edgerton), apparently an old classmate of Simon's. They make small talk, but afterward Simon claims to hardly remember the guy. Gordo seems to remember Simon, though, and soon enough he's making unannounced visits to the house, dropping off gifts for Robin and extending dinner invitations. All of which sparks an increasing anger in Simon, which leads to intense anxiety and self-destructive behavior in Robin. Simon breaks off their fledgling friendship with Gordo but things are only beginning to get complicated.

The Gift was produced by Jason Blum, whose Blumhouse imprint primarily traffics in low-budget horror (Paranormal Activity, Insidious) and may be American independent film's strongest current champion. Because his projects are inexpensive and almost always — sometimes unbelievably — profitable, Blum has the leeway to do just about whatever he wants. Which includes fostering new voices and taking on potentially difficult subjects (he was a producer on last year's acclaimed Whiplash), like this one. Edgerton's movie (he wrote and directed), isn't a horror-genre picture in the sense we've come to expect. It has in it very little violence; it doesn't rely on "who's behind the door" shocks. Instead, it cultivates an atmosphere of dread and discomfort, becoming as much a story of domestic unraveling as it is a thriller about past misdeeds. Shot and edited in a deliberate, patient style, The Gift takes its time with story, doling out the details we need to stay invested, wanting to learn more. It's a pleasantly unpleasant formula, a movie of a sort we seldom see these days. It's intelligent without being heady, scary without being nasty, and a great opportunity for Bateman in particular to showcase his darker side. Hopefully this is an indication of things to come from Edgerton, because we could use more movies like this, as soon as possible. R. 108m.

FANTASTIC FOUR. When I first heard rumblings about the imminent failure of this last Marvel concoction, I recalled the John Carter "debacle" of not too many years ago. Then, as now, I thought, the studios started crying foul before the movie was even released, ham-stringing the poor thing before it could stretch its legs. In that earlier case, it was all pretty unjust: I maintain that John Carter really isn't that bad. And after all, Fantastic 4 was directed by Josh Trank, who kind of blew me away with Chronicle (2012). But you can't win 'em all. This time the studio naysayers were right, whether or not they, as Trank would maintain, are in fact responsible. Fantastic 4 is just about terrible.

The movie shows some promise in the early going, introducing us to Reed Richards as boy-genius, developing teleportation technology in his parents' garage. The early scenes evince some sense of atmosphere, of tonal similarity to the rest of the current Marvel universe. As the disconcertingly thin narrative unfolds, though, that atmosphere gives way to a sort of vacuous austerity, an undressed TV-set feeling it can't shake.

Reed, played in early adulthood by Miles Teller, is recruited by Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg Cathey) to join the vaunted Baxter Institute. There, Richards will contribute his research to an ongoing teleportation effort, with the end goal of exploring a parallel universe. He will be joined by the doctor's hot-headed son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), daughter Sue (Kate Mara), dark genius Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) and Reed's childhood buddy Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), who doesn't really have any good reason to be there. The group's first attempt at trans-dimensional travel succeeds initially, but quickly goes terribly wrong. All five members of the group find themselves significantly altered by the experience. Some are changed in such a way that they attract the attention of the US government, and are enlisted to do its dirty work. Reed goes on the lam, feeling he must find a way to reunite the group and blah, blah, blah. As much as I hate to say it, Fantastic Four really is as bad as everyone says it is. The action takes place in a vacuum, the characters are underdeveloped; it lacks heart, style, humor and anything that would make it enjoyable. PG13. 100m.

— John J. Bennett


MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. Guy Ritchie directs Cold War spy shenanigans based on the 1960s TV show. With Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer as partnered American and Russian spooks. PG13. 116m.

RICKI AND THE FLASH. Meryl Streep plays a rock star reconnecting with her ex (Kevin Kline) and grown kids. Also starring Rick Springfield (not a typo). PG13. 101m.

STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON. A beat-heavy biopic about N.W.A.'s influential rap pioneers Dr. Dre, Eazy-E and Ice Cube. R. 147m.


ANT-MAN. Clever asides and Paul Rudd's likeability and subversive darkness almost distinguish this entertaining comic-book action flick from the rest of the Marvel machine. Supporting sidekick Michael Peña might be a comic genius. PG13. 117m.

INSIDE OUT. Pixar renders our inner lives and the tumult of growing up with clarity, charm, poignancy and humor through the personified emotions of a girl named Riley. With Amy Poehler. PG. 94m.

IRRATIONAL MAN. Joaquin Phoenix plays a miserable intellectual who forms a relationship with his beautiful young student, played by Emma Stone. Surprise! It's a Woody Allen movie. R. 95m.

MR. HOLMES. Ian McKellen plays the mythic detective late in life, combing his memory over an unsolved case with the help of a precocious boy. With Laura Linney and Milo Parker. PG. 105m.

MINIONS. Sandra Bullock and John Hamm lend voices to the Despicable Me spin-off starring the goofy, Twinkie-esque henchmen. PG. 91m.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE — ROGUE NATION. Cruise and company return with thrilling action (motorcycles! cargo planes!) and an under-developed plot that lacks real danger. PG13. 132m.

PIXELS. Adam Sandler stars in this interplanetary war pic featuring classic arcade game characters. Spoiler alert: Pac-Man's kind of a jerk. PG13. 105m.

SHAUN THE SHEEP. The wordless, woolly, stop-motion hero takes his farm-based escapades to the big city, aided by his flock and pursued by animal control. PG. 86m.

TRAINWRECK. Amy Schumer stars with Bill Hader in this rom com that elevates the genre with funny, flawed leads and precision screwball construction and direction from Judd Apatow. R. 125m.

VACATION. It's true what they say: You can't go home or to Walley World again. An un-funny reboot despite Ed Helms and Christina Applegate. R. 99m.

— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill


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