Unfortunately there are no great movies coming out this week that you’ll want to trample old women and children to see. However, there aren’t any turds that will make you question why you even bothered going to the theater in the first place.
Whether you decide you feel like seeing Lee Hirsch’s documentary Bully, the belated sequel American Reunion, or the Willem Dafoe thriller The Hunter, it’s hard to imagine you’ll be soul-crushingly disappointed. All three movies at least deliver on their meager ambitions and offer a decent way to kill 90 minutes.
Of course you could also go and see the reissue of Titanic in 3D as well, but in that case you’d be an insane person and I’d prefer that you not read this column. No, that’s too harsh. You can still read it, but please try to start spending your time and money on better movies. Come on!
The Good: Bully
Lee Hirsch’s documentary Bully has received a lot of press over the last few weeks over battles with the MPAA and justifiably so. The ratings board objects to the most potent scene in the film where an unfortunate middle school student named Alex is beaten and relentlessly mocked on the school bus using a variety of offensive terms. It’s a devastating scene that along with the movie as a whole should be mandatory viewing for young kids and teens to properly understand the bullying epidemic.
Yet, since the MPAA feels that kids should not be exposed to the swears that those kids themselves are using, they won’t be able to unless they are able to find a theater showing the movie unrated. It’s a ridiculous controversy that should call into question the validity of the MPAA, but at least has drawn some attention to this wonderful little movie.
Bully follows a collection of kids who are targets for hallway harassment. There’s Kelby, a lesbian in the Bible belt who was mocked relentlessly even by her teachers. There’s Ja’Maya, who was so frustrated by her treatment that she brought her mother’s handgun onto her school bus. And then there are a few suffering families whose youngsters committed suicide as a result of bullying.
All the stories are gut-punch powerful, but the most potent and pertinent subject is Alex, a middle schooler from Iowa who on the good days is called “fish face” by his peers and on the bad days is beaten and strangled. Hirsch followed Alex long enough to actually capture some of this abuse on camera and it’s almost impossible to watch. He’s such a nice and optimistic kid, but due to his physical appearance and social issues, just leaving the house guarantees mockery and beatings.
Now, bullying is obviously not a new phenomenon, but it is something routinely accepted as a fact of life. Hirsch offers no solutions in his movie, he merely gives the victims a voice and shows their torment in excruciating detail. The most upsetting moments in the film come when Hirsch captures the assistant principal in Alex’s school refusing to acknowledge that the bullying even exists until she’s confronted with the footage directly. Is there a solution to that kind of “out of sight, out of mind” thinking? I don’t know and the film certainly doesn’t offer anything beyond sentiments like “be nice to each other, kiddies.” That’s kind of the problem with Bully. It captures abuse and makes the audience feel for the victims, but offers little hope and makes no attempt to explore the causes and mindsets of bullies themselves.
Hirsch’s approach is a bit one-note and given the widespread attention the film is bringing to the issue, it doesn’t feel like the full examination the subject deserves. Still, what Hirsch does accomplish works well enough and makes the documentary a must-see for parents and children everywhere. This is a film that will inevitably become mandatory school viewing and with the powerful Weinstein Company behind it, should get into the Oscar race next February as well.
The Not That Bad: American Reunion
Thirteen years after Jason Biggs made sweet love to the finest diner dessert around, the whole gang has returned for American Reunion. While it may seem odd that a teen sex comedy would get a sequel with the cast sliding through their 30s, the result actually isn’t that bad. With Seth Rogen and company having ushered in a new era of R-rated sex comedies about grown men behaving like adolescents, the belated sequel actually has an established slot to fill at the multiplex. And thanks to Universal hiring Harold And Kumar creators Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg to write the script and fill the director’s chair, there are actually quite a few laughs to be had. The only downside is that the entire cast returned and only half of the players were ever really funny.
The concept is as simple as it gets: the gang returns for their high school reunion. Biggs and his band camp life partner (Alyson Hannigan) now have a child to catch them in embarrassing sexual situations. Eugene Levy is now a widower looking for lovin’ in the arms of the original MILF, Stifler’s Mom (and with Levy and Jennifer Coolidge having worked together in Christopher Guest movies, they’re quite a team). Finch (Eddie Thomas) is now a world-weary traveler and Seann William Scott’s iconic dink Stifler is an underachiever pining for high school.
All of those characters still have some surprising juice left in them, and with solid comedy performers playing the roles, the movie delivers quite a few hilarious set pieces. Unfortunately, lesser talents like Chris Klein, Tara Reid, and Thomas Nicholas are also back. They were voids of talent on the first go round, there purely for love stories since the other characters are too neurotic and messed up for conventional relationships. While those actors were decent exposition deliverers as cute teens, they are comedy killers as adults and all their romantic entanglements do is slow the movie to a crawl.
Thankfully Hurwtiz and Schlossberg at least know those characters are useless and rush through their stories as quickly as possible. As long as Biggs is getting caught in compromising sexual situations with a teen he used to babysit or Stifler is getting Levy trashed to try and hook him up with some “vag” (Levy’s response: “in my day we called it beaver and let me tell you, I got quite a few pelts”) there are enough laughs to make the movie bearable. The directors even toss their Harold And Kumar buddy John Cho a bone by giving his MILF-loving side character a bigger role as a sleazeball running the high school reunion and he’s possibly the funniest thing in the movie.
American Reunion is little more than an insubstantial sex comedy that thrives on nostalgia for a franchise that was never that interesting to begin with. Taken with the lowered expectations that the fourth American Pie movie deserves, the thing is pretty funny. It’s not a classic by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s better than it should have been. If for some reason you’re dying to see a return from the American Pie gang, it’s hard to imagine you’ll leave disappointed. Well that is unless fading memory has somehow confused you into thinking the original American Pie was a masterpiece. They were always just competent sex comedies and this new edition is at least on par with what came before.
If you don’t like Willem Dafoe, then it’s not worth checking out The Hunter. The character actor is in almost every frame of the new Australian thriller and thankfully the guy has the screen presence to pull it off. Dafoe plays a high-end animal hunting mercenary (because apparently those exist) who is hired by a mysterious company to head to Tasmania in search of a rare tiger recently spotted in the region. Once there, Dafoe shacks up with a broken family and plays Daddy since the father went missing recently searching for the same animal.
Out of work locals (led by the always fantastic Sam Neill) don’t take too kindly to the American boy coming to town to take their jobs and start harassing him. At first, it takes the form of drive-by verbal abuse, then his car is vandalized, and gradually he starts to feel like his life is in danger and possibly even the lives of the surrogate family he's staying with.
This is one of those “hunter becomes the hunted” flicks that
starts to turn into a vaguely existential crisis as it slowly marches towards
its conclusion. Dafoe seems calm and content while setting traps and seeking
the animal, but his life is much more tumultuous whenever he returns to
society. Whether it’s harassment from locals or the creepy comfort zone he’s
slipping into with the family, the hunter never quite seems as comfortable with
people as he does tracking down animals in the wild.
Dafoe is, of course, excellent, his grizzled features suggesting a pained back story and inner life whenever he marches through the woods alone. Australian TV director Daniel Nettheim also does a good job of gradually building up tension and paranoia to a fever pitch as the movie meanders towards an inevitably tragic climax.
Unfortunately while all that waiting and build-up suggests the film is going somewhere big (whether it be a meaningful last minute plot twist or some sort of journey into insanity on Dafoe’s part), nothing much happens. The story ends on the downbeat note we expect, but never seems to offer much sense of closure or meaning for the suspense-filled venture. The Hunter is still an interesting film, just a somewhat empty experience.
The intense build-up will keep you glued to the screen, but without much of a the thematic or narrative payoff to speak of, you might wander out of the theater muttering, “What was all that about?” For Willem Dafoe junkies it’s still a must-see as the man manages to be captivating even when nothing of note is happening. For everyone else, The Hunter remains an intriguing thriller geared to adults with some fantastic sequences. It just doesn’t add up to anything special.