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‘Breaking In’ Never Really Breaks Out

Jeremiah

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Few moments are as depressing as the realization that the movie you’re watching hasn’t got the guts or the spine it believes it has. James McTeigue’s Breaking In is a toothless PG-13 exploitation thriller that is afraid of its own shadow. Which is a shame, because I quite liked parts of it.

Breaking In starts out promising, but quickly we begin to suspect the opening scene was a ruse. The movie starts out with an old man meditating in what looks to be a very expensive walk-in closet. We see him grab a watch and then leave his luxury apartment building for a morning run. We follow him as he crosses the street only to be hit by a truck at a four-way stop.

As the man lies in the road the driver gets out. We never see anything but his black cowboy boots. He walks over to the prone man, who is still alive. The stranger raises his foot and brings it down to the old man’s head—cut to the title card. All of what I described has been in slow motion with an underlying hypnotic beat to it. It’s a gruesome setup, but it never goes anywhere near that level of gruesomeness for the duration of the movie.

Which, on one hand, is fine. Except Breaking In wants to be an exploitation thriller. We know this by the way it asks us to stare luridly at our heroes as they are put in constant danger. But they are not in danger. Time and time again Breaking In pulls its punches.

As the credits roll we meet Shaun (Gabrielle Union) along with her two children Glover (Seth Carr) and Jasmine (Ajiona Alexus). We learn the man in the opening scene was Shaun’s father. The three are going to his lake house to sell it. Shaun hasn’t spoken to her father in years and what’s more hasn’t been to his house in even longer.

It’s alluded to throughout the movie that Shaun’s father was a criminal—what kind is never revealed. Upon arriving at the house, the three discover her father had the house retrofitted with a new security system. The new system locks down the house and turns it into a veritable fortress.

It’s not long before Shaun and her two kids start noticing weird things around the house, almost as if they are not alone. Of course, they are not; three men have broken into the house to get at Shaun’s father’s safe that contains four million dollars. The three men consist of the same stock villains that all gangs of this sort normally have.

We have the squeamish and nervous pretty boy with dyed blonde hair, Sam (Levi Meaden). He’s the one who slept with the old man’s assistant and got her to spill the beans about the safe and the money. If this movie had come out in the nineties his role would have been played by Ethan Embry. In fairness to Meaden, Embry probably wouldn’t have played this part any better.

Then, of course, we have the resident unhinged psychopath Duncan (Richard Cabral). A wild-eyed man who wields a knife and whose body is covered in tattoos. Finn enough, the laziest drawn archetype, is the one character who seems to realize what movie he’s in. The leader Eddie (Billy Burke) is the brains of the operations. I use that term reluctantly because for all his talk, Eddie is no smarter than anyone else. After all, anyone can tell after only a few seconds that someone like Duncan is not the person you want if you want a smooth bloodless operation.

The three men lock Shaun out of the house when she goes outside to order pizza. A fourth man is sent out to kill her. She outruns him and in one of the few clever moments of the movie utilizes her surroundings to defend herself. Still, she never kills him.

The premise of the movie is Shaun is a Mother who is pushed to her limits to defend her children. But much like the bad men holding her children hostage, she’s all bark and no bite. At least the bad guys kill a couple of people. Shaun does not, except by accident.

Some of you might be screaming at me that I need to lighten up. Turn off my brain as it were. I hear you. But it’s hard to suspend your disbelief when you have trouble believing the movie even knows what it’s doing. The script by Ryan Engle is a shameful waste of Gabrielle Union’s abilities. It never tells us enough about Shaun. Throughout the film, Eddie taunts Shaun with lines like, “I get it. All your life people have underestimated you.” Which, by itself, is an odd thing for a man holding her children hostage to say. But we don’t know anything about Shaun’s past so we can’t say for sure.

Early on in the film, Shaun calls a man to let him know she is at the house. We know the man’s name is Justin (Jason George). We assume he is either a friend, an ex, or a boyfriend. When he shows up at the beginning of the third act and the kids call him Daddy, it’s a twist I’m not sure the movie meant to have. At no point in time during all their conversations do either Shaun or the kids mention a father.

It’s things like this that make it hard for us, the audience, to get behind the heroine. Breaking In has the audacity to give us a scene in which Shaun goes into a garage and lightly caresses a circular saw. Dear reader, nothing happens involving that saw. The curse of the PG-13 rating.

For instance, take the moment when Eddie screams at Duncan for killing the real estate agent Maggie (Christa Miller). “What the frick is your problem?” Now, I’m not for a moment suggesting profanity is needed to make someone scary. What I am saying is that of the thousands of words and millions of ways in which the English language can phrase things, the word “frick” is the least threatening among them.

Breaking In a dumb movie filled with characters that are not much smarter than the movie itself. The leader of the gang, Eddie, continually attempts to psychoanalyze Shaun. He knows less about her than we do. Shaun repeatedly finds, takes, or is given a weapon, only to toss it aside a few seconds later. The kids are actually pretty smart. At one point the daughter sneaks out of the room they’re being held in to go back to her room to use the cellphone to call for help. Of course, she doesn’t find it and goes back to being held captive.

Breaking In repeatedly puts Glover and Jasmine in harm’s way and has the bad guys constantly threaten to harm them, but nothing happens. Most movies will flirt with the notion once or twice but Breaking In can’t shut up about it. It gets to the point that whenever Eddie threatens the kids, we the audience roll our eyes. Sure Eddie, whatever you say.

Union has enough charisma that we are on her side almost automatically. But Engle’s script causes our loyalty to waver throughout the movie. It’s a shame, as Union salvages what she can from the lazy script and presents us with what could be a terrific badass Mother.

Last year’s Kidnap, starred Halle Berry as a mom who relentlessly chased down the people who kidnapped her child. She too made stupid decisions. But the director, Luis Prieto, infused Kidnap with a kinetic energy. We howled as Berry’s character made one bad decision only to make a good one a few scenes later. Prieto never alluded to any other part of the mother’s past outside of a custody dispute with her ex-husband.

I’m not advocating heroines should make the right decision all the time, but they should make some smart decisions. McTeigue and Engle never manage to get us on Shaun’s side. McTeigue sets up a nice slow methodical pace but it never builds toward anything. The big showdown between Eddie and Shaun is tiresome because we know both of them don’t have the temerity to back up their words. Worse yet, characters we believe to be dead come back like something out of a slasher movie.

In another movie, we might have cared. Here, we are only annoyed because the only thing standing between us and the end credits is this man who refuses to stay dead.

Breaking In is a hodgepodge of different, and quite frankly better, movies. From Die Hard to the other Bruce Willis movie Hostage. Union is a fine replacement for Willis and had either Engle or McTeigue given her something to play with, this movie would have been breathtaking.

There are a couple of moments that had me cheering and whooping with glee. Sadly, they came towards the end. By then I was just desperate for someone to do something, anything, resembling a definitive action. Luckily besides Union, Cabral, the actor who plays Duncan, is wonderful in his over-the-top performance. I wouldn’t call him menacing, because the movie utterly fails at making anything or anyone menacing. But I will say he was, next to Union, the best thing about Breaking In. What little unpredictability there was came from Cabral’s performance.

Movies like Breaking In are sort of depressing. Likable stars in an idea that would be perfect for them. Few things are sadder than seeing a movie waste a star’s talent or never realize it’s potential. I wasn’t utterly bored and the camera work by Toby Oliver is pretty to look at times. But it’s never as fun as it could or should be.


Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Jeremiah lives in Los Angeles and divides his time between living in a movie theatre and writing mysteries. There might also be some ghostbusting being performed in his spare time.

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‘A Dog’s Way Home’ Needs a Tighter Leash

Jeremiah

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To be perfectly honest, if I were a child I’d probably love A Dog’s Way Home. I say this not just because the children at my screening seemed riveted and on the literal edge of their seat seats. No, I say this because I remember loving movies like Benji the Hunted and The Adventures of Milo and Otis.

It goes back even further though. Hollywood has long peddled movies such as Black Beauty and The Black Stallion at youngsters and the grandparents who accompany them. These movies exist for families to go and experience uncomplicated stories with cute little animals braving the horrors of the world.

A Dog’s Way Home is harmless enough but unless you have children or have a special affinity for this genre of movie it may well be, as it was for me, excruciating. While I used to enjoy those movies, I have long since gotten over them. One could argue that I’m poorer for it.

Charles Martin Smith is a wonderful character actor from movies like No Deposit, No Return, and Starman. He has directed such movies as the infamous Trick or Treat and, in its own way, the equally infamous Air Bud. A Dog’s Way Home somehow bridges the two together.

For most of the movie, we follow Bella (voiced by Bryce Dallas Howard) played by Shelby the dog, a cute and expressive mixed pit bull. She embarks on a four hundred mile journey to return to her owner Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King). We’ve all heard stories like this before. Stories where a dog, cat, or some other animal travels a great distance to somehow miraculously find it’s way home. These stories have great power to them because for us, I imagine, it challenges our perceptions about the inner lives our pets lead. Maybe there is something more to these animals than just sit, heel, and beg. Add to all of that the basic simple draw of the basic human desire to return home.

Home need not be the place you grew up or even where you were born. After all, Bella was born in the cellar of an abandoned and run down house. Her mother and siblings were taken by animal control. She was raised by a family of cats who also lived in the building. Eventually, Lucas and Olivia (Alexandra Shipp) find her and take her in.

No, home is where we feel “safe from all alarm” as the song goes. It’s why movies such as O’Brother Where Art Thou cast such a lasting spell on the psyche of its audience. Even the story of which it’s based, The Odyssey, is about characters who yearn to be back with their loved ones.

All of this is not to say A Dog’s Way Home is any good. I love Bryce Dallas Howard. She is often the best thing about movies that I don’t generally like. Here though, as the voice of Bella, less is more.

The script, written by W. Bruce Cameron and Cathryn Michon, makes Bella a constant insufferable narrator. Cameron, who wrote the book the film is based on, seems to misunderstand the differences between the mediums. In a book, the narration is necessary in order to give us insight into Bella’s fear and emotions.

But dogs are far and away the most expressive of animals. Often times Howard’s voice-over feels insulting to children. She is forced to say such lines as “I was so happy.” My hatred of children is well documented, but even I am forced to argue on their behalf. Surely a child is able to tell when a dog is happy or sad without being told so. If not, then we may have more problems then we are aware of.

Cameron and Michon can’t seem to make up their minds how they want A Dog’s Way Home to be. For much of the movie, it is a harmless saccharine sweet piece of fluff. Even with poor Howard’s inane dialogue. But at times there were moments of manufactured drama that seem out of place.

For example, the home where Lucas and Olivia found Bella. It is a crumbling house amidst a row of condemned houses owned by Gunter (Brian Markinson). Gunter is the greedy landowner whose plans to renovate the street are foiled because of the rumors of cats living in the rubble. The animal control department, the same ones who took Bella’s family, claim there are no cats. Spoiler alert: there are still cats living there.

Gunter is the villain in a movie that clearly doesn’t even need a villain. Much like Bella doesn’t need a voice, A Dog’s Way Home almost goes out of its way to make itself more complicated than it needs to be. Gunter, enraged by Lucas and Olivia’s attempts at forcing him to employ the barest of due diligence, lashes out.

He labels Bella a Pit Bull. Here’s where A Dog’s Way Home gets interesting, sort of. In Denver under the law, “pit bull,” is extremely vague. It’s a catch-all term that encompasses any animal deemed dangerous or a threat to public safety. The whole first act of A Dog’s Way Home is set up for what seems to be an attempt at exploring the pitfalls of breed-specific laws and regulations.

Lucas and his mother Terri (Ashley Judd) make the difficult decision to move Bella out of Denver at a friend’s house. Lucas and Olivia will find a house outside Denver and collect Bella then. But Bella runs away before Lucas can come to get her.

Believe it or not, I am not a monster. As much as I was bored to tears in A Dog’s Way Home and as much as I prayed for a power outage, or for the projector to malfunction, anything to save me from the tedious time at the movies, parts of it worked. Smith from time to time, scales back Howard’s voice over and allows Shelby the dog to just do her thing. At these moments I found myself, much like the little girl in front of me, absorbed by Bella’s plight.

Moments such as when Bella saves a man buried alive from an avalanche only to be found by an interracial gay couple. No, you didn’t misread that sentence and I’m not exaggerating. The order and contents of that sentence are exactly correct. Gavin (Barry Watson) and Taylor (Motell Gyn Foster) have moments with Bella which are simple and effective. We are allowed to just watch without being told what anyone is feeling or thinking.

When Bella leaves to continue her hunt for Lucas, we feel the pang of loss both for the men and for Bella. But nothing prepares us for the hard left turn involving Axel (Edward James Olmos). He’s a homeless Veteran who adopts Bella. He keeps her on a leash and eventually chains her to his body and promptly dies. She is left to die of starvation and dehydration.

Don’t worry, unlike most modern day dog movies, Bella lives. She is discovered by two kids who are about to have their own Stand By Me adventure. Their discovery of Bella is soon overcome by their discovery of Axel.

I haven’t even mentioned the part where Bella basically raises a cougar cub or the subplot about how pets and animals make for good coping therapy for veterans. For a movie that doesn’t have much under the surface, a lot happens above it. Heck, even the legendary Wes Studi shows up at the end. He plays the one character with anything close to resembling common sense and rationality. A welcome reprieve in a movie oftentimes filled with idiots.

Smith tries in vain to tie all of this together into a cohesive story and to some degree he succeeds. Shot by Peter Menzies Jr, the film is pretty to look at and at times borders on more of a nature documentary than a movie. Many scenes involve blatant CGI so as to not put Shelby or the other animals in danger. Although one scene where Bella is concussed by a police car as it skids to a stop jolted me out of my seat.

A Dog’s Way Home is nothing if not sincere in its aim. It just wants to be a little story about a dog trying to get home. I didn’t particularly enjoy it. But I found myself charmed by the little things it did despite my stubborn curmudgeonous demeanor.


Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures

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Golden Globes Declare #MeToo Movement Finally Over, Award Top Prize to Embattled Director

Dan Arndt

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My fellow moviegoers, our long national nightmare is over. The first step came last night at the Golden Globe awards when the Best Motion Picture-Drama Award was given to Bohemian Rhapsody, created and directed by Bryan Singer. While Singer, who directed the first two X-Men movies and allegedly raped an underage boy half his age in the ’90s, was not at the show in person, the award indicates that Hollywood is ready to move past #MeToo.

Giving the award to Bohemian Rhapsody was only the third worst part of the awards

Singer, who’s been fighting these allegations for years (stretching back to 1997), had left the picture in 2017 after, yes, more allegations came out. However, he laid most of the groundwork for the piece and was a producer, as well as the credited director despite clean-up work by Dexter Fletcher. With all that in mind, and with the easy out of Bohemian Rhapsody being not really that good, the Hollywood Foreign Press decided to give a movie that still listed Singer as director their most prestigious award, even as multiple actresses sat in the audience bearing #TimesUp on their outfits.

While there’s been no official statement from the Globes or the company behind Bohemian Rhapsody, it’s clear that there was at least some attempt to un-person him, as he went unmentioned in Rami Malek’s speech for his (well deserved) Best Actor award, as well as those for the Best Motion Picture-Drama award itself. He was notably absent from the stage and the audience as well. After, the producers were cagey on whether Singer shared in the award, and Malek tried to block by shifting the focus back to Freddie Mercury. Singer did acknowledge the award on his Instagram, however, and thanked the Hollywood Foreign Press.

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What an honor. Thank you #HollywoodForeignPress

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With #MeToo finally over, perhaps the other awards shows will follow suit. Perhaps Louis C.K. get a Grammy for his leaked comedy audio where he called the Parkland Teens “boring,” or maybe Kevin Spacey will get a Tony for his bizarre monologue from Christmas. The skies the limit thanks to the Golden Globes! And don’t worry about Bryan, he’s still helping produce The Gifted for Marvel and Fox. Oh, and he’s in talks to direct Red Sonja.


Images via Hollywood Foreign Press

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Walk, Don’t Run to ‘Escape Room’

Jeremiah

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Escape Room is an enjoyable, if at times quite effective, horror film. If you liked Saw or the Final Destination movies you will more than likely enjoy this. Both of these franchises have built a successful formula out of sitting in the dark watching people die in varying elaborate Rube Goldberg fashion.

The difference is that the Saw movies try to behave as if they have some deeper moralistic or philosophical meaning to it all. The Final Destination movies, however, never pretend to be anything other than what they are. For the record, I enjoy the latter over the former.

Your enjoyment of Escape Room will largely depend on how much gore versus how much riddle and puzzle solving you like in your horror. Either way, the movie is competent enough and slick enough to make the tension work. Adam Robitel, the director, has given us a relatively decent horror movie for January.

My tepid response comes not from my bias towards Final Destination over Saw. Rather it”s my own personal taste. Quite frankly this is not the type of movie that I particularly enjoy. To be clear neither is Final Destination. Horror movies are my least favorite genre. Sometimes I enjoy them. But most of the time I am unable to overcome my initial unease at watching them.

Escape Room follows six seemingly unconnected characters as they make their way through one elaborate booby trap after another. Because of the modern cinematic landscape, these six strangers will all have something in common. God forbid six strangers actually turn out to be six strangers with nothing in common. The thread that ties the characters together is revealed as the movie goes along.

The structure of the movie tips its hand slightly. Escape Room is designed for fans of the genre but its surprises will be easily spotted. For example of the six characters only Zoe (Taylor Russell), Ben (Logan Miller), and Jason (Jay Ellis) are given any kind of backstory. We see each of them receive an elaborate puzzle box which contains an invitation. The other three, Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), Mike (Tyler Labine), and Danny (Nik Dodani), we meet at the escape room itself. Since they have no backstory, and we have no connection to them, they will be the first to die.

To give Escape Room credit it’s never really obvious which of the three will die. The movie begins with the last scene. Knowing this tells us more than the last three we met will die. The suspense becomes who and in what order. Of course, all of this is predicated on the notion that Escape Room is playing fair with us. Meaning if the beginning is really the end, then everything I’ve just said is correct. Except since this is a horror movie, the notion that it would be playing fair is naive.

The script written by Bragi F. Schut and Maria Melnik is inventive in how the rooms are designed and plotted out to relate to each of the characters. The problem is that as fun as Escape Room is it begins to wobble by the end. The cracks begin to show towards the end. For much it’s runtime Escape Room is grounded to some degree in reality. By the end it has lept off the rails and into an over the top Illuminati inspired ending.

While Escape Room at times feels like an episode of The Twilight Zone it never feels over the top. Robitel manages to make the improbability and most convoluted coincidences and designs seem believable. But the ending verges into television, “I’ll get you next time!” territory. It feels hokey and overdone. 

Up until the end though it’s a perfectly serviceable horror movie. Taylor Russell as the shy and introverted Zoey is a lovely presence. Her character adds a layer of tension. She’s so likable and endearing you begin to feel bad for her even before people start dying. Russell has a thankless job of turning her character from shy savant to embracing being the smartest one in the room.

Deborah Ann Woll is the other bright spot. An ex Iraq veteran she is the pragmatic voice of the group as well as the unspoken leader. Of all the cast members she has the most physically challenging role. In a movie where characters must out run, out think, and out guess a faceless menace, her Amanda has to outdo them all.

The most effective scene involves a room designed like a honky-tonk pool room. Russell’s Zoey realizes the records on the wall are a picture puzzle while Woll’s Amanda figures out the clue must be in a lockbox. The room is upside down. The timer is the floor giving way in sections revealing a massive elevator shaft beneath.

Despite my initial boredom, I was curled into a tight ball watching the group try and work through the room. Whatever predictability Escape Room has Robitol and his writers seem aware of it and either lean into it or tease you with enough information for us to know we don’t have everything.

Marc Spicer, the cinematographer, and editor Steve Mirkovich work together to make a cohesive horror thriller. Despite its shortcomings, I found myself cringing from the intensity of the atmosphere. Spicer and Mirkovich cleverly play with the boundaries of PG-13 rating. Utilizing the constraints they are able to create a very specific atmosphere of dread despite the ludicrousness of the plot.

The rising popularity of escape rooms only made the inevitability of a horror movie about them all the more likely. The element of some far-seeing shadowy billionaire oligarch behind it all is merely a sign of our ever-increasing class-conscious times. Escape Room does what it promises to do, but trips over itself trying to set up a future franchise deal. All in all not bad for a January horror film.


Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

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