⋆⋆⋆½ out of four stars
Rated: R for terror, violence, disturbing content, and language including sexual references.
Fast-paced, coherent and continually gut-wrenching, this home invasion thriller begins with a gambit that pays off handsomely: making the villains redeemable and their victim monstrous. From its opening, a high-angle establishing shot of an abandoned, hellishly blighted Detroit neighborhood, we’re in a world of legitimate threats not to be laughed off.
Hoping to escape the city, three young burglars set out to steal a fortune kept under lock and key in the house of a blind, aged military vet. Money (Dylan Minnette) is a tall, tough punk goon. His girl Rocky (Jane Levy) is a young mother eager to move her little daughter to the promised land of California. Alex (Daniel Zovatto), the sensible runt of the trio, has retired all logic because of his unspoken crush on Rocky.
The quiet entry while the owner sleeps at 2 a.m. is challenging. Getting out after the theft is botched is far riskier. The blind man is a ferocious foe with strong survival skills. Stephen Lang makes this ruthless military antagonist as tough as the combat-mad commanding officer he played in “Avatar.” He hunts, attacks and looks scary-good doing it. Writer/director Fede Alvarez shifts gears as the invaders become the ones who are besieged. The dialogue is minimal but telling, since any sound the trio makes could enable the veteran to locate them. Even stepping on a creaking floorboard leads to violence and mayhem. Taut action piles on unrelenting terror. Stomach acid churns as increasingly desperate escape attempts fail, and a stunning second-act revelation triggers moans of “Oh, no, they didn’t!”
The locations are impressively coarse and grimy, the cinematography in mostly darkened conditions is nerve-racking, and the cast is electrifying without overacting a moment, with special honors to Levy as the increasingly imperiled Rocky. I would love to see an entirely separate movie about her character. And given the ambiguous epilogue, that just might happen.
A Tale of Love and Darkness
⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars
Rated: PG-13 for thematic content, violence. In subtitled Hebrew and Arabic.
Actors gravitate toward passion projects, films they care about deeply, even obsessively, but the result is seldom as convincing as this film of beautiful melancholy written, directed by and starring Natalie Portman.
A Hebrew-language film based on the celebrated memoir by Israeli novelist Amos Oz, it persuasively intertwines the personal tale of a young boy’s bond with his emotionally fragile mother, strongly played by Portman, with the wider narrative of the early days of the future state of Israel.
The people she’s elected to work with are impressive. Cinematographer Slawomir Idziak, responsible for the film’s appropriate desaturated look, has shot everything from “Black Hawk Down” to “The Double Life of Veronique,” while editor and frequent Sidney Lumet collaborator Andrew Mondshein, production designer Arad Sawat and composer Nicholas Britell (“12 Years a Slave”) all have notable credits.
There are moments of self-conscious artiness. But it is Portman’s deep connection to the material, her integrity and respect that are key. She doesn’t overstate the story’s potent emotions, and that makes the difference.
Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times
Hands of Stone
⋆⋆ out of four stars
Rated: R for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity. In subtitled Spanish and English.
There’s no major actor today who does grizzled better than Robert De Niro. As venerable New York boxing trainer Ray Arcel, De Niro’s face is a distinctive bas-relief of wattles, wrinkles, crow’s feet and turkey wattle neck. His jowls and his spirited performance as the pep-talking mentor of Panama’s rags-to-riches lightweight Roberto Durán are the most impressive aspects of an otherwise boring boxing biography.
Director Jonathan Jakubowicz fills the screen with solid talents. Édgar Ramírez finds Durán’s inner thug, pop icon Usher convincingly portrays the knockout king’s longtime opponent Sugar Ray Leonard, Ana de Armas (last seen in “War Dogs”) is a believable young blonde as the fighter’s upper-class wife. The script tracks his trajectory from stone-broke childhood to granite-fisted championship, then down and up again.
Shot by shot, the energetically edited film is handsome to watch as it bounces from Panama barrios to rich excess in Manhattan and Las Vegas. Jakubowicz fails to draw us below its attractive surface, however, rarely building cinema snapshots into compelling scenes. The fight scenes are slam-bang brutal but poorly planned, far below De Niro’s “Raging Bull.” Durán was considered a fighter with more energy and ambition than strategy, and the film tells his story in much the same way.