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Film Review

New films: The Book of Henry, Rough Night, All Eyez on Me

Some great movies would go down nicely this week, with high temperatures in the Sacramento region making air-conditioned movie theaters look especially appealing. But you’re probably safest looking towards the Sacramento French Film Festival or the Tower Theatre’s Studio Ghibli Festival, because the multiplexes aren’t bringing their A game and the summer can’t survive on endless re-watching of “Wonder Woman” and “Guardian of the Galaxy 2.”

It’s not a good sign that the best reviewed movie of the week, according to the aggregation site RottenTomatoes.com, is “Cars 3” – a Pixar offering that’s only scoring 65% positive reviews (albeit better than the 39% score for 2011’s “Cars 2”). And the week’s next highest rating is for “47 Meters Down,” the umpteenth humans vs. sharks thriller, barely afloat at 56%.

Meanwhile, the three films I watched in advance of the weekend are all doing even worse, at the time of writing, and I’m not entirely surprised.

The Book of Henry” seemed like a winning formula on paper, at least in terms of the cast. It teams two of the brightest young actors, Jaeden Lieberher (“St. Vincent,” “Midnight Special”) and Jacob Tremblay (“Room”) as brothers, with Naomi Watts as their struggling single mother. It also gives us appealing supporting cast members such as Sarah Silverman, Lee Pace, and Bobby Moynihan. But there’s not much, and certainly not enough, that they can do with the material.

Liberher is Henry, a boy genius who builds wacky machines, invests in the stock market, and attends a regular school to be around regular kids. And when the film starts out, introducing us to Henry and the folks around him, for a brief period it works – he’s an oddball and the film feels like it launching into similar territory.

But then, in fairly rapid succession, what seems like pending quirkiness gets buried underneath a terminal illness, witnessed child abuse, and a convoluted murder plot. Suddenly quirky doesn’t fit any more and the film flounders between that and something much deeper and darker, without ever settling on either. It also skips over certain details as though trying to remain relatively safe for younger viewers, while dealing with topics that are inherently dark, with or without those details.

There are individual sub-plots here that ought to be capable of delivering a true roller coaster of emotion, from laughter to tears, but instead it all seems remarkably flat. We know most in the cast are talented and so the lack of clarity in style and tone, and even the unevenness in some of the acting, seems the responsibility of director Colin Trevorrow (“Safety Not Guaranteed,” “Jurassic World”) who simply never gains any coherence or consistency from the material.

There’s more inconsistency from “Rough Night,” the second film of the week that deals with death as a punchline as much as a tragedy. Five women embark on a drink and drug-fueled bachelorette party during which a man dies – and most of the film is premised on the comedic premise of the difficulty in disposing of a dead body. It’s like a gender-reversed version of 1998’s “Very Bad Things.”

For the most part, it tries to be broad comedy, although the death scene is played somewhat darker. But it never seems consistent enough in its laugh. Again we have a strong cast, including Scarlett Johansson, Jillian Bell, and Kate McKinnon, but they never quite seem to come together. The plot even references them drifting apart as friends but it’s a problem, even in a comedy, when it’s not that easy to ever picture them closer.

The story also pulls its punches a little, trying to make the death seem somehow OK, after the fact. It also hinges on a scene in which four of the women are apparently OK with the fifth being used sexually, largely to incorporate a recurring joke about a couple of swingers living next door to the party house.

If you do choose to see it, be aware that there are two separate scenes embedded in the credits – neither of which redeem it.

My third disappointment of the week came from “All Eyez on Me” – about the life of rapper and actor Tupac Shakur. My hopes had been raised by the strong performances and storytelling in the recent “Straight Outta Compton,” but this film doesn’t come close to that standard.

As with that film, I’m not sufficiently familiar with all of the historical facts to remark on the film’s accuracy, but I have seen online reports of comments by Jada Pinkett Smith, a friend of Shakur’s, who has apparently said that several of the scenes between the actors playing her and Shakur in the film didn’t happen that way in real life. A cursory comparison with other details found online isn’t any more reassuring.

That said, the film had already lost me. It seems strange to make a film about a man who spoke through his lyrics and then shy away from the performances of those songs on screen. As far as I can tell, the film relies on Shakur’s own recordings of songs and so the film appears to be an extended lip-syncing compilation. There are scenes in other films in which somebody plays a piano but you only see them from angles in which the instrument blocks their hands. This is like that, only more so. In one scene in the studio, most of the direction seems focused on an ongoing attempt to shield the lead actor’s (Demetrius Shipp Jr.’s) mouth behind his hand, his arm, and the microphone – all of which distracts completely from the song itself.

A true story about a man born of Black Panther parents, who sold 75 million records, who was shot multiple times on multiple occasions, and who had numerous other run-ins with the law, should make a good movie. Perhaps one day it will.


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About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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