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Ocean’s 8, like all Ocean’s movies, is about acting

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

“I’d like to play a more central role this time,” says Linus (Matt Damon) in Ocean’s 12. He’s nominally talking about his participation in a coordinated group heist, but the language is unmistakable and the self-referential tone unavoidable: Linus, played by a very famous actor who is nonetheless slightly less famous than his biggest co-stars, sounds very much like an actor, asking for a bigger role in the ensemble for the sequel to Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11. Like a lot of actors, Linus—a pickpocket, a bit younger than Danny Ocean (George Clooney) or his right-hand man Rusty (Brad Pitt), and certainly less experienced—takes his job very seriously. In Ocean’s 13, Linus goes into full con-man mode, not just planning or thieving, but playing a character in order to deceive a casino boss’s right-hand lady (Ellen Barkin). He insists on wearing an exaggerated false nose to complete the illusion, as his colleagues look on with indifference. “The nose plays!” is his forceful refrain.

Ocean’s 13 doesn’t go as far through the looking glass as Ocean’s 12, but taken together, Soderbergh’s trilogy does resemble a hall of mirrors, both for its illusive tricks and its funhouse consideration of star vanity. To this hall, the new female-driven Ocean’s 8 adds a few more mirrors, though mostly not engineered by Soderbergh himself. He’s on hand as producer, but has handed the directorial reins to his friend Gary Ross. In the run-up to his sort-of retirement, Soderbergh did some second-unit directing on The Hunger Games; here, Ross returns the favor by directing all of Ocean’s 8 as if on second-unit. This probably isn’t a fair criticism—few directors have the command of the heist-movie form that consummate problem-solver Soderbergh seems to summon with the snap of his fingers—but the over-the-top quasi-professionalism of an Ocean gang has the unfortunate side effect of exposing journeymen. In Soderbergh’s trilogy, he keeps all of the intricate, ridiculous prep-work moving at a clip, punctuating the most amusing moments with sharp cuts. Ross directs scenes that appear to be wandering around in search of their punchline before hustling away empty-handed.

Yet Ocean’s 8 can’t help but follow in the tradition of its predecessors, even when Ross seems unable of keeping up, nevermind setting a pace. Some of it is that all-lady ensemble. Instead of George Clooney leading a mixture of Hollywood royalty and game character actors, Sandra Bullock heads up a starry crew that includes Cate Blanchett, Rihanna, Mindy Kaling, Helena Bonham Carter, Sarah Paulson, and YouTube star Awkafina. Anne Hathaway is there too, although her character Daphne Kluger isn’t recruited as part of the gang; rather, she’s a vain yet needy actress who Debbie Ocean (Bullock) and company must manipulate into wearing an extremely valuable necklace at the Met Ball, so they can switch it with a fake and rob its owners blind (and maybe frame someone else for the job).
Continue reading Ocean’s 8, like all Ocean’s movies, is about acting

Tribeca 2018, Part 3: Emma Roberts Returns

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

Emma Roberts, who is 27, is probably done playing teenagers and recent graduates, though you can never really say for sure. Roberts played teenager-ish characters for so long that she had stints as both a Sundance Queen (where her roles in The Winning Season, The Art of Getting By, and Celeste and Jesse Forever debuted) and an even less-heralded period as the Princess of Tribeca, with the likes of Palo Alto, Adult World, and Ashby bringing her movies to lower Manhattan (and not much further). She was a teen in all of them, so her newest Tribeca film still feels like a milestone, albeit of the nebulous sort that the title In a Relationship implies. Roberts plays Hallie, a twentysomething in a long-term relationship with Owen (Michael Angarano), a doofy guy who I’d describe as hemming and hawing over their level of commitment, except that he evades too much to even hem or haw as much as he wants to. When Owen loses his roommate, Hallie suggests that they could move in together. Instead, they break up, because Owen can’t commit to the number of years they’ve been dating, much less to a cohabitation (despite the fact that they spend most of their time together).

Emma Roberts does the heavy lifting in this movie, and not just because she’s good at delivering half-ironic young-neurotic dialogue, like her line about wanting to leave a party and go home: “I think I left a candle burning and it’s haunted me all afternoon.” (Or her suggestion for a heartbroken afternoon activity: “Can we look at pictures of sushi on Yelp?”) She also finds some sensibility, if not exactly sense, in the notion that Hallie would be terribly attached to Owen. Angarano, meanwhile, gives the opposite performance: He takes a guy who is, on paper, not especially interesting or even sympathetic, and makes him into a character you can actively root against. There’s something weirdly loud about his performance; he doesn’t spend the whole movie shouting, but he is overemphatic in a way you’d never guess from the frazzled little kid from Almost Famous. Owen is not particularly funny, not particularly nice, not particularly smart, not even especially handsome, and not in possession of any redeeming qualities apart from his occasional affection for Hallie.

This should not count, because how hard is it to find Emma Roberts charming? If anything, he’s below-average in that department. The movie’s other half, which is about Owen’s buddy Matt (Patrick Gibson) dating Hallie’s cousin Willa (Dree Hemingway), at least has some balance between both partners’ sweetness and their Los Angeleno insufferability. In a Relationship is crisply edited and moderately well-written, but it never earns its bittersweet ending note, and it sure doesn’t give Roberts the millennial rom-com she deserves.

Really, that movie might have been the neon-tinged online-but-IRL thriller Nerve, from a couple of years ago. But it wasn’t a big hit, and the truth is, Roberts is a Tribeca-scale star: She can be the lead in an indie movie, but getting her into a studio rom-com, something that barely exists at the moment, would take some more doing. It’s kind of amazing that she never found herself in a YA fantasy (beyond It’s Kind of a Funny Story, the YA adaptation for which she serves as a fantasy object), and kind of cool that she racked up a bunch of indies in the meantime, even though she played someone who was around about 18 for the better part of a decade. In a Relationship ages her up to normal, but it still feels like a grad movie of sorts; Hallie spends the movie ready to graduate into a relationship that means as much to her partner as it does to her. There’s something touching about that, and Roberts doesn’t shy away from the neediness or desperation there, either. She obviously feels some connection to this project; she’s credited here as an executive producer. Maybe next time she returns to Tribeca, it should be as a director. Or at least with another movie from the Nerve guys.

Tribeca 2018, Part 2: Fuck-Ups or Just Funny?

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

I don’t mean to be glib when I say that this year’s Tribeca is, like some Tribecas of the past, pretty big on women-fucking-up indie movies. I’m actually pretty excited to say that, because women-fucking-up indies tend to be a lot more fresh and a lot less mopey than their male counterparts, the latter tending to be awash with sensitive acoustic guitar music, passivity, beards, and Manic Pixie Dream Girls.

There actually might be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl of sorts in Duck Butter (Grade: C-), or maybe she’s a commentary on one; it’s hard to tell, because the movie is so low-key unpleasant. Sergio (Laia Costa) meets Naima (Alia Shawkat, who co-wrote the film with director Miguel Arteta) in between Naima’s first day on the set of an indie movie and the next day, when she is told she’s been fired; Sergio is first seen singing in public in a way that’s not very good but supposed to be bold and charming (not a good sign) and makes a post-hookup proposal that Naima initially rejects, then warms to after her firing: Why don’t they spend a full 24 hours together, having sex every hour or so, as a way of jumpstarting their intimacy and honesty?

Why not? Well, mostly because it’s exhausting, even with a 93-minute running time. Sergio acts vaguely mercurial (which is to say petulant), Naima acts vaguely overcautious (which is to say normal), and rather than a fuller understanding of their characters, you mostly get an idea of what kind of thought-experiment noodling Shawkat and Arteta would like to see from the movies they watch. Credit due, though: Duck Butter (which opens today in limited release and hits VOD next week) is the first movie where I’ve seen both Duplass Brothers playing themselves, and the awkwardness of their interactions with Naima feel more like vintage (if second-tier) Arteta.

Naima is an actress who is too self-conscious about the shitty state of the world to appear especially creative. Two more Tribeca movies focus on women who use their creativity to fight their crummy circumstances, not so much women-fucking-up movies (though one sort of takes the form of one) as women-fucking-shit-up movies. The documentary Love, Gilda (Grade: B-) chronicles the life of peerless SNL player Gilda Radner, who died far too soon at the age of 42, from ovarian cancer. The film, assembled from old photos, home movies, and diaries (though it’s hard to tell when the latter are fudged together with the audio book of her autobiography, It’s Always Something), is a moving and candid portrait, though the materials it’s working with sometimes feel stretched thin, cinematically speaking (some of the shots of old photos linger too long, as if the movie has nothing else to cut to for the moment). It’s not a wildly insightful movie, but it’s valuable both for getting to hear Radner’s voice again (in the voiceover audio as well as her comic voice in various clips, some oft-repeated SNL bits and some more obscure), and to see Amy Poehler, Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, and Bill Hader read through her diaries and reflect on her comic technique (Poehler calls most of her SNL characters poor Radner imitations, a humble way of acknowledging her hero’s influence).

The talking-heads from people who actually knew Radner are a little thin. Lorne Michaels, Chevy Chase, and Laraine Newman go on camera, but it’s disappointing not to hear from Dan Aykroyd, Jane Curtin, or (less surprising, but even so) Bill Murray. What resonates most about the movie is Radner’s joy of performance – that despite her eating disorder or neediness, she truly and, especially toward the end, unselfishly, loved making people laugh.

It wouldn’t be fair to compare the tough and fictional stand-up comedian of All About Nina (Grade: C+) to Gilda Radner, but as well-observed as the movie’s fake stand-up routines are, it could have used a little more sense of that joy, however fleeting. Nina (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is a brash, smart lady comic with a dark past who gets a long-awaited shot at an SNL-style show (based for plot convenience in Los Angeles rather than Nina’s native New York). The pacing of the movie, as Nina breaks things off with an abusive boyfriend, moves to L.A., temporarily rooms with her agent’s new-age-y friend, and strikes up a romance with a plainspoken guy outside the entertainment industry (Common), is careful and appealingly slow. But the movie’s turn into Nina’s tragic backstory, while right up to the minute with the #MeToo movement, isn’t handled as adroitly, and even makes the movie’s first hour feel poky and rambling in retrospect. It’s too bad, because Winstead is typically great as Nina; she has a great scene running through some material three-quarters naked in front of her apartment window, invigorated by her own talent. In the end, though, All About Nina feels ambivalent about the very act of making comedy; it wants to position it as Nina’s salvation, of sorts, but at arm’s length, like it secretly finds the whole thing kind of distasteful, a remove the movie never fully explores.

Karen Gillan’s The Party’s Just Beginning (Grade: B-) is more of a traditional young-lady-fucking-up movie, about a Scottish gal (Gillan) flailing through a drunken, French-fry-binging, casual-sex-having life after the suicide of her best friend. As written, the material is pretty boilerplate, but Gillan shows a lot of promise behind the camera. In front of it, she captures the desperate helplessness that can come with grief. Even when she’s spiraling, the movie never mopes—or breaks out the sensitive acoustic guitar.

Tribeca 2018, Part 1: Forbidden Love and Forbidden Sex, Too

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

I’ve been attending the Tribeca Film Festival since (checks notes) 2013, and when I file dispatches during the festival, I usually have to wait a few days for at least a couple of thematic links to form between seemingly disparate features. Not so in 2018, as my first day at the festival took me from a movie about forbidden love (and lust) between adult women to a movie about forbidden lust (and love) between gay teenagers to a movie about self-forbidden lust (or love) between mostly hetero teenagers. The first two movies, with their narratives about boundaries on homosexuality imposed by various parts of society, should have made the third feel like a privileged trifle, but as it happens, the progressively less intense playing order made the final film feel like a blessed relief.

I started with Disobedience (Grade: B-), which opens commercially next weekend and is the most serious of the batch—not in terms of what happens in it, which is not especially disturbing or upsetting, but in terms of its tone, which might be what a writer’s group I’ve been in might call an imitative fallacy. Because the movie is set in an Orthodox Jewish community and that community is located in London, and because the two leading women are not especially happy to be in this restrictive setting, Disobedience is drab and dour, capturing barely more than a minute or two of sunlight over the course of its two hours.

What it lacks in color, humor, or liveliness, it does make up for in Rachels: Rachel Weisz plays the estranged daughter of a recently deceased rabbi who returns home after his passing, and reconnects with childhood friends played by Rachel McAdams and Alessandro Nivola. They’re still in the Orthodox community—and they’re now married. But the Rachels have been holding torches for one another this whole time, and reignite their relationship with alternating caution and recklessness. Weisz and Adams are very good here, and do a hell of a lot to make this movie watchably rather than oppressively downcast. McAdams in particular offers a potent reminder of what a smart, subtle, no-frills actress she is in the right role.

These characters don’t entirely acquiesce to their oppression, but despite the judgmental people around them, their struggles are mostly internal as they are, after all, more or less free to make their own decisions. There’s plenty of internal struggle in The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Grade: B), but whatever self-loathing can come from realizing your sexuality in adolescence is terrifyingly externalized when Cameron (Chloe Grace Moretz) is sent to a school that specializes in straightening out gay teens—sort of half Bible camp, half cult. Director/cowriter Desiree Akhavan makes a major leap from her promising debut Inappropriate Behavior, and it happens within minutes of Miseducation’s opening. She moves the action from Cameron’s rendezvous with her secret girlfriend, to prom night, to exposure as a lesbian, to enrollment in the school with terrific fluidity and lack of exposition. It’s all quickly engineered yet perfectly observed, right down to its 1993 period details (The Breeders on cassette, what what!).

The action slows a bit once Cameron reaches the school; the movie introduces a lot of new characters but their importance as individuals comes more from inferences than big scenes, especially Jane (Sasha Lane), who sometimes feels like an attitude in search of an individual. But Akhavan is able to elicit sardonic laughter from the material without sacrificing the sense of psychological pain that is being inflicted on these kids. And the movie ends with a couple of scenes so unhurried and plainspoken in their loveliness and sadness that they start to recall David Gordon Green or Lane’s American Honey director Andrea Arnold. Akhavan isn’t quite on that level yet, but she bookends her film with virtuoso displays of talent.

The French-Canadian teens of Slut in a Good Way (Grade: B+) have no such worries on their minds. The movie’s central trio of teenage girls all get jobs at a big-box toy store on a whim, because there are cute, somewhat older guys there (college-aged, to their Grade 11), and one of the girls is nursing a broken heart (the gay guy she thought wanted to be with her anyway turns out to be, yeah, actually gay). First they want to goof off and sleep with their new coworkers; then they decide to impose a moratorium on interoffice sex for, well, 24 hours later the reason is escaping me. If I recall correctly, it’s because the guys start to just expect that they’ll be able to fool or fuck around with any of the girls, and also they decide to raise some money for charity. I’d be happy to watch the movie again to clarify, because Slut in a Good Way (whose actual French title translates to either Charlotte Has Fun or Charlotte Having Fun; I’m not sure) is a delight.

It’s sort of a one-crazy-summer movie, except it takes place over the fall, and its characters aren’t especially outsized or caricatured. There are also bits of Clerks (besides the workplace shenanigans, it’s shot in a halo’d, soft black and white), American Pie (a little smutty but sex-positive), and workplace sitcoms. Those influences are all enjoyable, but it isn’t particular a gender-flipped version of any of them (it also resembles a more antic companion piece to the sleepier Canadian delight Tu Dors, Nicole). What’s most magical about the movie is how director Sophie Lorain choreographs her camera and her actors. She’s very aware of where the characters are within (or outside of) the frame, and pans her camera around the Toy Depot aisles to capture the musicality of their movements, even though none of the actors play the material with much theatricality. When she executes a funny extended sight gag based on characters playing a dance video game, you think: of course.

Lorain, a movie and TV actress from Quebec who has made some Canadian TV and one movie, unseen by me, nearly a decade ago, is a find (which is to say, Americans may find her after this movie; clearly she’s been around in relatively plain sight for our Canadian neighbors). Instead of coming across like a carefree irritant, Slut in a Good Way, showing up at the end of my triple feature, felt aspirational. Here’s hoping more gay teenagers can grow up (and fuck up) with this kind of near-musical ebullience.

The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: Steven Spielberg and Ready Player One (Parts 1 and 2)

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

Still cranking out movies, sometimes faster than ever, as he enters his 70s, Steven Spielberg remains an enormous figure who looms, moonlike, over the cinematic landscape. Not everyone loves his work, and even those who love his work don’t love everything about it, but there’s no denying his influence, importance, and talent. On the occasion of Ready Player One, his new movie (and fourth in about two and a half years!), we assembled a group mixing hardcore fans, casual watchers, and genuine skeptics of his work to discuss the new film and everything that came before it. This was such an expansive discussion that we’ve split it into two episodes. Part 1 focuses on Ready Player One and some of his directorial trademarks; Part 2 focuses on the rest of his career and the Spielberg movies and ephemera that Marisa, Ben, Sara, Nathaniel, and Jesse love, hate, or may have just watched for the first time. How does Ready Player One compare to the book? Who thinks Lincoln is overrated? What Spielberg sequel is Jesse nuts for? What the hell do we all think of Hook? Listen to find out all of that plus more Spielberg nerdery!

Both parts are now available for your listening pleasure below!

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  • Unsane: Claire Foy is the latest of Steven Soderbergh’s Difficult Women

    Jesse

    Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

    Now that Steven Soderbergh is back to making movies at his usual peerless clip after a short-yet-too-long four-year break, he’s picking up very much where he left off. Last summer’s Logan Lucky was like a sweeter Ocean’s 11 led by his pre-retirement muse Channing Tatum, and now his brand-new, iPhone-shot feature Unsane is very much a companion piece to Side Effects (which also featured Tatum, alongside Rooney Mara, Jude Law, and Catherine Zeta-Jones). Soderbergh is once again rooting a psychological thriller in a modern fears about medicine and mental health, following Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) as she seeks help for residual fears after a stalking incident, and finds herself committed against her will to a mental hospital – where she starts to seeing a face she swears belongs to her old stalker (Joshua Leonard).

    A major difference between Unsane and some of Soderbergh’s other female-centric genre experiments is that Foy is a professional actress. That’s not a knock against The Girlfriend Experience’s Sasha Gray or Haywire’s Gina Carano; Soderbergh knew what he was doing, casting an adult film performer and martial artist, respectively, at the center of two movies. Though neither woman was experienced in traditional film performing, they both seemed to match Soderbergh’s preferred later-period female character: Calculating but lacking affect, professional but somewhat opaque, and uninterested in charming the audience like the lead of a romantic comedy (something so many movies, rom-com or not, expect from its female leads).
    Continue reading Unsane: Claire Foy is the latest of Steven Soderbergh’s Difficult Women

    The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: Oscar Predictions 2018

    Jesse

    Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

    Do you like winning your office Oscar pool? Well, look no further, unless you have a lot of money riding on it, in which case we may not be able to help you! The SportsAlcohol.com crew of Marisa, Sara, Nathaniel, Jesse, and Jon may not have all the answers in all the categories, but we sure know how to discuss the hell out of the big six for the 2018 Oscars, chatting about our best guesses as well as our personal favorites or anti-favorites. Who’s delighted by Denzel’s surprise nomination? Who’s rooting for Willem Dafoe? Who’s surprised to love Meryl Streep’s obligatory nom? Who loves Lady Bird? (Well, to that last one: All of us.) Listen and then somehow win your Oscar pool for reasons unrelated!

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    McDormand and Rockwell face off in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

    Jesse

    Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

    There are certain actor-on-actor match-ups and team-ups and face-offs that gain a kind of mythic grandeur from the sheer fact of the performers not having intersected earlier. I’m thinking of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro facing off, if only for a few minutes, in Heat; Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie supposedly smoldering in Mr. and Mrs. Smith; Eddie Murphy riffing opposite Steve Martin in Bowfinger; John Travolta and Nicolas Cage in, well, you know. Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell don’t immediately come to mind as a similarly titanic pair. They’re both terrific actors, their filmographies packed with memorable performances, but Rockwell works so often, and McDormand with such relative choosiness, that at first their pairing primarily elicits a vague familiarity – wait, was Rockwell ever in a Coens movie with McDormand? Was McDormand ever in a Marvel movie with Rockwell? Is Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri really their first one together?
    Continue reading McDormand and Rockwell face off in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

    SportsAlcohol Podcast: Soderbergh & Logan Lucky

    Rob

    Rob

    Rob is one of the founders of SportsAlcohol.com. He is a recent first time home buyer and it's all he talks about. Said home is in his hometown in Upstate New York. He never moved away and works a job to pay for his mortgage and crippling chicken wing addiction. He is not what you would call a go-getter. This may explain the general tone of SportsAlcohol.com.
    Rob

    While the Steven Soderbergh oeuvre isn’t universally beloved by The SportsAlcohol crew, it is well studied. We talk about his return to filmmaking in Logan Lucky as well as his whole career. If you’re worried we only cover his films, don’t worry: we talk more about K Street than anyone has since K Street aired. Other topics include:

    • Legacies
    • George Clooney (like, a lot about Clooney)
    • Blonde women
    • Movies that aren’t as good as Do The Right Thing
    • Why exactly one of us thinks the universally reviled Ocean’s Twelve is the best one of the series
    • non-actor actors
    • professionalism
    • contempt
    • K Street
    • The very nature of reality

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    Is Halle Berry’s KIDNAP the worst movie of the summer? Or the year?

    Jesse

    Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

    Halle Berry is a good actor. Her Academy Award for her raw, emotionally open performance in Monster’s Ball was well-deserved.

    Halle Berry has movie-star charisma. It’s not just world-class beauty; at her best, she combines playfulness and gravity in a way that makes her fun to watch as an action hero (as in Die Another Day), a romantic foil (as in Bulworth), or as a nurturing type (as in X2, containing her best turn as Storm, of the X-Men).

    So how is it that Halle Berry is seemingly incapable of starring in a good, genre-y thriller? Some of it, yes, must be the lack of high-quality roles afforded black women in Hollywood – even for a near-universally known Oscar-winning woman with plenty of hits to her name, including the genre-thriller The Call. But Berry seems particularly ill-fated in her late-career star vehicles, from an actual minor hit like The Call to a barely-released obscurity like Dark Tide. Before even getting to her performances, she has a bizarre knack for picking projects that were almost certainly not designed to be the D-movie equivalent of another, better thriller, but inevitably come off that way anyway: The 911-operator drama The Call is sort of a seedier, less taut variation on the 2004 thriller Cellular, while Dark Tide predates Blake Lively’s The Shallows and also provides roughly one percent of that movie’s shark-related thrills.

    Kidnap, the latest Berry vehicle, indicates an abiding interest in this kind of stripped-down B-movie – the kind of thing that, like The Shallows, should serve as a tonic during the overblown summer months (or, if it’s really good, a Hitchcock throwback). Berry plays Karla Dyson, a divorced mother trying to make ends meet for her sweet six-year-old. After her shift as a diner waitress, she takes her kid to either the park, or a fair – the movie says the latter and indicates as much with poorly CGI’d overhead shots of a Ferris wheel, but the actual scenes seem to take place on a playground adjacent to a parking lot. Wherever they go, they aren’t there for long, because when Karla takes a call from her ex (threatening to take custody, natch), she leaves the boy alone for a moment and he gets abducted. Issuing the first of many howling screams of rage, Karla sprints after the car speeding away with her kid inside. When she is unable to physically drag that car to a halt, she hops in her minivan and heads into hot pursuit.

    This premise is pure exploitation – or rather, it aspires to pure exploitation. Pure exploitation would be welcome in place of Kidnap, which is too vastly stupid to even exploit properly. The movie jams on the righteous-mom button so incessantly and insistently that Berry looks ready to short circuit. She’s clearly attempting to tap into a parent’s primal fear, and of course most parents would not respond coolly or calmly to witnessing the abduction of their child. But Kidnap makes Berry perform, in essence, 10 minutes of awkwardly written exposition followed by an 80-minute scream, as Karla frantically endangers the lives of as many people as possible, up to and including her son, by instigating this mad chase.

    Director Luis Prieto operates under the impression that he is making a pedal-to-the-metal nailbiter, creating all of the noise and signifiers of a car going fast while actually depicting speed as infrequently as possible. There are multiple shots of Berry’s Conversed foot hitting the gas pedal, innumerable overhead shots of the cars on the move, and, most hilariously, multiple shots (or the same shot, multiple times) of a speedometer revving from about 40 miles per hour to about 60 miles per hour. Tires screech, Berry screeches, cars smash together, and the movie starts to feel like it’s getting off on its star’s goosed-up hysteria. (It’s certainly not getting off on actual speed; despite all of those cuts and a brief running time, storywise it’s mostly a putter in a circle.)

    Look, the idea of a regular person fighting their way through extraordinary (and pulpy) circumstances is a juicy one – I’d love to see a mom-revenge movie directed by Jeremy Saulnier, who put regular-acting folks through the wringer in both Blue Ruin and Green Room. But Kidnap pitches deeply stupid behavior as a mother’s wrath, as in a spectacular negotiation scene wherein Karla is able to momentarily confront her sons’ captors (who seem confused and angry that she has chosen to pursue his abduction), and shrewdly throws them her entire wallet without prompting while yelling out her PIN. This follows a scene where the kidnappers indicate, by menacingly wielding a knife outside of a car window, that she must stop following them. Frightened for her son’s safety, she takes the next exit, then swerving back onto the highway and continuing to follow the car at a conspicuously close distance.

    At best, this all looks incredibly cheap. At worst, Prieto and his editor Avi Youabian (who also cut The Call!) seem unsure about what they’re looking at, and convey that confusion to the audience, like in a simple scene where Berry and her son have a conversation in their minivan. Prieto shoots and cuts it to look, somehow, like Berry is literally talking to herself. This matches the subverbal tone of the screenplay, which features several scenes that show only half of a phone call, and struggle to make sense of what the person on the other end could possibly be saying. (These moments, though brief, very much play like the filmmakers concluded that if the audience can’t hear what’s being said on the other end of the phone, no one making the movie should know, either.)

    It would be hard for any actor to perform well in these circumstances; yes, Kidnap is a movie where the screenplay is best described as “these circumstances.” At one point, Berry must perform a monologue to God, asking him not for the safe return of her son, but for the ability to spot the kidnappers’ car in traffic. In another scene, she briefly pauses her relentless hunt to talk to an actual cop, instead of screaming incoherently at bystanders to call 911. When the rest of the police force make the mistake of not instantaneously materializing around her and ask her to wait for a moment, Karla’s eyes frantically scan the MISSING posters adorning the station wall. All of those parents waited, she says to herself, and bolts (she decides it’s more expedient to drive around aimlessly looking for clues). I was thinking, lady, come on. How do you know those parents all waited? Maybe some of them killed the kids themselves. Maybe some of them died tragically in a minivan crash while hurtling down the highway at speeds between 40 and 60 miles per hour. Right away is not enough for Karla; later, a 911 operator gives her an ETA of 15 minutes, which she agitatedly deems too long. I guess streaming video really has spoiled a nation. I could go on, so suffice to say that most of Berry’s performance involves looking as if she just woke up in the middle of surgery, or on a rollercoaster.

    Could anyone have saved this material? Maybe not; maybe Nicolas Cage, although his give-me-back-my-kid mode tends to be haunted and sullen, rather than peaking manic. Even so, it may be worth exploring why I would celebrate Cage’s hypothetical outbursts, while Berry’s feel so embarrassing. I think it’s their performing style: Berry has a natural strength and poise that these thrillers can’t resist prodding and poking and mussing into a kind of plain-folks invincibility. She’s not unhinged enough to turn a movie like Kidnap (or The Call, or Dark Tide) into performance art. Usually playing ridiculous material straight and sincere is an asset, but for a movie as craven and inept as this one, it amounts to an overemphatic endorsement of its shameless preying upon parental fears. Plenty of actors do movies that seem beneath them; Kidnap winds up grimy enough to get under its star’s fingernails. It ends with a collage of unconvincing news voiceover explaining that this mom has uncovered a multi-state childnapping ring and is, in the movie’s actual words, a real hero. The movie seems unaware that Halle Berry is a movie star, or a good actor – that she doesn’t need some dipshit thriller to clumsily spell out why we’re supposed to like her.