Movie Review: Dave Bautista tries not to scare the kid with his “Knock at the Cabin”

What does M. Night Shyamalan’s adaptation “Knock at the Cabin” have in common with “Old,” “Lady in the Water” and “The Happening?” It’s glib, gloomy, and in the end, kind of pointless.

Even its “apocalyptic” edge seems played, a road to nowhere that takes 100 minutes to travel. It’s slick and sleek. But a filmmaker who started his career with “The Next Spielberg” hype but whose “surprise twist” thrillers revealed “The Next Hitchcock” to be Shyamalan’s real goal, seems to sort of flounder about on the screen, these days.

The twists became too obvious and the misses started outnumbering the hits, the Hitch and Spielberg comparisons faded as he focused on world building and horror “parables.” While he’s made a popular and successful pivot to TV (“Servant,” “Wayward Pines”), his movies just grow curiouser and curiouser, and ever more disappointing.

A gay couple, played by Jonathan Groff (“Hamilton,” TV’s “Mindhunters”) and Ben Aldridge (“Fleabag,” “Pennyworth”) and their adopted little girl (Kristen Chui) drive off to a rental cabin in the Pennsylvania woods for the weekend.

A stranger, played by tattooed man mountain Dave Bautista, walks out of the woods and strikes up a conversation with the child, gently brushing past her “I don’t talk to strangers.”

“I’m here to be your friend.”

As other “friends” appear in the woods (Nikki Amuka-Bird, Abby Quinn and Rupert Grint), “Leonard” tells Wen to inform her parents that he needs to talk them, and she flees.

A rising panic and shouted threats from inside the cabin merely delay the inevitable, which, as you’ve seen from the film’s trailers, climaxes with the folks from outside coming inside, armed with homemade cudgels, axes and the like, and making an announcement.

They are “normal people, just like you,” Leonard insists. But they have “the most important job in the history of the world.”

They’re here to persuade this modern family to choose among themselves which family member to “sacrifice” or “the world will end.”

The longer they take to decide, the more disasters — earthquakes, tsunamis, etc. — will befall a humanity that needs to be “punished.” If they don’t decide to act out “Sophie’s Choice,” humanity will end and they’ll be there to witness it.

Because even in the woods, they have cable. Not phone service, because that would be inconvenient to the plot. Just TV news “proof” that what these four strangers are foretelling will come to pass.

So what we’ve got here is a thought experiment/Old Testament morality play straight out of the Theatre of the Absurd.

There will be doubts sewn and perhaps dispelled, scheming to escape this fate and tragedies both huge and impersonal (via TV) and gruesomely close at hand.

And the whole time, through all the violence meant to shock and the acting meant to touch us, we’re wondering what sensitive Daddy Eric (Goffman), and tough and rational Daddy Andrew (Aldridge) wonder.

“Why?” “Punished” for what, exactly?

Habitat destruction, climate collapse, Nazi revivalism, general Godlessness, voting for the anti Christ…twice? Tik Tok?

Maybe as the gays wonder, it’s all about gay marriage.

Flashbacks give us pieces of their “story,” and the four visitors tell us, each in turn, their “stories” like every AA meeting, every “Chorus Line” pre-audition interview you’ve ever seen on screen.

This adaptation of Paul Tremblay’s novel gets a pass in this “why” question, as that’s a Theatre of the Absurd convention, fumbling in the darkness, “Six Characters in Search of an Author” or just a couple of clowns “Waiting for Godot.” There aren’t always answers.

But while Shyamalan does well by the story’s assorted jolts, and tries to have fun with a bit of casting against type with Bautista and Grint, “Knock” is so emotionally flat that I found it impossible to care about. For a film in which the stakes couldn’t be higher, that’s a fatal failing.

And without answers or any sort of soul wrenching pathos and sense of loss that isn’t undercut by a cheap musical joke at the end, one really does wonder if this ever had a point. Because it could use one.

Rating: R for violence and language

Cast: Dave Bautista, Jonathan Groff, Kristen Cui, Ben Aldridge, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Abby Quinn and Rupert Grint.

Credits: Directed by M. Night Shyamalan, scripted by M. Night Shyamalan, Steve Desmond and Mi, based on the novel by Paul Tremblay. A Universal release.

Running time: 1:40

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Movie Preview: Chinese espionage during world War II , “Hidden Blade”

A secret network of “ordinary people” fights the Japanese. Because heaven knows the Nationalists and the Communists weren’t having much of a go of that.

The trailer to this Feb. 17 release doesn’t give us anything but the cast — Tony Leung, Shuying Jiang, Yibo Wang and Jingyi Zhang , and their wardrobe.

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Ok, M. Night, let’s see what you’ve got

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Movie Preview: Sam Worthington sets his sites on an action “Transfusion”

A Special Forces vet must take on the underworld when his little boy is threatened in this thriller, which also stars, Phoebe Tonkin, and the film’s writer-and-director, rugby star turned actor and now actor-director Matt Nable.

Mar. 3.

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Movie Review: A Crisis of Faith and War of Wills in “Godland,” Iceland

“Godland” is an Icelandic fable of faith and cultures clashing and colonialism told as the story of a Danish Lutheran priest sorely tested when he’s sent to minister to an unserved corner of the sparsely populated volcanic rock.

Hlynur Pálmason, who directed the modern drama “A White, White Day,” gives us a starkly beautiful 19th century period piece with this film, showcasing Iceland in all its rainy, treeless but still green summery glory.

The back story, related in an opening title, tells of a box of glass wet-plate photographs from the 1800s, taken by a priest and found in Iceland. Pálmason took those seven images (never shown) and conjured up a dark and unsettling fish-out-of-water story about such a priest, a young man (Elliott Crosset Hove) urged to “adapt to the circumstances of the land and its people” by his bishop before departing Denmark.

He’ll be fine. It’ll be fine. He’s got a translator (Hilmar Guðjónsson) with him. No worries.

The film’s lone joke suggests otherwise. We hear that translator feeding word after Icelandic word to Father Lucas on the topsail schooner voyage to Iceland. Lucas repeats them, patiently, one after the other. And then he pauses.

“All those words mean rain?”

This may be tougher than he thought. Maybe they’ll all speak Danish!

Just how much of a problem is obvious shortly after they row ashore for their long packhorse trek across the island. Not knowing Icelandic means Lucas doesn’t understand that grizzled trek leader Ragnar (Ingvar Sigurdsson) just called him a “Danish devil,” and his cargo — crates of books and a wrapped up oversized cross — “damned nonsense.” But thanks to subtitles, we do.

Their quest becomes an ordeal, one made more arduous by the constant “I don’t understand what you’re saying” each man passive-aggressively snaps at the other.

We start to wonder just how wide that language gap is, and if one man or both of them are feigning they that they speak less of the other’s tongue than they do, just to irk or ignore the other.

Thank goodness Lucas has his translator. One river crossing later, he doesn’t.

It’s only after Lucas wakes up, nearly broken by the journey and delivered unconscious to the settlement where they’re to build a church that we learn that this trek that almost did him in and cost another man his life was unnecessary. He was put ashore there because “I wanted to see the land and its people,” he says, and “photograph them.”

Their arrival amongst other folks doesn’t mean the Ragnar tests are over. And the widowed sheep and horse farmer (Jacob Lohmann) who takes him in has other complications, two daughters, one of them (Vic Carmen Sonne) old enough to catch the fragile, despairing priest’s eye. At least they all speak Danish.

“Godland” is a somewhat drawn-out tale told with patience and an eye for what makes Iceland magical. Stunning waterfalls, rolling green mountainsides, swampy tundra, an adorable Icelandic dog and an erupting volcano whose gases “can make men mad,” the bishop warned, all catch our eye, and that of the priest, who breaks out his ungainly camera to try and memorialize people he meets.

The premise had me thinking of Romulus Linney’s novel-turned-play “Heathen Valley,” about a “Christian” valley in remote Appalachia that’s turned pagan or the great Canadian film “Black Robe,” about Jesuits among the First Nations in the 17th century. But these Icelanders aren’t primitive. They’re not all tithing church folk, but some are.

All they need is a new chapel and a priest to minister to them. But a joyful wedding in the unfinished church isn’t officiated by Lucas, who won’t agree to such duties until the church is finished. And his sometime tormentor Ragnar may ask for spiritual guidance. That doesn’t mean this prickly, homesick priest will provide it.

We see two cultures represented, with Iceland somewhat tolerant of “Danish devils,” but with the highhanded Dane not reading the room and ignoring his “adapt to the circumstances” edict from his bishop.

Faith isn’t enough to guide this priest, and “God” doesn’t figure in how the locals deal with this stranger. The hostility is mostly beneath the surface, the moral superiority of colonialism implicit, the practical ineptitude of the Danish devil extending from his lack of skill with a horse to his clumsy courtship of young Anna, and the fact that he barely tolerates the most adorable dog on the island.

A two and a half hour Icelandic parable isn’t going to be to every taste. But Pálmason, framing his movie in old still photograph 1.33.1 aspect ratio, immerses us in a place and a time — beautiful, unspoiled and eternal. And he makes us question, as Lucas, Ragnar and others do, the function of faith in such circumstances, and the usefulness of those who insist on proselytizing without listening.

Rating: unrated, violence, nudity, profanity

Cast: Elliott Crosset Hove, Ingvar Sigurdsson, Vic Carmen Sonne, Hilmar Guðjónsson, Jacob Lohmann and Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir

Credits: Scripted and directed by Hlynur Pálmason. A Janus Films release.

Running time: 2:22

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Netflixable? Thai Quintet go to Extremes to Recover “The Lost Lotteries”

“The Lost Lotteries” is a seriously slap-shticky farce from Thailand, another version of “We need to get back that LOTTO ticket,” this one co-starring a famous Thai kickboxer.

It’s not all that original, but it’s as screwy as can be, and has a nice Around the World with Netflix taste of Thai life.

Lottery tickets sold by independent ticket sellers, as they are in Spain and other parts of Europe, cockfighting, mafia-run underworld boxing, loan sharks — it’s a world of the very rich and everybody else hustling just to get by. A simple rooftop “dream” moment captures the class divide in Bangkok — shacks mixed with modern tony high-rises of the affluent.

Our teen hero (Wongravee Nateeton) is finishing up high school, dreaming of girls and playing chess, when the lottery ticket-selling tray his mother passed along to him is stolen by gangsters trying to collect Mom’s latest debt.

When the winning numbers are announced, four regular customers come up to collect. All young Tay can do is convince convention model/saleswoman Zoe (Napapa Tantrakul), hotheaded actor Wen (Padung Songsang), cute Beat (Phantira Pipityakorn) and Khung, a failed boxer with bad hair and a big mole that keep him from being a dead ringer for famous Thai kickboxer Somjit Jongjohor to help him recover that tray.

Khung is played by Somjit Jongjohor, so yeah, the movie’s kind of like that.

The “ridiculous and improbable plan” Tay and the others conceive involves breaking into the mob’s fireworks factory, home to after hours cockfights and “no rules” cage fight boxing matches. They will create a series distractions, steal keys and recover the lottery tickets.

Yes, our failed fighter must channel Somjit Jongjohor in the cage long enough for the plan to come together. Maybe this drug-juiced lip balm will help.

Writer-director Prueksa Amaruji keeps this daffy, and just dark enough to have stakes. Because we know that “made man” of the mob Mee (Torpung Kulong) is a dangerous character to cross. And he’s not even Mr. Big.

The picture’s poor pacing spoils some of the fun and there’s a tedious over-reliance on voice-over narration (in Thai with subtitles, or dubbed into English. But Amaruji, who did the “Bikeman” farces, knows his way around a sight gag.

And who would have guessed a Thai fighter could be this good at physical comedy?

“The Lost Lotteries” is never more than a mixed bag, but Jongjohor and Songsang’s mugging lets it punch its way out of that bag every now and then.

Rating: TV-MA, violence, profanity, smoking

Cast: Wongravee Nateeton, Napapa Tantrakul, Padung Songsang, Torpung Kulong, Phantira Pipityakorn and Somjit Jongjohor

Credits: Scripted and directed by Prueksa Amaruji. A Netflix release.

Running time: 1:48

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Movie Preview: A Valentine’s Day serial killer if priests thriller, “The Nomad”

Odd timing for this indie tale of peril and priests.

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Classic Film Review: THE Wheelman movie — Ryan O’Neal is “The Driver” (1978)

It’s an iconic set up, a “Show us what you’ve got” moment common to a whole lot of movies about “wheelmen,” the guys who drive the getaway car.

The hoods have shown up in a little old lady Mercedes, an orange 1970 280 S. They flinch at the getaway driver’s asking price.

“How do we know you’re that good?”

“The Driver” barely gives the orange import a second glance and snaps “Get in.”

The “audition” comes after we’ve seen “The Driver,” played by Ryan O’Neal, run a string of police cruisers into walls in an opening chase. Plainly, the would-be robbers missed that. So he proceeds to terrorize them by dismantling that Merc, bumper by bumper, door-by-snapped-off-door, deftly screeching down the lanes of a parking garage, popping the stems off fire hose valves on each pillar as he power slides, drifts and rams walls for their benefit.

It’s a representative of the genre now, but writer-director Walter Hill’s minimalist jewel wasn’t appreciated by critics or audiences when it came out. Over forty years later, we can see it for the Urtext that it was. O’Neal’s tightlipped, unflappable wheelman inspired “Transporter” movies, a whole Clive Owen ad campaign (“The Hire”) featuring famous filmmakers, Ryan Gosling’s “Drive,” “Wheelman,” “Baby Driver” and a few Quentin Tarantino movies and car movie moments to boot.

Nobody has a name, everybody’s a “type” or archetype. There’s The Driver (O’Neal), the Detective (Bruce Dern, funny and hateful) hunting the guy he nicknames “Cowboy,” the Fed’s combative underling (Matt Clark), The Connection (a “go between” played by Ronee Blakley, a Robert Altman favorite), The Player, aka an alibi and woman of mystery played by Isabelle Adjani, and assorted mugs, thugs and trigger men who find themselves in need of our anti-hero, who could have coined the phrase, “Drive it like you stole it.”

This isn’t “Bullitt,” with its signature race through Greater San Francisco. It’s not as deft and delicate as the spectacular Euro car getaways of the films of Luc Besson & others — “Transporter” or “Ronin” — often stunt-directed Rémy Julienne.

No, these are overpowered Yank Tanks from Detroit’s Golden Age of Gas Waste and Planned Obsolescence. LTDs etc. stolen (all you needed was a screwdriver) and put through heedless abuse of automatic transmissions, worm-gear steering, drum brakes and leaf spring suspensions as he ignores LA red lights and barrels down every downtown street, alley or parking garage. Stunt coordinator Everett Creach and a dozen drivers put anything Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham did with “Smoke and the Bandit” Trans Ams (and a Firebird here) to shame.

O’Neal, a light comedian and pretty boy romantic lead, was never as cool or as tough as he is here, a man of mad skills and few words.

His performance and this film became the model of how these guys are portrayed on the screen — quiet, focused, mistrusting and mysterious professionals.

The plot is paper thin, the action explosive — double crosses and set ups, chases and shoot outs. A favorite moment, our Driver gets the drop on a double-crosser by shooting him through the rolled up car window of the open door he’s standing behind.

He stole it. He’s not worried about replacing the glass, and Hill’s not going to need a retake.

Hill, fresh off his first sleeper hit, “Hard Times,” backed by two future heavyweight producers (Lawrence Gordon of LARGO, Frank Marshall of Team Spielberg), could weather a film that didn’t draw crowds and didn’t have the sort of enthusiastic reviews of his even brawnier “Hard Times.” He would go from this to make “The Warriors,” a cult film that has grown in stature and is pretty much considered the quintessential Walter Hill Film — tough guys, tougher broads and two-fisted action.

But “The Driver” has also grown in stature. Hill was never more bankable than when he leaped from “The Warriors” and “Long Riders” and peaked with the blockbuster action buddy comedy “48 Hrs.” Hill’s lean, archetypal style, translated to Vietnam allegories (“Southern Comfort”) and Westerns or crime pictures (“Johnny Handsome”), became something everybody growing up watching those films wanted to copy when they got to make their own movies.

From Tarantino to Besson to Nicolas Winding Refn, Hollywood to Hong Kong, Seoul to the South of France, when the underworld needs to get someplace, they’re calling a version of “The Driver,” someone they don’t dare ask the wrong question.

“How do we know you’re that good?

Rating: R, violence, profanity

Cast: Ryan O’Neal, Isabelle Adjani, Bruce Dern, Matt Clark, Felice Orlandi and Ronee Blakley

Credits: Scripted and directed by Walter Hill.

Running time: 1:30

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Next screening? M. Knight’s horror parable for our time “Knock at the Cabin”

Dave Bautista and Co. test a gay couple and their kid in this “Sophie’s Choice for All Humanity” moral thought experiment.

Nikki Amuka-Bird, Rupert Grint, Abby Quinn, Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge also star.

Shyamalan has gone all in on these cryptic parables. People in a cabin the woods, people on a beach, people in an elevator.

Are we all in with him?

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Movie Review: A Corpse of a Zombie Bomb Ironically-titled “Alive”

Don’t want to get too carried away about how much this new Brit zombie movie “Alive” sucks, but the “doctor” in a painfully amateurish opening scene gives “bad news” by putting on and taking off his glasses half a dozen times in just under a minute of screen time.

A fire scene early in the viral zombie apocalypse is staged in what is plainly a fire department’s narrow high rise training tower.

Every new sequence its own dose of “What fresh hell is this?”

“Alive” is a sloppy mashup of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Every Zombie Movie Ever Made.

The virus hits a culture that seems resigned to it, I have to say. Keep Calm and Give Up, apparently. Even those fleeing seem dispirited.

The brain-eaters have the good sense to be able to dodge gunfire and the good grace to make that generic monster clicking/gurgling noise common to everything from “Predator” movies to “Jurassic Park” installments.

Makes it harder for them to sneak up on you, you see.

Our writer-director, David Marantz, clumsily establishes multiple characters to follow — a little boy (Daniel May-Gohrey, his 15 year-old sister (Ellen Hillman) and her boyfriend (Kian Pritchard), an armed, crazed “End is Nigh” preacher (Stuart Matthews) and his “Huh, he finally got THAT right” flock, and a lone hunter (Neil Sheffield) holed-up in a cottage in the woods.

I suppose the zombies who stumble into the hunter but refuse to chase him across a creek are meant to reinforce the notion of an “island off the south coast” where these Brits can hide out and hold out and restart civilization. Zombies afraid of water, and all that.

Of course, the island, promoted on desperate radio broadcasts, has a catch attached. They’re really interested in “women (and girls) capable of bearing children.”

The picture puts these disparate groups on the road, and then stops undead in its tracks when the production got hold of what looks like an old school for a location. The bulk of the film is show there, where the action is limited and the kids try to fend off the cult with the help of the hunter and they’re all wondering if they have enough ammo to keep the walking dead at bay.

The acting ranges from poor to middling, with the direction and editing making everybody in it look new to this whole “movie” thing. Cuts begin before the take’s action kicks in, and pause afterwards for a long beat or two before the next shot is edited in.

Amateurish.

It’s a bad zombie movie that staggers to a halt and turns worse.

Rating: PG-13, violence

Cast: Ellen Hillman, Kian Pritchard, Neil Sheffield, Gillian Broderick, Daniel May-Gohrey and Stuart Matthews.

Credits: Scripted and directed by David Marantz. A Gravitas release.

Running time: 1:32

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