By Lynn Venhaus

Ah, preconceived notions. In journalism parlance, we have a phrase in the newsroom, “When you assume, that makes an ass out of you and me.” This universal truth gets a workout in the fish-of-out-water irreverent black comedy, “Vengeance.”

First-time director B.J. Novak has a lot to say about many topical and philosophical issues currently tapping into the cultural zeitgeist. Perhaps he takes on too much in this ambitious film that while hitting numerous bullseyes, has too many smug and wince-induced moments to prevent us from fully embracing a muddled message.

Novak is a droll supporting actor best known for playing Ryan Howard on “The Office” (and wrote several episodes too). In “Vengeance,” his character, Ben Manalowitz, is a condescending coastal elite. Ben might be better educated and talks a good game, but he and his toxic pals (John Mayer!) are no better than the male chauvinist pigs that feminists railed about in the 1970s. (I know, satire!)

Abilene Shaw (Lio Tipton), with dreams of being a singer-songwriter, has returned home from the big city, and has been found deceased in an oil field near an area known as “The After-Party.” Opioids are used there, and everyone thinks she has died from an overdose – except her brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook in a terrific performance), who is eager to seek revenge.

Ty calls the “Ben” in her cell phone, led to believe he is her boyfriend, and breaks what he thinks is devastating news. This jolts Ben during one of his many one-night stands (apparently), and although reluctantly, he commits to attending her funeral, as the brother is insistent.

Ty wants Ben to help him solve Abilene’s murder. Eureka! The social climber has landed on a topic ripe for a buzz-type podcast “Dead White Girl.”

He gets the green light from a nationally renowned podcast producer, played assuredly by Issa Rae, and she seems to like everything he turns in, sort of puzzling, although always has questions. This could be his big break.

He interviews her family and friends, and as Ben navigates an unfamiliar culture, he surprises himself by growing close to her eccentric family that he’s staying with, and discovers people are not what you expect them to be.

Novak’s city slickers vs. country yokels’ stereotypes are broadly drawn, and mocking the rodeo-loving, gun-toting, Whataburger devotees of the small unnamed town in west Texas is funny, to a point. But then some barbs lean towards the cruel. (I know, parody!).

As Ben evolves into a more caring, a tad less insufferable metrosexual who shipped his fancy coffee pot from Brooklyn, you can feel some genuine sincerity, especially between Abilene’s kid brother Mason, who is derided as “El Stupido” by his much older siblings.

 Besides Ty, there is Paris (Isabella Amara) and sister Kansas City (Dove Cameron), who both want to be social media influencers and crave the spotlight.

It is satisfying to see Ben get his comeuppance and discover that rural people aren’t all IQ-deficient. It’s a lesson in the country version of ‘street smarts.’

At the rodeo

The message, somewhat, is don’t judge a book by its cover.

The cast is uniformly good, especially Eli Bickel heart-tugging as the little brother missing his big sister, who let him sleep on the floor of her bedroom. And J. Smith-Cameron does a complete 180 from her Emmy-nominated turn on “Succession” as the fiercely protective matriarch.

Surprising to see Ashton Kutcher noteworthy as a philosophical music producer in the hinterlands. But then, when you realize he gave Novak one of his first Hollywood jobs on his MTV hidden camera reality show “Punk’d,” not so hard to see the connection. Novak was a field agent in the first and second seasons. As sharp-dressed Quintin Sellers, Kutcher is more than meets the initial eye.

Then, the bottom falls out in the last half hour. And everything we were led to believe the previous 70-some minutes isn’t the case, and things are topsy-turvy. The last 10 minutes are out of a completely different film, and I am still pondering ‘what just happened?’!

For the most part, the third act betrays the story – and it is hard to determine what Novak is trying to say by then.

Novak, a smart, witty guy, has a lot of potential in future projects. He should have edited more of his talking points, not cram everything into one movie.

This is likely to be polarizing, like “Don’t Look Up,” and while overall, it is confusing, Novak proves to be an original voice. Maybe next time, he won’t pick such easy targets. It would be good to see him make a splash.

“Vengeance” is a 2022 comedy, mystery, thriller directed by BJ Novak and starring B.J. Novak, Issa Rae, Ashton Kutcher, Boyd Holbrook, J. Smith-Cameron, Dove Cameron and Lio Tipton. It is rated R for language and brief violence and runs 1 hour, 47 minutes. The movie premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and opened in theaters on July 29. Lynn’s Grade: C.

BJ Novak and Ashton Kutcher

By Lynn Venhaus

A revenge horror-fantasy where the natural world has the upper hand, “Gaia” has much to say about mistreatment of the earth.

The title comes from Greek mythology — Gaia is the ancestral mother of all life.

On a surveillance mission in a primordial forest, an injured Gabi (Monique Rockman) is rescued by two survivalists who adhere to a post-apocalyptic lifestyle. She has lost contact with her partner Winston (Anthony Oseyemi) as she searches for a disabled drone.

The renegade father Barend (Carel Nel) and obedient son Stefan (Alex Van Dyk) have a mysterious relationship with nature and seem to follow their own religion. But this female forest ranger discovers there is a greater threat in the wilderness than the philosophical rants of an off-the-grid dad.

Set in South Africa, director Jaco Bouwer builds suspense with a sure hand. A foreboding sense of dread permeates every frame, and grotesque creatures who can viciously attack people, leading to strange outcomes, creates a frightful mood.

Because of her unfamiliarity with the terrain and lack of preparation, tough Gabi’s every move, every step outside the primitive cabin is met with trepidation. Even when the story is murky, the atmosphere sustains the terror, whether seen or unseen.

The technical crew work is superb. Yet, the film ultimately fumbles because of some half-baked notions and unclear motivation that should have been rectified to maintain the momentum.

The screenplay by Tertius Kapp makes points about science and divinity but veers in such weird trippy directions that we rarely have a firm grasp on the plot’s intentions. Do the fever dreams materialize into reality or stay in fantasy?

Stefan’s crush on Gabi, and her growing attachment to the teenage boy, is rather unsettling, and just what are the father-and-son’s intentions?

All three main characters do a good job in portraying their conflicted natures – with Monique Rockman’s doubt and suspicion as realistic as Carel Nel’s explosive temper revealed in his rambling manifestos. The former chemical engineer appears to hide too many secrets, especially about what happened to his wife. The son’s lack of experience in civilization is obvious.

While the always present danger in the form of icky screeching marauders who come out at night to hunt, using sound (sound familiar?), is disturbing, the characters’ inner turmoil adds another layer to the creepy vibe.

Because of the old-growth forest and illusion that not much has been disturbed, the crisp sound design by Tim Pringle is crucial, and the music score by Pierre-Henri Wicomb escalates the anxiety.

However, the visuals are the real stars here. The make-up and special effects departments create elaborate and bizarre ecological growth after people are infected — but the contagion threat is not explained.

Jorrie van der Walt and Film Initiative Africa won the ZEISS Cinematography Award at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival in mid-March, and his work is exceptional contrasting light and darkness in the Tsitsikamma Forest along South Africa’s coast.

The amount of detail is captivating. Rocco Pool’s production design creates believable scenarios in several worlds.

Yet, it’s the lack of satisfying answers to the growing number of questions we ponder that let us down in the end. Still, the unusual topic and its other-worldly setting engage in mysterious ways. It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.

Carel Nel as survivalist father

“Gaia” is a 2021 horror-thriller directed by Jaco Bouwer and starring Monique Rockman, Carel Nel, Alex Van Dyk and Anthony Oseyemi
Rated R for some violence and bloody images, sexual content, nudity and language, its run time is 1 hour, 36 minutes. Lynn’s Grade: B-. It premiered at the SXSW Festival in March. In theaters on June 18 and available Video on Demand June 25.