Friday, May 26, 2017

Buns in the Sun: Game, likable cast deserved less lame material in "Baywatch"

Baywatch (2017)
116 min., rated R.

Retrofitting a dopey, long-defunct TV show into an affectionate homage-cum-parody with today’s hottest stars never goes out of style. The template of taking the general premise of the property and running with an R-rated, self-referential approach looked easy with the surprising success of 2012’s “21 Jump Street,” along with 2014’s sequel-that-knew-it-was-a-sequel “22 Jump Street.” It was only a matter of time before “Baywatch” went through the TV-to-movie machine, and now that it’s here and designed as an action-comedy, too, it is never goofily shrewd or knowingly ridiculous enough. With memories of watching the earnest, irresistibly cheesy syndicated TV show “Baywatch” (1989-2001) after school, one question remains: how did this thing run 11 seasons? If anything, it had swimsuit-clad eye candy, led by David Hasselhoff and Playboy centerfold Pamela Anderson; an admittedly catchy theme song with Jimi Jamison’s “I’m Always Here”; and a mildly attention-holding soap-opera storyline per episode. Asking if 2017's “Baywatch” is a “good movie” isn’t really the right question when it just plays like an overblown, overtly comedic remake of the show, now with male nudity, four-letter words, and more dick jokes and gay-panic jokes than any movie needs. One patiently waits for it to get funnier and sharper, as most of the one-liners land with the heaviness of a beached whale, but if anything in the film acts as a proverbial life preserver for this lame, slapdash material, it’s the game, spirited and likable cast of hard bodies and one soft body.

Head lifeguard on the South Florida beach of Emerald Bay, Lt. Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne Johnson) is beloved by all because he takes his job so seriously and keeps everyone safe. On the day of tryouts for those interested in joining Mitch’s elite Baywatch team, including C.J. Parker (Kelly Rohrbach) and Stephanie Holden (Ilfenesh Hadera), showboating gold-medal Olympic swimmer Matt Brody (Zac Efron) arrives as an affordable PR opportunity for Police Captain Thorpe (Rob Huebel). Mitch tries breaking the hotshot celebrity, who disgraced his swimming career from late-night recklessness, and busts his balls before Matt proves his abilities and makes the team, along with committed Summer Quinn (Alexandra Daddario) and tech-savvy Ronnie Greenbaum (Jon Bass). When a bag of drugs washes onshore and a councilman’s already-dead body turns up on a fiery yacht, Mitch suspects both could be linked to the operations of beautiful posh club owner Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra). Perhaps they should leave it the police, but if Mitch wants to keep his beach clean, his team will have to be more than lifeguards.

From the film’s gleefully over-the-top opening involving Mitch’s first rescue and the title card revealed with leaping dolphins, all cued up to “Hypnotize” by The Notorious B.I.G., “Baywatch” almost works itself into the audience’s good graces, getting them ready to have a riotously fun time. Director Seth Gordon (2013’s “Identity Thief”) and screenwriters Damian Shannon & Mark Swift—you know, the team who had audiences laughing with the 2009 “Friday the 13th” reboot and 2003’s “Freddy vs. Jason”—seemingly acknowledge that the cornball, shark-jumping show wasn’t exactly high art in the first place but don’t seem fully devoted to be the least bit subversive, cheeky, or satirical. The mostly flat attempts at being self-referential include a police captain bringing Matt Brody on board the team to "restore the Baywatch brand," characters winkingly commenting on C.J. running in slo-mo, and Matt equating Mitch’s police-like desire to uncover a conspiracy to “an entertaining but far-fetched TV show.” The by-committee script just isn’t on the level of a smart “dumb movie,” and at some point, the makers seem to stop being in on the joke when they try to be sincere. Tonally adrift, the film keeps scratching its head on what it wants to be and never quite finds a successful balance that isn't unattainable with the right care and guidance. It either takes itself too seriously, with Matt Brody getting a coming-of-age redemption arc and the boring, straight-faced drug-dealing/real-estate/trail-of-bodies-leaving conspiracy plot dragging the energy and would-be comedy down, or just can't help itself to wedge in protracted, lazily raunchy R-rated gags that predominantly involve male genitalia. Even resorting to having a character get his erection stuck between the slats of a wooden beach chair—think a less-funny “There’s Something About Mary”—and Matt checking a dead man's penis in a morgue drawer, the film still doesn’t take advantage of its R-rating, either holding back or trying too hard. 

Collectively, the cast’s jovial enthusiasm goes a long way toward making their flimsy characters generally enjoyable to be around. Both built like brick shithouses and rivaling one another as hunks in trunks, Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron amuse when they’re trading amiable insults, like Mitch never calling Matt by his name but calling him “One Direction” and “High School Musical” (get it?). Individually, Johnson can’t help being anything but gregarious and charismatic as Mitch Buchannon, and it seems he can have chemistry with anyone on screen. Long establishing himself and no longer written off as just a pretty boy, Efron has come into his own. As cocky, Ryan Lochte-like dumbbell Matt Brody, he is in his element, poking fun at himself and his “Men’s Health” cover persona. The beefcake star is also game to cross-dress when Matt and Mitch need to go to one of Victoria’s parties in disguise. Alexandra Daddario (who played Dwayne Johnson’s daughter in 2015’s “San Andreas”) has the most screentime (and reaction shots) of the women as Summer, and the actress admirably plays well with a one-liner and convincingly allows Summer to dish it out. Ilfenesh Hadera (Showtime's "Billions") is eye-catching but underutilized as the no-nonsense Stephanie Holden. Beyond her attractive looks, winning newcomer Kelly Rohrbach is a sweet, warm presence without looking dumb, embracing her role of C.J. Parker without being merely misused as a plaything through a smarmy male gaze. While Jon Bass is more endearing than he is annoying as doughy trainee Ronnie who desperately pines for C.J. (and who wouldn't?), Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Netflix's "The Get Down") easily walks away with the most laughs as Sgt. Ellerbee, who can’t get it into the lifeguards’ heads that they aren’t cops. “I’m not a Bond villain . . . well, yet,” is the closest gorgeous Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra (ABC’s “Quantico”) comes to having any wicked fun with the villainous role of Victoria Leeds who gets to purse her lips and look va-va-voom in a lot of plunging-neckline dresses.

Deliberately tacky and easy-going, “Baywatch” is still never as much fun, funny, or clever as it ought to be. When director Seth Gordon isn’t stacking on the labored gross-outs, there is a cute running joke with an ever-changing figure of Mitch in his home aquarium that keeps an eye on Matt who needs a place to crash. There are obligatory cameos from two members of the original show, and only one of them vaguely works; the one that doesn’t work earns more of a groan than a chuckle and goes on much too long. And, it sounds silly to nitpick, but are the CGI and greenscreen effects supposed to look so third-rate? They’re not distractingly bad enough to seem intentional or ironic that they end up in an odd grey area and just suck most of the supposed peril out of the life-saving action sequences. The climactic showdown full of literal fireworks isn’t even that satisfying, as if the filmmakers ran out of money from their $69-million budget. “Baywatch” isn’t very good, but it doesn’t have a mean bone in its chiseled, albeit bloated, body. It’s honkingly dumb as silicone but cheerfully so, and too fleetingly likable for misery to set in, and it invokes a certain breezy, summery air when moviegoers seek escapism without having to turn on their brain. However, whereas both “Jump Street” movies goofed on its source material and managed to make both projects their own, this half-hearted goof instead offers a steady diet of lameness. At least it's not entirely in slo-mo.


Flee and Observe: Cranston brings gravitas to bittersweet "Wakefield"

Wakefield (2017) 
109 min., rated R.

It’s not inhuman for an individual craving the ability to put his or her life on hold to recharge, and “Wakefield” taps into that bittersweet idea with a low-key absurdity. Based on the 2008 short story by E.L. Doctorow that was originally published in The New Yorker, the film is written for the screen and finely directed by Robin Swicord (2007’s “The Jane Austen Book Club”) with a quiet, human-sized touch, at least for a while, but this is really a one-man show by the man in the window. Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston) has all the trappings of a successful lawyer and happy family man, but one night after commuting home to the Connecticut suburbs from his law firm during a blackout, he decides to voluntarily place himself into exile. Instead of facing wife Diane (Jennifer Garner) and their twin daughters, he ends up chasing a raccoon into the attic of his garage and then holing up there. From the round window in the attic, Howard is able to watch his family while distancing himself from them and reflects on his life. As Howard scavenges food leftovers from his and his neighbors’ garbage and scrounges up old blankets to stay warm once the weather changes, days turn to weeks and then months. As Howard tells us, “You see, I never left my family. I left myself.”

Literary to an extreme with wall-to-wall voice-over narration, “Wakefield” often sounds like Bryan Cranston reading an audiobook for the short story upon which the film is based. There is a purpose for it here, although that purpose doesn’t quite flesh itself out all the way. In the present, Howard is being selfish, irrational and even kind of despicable. Sure, he might be having a personal crisis, and the character doesn’t have to be a likable peach—it’s actually rather appreciated this way—but not enough groundwork is laid to make Howard sympathetic or even allow the viewer to understand where he's coming from. In flashbacks, Howard still comes across as an insecure prick to his wife, but what they were once like before he decided to live in the garage and watch his family with binoculars doesn’t help because he was always a prick, having stolen Diane from his best friend, Dirk (Jason O'Mara). He and his wife would play a game—or this is what he tells himself at least—where Diane would openly flirt with other men in order to make Howard jealous, which would then lead to the married couple having sex, and yet he would scold her for undressing in front of their open bedroom windows. What makes this character really tick and do what he does for so long?

“Wakefield” has an odd, fascinating hook ripe for a relatable and thoughtful musing on a human being's desire to hide from reality. This is decidedly tough material to work for a feature-length film that makes one want to shake some sense into Howard, even if the character never changes his mind. Because he is an actor who commands the screen with gravitas, Bryan Cranston does bring a degree of vulnerability to the frustrating Howard Wakefield that an otherwise lesser actor couldn’t, so if anyone can make this character remotely believable and compelling, it is Cranston. The rest of the actors are only observed from afar and not actually heard in the present-day scenes; Beverly D’Angelo has no audible lines as Howard’s mother-in-law whom he despises, but Jennifer Garner does enough with very little as Diane. When more time does pass and Howard grows bummy facial hair, lets all personal hygiene fall by the wayside, and then later ventures outside to a nearby park where he risks being recognized, it becomes harder to buy into the situation. There is a midstream attempt to sentimentalize and soften Howard when he claims finder’s keepers on some old clothes and shoes in his neighbor’s trash and gets chased by a couple of angry Russian dumpster divers, only to find temporary refuge in the basement of a house of special-needs kids, two of whom later bring him chocolate cake. It’s these dips into almost too-cutesy Capra-esque absurdism that nearly derail everything the film works toward. The scenarios Howard imagines for himself lend the film a good amount of humor, though, and while it could be seen as a cop-out, the ending lands with just the right punch and does hold an unexpected emotional resonance. Forcing the viewer to wait with bated breath, the final shot of “Wakefield” immediately gets one discussing.

Grade: B - 

Saturday, May 20, 2017

More Chest-Bursting: "Alien: Covenant" shifts between bigger goals and splatter but still solid

Alien: Covenant (2017)
120 min., rated R.

Ridley Scott is not being coy this time. “Alien: Covenant” is another prequel to his 1979 sci-fi horror masterpiece “Alien,” but it’s also a sequel to 2012’s “Prometheus,” connective tissue and a stand-alone organism that unfairly sparked a polarizing reaction within the fanboy community. This time out, director Scott and screenwriters John Logan (2015’s “Spectre”) and Dante Harper seem to have made sure to limit the philosophical discussions of creation and not to disappoint with plenty of Xenomorph iconography and gross-out body-horror spectacle. In the process, “Alien: Covenant” tries to satisfy two conflicting modes—the probing of big existential questions and the face-hugging, chest-bursting carnage—as if the claustrophobic, slow-burning “Alien” suddenly morphed into James Cameron’s more action-oriented “Aliens" midway through with ideas of "Prometheus" sprinkled in for good measure. The two halves are not always elegantly spliced together, but taken on a scene-to-scene basis, it hits the spot for one who’s always wanted to see Scott make a space-set “Friday the 13th” with aliens subbing for Mrs. Voorhees.

It’s 2104, fourteen years after Prometheus sole survivor Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and android David (Michael Fassbender) headed off to reach the home planet of mankind’s creators. The 15-person crew aboard the Covenant is on a colonization mission through space with over 2,000 colonists and embryos in tow, as well as the ship’s synthetic, Walter (Michael Fassbender), an advanced and unflappable 2.0 version. After an accidental fire inside the cryosleep pod of the captain (an uncredited James Franco) takes his life as the rest of the crew is already awakened, the faith-affirming Oram (Billy Crudup) assumes his place as captain to lead the crew, all of them couples, to a new habitable home. Once pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride) receives a rogue transmission from a planet, the acting captain decides they should land and investigate, against the wiser opinion of the former captain’s grieving widow, Daniels (Katherine Waterston). The planet looks like paradise, full of human-planted wheat and vegetation but without any other life in sight. Then, in case it needs to be said, the crew makes some horrific discoveries that lead them to realize the planet is not as hospitable as they’re hoping. Now, where are the acid-blooded aliens?

Right down to the line-by-line reveal of the title card and a prologue with David (Michael Fassbender) and creator Peter Weyland (Guy Pierce), “Alien: Covenant” is very much of a piece with both of its progenitors. With that said, this film almost seems like an apology to the “Prometheus” naysayers, as there’s a tug-of-war between delivering as a solidly icky genre picture and then sometimes aiming higher than that. One might have hoped for fewer half-measures, but director Ridley Scott still knows how to play his audience like a fiddle. Worth the price of admission alone, one pleasingly visceral and harrowing set-piece in which an infected crew member is quarantined by Tennessee’s wife, Maggie Faris (Amy Seimetz), before all hell breaks loose in a medical bay is a showstopper. It’s as vise-gripped and rattling as anything Scott has ever devised and directed, and for the most part, not many other sequences thereafter match this particular one’s heightened panic, anxiety and nasty splatter. The third act grows a bit erratic, with an over-the-top showdown that’s still awesome but seems to come from a tonally different film, as well as a hurriedly paced shower sex scene with an ‘80s slasher-movie gore shot. The trajectory to the final scene may or may not be meant to be obvious and perversely toying with expectations (a devious and amusingly timed wind-blown hood points to "yes"), but the implication of the consequences to follow is deliciously bleak for mankind.

The idea that the Covenant crew is comprised of married couples theoretically enhances the emotional stakes, but the screenplay does not gain nearly enough mileage out of it; for example, there is a gay couple on board, although it wouldn’t be hard for viewers to miss the hint if they weren’t looking for it. Save for one or two crew members, it’s unfortunate that the characters on hand aren’t asked to be much more than reliably ill-fated fodder for the aliens to burst through and tear apart. An extended scene that more properly established the close-knit crew’s easy rapport was released as a promo clip but was apparently scrapped from the final cut, so it seems almost like a waste for such respectable performers as Billy Crudup, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Callie Hernandez, Jussie Smollett, and James Franco (who gets one line in a video message) to show up in negligibly handled roles before getting picked off in gruesome fashion. When a character goes off alone to “take a leak” or “wash up,” the viewer knows he or she won’t be returning with a heartbeat. Even as the audience is steps ahead of them, the characters are at least reasonably unprepared when their fellow passengers are infected with alien spores through an ear canal and up the old nose. And, in order to advance this film’s ties to “Alien,” does someone make the forehead-smackingly foolish decision to put their face where they clearly should not? Of course. 

The closest the film comes to offering up an identifiable hero is Katherine Waterston’s Daniels, filling her niche as the film’s de facto Ellen Ripley figure and bringing enough weight with the loss of her husband with whom she planned to start a new life. There is actually even a place here for Danny McBride, who surprisingly brings gravitas as wisecracking, cowboy-wearing pilot Tennessee. On the other hand, Michael Fassbender (one of the key holdovers from “Prometheus”) is outstanding in dual roles as the upgraded Walter and the self-aware, Wagner-loving David. For an actor who’s essentially playing against (and, at one point, kisses) himself on screen, Fassbender navigates between playing two distinctly different androids who share one face but act as good and evil in their objectives. How these androids evolve will be kept a mystery, but Fassbender is mighty chilling with a sly touch of droll humor and brings to life two of the most compelling “people” on screen.

It’s something of a disappointment when a superior “Alien” knockoff called “Life” preceded “Alien: Covenant” two months ago and it didn’t even have Xenomorphs or the badass Ripley-like heroine. As a Ridley Scott-directed film with the “Alien” moniker, this one has too much taut, muscular filmmaking craft on display to complain too much, but it had the potential to be so much more. On a technical level, the film is mostly spectacular. With strains of Jerry Goldsmith’s original score and Marc Streitenfeld’s “Prometheus” score, Jed Kurzel’s piece is unsettling on its own. When cinematographer Dariusz Wolski doesn’t see fit to up the intensity by using a too-jittery shooting style for an attack in a field at night, the cinematography is forebodingly majestic and moody; that misstep is more an exception than the rule but it’s not a total deal-breaker. H.R. Giger’s creature design is also still beautiful and grotesque as ever, even if CGI is sometimes too apparent this time around, taking one momentarily out of the film. When all is said and done, “Alien: Covenant” firmly answers the question of whether or not a retread can get a pass and still be worthy of its legacy when it’s this effectively jolting and expertly made. For a franchise that was beginning to jump the shark by crossing over with the jungle-dwelling Predators, this isn’t a bad place to be.


Thursday, May 11, 2017

Amazon Women: Schumer and Hawn make inspired team in lightweight "Snatched"

Snatched (2017)
91 min., rated R.

When it was first announced that Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn were pairing up to play daughter and mother in an upcoming film project, it seemed so right and pretty inspired. Even more exciting was the news that 71-year-old Hawn would finally be making her way back to the big screen in her first lead role in fifteen years since playing opposite Susan Sarandon in 2002’s “The Banger Sisters.” With such a can't-miss prospect to see these two generations of blonde funny women working together, R-rated adventure-comedy "Snatched" could have been even more, but it does carve out a worthwhile niche for itself not unlike many of Hawn's comedies from the '80s and '90s. As a chance to see the winning on-screen compatibility between these two leads, it's lightweight but loosely played and frequently funny, which for a comedy is all you really need it to be. Schumer and Hawn make effortless comedic foils and are clearly having such a ball that their fun becomes infectious even for those who weren't there on set. As long as one takes into account what the goals of the filmmakers were, "Snatched" is a minor summer-launching surprise.

Fired from her retail job and dumped by her musician boyfriend (Randall Park) all in the same day, directionless thirtysomething Emily Middleton (Amy Schumer) is in a state of flux. Her biggest problem now is finding a plus-one for the nonrefundable trip to Ecuador she booked as a romantic getaway. Heartbroken from her unforeseen break-up, Emily goes to visit divorced mother Linda (Goldie Hawn) and convinces Mom that she could use another adventure outside of staying home with her two cats and nerdy, agoraphobic adult son Jeffrey (Ike Barinholtz). Not long after arriving at the resort, Emily meets a charming hunk named James (Tom Bateman), who shows interest at the bar and shows her a good night. In the morning, James offers to take both Emily and Linda on a day trip to see some local sights, but right before Linda’s guard goes back up, it’s too late. Mother and daughter realize that they have been kidnapped by a Colombian crime lord (Oscar Jaenada) who tries holding them for ransom before they escape and try to find their way through the jungle to the U.S. Embassy in Bogota. Along the way, too, Emily wishes her mother would stop insulting her for once and Linda wishes Emily would finally grow up. Maybe this will be the trip they needed to reconnect.

With the efforts of director Jonathan Levine (2015’s “The Night Before”) and screenwriter Katie Dippold (2016’s “Ghostbusters”), “Snatched” generally finds a smooth balance between a mismatched mother-daughter relationship, a palatable kidnapping plot in a foreign land, and Amy Schumer’s brand of raunchy, outspoken humor. On the page, Dippold’s script builds a believable enough foundation with Emily and Linda’s relationship, but Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn are really the ones to ensure that their bond strikes a genuinely sweet and sincerely felt note. When Emily and Linda do spar and hash things out, even while they’re traipsing through the jungle and trying to stay alive, it doesn’t seem too disingenuous, and the film even earns a bit of pathos when reaching for it. It also helps that Linda is pretty knowing that they need to save the apologies and touchy-feely stuff for later once they get out of peril. The particulars of the kidnapping chase-thriller plot are inconsequential, but director Levine finds the proper comic timing without the long-winded shagginess of overt ad-libbing that dominates a lot of contemporary comedies. He keeps the pacing breezy, averts expectations here and there by putting sneakily fresh spins on seemingly familiar joke setups, and lets planted gags pay off later instead of just making them throwaways (for instance, a dog whistle that Linda gives to Emily as a rape whistle follows the rule of Chekhov’s Gun).

In spite of Emily’s selfish nature and propensity to share everything on social media, Schumer is never less than a blowsy, fearless comedic force; in fact, this will be known as the movie where she gives herself a makeshift douche just as the restroom door swings open with her love interest getting an eyeful. The moments where Schumer has to emote are less convincing compared to the surprisingly natural range and thespian instincts the stand-up comedian impressively displayed in her breakout starring role in 2015’s “Trainwreck,” but she and her screen partner seem to bring out the best in one another. Making a delightful return to form as overly cautious mother Linda, Hawn is effervescent, as if no time has passed. Even if one wishes her individual comedic talents were tested more—she does get a good spit take after a “welcome” greeting that sounds like something else—Hawn is still such a bright screen presence that one misses the days when the perky comedy star was making movies more regularly. After all these years, she is still an adept comedian, never overplaying Linda or making her a caricature, and brings intelligence and wistfulness to a maternal character who’s never once treated as an annoying nag. Together, Emily and Linda will inevitably meet in the middle, the former learning a little responsibility and the latter venturing outside of her comfort zone. 

Beat for beat, Schumer and Hawn’s appealing chemistry is a match, and “Snatched” fires on all cylinders when it lets them be a duo. Although this is predominantly a two-person show, there is also no shortage of zany second bananas threatening to steal the attention off of its leads. Ike Barinholtz is endearingly oddball as Linda’s son who tries to help from home and shares a testy, increasingly amusing on-the-phone dynamic with a fed-up State Department agent (Bashir Salahuddin). Practically off in his own movie, Christopher Meloni is a hilariously weird hoot as an American adventurer who helps Emily and Linda and serves as their Indiana Jones wannabe guide, and his backstory holds some off-kilter surprises. Wanda Sykes scores nearly every line reading of hers as Ruth, who’s staying at the same resort as Emily and Linda, while Joan Cusack is inspiredly loopy without even saying a word as Barb, Ruth’s “platonic” ex-Special Ops friend who’s unexpectedly physically nimble and prepared when the situation calls for it. Of the ridiculously silly and situational variety of comedy, Emily has a “nip slip” and accidentally kills a few henchmen, but that doesn’t mean every gag hits the mark. There is a broad, bizarre non-sequitur sequence involving a tapeworm that aims to up the wackiness factor but almost seems to dip into a wild creature feature for a minute. Overall, “Snatched” has no delusions of grandeur or pretensions, amounting to an undeniably enjoyable high-concept jaunt and doing well within those parameters. And, as all comedies should be, it’s 91 minutes and smarter than it is not. It’s nothing more but definitely nothing less.

Grade: B - 

Friday, May 5, 2017

The A-Holes Strike Back: “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” a satisfying sequel with more heart added to the jokes

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
136 min., rated PG-13.

Three summers ago, 2014’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” was a breath of delightfully fresh air for Marvel. With subversive, independent-minded genre filmmaker James Gunn calling the shots, it was a distinctly funky work of pop art abuzz with brio and energy from a cheeky, tongue-in-cheek tone; a tuneful mixtape of '70s pop-rock favorites that served as an integral component; and engaging, affectionately written fringe comic-book characters. As undeniably enjoyable as it was, a minor issue that kept the the sci-fi adventure comedy from completely breaking out was that it felt blithe and almost inconsequential after it was all over. Still infused with its predecessor’s goofy, irreverent spirit and shrewd brand of character-based wit that has yet to come off forced, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is a satisfying sequel in that the stakes feel slightly amplified and there’s a bit more heart and emotional weight added to the fun.

In media res of another mission, the Guardians—Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket the raccoon (voice of Bradley Cooper) and tiny twig Baby Groot (voice of Vin Diesel)—are still making it work as a ragtag family. At the end of their mission of protecting the Sovereign planet’s interstellar batteries from a monster, they are able to leave with Gamora’s imprisoned sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) on board their Milano, but Rocket decides to leave with some of those batteries in his backpack. This leaves Sovereign’s gold-plated high priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) out for their blood. As the Guardians are pursued by Sovereign’s remotely controlled pod ships and the renegades, led by ravager Yondu (Michael Rooker), they crashland on a planet, which turns out to be the home of Ego (Kurt Russell), Peter’s biological father, a “celestial” who fell in love with Peter’s human mother. While Rocket and Baby Groot stay behind to fix their ship and watch the handcuffed Nebula, Peter, Gamora, and Drax go off with Ego and his empathic assistant, Mantis (Pom Klementieff), only for Peter to learn what he has actually acquired from Dad, not to mention a lot of emotional baggage.

There is the impulse to accuse “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” for being just more of the same, and there might have been the pressure by returning writer-director James Gunn for the sequel to match the first film. Luckily, a great deal of the goodwill carries over, and Gunn keeps the banter flip and lively, but there had to be a few trade-offs. The diegetic use of the soundtrack as Meredith Quill’s “Awesome Mixtape #2” on Peter’s Walkman isn’t quite as inspired. The guardian gang gets split up for a while. For the better, Gunn has a different ambition this time and it’s to delve into familial bonds. With just as much of a family affair as “The Fate of the Furious,” this is the Guardians’ “The Empire Strikes Back.” Like its predecessor, the sequel is still more self-contained than other Marvel entries without the burden of being interconnected to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s not interested in being a place-holder or connective tissue—save for one mention of the Infinity Stone and five, yes, five post-credits stingers that are more like cherries on top than a bridge for future films—and that’s still a refreshing draw for the “Guardians” movies. It works, first and foremost, as a comedy with a concentration on the group dynamic rather than action sequences, although Gunn and his production team never fail to bring a vibrant, psychedelic-colored visual style to every frame. 

Forming a bickering but ultimately loving familial unit, the ensemble cast returns for their return engagement without skipping a beat. Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana are on their individual games as the wisecracking Peter and the more practical Gamora. Both are given even more meat to work with between their testy, albeit lovely, Sam-and-Diane interaction and their hang-ups with their own blood relatives. Dave Bautista, as dim-bulb Drax, is once again a surprising secret weapon; not only is his hearty cackle infectious every time, his line deliveries spot-on, and his inability to not take everything so literally made into an endearing quirk, but Bautista brings a certain warmth to this bruiser. It’s still a marvel that Bradley Cooper is the voice behind a raccoon with an attitude, but he brings even more rascally swagger as Rocket, who in turn gets taken for other species not his own. Again miraculously voiced by the deep-voiced Vin Diesel, Baby Groot is adorably funny, whether he’s bringing the wrong object to help Yondu and Rocket escape a prison cell or running through a cavern with a detonator. Cued to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky,” the film opens on an irresistible high note, Baby Groot boogying on down to the stereo tune in the foreground as his friends battle a tentacled space squid in the background; the attention isn’t really on the action but on a cute-as-a-button twig whom we hope doesn’t get squashed. As the blue-skinned Yondu who used to be a father figure to Peter, Michael Rooker is terrific and gets a layered arc this time.

New to this world, Pom Klementieff is a sweet, quirky delight as the socially inept Mantis and shares a winning rapport with Drax, and the inherently likable Kurt Russell is a perfect choice for Peter Quill’s long-lost father Ego, exuding just the right roguish vibe, and his 1980-set prologue shows another step up in the nearly seamless magic of CGI de-aging. Though there is a more central villain waiting in the wings, Elizabeth Debicki is mesmerizing to watch, purring with menace and looking smooth as silk playing the regally golden Ayesha.

Loosey-goosey and meandering from a narrative perspective, “Vol. 2” initially lacks focus but not incident. Bordering on too-muchness, the film eventually finds a thematic cohesion with all of the space-opera plot strands—Peter and Gamora have an “unspoken thing” between them; Gamora and emotionally hard sister Nebula have daddy issues and continue their sibling rivalry; and the wrongfully accused Yondu wants to make things right—and each payoff feels earned and not strained. Looking Glass’ “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” is also purposefully used as a through-line to bring together Peter and Ego. At the cost of narrative drive, the viewer is treated to shout-outs to “Cheers,” “Mary Poppins,” Pac-Man, and David Hasselhoff all in the same movie. There are also some crowd-pleasing gags, like Rocket booby-trapping trespassers and Peter asking the rest of his team, “Do you have any tape?” in the heat of battle. James Gunn and his entire ensemble take the material seriously enough for the viewer to be fully invested in what happens to them but still let their jokey side fly. Joyful, free-wheeling, breezy and surprisingly touching, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” thrives as a quality blockbuster for the early-summer season.


Sunday, April 30, 2017

Gotta Have Faith: "A Dark Song" a mystifying, modestly creepy two-hander

A Dark Song (2017) 
100 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

“A Dark Song” is a very unusual kind of horror indie. Predominantly a two-hander and playing like a procedural in the occult, it’s a chamber drama about grief, faith and forgiveness, as well as a Chinese puzzle box that neglects to hold the hands of viewers who are accustomed to getting their creeps in graphic, obvious close-ups rather than gradually. It serves as a strong calling card for first-time feature writer-director Liam Gavin, who astutely builds an ominous tone and mystifying mood. Darkly enticing with an almost impenetrable air about it, “A Dark Song” is admittedly tough-going at times, but it transfixes nonetheless and packs a lingering, understated punch.

Sophia Howard (Catherine Walker) is now defined by her grief. She buys an old furnished house in the Welsh countryside for a year. She has purified herself without alcohol for almost six months, has abstained from sex, only eats between dusk and dawn and will eventually fast completely. She has paid a slovenly, unpredictably tempered London bloke named Joseph Solomon (Steve Oram), who comes to check out the house and then demands his money. When she ups his pay and tells him that she lost her son three years ago, Joseph reconsiders to help her go through with “it” if she agrees to do whatever he says. For almost a whole year, the odd couple holes up in the house with a line of sand outside the house that prevents them from leaving. Even while the prickly Joseph experiences delirium tremens, he puts Sophia through something darker than most ancient rituals.

Curiosity perked from the onset, “A Dark Song” is quietly gripping as one not only waits for the other shoe to drop but to actually piece together both characters’ goals. Though this is a horror film, it is one made with so much care and with more on its mind. Childlike whispers and dark figures make their rightful appearance, but this isn’t really a haunted-house picture. Most of the tension hails from the partnership between Sophia and Joseph. At first, they are both intriguing ciphers cutting themselves off from the world, but vulnerable layers are slowly peeled back little by little and achieve sympathy. Her Sophia is getting through the grieving process the only way she knows how, and his Joseph is sometimes a contentious bully. Whether or not Joseph really is an expert in the occult and wants to help Sophia becomes the question at the core of the film, and Sophia must put her blind faith in him.

For a film about dark magic evoking human catharsis, “A Dark Song” follows through with its premise and internal logic. In doing so, writer-director Liam Gavin takes a gambit near the end with a grandiose special-effects moment that threatens to break the spell of suggestion. Fortunately, it does not. Helping the cause are the finely modulated performances Gavin gets out of his cast consisting of Catherine Walker (2013’s “Dark Touch”) and Steve Oram (2013’s “Sightseers”), who both fully commit to the mentally and emotionally draining demands of the material. The film also never wants for disorientation with composer Ray Harman's eerie music score, a mix of violin and clangy chords. Through modest means and mostly likely a tight shooting schedule, Gavin achieves more than most filmmakers do with a multi-million-dollar budget.


Friday, April 28, 2017

They See All: Preachy, flat, trite "The Circle" wants to be About Something

The Circle (2017)
110 min., rated PG-13.

For a zeitgeisty cautionary tale about Big Brother surveillance, the invasion of privacy and the oversharing on social media being a double-edged sword, “The Circle” holds less suspense than a TED Talk. And for a film that gives top billing to the lovely Emma Watson and the impossibly charismatic Tom Hanks, it really stumps one how such a well-pedigreed project gets everything so wrong. The source material is a prescient Orwellian 2013 novel by Dave Eggers, who co-wrote the screenplay with writer-director James Ponsoldt. For a filmmaker who has shined with low-key, character-driven films about intimate human communication, like 2012’s raw “Smashed,” 2013’s honestly observed “The Spectacular Now” and 2015’s smart, poignant “The End of the Tour,” was director Ponsoldt just out of his depth when working on a bigger canvas with even higher ambitions? With a more decisive vision, a steady handling of the narrative and its characters, and none of the poor creative decisions uploaded to the screen, who knows what might have been? As it is, “The Circle” is a dull, maddening mess that disappoints all around and never fulfills its great potential.

24-year-old Mae Holland (Emma Watson) works a dead-end cubicle job at a water company, dealing with unsatisfied callers as a customer-service representative, and wishes she could help out more at home with her mother (Glenne Headly) and MS-afflicted father (Bill Paxton). When she gets a call from best friend Annie (Karen Gillan) about getting an interview for a workplace called The Circle, Mae jumps at the opportunity to be a part of the hip, modern data-collecting and information-sharing corporation in the Bay Area (think Google meets Facebook meets Apple). It’s a dream gig and a fun, open community full of ambitious millennials like herself, and after receiving an entry-level position in the "Customer Experience" department, Mae is welcomed as one of the “guppies (or, “new kids”) at one of many lectures by Steve Jobs-like guru Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), the company’s CEO. Everyone is encouraged to go “transparent,” wearing a mini camera on their person and recording everything for the world to see (save for bathroom breaks timed to three minutes), and in the next few months of working at The Circle, Mae will comply to the motto of her new company. It seems all too good to be true, but is it all for the greater good?

Preachy, dramatically flat and ultimately trite, “The Circle” looks smarter than it actually is and seems unable to make up its mind on what it wants to say. The setup is certainly enticing and cinematographer Matthew Libatique vividly juxtaposes Mae’s down-home life with the industrial steeliness of The Circle; the sleek shots that follow Mae walking on campus are also appropriate, as if drones are keeping an eye on her. Seen through the film and not just Eggers’ novel, there are plenty of interesting ideas ready to be explored, but they’re only half-formed and handled so haphazardly, writer-director Ponsoldt and co-writer Eggers too fickle about what they want their audience to take away. One spends a large chunk of the film’s 110 minutes waiting for the other shoe to drop. Not enough conflict is actually established, just muddled messaging, clumsily written character arcs, laughable plot developments (one in particular is overwrought and forehead-slapping when it should be tragic and shocking) and weak performance takes. There is one overacted scene in particular where two perky "circlers" approach Mae at her desk, telling her that they’ve noticed she hasn’t joined any group activities or opened up to The Circle's sense of connectivity, and it never strikes that right tone between nervously amusing and sinister. Aside from maybe two exceptions, there is even a distinct lack of chemistry between most of the characters, as if everyone met two minutes before the cameras started rolling.

Emma Watson is a fine guide as Mae, seemingly willing to go to darker, edgier places than the film actually allows for her relatively thin character. Her interview scene has an intelligence and snappy energy to it, but as the film goes along, she seems adrift and not because of her character’s displacement in the story or kayaking being her favorite pastime. Mae is skeptical at first, as anyone else with a working set of eyes and ears would be. Her arc, then, happens so fast in the choppy final edit that scenes seem to be missing. Before we know it, she makes the terrible decision to sneak through the gate of her favorite kayaking spot and paddle off the bay at night, going past the buoy into fog. This leads her to being hit by a boat and nearly drowning, and then the next day having a conversation with Eamon Bailey, who gets her to speak a truth; from there, Mae hastily becomes a history-making web girl and spokesperson for The Circle, but it’s never clear if the character has actually taken a real drink of the Kool-Aid or is just putting on a ruse.

Starring in his second Dave Eggers adaptation (“A Hologram for the King” was last year), Tom Hanks seems well-suited for the part of The Circle’s co-founder Eamon Bailey because he radiates trustworthiness, but he’s barely there. Although selling his TED Talk-esque scenes on stage, the actor is unchallenged the rest of the time, while Patton Oswalt seems miscast as COO Stenton. John Boyega (so charismatic in 2015’s “Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens”) completely goes to waste as Ty, the inventor of The Circle’s technology who’s supposed to be in hiding and yet hangs out on his phone during the campus parties. He comes and goes so often that it wouldn’t be unbelievable if one were to read him as a figment of Mae’s imagination. Karen Gillan charges out of the gate with pep in her step as Annie, but once her character evolves, it happens so quickly that there’s more confusion than impact. Then there’s Ellar Coltrane, who’s great to see on the big screen again after 2014's “Boyhood,” but as Mae’s off-the-grid carpenter friend Mercer, his exchanges between Watson always feel written and unnatural. The only two characters in the film with actual chemistry are Mae’s parents, played by the always-lovely Glenne Headly and the late Bill Paxton in his final role.

“The Circle” may aim to be relevant and About Something, keeping its finger on the pulse of the current digital age, but whatever point it wants to make becomes lost in a film troubled by much noticeable post-production tinkering. Instead of making one think about much afterwards, it just does a lot of lecturing and makes the viewer think about what isn’t working. Instead of becoming an alarmist tech thriller, one keeps wondering why it isn’t more thrilling and why the level of paranoia isn’t taken above a low simmer. Additionally, the wrap-up is abrupt and unsatisfying with consequences never properly dealt with—and if that’s the point, the sense of irony doesn’t hit hard—as if Mae hasn’t taken away the right lesson and hasn’t really learned much of anything. For a character who talks about accountability, Mae certainly doesn’t own up to her mistakes that costs someone their life. This is one of those films that thinks it’s deep and insightful when it actually teaches very little.

Grade: C - 

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Body Tests: “Rupture” begins with promise, then ruptures into silliness

Rupture (2017)
102 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

Best known for S&M romance “Secretary” back in 2002, director Steven Shainberg (2006’s Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus”) unfortunately chose “Rupture” as his first film in a decade. From a script by screenwriter Brian Nelson (2005’s “Hard Candy”), Shainberg holds his audience for the first half, setting up a bizarre perilous situation for its protagonist, but it would mean more if the conclusion to the mystery actually paid off. Sometimes, a mystery is more interesting when it's just kept a mystery, unless the filmmakers come up with an incredible explanation. Alas, that is not the case here. Aside from ace neon-heavy cinematography by Karim Hussain (2015’s “We Are Still Here”), “Rupture” is a distinctly unsatisfying kidnapping/torture/body-horror/sci-fi thriller that devolves—or should we say rupture?—into silliness with seriously dodgy CGI straight out of a schlocky direct-to-video release circa 2002.

Ready for a girls’ weekend to go skydiving, divorced mother Renee Morgan (Noomi Rapace) drops off son Evan (Percy Hynes White) at her ex-husband’s house. When her tire blows out in the middle of the highway, it’s no accident when a pair of truck drivers stop to help her. Instead, they tase Renee to the ground, wrap her entire head with electrical tape and throw her into the back of the truck. After a few hours, Renee is wheeled on a gurney into an underground compound and surrounded by a group of strangers (including Lesley Manville, Peter Stormare, Kerry Bishé and Michael Chiklis) who proceed to make her one of several subjects for tests and experiments. By using her arachnophobia, they just might get her to “rupture.”

“Rupture” doesn’t die on the vine right away. When the film is being an abduction thriller with a mystery to keep, it is a harrowing blend of the mundane with portent and tension. Before anything seems off, foreshadowing sign posts are set up, conveniently introducing Renee’s arachnophobia in the film's opening, and there's a lingering shot of an X-Acto knife that Renee puts in her pocket (could it come in handy later on?). Still, there are individual moments that manage to be suspenseful and effectively squirmy, like when Renee crawls between rooms through a ventilation duct or when she is terrorized by some eight-legged terrors in a scarily compromising position. Then, when the dots are connected and merge with science fiction, the proceedings become rather silly, screechy, and half-baked. 

Put through the physical and psychological wringer, Noomi Rapace is very watchable and gets the viewer to worry for her, albeit mostly by default—she seems like a nice single mom—but as the film goes on, she only has to scream while strapped to a slab. No performer comes off too well here, which leaves the rest of the largely familiar-faced cast playing on the same strange, brainwashed, pod-person note throughout as Renee’s creepy captors. Who they are isn’t that difficult to figure out and the less said about their identity, the better. With the end result feeling like M. Night Shyamalan on a bad day, “Rupture” is a chore of a B-movie that brings little fear factor and almost nothing to the table.

Grade: C - 

Monday, April 24, 2017

Ice Queen: “Unforgettable” blends the formulaic, trashy and nervy

Unforgettable (2017)
100 min., rated R.

On the face of it, “Unforgettable”—a title that really doesn’t mean much—initially seems like there is nothing new at play here since the 1990s when the “…from Hell” thriller genre was hot. 1987’s “Fatal Attraction” set the precedent, and since then, there have been a slew of copycats and like-minded Lifetime movies. In recent years, variations on this run-of-the-mill template have either endeavored to be something more (2009’s “Chloe” and 2015’s “The Gift”) or were just guilty pleasures (2015’s “The Boy Next Door”), diverting time-wasters (2009’s “Obsessed,” 2015’s “The Perfect Guy” and 2016’s “When the Bough Breaks”), or just bad (2011’s “The Roommate”). Veteran producer Denise Di Novi makes her directorial debut here, with a screenplay by Christina Hodson (2016's "Shut In"), and luckily, she knows exactly the type of movie she’s making. Only sometimes bordering on camp but careful never to actually cross it, “Unforgettable” is otherwise a glossy, trashy melodrama that doesn’t stray far from the outdated formula but derives watchably wicked pleasure and even a modicum of substance from the lead performances by Rosario Dawson and Katherine Heigl.

A survivor of domestic abuse by a former boyfriend, blog editor Julia Banks (Rosario Dawson) is about to start her new chapter, moving to a small Southern California town to live with fiancée David (Geoff Stults) and his daughter, Lily (Isabella Kai Rice). She’s kept that difficult part of her life a secret from her beau, as well as a restraining order she has against her ex, but adding to her nerves is David’s ex-wife living not too far away to remind Julia that she might not be cut out for stepmotherhood. Tessa (Katherine Heigl) is tightly wound, always maintaining a perfect façade and clearly up to no good. She obsessively conspires to ruin the other woman’s blissful relationship before Julia and David officially tie the knot when she steals Julia’s phone and finds information that she can work with. As Tessa’s plan goes, Julia begins to crack, but of how much more is she capable?

Make no mistake, “Unforgettable” is not a deep psychological study, but there is a little more to Tessa than a one-note villainess, and it’s a testament to Katherine Heigl for making her more fascinating than she might have been. Freed from playing a blandly likable romantic lead, she has finally found a properly juicy fit for her persona. It was first seen in 2015’s “Home Sweet Hell,” an uneven black comedy no one saw, and whatever its many problems, Heigl was not one of them as a prickly, type-A Stepfordized wife who killed to keep her perfect-on-the-surface life. Once again, the actress seems to be actually having fun in maliciously evil mode, whether she’s vaping and drinking red wine when plotting her revenge in front of her computer, efficiently banging the waitstaff at David’s brewery, polishing silverware with gloves, and aggressively brushing her daughter’s hair and forcing her to be an equestrian like herself. Fury incarnate as the cunning Tessa, the statuesque Heigl is persuasive and deliciously icy, but the viewer even gets a sense of why she is the way she is, a product of her equally icy mother (Cheryl Ladd) and worthy of a hint of sympathy at least.

Rosario Dawson does rich wonders with her part as Julia, who’s made worth rooting for, despite her decision to not tell David about her past. As with any project, Dawson’s emotions and reactions never feel less than true. There is also one particularly kinky sequence in which Julia, her mind on one track after Tessa drunkenly went on about David’s insatiable sexual prowess, takes the challenge in a restaurant restroom, intercut with Tessa masturbating. On account of how the part of David is written rather than the actor’s capabilities, Geoff Stults is handsome but boring, however, there wouldn’t be much conflict if he were extremely bright and clued into Tessa’s motives. As Tessa’s passive-aggressive mother, Cheryl Ladd is suitably frosty and informs who Tessa is as an adult; when she shows her daughter disapproval over the scones for teatime not being homemade, one relishes in the moment. Finally, comedian Whitney Cummings makes an impression, appealingly fulfilling the seemingly thankless role of Julia’s boss and friend, who otherwise would have been used to just be killed off.

“Unforgettable” is anything but, and it helps that it rarely pretends to be more than it is. In a way, it reminds one of Chris Columbus’ “Stepmom” with Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon turned on its ear. Director Denise Di Novi does not forget to insert the crazy into the soapy melodrama, particularly when a hair-pulling, knock-down, drag-out catfight is something to be expected in representatives of this genre. The one here decidedly delivers on that front, as Heigl and Dawson really go for it, slamming each other up against walls and making a mess of Tessa’s elegant foyer with a fireplace poker. With that said, how it ends is pretty nervy for the genre’s standards. Judged wholly on its own merits, “Unforgettable” is a tastily tawdry blend of the familiar and unexpected that works and might go well with a glass of Cabernet or three. Above all, may this be the beginning of a “Heiglssance.”

Grade: B -