Friday, June 15, 2018

Men Will Be Boys: As a summertime crowd-pleaser, annoying “Tag” is not "it"


Tag (2018)
100 min., rated R.

The ridiculous logline—grown men playing a serious game of tag—is certainly an amusing idea for a movie, and even more so because it’s inspired by a true story that got its own 2013 Wall Street Journal article, “It Takes Planning, Caution to Avoid Being ‘It.’” A truish high-concept comedy, “Tag” earns points for novelty, but it’s barely a movie at all, just a premise stretched out to a piddling 100 minutes like a rough draft of a script. Without reasonably well-rounded characters and not a lot of narrative driving anything forward, there’s not much to it, not even enough laughs that stick to not make it insufferable. First-time feature director Jeff Tomsic and writers Rob McKittrick (2005’s “Waiting…”) and Mark Steilen are blessed with a likable cast, but “Tag” is underwritten and rarely ever as funny as it thinks it’s being.

“We don’t stop playing because we get old, we get old because we stop playing” is the mantra for a group of middle-aged friends who have been playing the game of tag since 1983. Every May, veterinarian Hogan Malloy (Ed Helms), hotshot insurance exec Bob Callahan (Jon Hamm), divorced slacker Randy “Chilli” Cilliano (Jake Johnson), and voice of reason Kevin Sable (Hannibal Buress) take off the month to play tag. When Hogan takes a janitorial job at an insurance company, it’s merely a ploy to tag Callahan in a conference room as he’s being interviewed by Wall Street Journal reporter Rebecca (Annabelle Wallis). Realizing there might be a human-interest piece there, Rebecca tags along with these buddies on a road trip. Hogan wants Callahan’s help to round up the troops—Chilli and Sable—with Hogan’s wife Anna (Isla Fisher) in tow and head back to their hometown of Spokane, Washington, to crash a wedding and once and for all tag their most obsessively competitive friend, successful fitness guru Jerry Pierce (Jeremy Renner), who’s tying the knot with Susan (Leslie Bibb). Not about to lose his thirty-year winning streak of never being tagged, Jerry didn’t invite his four buddies to the wedding, but can they get him this time?

A lightweight lark, like “Tag,” can work if it’s funny; if the laughs aren’t firing frequently, then more attention is called to the threadbare script. When Hogan, Callahan, and Chilli head to Denver to wrangle up Sable, they somehow end up in the closet of Sable’s therapist during his session. Um, did they teleport? Disinterested in developing any of its characters beyond single dimensions—they have names and a shared pastime—the film gives no reason to care or to take stake in Jerry getting tagged. Amid the pratfall-heavy hijinks, "Tag" tries pushing the boundaries of taste, but all it does is offer a demented waterboarding joke. And then, by the time one of the married couples fakes a miscarriage and then there’s actually a medical scare, it’s hard not to sneer at how ethically irresponsible, selfish, and tone-deaf these characters are being. To make matters worse, everything gets wrapped up in a hospital in an unearned, disingenuous, too-big-for-its-britches attempt at heartstring-pulling. 

Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, and Jake Johnson evince a strong-enough camaraderie on screen, but these characters loosely depicting the real ten men whose story inspired the film come off as irritating, infantile jackasses who rarely feel like real, flesh-and-blood people. They claim that the game brings out the best in them, but it does the complete opposite, as they run through other people’s apartments and breaking someone’s window air conditioner early on without any consequence for their childish, inconsiderate behavior. It’s as if they never left recess. None of them really have lives beyond anything directly related to the “plot,” and their lack of depth and unique personality traits—well, Chilli likes to stoned a lot—make them interchangeable. Thank God, then, for Hannibal Buress (2018's "Blockers") as Sable, the most thoughtful of the five friends. Buress is the lone bright spot in this lackluster comedy, slaying every one of his sharp, unpredictable line deliveries and deadpan reactions. Not associated with comedy, Jeremy Renner is also sometimes fun to watch, playing the elusive Jerry like an agile, highly trained action hero not unlike his “Bourne Legacy” character Aaron Cross.

Then there are the female “characters.” Isla Fisher, adorably funny or hilariously unhinged when given well-suited material, has gusto and thankfully isn’t treated like a harpy as the aggressively competitive Anna, but she more often than not waits for the script to throw her a bone since tag is a “no girls allowed” game. It’s also a shame to find a fetching actress like Annabelle Wallis (2017's "The Mummy") stranded in a purely reactive role as reporter Rebecca that, aside from one sneaky line about the death of print journalism, gives her nothing funny or interesting to do, except stand around as if invisible and barely get a word in edgewise. That there’s never even a payoff to Rebecca finalizing her story after following around Callahan and his buddies for a month gives one the impression that a lot of material was left on the cutting-room floor. Leslie Bibb’s overcaffeinated cheerfulness is entertaining as teeth-gritting bride Susan, but one action makes her more reprehensible than the rest of the lot. Also, in a few scenes, the charmingly acerbic Rashida Jones is wasted as Chilli and Callahan’s junior high crush Cheryl Deakins, merely there to cause weightless tension between the two friends and observe how stupid these guys are.

A missed opportunity and a waste of time and talent, “Tag” is charmless and annoying. In his first time at bat, director Jeff Tomsic at least brings a little directorial flair to the material during some of the over-the-top, almost surreal slo-mo moments where Jerry mindfully strategizes his escape out of a tag situation like a ninja. Once concluding with the end credits' obligatory footage of the real guys tagging their other unsuspecting buddies, the film demonstrates a most glaring disconnect, turning the seemingly likable and decent real-life friends into cartoonish man-children. One spends the entirety of this mediocrity wishing they were watching 2004's "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story" or this year's “Game Night,” far superior comedies about adults playing games. Aspiring to be a wild summertime crowd-pleaser to see, “Tag” isn’t “it.”

Grade: C - 

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Bling Ring: "Ocean's Eight" a breezy, fizzy, starry entertainment


Ocean’s Eight (2018)
110 min., rated PG-13.

A gender-flipped reboot worked for 2016’s “Ghostbusters,” despite its trolling haters, so why not one for Steven Soderbergh’s jazzy, ultra-cool, star-studded 2001 hangout caper “Ocean’s Eleven”? 2004’s “Ocean’s Twelve” and 2007’s “Ocean’s Thirteen” were slick, watchable larks but idled and coasted on the charisma and good will of its movie stars and splashy style, turning stale and lazy with a giant whiff of self-satisfaction. As those films were ruled by men, “Ocean’s Eight” is the distaff spin-off, led by Sandra Bullock playing the sister to the late Danny Ocean (George Clooney), and by comparison—and because of its own merits—it’s a breath of fresh air, breezy, glitzy and starry entertainment.

Prior to her release on parole from a five-year stint in prison, con mastermind Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) pleads that she just wants to live “the simple life,” or so she says. Immediately after she’s freed back into the world in New York City, she picks up where she left off, effortlessly shoplifting in Bergdorf Goodman by pretending to return merchandise and working her magic to get a hotel suite for free. Debbie has another score in mind, only this time she won’t get caught. First, she reunites with partner-in-crime Lou (Cate Blanchett) and gets her on board to steal the Touissant, a diamond necklace worth $150 million that comes with extra security. They hatch a plan to get the six-pound diamond on the neck of movie starlet Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway), snatch it, and then replace it with a fake at the annual Met Gala. Of course, to pull it off, Debbie and Lou will have to round up a crew that includes Irish fashion designer Rose Weil (Helena Bonham Carter), jewelry maker Amita (Mindy Kaling), ace hacker Nine Ball (Rihanna), pickpocket Constance (Awkwafina), and profiteering suburban mom Tammy (Sarah Paulson). As a bonus, Debbie will also be getting sweet revenge on Claude Becker (Richard Armitage), the man responsible for selling her out and sending her to jail.

Director Gary Ross (2016’s “Free State of Jones”) may not have all of the stylistic pizzazz and directorial stamp that Steven Soderbergh brought to his all-shallow-style trilogy, but he keeps the pace fizzing along, even at the expense of character depth, and it’s the eclectic group of women who keep our interest in a heist film that can still work without dicey, life-or-death stakes. Screenwriters Gary Ross & Olivia Milch (2018’s “Dude”) do repeat the tried-and-true beats of a caper—the gradual assembling of each individual member of the team, the planning, the close calls, the third-act diversion hiding behind the curtain—but the dialogue has enough snap and the logistics of carrying out the heist at the Met are smoothly orchestrated and involving to offset the familiarity. With the aid of a female writer and a female-dominated cast, the script also has a shrewd throughline—“a him gets noticed, but a hero gets ignored, and this time we want to be ignored”—that works as a timely comment on the world we live in. “Somewhere out there is an eight-year-old girl lying in bed, dreaming of being a criminal,” Debbie Ocean tells her team. “Let’s do this for her.” 

Sandra Bullock is her cucumber-cool self and in complete command as Debbie Ocean, the brains behind the operation who turns up the charisma when the situation calls for it. Cate Blanchett serves as the voice of reason as Debbie’s second-in-command Lou, dressed as a rock-and-roll biker chick, and enjoys such a crackling chemistry with Bullock that one wishes the history of their prickly but affectionate friendship was more fleshed out. Each performer gets her moment to shine based on each character’s skill, including Helena Bonham Carter, delivering moments of loopy, neurotic comedy as quirky designer Rose; Sarah Paulson, innately intelligent as fencer Tammy; and Awkwafina (2018’s “Dude”), who has such an appealing, scene-stealing presence. It is Anne Hathaway, however, who comes away as the comic standout playing vapid, preening diva Daphne Kluger, a role that not only amusingly plays into the stereotype of an egotistical movie star but gets layered with insecurity and more intelligence than she lets on.

With such a dream line-up of talent, many of the supporting players would have been welcomed more fully written characterizations beyond their names and skill sets, as there is no downtime to see these women interact on a personal level or understand their reasons for taking the money when they have a job to do. Since the film is cut for time to get to all eight women, the fun they’re all having still rubs off on the audience and makes one want to spend even more time with them. If one just wants an escape to take in the to-die-for clothing and glamour of it all, the film satisfies on that level, but the sly statement it makes about the power of women not being underestimated gives it a much more valid reason to exist than the previous two sequels. Even as it carries on an established franchise, “Ocean’s Eight” stands wholly on its own. Debbie Ocean and her cohorts aren’t out to outcool one another like Danny and his entourage did; they support one another to pull off a job, and the viewer never stops rooting for these criminals to get away with it. This summer, these are the real Avengers. 

Grade:

Friday, June 8, 2018

Full House: "Hotel Artemis" pulpy fun with a buzzy style and an eclectic cast


Hotel Artemis (2018)
97 min., rated R.

Shockingly not based on any source material (not even an obscure graphic novel), “Hotel Artemis” is armed with a cool, original core concept that almost sounds like an off-shoot of The Continental, an exclusive hotel for assassins where rules are enforced, in the “John Wick” movies (which is, coincidentally, getting its own TV series). In fact, this almost feels like an extra-long pilot of a TV series that promises great things to come, which isn’t a knock but just shines a light on how condensed and underdeveloped the world-building and some of the characters feel when it’s all over. Helmed with buzzy brio and clockwork tightness by debuting director Drew Pearce (who wrote 2013’s “Iron Man 3” and this script), “Hotel Artemis” gets away with being a pulpy, highly enjoyable sci-fi chamber piece with eclectic, star-filled company. It’s not a substantial meal, but it’s a fun, swiftly paced ride to take.

It’s June 21st, 2028 in riot-torn Los Angeles, where the city is on lockdown and water has been privatized by the evil Clearwater Corporation. Expecting just another Wednesday night in her 22 years of managing the Hotel Artemis—a hotel front that is really a furtive, members-only emergency clinic for criminals of all types—agoraphobic nurse Jean Thomas (Jodie Foster) takes a reservation from Sherman (Sterling K. Brown) and brother Lev (Brian Tyree Henry) after a botched bank robbery that has left them both wounded. Mrs. Thomas is such a stickler when it comes to customers abiding by the hotel’s rules that the brothers must verify their memberships in order to get fixed up; if not, they get to deal with the hotel’s muscle, orderly and bodyguard Everest (Dave Bautista). There are two other guests, both named by their room assignments which are named after cities: there’s obnoxious arms dealer Acapulco (Charlie Day), who’s trying to call a helicopter to get out of the city, and slinky hitwoman Nice (Sofia Boutella), who’s waiting for her assignment, a V.I.P., to arrive. Meanwhile, as Sherman waits for Lev to recover, he realizes that his brother stole a pen that contains precious diamonds belonging to the hotel’s owner, The Wolf King (Jeff Goldblum). Putting everyone at risk, including herself, Mrs. Thomas breaks her own rules by sneaking outside and rescuing an injured non-member, cop Morgan (Jenny Slate), whom she knows from her past. When she gets a call from The Wolf King’s hotheaded son, Crosby (Zachary Quinto), that his father requires prompt medical attention, the night “goes to hell in a handbasket full of blood and shit.”

Leaving its dystopian world as a mere backdrop to all the goings-on, the microcosmic “Hotel Artemis” mostly takes place inside, atop, and around the eponymous safe haven. It’s not far off from 2013’s “The Purge,” efficiently conveying the hellish state of the world but confining the action to a single internal space. The location itself might be the most intriguing element, with its decaying, richly lived-in art-deco production design with futuristic technology, but watching a killer cast plucked in the middle and capably bringing color and interest to mostly broad-stroke parts is a major selling point, too. That all of the criminals are nicknamed after their city-named suites is a clever touch, purposely making them all enigmas trying to keep their identities hidden during their stays. As the night goes on, the storm brewing within Hotel Artemis gets just dicey enough, creating a powder-key situation that might be even more dangerous than anything on the outside.

Back to the screen after a five-year hiatus, Jodie Foster gets the most to chew on as the disciplined, no-nonsense Jean Thomas. She’s not only having fun here, acting jittery and taking quick, short steps down halls with her medical bag, but also creates a hardened character grappling with emotional baggage: the death of her son. Out of anyone, she may receive the fullest character arc by the end, overcoming her agoraphobia. Sterling K. Brown (TV’s “This Is Us”) is a magnetic, sympathetic presence as Sherman, a thief just trying to go straight, and it doesn’t hurt that he has charisma and swagger for days. While it was impossible to gauge anything in 2017’s “The Mummy,” Sofia Boutella gets to make a bigger impression, showcasing a femme-fatale glint in her eye and action-star chops as the seductive Nice, whose French nickname contradicts her fierce capabilities, particularly when she dares The Wolf King’s various henchmen to cross her line in a hallway that ends in a breathless 1-to-20 fight. Rounding out the rest of the cast is a terrific Dave Bautista, finding grace notes of humor and loyalty as Jean’s sole associate Everest, who likes reminding others that he’s a healthcare professional; Jenny Slate, who’s not a face one expects to see in an action picture but not given much to do at all or having any real consequence on the story as Morgan; Charlie Day, who has to be smarmy and chew scenery but he’s at least lively; Jeff Goldblum, dropping in briefly to be his deliciously flamboyant self as the ruthless Wolf King; and Zachary Quinto, shading his one-note role a little bit with pathetic insecurity and search for validation as the brutish Crosby. 

All of the guests in the hotel have something to lose, but there’s not quite enough weight to all of them, excluding Jodie Foster’s Jean Thomas, to feel any great sense of catharsis in the end. While the finished product may not always match writer-director Drew Pearce’s ambitious vision or amount to much, “Hotel Artemis” is a violent, amusingly quirky exercise in style and gleeful archness. Beyond the ace production design and the slick lensing by cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung (2017’s “It”) that gives the interiors of Hotel Artemis scale and geographical coherence, there are also at least two great uses of music (Jean listens to The Mamas & The Papas’ “California Dreamin’” to soothe her anxieties) and another thrilling, brooding, synth-heavy score by the consistently dependable Cliff Martinez. “Hotel Artemis” is satisfying enough as a one-off, but with its delectably designed and detailed accommodations for flimsy characters setting a solid foundation, it does lend itself to checking back in with Mrs. Thomas for more stays and further adventures.

Grade:

Thursday, June 7, 2018

All in the Family: "Hereditary" knocks you on your ass and festers under your skin


Hereditary (2018)
127 min., rated R.

Of all genres, the horror genre unfairly gets a bad rap most of the time, but it is actually the most cathartic. When done right, a horror film can not only frighten and rattle but convey the uncomfortable darkness of the human condition. Horror fans, themselves, can also be tough customers, although being more discriminating and patient to wait for a great film can be rewarding. With that said, Ari Aster’s attention-grabbing feature debut “Hereditary” is honest-to-God, face-melting, gut-level horror, the cinematic equivalent of a nervous breakdown into madness fueled by loss and grief. Never underestimate a first-time writer-director like Aster, whose attention to detail is meticulous and loaded with suggestion, his pacing so masterfully assured, and his narrative profoundly disturbing, risk-taking and thematically dense. One immediately knows that he or she is in the hands of a veritable filmmaking craftsman with the know-how to transcend any genre to the level of art, and as for “Hereditary,” which has already been branded this generation’s “The Exorcist”: brace yourselves.

After the death of her 78-year-old mother that should cause tragic mourning, miniature artist Annie Graham (Toni Collette) struggles over the complicated emotions of her loss. As she says in her eulogy, Annie’s mother was a strange, secretive woman with whom she was estranged for years before her dementia and mental illness worsened. Annie at least has support from her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), but their children, pot-smoking 16-year-old son Peter (Alex Wolff) and withdrawn, not-quite-right 13-year-old Charlie (Milly Shapiro), each had disparate relationships with their grandmother; Peter can’t seem to muster much emotion following the funeral and Charlie, who was Grandma's favorite, is a strange bird altogether, sleeping in her treehouse some nights and collecting severed bird heads. To add more stress to her plate, Annie fastidiously creates miniature tableaus in her home workshop and has a gallery exhibit deadline to meet. When she decides to sneak off to a support group to share her psychological scars, Annie confides in a woman named Joan (Ann Dowd), who has lost two members of her family. It’s not until tragedy strikes the Graham family again that Annie’s life really starts to unravel, and then there’s the discovery that maybe she didn’t know her mother at all.

A deeply raw and unflinchingly harrowing domestic drama at its core, “Hereditary” has one invested in the plight of the vulnerable Graham family well before they disintegrate into hell. Startling, courageous and electrifying, this is an elegantly helmed slow burn with a tangible sense of foreboding and bursts of unsparing, jaw-dropping horror that come in unexpected places and indelibly horrific imagery that instantly burns into one’s retinas. For anyone who thinks they know where the film is going, all bets are off, but everything is part of Aster’s soundly constructed master plan. When the film begins curdling into a take-no-prisoners nightmare and reaches an unforgettably distressing boil, it’s like watching a fiery vehicle with faulty brakes careen down a hill toward a cliff. All of the breadcrumbs—a necklace here, something scratched into the wallpaper there—lead to an astounding crescendo that leaves all hope for dead and allows audience members to share the characters’ intensely quaking anxiety and discombobulation. 

Ari Aster directs the hell out of his first film, ominously opening on an outside treehouse and slowly panning to a dollhouse diorama that mirrors the Graham family’s own house and tracking closer to son Peter’s bedroom that suddenly springs to life when his father walks in, and it’s a neat, bewitching technical trick that sets the icily intoxicating tone. The bravura lensing by cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski’s (2017’s “Tragedy Girls”) is visually potent with a commanding mise-en-scène in each and every thoughtfully composed frame, and editors Lucian Johnston and Jennifer Lame cut effectively, often leaving the unimaginable to the imagination, while also flipping from daytime to nighttime like a light switch that further enhances the hallucinatory dread. This is to say nothing of the shuddersome sound design and the unsettling, discordant score by former Arcade Fire saxophonist Colin Stetson.

Toni Collette is a riveting, shattering powerhouse, exposing a full range of emotions and layers as Annie, a wife and mother trying but failing to keep it together as the bastion of strength. In one of several piercing scenes, Annie lashes out at her own son at the dinner table with volatility, unleashing pent-up resentment and fury, and to Joan, she reveals her sleepwalking episodes, particularly one involving paint thinner and a match. Gabriel Byrne is solidly understated as concerned but skeptical husband and father Steve, holding strong for his family in need even as a dark force closes in on all of them. Alex Wolff (2017’s “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle”) is excellent as Peter, being put through the grueling wringer as much as Collette's Annie. He sells every character facet—teenage slackerdom and disaffectedness, puppy love, guilt, anger, fear and confusion—as well as a terrifying freakout during class. It would be unthinkable to not say the name, Milly Shapiro. Destined to break out after her debut film, 15-year-old Shapiro (who played the lead in “Matilda” on Broadway) is an ethereal find and more distinct than any child actor working today; Charlie's bedtime conversation with her mother, asking the question, “Who’s going to take care of me…when you die?” is one of the many chilling harbingers of doom. Ann Dowd also makes a lingering impact as Joan, a seemingly trustworthy woman who gives Annie solace.

Going into “Hereditary” and knowing as little as possible beforehand is the only way to go. Above and beyond dishing out effective jolts—although, what “The Conjuring” did with the hide-and-clap game, this one does do the same with a tongue cluck—Ari Aster is operating on a deeper level, provoking themes of unbreakable familial bonds and poisoned lineage, and then culminating in Greek tragedy-level consequence and truly evil implications of what's to come after the story ends. He puts his characters first and grounds the possibly supernatural proceedings with the devastation of a helpless family, manipulated by a higher force not unlike Annie manipulating every piece of her dioramas. Even when the circumstances are heightened to extremes and could feel overwrought on screen, the film never seems less than controlled and tonally of a piece, beginning with an on-screen obituary and ending with what feels like a knife to the viewer's heart. Like a vivid, merciless nightmare that won’t be easy to shake or forget, “Hereditary” knocks you on your ass, festers under your skin, and leaves one haunted long after the end credits. Good luck not staggering out of the theater because this is a diabolically bold and unnerving piece of horror cinema that’s bound to endure.

Grade:

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Only Half is Lost: Unevenly told "Adrift" sails on the strength of Woodley


Adrift (2018)
96 min., rated PG-13.

“Adrift” is based on the true story of a couple sailing a yacht 4,000 miles from Tahiti to San Diego, only to get caught in a category-four hurricane. After the wreckage of the yacht, one of them had to fight to stay alive for 41 days. This is a tragic yet inspiring story deserving of its cinematic telling but rendered uneven by Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur (2015’s “Everest”) and screenwriters Aaron Kandell, Jordan Kandell and David Branson Smith (2017’s “Ingrid Goes West”), who seem bored by or just don’t trust a chronological timeline. Yes, it’s refreshing to find a smart, capable and believably resourceful woman guiding the ship, literally, but despite mostly sailing on the strength of Shailene Woodley’s committed turn through a seemingly arduous shoot, “Adrift” treads water most of the time in trying to meld a love story and a survival seafaring drama without a single shark to be found.

Free-spirited, world-traveling 23-year-old Tami Oldham (Shailene Woodley) approaches life as an adventure, going where the wind takes her. Hailing from San Diego, she has lived in Tahiti for five years and has worked odd jobs on schooners. In 1983, when Tami meets 34-year-old British bloke Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin), who travels on his boat that he built himself, the attraction is immediate and mutual. When a wealthy older couple hires Richard to sail their 44-foot yacht to San Diego, he brings along Tami, and without any warning, they sail right into a hurricane. As Tami comes to in the flooded cabin, the odds are stacked against her. Tami uses her resourcefulness, navigating a sextant and a storm jib and then pumping the water out of the cabin and even succumbing to hunting her own fish for food, even though she was a vegetarian until now. Is all hope lost?

Choosing to drop the viewer right into the aftermath of the wreckage, “Adrift” begins midstream, Tami coming to in the flooded cabin of the yacht after the storm with no sign of Richard. It’s an attention-grabber, but once the film reverts back to the beginning of how she met Richard and then back to the present situation until finally converging, the structure gives the film a frustratingly stop-and-start pacing and grows stagnant, pun intended but knocking the wind out of its sails. Some films are non-linear by design and effectively earn the structure with a purpose; “Adrift” is not one of them. Every time the editors cut away from five months ago to the present and back, it undercuts the perilous intensity and any real momentum and tension the story could have had. When a key development is revealed more than halfway through the running time, it’s not the powerful, illuminating a-ha moment as intended; in fact, it doubly feels like a dime-store device used to pay off the flashback structure and an overused “plot twist” that so many films, usually horror thrillers, employ.

Like 2013’s stripped-down “All Is Lost,” where Robert Redford was a man alone on a boat, “Adrift” compels as a basic story about the process of survival, but this time with much more dialogue and character development. When the film is being an intimate two-hander, Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin share a nice, swoon-worthy chemistry together that forces one to hope they both make it out alive. Before even going above and beyond with the emotional and physical demands, Woodley presents Tami Oldham as an appealing hippie (much like Woodley herself) and delivers raw poignancy without a single inauthentic note. Claflin has the less demanding role of the two, but before he is incapacitated, there is a natural charm to Richard. The cinematography by Robert Richardson (2015’s “The Hateful Eight”) is stirring, capturing the vastness and lonesomeness of being stranded at sea, and the single take of the boat capsizing during the eye of the hurricane (which comes near the beginning of the third act) is impressively executed. Unfortunately, one feels adrift watching it. The viewer is only occasionally rattled and moved, and ultimately, one’s patience is not rewarded, making the destination to the journey not that worthwhile.

Grade:

Monday, May 21, 2018

When Han Met Chewy: "Solo" gets the job done but doesn't add much to the galaxy


Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
135 min., rated PG-13.

Somewhere down the line, Disney and Lucasfilm decided that “Star Wars” devotees wanted to keep seeing how the sausage was made. Evidently, even after the 1999, 2002, and 2005 prequels and 2016’s “Rogue One,” there are so many more stories to tell from “a long time in a galaxy far, far away” that will exist as stand-alone installments in the unofficially named “Star Wars Anthology.” Billed as an origin story for Han Solo before he met Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, “Solo: A Star Wars Story” hits its marks well enough in connecting the dots but doesn’t add much to the ethos of the galaxy. It could be that the success of this prequel lives or dies on whether one is a diehard clamoring to see the process of already-established characters and catch every Easter Egg or just a casual “Star Wars” fan who gets more satisfaction out of the sequel trilogy. No matter one’s knowledge of what is to come in later films, where this particular story leads in bridging the gap between George Lucas’ original trilogy and prequels is tepid at best. Watchable for a single viewing but too slight for much replay value, “Solo: A Star Wars Story” is a sometimes breezy space adventure, albeit one that is sometimes plodding and muted without as much personality as the Han Solo we all know and love.

Living on the lawless, bottom-feeding planet of Corellia, street urchin Han (Alden Ehrenreich) yearns to escape with his girlfriend, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), and fly among the stars. The couple does, indeed, escape, but when they try trading a vial of rare hyperfuel called coaxium in exchange for their freedom on an outgoing transport, they are separated. Three years later, having been kicked out of the Imperial Academy for not following orders, Han falls in with a crew of smugglers, led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and wife Val (Thandie Newton), to pull off a dangerous score. Along the way, in his hopes of reuniting with Qi’ra and ultimately restoring peace and prosperity to the galaxy, Han will meet a furry Wookiee named Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and become acquaintances with gambler and pilot Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), but he will also find himself indebted to Crimson Dawn crime lord Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). 

If “Rogue One” explored how the Rebels stole the Death Star plans, “Solo: A Star Wars Story” finally answers all of the burning questions “Star Wars” fans might have had about Han Solo. How did he get his last name? How did he and Chewy meet? How did Han win the shiny and new ship, the Millennium Falcon? And how exactly did Han make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs? Every answer is mildly fun for recognition’s sake, but these are highlights in a story that isn’t terribly compelling and more like a series of events. As directed by Ron Howard (2016’s “Inferno”) and co-written by father-and-son Lawrence Kasdan (“Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens”) & Jonathan Kasdan (2007’s “In the Land of Women”), the film constantly searches for a reason for being, however, at least in one element they get right, there is actual emotional investment in seeing Han’s inevitable reunion with Qi’ra and how their relationship will change, given their time apart.

Perhaps Anthony Ingruber might have nailed the look of a younger Harrison Ford since he already did so in 2015’s “The Age of Adaline,” but Alden Ehrenreich (2016’s “Hail, Caesar!”) is not doing a Harrison Ford impersonation. Although it is a tall order to take on the iconic role, Ehrenreich solidly fits as a likably cavalier counterpart to the lovably cynical scoundrel Han Solo would grow up to be when introduced in the Mos Eisley Cantina. Seamlessly sliding into the role that Billy Dee Williams originated, Donald Glover (FX’s “Atlanta”) is Lando Calrissian with a charismatic swagger and various cool capes. When this character enters the picture, Glover provides a welcomely rakish and cheeky energy that begs one to question why Lando didn’t just get his own origin story instead. Integral supporting roles are supplied by the magnetic Emilia Clarke (2016's "Me Before You"), making a lasting impression as Qi’ra, who’s enigmatic but still faithful to Han; and Woody Harrelson, sharp as always as Beckett, telling Han to trust no one but not fully trustworthy himself. Thandi Newton makes her too-brief screen time count as the fierce, not-having-it Val, and once she’s gone, droid L3-37 takes the baton. Phoebe Waller-Bridge is a fantastic scene-stealer, voicing Lando’s snarky, robotic sidekick, who speaks her mind about being fed up with not receiving equal rights.

Though it’s unfair to speculate what the fired Phil Lord and Christopher Miller could have done before director Ron Howard took over mid-production and received final credit, there is the gnawing feeling that “Solo: A Star Wars Story” could have been more daring, more exciting, and better overall with more spark and devil-may-care personality in tune with Han Solo himself. As is, the to-and-fro journey is pretty safe and workmanlike without too many surprises, unless one has never seen a “Star Wars” movie before. The banter is fun and amusing, although there are as many times where the levity either comes off flat or forced, and maybe that’s the result of Howard being such a sincere filmmaker. There are a few rip-roaring but not exactly memorable action set-pieces, the most adventurous being the film’s opening escape from Corellia and then a train robbery along a snow-capped mountain. Based on “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” one isn’t so sure that it needn’t to exist, but it exists and gets the job done just fine. As the beginning of more episodic outings with Solo, it is recommendable to fans, but there is definitely room for improvement. 

Grade: C +

Friday, May 18, 2018

Playing Dead: Lame "Show Dogs" looks harmless but panders to lowest common denominator


Show Dogs (2018)
90 min., rated PG.

Never has there been a live-action talking-animal comedy that has been life-changing—not counting 1995’s vastly superior “Babe”—but some know how to charm and divert all audiences. Then there is “Show Dogs,” not a sequel to “Snow Dogs” that actually makes that 2001 Cuba Gooding Jr. starrer look like “Paddington 2.” Harmless and genial in nature as it may look, “Show Dogs” is actually a creatively lazy, notably unfunny dog, as it’s never, not once, laugh-out-loud funny and not particularly clever. Mercilessly but surprisingly, the flash-in-the-pan “Who Let the Dogs Out” is never played, but “Turner & Hooch” is referenced and there is a meta line about talking dog movies not being made anymore, and yet, here we are. Just because a film is targeted to kids and their families does not mean it has to be this listless, pandering, lame, and in short supply of wit and charm.

Doody calls for a plot, even in a goofy, over-the-top action comedy like “Show Dogs,” but just think “Miss Congeniality” with talking dogs. Rottweiler Max (voice of Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) is NYPD’s finest member of the K-9 unit, but he botches a sting operation to rescue an endangered baby panda when blowing the cover of FBI agent Frank Mosley (Will Arnett). They immediately clash, even over what music to play on the radio, but of course, the two must team up and go undercover at the prestigious Canini Invitational Dog Show in Las Vegas, where the smuggled panda is going to be sold to an exotic animal collector. In order to do that, Max needs to undergo a makeover and the proper training, and the moody Frank has to pose as a dog handler who actually likes his canine friend, so they must get tips from veteran dog groomer Mattie (Natasha Lyonne). Can Max and Frank save the panda, win the dog show, and become best friends?

Setting a new low for family entertainment, “Show Dogs” is just bizarre kids-will-like-anything dreck. And if young children love anything more than talking animals, it’s a kidnapping and smuggling plot where the climax involves a bad guy firing shots and an adorable CG panda getting thisclose to a charter plane propeller. Director Raja Gosnell previously helmed 2002’s “Scooby-Doo,” 2004’s “Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed,” and 2008’s “Beverly Hills Chihuahua,” so it stands to reason that his latest is another talking dog movie—hooray for consistency!—but what he and screenwriters Max Botkin and Marc Hyman (not to be confused with the physician and best-selling author) come up with is desperate and groan-inducing. For parents keeping score to see how appropriate this is for their kids, there is one flatulence-in-a-bathtub joke and a plot point involving private-part inspection at the dog show, which at least comes with the territory. As in all or most talking-animal movies, the animals chat with one another but the humans cannot hear them. It's too bad that the mouth-moving, canine-karate effects are so shoddy that they can’t even rise to the comparative seamlessness of “Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore.”

Voicing protagonist Max, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges is fine but unmemorable. Though his gruff voice does match the aggressive breed, one can imagine someone else having more fun with the role. Of the vocal talent who bring more energy to standing in a sound booth, a few do blessedly stand out as vaguely tolerable bright spots. Stanley Tucci is gleefully and deliciously haughty as the flamboyant, French-accented Papillion, Philippe; the mere idea of Shaquille O’Neal doing the voice of Karma, a pacifistic, New Agey Komondor, is kind of amusing; and Jordin Sparks lends the only real sweetness as Max’s love interest, a Border Collie named Daisy. In the primary human speaking roles, Will Arnett and Natasha Lyonne do what they can, both trying to look like they believe in the material and enliven thankless, threadbare roles before collecting their paychecks. It’s obviously asking too much for a family film to give Frank any sort of character traits or background outside of his job and the plot—Was he married? Does he have children? What are his hobbies?—to make him anything more than a workaholic dud. Lyonne at least gets to be spirited as Mattie, and something is actually learned about why she’s come to work with the FBI.

Littered with pop-culture references amid the wacky animal antics, "Show Dogs" strives—nay, strains—for laughs that never come. If any smiles are cracked, there is briefly one—and even that will soon escape the mind—and it involves the nonsensical sight of a tiger ziplining through Las Vegas’ Freemont Street and uttering the line, “This is the ‘Life of Pi.’” A diverting soundtrack also goes to waste, relegating LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It” and NONONO’s “Pumpin Blood” to background noise for the animal voices and the jaunty, caffeinated, generally farcical movie score. Without even imparting any noble sentiments or teachable messages, it’s a totally frivolous lark with close to nothing to recommend it or be worth inflated ticket prices. At 90 minutes, it might have brevity on its side but feels more like three hours long. Even if options for an early-summer movie the entire family can enjoy are sparse right now, everyone deserves better than the grim “Show Dogs.”

Grade:

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Vino Love: "Book Club" mostly sings when the spry leads get to do their stuff


Book Club (2018)
104 min., rated PG-13.

The generically titled “Book Club” deserves credit for not being what it easily could have been: a hacky, wacky old-people-getting-naughty comedy with screen legends mugging for the camera. Whereas 2013’s “Last Vegas” grouped together a quartet of veteran actors for a Vegas trip full of groan-inducing hip replacement and Viagra jokes, this latest bid at letting seasoned actors get frisky comes off more charming than smarmy with women at the forefront. Using the tizzy that female readers went into after reading E.L. James’ kinky bestselling trilogy as the jumping-off point, it plays more like “Sex and the City” for the older set through the lens of a Nancy Meyers wish-fulfillment confection (the kitchens are impeccable!). Debuting director Bill Holderman, who co-wrote with Erin Simms, fills the script with some sitcommy contrivances, sure, but when he allows veterans Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, and Mary Steenburgen to do their stuff, they all shine.

Friends since college, Diane (Diane Keaton), Vivian (Jane Fonda), Sharon (Candice Bergen), and Carol (Mary Steenburgen) have kept in touch through their monthly book club that began with Erica Jong’s 1973 novel “Fear of Flying.” A recent widow after 40 years of marriage, Diane may be fragile but not as much as her adult daughters (Alicia Silverstone, Katie Aselton) believe her to be when they insist she move to Scottsdale to be closer to them. Vivian, a Los Angeles hotelier, is the randy speed-dater of the bunch but has never been about a long-haul relationship with an emotional connection. With a recently engaged adult son and her divorced husband (Ed Begley Jr.) who’s about to marry a much younger woman (Mircea Monroe), federal judge Sharon lives alone with her cat and hasn’t played the dating game in 18 years. Carol is an accomplished chef who wants more excitement in her long-time marriage with husband, Bruce (Craig T. Nelson). When the four friends reunite for their book club, Vivian selects “Fifty Shades of Grey” for them to read. As they tear through the book, giggling at the naughty material, it stirs something in their once-dormant libidos. Diane conquers her fear of flying when she finds herself wooed by dashing pilot Mitchell (Andy Garcia); Vivian finds her life turned upside down when former flame Arthur (Don Johnson) reenters her life for the first time since she turned down his proposal; Sharon finally gives dating site Bumble a try and finds success; and Carol tries everything to get her husband’s eyes off of fixing up his motorcycle and become sexually attracted to her again.

Comedically spry as it is surprisingly wise about having a lot to live for even beyond middle age, “Book Club” knows what it has in its acting pros and lets them freely work the blue material. Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, and Mary Steenburgen all receive equal billing, as they should, and prove that there are still solid roles for women of a certain age. They might not be spring chickens, but none of them are ready to give up on their lives, and as long as it’s Chardonnay, these ladies can drink Carrie Bradshaw and her gal pals under the table. The film does follow the map of a traditional romantic comedy, but if any cast any sharpen up the material, it is this one, and it boggles the mind that these women have never worked together because they feel like the oldest of friends.

Keaton really is playing a version of herself as, well, Diane, who wears an idiosyncratic wardrobe of baggy pants and polka dots that Diane Keaton would wear, but she finally gets the chance to be daffy and radiant without coming off as a ninny (her last four movies or so have done just this). She shares a lovely chemistry with Andy Garcia, who’s still got it; sells a scene where Diane sits in a shopping mall massage chair next to a group of geriatrics; and later delivers a rather poignant and well-earned speech to her two fear-mongering daughters, who baby their mother and make her feel like an incapable invalid when she still has all of her faculties. Fonda, still a timeless knockout at 80 years old, is the corresponding Samantha Jones of the bunch and delivers her double entendres with gusto as Vivian, a woman who has had a roster of men but has never literally slept with a man she loves. Casting Don Johnson is also a clever touch—his daughter, Dakota Johnson, is the co-star of the “Fifty Shades of Grey” films after all—and he works up a snappy back-and-forth with his scene partner. Bergen, in particular, is the comic standout, receiving a juicier role than she has on screen in quite a while and slinging dry zingers with her expertly honed comic timing as Sharon, who at one point tries on Spanx underneath her dress, only to get tangled up in it. Steenburgen is adorable as Carol, one hoping her attempts at sexing it up will work on her husband (her near-car accident after she doses her husband Viagra seems like a nod to her character putting the moves on Steve Martin in 1989’s “Parenthood”), and she makes her tap-dancing routine set to Meatloaf’s “I’d Do Anything For Love But I Won’t Do That” sing when it very easily could’ve fallen flat. Richard Dreyfuss has one nice scene with Bergen as one of Sharon’s dates, a tax accountant, but Wallace Shawn has nothing to do.

While it doesn’t write the book on aging, “Book Club” is mainly a lark for women over 60 that does what it needs to do for its target audience with likable, charming performances all around and fizzier writing than one might expect. Somehow, the film doesn’t always press as hard for laughs, and when it does give in to the temptation of one Viagra gag or Carol’s gardening water meter reaching “moist” while reading the steamy book, they are more amusing than not. Less successful are some rooftop scenes with distracting green screen of the L.A. skyline, as well as the not-so-skillful use of photoshop for the ladies’ group photos in the introductory scenes, and the jaunty score needlessly pipes in to punch up the comedic effect. Still, as glossy entertainment of the comfort-food variety, “Book Club” is refreshing proof that age really is just a number. In this day and age, it’s the kind of counter-programming team-up for those not interested in anything related to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Grade: B - 

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Make Mom’s Day: Gabrielle Union sells most of bare-minimum “Breaking In”


Breaking In (2018)
88 min., rated PG-13.

Every actor over 40 gets a “Taken” now. Just last year, Halle Berry played a mom who had to use her mini-van to rescue her son in “Kidnap,” and now it’s Gabrielle Union’s turn in “Breaking In,” just in time for Mother’s Day. Director James McTeigue (2012’s “The Raven”) and screenwriter Ryan Engle (2018’s “Rampage”) concoct a simple but nifty reversal of the usual home-invasion tropes by having a mother trying to break back into her home where the intruders are holding her children, but that is about it. Without being entirely different from 2002’s “Panic Room,” “Breaking In” is a bare-minimum home-invasion thriller that delivers commercial crowd-pleasing satisfaction here and there, but without fully utilizing its gizmos-filled location, it’s never as thrilling or as tautly constructed as it could have been. If it has anything going for it, it’s Gabrielle Union, who’s fun to watch in a take-charge lead role like John McClane with a touch of MacGyver.

Following the untimely death of her estranged father, Shaun Russell (Gabrielle Union) takes her kids, teenager Jasmine (Ajiona Alexus) and pre-teen Glover (Seth Carr), back to her childhood home in the isolated Wisconsin countryside for the weekend to get ready to put it on the market. To Shaun’s surprise, her former abode is now a high-tech fortress retrofitted like a paranoid millionaire’s manse with a tightly elaborate security system, surveillance cameras in every room, motion censors, and retractable shields on the windows. While Glover plays with the house’s bells and whistles inside and Jasmine texts away in her bedroom, Shaun is confronted outside by an intruder (Mark Furze), but when she fends him off, she runs to the backyard door of the house to discover her children are being held hostage by three more burglars, Eddie (Billy Burke), Sam (Levi Meaden) and Duncan (Richard Cabral), who came to crack open a safe that holds $4 million. As a mother, Shaun will stop at nothing until her kids are safe, but the burglars shouldn't have poked the bear.

As “Breaking In” plays out, one keeps hoping it will break out of the standard thriller mold and dish out the craziness. Director James McTeigue does sufficiently set up the geography of the house, so the viewer knows where people are spatially located to one another, and employs a little style on occasion, like an appropriate use of slow-motion as Shaun tumbles down a hill. A thriller like this can collapse under too much scrutiny, but in the moment, it does work as a nitty-gritty game of cat and mouse, especially when Shaun does break back into the house and outsmarts the numbskulled intruders. Either the film is trying to subvert expectations of Chekhov’s Gun, or it just doesn’t want to exploit certain setups, like a drone that doesn’t get much of a payoff and a circular saw in the garage that is shown but never used. Noticeably cut from an R-rating as if one is watching an edited version on cable, the film shies away from some of the bloodier bursts of violence, and yet still comes off pretty vicious, but even more so, a few uses of the F-words are dubbed over with “frickin’,” allowing Gabrielle Union to finally use the PG-13 rating’s allowance of one F-word.

Given the chance to break out of ensemble romantic comedies, Gabrielle Union sells the hell out of her rare leading role in a thriller. Having a producing credit, she clearly believes in the material, making Shaun convincingly fierce but still vulnerable and having our rooting interest from the get-go. Shaun isn’t special ops, or a trained survivalist, or a superhero bitten by a radioactive spider, and in a way, one doesn’t ever truly worry for her safety (she impressively scales a stone wall and a fance, while running around barefoot for a good chunk of the film without stubbing her toe, too). Refusing to be a victim, she’s just a smart, capable woman tapping into her primal rage and using her maternal instincts to fight back and turn the tables on her assailants with her desperation, wits and resources. Billy Burke brings a calm simmer to ringleader Eddie, who keeps telling Shaun that she’s impressive, and Richard Cabral is effectively loathsome and crazy-eyed as the heavily tatted, kill-happy maniac of the group, though he’s playing such an insane Latino ex-con stereotype that one expects him to finish each line of intimidation with “ese.”

Shaun is a mother and a force of nature when her and her family are threatened, but as character, she is slimly defined. This doesn’t really put a dent in the trashily entertaining proceedings, but giving its central heroine more meaty layers and backstory might have turned this watchable but disposable high-concept fare that is all concept into something more. All the same, Gabrielle Union commits physically and emotionally, and even brings conviction to the clap-worthy line, “You broke into the wrong house.” When these bad guys inevitably get what’s coming to them, it’s hard not to be a cheerleader for Shaun when she does every smart decision most characters fail to do in this type of movie. For one, she uses the sharp stem of a broken wine glass to protect her, and later on, she reverses a pick-up truck to mow one of them over. Union gives “Breaking In” most of its oomph, but even with a film that has no delusions of grandeur over what it wants to achieve, it all feels a little too familiar that one can’t help but think of other movies that did it better with much greater tension and invention. "Panic Room" aside, both 2016’s “Hush” and “Don’t Breathe” immediately spring to mind.

Grade: C +