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 4 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, 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.


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.”


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 sensors, 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 fence, 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 herself, 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 +

Friday, May 11, 2018

Getting That Degree: "Life of the Party" no ground-breaker but McCarthy and cast make it sweet and likable

Life of the Party (2018)
105 min., rated PG-13.

The trifecta of “Bridesmaids,” "The Heat," and “Spy” are still the yardsticks by which to measure any Melissa McCarthy vehicle. Her latest, back-to-school comedy “Life of the Party,” marks the third co-writing collaboration with husband writer-director Ben Falcone, and while often feeling slapped-together as a story being told, it mainly sticks together by the unsinkable joy and energy of its star, who brings out the best in a reliable supporting cast. McCarthy is irresistible, fully committed, and worth watching in anything, even when her slate of projects aren’t always as strong as she is, and the same goes for “Life of the Party.” It doesn’t try to break any new ground and, with a PG-13 rating, has no room for the brazen coarseness of 2014’s “Tammy” and 2016’s “The Boss,” but it’s good-hearted and sweeter than most.

Dropping off college senior daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon) at her Decatur University sorority house is hard enough on chipper, wholesome mother Deanna (Melissa McCarthy), but not even one minute after saying goodbye, husband Dan (Matt Walsh) tells her that he loves someone else and that he wants a divorce. Heartbroken and angry, Deanna decides to finish what she started by going back to Decatur University—her almost-alma mater since she dropped out when she became pregnant—and earn her archaeology degree. Re-enrolling at the same university as her daughter is, of course, too close for comfort for Maddie at first, but Maddie’s closest Theta Mu Gamma sisters, Helen (Gillian Jacobs), Amanda (Adria Arjona), and Debbie (Jessie Ennis), can’t get enough of Deanna, or as they later refer to her, D-Rock. Still reeling from her divorce and her husband remarrying real estate agent Marcie (Julie Bowen), Deanna is “down to clown” in college, but nothing, not even a decent, hunky frat boy like Jack (Luke Benward) falling for her, can get in her way to finally graduate and make a life change.

Cribbing general story elements from “Old School,” “The House Bunny” and, really, any underdog collegiate laffer, “Life of the Party” is routinely plotted, its narrative trajectory never in doubt, but it’s frequently amusing and likable, and one hopes Deanna will come out okay in the end. If Melissa McCarthy’s previous creations were often crass and volatile, verging on caricatures but never quite getting there with a talented performer like McCarthy knowing how to reel them in, Deanna is wonderfully positive and bubbly without any need for redemption. She wears her upbeat attitude on her sleeve (and in the form of a needlepoint “Proud Mom” sweatshirt), trades archaeology puns with her former classmate-turned-professor (Chris Parnell), and requests an oaky Chardonnay at a frat party. Able to instill humanity and make Deanna feel of this world and not in a five-minute sketch, while once again showcasing her ace timing for verbal and physical comedy, McCarthy is consistently winning and root-worthy.

With Melissa McCarthy leading the charge, more than a couple of supporting players make an ingratiating impression as well. There’s a genuine warmth between McCarthy and Molly Gordon (TV’s “Animal Kingdom”), as Deanna’s only daughter Maddie, and an easy rapport with a scene-stealing Maya Rudolph, whose real-life friendship with McCarthy carries over in playing Christine, who vicariously lives through her best friend’s second chance at college. Gillian Jacobs (Netflix’s “Love”) might seem a good fifteen years too old to be playing a college sophomore, but that’s addressed quickly, and she is endearingly eccentric and hilariously expressive as the mathematically challenged Helen, who has returned to school after being in a coma for eight years that has given her a social media fanbase. Jessie Ennis is a quirky delight, too, as Debbie, a Glenn Close fan who fears her kinesiology degree won’t help her later in life. Current SNL member Heidi Gardner is also an oddball standout as Deanna’s out-there roommate Leonor, who never sees the light of day, and Luke Benward shares a sweet, unforced chemistry with McCarthy as the sincerely smitten Jack, who may be less than half Deanna’s age but refreshingly has no ulterior motives with his frat brothers.

For the first ten minutes and change, “Life of the Party” sort of flops around after setting up Deanna’s heartbreaking divorce. There’s a ham sandwich joke between Deanna and her parents (the oddly cast Jacki Weaver and Stephen Root) that just feels like improv going on too long, and if that weren’t rocky enough, the father nearly shoots the family dog. Once Deanna takes her life back and moves into her dorm, the film quickly steadies its footing. A cringe-worthy public speaking assignment gets turned into a go-for-broke side-splitter involving a faulty podium, tissues, and a lot of sweat. An ‘80s-themed dance party is also quite a highlight, opening with Deanna and her three girls making their curtain-revealing entrance in “Dynasty” fashion and leading to her dropping a TV’s “Dallas” reference that goes over the heads of her peers and then confidently initiating a dance-off with mean girl Jennifer (Debby Ryan) to Sugarhill Gang’s “Apache (Jump on It).” The awkward revelation at a restaurant is completely contrived on a script level, but it has a crowd-pleasing payoff. On the flip side, a set-piece where Deanna and her new college-aged friends accidentally get high on marijuana-infused chocolate bark is a little stale and a few plot points, like Deanna’s archaeology professor being one of her fellow classmates back in the day, dangle without any real follow-through. On the whole, “Life of the Party” is a comedic trifle that entertains and has its heart in the right place, and that’s good enough when Melissa McCarthy knows how to get a party started.

Grade: B - 

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Without a Paddle: Painlessly mediocre "Overboard" redo can't stay afloat

Overboard (2018)
110 min., rated PG-13.

A minor classic from late director Garry Marshall, 1987's screwball romantic comedy “Overboard” still works as a cable mainstay due to the unfakable chemistry between Goldie Hawn, who played a snobby heiress falling overboard and losing her memory, and Kurt Russell, a widowed handyman who got back at her by convincing her of being his wife and mother to his three sons. The same probably won’t be said of the gender-reversed, Latin-flavored 2018 remake, which is bound to slip right out of memory. Director Rob Greenberg, who co-wrote the screenplay with Bob Fisher (2013’s “We’re the Millers”), does keep the story beats of this high-concept premise generally the same, making sense to why the original film’s screenwriter Leslie Dixon gets a story credit here. Gender-swapping aside and attempting to appeal to Spanish-speaking audiences, this riches-to-rags romantic comedy doesn’t bring anything too fresh or special, canceling itself out when neither the romance nor the comedy work too well. So mild, bland, and not all that funny, 2018’s “Overboard” is a painlessly mediocre trifle that the vivacious Anna Faris can’t even keep afloat.

Blue-collar working single mom Kate Sullivan (Anna Faris) holds down two jobs—delivering pizzas and cleaning carpets—to support her and her three daughters, while studying for her nursing degree. When she is hired to clean the carpets on the yacht of arrogant Mexican playboy Leonardo Montenegro (Eugenio Derbez), he berates Kate like one of his servants, refusing to pay her for her labor and then throwing her and her expensive equipment into the water. As Leonardo’s ship leaves the coastal Oregon town of Elk Cove, he falls off his yacht at night and washes ashore with amnesia. Fortuitously, Kate hears the news and, with a little encouragement from her best pal Theresa (Eva Longoria), concocts a plan in poetic justice, rushing into the hospital and claiming "Leo" to be her husband with false photos and documents. At first, Leo is shocked to find that he’s married, poor, sterile and a former drunk. Then, as Kate forces him to keep house and work for Theresa’s husband’s construction company so she can take time to study more for her nursing exam, Leo turns into a decent, domesticated guy. Can Kate keep the lie going, and will she actually fall in love with her fake husband?

By allowing Kate to have power over Leonardo rather than the other way around (and everyone around her just going in on the ruse at Leonardo's expense, no questions asked), “Overboard” seems more in touch with the 21st century's feminist turnaround than the dated, admittedly sexist approach of the 1987 film, coming off less creepy and mean-spirited than it could have. TV director Rob Greenberg does bring a light touch to the material, save for a few moments of broad, sitcommy slapstick involving Leonardo's fish-out-of-water hijinks with a wheelbarrow and a pot of spaghetti sauce, and has fun riffing on telenovelas. Not only are the cooks at the pizza place where Kate works fans of such Spanish soap operas, but the integral subplot with Leonardo’s scheming sister Magdalena (Cecilia Suárez) doing whatever she must to become the heiress to their ailing father’s (Fernando Luján) company has the tonally melodramatic yet farcical tone of a bona fide telenovela. There’s also a throwaway reference to the 1987 film, as a doctor at the hospital recalls there being a similar case of amnesia happening to a pretty young lady in the ‘80s, but that's about as sly and vaguely clever as things ever get.

While Anna Faris is always likable and charming, even here as Kate, one still wishes the script wasn’t suboptimal to her daffy comedic talents and hadn’t relied on her to be the comedic straight man, as it were. Starring in sleeper hits, like 2013’s “Instructions Not Included” and 2017’s “How to Be a Latin Lover,” that did good business in his home country, Mexican superstar Eugenio Derbez is talented in playing a scoundrel who only wants to drink and party with babes, and his arc from prince-to-pauper-and-back tracks better than not. With that said, Derbez is so good at playing Leonardo as a prick that when Kate and amnesia-stricken Leonardo must finally get together because it’s required that they do (and because their names match the actors of the star-crossed lovers in "Titanic"), Faris and Derbez have not cooked up any kind of detectable spark to make the viewer buy them as amorous partners. The supporting cast is engaging enough, Eva Longoria and Mel Rodriguez bringing more comic flair than expected in obligatory roles as Kate’s friends and pizza shop owners Theresa and Bobby, as do Josh Segarra, Omar Chaparro, Jesus Ochoa, and Adrian Uribe as Bobby's construction crew who mock Leonardo's "lady hands." Swoosie Kurtz also breezes by in a few scenes as Kate’s flaky mother Grace, who can’t watch her three granddaughters because she's finally living her dream as a community theater actress.

There’s a certain amiability to “Overboard” that it's difficult to scrounge up any vehement hatred for it, but the laughs are wanting and the woeful lack of chemistry—comedic and romantic—between Anna Faris and Eugenio Derbez does not help what is allegedly a romantic comedy. When Leonardo finally becomes the working, cooking family man Kate needs, it’s where the film gets a little bit sweet, but as the premise must sluggishly go through the motions without actually earning the outcome, it all just feels forced, plainly predictable and prefabricated. If Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell made their unlikely romance work in the original, Faris and Derbez can’t even fake it well for the same results. It’s palatable enough to go down with ease, but 2018’s “Overboard” is too tepid and forgettable to even have legs as a lightweight time-waster on cable. Those jaded by remakes might have a right to be this time.


Friday, May 4, 2018

Baby Blues: "Tully" perceptive, acerbically funny and empathetically observed

Tully (2018)
94 min., rated R.

Between 2007’s “Juno” and 2011’s “Young Adult,” screenwriter Diablo Cody (2015’s “Ricki and the Flash”) and director Jason Reitman (2014’s “Men, Women & Children”) have forged a path that makes sense in its maturation, leading them to their latest collaboration, “Tully.” They have created a spiritual trilogy of sorts, where the first two films respectively centralized a teenage girl dealing with an unexpected pregnancy and a young woman past her high school prime who sneered at babies, and now in their third pairing, a woman navigates the joys and pains of motherhood. Cody’s hilariously honest voice and sharp ear for dialogue are distinctly her own in “Tully,” and Charlize Theron (back again after her deliciously biting and uncompromising work in “Young Adult”) brilliantly conveys Cody’s words from the page with side-splitting wit and palpable devastation. Only somewhere in the third act does the film make a choice with a narrative reveal that many movies have employed before, and while “Tully” didn’t quite need it and casts everything previously seen in a darker light, the film still holds up beautifully with a true melancholy underneath all the barbed humor.

Days before delivering her third child, pregnant 40-year-old wife and mother Marlo (Charlize Theron) feels like she is drowning. Her working husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), helps 5-year-old son Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) and 8-year-old daughter Sarah (Lia Frankland) with their homework before he nestles in bed to play video games, but as a mom, Marlo never stops working. Jonah, who is somewhere on the autism spectrum but undiagnosed, has kicking-and-screaming meltdowns on the way to school after Mom brushes his skin each morning to calm him for the day. Before Marlo gives birth to her third child, her wealthy brother, Craig (Mark Duplass), offers to hire her a night nanny; she isn’t keen on the idea at first, but once experiencing sleep deprivation with a newborn and more stress than she can handle, Marlo accepts help. Enter Tully (Mackenzie Davis), an earthy, bright-eyed 26-year-old who has the nurturing and maternal instincts without having any children of her own. After the first night where Marlo goes up to bed, Tully puts baby Mia to bed, cleans up the house, and even bakes cupcakes. Tully might be a godsend, but she can’t stay forever.

Directed with an understated, observational eye by Jason Reitman, “Tully” is a perceptive, acerbically funny, empathetically observed slice-of-life of a middle-class New York suburban mother’s postpartum exhaustion. More bittersweet than some sugar-coated, rose-colored ode to motherhood, the film pulls no punches in capturing the messy, unglamorous minutiae of parenthood, whether it’s the sight of a bag of breastmilk falling over and spilling on to the counter, or Marlo being told by a coffee shop patron that the decaf coffee drink she orders still contains trace amounts of caffeine, or Marlo trying to lose her baby weight and catch up to a college-aged jogger. A montage of the grind of being a mother is also so real and funny in the taxing emotional drainage Marlo is experiencing, from pumping milk to dropping her iPhone on her baby’s head to the sleepless nights to dropping dirty diapers into a diaper genie. When Marlo meets with Jonah’s private elementary school principal, who keeps calls him “quirky” and suggests that the school might not be the best fit for the atypical Jonah, how Marlo reacts to that word being thrown around almost sounds like writer Diablo Cody calling out her naysayers who claimed her snarky wordplay in “Juno” to be the same thing. Besides all of the uncomfortable truths behind child-rearing, Cody and director Reitman also earn so many quietly poignant moments of compassion toward its characters, like one scene where a teacher calms Jonah in the school hallway by having him pretend he's a tree and another where Marlo, after feeling renewed, helps her daughter get through a karaoke performance of Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" at a birthday party.

Charlize Theron is dynamite as Marlo, ravishing the role without an ounce of vanity and never trading in authenticity to glamorize motherhood (for what it’s worth, the actress reportedly gained 50 pounds). Not too far off from Theron’s Mavis Gary in “Young Adult,” Marlo has a prickly, sardonic side that is more welcome than off-putting, referring to her body as a “relief map for a war-torn country” or telling someone that she feels “like an abandoned trash barge.” When Tully does arrive, Marlo begins thinking back to the person she used to be, living in Brooklyn as a free spirit bursting with vitality, but as a mother who has just given birth a third time, taking on such a heavy load puts Marlo even closer to the edge of having a nervous breakdown. As for Tully, she is like a sparkling breath of fresh air, and Mackenzie Davis is wonderfully offbeat and magnetic with eyes that look into one’s soul. Her Tully is idealized, never even judging Marlo when she walks in on the beleagured mom watching guilty-pleasure reality show “Gigolos.” She is like a magical fairy-godmother figure with a wise, cultured, down-to-earth, energetic quality—Marlo says, “You’re like a book of fun facts for unpopular fourth graders”—but there is a reason for that and to divulge more would spoil the surprise of how Tully evolves. Although Theron and Davis have electric chemistry and are the show, another key supporting role written and acted with nuance is Marlo’s husband Drew, whom she lovingly compares to “the bench on a carousel,” played by a low-key Ron Livingston.

Tully changes Marlo’s life, but it is a journey, sprinkled with dream imagery of mermaids, that sidesteps the obvious. Early on, Marlo balks at the idea of hiring a night nanny, comparing it to one of those melodramatic Nanny From Hell movies on Lifetime, which the film could have become but never does. What Diablo Cody builds toward is daring and handled more delicately and believably than it could have been, recontextualizing everything we thought we knew. In a less well-written film, Cody and Reitman could have lost their way with the path the film takes, and while it feels like a bit of a jarring bait and switch in the moment, it never cheapens anything. Without coming off trite, “Tully” is about the importance of self-care, even when you are a parent putting yourself last. In the end, this is like a fairy tale true to life with real-life observations. It’s tart and true, warm and moving but unsentimental.

Grade: B +