Red Notice

Release: Friday, November 5, 2021 (limited) 

👀 Netflix

Written by: Rawson Marshall Thurber

Directed by: Rawson Marshall Thurber 

Starring: Dwayne Johnson; Ryan Reynolds; Gal Gadot; Ritu Arya; Chris Diamantopoulos 

Distributor: Netflix

 

 

**/*****

A red notice is associated with something of very high value, such as an art thief of international notoriety. It’s what INTERPOL uses to identify and/or extradite highly wanted suspects. If you haven’t heard, there’s one out for writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber, who is guilty of making a very expensive heist comedy featuring Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds and Gal Gadot feel cheap and lazy.

Originality is not the issue, although (and with due respect) it never has been with Thurber, who has set his sights on pure escapism and is now a three-time Dwayne Johnson collaborator. As his filmography has shown he’s a guy who likes to rub shoulders with big-name talent. But I’m not sure he’s ever rested on the laurels of his cast quite in the way he does here. Red Notice is expensive but creatively bankrupt — a two-plus-hour conveyor belt of farcical episodes that are forgotten as soon as they happen, all capped off by one of the most asinine endings you’ve seen in a while.

As the Cliff’s Notes prologue establishes, thousands of years ago some dude named Marc Antony gifted three bejeweled eggs to the war-mongering Cleopatra as a wedding gift and a symbol of his “devotion.” Don’t worry too much about brushing up on your Ptolemaic history though; this thing is mostly just jokes and good-looking actors being captured in the perfect light. In the present day, an Egyptian billionaire thinks it would be neat if he replicated the symbolic gesture for his daughter on her wedding day. Whoever can recover all three eggs and deliver them on the big day will become a very rich man or woman indeed. 

The leading trio has certainly ensured their own personal wealth, commanding $20 million a head, but we as viewers (or armchair critics) aren’t exactly enriched by watching reheated performances from other, better movies. This is the kind of pablum that tends to cool even the hottest of Hollywood celebs. Reynolds and The Rock do alright with the odd-couple dynamic but their characters are paper thin. Gadot fares better and seems like the only one who’s trying to do something more fun with her enigmatic character The Bishop, less a femme fatale as a rogue in rouge.

Thurber, who may never set the world on fire, knows how to make a good time happen but Red Notice finds him struggling to make a $200 million production come to life. Though DP Markus Förderer injects some energy with the rinse-and-repeat FPV drone shots that link us to every important place — we start in a priceless museum in Rome, make a daring prison escape in Russia, crash a masquerade ball in Valencia and dig into the rich history of Argentina’s underground, Nazi-stuff-stashing tunnels — the temperature in every room, or outside of them for that matter, remains the same. There is no tension to any of the developments, no significant stakes. But if you are looking for an obnoxious Ed Sheeran cameo, boy do I have the movie for you. 

The Bishop and her pawn

Moral of the Story: I was actually looking forward to Red Notice when it was first announced. Those expectations weren’t anything wild, but I also was not anticipating something so machine-processed. So for me it’s hard to overlook even the minor flaws. I very much doubt I’ll be wasting my time on the two sequels that are soon coming. I’ve done pretty well avoiding most of the crap that floats around on Netflix but this time their cute little algorithm got me. Looks like I’m the chump. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 118 mins.

Quoted: “Do you know who I am? I was in The Game of Thrones! I’m Ed Sheeran, bitch!” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: www.impawards.com; www.imdb.com

The Scarlett Johansson Project — #9

One of the things that I really like about, you know, not setting any rules as to how I go about these actor profile things is that chronology is never an issue. I can jump and skip around in an actor’s filmography as if time never mattered (this post’s belated publishing is proof that it indeed doesn’t here on Thomas J). Picking and choosing roles more or less at random has been liberating. 

The time has finally come for a healthy discussion of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut (and thus far his only feature directing credit). Back in 2013 the amiable and ever-busy native Angeleno broke the ice with a surprisingly clear-eyed look at the sacrifices and benefits of relationships, taking a modern, sex-positive approach to the subject and the nuances thereof — the corrosive effects of pornography and pop culture on one’s expectations of real sex; the difference between genuine, emotional connection and the thrill of infatuation. 

Despite the film taking its title from the fictional and life-long womanizer Don Juan, a name used to pin down the general attitude of men devoted to the Lothario lifestyle, Levitt’s direction balances baser instincts with more complex feelings in a way that satisfies far more than it feels manipulative and cheesy. The cast is small but fantastic and, predictably, does great work with well-written characters.

Scarlett Johannson as Barbara Sugarman in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon

Role Type: Supporting

Premise: A New Jersey guy dedicated to his family, friends, and church, develops unrealistic expectations from watching porn and works to find happiness and intimacy with his potential true love. (IMDb)

Character Background: Don Jon is a film with a strong personality. With it being set in a part of the country that also boasts a strong (some may say abrasive) personality, it’s no surprise the characters are going to let you know what’s on their mind, usually by yelling. Barbara Sugarman is a good example, a strong cuppa who isn’t afraid of dropping a few f-bombs in a sentence for proper emphasis. And really everything about her is emphatic: girl talks loud, walks fast and chews gum for the work-out. 

Barbara is a pretty shallow individual. She’s all about the artifice, how something appears rather than how it feels. One of the things that needs to be made clear is that Barbara is no villain, despite the character arc eventually pushing the viewer’s sympathies far more to Jon’s side. Not for nothing, she is very up-front about some of her principles. Don’t lie and everything will be all good. When Jon violates that simple rule, we understand her anger. What’s less reasonable is her expectation that relationships aren’t about work, it’s about comfort and pampering. Fine if you’re a Royal but in reality, at street-level, it takes two to make an effort and it would seem Barbara is putting in the wrong effort, or at least diverting her resources to the wrong cause.

Ultimately she is walking on a different side of the film’s thematic avenue. Unable to accept a man who prefers doing his own cleaning and taking care of his space, believing talking house chores is “unsexy,” Barbara fetishizes her knight in shining armor, attempts to contrive it in the same way Jon’s carefully curated collection of pornos has given him a far too specific code for stimulation. 

What she brings to the movie: Temptation. Sex appeal is largely the point of the character, though Barbara’s perfectly manicured image is also symptomatic of something rotten. Scarlett Johansson is of course the quintessential blonde bombshell but as this feature has gone to show she’s a talented actor capable of conveying depth across a diverse range of roles. So it’s almost anti-Johansson to take on a role that’s the very definition of the cliché of beauty being only skin deep. 

As a native New Yorker she also makes the thick Jersey accent easier to buy. It’s still affected, but is nowhere near as odd to hear as it is from her California-born co-star. 

In her own words: “I had romantic ideas when I was a kid. I don’t know, I always liked people who didn’t like me. I always wanted what I couldn’t have, and I’m still in the process of figuring out why that is. It is something about our own ego, I think, it strokes our ego, the idea of the chase, the challenge. When you actually think about it realistically, would you ever want to be with someone who doesn’t want to be with you?”

Key Scene: An interesting moment, this one. Is this invasion of privacy? Or is that beside the point? Healthy debate time! Sound off in the comments. 

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work):

***/*****


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Photo credits: www.imdb.com; interview excerpt courtesy of ScreenSlam 

The Scarlett Johansson Project — #8

Well what do we have here? I admit this is an unlikely way to return, but hey it’s Halloween and this I think is as close as it gets to horror when it comes to Scarlett Johansson’s filmography. Sure, there’s the word ‘ghost’ in Ghost in the Shell. She played the luminous Janet Leigh in Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock (2012). And I already covered her role in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (check it out here if you like). 

But my mind was made up after watching Chris Stuckmann’s entertaining YouTube review of this cult classic from the early 2000s, a title I’ve definitely heard bandied about and (I think) typically in the context of “stupidest movie ever.”

Yep. My job today is not to defend against such sleights. This is a mercilessly silly movie. Some poor sap gets punched to death by a giant tarantula. An enlarged jumping spider zip lines down a wire and you hear it going “weeeee!” while an earlier scene finds a cat battling one of the first mutated buggers within the walls of a house, leaving cartoonish imprints within the dry wall à la Tom and Jerry. Elsewhere, Scarlett Johansson tases her boyfriend in the crotch while David Marquette must negotiate enraged arachnids and an acrophobic conspiracy theorist (played by 90s holdover Doug E. Doug) atop a cell phone tower. This thing is death by a thousand giggles, I tell ya. 

But I would be lying to you if I said I didn’t have a blast with it. Maybe that’s because I had Chris’ review in my head; campiness is one of those qualities you’re either going to love or hate, and it’s a hard mixture to get right. I think Eight Legged Freaks gets it right, even though I’m not exactly what you would call a creature feature expert or connoisseur of all things camp. So much winking at the audience, so much tongue firmly planted in cheek. And so, so much spider web and guts. 

Unfortunately, not a whole lot of Scarlett Johansson but she does have a couple of really fun scenes and it’s enough for me to justify this eighth installment, with only two more to go. We’ll wrap up the SJP in December, which will be exactly a year after when I was originally going to finish it up. Better late than never, right? 

Scarlett Johansson as Ashley Parker in Ellory Elkayem’s Eight Legged Freaks 

Role Type: Supporting

Premise: Venomous spiders get exposed to a noxious chemical that causes them to grow to monumental proportions. (IMDb)

Character Background: As the teenage daughter of a small-town sheriff (Kari Wuhrer), Ashley can’t catch a break. Her friends circle in particular is a bone of contention with her mom, and her bad boy boyfriend Bret (Matt Czuchry) doesn’t exactly feel the love from his father, incidentally the town Mayor (Leon Rippy), which enables him to run wild. When push comes to shove during a date one afternoon, Ashley takes advantage of the fact her mom has various self-defense weapons lying about the house. She may not like what her mom does for a living, or care much about anything but today she cares about the convenience.

Her ennui-fueled, punk-ish attitude is soon mellowed when the town gets overrun by oversized spiders who have been exposed to toxic chemicals. The creepy crawlers, once the prized jewels of a local collector named Joshua (Tom Noonan), eventually make their way to the Parkers’ house, where Ashley has a first-hand encounter with one of the hairy bastards. The ensuing frantic action largely loses sight of her, the cluttered plot spinning off to address the various confrontations town-wide, including the self-exiled Chris (David Marquette)’s attempt to free a cocooned Aunt Gladys (Eileen Ryan), and Bret’s wayward trip into the mines where the mighty female Orb Weaver is casually liquefying its victims for easier digestion.

What she brings to the movie: A burgeoning affinity for spiders? At just 17 years old, with already 11 films under her belt and a good 10 years before taking up the mantle of Natasha Romanoff a.k.a. Black Widow, Scarlett Johansson would come face-to-face with a bunch of mutant spiders. She also has played a character named Charlotte (in Lost in Translation), which is also the name of the barn spider in the children’s book Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. Freakish, barely-even-coincidences aside, Johansson’s limited performance here ranks among the film’s best. Not a high bar when this isn’t a movie about the characters. Still, she has confidence and swagger, and easily adapts to the goofy, cheesy atmosphere that Eight Legged Freaks emphasizes. Plus her bad-girl persona gives us a glimpse of the kind of edgier roles she would later take on. 

In her own words: [on being “cocooned”] “Oh, it was awful. I have Dean [Devlin] in the background talking, like, ‘Yeah, it’s gonna be fun!’ And everyone else is running around, and meanwhile no one is paying attention to me. I’m like stuck on this wall for hours.”

Key Scene: Apologies for this being a fan edit but it’s the only clip I could find of Ashley’s big moment. I actually kind of love the goofy tribute to Alien in the face-to-face. Also, ew. 

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 

***/*****


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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

Free Guy

Release: Friday, August 13, 2021

👀 Theater

Written by: Matt Lieberman; Zak Penn

Directed by: Shawn Levy

Starring: Ryan Reynolds; Taika Waititi; Joe Keery; Jodi Comer; Lil Rel Howery

 

 

 

***/*****

Following more the logic of the heart than the brain, Free Guy is a whacky but entertaining circus of big visual effects, videogame Easter eggs, and shameless (more like proud) product placement for parent company Disney, which now owns the world. It’s also the perfect environment for Ryan Reynolds to flourish, one in which cutting loose and just doing you is the whole point. Or was supposed to be!

The movie’s big draw is of course Ryan Reynolds doing his typical Ryan Reynolds thing, but this is also literally a love letter to gamers and coders. Being knowledgeable about technical stuff will surely elevate the experience though by no means is it a requisite. Free Guy takes a surprisingly high concept approach to a basic template. This is all about a guy (lowercase ‘g’) pursuing his dream girl, a pretty classic convention often obfuscated by all the chaos. Very little here is designed to be stored in the long-term memory. Instead director Shawn Levy and his writing team work overtime to stimulate the pleasure center of the brain as often as possible, injecting silliness, cartoonish violence and a surprising amount of heart into one hyperactive summer blockbuster.

In an open-world game called Free City, Guy (Reynolds) wakes up each morning in a Groundhog Day loop of obliviousness to what this place really is and his role in it. His best friend is Buddy (Lil Rel Howery — Get Out; Bird Box), the cheerful security guard at the bank where Guy works as a teller. Neither has a clue that their lives are a programmed simulation. One day on his way to work he passes a woman humming a Mariah Carey tune and is smitten. He pursues her but unfortunately that train goes off the rails. However something profound has changed within him.

Molotov Girl’s the name and “Leveling Up” is the game he must play if he is to impress her. So of course the eternally upbeat and decreasingly naive Blue Shirt Guy plays along, but he won’t gain experience by doing what most players do — holding NPCs (non-player characters) hostage, blowing things up, generally being lawless savages. No, he’s going to do good deeds, a strategy that earns him Molotov Girl’s respect and a cult following. In fact he fast becomes a “player” of interest for many throughout the world plugged into Free City, represented in a series of stilted cameos by real YouTube celebrities and gamers.

His increasing autonomy also attracts the attention of game developer Antwan (Taika Waititi), for whom the brilliant code writers Keys (Stranger Things‘ Joe Keery) and Millie (Jodie Comer — Killing Eve; Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker) work as dogs for their master. I mentioned before how very little is going to be remembered for long, and if you’re a fan of the Kiwi comedian that’s definitely a good thing. He’s actually pretty awful as the movie’s one-note villain whose whole deal is stealing other people’s work and being as insufferable as possible. In fairness, the character isn’t written to be anything more but his acting is of a quality where you suspect the director didn’t have the cohones to edit his Oscar-winner.

Maybe the director didn’t feel like meddling because he has so much on his plate. Free Guy is arguably over-ambitious, particularly considering a sequel has already been green-lit. What’s going to be left to tell? Yet for all that it is burdened with, the story moves pretty fluidly as it hops in and out of the game, an anarchic environment inspired by the likes of GTA, Fortnite and The Sims, with spirited input from the young Keery and Comer keeping us invested in the affairs of the real world. Concurrent to the Guy plot is a heist involving precious data which could incriminate Antwan and potentially save Free City from his future nefarious plans. To get there, Millie and Keys need to access a secret location called The Stash, and they could really use some help.

Combining the playground aesthetic of Ready Player One, the voyeurism of The Truman Show and The Matrix‘s march toward salvation, Free Guy is a Frankenstein of elements and homages that somehow ends up morphing into its own ridiculous thing. I mean, where else are you going to see Reynolds as an evil David Hasselhoff avatar whose coding is disturbingly incomplete and whose face is super-imposed on an actual bodybuilder? Okay, so I lied. That’s one thing you’re never going to forget from this movie.

Lucky Guy

Moral of the Story: Huge entertainment value trumps logical storytelling and one seriously annoying villain. Because I am a big fan of Ryan Reynolds’ comedic act Free Guy is probably my favorite blockbuster of the year. It’s far from perfect but it is really fun and super easy to get along with, even for non-gamers such as myself. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 115 mins.

Quoted: “Is this what recreational drugs feel like?”

Check out the pretty sweet new music video for Mariah Carey’s Fantasy here! 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent o the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; 20th Century Studios 

Together Together

Release: Friday, April 23, 2021 

👀 Theater

Written by: Nikole Beckwith

Directed by: Nikole Beckwith

Starring: Ed Helms; Patti Harrison

 

 

 

 

****/*****

More than an acting showcase for its two leads, Nikole Beckwith’s romantic comedy Together Together is a wonderfully subversive effort that reconfigures the way we look at intimate relationships and how they can be formed.

If not wholesale reinvention — structurally this is still beholden to a formula — her sophomore feature film, following 2015’s psychological drama Stockholm, Pennsylvania, proves there are still nooks and crannies to explore within an overcrowded genre rife with trite titles. Written and directed by Beckwith, the story tells of a pair of strangers brought closer together through the shared experience of a surrogate pregnancy and how they reconcile the ephemeral nature of their connection. So the movie builds from an already intriguing and specific place. When you add in the sensational performances from Ed Helms and transgender actor Patti Harrison, you have something pretty special.

The film’s penchant for surprising you begins with the characters. In a career-best performance Helms plays Matt, a 40-year-old app developer who wants to start a family but the pieces just haven’t come together. What reads on paper or might come across in another rom-com as a potential sad-sack is brought to life by Helms as an average Joe with an unyielding optimism that makes you gravitate to him quickly, warts and all. Matt is undeniably an awkward dude, but his bouts of overbearingness and invasiveness come from genuine caring and excitement. His confidence and sense of purpose separate the character somewhat from the archetypal drifter or forever bitter man-child. It’s the fact his search for fulfillment involves having offspring rather than hooking up that makes him a rare breed of male rom-com lead.

Similarly, the pregnancy does not define the woman. Matching the established funnyman stride-for-stride, and in many instances besting him, is Patti Harrison in her début lead role. As Anna, the relative newcomer brings an authenticity that seems effortless. She, a 26-year-old single woman working as a barista, is of an obviously different social sphere and, less obviously but more significantly, a different background than Matt. Her own past is marked by controversial decisions that have led to strained familial relationships. In contrast to Matt’s to-a-fault enthusiasm Anna is more enigmatic and downbeat, not morose or depressive but rather more emotionally conservative despite the chaos under the surface. She also has aspirations beyond helping Matt fulfill a dream, using the money she will make from the transaction to fund her college tuition.

While Beckwith’s story is most interested in the awkward tension between her two principles, she also has an eye on external factors, such as the social norms that compel outsiders to speculate, judge, assume and/or in some way push back against something they view as weird or even amoral. In supporting roles (not all of which are necessarily supportiveTogether Together features the likes of Fred Melamed (In A World. . .; A Serious Man) and Nora Dunn (Pineapple Express; Bruce Almighty) as Matt’s parents, the latter the most overt representation of disapproval. Tellingly, Anna’s parents never appear on screen.

Conspicuous meta commentary on infamous Hollywood perverts notwithstanding, this is a charitable movie that considers a lot of different perspectives, and those who aren’t necessarily supporting the team aren’t made out to be villainous. Others, if not fully-realized characters, are at least enjoyable to be around: Tig Notaro warmly plays a therapist who monitors the not-couple’s psychological and emotional progression across the weeks, while Sufe Bradshaw (Murder Mystery; VEEP) as an irritable technician and Julio Torres, in his first feature film appearance as Anna’s self-destructive coworker Jules, are here to kick the comedy factor up a few notches.

What’s impressive is the way Beckwith keeps the parameters of a more traditional romantic plot in place (the awkward dinner, the moving in together, the “break-up” and reconciliation) while never losing sight of the unique stakes. Rather than feeling like lazy checkpoints the tropes feel entirely plausible and, with the exception of a couple of overly quirky scenes, natural.

Delivered in three distinct acts turned appropriately into trimesters, Together Together opens with an interview as Matt vets Anna as a potential surrogate. These candid minutes are the first uncertain moves in what ends up becoming a complex, difficult and ultimately rewarding dance that the two characters engage in on a journey from strangers to something more than friends but less than lovers. The tricky part is not getting too emotionally attached. As it turns out, that might be even harder for us as viewers than it is for the participants.

We love Lamp.

Moral of the Story: Short, sweet, and as poignant as it can be funny, Together Together doesn’t set a new standard but it comes with a level of humanity that feels really rare in the genre. Even better, there is such great balance from a writing standpoint, neither character or their concerns overshadowing the other. Nikole Beckwith’s compassionate, sensitive direction is not to be taken for granted. Now streaming on Hulu. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 85 mins. 

Quoted: “It’s weird to be perceived as hopeless in this moment when I’m feeling incredibly hopeful.”

Get a taste of the meet-awkward in the Official Trailer from Bleecker Street here! 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; www.nytimes.com 

Jungle Cruise

Release: Friday, July 30, 2021

👀 Theater

Written by: Michael Green; Glenn Ficarra; John Requa

Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra

Starring: Dwayne Johnson; Emily Blunt; Jesse Plemons; Jack Whitehall; Paul Giamatti; Édgar Ramírez

 

 

***/*****

The long, predictable meanders of the river are more enjoyable when you’ve got a good crew to float with. Such is the case with Jungle Cruise, a family-friendly adventure deeply indebted to the charms of Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt, playing a mismatched pair on a dangerous mission deep into the heart of the Amazon circa the early 1900s.

Jungle Cruise remains rooted in classic adventure tropes even as the whole kit-and-caboodle swings wide of classic status and despite the expensive, flashy CGI ballast. There’s a map, a hidden treasure, cursed conquistadors (the film at its most unfortunate, casting a slew of Latinx actors, most notably Édgar Ramírez, and extras in thankless background roles smothered in digital Disneymagic), a bad guy after the same treasure, and even a wisp of romance, although this proves to be about the only thing Johnson and Blunt fail at as a team. Less trope-y is the characterization of the aforementioned competition, Jesse Plemons in fine bizarre form as a largely submarine-bound German memorably seen consulting a swarm of bees on navigational strategy.

On strategy, helming this old-school-feeling rig is director Jaume Collet-Serra, who sets aside his more violent filmmaking tendencies in favor of a breezy, good-natured bit of escapism where the exploration (and exploitation) of character foibles and differences outweigh more tangible narrative concerns. The plot finds Blunt’s danger-courting, pants-wearing Dr. Lily Houghton traveling to the Brazilian jungle in search of a riverboat captain willing to take her and her brother MacGregor (a third-wheeling but really fun Jack Whitehall) to the secret location of the Tears of the Moon, a mythical tree whose incandescent pink petals she believes could change the course of modern medicine and, thus, her status amongst her peers who all too happily laugh a lady out of any serious discussion. Meanwhile, Plemons’ Prince Joachim is hoping to get there first, thinking it could change Germany’s fortunes in the Great War.

Johnson’s Frank Wolff, a down-on-his-luck river guide with more puns in the bank than dollar bills, is motivated to journey down the Mighty Amazon due to his increasing debt to port manager Nilo (a haggard-looking Paul Giamatti). Naturally, personalities and philosophies clash immediately and about as comically as MacGregor’s wardrobe choices do with the climate. Along the way a mutual respect for one another is eventually gained. However, trust turns out to be more of an uphill battle for the Houghtons, who understandably tire of Frank’s penchant for pranking. As it turns out, there is more to Frank than deception and a pet jaguar.

Jungle Cruise is the latest in a line of movies “inspired by” real theme park rides. Like the actual Disney World attraction itself, for maximum enjoyment it helps to not get too curious about how the machinations work. Once you look over the sides and see the rails guiding the thing along a lot of the fun tends to get lost. Jungle Cruise is a cash grab but there are certainly more cynical ones out there.

So quiet you can’t even hear the critics chirping

Moral of the Story: I’m not sure I should be admitting this, but I actually got to experience this movie in an empty theater. Much to my surprise, it didn’t make much of a difference. Jungle Cruise, like many a Marvel movie, just seems like it would play better to a packed house. And it probably still does. Yet it speaks to the charisma of the two leads that I had a good time anyway. Plus the beer probably didn’t hurt (Señor Krunkles IPA — pretty sweet, hoppy and fruity. Made for a great pairing.)  

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 127 mins.

Quoted: “I had a girlfriend once, she was cross-eyed. Didn’t work out. We could never see eye to eye!”

Check out the creepy-crawly jungle-brawly trailer here!

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.actionra.com 

Werewolves Within

Release: Friday, July 2, 2021

👀 Theater

Written by: Mishna Wolff

Directed by: Josh Ruben

Starring: Sam Richardson; Milana Vayntrub; Wayne Duvall; Rebecca Henderson

 

 

 

 

 

***/*****

A little niceness goes a long way in Werewolves Within, a new horror-comedy from director Josh Ruben and writer Mishna Wolff. That’s a very welcomed message right now, though not one I was expecting to take away from a werewolf-themed horror-comedy.

Werewolves Within is an oddball film with a big heart that mixes horror and comedy elements together pretty well, if not always smoothly. I’d say the mix is more like 60/40, in favor of the laughter. The story it tells is actually an adaption of a 2016 virtual reality game that requires participants to piece together clues to figure out who among them (i.e. the crazy townsfolk) is the literal wolf in human clothing. On screen the concept comes to life as an Agatha Christie murder mystery to be solved by the underdog squad of Parks & Rec, with maybe some assistance from the Trailer Park Boys. As such, the movie isn’t as interested in the werewolves (sorry, lycanthropes) and their mythology as it is in the human residents and the baggage they carry.

Set in the fictional Vermont village of Beaverfield, Werewolves Within follows friendly forest ranger Finn Wheeler (Sam Richardson — The Tomorrow War; VEEP) as he digs into the mystery surrounding some strange goings-on around the sleepy community. Having left his previous post behind due to some mishap, Finn appears on the scene as a nice guy who may be out of his depth but genuinely wants to help. However he’ll need some himself if he wants to get to the bottom of what’s going on in this cold and isolated place, with dead bodies turning up under porches and inexplicable damage done to town property.

The movie kicks off spiritedly as he meets his first friend in the local mail delivery person Cecily (Milana Vayntrub, a.k.a. AT&T’s spokesperson Lily). She happily agrees to show him (us) the town and its interesting assortment of characters. The ensuing cavalcade is pretty in-your-face weird: Trisha (Michaela Watkins) wants you to like her bar soap sculptures as much as she does while her hubby Pete (Michael Chernus) has a side hustle in being a creep. A block later or something town mechanics Gwen (Sarah Burns — Barry; I Love You, Man) and Marcus (George Basil) are having a very public, very verbally graphic spat, and soon after that we’re intruding upon Devon (Cheyenne Jackson) and his husband Joaquim (Harvey Guillén — What We Do in the Shadows – TV; The Internship) as they get their yoga on in their private studio.

Subtlety is not this movie’s strong suit. I fully admit I may be susceptible to some serious post-COVID cynicism — it’s going to happen with many a movie going forward, I’m sure — but let’s not forget how opportunistic Hollywood writers can be, either. The pandemic is the mother of all elephants in the room, and so it becomes difficult not to associate the supernatural threat and the panic and speculation it causes — “It’s a possum!” — with certain real-world traumas. Or the finger-pointing and spear-chucking of opinions as everyone huddles together at the Beaverfield Inn after a power outage as a simulation of the grenade-pin tension of our locked-down lives. Of course, not everything is symbolic but a lot of it feels that way.

We quickly learn that everyone in town has been on edge even before Finn arrived, not because of some clawed beast but due to a proposed oil pipeline that Sam Parker (Wayne Duvall), a big man with big pockets (and big guns) wants to run through the area. The development could bring the town much needed revenue, but it would also intrude upon national park land. His presence particularly bothers Dr. Ellis (Rebecca Henderson), an environmentalist who lacks people skills in the extreme and has this knack for appearing out of nowhere. Their ideological differences form the destabilizing base upon which this fun but familiar whodunnit builds off of, with red herrings, red stains and rednecks all playing a part in the misdirection.

Fortunately, and I reiterate that this is technically an adaptation of a game, none of the Real World stuff is brought to bear in a particularly confrontational way. Werewolves Within is, for the most part, a laidback, low-stakes movie that is more interested in being silly than serious. This underdog tale may not make you howl with laughter or wince in horror but its entertainment value is surprisingly solid and positive, its characters deliciously unhinged. Less a battle of good and evil as it is one between kindness and mean-spiritedness.

That’s . . . uh, not kindling . . .

Moral of the Story: A whodunnit that goes through some growing pains to become a great deal of fun thanks to its OTT, zany characters. Plot-wise you’ve seen it before but there’s a surprising message of unity and compassion that I just was not expecting.

Rated: R

Running Time: 97 mins.

Quoted: “Well . . . the roads are effed and there’s something wrong with the generator.”

Peep the Official Trailer from IFC Films here!

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.slashfilm.com 

Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard

Release: Wednesday, June 16, 2021

👀 Theater

Written by: Tom O’Connor; Brandon Murphy; Phillip Murphy

Directed by: Patrick Hughes

Starring: Ryan Reynolds; Samuel L. Jackson; Salma Hayek; Antonio Banderas; Morgan Freeman

 

 

**/*****

Short review: Well, I’ve seen worse. But that’s not exactly the endorsement I was wanting to write. Not that I was necessarily expecting to come out of this thing with effusive praise, but I was also hoping it would be a lot of fun. Alas, those expectations were too high.

Misfiring like an over-adrenalized rookie, Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard, the sequel to 2017’s quickly forgotten (but in the moment, reasonably diverting) action-comedy adventure The Hitman’s Bodyguard, is an attempt to build a family out of the odd-couple dynamic that made the first film enjoyable. Unfortunately this more inclusive adventure amounts to little more than an excuse to get Salma Hayek to scream as many swear words and to get kissy-kissy with on-screen partner Samuel L. Jackson as often as possible in 100 pretty cringe-inducing minutes.

I’m going to skip over the fact that Wife’s Bodyguard is a cliched sequel (the original was not exactly an original either) and move directly to the more glaring issue. Hopped up like a virgin on prom night, this movie has a problem of energy. For the first time, maybe ever, I’m going to complain about an action-comedy having too much of it. Hayek’s painfully OTT performance makes her an easy target, but she’s not the only one to bear blame. Returning as director, Patrick Hughes believes that in cranking up the crazy dial past 10 we’ll be able to more easily look past the uninspired and highly contrived machinations that once again pull hitman Darius Kincaid (Jackson) into erstwhile retired bodyguard Michael Bryce’s (Reynolds) life.

Following the events of the first film, Michael is being forced to reevaluate his life having lost his license to protect and now under orders by his amusingly unsympathetic therapist (Rebecca Front — The Aeronauts; Transformers: The Last Knight) to take a much-needed sabbatical. Travel the world, maybe. One of the better gags in the entire picture revolves around the rather inconvenient fact a normal person’s vacay destination could be a well-traveled bodyguard’s potential trigger. This turns out to be close to the height of intelligent joke delivery in the sequel, for much of what happens after Bryce invariably gets roped back in to the bloody game becomes increasingly farcical and reliant on tired jokes.

The pacing is frenetic and the direction clumsy, making the progression of the central threat from a minor inconvenience into a continent-spanning catastrophe harder to buy than it ought to be. Off seeing the world in the luscious Capri, Italy a hapless Michael Bryce runs smack into Sonia Kincaid (Hayek); or, rather, a part of her body that the movie is keen on you noticing constantly smacks into him amidst a bullet-storm. Before long we’re linking up with Interpol, represented by an over-acting Frank Grillo (Point Blank; Captain America: The Winter Soldier) who coerces Michael and the violence-prone love-birds to work together to bring down a Greek terrorist hell-bent on sending Europe back to the Stone Age through some dark magic/tech wizardry stuff.

I will eventually get around to saying something positive for this is not a total wash, but Wife’s Bodyguard also suffers for its villain — this time, the confused nationality bordering on cartoonish. Gary Oldman is a Londoner but can sell you on a brutish Belarusian dictator. I don’t know in what universe a Spanish accent passes for a Greek accent, but here’s Antonio Banderas playing a terrorist named Aristotle Papadopoulos, anyway. As it turns out, Mr. Papadopoulos and Sonia have some history, which of course presents a roadblock for our heroes. And while we’re on backstory stuff, Morgan Freeman reminds us of his ability to play on either side of morality, and is capable of being more than just a lovable, 100% trustworthy, esteemed expert of some kind or loving family member. He’s quite good here playing father (of a sort) to Ryan Reynolds — his intro another you can file under the column of memorable moments.

While pretty much everything about this follow-up is forceful, what remains natural and enjoyable is the love-hate relationship between Reynolds and Jackson. Third-wheeling alongside them is Hayek, whose characterization is both overly sexualized and overcompensatory in its crudeness. Beneath this unfortunate layer though lies a woman terrified of not living the life she wants. There’s poignance — and sweetness — in her desire to have a baby with her murderous sugardaddy and in Darius’ explanation as to what’s really going on in that department. Wife’s Bodyguard so often lacks for these quieter, more relatable moments that you end up holding on to them for all they’re worth when they do happen.

The Hitman’s Bodyguard wasn’t the caliber movie one expects to get sequelized but when you have bankable stars like Reynolds and Jackson all bets are off. It could have used one, sure, but it really needed to be better than this.

“This one time, at bodyguard camp . . .”

Moral of the Story: Man, if they just dialed down the slapstick-level comedy here Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard would be a movie I could more easily get along with. It is unfortunate that in this case a sequel just means “go bigger and crazier than last time,” and not in a Fast and the Furious kind of way, but rather in the performances — a decision that effectively turns already heightened characters into straight caricatures. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 100 mins.

Quoted: “Now, get off my trash. You’re a stain on my legacy.”

Here’s the Official Trailer from IGN. All squeaky clean and green-band and everything! 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.movieinsider.com

Buddy Games

Release: Tuesday, November 24, 2020 (internet) 

👀 Hulu 

Written by: Josh Duhamel; Bob Schwartz; Jude Weng

Directed by: Josh Duhamel

Starring: Josh Duhamel; Dax Shepard; Olivia Munn; Nick Swardson; James Roday Rodriguez; Dan Bakkedahl; Kevin Dillon

 

 

*/*****

Party movies are supposed to be fun, right? Well, Buddy Games proves that stereotype wrong. 

It is a rough start for Josh Duhamel, who makes his directorial debut with this odious and generic copy of more successful bro-team comedies, namely 2009’s The Hangover and 2018’s Tag. There’s also a “wonderful” (your adjective may vary) rip-off of a certain Van Wilder gag-inducing gag but I won’t spoil that for you.

In what feels more like a ploy to diversify the IMDb stats than an inspired choice with which to begin a directing career, the Transformers actor does his best Robin Hood, thieving both plot and prank from the aforementioned bro-downs to give to his poor man’s Entourage. This less-than-purifying cocktail of debauchery, misogyny and fabergé male egos concerns a group of 40-something dudes — lifelong pals, so says this movie — who are getting back together after a falling out to do what they used to do best: get shit-house wasted and compete in a grueling weekend-long competition for a cash prize and/or the chance for complete and total humiliation.

Despite having five main characters in the cast the movie really boils down to tension between two of them, Shelly (Dan Bakkedahl — Veep; Life in Pieces) and Bender (Nick Swardson — Grandma’s Boy; Jack & Jill), leaving the rest to be defined either by profession or, uh, sexual orientation. Suffice to say, something went down between those two, something you have no trouble believing even close friends would take a long time to come back from. Several years later Bender, who just endears with humble brags of blowing through his inheritance “and shit,” is considered persona non grata and Shelly is living in an assisted living facility, permanently berobed and eating cereal out of his own belly button. Stand back — this man’s losing it!

At wit’s end, his own mother calls in a favor from the Bobfather (Duhamel), the only individual she knows that can snap him out of this deep a funk. Bob not only has money but he has, apparently, a way of pumping people up. Something else we quickly learn: He’s good at being buddies with his wife Tiffany (Olivia Munn — X-Men: Apocalypse; The Babymakers) but even better at maintaining a marriage to his buddies and all their shenanigans. Granted, there is a degree of subversiveness to the way this ostensibly stable relationship trends but ultimately Tiffany is yet another doormat role for the underratedly funny Munn. Duhamel, meanwhile, doesn’t so much bring personality to the role as he does cliches and handsomeness.

As to the directing, he similarly relies upon tired mechanisms, lazy jokes and stale archetypes to fill in the time that isn’t spent on the titular competition. The collaborative script kicks into a higher gear once it’s putting into action this ridiculously elaborate event inexplicably made possible by the efforts of only five men. In fact much of the story feels like it is just stalling for time until it gets to use the big set piece, stumbling and bumbling around with its half-baked themes of friendship and confidence and trust, with only but a few character foibles truly having any bearing on the story. On top of that, Kevin ‘Drama’ Dillon fans are going to have to be cool with less of him and a heavy dose of Nick Swardson’s niched brand of self-loathing humor to stay attached here.

The set-up is unabashedly, appealingly simple. Not to mention bro-unions are a time-honored tradition that I have a lot of time for. Get everyone back together, paper over some old wounds, learn something about friendship in the process, accidentally drink one another’s semen, yay we all go home. Often simplicity is enough for these things to work wonders. I mean literally The Hangover is a movie that made a puzzle out of tracing one’s steps backwards after a night of heavy drinking. Plots don’t get much more basic than that. Tag, meanwhile, had the benefit of being based on a semi-outrageous true story. But this movie is so damn loud it is obnoxious and frequently insufferable. In compensating for its lack of originality Buddy Games doubles down on testosterone to the point of drowning in it. 

I would actually accept almost all of this — the neanderthalic attitude towards women excluded — were the characters on some level likable. But Duhamel appears to assume that torn scrota and bruised egos make for all the sympathy and character-building a d00d movie ever needs.

Go out and drink your best life

Moral of the Story: It’s a movie about basically reclaiming past glory and manhood, in this case literally. Kevin Dillon (of Entourage) got me to bite. But it’s Swardson who dominates. If you’re a fan of his, like a super-fan I mean, you might just be the kind of viewer Buddy Games is looking to haze. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 90 mins.

Quoted: “I bet this place brings back fond memories!”

The . . . holy crap, it’s a green-band trailer (?!) . . . that, in retrospect, hides nothing at all and, in a way, makes my review seem naive 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: flickeringmyth.com; imdb.com 

Palm Springs

Release: Friday, July 10, 2020 (Hulu)

→Hulu

Written by: Andy Siara

Directed by: Max Barbakow

Palm Springs, a buzzy new Hulu original starring Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti and J.K. Simmons, for me has an unusual distinction. This romantic comedy about two strangers stuck in a time loop at a wedding boasts one of the best post-credits scenes I’ve seen in a long time. It seems like such a small thing, not even worthy of mentioning in a review much less in the lede, but the closure it provides is just so satisfying it improved my opinion of the movie overall.

That might seem like a slam against everything preceding it. It’s not. Max Barbakow’s modern reinvention of Groundhog Day is far from perfect but it is very enjoyable and it ends in a way that sends the audience off on a high. Any movie that has the potential to get fresh eyeballs on that Bill Murray classic is okay by me. Palm Springs is perhaps even an homage to it, with lines like “it’s one of those infinite time loop situations you may have heard about” seemingly gesturing in the direction of the late Harold Ramis’ beloved 1993 comedy, or at least, toward a recent history of films inspired by it.

Harder to ignore is the fact the famously goofy 42-year-old positions himself as an intensely cynical, occasionally even unlikable leading man who has to get over himself in order to break free of the barely metaphorical cycle of living without purpose or fear of consequence. Samberg is Nyles, a drifter doomed to wake up on the same day in November ad infinitum. He takes the expression “going through the motions” to a whole new level with his presence at a wedding for Tala (Camila Mendes) and Abe (Tyler Hoechlin). His only connection is his high-maintenance girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner), who is in the bridal party.

Groundhog Day fans already know the drill: Nobody else is aware of his situation, and nothing he does seems to change it, not even multiple, technically successful, suicide attempts. After being stuck here for an indeterminate amount of time Nyles’ ability to care has been worn down to a nubbin. Then, during one loop, he introduces himself to Sarah (Milioti), who sticks out like such a sore thumb due to her visible discomfort in seeing her younger, far more successful (and selfless!) sister get her happily-ever-after that it kind of amazes me how Nyles does not pick up on this any sooner.

Mostly this is because the script from Andy Siara prefers giving the former SNL star the space and time to do his sketches rather than worrying too much about internal logic. Not for nothing, there are some really creative inventions as the filmmakers play around with the character’s prescience. A memorable sequence early on has Nyles going through a dance sequence so bizarre no person would possibly be able to pull it off without his “experience.” It also is a really fun way to get the two main characters to initially hook up. Of course, just as things are turning amorous a series of crazy happenings causes Sarah to fall into the same trap Nyles has been stuck in. All I will offer is that it involves a crazy-eyed, face-painted J.K. Simmons wielding a bow and arrow, and a cave of glowing light.

Palm Springs not only asks you to suspend disbelief for a minute (or two, or depending on how cynical you are, maybe 90) but it also seems like one of those movies that would rely heavily on dramatic irony. However it moves surprisingly quickly beyond that, evolving into a quasi sci-fi adventure and thereby making Sarah a more interesting, smarter character. When she comes to accept what’s happened, she proves to be very (and darkly hilariously) solutions-oriented, especially when she learns a little bit more about the guy she’s stuck here with. Time loop movies can go to some dark places and Palm Springs, despite its tropical setting, is no exception.

For a story steeped in the tradition of two icy hearts gradually warmed by shared intimate experiences, we don’t really get a lot of character development. Interestingly Sarah feels like a more fleshed out character than does Nyles. That feels like a first. Generally speaking Palm Springs relies on actor personalities. For example, J.K. Simmons. Every time I see him in a movie — with the notable exception of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash — I just want to kick back with a stogie and a glass of whisky with the guy and just shoot the breeze. Less involved but also fun are Peter Gallagher as the father of the bride and the wonderful June Squibb as an older wedding guest. And though the conclusion is patently predictable, I just cannot deny the warm fuzzy it leaves you with.

I feel ya buddy

Recommendation: Andy Samberg plays one of his more “unlikable” characters that I can recall. I put quotes around that word because it’s just really hard to gauge where his attitude stems from — bad childhood? Too many loves lost? Parental issues? Wtf is his deal? The movie isn’t great on character development. But it is big on mood and ideas, and that’s plenty enough for me to give this a hearty recommendation to fans of smartly done romantic comedies. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 90 mins.

Quoted: “I can’t keep waking up in here. Everything that we are doing is meaningless.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: IMDb