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 balcony scenes with distracting green screen of the L.A. skyline, as well as the not-so-skillful use of photoshop for the ladies’ group photos in the introductory scenes, and the jaunty score needlessly pipes in to punch up the comedic effect. Still, as glossy entertainment of the comfort-food variety, “Book Club” is refreshing proof that age really is just a number. In this day and age, it’s the kind of counter-programming team-up for those not interested in anything related to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Grade: B - 

Sunday, May 13, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: C +

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 fifteen minutes or so, “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 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 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 it 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 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 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 chemistry 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 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, there are other key supporting roles written and acted with nuance, including 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 +

Friday, April 27, 2018

6 Stones to Rule Them All: High-stakes "Avengers: Infinity War" leaves one wanting more and less

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
156 min., rated PG-13.

Marking the 10-year anniversary of Marvel Studios’ output since 2008’s “Iron Man,” “Avengers: Infinity War” is the apex that all 18 films have been leading toward. It is, indeed, the biggest crossover film from the studio, and the number-one reason to see it is witnessing no less than two-dozen established characters sharing the same cinematic space. Following the highs of 2017’s “Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” “Thor: Ragnarok,” and 2018’s ongoing juggernaut “Black Panther,” “Avengers: Infinity War” is decidedly bigger but comparatively a letdown, thematically thin and hindered by so much stuff and still being only half of the story. Palpably overlong at 156 minutes, it is overpacked and unwieldy, even if the stakes have never been higher. Not unlike all of the appetizers out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this 19th film still feels like a tease more concerned with what’s coming next than the entree at hand. It leaves you wanting more and less at the same time, if that’s possible.

Thanos (voice of Josh Brolin) and The Black Order are hell-bent on collecting all six Infinity Stones to wipe out half of the universe with the snap of his fingers to extinguish the overpopulation crisis. This leaves all of the heroes in the world to stop him, beginning with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Dr. Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) who are the first to learn of the titan’s plan, but the Avengers have broken up and are not on speaking terms. In New York, as Thanos’ minions land to wreak havoc and find two of the stones on Earth, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) commingles with Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), and then Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) drops in to help. Over in Scotland, Vision (Paul Bettany) and Wanda Maximoff/Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) are enjoying a vacation, ready to live a normal life together, before they are ambushed by Thanos’ other goons and meet up with Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie). Meanwhile, the Guardians of the Galaxy—Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper), and rebellious teenager Groot (voice of Vin Diesel)—are floating through space, until they, too, learn of Gamora’s stepfather’s plans. And, then finally, the alliances, both old and new, make their way to Wakanda for help from T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), accompanied by warrior general Okoye (Danai Gurira), his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan).

The fate of the universe hangs in the balance in “Avengers: Infinity War,” and with that, there will be loss. That risky, all-bets-are-off approach is what adds major dramatic weight to the proceedings, but in getting there (and getting the band back together), there is such a surplus of characters—a roll call, if there ever was one—and individual threads that seem like a series of bottle episodes strung together. The central story is simple—Thanos wants the remaining stones and the Avengers need to stop him—but if directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely deftly tackled a heavy plate with 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War,” they act like traffic guards here, juggling so many moving parts and proving that more is sometimes a little less. Inevitably, some characters will receive more screen time than others, but the ensemble is still a valuable asset, and the new team-ups become a large part of the fun in what becomes one of the darker MCU films.

There is little time for intimacy, however, when the film takes a breath from plot, character dynamics pop, namely any banter between the Guardians, Peter Quill’s quippy alpha oneupmanship with Thor, the ego clash between Tony Stark and Doctor Strange, and Wanda and Vision’s warm bond. There’s also a sense of knowing self-reflexivity to having Tom Holland’s enthusiastic Spider-Man apologizing for not remembering everyone’s names and for using his pop-culture knowledge in times of danger. Traces of character substance and sly, playful humor are more than welcome when sprinkled in between the fights and explosions, which are functional but often staged with a numbing, unimaginative sameness.

A great villain hasn’t always been Marvel’s strong suit, Loki and Killmonger aside, but Thanos is unexpectedly more formidable than a mauve-colored, square-jawed motion-capture creation with Josh Brolin’s voice might suggest. Brolin delivers such a calm evil and, luckily, Thanos is written with a little more complex shading and pathos, having been a father figure for Gamora, to what could have been an otherwise one-note heavy with genocidal plans he believes to be necessary to balance out the universe. 

Like every film released by Marvel, “Avengers: Infinity War” will be oversold as the best film in the MCU, but that would be overinflating the film’s worth. Despite its shortcomings, the film entertains those who have investment in all of these characters because, honestly, the valiant, cliff-hanging final moments depend on it. Stacking up the sky-high stakes, the film finally begins to pay off in the home stretch, and as one character states, there will be “no resurrections this time.” This may be the end for some and just a temporary mortality for others because, as we all know, only Bruce Wayne’s parents and Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben are only dead forever, plus those stones are capable of takebacks, right? To tide over fans until next year in the last of Marvel’s Phase Three, “Avengers: Infinity War” is fine, but one would be best to temper those expectations accordingly, while still being diverted and coming away feeling slightly underwhelmed.

Grade: B - 

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Violated: Problematic "Traffik" wants to exploit and address serious subject

Traffik (2018)
96 min., rated R.

Thrillers exploiting serious subject matter for cheap thrills and entertainment value isn’t anything new to filmmaking, but with “Traffik” (not based on the 1989 British miniseries that inspired Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 film), the seams show. It wants to gratuitously put attractive star Paula Patton in skimpy bathing suits, but it also wants to be “inspired by true events,” addressing that sex trafficking is still, in fact, prevalent and then concluding with statistics. This isn’t to say that writer-director Deon Taylor (2016’s “Meet the Blacks”) doesn’t hold attention with certain thriller tropes, but how he tries shining a light on sex trafficking seems disingenuous and hypocritical, and it isn’t particularly eye-opening.

Brea (Paula Patton) is a Sacramento Post journalist with integrity, but when a fellow reporter scoops her story on government corruption, she is let go by her editor (William Fichtner). Later that night on her birthday, mechanic boyfriend John (Omar Epps) plans to take Brea on a romantic getaway in a plush glass house in the mountains, owned by the company of John’s sport-agent friend Darren (Laz Alonso). Brea knows that John wants to propose, but first he surprises her with a muscle car he built back up for her. Before the couple reaches their getaway home, they stop at a gas station, where Brea encounters a strung-out, victimized woman (Dawn Olivieri) in the restroom. Brea has the feeling this woman is asking for help but stays out of it, and on their way out of the gas station, she and John evade a troupe of leering, menacing bikers. Once Brea and John begin their weekend with a little canoodling in the pool, Darren and long-suffering wife Malia (Roselyn Sanchez) show up unannounced. A ringing phone interrupts them, but it seems to be coming from a satellite phone that the woman at the gas station put in Brea’s purse. Things go from bad to worse when Brea unlocks the passcode on the phone, making a shocking discovery with incriminating evidence of women being sold, and the owner of the phone shows up to reclaim it.

A grimy, nasty, exploitative B-movie uncomfortably blended with loftier aspirations, “Traffik” wants to have it both ways, simultaneously hoping to thrill and pretending to have something more socially woke on its mind, but does neither very convincingly. First things first, director Deon Taylor does effectively set up a tense situation, even if the first 30 minutes is a long setup—the lengthy romantic montages between Brea and John in an infinity pool look like soft-core Cinemax leftovers—until it gets there. There’s a decent cat-and-mouse game in the woods, followed by Brea hiding out in a car that inevitably won’t start. As a VOD-level thriller, it’s still pretty standard stuff that even the least trained moviegoers will be paces ahead of the characters.

Paula Patton is able to make the proceedings more watchable than not as the tenacious Brea, and it’s appreciative that when her and John’s lives are on the line, she doesn’t just stand back and cower. Everyone else is just cannon fodder for the one-dimensional traffickers, including Laz Alonso, who’s so obnoxious as Brea and John’s alpha, coke-snorting friend Darren that one actively roots for his demise. Usually associated with comedies, Missi Pyle also turns up in a key role as the local sheriff. In an early scene when Brea’s boss calls her article a puff piece masquerading as a hard-hitting exposé, it might as well be a meta commentary of the film itself. It didn’t even have to be thematically deep or important, but “Traffik” didn’t have to come off so self-righteous, either.


Friday, April 20, 2018

Tales from the Brain: "Ghost Stories" less than the sum of its parts but a tricky twist makes it all worthwhile

Ghost Stories (2018)
98 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

Ostensibly, British import “Ghost Stories” is packaged as a horror anthology from across the pond, but it might stand as the first one that actually relies on the connective tissue more than the three segments within. Adapting their own 2010 West End stage play to the screen, writer-directors Jeremy Dyston & Andy Nyman skillfully construct a triptych of horror tales based on three individual paranormal accounts that have more in common with each other than the film’s protagonist and the viewer initially expect. “Ghost Stories” can be a spookily good time with goosebumpy frights, but it wants to be something even more macabre and affecting than bumps in the night. In pulling the rug out in the final stretch, it mostly succeeds.

“Psychic Cheats” TV host and professional skeptic Professor Phillip Goodman (Andy Nyman) devotes his life to debunking the paranormal, taking down fraudulent psychics. When he is contacted by his hero, the long-disappeared Charles Cameron (Leonard Byrne), and finds him terminally ill and living in a trailer, Goodman goes on to investigate three of Cameron’s unsolvable cases by meeting with people who each share their unexpainable encounters. Case 1: Tony Matthews (Paul Whitehouse) was working his last shift as a night watchman at an asylum for female patients when he witnessed the spirit of a little girl in a yellow dress. Case 2: High-strung teen Simon Rifkind (Alex Lawther) is paranoid and full of tics after one night when driving in the dark along a woodsy road, only to hit something. Case 3: Rich, pompous suit Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman) waited at home as his wife had just given birth to their child and experienced a poltergeist in the nursery of his mansion. How these three cases relate to each other will hit closer to home than Goodman could ever predict.

Unfolding as flashbacks, the three horror-tinged anecdotes have their moments, but each of them feel frustratingly unfinished, cutting short as they seem to just be getting started. Rather, the wraparound framework with Professor Goodman is actually what matters here and how his actions in his past have gotten him to where he is now. There is a tricky plot twist in the last twenty minutes that changes everything, and as Goodman learns, nothing is what it appears. Once the film gets there, it reinvents itself and rips apart our expectations in devilish, surprising, and imaginatively surreal ways. Less than the sum of its parts, “Ghost Stories” has enough spine-tingling parts (particularly that second case) to recommend, and in a cheeky final touch, the filmmakers delightfully end their film with Bobby Pickett’s “Monster Mash” over the credits.

Grade: B -