Movie Review ~ Underwater


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Mysterious creatures terrorize crew members aboard a research station located seven miles below the surface of the ocean.

Stars: Kristen Stewart, T.J. Miller, Jessica Henwick, Vincent Cassel, John Gallagher Jr., Mamoudou Athie

Director: William Eubank

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 95 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I write these reviews as if the reader has read every other post I’ve written these past nine years so I feel I should probably start out my review for Underwater to say for all you first-timers out there that I. LOVE. MONSTER. MOVIES.  Also.  I. LOVE. UNDERWATER. MONSTER. MOVIES.  There.  It’s out there again, I can be free to go on with my reflection of Underwater, and you can understand why I was both excited and a little bit nervous going into this 2020 release because I really wanted it to be good.  I wanted it to be so good, in fact, that I even spoke the words out loud in the theater beforehand to my partner so it would be clear that, no matter what happened, I was always rooting for the film to succeed.  It has been so long since we had a good creature feature that I felt it was high time for something new to try to break through but I never thought it would come from 20th Century Fox starring indie-darling Kristen Stewart.

Filmed all the way back in early 2017 (we’re talking March-May), Underwater was made when 20th Century Fox was still its own studio and not owned by the Disney corporation.  Once Disney shelled out big bucks for Fox they acquired all of their movies set to be released and have been gradually rolling them out to strategically not interfere with the release dates of their own in-house movies.  Ad Astra was given a bit of a short shrift earlier this summer and, while it did decent business and received good notices, it wasn’t nearly the blockbuster it might have been had it been solely under the Fox banner.  Then again, that movie had its own share of challenging advertising issues…not really being an action movie but being marketed as one.

Back to Underwater, this is another case of Disney burning up a Fox release in that no man’s land of January and hoping that something will come of it.  Thankfully, this is one title they blessed with an advance screening so others could get the word out, but with the studio releasing it against the Oscar hopeful 1917 and the comedy Like a Boss, there wasn’t a huge audience left over for Underwater. That’s likely why the movie didn’t make much a dent during its opening weekend, despite costing upwards of $80 million to produce.  Ouch.  Let’s put that aside for the moment and focus on the movie, though.

It’s good!  Like, really good!

Actually, let me take a step back and I’ll temper my enthusiasm with a caveat that I was pre-destined to like this film based on my above mentioned penchant for this particular brand of horror movie.  Even if it was kinda bad, I probably sorta would have liked it.  That it was competently made, admirably performed, and skillfully executed only added to the enjoyment level of it and I have to say that it exceeded any expectations I had going in.  Knowing next to nothing about it thanks to a buzz machine that barely got started, it was fun to go in fairly blind and I think you should do your best to know as little going in as possible.  So I’ll keep this brief.

The set-up sounds familiar.  In an isolated area miles below the surface, an accident decimates a drilling station that is exploring the depths of the Mariana Trench, stranding a handful of crew members that were lucky enough to survive the initial incident but unlucky to live to face a perilous fate.  Mechanical engineer Norah (Kristen Stewart, Charlie’s Angels) is plucky and resourceful, rarely fazed by the obstacles that lay before them.  This comes in handy when the survivors realize they have to exit their doomed vessel and walk a stretch of exposed ocean floor in suits that may not stand the pressure to another station that might be in a similar wrecked state.  Oh…and there’s a rash of sea monsters released from the depths of the ocean by their drill trying to eat them.

Writers Brian Duffield (Insurgent) and Adam Cozad (The Legend of Tarzan) devise some nifty set-ups and nasty ends for the workers and it helps that most of the supporting cast is played by familiar but not too familiar faces.  You never know quite who is famous enough to make it to the end, and even that isn’t a guarantee.  There are some surprising twists I wasn’t expecting but they all make sense in the overall story Duffield and Cozard set out to tell.  Along with William Eubank’s tight direction, there isn’t a moment wasted in Underwater and even some late-breaking attempts at giving greater depths to certain characters don’t feel completely out of nowhere if you consider the life or death situation they are all in.

I find it so intriguing the choices of roles Stewart is drifting toward lately.  Though filmed several years ago, taking on a studio monster movie must have been a leap for her but I can see why this more introspective character appealed to her.  There are shades of Alien’s Ellen Ripley in Norah and while she doesn’t have the opportunity to go full Ripley mode, the final twenty minutes of the movie are an exciting ride with Stewart in the drivers seat.  When T.J. Miller (Office Christmas Party) pops up I groaned, fearing the weary comedian’s way of sucking the life out of anything he appears in but aside from a bumpy start he actually becomes quite endearing.  I get the impression the Captain character played by Vincent Cassel (Trance) may have been trimmed in editing to save time but what’s been left behind is good enough to make it a memorable showing.  Rounding out the small group of survivors are Jessica Henwick (Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens) and John Gallagher, Jr. (10 Cloverfield Lane), with Henwick nicely going from naif-y to taking charge after being pushed into service.

From a production standpoint, Underwater is incredibly successful and highly effective; the sets and visual effects are solid even if you can’t always make out what you are seeing.  This adds to some, if not all, of the tension Eubank creates and there are several true edge-of-your-seat-hold-your-breath sequences that were quite enjoyable to sit through with a packed audience.  Even better, these passages lead to a pay-off of value, not some cheap scare that vanishes into the ether.  All in all, a handsome effort in front of and behind the camera.

The performance of Underwater, 2018’s The Meg, and 2019’s Crawl, not to mention their better than average reviews, indicates audiences are open to the next wave of monster movies and they don’t have to be franchise pictures either.  I don’t need a Godzilla: King of the Monsters to fill my bucket when a simple story about nature run amok will suit me just fine.  Here’s hoping more of these are produced over the next few years – if they are as well made as the three I just mentioned above, this creature feature fan would be in seventh heaven!

Movie Review ~ Like a Boss


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Best friends Mia and Mel run their own cosmetics company — a business they built from the ground up. But they’re also in over their heads financially, and the prospect of a buyout offer from an industry titan proves too tempting to pass up.

Stars: Rose Byrne, Tiffany Haddish, Salma Hayek, Billy Porter, Jennifer Coolidge, Karan Soni, Ari Graynor, Jessica St. Clair, Natasha Rothwell

Director: Miguel Arteta

Rated: R

Running Length: 83 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I always get a little nervous when I rip off the December 31 page on my calendar and see that I’ve come to the end of another year.  It’s not because of any resolutions I’ve made or due to price increases on insurance/rent/medical benefits/you name it, no, it’s something else entirely.  I know that when January 1 rolls around the movie landscape changes from studios trying hard to push out their best products for award consideration to their driving their dump trucks straight into your local theater.  It’s long been known that the first few months of the year are a good time to get rid of movies that could have issues or ones the executives have little faith in.  Maybe a film has been sitting on the shelf for several months and there’s a perfect weekend in January when nothing else like it is coming out (I’m looking at you, Dolittle), perhaps the end of the year holiday schedule was just too busy and they couldn’t wait for summer so why not let ‘er rip now (Bad Boys for Life)…you get the picture.

In the last few years, though, there has been an interesting turning of the tides and not every movie released in the first several weeks of the year are those surefire turkeys.  The barren wasteland of January has started to find some green and the studio heads have caught on that a tidy profit can be made with the right marketing and a keen sense of counter-programming.  That had to be the thinking behind getting the new raunchy comedy Like a Boss in position to open against big-time Oscar favorite 1917 during its opening weekend.  Made for ¼ of the budget of that wartime epic, this 83 minute (well, 79-ish without credits) comedy is a surprisingly pleasing bit of drop-in entertainment that succeeds on the merits of its appealing stars.

Mel (Rose Byrne, Spy) and Mia (Tiffany Haddish, Girls Trip) are life-long friends, roommates, and business partners.  Not a lot has come between them over the years and they’ve parlayed their yin/yang relationship into a marginally successful cosmetics company.  Mel is the more corporate focused of the two, with Mia contributing to the creative aspects, though both are shown to be well-informed business women that do their homework when it comes to where their money is going and who is controlling it.  In their late 30’s but living life like they’re still in their early 20’s, their friends wish they’d settle down even if that means spending less time together outside of work.

Just as Mel is about to tell Mia their business is suffering a cash flow problem, a messenger from the multi-million dollar Claire Luna industry (Karan Soni, Pokémon Detective Pikachu) arrives and lets the women know Claire has been following their business and wants to own a piece of their company.  Mel is ecstatic, seeing this as the miracle solution they needed while Mia is wary of the quirky Claire getting into bed with the dynamic duo.  Turns out she should be worried because Claire (Salma Hayek, Savages) has her eyes on more than just a piece of Mel and Mia…and she’ll resort to dirty tricks to get what she wants.

If this all sounds like the set-up for a ABC sitcom or a rejected sequel to Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion (and there’s another connection to that movie in here as well) then I don’t think you’d be too far off the mark.  There’s little meat to the plot bones but the script by relative newcomers Sam Pitman and Adam Cole-Kelly is fast paced and amusing.  I’ll get back to the three leads but in addition to them, the supporting players are all aces.  Jennifer Coolidge (Austenland) and scene-stealing Billy Porter as employees of the ladies are put to good use, delivering some silly one-liners but not overstaying their screen welcome.  I also enjoyed a trio of wedded gal pal confidants for the ladies played by Jessica St. Clair (Wanderlust), Ari Graynor (The Guilt Trip), and Natasha Rothwell (Love, Simon) who are there to listen and respond, and blessedly aren’t armed with a repulsive anecdote about married life.  Usually these domesticated female characters are there to show what frigid harpies they’ve become since getting hitched but thankfully the script allows them to be genuine.  Credit also to the screenwriters as well for not pushing a front and center love interest  – it would have been so easy to complicate things by giving one of the women a boyfriend from one of the rival beauty companies Claire handles but that would just shift the focus from the central friendship and make the movie longer in the process.

The movie is about our lead trio though and director Miguel Arteta (Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day) brings out some interesting sides to each.  We all know Haddish can navigate her way around a punchline and a litany of filthy jokes (if you can make it through the first five minutes of the movie you’ll be fine) but Arteta doesn’t just let her stay in that wacky zone forever.  She has several serious moments that believably resonate and it fits her well.  I’ve always gotten the impression that Byrne has a penchant for these kind of comedic roles and she looks to be having fun with her time in Like a Boss.  She gets to sing, dance, and battle a drone…though I do wish she wasn’t again cast as the more unlikeable person of a duo.

The sheer reason to see the movie, however, is for Hayek’s bonkers turn as Claire Luna.  In a flame colored wig (the end of which I could often see coming up off her forehead, incidentally), brassy contacts, and stuffed into a mélange of tight clothes and sky high shoes Hayek bulldozes through each scene she’s in and I can’t tell if it’s terrible or brilliant but I know I loved it.  It’s one of those bold character choices only an actress completely confident and without a shred of doubt in her work could make and Hayek has shown over and over again she’s that kind of actress.  Just watch the way she interacts with each person and piece of scenery throughout — this is someone that has truly thought about what she’s bringing to the set.  It’s an unpredictable delight.

It’s easy to find the things to pick apart in the film and I admit I thought I’d come out on the other side of seeing Like a Boss with a list of things about it I didn’t care for.  I was surprised to find how much I enjoyed myself, though, because it felt like a nice palate cleanser from the last few months, which is exactly what I think it was intended as.  It’s certainly not the best work any of these actors will do nor will it make any kind of best (or worst) list when we rip off that December 31 page of 2020 but for what it is and where we are now, it gets the job done.

Movie Review ~ Dolittle


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Dr. John Dolittle lives in solitude behind the high walls of his lush manor in 19th-century England. His only companionship comes from an array of exotic animals that he speaks to on a daily basis. But when young Queen Victoria becomes gravely ill, the eccentric doctor and his furry friends embark on an epic adventure to a mythical island to find the cure.

Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Emma Thompson, Tom Holland, Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez, Rami Malek, Octavia Spencer, Kumail Nanjiani, John Cena, Marion Cotillard, Craig Robinson, Frances de la Tour, Jessie Buckley, Harry Collett

Director: Stephen Gaghan

Rated: PG

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: When someone is so closely associated with a role or a franchise, it’s always interesting to see what they will do when they venture out of that safe paycheck cocoon.  Will it be something radically different or could it be another project similar in tone, which suggests the star enjoyed being in that comfortable space of little challenge but big reward?  I mention this because as the release date of Dolittle (finally) approaches, I’m reminded that this is the first non-Iron Man role Robert Downey Jr. has played since 2014’s The Judge.  That’s five movies in a row where he’s been the same superhero, albeit one that he’s had the chance to add some dimension to as the role progressed.

By the time we got to Avengers: Endgame, Downey Jr. had turned Tony Stark/Iron Man into more than just another world savior stock character, giving him the same character development (and, I’d say more) than other roles he played previously.  Heck, there was even a concerted effort to get him an Oscar nomination for his efforts until he poo-poo-ed the idea, wishing to just let his involvement end on the high note and not have to make award season schmoozing part of the package deal.  Besides, he knew he had Dolittle on the horizon and perhaps he wanted to ensure he had as little time in front of the press as possible.

If you pay attention at all to Hollywood buzz, you’ve likely heard about the tumultuous journey this film has had making it to theaters.  A new adaptation of Hugh Lofting’s quirky character first created in the early 20th century (said to have been written in the trenches of The Great War), it finished filming in June of 2018 and after a poor test screening went through an unheard of 20+ days of reshoots in April of 2019.  Languishing without a release date for some time, Universal eventually gave it the troubling roll out of January 2020…a notorious month known as a dumping ground for movies that are problematic.  Suddenly, this 175 million movie directed by an Oscar winner with a blockbuster star in the leading role and a host of big names providing voices to CGI animals looked like it was confirmed to be the turkey everyone had thought it was.

Yet after seeing the film early on a Saturday morning with a theater full of children I’m sure had been up far longer than I had, I found Dolittle to be not as bad as I would have guessed and not as much of a write-off as many will expect.  It’s far from a great film and certainly not the franchise starter I’m positive Universal wanted it to be (hence why it’s been unloaded hastily) but as a 101 minutes of family friendly entertainment, it more than fits the bill.

With narration provided by parrot Polly (Emma Thompson, Late Night), we are introduced to the world of Dr. John Dolittle through an animated prologue showing how he first learned how he could talk to animals.  It’s here we also learn why he is so depressed at the beginning of the film, having long since shut himself away from the outside world, content to spend his days with just the company of his animals.  He plays chess with gorilla Chee-Chee (Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody) with mice as the pieces and is tended to by wise dog Jip (Tom Holland, Spider-Man: Homecoming) and resourceful duck Dap-Dap (Octavia Spencer, Luce).  Years of solitude has left him looking like a wholly mammoth, his hermit-like attitude overtaking every facet of living.

Urged on by his mischievous friends and his own curiosity, local lad Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett, Dunkirk) sneaks into the walled off grounds of the Dolittle estate on the very day Dolittle is called on by a representative from Queen Victoria’s court.  It seems the young Queen (Jessie Buckley, Wild Rose) who took such a liking to Dolittle in his prime has been felled by a strange illness and needs his special expertise to find a cure.  After catching Tommy on his property but finding a kindred spirit of sorts within the boy, Dolittle (after a good tidying up, including a haircut courtesy of the beaks and teeth of his animals…ew) brings him to the Queen’s palace where they soon embark on a dangerous mission into unknown territory in hunt of rare fruit from a fabled tree.  Their travels will lead them to far off places where Dolittle will need to call on not just his talents but the special skills of his animal friends if they are to save the young royal from a sinister saboteur.

For a movie that has been delayed nearly nine months from its original release date, Dolittle feels like it has arrived at a relatively fortuitous time.  There’s not a lot of other solid family options out there presently and perhaps the extra time and reshoots helped give the movie the structure, however lopsided, it manages to construct.  Director and co-screenwriter Stephen Gaghan won an Oscar for writing 2000’s Traffic and directed George Clooney to a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 2005’s Syriana but I doubt there will be the same success for the writing or acting in Dolittle.  The bad guys, Jim Broadbent (Paddington 2), Michael Sheen (Passengers), Antonio Banderas (Pain & Glory), are all etched in crayon that’s been pressed hard on the paper.  They leave an impression but it’s never quite clear what they set out to create.  Thankfully, Collett isn’t one of those effervescently precocious child stars that Hollywood produces by the sackful so he’s a good sidekick but the movie outright wastes Buckley, relegating her to bedrest for much of the movie.  The voice talent don’t always feel like they match up well with their animal counterparts, like Selena Gomez (The Dead Don’t Die) lending voice to a lanky giraffe, though I did get a nice laugh out of Ralph Fiennes (Official Secrets) as a short-fused tiger harboring a love-hate relationship with the good doctor.

Credit to Downey Jr. (In Dreams) for not simply sailing through the film on his laurels.  Yes, most of the movie he’s definitely flying on cruise control but it never requires more of him in the first place.  What he does bring to the event is that ease of emotional access when the laughs stop and its time to get serious.  He also never gives off the impression he’s above the material…I mean, at one point he’s shoulder deep in the business end of a stopped-up fire-breathing dragon so there’s little opportunity to maintain a sense of dignity in those situations.

Stick around for a few minutes into the credits, not just to see some colorful paintings of the cast set to a new song from singer/songwriter Sia but for a bit of closure the movie holds back until that point.  Aside from that, I’m not sure what else could be done with this new Dolittle beyond what Gaghan has given.  At one point my mind drifted to thinking if a sequel to this was possible and while it could definitely be created I’d question if it would benefit any of the characters (or sanity of the actors) to revisit the Dolittle estate and the animals within.  I guess I should ask the animals what they’d think of it all…

Movie Review ~ Bad Boys for Life


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Old-school cops Mike Lowery and Marcus Burnett team up to take down the vicious leader of a Miami drug cartel.

Stars: Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Joe Pantoliano, Paola Nuñez, Jacob Scipio, Kate del Castillo, Vanessa Hudgens, Alexander Ludwig, Charles Melton, Theresa Randle

Director: Adil & Bilall  (Adil El Arbi, Bilall Fallah)

Rated: R

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Though we’re in a time at the movies where it’s popular to revive old favorites that many had thought were done and over, it’s never a good sign to see a high profile movie star bruised by a string of box office duds return to the well of what was once profitable.  There was a time when having Will Smith in your film meant assured box office gold but one too many poor choices and a seemingly panicked desperation to be taken seriously as more than an action star led him down a path of wince-inducing downers and stinkbombs.  And while Martin Lawrence was never an A-List movie star, his eponymous landmark television show was a gigantic hit and, to be fair, he had his share of box office blockbusters, though none were what you would call challenging art.

When Lawrence and Smith first paired up for Bad Boys in 1995, it was Lawrence that was the bigger star and it showed on screen.  Re-watching the film recently it’s interesting to see how the movie, (originally intended as a much squishier comedy for other actors) was tailored around Lawrence’s style and how director Michael Bay (Pain & Gain) treated Smith more like Action Star Ken than as an actor who would go on to net several Oscar nominations.  By the time the sequel arrived a full eight years later, the tides had definitely turned and while Lawrence still received top billing, Bad Boys II was Smith’s film all the way.  It was longer and louder and absolutely horrible.  Returning director Bay took all the rules for making a bigger sequel too literally and delivered a ghastly horror of a movie, turning what was a fun buddy cop film into an offensively gross pile of mush that purported to be all style but was so far out of fashion it wasn’t even self-aware enough to realize it.  It made a killing at the box office but fans and critics revolted against it, waylaying any future plans…until now.

Normally, with sequels I’m of the mindset that it’s a good idea to watch the preceding films before catching a new one in theaters (unless we’re talking James Bond) because it helps you spot the consistencies, or lack thereof, throughout the series.  You’d be surprised at how good some franchise films are with carrying forward even the smallest of supporting roles through from film to film.  However, in the case of getting ready to screen Bad Boys for Life, I think watching Bad Boys II so close to seeing the third film was a mistake.  I was so put off by how smarmy that movie was that I went into the new one with a bad taste in my mouth, prepared to see the franchise sink lower.  That’s also taking into consideration after a 17 year break it just couldn’t be a good sign Lawrence and Smith had given in and come back to the roles that gave them both their first bona fide hit. Right?

Well, here’s the thing.  It turns out Bad Boys for Life is an energetic return to form for the two stars, a reunion that reminds us why their chemistry worked so well back in 1995.  By ditching hyper-kinetic director Bay and working with a script that forms the first semblance of a discernible plot in any of the films so far, the duo have righted a ship that was sunk on a massive scale almost two decades ago and given themselves a fine showcase on top of it all.  In addition to a fine supply of laughs, there’s genuine heart on display and a dedicated engagement from the stars which only serves to bring audiences closer along on this new rollicking ride.

Though a number of years have passed since we last took to the streets with Mike Lowery (Smith, Gemini Man) and Marcus Burnett (Lawrence, Do the Right Thing), not a lot has changed with the veteran Miami cops.  Lowrey is still a fast-driving playboy that takes the fierce protection of his car’s interior as seriously as he does ensuring the streets of the city are free from drug violence.  Still claiming he’s going to retire any day, family man Burnett becomes a grandfather at the start of the movie which gives him one more reason to want to ditch the fast lane life Lowrey is addicted to for the more peaceful existence resting in his easy chair.  Plans for the future are put on hold, though, when a mysterious woman (Kate del Castillo, The 33) escapes from a Mexican prison and is reunited with her son Armando (Jacob Scipio), whom she dispatches to take ruthless revenge on a series of high profile (and familiar to us) individuals.  Spilling her secrets would delve into spoiler-territory but just know the multiple credited screenwriters have given Bad Boys for Life an appealing villain and villainess with an endless supply of cronies that don’t take kindly to any outside interference in their mission.

In previous films, Lowery and Burnett have largely been working on their own but this time they are paired with a young crew from AMMO, an elite squad of specialized officers led by Rita (Paola Nuñez) a former flame of Mike’s that was never fully extinguished.  There’s some clear groundwork being set to either create a spin-off for these new officers or keep them around if future installments are called for. I didn’t mind this too much, mostly because Vanessa Hudgens (Second Act), Alexander Ludwig (Lone Survivor), and Charles Melton knew when it was their turn to step up and when it was time to let Smith and Lawrence take center stage.

While I wouldn’t exactly say Smith is revitalized in Bad Boys for Life, he’s surely more on his game than he has been over the past several years.  Though he gives in to his bad habits of overselling dramatics in several opportune moments, he’s largely the charming action star that could open a summer movie with little effort and I’m hoping he enjoyed his work on the film because it suits him.  Lawrence is the real winner here, with the long-absent comedian making his welcome return to the screen (or public view in general) as a more centered, worldy-wise fella that holds to his convictions.  More often than not, the movie shifts gears to his strengths and that’s the wise, more entertaining choice.

I don’t know if it’s just because the two guys are getting older and have been through parenthood but Bad Boys for Life is also noticeably less heavy on the profanity that was so prevalent in the previous pictures.  It was non-stop in the second film to the point of pathetic obnoxiousness but the change for 2020 was welcome, if only to make one not feel so bad at the number of children in the theater attending the screening as well.  Belgian directors Adil & Bilall instead fill the movie with dynamic action sequences that are true showcases of brilliant stunt work and skilled execution.  They may lack in overall ‘pow’ factor that Bay could deliver but on the flip side I found them far easier to follow and stay engaged in.  With Bay’s films, they are so overproduced that you tend to want to step away from the movie for fear it may blow up in your face.  Adil & Bilall have a big movie on their hands but it has a way of bringing you closer in.

If rumors are true, a fourth film may be in the cards and Bay (who has a cameo in the film) is said to be returning as director.  Boy, I hope that isn’t true because I can only imagine how he’d mess up the good thing Smith and Lawrence have got going in this third Bad Boys film.  As of now, that’s in the distant future so until that becomes a reality just bask in the glow of a rarity – a successful return to a dormant series that’s been revived with an electric jolt.