Movie Review ~ Tag


The Facts
:

Synopsis: One month every year, five highly competitive friends hit the ground running in a no-holds- barred game of tag they’ve been playing since the first grade.

Stars: Ed Helms, Jake Johnson, Annabelle Wallis, Rashida Jones, Isla Fisher, Leslie Bibb, Hannibal Buress, Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner

Director: Jeff Tomsic

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: In their marketing, the studio releasing Tag is making a big deal of pointing out it’s based on a true story which, miraculously, is correct.  That’s the first and last genuine thing about Tag, a dreary supposed comedy that manages to take an interesting kernel of inspiration and turn it into a childish game no one will want to play a second round of.  Based on a story first reported in a 2013 Wall Street Journal article (and nicely profiled in a segment on CBS Sunday Morning), the original subjects fielded so much interest in their story they quickly cashed in on a deal for Hollywood to buy the rights to their curiously ongoing game.

Tag uses the basic premise of the shenanigans and takes heavy liberties with the storytelling as it follows five forever friends that have been playing the same game of tag one month each year for over three decades.  When one of the members who has never been “It” decides to quit, the other four scramble to get their hands on him before the month is up.  Problems arise when the quartet arrives to find their tricky target in the middle of his wedding weekend…but will that keep them from doing anything and everything they can to pass the touch and break his winning streak?

Oof…where to start with this?  Proving the bro-tastic juvenile antics of middle aged men in arrested development is a genre that’s still alive and kicking (even after the diminishing returns of The Hangover trilogy), Tag is a rare film that produces absolutely no likable characters for any audience member to latch onto.  None.  Starting at the top, there’s the usually affable Ed Helms (Vacation) as Hoagie, a sad-sack holder of the eternal tag flame who seemingly does nothing but wait until the yearly event to get his game on.  At the start of the film, he’s applying for a job as a janitor just to be able to tag his corporate friend Bob (Jon Hamm, Million Dollar Arm) and get him onboard with the  plot to tag Jerry (Jeremy Renner, The Bourne Legacy).   Your enjoyment of the film will be determined in these opening minutes between Hoagie and Bob – it’s a litmus test of how much lame-brainedness you’ll be able to take for the next hour and a half.

With Bob, Hoagie’s wife Anna (Isla Fisher, Now You See Me) and a Wall Street Journal reporter (Annabelle Wallis, Annabelle), ahem, tagging along, they recruit tag buddies Randy (Jake Johnson, The Mummy) and Kevin (Hannibal Buress, The Disaster Artist) and make their way to Washington state.  It’s there they plan to nab Jerry, who has been expecting the arrival of his old friends for one last round before he settles down with Susan (Leslie Bibb, Iron Man).  The resulting antics follow the gang as they repeatedly try to outsmart Jerry who manages to stay a few steps ahead and just out of reach.

Making his big screen directing debut, Jeff Tomsic may know his way around some cleverly staged bits of entrapment but too often he places the camera directly on his actors…someone should have told him the GoPro business is so 2012.   No one is helped by Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen’s staid screenplay that features expected developments and one remarkably tasteless joke the film returns to so often the audience literally began loudly groaning each time it was brought up.  Director and screenwriters don’t bother fleshing out any of the characters, nor do they explain how 47 year old Hamm and Renner were in the same class as 44 year old Helms, 40 year old Johnson, or (yikes!) 35 year old Buress.

Sure, movies are allowed to be silly and we’ve totally had enough films to stock a small college dorm room DVD library featuring men behaving like children – but I guess I’m just bummed Tag didn’t aspire to be anything more than a stupid time waste.  They at least could have presented some halfway decent characters for the cast to dive into.  Johnson’s (exhausting) character is a stoner who puffs away the entire movie and then thinks he’s somehow appealing to an old flame played by Rashida Jones, Decoding Annie Parker, in a part so thankless she literally should have actually been thanked in the closing credits.  Then there’s Wallis’ reporter who just drops her story on Hamm’s questionable corporate ethics to report on this tag battle.  She must have had a giant per diem she’s willing to blow as she hops around the west coast with a group of dumbbells.

Aside from Bibb’s entertaining but slightly manic turn as Renner’s fiance, the only person that manages to eek a shred of kudos here is Fisher.  By-laws prevent “girls” (ugh) from playing so she’s the pitbull wife egging her husband and his friends on, all the while gnashing her teeth in desperation at wanting to play.  Her foul-mouthed rages provide some muted laughs and much like her role in Keeping Up with the Joneses (another one Hamm snoozed his way through) she’s proven more than capable of being the most interesting person onscreen.  Come to think of it, I’d have much rather seen a female version of this story…but maybe we’ll get a remake in 10 years with Sandra Bullock in Fisher’s role.

Movie Review ~ Keeping Up with the Joneses

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A suburban couple becomes embroiled in an international espionage plot when they discover that their seemingly perfect new neighbors are government spies.

Stars: Zach Galifianakis, Jon Hamm, Isla Fisher, Gal Gadot, Patton Oswalt

Director: Greg Mottola

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: When asked by a friend about my thoughts after screening Keeping Up with the Joneses, all I could offer up was, “It’s stupid.  Not bad, not unwatchable…just stupid.” If you’re ok with ‘stupid’ then by all means get thee to your local theater and plunk down those bucks to see a movie that gets it wrong from the get-go.

The problem is, I feel, with the cast.  Not that Zach Galifianakis (Muppets Most Wanted), Jon Hamm (Million Dollar Arm), Isla Fisher (Now You See Me), & Gal Gadot (Triple 9) are wrong for the movie…they’re just in the wrong roles.  Stick with me here, ok?  How many times have we seen movies where statuesque women and movie-star handsome men play secret agents in disguise? And in how many features do they have sidekicks that aren’t quite runway ready but are more than capable of carrying lighter material?  That’s the problem…all four actors above the title in Keeping Up with the Joneses are simply playing into expectations dictated by their Q-scores.

I think I would have enjoyed the movie more had Galifianakis and Fisher swapped roles with Hamm and Gadot because it would have afforded them (and audiences) a chance for something different.  Hamm could certainly have handled the comic bits and I think Galifianakis would have been able to smooth out some of the roughly scripted staid edges screenwriter Michael LeSieur couldn’t do himself.  And why couldn’t Fisher have been the confident super-spy that shows repressed suburban mom Gadot how to wear French cut lingerie and trade bullets with bad guys?

Sadly, no one asked my opinion so Keeping Up with the Joneses is just your standard spy comedy where everyone is simply coasting along to pick up their paycheck at the end of the week.  There’s little joy in the telling of the tale where government operatives Gadot and Hamm pose as new neighbors in a cul-de-sac populated by the employees of a local software business.  Galifianakis is the HR rep for the company and Fisher is his homemaker wife that’s the first to notice the new couple on the block is too good to be true.  When a mole offers to sell a valuable computer chip to the top bidder, the two couples become involved with a little espionage and a lot of poorly constructed action sequences.

If there is a VIP of the movie, Fisher is certainly it.  Possessing good comic instincts and a true talent for physical comedy, Fisher easily outperforms Hamm and Galifianakis, both of whom barely lift a finger to bring anything new to the party.  I wish Gadot’s role wasn’t quite so one-dimensional, though her role-reversal of power with her seemingly more macho counterpart is a nice wrinkle.  The supporting players are a collection of desperate scene stealers clearly compensated with free meals from their scenery chewing.

For all its brightly lit suburban bliss and basic cable action scenes, director Greg Mottola’s (Superbad) film looks pretty cheap.  I expected some of the sets to tip over if people leaned against them and the few special effects would have been impressive had this come out the summer after Tron did.  Keep your eyes open for a scene between Galifianakis and Hamm that was clearly a reshoot – both men are wearing wigs so fake looking you’d swear they raided the discount Halloween bin at CVS.

Possibly enjoyed as a rental down the line, Keeping Up with the Joneses isn’t worth much of an effort this fall.

Movie Review ~ The Great Gatsby (2013)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A Midwestern war veteran finds himself drawn to the past and lifestyle of his millionaire neighbor

Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Elizabeth Debicki, Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke, Amitabh Bachchan, Adelaide Clemens

Director: Baz Luhrmann

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 143 minutes

Trailer Review:  Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: It would be hard to graduate high school without having had to read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel “The Great Gatsby”.  A treasured tome for some and a hollow warning on the price of the American dream to others, the novel wasn’t a success when it was first released and only became popular after Fitzgerald’s death in 1940.  Over the years it’s been adapted for stage and screen (both large and small) but the key core of the novel’s brilliance has never been truly captured accurately.

This 2013 version of The Great Gatsby also misses the mark of what made has made the novel so timeless but it does capture the mood and feel of the era the best of any previous incarnations of the work.  Yes, it’s over the top, flashy, and delirious at times…but so were the roaring 20’s!  Director Baz Lurhmann has been faithful to the book as much as possible and utilized a well conditioned cast to the best of all of their collective abilities.

It’s the summer of 1922 and NYC is in the middle of Prohibition and right on the cusp of some major social change.  The days of wine and roses are numbered with The Great Depression right around the corner but no one is the wiser as they roll down their stockings, bob their hair, spend money like there’s no tomorrow, and dance the night away in speakeasies and at Jay Gatsby’s massive Long Island mansion.

Our narrator/moral center is Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) and as the film opens he’s relating a story of love and loss from the icy confines of a sanitarium.  Unable to bring himself to speak the words, he begins to write and so truly begins the story of how he found himself a bystander to a doomed love triangle between his mysterious neighbor Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained), his cousi Daisy (Carey Mulligan, Inside Llewyn Davis), and her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton, Zero Dark Thirty).

All of the elements from Fitzgerald’s novel come to life under the stellar work of production designer Catherine Martin (who also designed the jaw dropping costumes and happens to be Mrs. Lurhmann).  The green light that sits at the end of the Buchanan’s dock and acts as a beacon to Gatsby across the bay, the watchful billboard of a forgotten optometrist, even the classic lines and descriptive phrases are nicely incorporated courtesy of Lurhmann and Craig Pearce’s everything but the kitchen sink script.

That being said, even with everything in place there’s a severe lack of “the underneath” as I like to call it.  While the characters move around this gossamer landscape enacting acts of love and revenge, there’s precious little sympathy for any of them…which is largely the way Fitzgerald wrote them.  That may be hard for some people to get over when watching the film but Fitzgerald didn’t see these people as heroes in need of salvation but as indictments of the time and place in which they flourished.  Even so, I kept wishing there was more blood and guts on display rather than just flesh and bone.

Strangely, I’m not usually a fan of most of the leads in The Great Gatsby.  DiCaprio is constantly mentioned as one of our great actors and while I can give it to him that he’s turned in solid work in the last decade I haven’t thought his work was that underappreciated.  He was refreshing in Django Unchained and should have nabbed an Oscar nomination for his efforts but it’s with The Great Gatsby that I finally saw in DiCaprio the actor that I think he should be.  The haunted and deeply fragile Gatsby seems the most natural fit for DiCaprio and he’s quite acceptable in the part.

Mulligan is making a habit of playing these delicate, bird-like characters and this just seems another exercise with Mulligan using the tricks she’s accumulated in her cinematic wheelhouse.  Though I think she’s ultimately well cast, those familiar with her work won’t see anything truly new.  DiCaprio’s best friend Maguire is well suited for playing the closest thing Gatsby has to a best friend and thankfully ditches his puppy-dog mumble technique to really deliver as the flawed narrator of the piece that isn’t so innocent in what happens over the course of the film.

Edgerton makes a strong showing as Tom Buchanan, a man that doesn’t appreciate what he has until it’s nearly gone.  Though having an affair with a mechanic’s wife (Isla Fischer who’s better here than she is in Now You See Me), he clings to Daisy when he sees her getting close to Gatsby.  Ultimately, Tom sets into motion the tragic final act of the piece involving the mechanic (Jason Clarke, so good in Zero Dark Thirty and Lawless), all the while knowing what the outcome will be.

Special mention needs to be made for Elizabeth Debicki’s strong supporting work as golf pro Jordan Baker, a friend to the Buchanan’s, Gatsby, and Nick.  Though she could be viewed as working all sides, in Debicki’s capable hands the role is smoothed out and is the best representation of a character that would believably be living and breathing during the 20’s.  Keep an eye on this actress, she’s fascinating to watch.

Much has been made of Lurhmann teaming with rapper Jay-Z to bring a modern sound to the film and I was nervous after hearing early reports that the film was sidelined by its soundtrack.  So I was happy to see (well, hear) that the music is worked in rather unobtrusively to the film and in some cases works to heighten the happenings onscreen.  Lana Del Rey’s spine chilling “Young and Beautiful” is laced into several scenes in a few different iterations, its lyrics and sound perfectly capturing the longing and fears of our characters.  Other efforts, like Beyonce’s cover of Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” don’t land right but that’s the problem of the re-working of the song not the movie.

Filmed in 3D, the first half of the movie is very much like previous Lurhamann efforts…meaning that it’s fast edited within an inch of its life.  The editing really represents what’s happening on screen because the first part is a fever dream of excess and confusion.  When Gatsby and Daisy are reunited (in a scene that I’ll admit had my pulse racing) the movie settles down and only works itself up again as it careens into its finale.

Though it was brought to television in a 2000 effort starring Mira Sorvino, the last time Gatsby was on screen was in 1974 starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow.  While that sounds like ideal casting, the final effort was a dreadful bore – it’s 1 minute longer than this version but feels like an hour.  Though this still isn’t the perfect Gatsby, for me it’s dang close.  Still without a vibrantly beating heart, the movie swirls and twirls around you and is more engaging than you might think.  Ultimately, it’s a film that’s been on my mind a lot in the last few days and one that is worth seeing in the theaters.

Movie Review ~ Now You See Me

5

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An FBI agent and an Interpol detective track a team of illusionists who pull off bank heists during their performances and reward their audiences with the money.

Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Morgan Freeman, Woody Harrelson, Mark Ruffalo, Michael Caine, Common, Mélanie Laurent, Dave Franco

Director: Louis Leterrier

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 105 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  Back in November when I reviewed the trailer for Now You See Me, I mentioned how difficult it was for films about magic to really draw movie audiences in because seeing disappear on screen is much less interesting than being dazzled in a live environment.  Well it turns out that drawing the audience in is the least of the troubles the film is saddled with because the movie itself is too lame brained for words.  While not as big of a loser as The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, it’s a bummer of a summer flick that does its best to distract you with smoke and mirrors but ultimately can’t disguise the fact that it’s a second rate act with no impressive finale.

The film has a fairly solid opening as we are introduced to four illusionists that are brought together to form the Four Horsemen.  Though all four seem to know each other, there’s not a lot of back-story offered up so we’re just supposed to accept that everyone is aware that the others are equally smart tricksters.  Soon the Four Horsemen are doing a show at the MGM Grand and in performing one masterful trick that’s tied to a bank heist they catch the attention of the FBI (Mark Ruffalo, Marvel’s The Avengers), Interpol (Mélanie Laurent), and a sly former magician (Morgan Freeman, Oblivion) now more interested in pulling back the curtain on other magic acts.

Like most magic tricks, the film becomes less interesting the more that things are explained.  Aside from the swift opening, much of the film feels deliberately manipulative to continue to support the overblown set-up.  Some of the magic is revealed in ways that are easy to accept but too much of the tricks on display have no basis in reality.  Had the movie employed more of a sci-fi/alternate reality aspect to it like Looper it may have made the more eye-rolling moments easier to digest.

Part of the problem is that there are just too many cooks in the script kitchen.  Boasting a remarkable five (FIVE!) screenwriters, the movie feels like a heavy bowl of stone soup with multiple people contributing to the pot.  I’ve mentioned the curious (but obviously intentional) lack of back-story but also offered up for evidence are large gaps of time and information that simply aren’t accounted for.  The script so clearly wants to keep us in the dark that it becomes frustrating to watch.  The best films with twists and turns handle their misdirection with a proper plan for revealing the man behind the curtain but it’s patently clear that no such pre-planning was done here.

The finale of the film feels like the fourth or fifth one that was shot.  It comes out of nowhere and feels like one screenwriter was mailed the outline of ¾ of a script and told to write the rest without consulting with anyone else.  It also cheats the audience by asking us to accept s certain fact without referring back to what we already know is true.  This is not the way to make a satisfying caper film and audiences that are paying good money to see the film deserve better.

Assembling an interesting array of actors is probably the best trick that the film achieves though not everyone is quite as successful.  I’m officially over Jesse Eisenberg as he turns in his umpteenth version of the same character – a cocky annoyance that fancies himself an elevated David Copperfield.  Also on the low end is Isla Fisher, normally put to good use but who is strangely out of place and out of a consistent American accent.  And why her character wears these tiny motorcycle gloves for the whole film may be the biggest mystery of all…dry skin, maybe?

Harrelson, Caine, and Freeman are their dependable selves but it’s Ruffalo and French star Laurent that are the most interesting people to watch.  I wasn’t too keen on Laurent as the movie opened but Ruffalo is a good cinematic partner that can make his co-stars shine.  Though Ruffalo winds up being shorted as the film progresses, he soldiers forth gamely — though he must have been asking himself, “I went from playing The Incredible Hulk to this?”

Speaking of The Hulk, Now You See Me is directed by Louis Leterrier who was in the director’s seat for the 2008 failed reboot of The Incredible Hulk with Edward Norton.  Leterrier brings the same energy he brought to that film and two Transporter films by keeping the camera in constant motion with little reprieve for the audience.  Though the camera work is not hand-held, it’s a whirling dervish of movement that could send weak stomached audience members on a queasy adventure to the lavatory.

Though some of Now You See Me is interesting in passing, it’s not worth your time and money in a busy summer movie season.  Even on Redbox or Netflix the film would only be a middling choice for the savvy movie-goer.  Now You See Me…you shouldn’t.

The Silver Bullet ~ Now You See Me

Synopsis: FBI agents track a team of illusionists who pull off bank heists during their performances and reward their audiences with the money.

Release Date:  June 7, 2013

Thoughts:  I’m all for movies that have a few nice tricks up their sleeves and Now You See Me looks to have some nifty ones waiting for us.  Though not being released until June of 2013, I have high hopes for this caper film that boasts an impressive lineup of character actors from Morgan Freeman to Woody Harrelson.  Never being a huge fan of Jesse Eisenberg (who essentially plays the same character in each film…he’s like an American Hugh Grant), I’m willing to give him another chance with this one.  Movies about magic can be difficult because audiences don’t always like to feel like a film is pulling a fast one on them…but the premise looks interesting, the cast is appealing, and arriving at the start of the summer movie season could be a nice counter-programming move to the bombastic flicks that will surely be occupying every other theater at that time.  Count me in for this.

Movie Review ~ Bachelorette

The Facts:

Synopsis: Three friends are asked to be bridesmaids at a wedding of a woman they used to ridicule back in high school.

Stars: Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher, Lizzy Caplan, James Marsden, Adam Scott, Rebel Wilson, Kyle Bornheimer

Director: Leslye Headland

Rated: R

Running Length: 91 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:   Oh Bridesmaids, what hath you wrought?  The 2011 mega hit made a big buzz because it was a film written by women, starring women, not just for women, and exceedingly funny.  First shrugged off as a female answer to the rowdy popularity of The Hangover, it quickly separated itself from the pack of imitators by matching that film laugh for laugh (often beating it).  Being released the same summer as the inferior The Hangover: Part II, Bridesmaids was one of the most talked about films of the year…deservedly so.

A year later comes another movie that draws obvious comparisons to Bridesmaids in tone, structure, and even casting (Wilson appears in both films but in different roles).  Bachelorette was written and directed by Headland who adapted it from her stage play and it’s not hard to see why the material would have worked well as a live performance.  Ribald humor, male strippers, and catty asides probably provided some nice laughs but having not seen the piece I can’t say how many characters/situations were added/embellished for the big screen treatment.

Providing a few nice laughs, Bachelorette unfortunately gets sunk in its multiple excesses of girls behaving badly.  None of the three leads are crafted as particularly likable characters so it’s tough to get invested in their shenanigans as they prove to be awful bridesmaids and lousy friends.  Without many/any redeemable qualities the women become exhausting cartoons and that creates a rift with the viewer.

It takes a rare performer to make an unlikable character involving and sadly Dunst is far from up to the task.  As the head honcho bridesmaid, it’s never clear why she’s friends with the bride (Wilson, operating in a far less quirky vibe than she has in Bridesmaids, What to Expect When You’re Expecting, and the upcoming Pitch Perfect) or why she’s so dang angry.  Dunst just doesn’t have the timing, skill, or commitment for comedy and she’s in way over her head before the film is even half over.

Caplan and Fisher have demonstrated a knack for comedy in the past but here they are each playing such stereotypical roles that you know where they’re going to end up long before they do.  I’ve a feeling that Caplan will regret playing such a snidely clueless doormat and Fisher will wish she hadn’t played yet another total idiot but both actresses at least roll up their sleeves and dig into their parts which is more than Dunst can say. 

Like Bridesmaids, the men operate merely as pawns for the women to chew their scenery with.  It’s too bad that the talented guys aren’t called on to do more than move the show along without much functionality but Scott, Marsden, and especially Bornheimer do the best with what they have.

Headlund makes her directing debut here and perhaps a more experienced director could have taken her paper-thin script and made something of it.  As it stands, there’s not much style on display and the cinematography by Doug Emmett leaves much to be desired.  It’s nearly a point and shoot affair and one wonders if Headlund couldn’t envision her script outside of a confined stage-like setting.

It’s clear from the get-go that this movie got made simply because of the plot description in the hopes of another success with female audiences.  It’s not a total wash of a film, let’s be clear.  It’s just a glossy copycat film that is trying to capitalize on the success of a hit film without having to really acknowledge that fact.

Having been released On Demand before debuting in the theaters Bachelorette has been a surprise hit, moving to the top of the charts…becoming the first film to do so without first being released in theaters.  That may bode well for the film down the road when it’s released in early September…or it may signify that it’s destined to be a Ladies Night In experience.