Synopsis: A couple meets up with another couple while on vacation in Mexico, but their friendship takes an awkward turn when they get back home.
Stars: John Cena, Lil Rel Howery, Meredith Hagner, Yvonne Orji, Robert Wisdom, Andrew Bachelor, Lynn Whitfield
Director: Clay Tarver
Running Length: 103 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: I’ve a sneaking suspicion that had Vacation Friends arrived on schedule before production was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, that I might not have been as keen to it as I wound up being. Let’s be clear, this is one of those Jumbo Margarita drinks of a film. The kind with sugar on the rim instead of salt. It’s meant to melt your troubles away as a carefully designed frothy concoction of the easiest parts of a comedy (slapstick, foul language, embarrassing situations) that’s served up in a sweet package to go down easier than it ever really should. Toss in a game quartet of leads and a director smart enough to let his actors do most of the work in helping move the dial toward success and you have a perfect blend for a sunny summer comedy that aims to please.
Marcus (Lil Rel Howery, Tag) and his girlfriend Emily (Yvonne Orji, Night School) have arrived at their luxury Mexican resort to a less than amazing reception. Their room is flooded thanks to the couple above them leaving the water running in their massive jacuzzi. This not only leaves Marcus and Emily without a place to stay but it seriously messes up the planned proposal Marcus had organized for Emily. Just as Marcus is about to lose his cool, the other couple shows up and hearing about the newly engaged arrivals insists that the room-less duo stay with them…at least for the evening. Ron (John Cena, Dolittle) and Kyla (Meredith Hagner, Brightburn) like to party and after loosening up their new guests with a little adult beverage and perhaps an illegal substance or two, the four spend the next days on adventures before their final night when things get a little too out of control.
Seven months later it’s time for wedding bells to ring for Emily and Marcus, but at their Atlanta welcome reception who should show up but their friends from Mexico, shocked to not receive an invite to the nuptials. Now it’s Marcus and Emily’s turn to host Ron and Kyla for the week, during which time they’ll learn more about the brazen pair they barely knew for a few days in Mexico and also find out how Kyla got pregnant…even though Ron had previously told them he couldn’t have children. Could something have happened that last night in Mexico that no one can remember? As the wedding date draws near and tensions rise between Marcus and Emily’s father (Robert Wisdom, The Dark Knight Rises), revelations come to light that might alter the “I Do’s” to “I Don’ts”.
What’s nice to see is that the trailer for Vacation Friends leaves out a large chunk of the movie that takes place in Mexico…and that’s a decent amount of laughs audiences have yet to discover. Though written by five screenwriters (oy, five?), the script doesn’t seem as choppy as the writing staff would suggest, not even when the film gets to a third act that could quite easily have gotten messy with a number of plot points to juggle. Director Clay Tarver mostly turns the film over to the likes of Howery and Cena and gives them mostly free reign to have fun with both their roles and the script – smart move. While we know Howery could make magic out of mice droppings, Cena’s timing is spot-on throughout and in his third movie of the summer (F9: The Fast Saga in June, The Suicide Squad in early August) he finally strikes at the golden role he’s been working toward. The tightly wound Howery’s immeasurable charm certainly helps keep things movie as well. Let’s not forget the contributions of Orji or Hagner either, both women hold their own alongside their partners and often outshine them in their own individual scenes. And hey, it was nice to see them being given these scenes in the first place when all the screenwriters are men!
I’d dock Vacation Friends a few points for failing to utilize a talented supporting cast of veteran actors like Chuck Cooper, Lynn Whitfield, and Anna Maria Horsford more thoroughly and also because it tends to lose all of its steam in several big huffs along the way to the altar, which starts to tire you out near the end. It has to work with some efficiency to get back into its groove, and it eventually does, but moments like a strange drug trip in the forest come off like a bad idea that no one had the nerve to shoot down. Not for nothing, but I was never less than completely amused and engaged for the entire length of the feature. Perhaps it was just the right movie for my mood at that particular moment, or maybe Vacation Friends is just a solid chunk of entertainment that isn’t (and doesn’t have to) unseat anything at the box office.
Synopsis: Supervillains Harley Quinn, Bloodsport, Peacemaker and a collection of nutty cons at Belle Reve prison join the super-secret, super-shady Task Force X as they are dropped off at the remote, enemy-infused island of Corto Maltese.
Stars: Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena, Joel Kinnaman, Sylvester Stallone, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Peter Capaldi, David Dastmalchian, Daniela Melchior, Michael Rooker, Alice Braga, Pete Davidson, Joaquín Cosío, Juan Diego Botto, Storm Reid, Nathan Fillion, Taika Waititi, Steve Agee, Flula Borg
Director: James Gunn
Running Length: 132 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review: Oh, sweet swampland did I hate 2016’s Suicide Squad. A real trash heap of a film from a talented director with a stellar line-up of A+ leads, a B+ supporting cast, and a B- set of comic-book characters to work with. No, the Suicide Squad wasn’t an area of DC Comics that I was familiar with before I saw the film, but you can see the attraction fans had for these oddballs – it’s the same reason why the similarly jokey (but far better) Deadpool went over so well with audiences. People like to root for the underdog, even if, and maybe even sometimes especially if, they are the villain.
While that PG-13 rated film failed to capitalize on the red-carpet Wonder Woman had rolled out just months earlier, Warner Brothers wasn’t quite ready to throw the towel in and they made a bold move by following-up the first film with a sequel that also serves as a semi-reboot in the process. Nabbing director James Gunn after he was briefly axed by Disney from Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3, the studio gained a legion of fans from the Marvel franchise who rejoiced that someone had plucked one of their favorite directors up after he had been (apparently) done wrong.
The resulting effort is The Suicide Squad and after five years it looks like Warner Brothers and DC Comics are nearly back in business, but not quite yet. With the success of an R-rated cut of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, the studio is more comfortable letting their films carry that restricted rating because it has proven to be what fans want. (It also doesn’t deter children from seeing the film. At my press screening, I can’t tell you how “overjoyed” I was to see so many parents bring their little children to this hard-R film. Congrats, all!) With an abundance of grisly gore and language that would make the Squad from sanitized feeling 2016 blush, this crew is way more amped up and ready to play than the previous iteration and that admittedly makes for a more entertaining ride.
Audiences are in for a surprise at the beginning of the film because nothing is quite what it seems…or how the movie has been marketed up until now. I’ll leave it at that, and you can read between the lines in my review if you want to know more about what that means in terms of who is in the film and for how long. Returning from the original film is Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman, RoboCop), leading a group of skilled supervillains including Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, I, Tonya) and Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney, Jack Reacher) to an island nation on the orders of Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom). The leader of the country with friendly relations to the United States has been murdered, along with his family and now a top-secret weapon is at risk of falling into the hands of revolutionaries who don’t know what kind of power they could wield.
New to the team are Peacemaker (John Cena, in his second franchise film of the summer after F9: The Fast Saga) and Bloodsport (Idris Elba, Concrete Cowboy), two alpha males forced to work together who each try to outdo one another when it comes to killing the most bad guys. Add in King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone, Creed), Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), and Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian, Prisoners) and your rag-tag team of the strange and unusual but highly deadly is mostly complete. They’ll find they need to rely on each other and their individual strengths (some they were born with, some thrust upon them) when faced with an enemy that’s truly out of this world.
It’s easy to draw a line from the misfit crew in Guardians of the Galaxy all the way over to the denizens of the maximum-security prisons where The Suicide Squad does its recruiting, so Gunn makes a natural fit for these proceedings. What doesn’t quite work all the time is the film’s overcompensation for having an elevated rating this time around. Brandishing it’s more adult rating instead of doling it out with some style, it’s often sloppy and slappy instead of sharp like it should be. The first fifteen minutes of the movie are legitimately terrible, and I was honestly dreading what was to come next, but then Gunn makes a move I didn’t see coming and suddenly I was interested again. From that point on I felt like more engaging characters were brought in with increasingly raised stakes.
By now, it’s official that Elba is a bona-fide star and this only hammers that point home. How they missed the window of opportunity to have him take over as James Bond is simply beyond me (or is it not too late?). He can do action, drama, comedy, you name it and he gets the chance to flex all those muscles here and then some. In her third outing as the demented former flame of the Joker, Robbie continues to fine tune the role and even if 2020’s Birds of Prey was a better showcase, she’s no second banana here either. I was left a little cold by Cena earlier this summer in F9: The Fast Saga but he’s a lot of fun here as an all-business killer for hire that does it all in the name of peace. Gunn’s casting of Stallone as the Great White Shark looking for “num-num” is inspired and he easily steals the show with the least number of (full and coherent) sentences spoken out of anyone. Kudos also to Davis for truly going for it this time out. Davis rarely gets the chance to play these kinds of women and as morally challenged as Amanda Waller was in the 2016 film, she’s far more in the muck of it all in this one.
I guess my biggest stumbling block with both this film and its predecessor is that I just haven’t yet warmed to this branch of the DC Universe. While I found this team to be much easier to get along with than the last one, I still don’t like the vibe that has permeated both movies. A little of that same vibe was even present in the Guardians films so maybe it’s just a case of preferring my superheroes/villains more on the traditional side of things and less on the outskirts of society. The Suicide Squad can hold its head high because it rights many of the wrongs that were done back in 2016, but it also needs to reconcile the fact that this team can’t even hold a candle to the likes of Batman and Superman in my book.
Synopsis: Dominic Toretto and his crew battle the most skilled assassin and high-performance driver they’ve ever encountered: his forsaken brother.
Stars: Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Nathalie Emmanuel, John Cena, Charlize Theron, Sung Kang, Helen Mirren, Kurt Russell, Lucas Black, Finn Cole, Vinnie Bennett
Director: Justin Lin
Running Length: 143 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Oh my, my! Can 20 years have flown by so fast? The biggest thing I remember about 2001’s The Fast & The Furious is that on the way to the screening a rock hit my windshield and sent a huge crack through it and I obsessively thought about it during the whole movie, clouding my vision of what would kick off a multi-billion dollar franchise. The second film two years later came out on what was then the biggest screen in my state but after that the movies in the Fast saga have tended to blend together, creating a bit of a mish mash in my head of plot lines and characters. For a time, each entry built upon its predecessor and gained an edge, but they’ve never not been entertaining in one way or another. Part of the fun is the way the series is willing to go over the top to please its devoted audience.
While fans have waited longer for a sequel before, they’ve been positively chomping at the bit to get behind the wheel of F9: The Fast Saga, which was delayed a full year when it became one of the first films to commit to pushing their release date when the pandemic hit in early 2020. And really, watching one of these adrenaline-fueled action pics in a theater is truly the only way to see them…at least for the first viewing. Car stunt wise, I’m not sure that F9: The Fast Saga is the biggest the series has had to offer but the entire experience is certainly the furthest over-the-edge the unexpectedly hearty epic has to offer. It’s also completely ridiculous and pushes credulity so far even ride or die fans might need to pull of for a breather.
After a flashback opening set far enough back in time that the film opens with Universal’s older logo (a nice little thrill for this nostalgia hound), we’re back in the present to find Dom (Vin Diesel, Riddick) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez, She Dies Tomorrow) living the quiet life on a farm with Dom’s young son. Out of “the life” long enough to mention it and then in the next scene have some old friends stop by to pull them back in for a rescue mission, the two leave their peaceful retirement behind and enter into a deadly operation that puts Dom face to face with his past.
As with most of the Fast films, it pays to know the history of the franchise and the various characters that have floated in and out because a number of them zoom through. Charlize Theron (Bombshell), Kurt Russell (Backdraft), Helen Mirren (The Good Liar), and Shea Wingham (The Quarry) are just a few previous players who make an appearance, along with several more whom I won’t reveal in order to keep some surprises for you to discover. New to the racetrack is John Cena (Bumblebee) as Dom’s younger brother (this ain’t no spoiler) and due to their complicated history there’s more than a little sibling rivalry going on between the two that has led to the men operating on opposite sides of the law. Cena (who looks two and a half times as large as Diesel) sort of works perfectly in the film, obviously meant to fill a gap that The Rock left when he and Jason Statham were spun-off into 2019’s Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw. Cena may still have room to grow in the acting department but so did Diesel when he started back in the day and even he’s still finding the right gear to operate in.
By this stage, the plots are almost beside the point, seeing that we know each film is but a pit stop in an apparently never-ending highway of crazy. Multiple times during this ninth outing I had to stifle a ‘bu**ls**it!’ from coming out of my mouth (and actually let one slip out) because what screenwriters Daniel Casey and Justin Lin (Star Trek Beyond) have come up with strains at the very limits of disbelief and it’s only because audiences are in the ninth go-around of this journey that they’ll likely absolve the filmmakers of some of the audacious flights of fancy they send Dom and his gang on or superhuman strength they imbue them with. At the very least, you have to get some credit for not rolling your eyes all the way around in their sockets for Diesel making it through nearly the entire film wearing the crispest white T-Shirt you’ve ever seen and never see it get a mark on it. I couldn’t walk through an airtight box of air without getting it stained somehow yet this racer can flip his car and send it soaring over bridges and escape without barely a smudge? Or a tear?
The rest of the group is accounted for and giving their same best pedal to the metal, with Rodriguez again finding more soul to her character than I ever could have thought way back when it was a one-note second banana that nearly exited before a miraculous resurrection. I’m shocked Tyrese Gibson (Fast & Furious 6) and Ludacris haven’t also found themselves in their own film because their chemistry is locked and loaded – it’s time for them to branch out. She’s featured much less in this one but Theron (sporting a haircut even worse than the last film) revels in her villainy, understanding completely the role she’s tasked with. Jordana Brewster (Furious 7) gets roped in for more action, and it makes more sense because this one involves her two brothers and not just taking the place for her husband, Brian (the late Paul Walker). While it is noble the filmmakers chose not to write Walker’s character out of the picture after his tragic death, it is becoming odd that they are continuing to pretend he’s still alive…going so far as to show Brian’s car driving around but not Walker driving it.
I haven’t done a full re-watch of the series yet and I think before the inevitable F10 it’s time for me to get around to that. Timelines and storylines have all zig-zagged around so much that it’s beginning to get hard to track who is coming and going but as long as there is gas in the tank and air in the tires, this box office speedster is unstoppable. It might not make any kind of logical sense, but F9: The Fast Saga has made the lengthy wait worth it for legions of its admirers.
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
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…
Synopsis: On the run in the year 1987, Bumblebee finds refuge in a junkyard in a small Californian beach town. Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), on the cusp of turning 18 and trying to find her place in the world, discovers Bumblebee, battle-scarred and broken. When Charlie revives him, she quickly learns this is no ordinary, yellow VW bug.
Stars: Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Pamela Adlon, Kenneth Choi, John Ortiz, Angela Bassett,
Director: Travis Knight
Running Length: 113 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: By the time director Michael Bay spewed forth Transformers: Age of Extinction in 2014 I wasn’t even paying attention anymore. At that point the series had long since blended together into one long headache of an action sequence, barely indistinguishable from one movie to the next. I do remember, however, falling asleep during Transformers: The Last Knight in 2017 for an extended period of time and waking up having no clue where I was or what was happening…occupational hazard. After five (FIVE!) increasingly bombastic films that made a lot of money but never received great reviews, this spin-off was announced and I’d honestly been dreading it ever since. Though Bay (Pain & Gain) wouldn’t be in the director’s chair he’d still be producing the prequel and I just figured it would be more of the same sturm und drang nonsense.
Turns out, a fresh perspective is just what the doctor ordered to zap some heart and soul into an emotionally defunct franchise. The lovably retro Bumblebee is not just a solidly pleasing action film that succeeds on its stand-alone own merits but it’s the best Transformers movie released to date. By relegating Bay and his tendency to overstuff to the sidelines, there’s more air for everyone else to breathe and the result is a thrill ride that knows when to lay off the gas and when to floor it.
While escaping from the evil Decepticons that have overtaken the planet Cybertron, young Autobot B-127 is sent by his leader Optimus Prime to Earth to get things ready for the other Autobots to follow. B-127 crash lands in 1987 southern California, right in the middle of a routine training operation led by Jack Burns (John Cena, Sisters) who heads a secret government organization. Quickly targeted by Burns and his crew as a threat to Earth’s safety, he escapes but is severely wounded in the process. Using the last of his dwindling power supply, B-127 transforms into the last thing he sees…a yellow Volkswagen beetle.
This opening sequence is fairly breathless in pace and it’s at this point that director Travis Knight (ParaNorman) allows the audience a chance to take it easy while he introduces us to Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), a typical teen working a summer job at a local amusement park. Her mom (Pamela Adlon, Grease 2) doesn’t understand her, the boy she maybe likes doesn’t know she’s alive, and all the time not spent at work is dedicated to finishing up repairing a car she was working on with her late father. Exploring the local junk yard she comes across a few of the parts she needs as well as a strange yellow Volkswagen beetle that seems to be a perfect fit for her. When the bug becomes hers and its secrets revealed, it will put Charlie and her family in danger as B-127 (renamed Bumblebee) unknowingly sends out a signal that attracts the attention of two evil Decepticons that have been hot on his trail.
Screenwriter Christina Hodson doesn’t set out to reinvent the wheel with the film, it’s still very much in the Transformers universe and to me all the talk about Decepticons, Autobots, Optimus Prime, and a host of other robot adjacent vernacular went in one ear and out the other. It was the personal moments between the tech talk that struck me as something more interesting, more special than anything previously seen in these movies. More time is spent on character development without ever skimping on action or flawless CGI, proving that you can have your AllSpark cake and savor eating it too.
The weakest parts are actually anytime it starts to take itself too seriously, namely whenever Cena’s wooden Burns is leading the charge to take Bumblebee down. Unwittingly helping the two rogue Decepticons Shatter (given a sinewy evil voice by Angela Bassett, Black Panther) and Dropkick (voiced by Justin Theroux, Wanderlust), Burns is one of those middling villains that’s neither good nor bad but serves his purpose to bring the two main foes together and then just sort of fades into the background. It doesn’t help that Cena’s early promise of charm as an actor is fading fast, showing that he’s more Andre the Giant than The Rock.
Helping the film immeasurably is Steinfeld as our leading lady. As she’s done in nearly everything she’s been involved with, Steinfeld elevates the material to another level and imbibes the character with a little something extra that makes her relatable to almost any audience member. You didn’t have to be an angsty teenage girl growing up without a dad in the ‘80s to root for her character completely. I also appreciated that while a potential love interest (Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Love Simon) was introduced and could definitely have been explored further, Hodson decided that wasn’t the focus of the story being told here and saved that for another time and place.
Thankfully, there aren’t endless winks and nods to the other sequels, allowing Bumblebee to very much stand on its own. Most of these types of prequels feel like they only exist to capitalize on the name recognition of an already established popular franchise and there’s little doubt that’s what Bumblebee is counting on to at least get people in the door. It’s when those audience members get a look at the clever way the filmmakers have drawn a line between this film and the Transformers movies that have already come before that they’ll really be impressed.
Review: We all love Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, right? I mean, through their celebrated time at Saturday Night Live to their post-late night days with 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation, both have shown themselves to be fun-loving ladies that work well with others. There’s nothing like it when Fey and Poehler team up, though, so Sisters should have been a slam dunk, right?
If the end result is less of a slam dunk and more of a two-pointer, it’s at least better than their last pairing, the tepid Baby Mama from 2008. That film was highly anticipated but came off feeling like we were watching an extended SNL sketch with Fey playing her usual nerd-ish but noble lady and Poehler going big as a white trash pseudo-surrogate. In the ensuing years, Poehler and Fey have been reunited on several small screen occasions leading up to successfully hosting the Golden Globes three times, ruling over the festivities with their sly observances.
And now we have another attempt at striking it rich on the big screen and while Sisters is markedly better than Baby Mama, it still winds up falling short of the packaged potential of its stars. This time, there seemed to be some real thought put into the piece, with Fey and Poehler wisely playing against type in bringing friend (and former SNL writer) Paula Pell’s sorta biographical screenplay to life.
When Maura and Kate’s parents (Dianne Wiest, Parenthood and James Brolin, The 33) decide to sell the Florida home of their youth and move into a retirement complex, the sisters are tasked with cleaning out their room before the new family moves in. Maura (Poehler, Inside Out) is the responsible one, the sister that never got into trouble and was an eternal sober cab for her hard partying sister Kate (Fey, Admission). Upset with their parents for listing the lot without telling them, they decide to host one big party for their friends before they have to pack it in and move on with their lives. Kate promises to abstain from booze so Maura can let loose but as the night goes on the sisters find themselves plunked back into old habits, not always of their own free will.
The film takes a while to get going and it mostly coasts along nicely. There’s a charming romantic subplot with Maura romancing a hunky neighbor (Ike Barinholtz, heretofore not hunky) and it gives Poehler some nice moments, comedic and otherwise. Barinholtz should get some props here for dealing with a fairly nasty gross-out gag, one of several that occur during the night of increasing debauchery.
Director Jason Moore (Pitch Perfect) knows when to let his stars do their thing but manages to keep control of the wild party that takes up the latter half of the film. Balancing a host of comedic players (like Horatio Sanz as that guy we all hate at parties and Maya Rudolph as a bitchy rival) with some third act emotional resonance is no easy task but Sisters earns its stripes thanks to its game cast and willingness to “go there” for laughs.
Boldly opening the same weekend as Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Sisters is marketing itself as that other movie you can see after your Star Wars fix is complete. It’s clever #YouCanSeeBoth campaign works in its good-natured favor and audiences should see both films during their theatrical run.
We did it! We made it through another summer and while the outdoor heat wasn’t too bad (in Minnesota, at least) the box office was on fire.
I’ll admit that I indulged in summer fun a bit more than I should, distracting me from reviewing some key movies over the last three months so I wanted to take this opportunity to relive the summer of 2015, mentioning my thoughts on the movies that got away and analyzing the winners and losers by month and overall.
So sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride read.
I just wasn’t prepared for July. It hit me like a ton of bricks, a wave of cinematic excursions that made my head spin. So many movies were released that it was hard to keep track from week to week what was arriving and what was still waiting for its release date. As you can see below, I had a lot of catching-up to do
The month began with the disappointment of Terminator Genisys. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting from the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger but it for sure wasn’t the muddled misfire that was supposed to reboot this franchise. Badly cast with shoddy special effects, this was supposed to be the beginning of something but should likely be the end (though it did do well overseas so we may yet get another one of these in a few years).
A few summers back I lamented how bad the original Magic Mike was. Trading eye candy entertainment for any semblance of watchable narrative, it was another dud (for me) from Steven Soderbergh. So you’d understand why I wasn’t keen on Magic Mike XXL because I felt we’d already been there done that. Much to my delight, the sequel was much better than its predecessor, maintaining the fun frivolity of the world of male strippers while injecting some personality into the proceedings. Quite possible the biggest surprise of the summer for me.
I learned a lot from the wise documentary Amy, chronicling the rise and fall of Amy Winehouse, the singer with the bluesy voice and broken butterfly backstory. She had a lot to overcome and the film made a compelling argument that she would still be here today had she had a better support system.
Though I loved the Minions in the Despicable Me films, I didn’t care for their solo outing with its half-baked story and less that inspired vocal work. It felt like a quick cash-grab and it looks like it accomplished its goal. Hopefully next time they’ll come back with a better story and more convincing actors.
The found footage horror movie had its death knell with The Gallows, a brainless exercise in tedium peppered with cheap scares and lousy acting. Could have (and should have) been much better.
Now we approach a stretch where I checked out for a bit – but I’m atoning for it now with these mini-reviews.
Movie Review ~ Batkid Begins The Facts: Synopsis: On one day, in one city, the world comes together to grant one 5-year-old cancer patient his wish. Batkid Begins looks at the ‘why’ of this flash phenomenon. Stars: Miles Scott Director: Dana Nachman Rated: PG Running Length: 87 minutes TMMM Score: (7/10) Review: Can I admit something to you and not have you hate me? When I first saw the media frenzy around this back in 2013 I remember rolling my eyes are the saccharine nature of the whole endeavor. Why would an entire city be brought to a screeching halt because of one kid’s wish to be Batman for a day? Well, the documentary Batkid Begins showed me why and by the end I was feeling like a lout for my initial feelings and wiping away the happy tears the film easily brings forth from the viewer. Following the planning and execution by the Make-A-Wish Foundation to give a 5 year old leukemia survivor the day of his dreams, viewers get a glimpse at what goes into even the smallest wish granted by the organization. While it at times comes off like a big advertisement, it’s heart is most certainly in the right place and I found myself getting choked up with each good deed and promise fulfilled by a host of people involved in making the day come off without a hitch. An audience-pleasing winner.
Movie Review ~ The Overnight The Facts: Synopsis: A family “playdate” becomes increasingly interesting as the night goes on. Stars: Adam Scott, Jason Schwartzman, Taylor Schilling, Judith Godrèche Director: Patrick Brice Rated: R Running Length: 79 minutes TMMM Score: (7/10) Review: There and gone in an instant, The Overnight is a film better suited for home viewing anyway. A couple (Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling) new to the area meet Jason Schwartzman at a local playground where both of their children are playing. Their kids have hit it off so Schwartzmann invites the family over for more fun, but when the kids go to bed Schwartzman and his wife Judith Godrèche have more interesting games to play for the unsuspecting couple. Saying more would spoil the fun but it’s an adults only evening with oodles of twists and turns as both couples bare their secrets (and their bodies) before the night is over. Already famous for its full frontal shots of Schwartzman and Scott (sorry, both are wearing prosthetics), at 79 minutes the movie is short but does start to feel long in the middle section. It helps immensely that all four actors are competent and comfortable with the material…the story doesn’t hold back and neither do they.
Movie Review ~ Ant-Man The Facts: Synopsis: Armed with a super-suit with the astonishing ability to shrink in scale but increase in strength, con-man Scott Lang must embrace his inner hero and help his mentor, Dr. Hank Pym, plan and pull off a heist that will save the world. Stars: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Michael Pena, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, David Dastmalchian, T.I. , Judy Greer, Bobby Cannavale, Martin Donovan, Wood Harris, John Slattery, Gregg Turkington, Abby Ryder Fortson Director: Peyton Reed Rated: PG-13 Running Length: 117 minutes TMMM Score: (6/10) Review: Early troubles with the start of production with Ant-Man and some seriously questionable teasers/trailers didn’t get me very excited for this mid-summer superhero movie. I think Marvel was hoping that Ant-Man would score along the lines of last summer’s Guardians of the Galaxybut it’s sadly missing the humor that made Guardians so much fun. It’s not a total wash though because for every 10 minutes of standard origin-story developments, there’s a solid 5 minutes of exciting action sequences to wake audiences up from their slumber. I know that with an origin story you need to cover a lot of ground and Ant-Man, to its additional credit, doesn’t waste much time in getting to the goods…but it’s a cheap-o undertaking and one that feels like a second-string entry in Marvel’s blockbuster universe. Paul Rudd makes for a surprisingly solid action lead as does Corey Stoll as Rudd’s nemesis, but Evangeline Lilly labors too much under her severe wig (that seems to change lengths multiple times, in the middle of scenes) and isn’t a good enough actress to carry some weighty responsibilities. A decent entry as far as Marvel films go…but I’m not clamoring for a sequel any time soon.
Movie Review ~ Irrational Man The Facts: Synopsis: A tormented philosophy professor finds a will to live when he commits an existential act. Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey, Jamie Blackley, Betsy Aidem, Ethan Phillips, Sophie von Haselberg Director: Woody Allen Rated: R Running Length: 96 minutes Trailer Review:Here TMMM Score: (6/10) Review: It happens every year and every year you never quite know what to expect. I’m speaking, of course, of the annual Woody Allen release and like many of the directors works, it’s a hit or miss affair. I’m constantly in awe that Allen has churned out a film a year (sometimes two a year) for the last three decades and even the really bad ones aren’t as terrible as the other dreck dumped on us during the summer. Last year Magic in the Moonlight was dismissed as too slight even for Allen but I enjoyed its frothy charm…something that was missing from the more serious-minded Irrational Man. As a boozy professor that gets into hot water in his New England college town, Joaquin Phoenix was perhaps the wrong choice because the actor plagues himself far too much for Allen’s light material. At least co-star Emma Stone helps keep Phoenix from the quicksand of his own creation but she can’t be in every scene and it’s when Phoenix is on his own that the film goes slack. Then there’s Parker Posey who I’m becoming convinced is simply not of this earth and doesn’t try to hide it anymore. Bizarre line readings and the tendency to let her mouth hang open are only the tip of Posey’s strange acting iceberg. Very much in line with the dark humor of Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, Irrational Man should hold your interest for a time but it’s quickie ending feels like Allen was ready to move on to his next film rather than put a period at the end things.
Movie Review ~ Trainwreck The Facts: Synopsis: Having thought that monogamy was never possible, a commitment-phobic career woman may have to face her fears when she meets a good guy. Stars: Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Brie Larson, Mike Birbiglia, Colin Quinn, Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, John Cena, Vanessa Bayer, Jon Glaser, LeBron James, Method Man Director: Judd Apatow Rated: R Running Length: 125 minutes Trailer Review:Here TMMM Score: (6.5/10) Review: One of the true success stories of the summer has to have been Amy Schumer, not so much for writing and starring in Trainwreck but the collective impact she’s had on the comedy scene. Unapologetic in her crassness and wise in her observations, Schumer is a comic moving like a shooting star and it’s nice to report that I think she’s a pretty decent actress as well. As much as I enjoy Schumer I was nervous that she was attaching herself to director Judd Apatow because Apatow, as we all know, has a way of turning in muddled work. Unfortunately, Apatow’s influence led the film to be about 20 minutes longer than it needed to be and ultimately overstaying its welcome. I don’t care what anyone says about the appearance of LeBron James as a bona fide supporting player, his entire storyline should have been excised and the film wouldn’t have suffered at all. The problems get worse because Apatow likes to cast non-actors in his film and put in cameos when you least expect it…to the detriment of the flow of the narrative. He stumbles badly in several places here but is saved by Schumer and Bill Hader as the opposites attract duo that confidently lead the film. Special mention must, again, be made to Tilda Swinton for disappearing within her role as Schumer’s glam yet grim boss. Worth it for Schumer, Swinton, and Hader…but watch it at home so you can fast forward through the slow Apatow-ish parts.
Movie Review ~ Mr. Holmes The Facts: Synopsis: An aged, retired Sherlock Holmes looks back on his life, and grapples with an unsolved case involving a beautiful woman. Stars: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Hiroyuki Sanada, Roger Allam, Frances de la Tour, Hattie Morahan, Patrick Kennedy, Philip Davis, Milo Parker Director: Bill Condon Rated: PG Running Length: 104 minutes Trailer Review:Here TMMM Score: (8/10) Review: In reality, I probably should have given Mr. Holmes a more thorough review than I’m about to give here…but I have a feeling I’ll have a chance to discuss it more over the next few months because if all is right with the world Ian McKellen will find himself nominated in a few Best Actor categories during the end of the year awards round-up. McKellen plays an aged Sherlock Holmes living in the country, attended to by a no-nonsense housekeeper (Laura Linney) and entertained by her young son. There’s actually three Holmes on display here as the present Holmes recalls two previous cases he was involved with that had an impact on his life. With a smart script from Jeffrey Hatcher adapted from a popular novel, it’s directed with a mellow grandeur by Bill Condon. Condon and McKellen scored before with the fascinating Gods and Monsters and here’s hoping they go the distance with this one too. An interesting tidbit, at one point Holmes ventures out to see a Sherlock Holmes movie…and the actor playing Holmes on screen (Nicholas Rowe) played the detective in 1986’s fun frolic Young Sherlock Holmes.
Movie Review ~ Paper Towns The Facts: Synopsis: A young man and his friends embark upon the road trip of their lives to find the missing girl next door. Stars: Nat Wolff, Halston Sage, Austin Abrams, Cara Delevingne, Justice Smith Director: Jake Schreir Rated: PG-13 Running Length: 109 minutes TMMM Score: (7/10) Review: After The Fault in Our Stars became a runaway hit last summer movie studios were looking for the next big alt-teen romance that could lure YA audiences away from summer action flicks. Turns out they didn’t have to look far because Paper Towns was adapted from the novel by the same author as The Fault in Our Stars. While Paper Towns doesn’t center around a disease that threatens to tear our lovebirds apart, it has its own mystery about it as Nat Wolff goes looking for his recently vanished neighbor (Cara Delevingne) that he’s been enamored with (or more like fascinated by) since they were children. Following the clues she seemingly left for him, Wolff and his friends embark on a journey of discovery where they Learn Life Lessons. The film kept my interest for most of the running length and it’s only in the final passages when all is explained does it feel a little like a letdown. Still, there’s a smart air of riskiness that elevates the film and more often than not it lands on the good side of taking that risky step.
Movie Review ~ Pixels The Facts: Synopsis: When aliens misinterpret video feeds of classic arcade games as a declaration of war, they attack the Earth in the form of the video games. Stars: Adam Sandler, Brian Cox, Kevin James, Michelle Monaghan, Peter Dinklage, Josh Gad Director: Chris Columbus Rated: PG-13 Running Length: 105 minutes TMMM Score: (3/10) Review: A movie where everyone involved should hang their head in shame. There’s actually some semblance of a good idea here with aliens attacking earth with classic arcade games but unfortunately it gets trampled by Adam Sandler’s lazy acting, Kevin James bad acting, and Josh Gad’s awful everything. Michelle Monaghan looks positively embarrassed to be sharing scenes (especially romantic ones) with Sandler and only Peter Dinklage comes out relatively unscathed in a campy, mullet wearing performance. For fans of ‘80s nostalgia there are some pleasant diversions as video game characters pop up in (supposedly) comical ways and I think that director Chirs Columbus really did give the material a chance to be something interesting…but Sandler and his crew suck the life out of everything and are so devoid of any vested interest that you wonder why you should care at all either.
Movie Review ~ Southpaw The Facts: Synopsis: Boxer Billy Hope turns to trainer Tick Willis to help him get his life back on track. Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Clare Foley, Miguel Gomez, Victor Ortiz, Rita Ora, Naomie Harris Director: Antoine Fuqua Rated: R Running Length: 123 minutes TMMM Score: (6.5/10) Review: By now, we know that Jake Gyllenhaal is a smart actor. With role after role from Prisoners to Nightcrawler to End of Watch we’ve seen that he’s up for most any challenge and likes to dive deep into his roles. So it’s not surprising that he was drawn to this tale of redemption concerning a famous boxer at the top of his game dealt a series of terrible blows (in more ways than one) and his eventual path back to himself. What is surprising is that while the performances are very good you can’t get away from the fact that the story feels recycled and originally intended for a different set of lower string stars. I’m always on the fence regarding Forest Whitaker but as the wise boxing manager that grudgingly comes to Gyllenhaal’s aid, the actor reminds us why he so deserved his Best Actor Oscar for The Last King of Scotland. Also turning in a great performance in Rachel McAdams (The Vow) as Gyllenhaal’s high school sweetheart, mother of his daughter, and the only one that seems to have his best interest at heart.
Southpaw was also at the center of some controversy that arose this summer about movie trailers that give away too much of the film. If you have seen the trailer for Southpaw you know what I’m talking about…if you haven’t, please go into the movie blind. I had a faint idea what the spoiler was and even that made the first ¼ of the film much less involving. Worth it for the performances but gets knocked out by an also-ran plot.
Movie Review ~ Samba The Facts: Synopsis: Samba migrated to France ten years ago from Senegal, and has since been plugging away at various lowly jobs. Alice is a senior executive who has recently undergone a burn-out. Both struggle to get out of their dead-end lives. Samba’s willing to do whatever it takes to get working papers, while Alice tries to get her life back on track until fate draws them together. Stars: Omar Sy, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Tahar Rahim, Izia Higelin, Isaka Sawadogo Director: Olivier Nakache, Eric Toledano Rated: R Running Length: 118 minutes TMMM Score: (5.5/10) Review: Of all the movies I’m talking about in this wrap-up this is one I’d bet dollars to donuts that you’ve never heard of. And you couldn’t be blamed because this barely made a blip on the usually forgiving art-house circuit. From the star and directors of 2012’s dynamite The Intouchables comes this story of an immigrant man living in France who crosses paths with a burned out executive when the man is discovered to be an illegal alien. Omar Sy (Jurassic World) and Charlotte Gainsbourg don’t have that much chemistry but in a weird way it works for the oddball romance that develops over the course of the film. I never could get a real feel if the movie was a comedy, drama, or something in between…and neither could most of the people involved. Slightly recommended but only if the plot or stars appeal to you.
That almost did it for July…but there was still one weekend to go! Moving up several months from its planned December release, the fifth installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise had its brains in the right place but at times forgot to bring its brawn. I still prefer Ghost Protocol to Rogue Nation but as long as star Tom Cruise keeps making these films interesting I’ll keep accepting future missions. Here’s hoping he brings along Rebecca Ferguson again because finally there is a female that is every bit a match to Cruise’s daring agent.
I wasn’t sold at all when I heard that Warner Brothers was planning on remaking National Lampoon’s Vacation but as time went on I heard more that it was more of a sequel than a reboot (resequel?) and I started coming around to the idea of a new Vacation. I enjoyed Ed Helms and Christina Applegate as the hapless couple traveling cross-country with their children…but audiences and most critics didn’t. It wasn’t a great movie and was probably too crude to be part of your Vacation marathons…but I have to say the worst part about it was when original stars Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo showed up. Still, I’m hoping it made enough money to warrant a holiday themed sequel. In any event…it’s a damn sight better than European Vacation.
Wow – July didn’t skimp on variety, did it? Arguably the hottest month for releases, it carried over the promise of May and June and laid a path for August to do quite well…but could it top the three months that came before it?
Synopsis: Two sisters decide to throw one last house party before their parents sell their family home.
Release Date: December 25, 2015
Thoughts: Long-time friends Amy Poehler (Inside Out) and Tina Fey (This is Where I Leave You) were a dynamic duo on the small screen during the time as co-hosts of Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live. Bold comediennes, they played off of each other well and were the one thing you could count on from week to week to hit the bullseye with their observant comedy. The relationship continued on into the big screen with 2008’s Baby Mama, a slight romp that didn’t really serve either of them very well.
Arriving in time for the 2015 holiday season, the two are back together with Sisters and while it looks like the latest entry in the “chicks can be raunchy too” genre, Poeher and Fey are so damn likable that I’m willing to toss some goodwill toward (wo)men their way since it’ll be Christmas-time and all. I like that the actresses are playing against type, with Fey as the more out of control sister and Poehler as the more grounded one. The trailer is a lively mix of spot the former SNL cast member and ok, it’s not all that funny…but there’s potential.
Synopsis: Since she was a little girl, it’s been drilled into Amy’s head by her rascal of a dad that monogamy isn’t realistic. When she finds herself starting to fall for the subject of the new article she’s writing, Amy starts to wonder if other grown-ups, might be on to something
Release Date: July 17, 2015
Thoughts: There’s little love lost between me and director Judd Apatow. Though he’s got a better track record as a producer, in my book his directorial efforts are long, languid, lugubrious, and lame. Sure, his first few films had a certain freshness to them but by the time we got around to the seriously dreadful This is 40 I literally threw my hands up in exasperation at Apatow’s inability to deliver a movie with true insight or a running length of less than two hours.
With any luck, Apatow is merely the silent conductor on writer/star Amy Schumer’s (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) comedy train. The raunchy comedienne would seem to be a natural fit with Apatow’s style but I’d hope she insisted on bringing in an editor to keep the film as compact as possible. Sadly, I’m not inspired by the overly long trailer or a stream of cameos by famous faces not known for their acting chops. Still, check out Tilda Swinton (Only Lovers Left Alive)…with her modern feminine look the actress shows again that she’s operating outside the expected.